Africa Liberation day inquiry How the Italians came to Ethiopia. METHODS OF WARFARE.
30 March 1936 → Lords Sitting
ITALO-ABYSSINIAN DISPUTE: METHODS OF WARFARE.
HL Deb 30 March 1936 vol 100 cc340-59
§ VISCOUNT CECIL OF CHELWOOD rose to ask whether the attention of His Majesty's Government has been called to a telegram from the daughter of the Negus of Ethiopia in which she says:—" For seven days without break enemy have been bombing armies and people of my country including women and children with terrible gases. Our soldiers are brave men and know that they must take consequences of war. Against this cruel gas we have no protection, no gas masks—nothing. This suffering and torture is beyond description, hundreds of countrymen screaming and moaning with pain. Many of them are unrecognisable since the skin has been burned off their faces "; whether the Government have any information on these charges of a breach by the Italian Government of yet another of their treaty obligations and what steps the Government propose to take in the matter if the charges are true; and to move for Papers.
§ The noble Viscount said: My Lords, the matter which I desire to bring to your Lordships' attention is stated in the Question which I have put down. Perhaps your Lordships will allow me to repeat the actual quotation which I have made in that Question. It is from a telegram sent by the Princess, the daughter of the Negus, to British ladies who have been engaged in trying to provide some assistance for the wounded in this horrible war. This is what the Princess says:
§ " For seven days without break enemy have been bombing armies and people of my country including women and children with terrible gases. Our soldiers are brave men and know that they must take consequences of war. Against this cruel gas we have no protection, no gas masks—nothing. This suffering and torture is beyond description, hundreds of countrymen screaming and moaning with pain. Many of them are unrecognisable since the skin has been burned off their faces."
§ That is a horrible allegation, and I think it is right that we should ask the Government whether they have any information which confirms it.
§ How it must have impressed very large numbers of people, but particularly, perhaps, those who are familiar with conditions in Africa, appears from the very striking letter written by Sir Hesketh Bell in this morning's Times. I may remind your Lordships that Sir Hesketh Bell is, as The Times truly calls him, a veteran administrator, with very considerable experience particularly in African administration. I think it would save your Lordships' time if I were to read some parts of that letter:
§ " Not only in Great Britain, but in every part of the world in which The Times is read, sentiments of horror and indignation will have been aroused by the account given in to-day's issue by the executive secretary of the Ethiopian Red Cross of the sufferings inflicted on helpless old people, women, and children through the ' poison gas ' which the Italians are using in their unjustifiable war on Abyssinia. Mr. Lambie writes that, through this hellish yperite or so-called mustard gas which is being rained on the little villages of Ethiopia, thousands of peasants will be groping their way down the dark years because of a dictator, whose name they have never heard of, but whose decree of ruthlessness has put out their eyes. Do the people of Italy—the vast majority of whom are of a kindly and compassionate nature—realise the wickedness that is being committed in their name? When considering the advantages of possessing an African dominion do they appreciate the everlasting hatred that will burn in the breasts of the vanquished Ethiopians at the thought of the tortures inflicted on their aged parents, women, and; small children by the white men who came to them brandishing their terrible weapons and promising them the blessings of civilisation and of true Christianity? " And then, later on, he says: "Is the voice of collective civilisation going to remain silent in the presence of the horrors that are being perpetrated in Ethiopia? Are the coloured peoples "—" and this is the part of his letter which I think is especially worthy of your Lordships' attention— "throughout the Continent of Africa to be allowed to believe that the latest war-methods of the white man are all that they may expect whenever a European nation covets the lands that have been the homes of their forebears for countless generations?"" """And he finishes by saying that it will bring with it a terrible Nemesis in the days to come.
§ I shall add nothing to what Sir Hesketh has said in comment on the charge which is now being made, but I want to point out that this is perfectly clearly a breach—if it has been committed—of a very definite undertaking into which the Italian Government have entered. On June 17, 1925, a Protocol was signed. It was signed by the Italian and Ethiopian Governments on that date, and it was ratified by the Italian Government on April 3, 1928. Some of those who ratified this document made certain reservations and conditions. The Italian Government made none, and it was ratified by the Ethiopians at the beginning of the war. I will read to your Lordships the essential clauses of that Protocol, leaving out the immaterial words:
§ " Whereas the use in war of… poisonous… gases has been justly condemned by the general opinion of the civilised world.
