Great Speeches of the War/Churchill
[Speech delivered by the First Lord of the Admiralty, in the House of Commons, on February 15, 1915.]
After the outbreak of war my noble friend Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, had to create an Army eight or ten times as large as any previously maintained, or even contemplated, in this country, and the War Office has been engaged in vast processes of expansion, improvisation, and development entirely without parallel in military experience. Thanks, however, to the generous provision made so readily for the last five years by the House of Commons for the Royal Navy, no such difficulties or labours have confronted the Admiralty.
On the Declaration of War we were able to count upon a Fleet of sufficient superiority for all our needs, with a good margin for safety in vital matters, fully mobilized, placed in its war stations, supplied and equipped with every requirement, down to the smallest detail that could be foreseen, with reserves of ammunition and torpedoes up to and above the regular standard, with ample supplies of fuel and oil, with adequate reserves of stores of all kinds, with complete systems of transport and supply, with full numbers of trained officers and men of all ratings, with a large surplus of reserved and trained men, with adequate establishments for training new men, with an immense programme of new construction rapidly maturing to reinforce the Fleet and replace casualties, and with a pre-arranged system for accelerating that new construction, which has been found to yield satisfactory and even surprising results.I would draw the attention of the House in illustration to only three particular points. First of all, ammunition. If hon. Members will run their eye along the series of figures for Vote 9, in the last five or six years, and particularly during the latter years, they will see an enormous increase in the Vote. In time of peace one gets little credit for such expenditure, but in time of war we thank God it has been made.
(First Lord of the Admiralty)
Then as to manning. No more widespread delusion existed than that, although we might build ships, we could never find men to man them. In some quarters of this country the idea was fostered that when mobilization took place, ships could not be sent fully manned to sea; but when mobilization did take place we were able to man, as I told the House we should be able, every ship in the Navy fit to send to sea. We were able to man a number of old ships which we did not intend to send to sea, but which, after being repaired and refitted, were found to have the possibility of usefulness in them. We were able to man in addition powerful new vessels building for foreign nations for which no provision had been made. We were able to man an enormous number—several score—of armed merchantmen, which have played an important part in our arrangements for the control of traffic and trade.
We were able to provide all the men that were necessary for the Royal Naval Air Service, which did not exist three years ago, which is already making a name for itself, and which has become a considerable and formidable body. We were able to keep our training schools full to the very brim, so as to prepare a continual supply of drafts for the new vessels which are coming on in such great numbers, and over and above that we are able, without injury to any of these important interests, to supply the nucleus of instructors and trained men to form the cadres of the battalions of the Royal Naval Division, which have now reached a respectable total, and which have developed an efficiency which enables them to be counted on immediately as a factor in the defence of this country, and very soon as an element in the forces which we can use overseas.
We have never been a military nation, though now we are going to take a hand in that. We have always relied for our safety on naval power, and in that respect it is not true to say we entered on this War unprepared. On the contrary, the German Army was not more ready for an offensive war on a gigantic scale than was the British Fleet for national defence. The credit for this is due to this House, which, irrespective of party interests, has always by overwhelming, and in later years by unchallengeable majorities, supported the Government and the Minister in every demand made for naval defence. Indeed, such disputes as we have had from time to time have only been concerned with the margins of superiority, and have turned on comparatively small points respecting them.
For instance, we have discussed at enormous length what percentages of Dreadnought superiority would be available in particular months in future years, and we have argued whether the Lord Nelsons should be counted as Dreadnoughts or not. The House of Commons as a whole has a right to claim the Navy as its child, and as the unchanging object of its care and solicitude; and now, after six months of war, with new dangers and new difficulties coming into view, we have every right to feel content with the results of our labours.
Since November, when I last had an opportunity of speaking to the House on naval matters, two considerable events have happened—the victory off the Falkland Islands, and the recent successful cruiser action near the Dogger Bank. Both of these events are satisfactory in themselves, but still more are they satisfactory in their consequences and significance, and I shall venture to enlarge upon them and hang the thread of my argument upon them. The victory off the Falklands terminated the first phase of the Naval War, by effecting a decisive clearance of the German flag from the oceans of the world. The blocking in of the enemy's merchantmen at the very outset, and the consequent frustration of his whole plans for the destruction of our commerce, the reduction of his base at Tsing-tau, the expulsion of his ships from the China Sea by Japan, the hunting down of the Königsberg and the Emden, the latter by an Australian cruiser, were steps along the path to the goal finally reached when Admiral von Spee's powerful squadron, having been unsuccessfully, though gallantly, engaged off Coronel, was brought to action and destroyed on December 8 by Sir Doveton Sturdee. Only two small German cruisers and two armed merchantmen remain at large of all their formidable preparations for the attack on our trade routes, and these vessels are at present in hiding.