§ Whereas the prohibition of such use has been declared…
§ Whereas, to the end that this prohibition shall be universally accepted as a part of International Law binding alike the conscience and practice of nations…
§ Declare, That the High Contracting Parties… accept this prohibition and agree to be bound as between themselves according to the terms of this Declaration."
§ I wish to draw your Lordships' attention to two specific points in that clear declaration which the Italian Government ratified in 1928. It is in the first place an agreement which binds them, not only towards Ethiopia but towards all the other nations who signed and ratified that Agreement, including ourselves. It is therefore, supposing it has been committed, a clear breach of a treaty with us.
§ There is another point which I think your Lordships will desire to have in your consideration—namely, that if this is to be a precedent, as it no doubt will be, for other wars, unless it is repudiated and penalised, it will be evidently a precedent for any war in which this country is engaged, with the consequences which have been described in this House, but which most of us hoped and believed would not afflict the vast masses of non-combatants which would exist in such a country as this. It is of course not the only charge which has been made against the Italian methods of warfare. It has been charged against them also, and I gather that His Majesty's Government are satisfied that the charge is true, that they have dropped bombs on Red Cross units. That they have done so on Swedish units is, I think, beyond question, and I gather that the Government are satisfied that they have done so on British units also. In this morning's newspapers there is a very definite and precise charge that they have also bombed and destroyed the greater part of Harar, declared to be an open and unfortified town, and according, at any rate, to the Abyssinian assertion, quite devoid of any military value.
§ There is, however, this to be said of the bombing of Red Cross units and open towns, that it is possible it was due to some mistake—one knows how very difficult it is to avoid mistakes under any condition's in warfare—or it may have been due to the exceptional ferocity of some individual officer or individual leader. Why this last charge is so much more formidable, from my point of view, than any which preceded it, is that it must have been directly organised and commanded by the central authorities in Rome. Mustard gas is not of any use at all except for the purpose of bombing, and it is certainly not a product which you are at all likely to find on the coast of East Africa. It must therefore have been manufactured, prepared and sent out in appropriate containers, for the deliberate purpose of being used for the bombing of unprotected—for they are practically unprotected—bodies of the Abyssinian population. I hope it will be possible, though it is difficult to imagine how, for the Italian Government to show that this charge is untrue, but I cannot forget that early in this year there were some very ominous statements made in the Italian Press, I think, and your Lordships are aware that nothing appeal's in the Italian Press which is disapproved of by the Central Government in Italy. On January 3, there was quoted in our paper The Times a statement that had been published in Rome, to the effect that they demanded from the Government and military authorities a harsher and more inexorable conduct of the war, and another writer called for the employment of the most modern and lethal weapons of war. A somewhat similar message was quoted in the Daily Telegraph from another Italian source.
§ I am afraid that under those circumstances the immense probability is that this charge is perfectly true. If it is, it is horrible and shameless—perhaps as horrible and shameless a thing as has ever been done, even in the bloody annals of warfare—and it has been done by a Government which claims to be carrying to Abyssinia the great benefits of Christianity and liberation. I recognise that, horrible as it is, it probably is not more horrible than many other things which are done in war. That it should be not only horrible but a breach of treaty is a different consideration, and more important; but for mere horror, all warfare is horrible and modern warfare appears to be even more horrible than ancient warfare. The only way out is to insist that peace shall be restored. That can be done by the machinery which we have all agreed to, and which the Government have again, in that admirable and moving speech made by the Foreign Secretary the other day, declared their complete intention of supporting in every way they can. You have there the machinery of the League of Nations, by which, undoubtedly, if used in full, peace can be restored at very short notice. I can only hope that, impressed by these considerations, the Government will not hesitate to recommend to the League such measures as they shall approve with the object of bringing this war to an end, and I am quite certain that if they do so they will receive the overwhelming support of the people of this country. I beg to move.