During the last three months—that is to say, since Parliament rose—on the average about 8,000 British vessels have been continuously on the sea, passing to and fro on their lawful vocations. There have been 4,465 arrivals at and 3,600 sailings from the ports of the United Kingdom. Only nineteen vessels have been sunk by the enemy, and only four of these vessels have been sunk by above-water craft. That is a very remarkable result to have been achieved after only a few months of war. I am sure, if we had been told before the war that such a result would be so soon achieved, and that our losses would be so small, we should not have believed it for a moment. I am quite sure, if the noble lord whom I see in his place [Lord Charles Beresford]—who has always felt, and quite legitimately, anxiety for the trade routes and the great difficulty of defending them—if he had been offered six months ago such a prospect he would have said it was too good to be true. [Lord Charles Beresford: "Hear, hear."]
Certainly the great sailors of the past, the men of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, would have been astounded. During those two great wars, which began in 1793 and ended, after a brief interval, in 1814, 10,871 British merchant ships were captured or sunk by the enemy. Even after the decisive battle of Trafalgar, when we had the undisputed command of the sea, so far as it could be tactically and strategically attained, the loss of British ships went on at a rate of over 500 ships a year. In 1806, 519 ships were sunk or captured—that is, the year after Trafalgar; in 1807, 559; in 1808, 469; in 1809, 671; and in 1810, 619. Our total losses, on the high seas in the first six months of the present War, including all ships other than trawlers engaged in mine-sweeping—including losses by mines and vessels scuttled by submarines—our losses in the whole of that period are only sixty-three.
Of course, we must always be on the look-out for another attempt by the enemy to harass the trade routes. Although the oceans offer rather a bleak prospect to the German cruisers, and the experience of their consorts is not encouraging, the Admiralty must be fully prepared for that possibility, and we shall be able to meet any new efforts with advantages and resources incomparably superior to those which were at our disposal at the beginning of the War. The truth is that steam and the telegraph have enormously increased, as compared with sailing days, the thoroughness and efficiency of superior sea power. Coaling, communications, and supplies are vital and constant needs, and once the upper hand has been lost they become operations of almost insuperable difficulty to the weaker Navy. Credit is due to our outlying squadrons and to the Admiralty organization by which they have been directed. It must never be forgotten that the situation on every sea, even the most remote, is dominated and decided by the influence of Sir John Jellicoe's Fleet—lost to view amid the northern mists, preserved by patience and seamanship in all its efficiency, silent, unsleeping, and, as yet, unchallenged.
The command of the sea which we have thus enjoyed has not only enabled our trade to be carried on practically without interruption or serious disturbance, but we have been able to move freely about the world very large numbers of troops. The Leader of the Opposition in a speech which he made the other night—I do not at all quarrel with the moderate and temperate tone of his criticism—quoted a letter of a shipowner, in which the word "incapacity" occurred. Of all the words which could be applied to the Admiralty, as applied to the Admiralty Transport Department, no word could be more unsuitable than the word "incapacity." I am going to give the House a figure which has no military significance, because so many uncertain factors are comprised within the total, but which is an absolutely definite figure so far as the work of the Admiralty Transport Department is concerned. We have now moved by sea, at home and abroad, including wounded brought back from the front, including Belgian wounded, including Belgian and French troops, moved here and there as circumstances required, often at the shortest possible notice, with constant changes of plan, across oceans threatened by the enemy's cruisers and across channels haunted by submarines, to and fro from India and Egypt, from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, China, South Africa, from every fortress and Possession under the Crown, approximately one million men without, up to the present, any accident or loss of life. If that is "incapacity," I hope there will be an inexhaustible supply of that quality.
The credit for these arrangements lies very largely with the head of the Admiralty Transport Department, Mr. Graeme Thomson—one of the discoveries of the War, a man who has stepped into the place when the emergency came, who has formed, organized, and presided over performances and transactions the like of which were never contemplated by any State in history. Indeed, so smoothly and unfailingly has this vast business, the like of which has not been previously witnessed, been carried through, that we have several times been compelled to remind the soldiers whom we serve, and I now think it right to remind the House, that, after all, we are at war.
We are at war with the second Naval Power in the world. When complaints are made that we have taken too many transports or armed too many auxiliary cruisers, or made use of too many colliers or supply ships, I must mention that fact. The statement that the Admiralty have on charter, approximately, about one-fifth of the British Mercantile Marine tonnage is correct. With that we discharge two duties, both of importance at the present time: first, the supply, fuelling, and replenishing with ammunition of the Fleets; second, the transport of reinforcements and supply for the Army in the Field, including the return of wounded. It must be remembered, in regard to the Fleet, that we have no dockyard or naval port at our backs, and that the bases we are using during the War have no facilities for coaling from the shore. We are not, like the Germans, living on a great naval port at Wilhelmshaven, on which £15,000,000 or £16,000,000 has been spent. Rosyth is not finished, and will not be available for some time. Everything, therefore, required to keep the Fleet in being—supplies, stores, and, above all, fuel—has to be not only carried, but kept afloat in ships.
What are called the "afloat reserves"—the great mobile reserves of fuel and stores maintained at the various bases used by the Fleet—are those which are fixed by the War Staff and approved by the Board of Admiralty after consultation with the Commander-in-Chief. When those amounts have been fixed, the Transport Department have no choice but to supply them. It is necessary that there should be sufficient colliers to enable all the Fleet units at a particular base to coal simultaneously with a maximum rapidity twice over within a short interval, and extensive naval movements at high speed may at any moment necessitate this being put to the test. After two such coalings there must still be sufficient coal available for unforeseen contingencies, including delays in bringing further supplies through storm or foggy weather, or hostile operations leading to the closing of particular areas of water, or through the temporary suspension of coaling in South Wales, through damage to docks, railways, bridges, pits, or other local causes.
We cannot possibly run any risks of having the Fleet rendered immobile. We must make assurance doubly sure. The life of the State depends upon it, and it follows, having always to be ready for a great emergency, with all the Fleet steaming at oncefor days together—having always to be ready for that, it follows that during periods of normal Fleet movements the reserves of coal are often and necessarily turned over slowly, and colliers may in consequence remain at the bases for considerable periods. That is our system. The fact, therefore, that particular vessels are noticed by shipowners to be kept waiting about for long periods is no sign of mismanagement or incapacity on the part of the Admiralty, but it is an indispensable precaution and method without which the Fleet could not act in a time of emergency. The position at every home coaling base and of every ship is telegraphed to the Admiralty nightly, and a tabulated statement is issued the same night. This statement is issued as the basis for comprehensive daily criticism, with a view to securing the highest possible economy compatible with and subject to the vital exigencies of war. So much for the Fleet and its supply and its coaling.
With regard to the Army, it should be remembered that we are supplying across the sea, in the teeth of the enemy's opposition, an Army almost as large as the Grand Army of Napoleon, only vastly more complex in organization and equipment. We are also preparing other Armies still larger in number. I do not know on what day or at what hour the Secretary of State for War will ask the Admiralty to move 20,000 or it may be 40,000 men. It may be at very short notice,. He does not know, until we tell him, how we shall move them, by what route or to what ports. Plans are frequently changed on purpose at the very last moment; it is imperative for the safety of our soldiers and the reinforcement of our Armies and the conduct of the War.
We have at the present moment a powerful and flexible machinery which can move whole Armies with celerity wherever it is desired, in a manner never before contemplated or dreamt of, and I warn the House most solemnly against allowing grounds of commercial advantage or financial economy to place any hampering restriction or impediment upon these most difficult and momentous operations.
Careful and prudent administration does not stop at the outbreak of war. Everything in our power will be done to enforce it and avoid extravagance. We shall, therefore, welcome the advice of business men on points where they can help us. Gradually, as we get more and more control of the situation, higher economy in some respects may be possible, but military and naval requirements must be paramount, rough and ready although their demands often are, and they must be served fully at the cost of all other considerations. I am afraid that I cannot hold out any hope of any immediate reduction in the tonnage required by the Admiralty.