THE LORD ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY
My Lords, I think we shall all agree that the noble Viscount was entirely justified in bringing before your Lordships the very grave matter with which his Motion deals. I have little to add to what he has so forcibly said. But I cannot remain silent, as this is a matter that concerns not merely the principles of Christianity but the most elementary principles of humanity itself. Like the noble Viscount, I should be immensely relieved if assurance could be given by the Government that these charges are either unfounded or greatly exaggerated, but I find it difficult to believe that the telegram which appeared in The Times of March 25, sent by the Secretary of the Ethiopian Red Cross Society, and the telegram quoted by the noble Viscount are wholly without foundation. If they are not without foundation, this is indeed a most grave matter.
It may be said that we ourselves sanctioned the use for the British Army of gases in the time of the Great War, and many of us will remember the wide concern with which we heard in May, 1915, that the British Army was to be allowed to use asphyxiating gases. I myself very well remember the correspondence and conversations between my revered predecessor, Archbishop Davidson, and the Prime Minister. He was fearful as to the extent to which this policy of reprisals, once begun, might be pressed, and I think it is perhaps pertinent to this subject if I read the final reply which was given at that time by the Prime Minister:
" Leave has been given to Sir John French to make use of gases for urgent military reasons, the French having already taken this decision. It is one which on humanitarian grounds cannot but be regretted, but we cannot deny to our soldiers the use in self-defence of a weapon which has been proved effective in the hands of an enemy. We are ready at the earliest moment to agree to the abandonment by both sides of their use, and steps are now being considered to secure this. More than this cannot for the moment be said, but you may rest assured that no one is more aware than the Prime Minister of the objection to their use, and no one more anxious to bring to an end, or at least to limit, such hideous methods of warfare."
Your Lordships will notice that the whole emphasis was laid on self-defence. There is no conceivable application of that use of gas in time of war to the present use of this poisonous gas apparently by the Italian Army in Abyssinia. In the first place, there if no question there of reprisals. The Ethiopian Army is totally unprovided with these gases, or even with the means of protection against them; and if it be said that reprisals of a gross and barbarous kind can be permitted in retaliation for brutal acts of savagery on the other side, it is yet to be proved that the Abyssinians have been guilty of any such acts of savagery as would justify a civilised Power in making use of these barbarous methods against them. In the second place it is to be noted that since the Great War there have been these protocols and obligations which the noble Viscount has quoted, and to which Italy itself gave unqualified ratification. In the third place—even more serious—this is so far as I know the very first instance in which these gases have been used against non-combatants, innocent men, women and children, wholly unable to defend themselves against them. The matter is the more serious because of the admitted effects of this particular form of poison. I am no chemist, and I do not know how these gases are constructed. I only know that I have heard of what their effects are, and apparently an innocent Abyssinian moving along the ground bare-footed can receive an infection which may spread and ere long result in burning, blinding, sometimes even in death.
I ask consideration in the first place of what the effect of this must be upon the coloured races of Africa to which the noble Viscount has most justly called attention. I hear from every quarter of Africa, from West Africa, East Africa, and South Africa, that the natives are watching with their intense and brooding vigilance the conduct of this war, and they are asking themselves what is to be the way by which in the future the white man is to continue his conquest of Africa. They are deeply interested in the fortunes of the war. Only this morning I received a cheque for £20 collected through a West African newspaper from its native readers for the work of our British Red Cross unit in Abyssinia. Everywhere that vigilance is intense. This is one of the most unfortunate results of this unhappy war which may carry with it consequences which none of us can foretell, and I think that Sir Hesketh Bell, in the letter quoted by the noble Viscount, was entirely justified in asking his question. Let me again remind your Lordships of his words:
" Are the coloured peoples throughout the Continent of Africa to be allowed to believe that the latest war methods of the white man are all that they may expect whenever a European nation covets the lands that have been the homes of their forebears for countless generations? "
But, as the noble Viscount has pointed out, this is not the only matter which we have to take into consideration. There has been this persistent bombing, as I think it can be called now, of the Red Cross units in Abyssinia. I take a special interest in them because your Lordships may remember that I was responsible for taking a leading part in providing funds for and sending out our British Red Cross units. I am happy to think that our people have given more than £50,000 for that purpose. I am in communication with Dr. Molly, the heroic leader appointed for the first British unit, and I hear from other sources of what is happening. I think it is beyond question that this bombing has taken place as a matter of deliberate plan. The excuses offered seem to me to make the matter worse. For example, it was stated in the Italian Press on March 12, not without the assent of the authorities I think, that out of the tents of our poor little British Red Cross units emerged 1,000 armed men in khaki. Dr. Melly, of course, has covered that with ridicule, and it is not the only instance in which the Red Cross units, both British, Swedish and others, have been bombed—and this also in disregard of obligations which have been long ago contracted between the nations.
I fully realise the difficulty of raising this matter at the present time when the whole international situation is so tense and delicate, and it may be that the noble Viscount who will be replying for the Government may be obliged to have that in mind in controlling what contribution he is able to make to this discussion. But this is not a matter of international policy: it is a matter of elementary human instincts. Moreover I do not think we can dismiss from our minds the strange callousness that seems to be passing over Europe in these days about such happenings as these which have been called to our attention. I suppose that, somehow or other, our imagination and our conscience were at first dazed and then dulled by the events of the Great War, but certain it is that events which before would have aroused indignation in every part of this country are allowed to pass almost unnoticed. Things are worse if, in order to prevent the use in future of these appalling methods of human destruction, conventions are carefully arranged and solemn signatures are appended and then, whenever it appears to be convenient, they are torn aside by the very nations that entered into these solemn obligations. We all know how mankind at this moment is almost terrified by the thought of the horrors that may attend the outbreak of another general war. This is the first instance in which horrors of that kind have actually occurred, and therefore, however great the difficulties may be, I cannot suppose that in this country we should be indifferent. If these charges are true, if they are well-founded, then I trust for the sake of Africa and, in a wider sense, of the world, and of humanity, His Majesty's Government may be ready to enter a solemn expostulation and protest.
§ LORD MARLEY
My Lords, on behalf of the Opposition I desire strongly to support the suggestion of the noble Viscount, Lord Cecil. I also had a telegram from the Committee of Assistance to Ethiopian War Victims in which they say that Italy is using on a large scale asphyxiating and other gases, not only against troops, but also against the civil population several hundred kilometres from the zone of operations. That is confirmed by the categorical statement in The Times of to-day to which the noble Viscount refers. The Times stated:
" Fifteen bombs struck the Egyptian Red Crescent Hospital outside the city wall, and that of the Ethiopian Red Cross was hit many times, though even further away from the city. Two … bombs fell between the Swedish Hospital and the British Consulate, a mile outside Harar. … All the hospitals were plainly marked with the Red Cross or Crescent, and as Harar is an open town there was not a single anti-aircraft gun to open fire on the raiders. "
There cannot be any mistake about this. It cannot be by mistake that these hospitals are hit. It is incredible that we can pretend that it is a mistake that such a thing can happen. We are bound to ask ourselves what is being done to stop this breaking of all decent rules. What is being done to stop the war itself for that matter? What is being done to stop bombing from the air, and to stop the use of these poison gases? Are we, as the Lord Archbishop has said, becoming accustomed to it? Does it now mean nothing when we read this sort of thing in the newspapers? Are we becoming hardened? We have no right to become hardened. We have no right to accept this sort of thing in a so-called civilised world. The League has not had a great success so far, but Italy is susceptible more than any other nation to the application of economic sanctions. We had a very striking speech by my noble friend Lord Arnold a few days ago in which he pointed out that, out of twenty-five primary products, Italy has only four in adequate quantities, and of twenty-one she has none at all. Is it not possible somehow to direct world opinion, League opinion, to further pressure in this direction?
It has been said in this House that the Ethiopians are a nation of desperate blackguards. The noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, claimed that they were cruel slave dealers and that there were at this moment hundreds or even thousands of slaves dying in ships being transported across the Red Sea. That was definitely countered by both the Lord Archbishop and the noble Earl, Lord Stanhope, who replied for the Government. It received a direct and authoritative denial. I venture to suggest that the Ethiopians have a civilisation going back 2,500 years and that they have a code of morality which we might do well to follow in many respects. They are not perfect, none of us is perfect, but that is no reason why we should accept that people whom we may criticise should be treated in this way.