More than a month ago, before these matters were at all ventilated in public, noticing the rise in freights, I directed the Fourth Sea Lord to hold an inquiry into the whole use of merchant ships taken by the Admiralty, including, particularly, transports, colliers, and supply ships, but after the most stringent scrutiny and consultation with the admirals afloat, it was not found possible to make any appreciable reduction; and, indeed, since January i the requirements of the Admiralty have actually increased. That is, indeed, only to be expected, as the size of the Fleet and the general scale of the military operations both grow continually.
I am going into this subject a little at length, because it is, I understand, to be the subject of a motion later on in the evening, and I would ask for myself the indulgence of the House to attend to other business of a pressing nature, and leave the conduct of that debate in the hands of my right hon. friend the Financial Secretary. To sum up, then, the retention of a large number of full colliers and ammunition ships in attendance on the Fleet is a naval necessity. The retention of a large number of troop transports is a military necessity. In either case ships may be, and have frequently been, required at an hour's notice for urgent service which might be vital to the success of our operations. Coal must be ready afloat for the Fleet, and troopships must be ready for the men, and no amount of business management, however excellent it may be, will get over that fact.
It seems to me, also, from reading the debate which took place the other night, that the impression existed in the House that the requisitioning of vessels at the outbreak of War was done recklessly and without consideration of the results to the commerce of the country. The number of ships taken up on the outbreak of War was so enormous, the requirements were so varied, and the need so urgent, that every ship or vessel in port at the moment was taken. Discrimination, save in isolated instances, was therefore impossible.
It may be said that discrimination could have been exercised later. So far as possible this has been, and is being done; but it must be remembered first, that it is generally less disturbing to commerce to retain vessels to whose absence business conditions have been adjusted, than to return these to their owners and take up fresh ships. Secondly, many vessels have been specially fitted for their work by the Government, and to fit others to replace them means delay, and further congestion of docks and works. Also, while substitutes are being fitted, as the first ship cannot be released until the substitute is ready, two ships will be off the market during the period of refitting. Thirdly, it is militarily inconvenient to dispose of ships which the naval and military services have become used to handle, and whose officers and crews have learnt to do this special work.
I can well understand that there may be some discontent among shipowners at present in consequence of Admiralty requisitions. Complaints are made that these requisitions are not fair as between shipowner and shipowner, and that all the tonnage of one line is taken and all the tonnage of another is left alone, and it is held to be a grievance when the Admiralty take the tonnage. But in other wars Admiralty business has been keenly sought after by shipowners. At the beginning of this War shipowners were only too glad to get their ships taken by the Government, owing to the uncertainty of the naval situation and the possibility that ordinary cargoes would not be forthcoming. But now a change has taken place.
The naval situation is assured for the present, and the requisitioning powers exercised under the Royal Proclamation have enabled the Admiralty to insist on rates of hire which, though they give a handsome profit to the shipowner, are very much less than can now be gained in the open market.
The Admiralty rates are now a half or a third below the market rates, and cannot, of course, be expected to be popular with shipowners, although the market rates are enormously higher than they were at the time of the South African War. We are now paying 13s. to 17s. per gross ton per month, compared with 20s. to 35s. so paid in the early part of the South African War. Hence these complaints, and hence this talk of incapacity in certain quarters. I feel it my duty to defend the Admiralty Transport Department. I must, however, say that the general body of shipowners have loyally met the Government and have been content often and often to charter ships to us at rates very much below the market. The Admiralty is deeply indebted to the ship-owning world in general for all the aid and co-operation which we have received, and we regard the closest union and good will between the Admiralty and the mercantile marine as indispensable at the present time.
I have said that the strain in the early months of the War has been greatly diminished now, by the abatement of distant convoy work, and by the clearance of the enemy's flag from the seas and oceans. There were times when, for instance, the great Australian convoy of sixty ships was crossing the Indian Ocean, or the great Canadian convoy of forty ships, with its protecting squadrons, was crossing the Atlantic, or when the regular flow of large Indian convoys of forty or fifty ships sailing in company was at its height both ways, when there were half a dozen minor expeditions being carried by the Navy, guarded and landed at different points and supplied after landing; when there was a powerful German cruiser squadron still at large in the Pacific or the Atlantic, which had to be watched for and waited for in superior force in six or seven different parts of the world at once, and when, all the time, within a few hours' steam of our shores, there was concentrated a hostile fleet which many have argued in former times was little inferior to our own; and when there was hardly a Regular soldier left at home, and before the Territorial Force and the new Armies had attained their present high efficiency and power—there were times when our naval resources, considerable as they are, were drawn out to their utmost limit, and when we had to use old battleships to give strength to cruiser squadrons, even at the cost of their speed, and when we had to face and to accept risks with which we did not trouble the public, and which no one would willingly seek an opportunity to share.