I want to make one quotation if your Lordships will permit me, from a letter from a very well-known and prominent retired Indian civil servant who went out to Harar and Addis Ababa to see for himself and judge who were these desperate blackguards to whom reference was made in a debate a few months ago. The writer of this letter has now got out of it. He went to Bombay afterwards, but he was in Harar on February 17, five weeks ago, and this is what he said:
" Certain facts must be clearly understood. Italy will not get the land which Sir Samuel Hoare, would have given her if she goes on fighting for the next ten years. Ethiopia is only a land of milk and honey in patches, and those not too good except in the west, from which there is nowhere to send the stuff. It will only grow coffee, cotton, and teff, none of which is much wanted.
" The Ethiopian may cat raw meat, but otherwise is a very decent sort of fellow, and the general standard is at least as high as in India. He is the world's most courageous fighter, and the Italians the worst."
So says the writer—
" The latter are doing no fighting unless they are well protected inside a tank or with a lot of native troops in front."
Or, he might have added, hundreds of feet up in the air where they cannot be reached by natives having no anti-aircraft guns and no equipment. They are decent people, and this writer points out that the young educated Abyssinian is a superior type, and that the whole country was clearly being rapidly modernised, just as rapidly as it would be under a European Power.
The League must have our support if it can be induced to take further action, and I urge that the appeal of the noble Viscount to the Government should receive sympathetic consideration. The Lord Archbishop said that he received this morning £20 towards the expenses of the Red Cross unit. I should like to say that there is also a fund available for direct aid to the Ethiopian Government by which men and women who resent this type of attack may at least give some assistance. Subscriptions may be sent to the National Bank of Egypt in King William Street, and the money will go to aid in a similar way the type of fund to which the Lord Archbishop referred a moment ago. I hope that the Government will be able to give a sympathetic answer to the noble Viscount.
§ LORD NEWTON
My Lords, I am not going to detain the House more than a minute or two, but there is one point to which I desire to draw attention. Everybody, I think, will sympathise with the indignation displayed by my noble friend on the Cross Benches (Viscount Cecil of Chelwood) with regard to this matter. The spectacle of a highly civilised Power carrying out warfare under present conditions must be more than repugnant to everybody, but what I want to point out is this. My noble friend asks the Government what they are going to do. There is one thing which I sincerely hope they will not do, and that is to make an isolated representation to the Italian Government upon this point. We have succeeded in establishing ourselves in the opinion of Italy as their principal enemy and as being largely responsible for the war. Any representation that is made by us alone can only do harm. It will be merely cited as evidence of additional spite, and we shall be told by the Italians that they are only doing what we are in the habit of doing ourselves. We must admit the fact that we have recourse to the bombing of villages which, as far as I know, are frequently not occupied by fighting men at all, and it is just as well to recognise that fact. But if a representation is going to be made it stands to reason that this is a case for collective representation, and I submit to nay noble friend that any isolated representation on our part would be a breach of the so-called collective system. Upon this point I hope my noble friend, when he replies, will be able to reassure us, because I feel convinced in my own mind, whatever other noble Lords may feel, that isolated intervention will only end in failure.
§ LORD MOTTISTONE
My Lords, three questions seem to be before your Lordships' House. First of all, have the Italians—that is to say, the Italian Higher Command—sanctioned, and are they employing, poison gas against their enemy? That is the first point, and under the procedure in your Lordships' House one always has to wait until the end of the debate to get the answer to the question which is vital to the consideration of the matter. The first question then is: Is that true? We have seen so many untruths told by both sides in this war that one almost begins to be certain that whatever is said is a lie, on both sides. But I will come to that point in a moment. Another quite different point is: Have the Italians bombed Red Cross units? The third question is: What are the Government going to do? Let us clear out of the way the Red Cross question, because though it is deplorable—and everybody must have been moved by what the most reverend Primate said—anybody who has taken an active part in war, and I have spent six years in the front line of warfare, knows, of course, that the bombing of Red Cross units must always be a mistake. It must always be done without intention, because however wicked you may be you do not waste a good bomb on a fellow who is already knocked out. I spent some time as a wounded patient in a clearing station, and not one but dozens of shells fell near to where I was. I was supposed to be dead, but I am still alive. It would be ridiculous to think that anybody would waste shells upon the Red Cross.
It is quite a different question from that of poison gas in regard to which I think at least the most reverend Primate and I will be, as I hope we always shall be, on the same side. The bombing of Red Cross units is a subject in respect to which it is proper to say: "You have to be more careful. We know you are not doing it on purpose; you would not be such fools; but you ought not to have done it." That, however, is quite a different thing from the employment of poison gas. Here I part company altogether from the Italian Higher Command and with all those who direct it. Exactly eighteen years ago to-day, it so happens, I swallowed enough phosgene, chlorine and mustard gas (as I was told at the hospital where I ultimately arrived) to have killed a dozen ordinary men. I have not quite recovered yet, and I do not suppose I ever shall, though it is wonderful what science can do. But I do know a good deal about poison gas, not only because I have been so very badly gassed myself and supposed to be the "star turn" of a particular doctor who saved my life, to the great disadvantage, I am sure, of most of my noble friends opposite, but also because, perhaps as a consequence, when I recovered the then Prime Minister appointed me to be what was termed President of the Warfare Section of the Ministry of Munitions. I am the only survivor of the particular band who served at that period, for two of them died of the experiments we conducted.
During that period I got to know, I suppose, more about poison gas than any man now living. I remember a poor man who died, the most brilliant chemist we had, saying to me at the end of October, 1918: "You know, Sir, if this war goes on until 1919 there will be a good many fewer English and French, but there will be very few Germans left at all." He was putting it a bit too high, but it is the fact that if humanity wishes to destroy itself, it can do it not by some new discovery in gas—and I do happen to have knowledge of this matter—but without the necessity of any new discovery. It is possible, if you devote yourself to it, really to destroy on the great scale by means of poison gas, but you cannot do it with our existing arrangements. Armies as we see them now are not designed to destroy human life on the grand scale by means of poison gas. I see the First Lord of the Admiralty present. He has special knowledge of this matter as affecting the Navy, and he will agree with me that if you seek to destroy a whole quantity of people on shore, if you can reach them, you want to make a different kind of Fleet to do it, and in the same way, you want a different kind of Army. And those were the things that we were considering at the end of 1918 before the Armistice came.
I would, therefore, ask the representative of His Majesty's Government, if he can, to say to us that the whole story is untrue, that the Italians have not in fact employed poison gas. All my noble friends here who were in the Great War know how hard it is to tell, until you swallow the stuff yourself, whether it is the result of an imperfect detonation or whether it is the actual poison gas that smells so nasty and hurts. But if the Italians have not employed poison gas I should say, with respect to the noble Viscount, cadit quœstio. But if they have, then I would say that it is really a crime against humanity. It opens the door to the continuance of gas warfare on the grand scale which, by various arrangements come to, some open and some in conversations, I happen to know between the leaders of great States since the War, it was hoped would be brought to an end. I hope, and until I am definitely told the contrary, I shall continue to believe, that the Italian Higher Command have not employed gas. If they have, I would urge the Government—while no doubt observing the wise rule mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Newton, that we must act with others—to say that we will use the utmost of our power to put an end to this method of warfare which, if pursued with the same vigour that other methods have been pursued, will mean a holocaust of human beings which may well put an end to civilisation itself.
§ LORD RENNELL
My Lords, what I have to say can be put in a very few sentences, so there is no fear I shall delay you. The matter which is raised in the Question of the noble Viscount is one that no doubt requires very serious consideration, especially in the interests of the Italian people. It has been raised in your Lordships' House and things have been said which go out all over the world. It has been very largely assumed in various speeches that these charges are true. Therefore I should like to insist on one point, to some extent as a corrective against a prejudice which such utterances may arouse. If there has been an abusive employment of that abominable invention called yperite, I should like to say to your Lordships and to a larger audience that no doubt it has been done entirely without the knowledge of the Italian people. The Italian people hear very little, as the Press is managed in their country, except of a series of advances and victories. No details of such a nature as find their way into our Press are ever allowed to penetrate to the minds of the nation. The Italian people, among whom I have lived for many years, are naturally humane and kindly. In their attitude towards children they are so indulgent that very often outside observers think that they carry that indulgence and tenderness to excess. That they could for a moment countenance the use of this instrument of war on inoffensive children and women is, to one who knows the temperament of the Italian people, absolutely inconceivable. Therefore, whatever indignation may have been aroused by what until it is absolutely proved must remain partly in the nature of hypothesis, I should like at any rate one voice in this House to be heard which does not believe that the Italian people share in any guilt which may eventually be brought home to those by whom they are being led there, but that they would be the first to deprecate the use of such methods of warfare.