But the victory at the Falkland Islands swept all these difficulties out of existence. It set free a large force of cruisers and battleships for all purposes; it opened the way to other operations of great interest; it enabled a much stricter control and more constant outlook to be maintained in Home waters, and it almost entirely freed the outer seas of danger. That was a memorable event, the relief and advantage of which will only be fully appreciated by those who have full knowledge of all that has taken place, by those who not only knew, but felt, what was going forward.
Now I come to the battle cruiser action off the Dogger Bank. This action was not fought out, because the enemy, after abandoning their wounded consort, the Blücher, made good their escape into waters infested by their submarines and mines. But this combat between the finest ships in both navies is of immense significance and value in the light which it throws upon rival systems of design and armament, and upon relative gunnery efficiency. It is the first test we have ever had, and, without depending too much upon it, I think it is at once important and encouraging. First of all it vindicates, so far as it goes, the theories of design, and particularly of big-gun armament, always identified with Lord Fisher. The range of the British guns was found to exceed that of the German. Although the German shell is a most formidable instrument of destruction, the bursting, smashing power of the heavier British projectile is decidedly greater, and—this is the great thing—our shooting is at least as good as theirs.
The Navy, while working very hard—no one, except always themselves, knows how hard they have worked in these years—have credited the Germans with a sort of super-efficiency in gunnery, and we have always been prepared for some surprises in their system of control and accuracy of fire. But there is a feeling, after the combat of January 24, that perhaps our naval officers were too diffident in regard to their own professional skill in gunnery. Then the guns. While the Germans were building 11-inch guns we built 12-inch and 13½-inch guns. Before they advanced to the 12-inch gun we had large numbers of ships armed with the 13·5. It was said by the opposite school of naval force that a smaller gun fires faster and has a higher velocity, and therefore the greater destructive power—and Krupp is the master gunmaker of the world—and it was very right and proper to take such a possibility into consideration. Everything that we have learnt, however, so far shows that we need not at all doubt the wisdom of our policy or the excellence of our material. The 13·5 inch gun is unequalled by any weapon yet brought on the scene. Now we have the 15-inch gun, with which the five Queen Elizabeths and the five Royal Sovereigns are all armed, coming into line, and this gun in quality equals the 13·5 inch gun, and is vastly more powerful and destructive.
There is another remarkable feature of this action to which I should like to draw the attention of the House. I mean the steaming of our ships. All the vessels engaged in this action exceeded all their previous records without exception. I wonder if the House and the public appreciate what that means. Here is a squadron of the Fleet which does not live in harbour, but is far away from its dockyards, and which during six months of war has been constantly at sea. All of a sudden the greatest trial is demanded of their engines, and they all excel all previous peace-time records. Can you conceive a more remarkable proof of the excellence of British machinery, of the glorious industry of the engine-room branch, or of the admirable system of repairs and refits by which the Grand Fleet is maintained from month to month, and can, if need be, be maintained from year to year in a state of ceaseless vigilance without exhaustion? Take the case of the Kent at the Falklands. The Kent is an old vessel. She was launched thirteen years ago and has been running ever since. The Kent was designed to go 23½ knots. The Kent had to catch a ship which went considerably over 24½ knots. They put a pressure and a strain on the engines much greater than is allowed in time of peace, and they drove the Kent 25 knots, and caught the Nürnberg and sank her.
It is my duty in this House to speak for the Navy, and the truth is that it is sound as a bell all through. I do not care where or how it may be tested: it will be found good and fit and keen and honest. It will be found to be the product of good management and organization, of sound principle in design and strategy, of sterling workmen and faithful workmanship, and careful clerks and accountants, and skilful engineers, and painstaking officers, and hardy tars.