§ VISCOUNT HALIFAX
My Lords, I welcome the action of the noble Viscount in inviting your Lordships to consider the matter that he has brought before us by his Motion. I think that by doing so he has served, and those who have taken part in the debate have served, a great public purpose, if for no other reason than this—and I will come in a moment to the merits of what he and others have said—that in my judgment, and I doubt not in the judgment also of those of your Lordships who follow these matters closely, it would be unfortunate and worse if the other preoccupations in our minds respecting the international field to-day were to have the effect of distracting public attention from the war that is actually in progress and that has for so long been the subject of collective action by the League of Nations. The debate to which we have listened has been one conducted, so it seems to me, with remarkable restraint, and, on the assumption that these reports were well-founded, with singular unanimity of judgment and of condemnation. I think that it will not escape public notice in this country and elsewhere that that condemnation, on the assumption that the reports were well founded, came not only from those who have been accustomed to be foremost in these discussions on the lines of criticism and condemnation of the Italian Government, but also from other noble Lords who have been accustomed in other debates to take a somewhat different point of view.
I only wish that it were in my power to give the assurance to the noble Lord opposite for which he asked, that there was no foundation for these reports. I at present have no information other than somewhat meagre information which I will communicate to your Lordships, and therefore I can at this stage only associate myself with everything that has been said that, if these reports do in fact turn out to be true, they have a gravity that I think no speech has exaggerated whether in regard to the natural feelings that they must arouse in all our minds and hearts, as the most reverend Primate most truly said, or, as he also said, from the point of view of their inevitable repercussions upon the whole relations now and in the future of white and coloured races. The noble Viscount asked whether the attention of His Majesty's Government has been drawn to the telegram that he quotes in his Motion. My attention has been drawn to it, and moreover the British Minister at Addis Ababa telegraphed to His Majesty's Government on March 21 a protest addressed to them by the Ethiopian Government as a contracting party under the Convention that he referred to, signed at The Hague in 1907, and also a party to the Protocol, signed at Geneva in 1925, for the prohibition of the use in war of poison gases, that protest being directed against" the continuous use by Italy of asphyxiating gas and similar gases." The protest went on to state that these attacks affected not only the troops but also the civilian population and open towns and the like, and reserved the rights of the Ethiopian Government to claim compensation under the relevant article of The Hague Convention. Finally, in the same communication, the Ethiopian Government requested that all measures might be taken to secure a cessation of these alleged violations of the above Conventions.
In forwarding this protest His Majesty's Minister at Addis Ababa added that he had been informed that protests in similar terms had been forwarded to the League of Nations and to the other Governments represented at Addis Ababa. As I think your Lordships will be aware, the complaint of the Ethiopian Government, which, if I remember rightly, was in amplification of a briefer protest telegraphed to the League of Nations on March 17, was considered by the Committee of Thirteen at their recent session in London on March 23; and, as your Lordships will also have noticed, the Committee decided to refer these complaints to the Italian Government for their comments and in doing so to remind that Government of the provisions of the Gas Protocol of 1925. With those decisions of the Committee of Thirteen, it will not have escaped your Lordships' attention, the representative of His Majesty's Government was, of course, associated.
I would remind you, my Lords, if I may, of what is the position on what I may call the main question which I think it is important to keep in our minds along with this new issue which the noble Viscount raises in his Motion. The present position on the main question, as your Lordships are aware, is that the Committee of Thirteen at their recent session charged themselves with the effort to promote conciliation between Italy and Ethiopia with the object of the restoration of peace, or at least of taking steps to discover whether any basis of conciliation in fact exists. I have no further information at present as to what has been the progress of the action taken by the Chairman of that Committee in pursuance of the duty entrusted to him. But I make this observation that, if these reports are true, it is in my judgment, and, I think, in the judgment of His Majesty's Government, obviously impossible for the Committee of Thirteen and their Chairman to act as though they were a matter of small importance. While His Majesty's Government in this matter, as in all others arising from this unhappy passage of events, can only act collectively with the other Members of the League, it will be for the Committee of Thirteen to consider and to decide upon whatever action they might deem appropriate for them to recommend.
I will incidentally, in passing, draw the attention of my noble friend Lord Newton to one observation that I would ask leave to make in regard to something that fell from him. While he will have observed that I associate myself with the view that action in this matter must be, as it has been throughout, collective, yet I deprecate and feel bound to take exception to the suggestion that he made in his speech that there was very little to choose in this matter between His Majesty's Government, who under certain conditions authorise air bombing—I suppose he meant on the North-West Frontier of India—
§ LORD NEWTON
Or in Aden, too.
§ VISCOUNT HALIFAX
—or in Aden, and the action of the Italian Government (on the assumption that these reports are true) in dropping mustard-gas bombs from aeroplanes in Abyssinia. I do not want to labour the point, because I think the noble Lord will recognise that the analogy is not close. I would, however, make this point quite clear: that when such air bombing is resorted to by the Government of India it is only resorted to after twenty-four hours' warning has been given for the villages to be evacuated, and there has never been any question of dropping anything in the nature of gas. I think, therefore, that the noble Lord will realise that his analogy is not relevant. Having said so much, I can assure the noble Lord opposite—and I think some other noble Lord also put the point—that I have no doubt whatever that if these reports are found true it will be both the duty and the desire of His Majesty's Government represented on the Committee of Thirteen, or whatever may be the appropriate body of the League of Nations before which these matters may come, to use their utmost efforts not only to secure practical condemnation of so great an outrage upon civilisation, but also to take whatever steps it may be possible to take to secure the world against recurrence of the action so condemned.
It is profoundly true, as the noble Viscount said, that war, even if conducted within the limitations suggested by humane considerations, is and always will be a cruel thing. It is because of that, of course, that the world has tried to rob it of some of the worst of its horrors. No greater disservice could be rendered to the whole cause of civilisation than that disservice which would be rendered to it by any nation disregarding any of the conventions, all too few and all too painfully achieved, which have been designed to protect humanity even in a limited degree from any part of war's worst consequences. It is, of course, possible for any of us as individuals to make our personal appraisement here and now of the probability of truth or otherwise appertaining to these reports, but it would obviously be quite wrong and quite impossible to prejudge a matter so grave and so vitally affecting the honour of a great country. My noble friend Lord Rennell was most certainly right when he said that, whatever may turn out to be the truth of these reports, it is probable that the great mass of the Italian people have known and know nothing of what on that assumption would turn out to have been done. Therefore it is that the first step in this matter must be to obtain the observations and the comments of the Italian Government. But I shall, I think, have left the House under no misapprehension that, if the reports turn out to be well-founded and if action of this sort has in fact been or is being taken against non-combatants, and even against the military forces of a people utterly defenceless in the face of such attack, the indignation and the moral condemnation which have been implicit in every speech in the debate will be shared by the whole civilised world.
§ VISCOUNT CECIL OF CHELWOOD
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to my noble friend who has just spoken for what he has been good enough to say and for assuring us of the very serious view that the Government take on this question. I imagine, though I do not think he actually said so, that the Government will inquire from their representative at Addis Ababa whether he has any personal information, or information from trustworthy sources, as to the truth or untruth of this statement.
§ VISCOUNT HALIFAX
I rather assumed that this had been done, but I will make sure.
§ VISCOUNT CECIL OF CHELWOOD
I assume that it has been done. With regard to the rest of the debate I have nothing to say, except that I am very grateful for the unusual support which I received from Lord Mottistone, decorated with those autobiographical details which are always so entertaining to the House. The only other two things which I would like to say is that I would ask my noble friend Lord Rennell to be good enough to look at the extract which I read, and made my own, from the letter of Sir Hesketh Bell, in which he acquits the Italian people of any responsibility in this matter. In reply to Lord Newton I would only say that, although I recognise the desirability of collective action in this and other matters, I hope that the spirit in which my noble friend Lord Halifax spoke is going to be the guiding spirit of the Government. I am quite sure that this country must take the responsibility of leadership in these international matters, and that their motto should be: "Be just, and fear not. "I ask leave of the House to withdraw my Motion.
§ Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.
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Africa Liberation day inquiry How the Italians came to Ethiopia. METHODS OF WARFARE.