The great merit of Admiral Sir David Beatty's action is that it shows us and the world that there is at present no reason to assume that, ship for ship, gun for gun, and man for man, we cannot give a very good account of ourselves. It shows that at five to four in representative ships—because the quality of the ships on either side is a very fair representation of the relative qualities of the lines of battle—the Germans did not think it prudent to engage, that they accepted without doubt or hesitation their inferiority, that they thought only of flight just as our men thought only of pursuit, that they were wise in the view they took, and that if they had taken any other view they would, unquestionably, have been destroyed. That is the cruel fact, which no falsehood—and many have been issued—no endeavour to sink by official communiqués vessels they could not stay to sink in war, can obscure.
When, if ever, the great Fleets draw out for general battle, we shall hope to bring into the line a preponderance, not only in quality, but in numbers, which will not be five to four, but will be something considerably greater than that. Therefore, we may consider this extra margin as an additional insurance against unexpected losses by mine and submarine, such as may at any moment occur in the preliminaries of a great sea battle. It is for these important reasons of test and trial that we must regard this action of the Dogger Bank as an important and, I think I may say, satisfactory event.
The losses of the Navy, although small compared with the sacrifices of the Army, have been heavy. We have lost, mainly by submarine, the lives of about 5,500 officers and men, and we have killed, mainly by gun-fire, an equal number, which is, of course, a much larger proportion of the German forces engaged. We have also taken, in sea fighting, eighty-two officers and 934 men prisoners of war. No British naval prisoners of war have been taken in fighting at sea by the Germans. When they had the inclination they had not the opportunity, and when they had the opportunity they had not the inclination. For the loss of these precious British lives we have lived through six months of this War safely and even prosperously. We have established for the time being a command of the sea such as we had never expected, such as we had never known, and our ancestors had never known, at any other period of our history. There are those who, shutting their eyes to all that has been gained, look only at that which has been lost, and seek—they are not a very numerous class—to dwell unduly upon it.
We are urged to hold a court-martial in every case where a ship is lost in action, and to hear the talk in some quarters one would suppose that the loss of a ship by mine or submarine necessarily involved a criminal offence. [Mr. Chamberlain: No, no.] Not in the quarters which the right hon. gentleman frequents perhaps. One would suppose that it involves a criminal offence, for which somebody should be brought to book. The Admiralty have lately given careful consideration to this question. No doubt the precedents, both in peace and war, favour, though they do not enjoin, the holding of a court-martial when ships are lost or captured; but the circumstances and conditions of modern naval warfare are entirely different from all previous experience. In old wars the capture or destruction of ships was nearly always accompanied by an act of surrender, which was a proper and very necessary subject for investigation by court-martial.
But mines and submarines, especially submarines, create conditions entirely novel, presenting to naval officers problems of incomparable hazard and difficulty. In these circumstances a court-martial would frequently be inappropriate, in our judgment, and often even harmful. Losses by mine and submarine must frequently be placed on the same footing as heavy casualties on land. They cannot be treated as presumably involving a dereliction of duty or a lack of professional ability. Thirdly, the speed and skill of modern operations, and the continuous demands on the attention of the Admiralty and on the services of naval officers, especially officers of high rank, make the actual holding of courts-martial very difficult and inconvenient. Energy ought not to be consumed in investigations and discussions of incidents beyond recall, but should be concentrated on new tasks and new difficulties.
Nothing could be worse for the Navy or the Admiralty than for public attention or naval attention to be riveted on half a dozen naval causes célèbres which would give opportunities for most acrimonious and controversial discussions, and about which you may be perfectly certain two opinions would always remain at the close. When a clear case of misconduct or failure in duty can be presumed, a court-martial may be necessary. When technical or special matters are raised, which it is desirable to elucidate with a view to precautions being taken to prevent similar accidents in the future, Courts of Inquiry have been, and will be, assembled; but in all these matters I must respectfully claim, on behalf of the Board of Admiralty, an absolute discretionary power with regard to holding courts-martial, or Courts of Inquiry, or the removal without trial of officers who have forfeited the confidence of the Board, or the publication of particular information on particular incidents, I ask the House, on behalf of the Board, for their confidence and support during the War in this respect. I would especially deprecate anything being done which tends to make officers, whether afloat or at the Admiralty, play for safety and avoid responsibility for positive action.
Losses have to be incurred in war, and mistakes will certainly be made from time to time. Our Navy keeps the sea; our ships are in constant movement; valuable ships run risks every day. The enemy is continually endeavouring to strike, and from time to time accidents are inevitable. How do you suppose the battle-cruiser squadron of Sir David Beatty was where it was when the action of January 24 took place? How many times is it supposed that the squadrons of the Grand Fleet, the cruiser and battle squadrons, have been patrolling and steaming through the North Sea, always exposed to risk by mine and torpedo, before at last they reaped their reward?
If any mood or tendency of public opinion arises, or is fostered by the newspapers, or given countenance in this House, which makes too much of our losses, even if they are cruel losses, and even if it may be said that they are in some respects avoidable losses, then I say you will have started on a path which, pressed to its logical conclusion, would leave our Navy cowering in its harbours, instead of ruling the seas. When I think of the great scale of our operations, the enormous target we expose, the number of ships whose movements have to be arranged for, the novel conditions to which I have referred, it is marvellous how few have been our losses, and how great the care and vigilance exercised by the admirals afloat and by the Admiralty Staff, and it appears to me, and it will certainly be regarded by those who study this War in history, as praiseworthy in the highest degree.
The tasks which lie before us are anxious and grave. We are, it now appears, to be the object of a kind of warfare which has never before been practised by a civilized State. The scuttling and sinking at sight, without search or parley, of merchant ships by submarine agency is a wholly novel and unprecedented departure. It is a state of things which no one had ever contemplated, and which would have been universally reprobated, and repudiated, before this War. But it must not be supposed, because the attack is extraordinary, that a good defence and a good reply cannot be made. The statutes of ancient Rome contained no provision for the punishment of parricide, but when the first offender appeared it was found that satisfactory arrangements could be made to deal with him.
Losses no doubt will be incurred—of that I give full warning—but we believe that no vital injury can be done. If our traders put to sea regularly and act in the spirit of the gallant captain of the merchant ship Laertes, whose well-merited honour has been made public this morning, and if they take the precautions which are proper and legitimate, we expect that the losses will be confined within manageable limits, even at the outset, when the enemy must be expected to make his greatest effort to produce an impression.
All losses can of course be covered, by resort on the part of shipowners to the Government insurance scheme, the rates of which are now one-fifth of what they were at the outbreak of War. On the other hand, the reply which we shall make will not perhaps be wholly ineffective, Germany cannot be allowed to adopt a system of open piracy and murder, or what has always hitherto been called open piracy and murder, on the high seas, while remaining herself protected by the bulwark of international instruments which she has utterly repudiated and defied, and which we, much to our detriment, have respected.
There are good reasons for believing that the economic pressure which the Navy exerts is beginning to be felt in Germany. We have to some extent restricted their imports of useful commodities like copper, petrol, rubber, nickel, manganese, antimony, which are needed for the efficient production of war materials, and for carrying on modern war on a great scale. The tone of the German Chancellor's recent remarks, and the evidences of hatred and anger against this country which are so apparent in the German Press, encourage us to believe that this restriction is proving inconvenient. We shall, of course, redouble our efforts to make it so.
So far, however, we have not attempted to stop imports of food. We have not prevented neutral ships from trading direct with German ports. We have allowed German exports in neutral ships to pass unchallenged. The time has come when the enjoyment of these immunities by a State which has, as a matter of deliberate policy, placed herself outside all international obligations, must be reconsidered. A further declaration on the part of the allied Governments will promptly be made which will have the effect for the first time of applying the full force of naval pressure to the enemy.
I thank the House for the attention with which they have listened to me. The stresses and strains of this War are not imperceptible to those who are called on to bear a part in the responsibility for the direction of the tremendous and terrible events which are now taking place. They have a right to the generous and indulgent judgment and support of their fellow-countrymen, and to the goodwill of the House of Commons. We cannot tell what lies before us, or how soon or in what way the next great developments of the struggle will declare themselves, or what the state of Europe and the world will be at its close.
But this I think we can already say, as far as the British Navy is concerned, that, although no doubt new dangers and perplexities will come upon us continuously, and anxiety will make its abode in our brain, yet the dangers and anxieties which now are advancing upon us will not be more serious or more embarrassing than those through which we have already successfully made our way. For during the months that are to come the British Navy and the sea power which it exerts will increasingly dominate the general situation, will be the main and unfailing reserve of the allied nations, will progressively paralyse the fighting energies of our antagonists, and will, if need be, even in default of all other favourable forces, ultimately, by itself, decide the issue of the War.