About Crimea's war

1854-12-22 - John Bright


THE real question was, as every hon. Gentleman knows, What was the condition of the Mahometan? and there is not a Gentleman in this House who is not aware that the Mahometan portion of the population of the Turkish Empire is in a decaying and dying condition, and that the two great Empires which have undertaken to set it on its legs again will find it about the most difficult task in which they ever were engaged. What do your own officers say? Here is an extract from a letter which appeared in the papers the other day:

“They ought to set these rascally Turks to mend them [the roads], which might easily be done, as under the clay there is plenty of capital stone. They are, I am sorry to say, bringing more of these brutes into the Crimea, which makes more mouths to feed, without being of any use.”

I have seen a private letter, too, from an able and distinguished officer in the Crimea, who says:

“Half of us do not know what we are fighting for, and the other half only pray that we may not be fighting for the Turks.”

The only sign of improvement which has been manifested that I know of is, that on a great emergency, when their Empire, under the advice of Her Majesty’s Government, and that of their Ambassador, was placed in a situation of great peril, the Turks managed to make an expiring effort, and to get up an army which the Government, so far as I can hear, has since permitted to be almost destroyed.

Another sign of improvement is, perhaps, that they have begun to wear trowsers; but as to their commerce, their industry, or their revenue, nothing can be in a worse condition. You have now two Empires attempting to set the Turkish Empire up again; and it is said that a third great Empire is also about to engage in the task. The Turk wants to borrow money, but he cannot borrow it to-day in the London market at less than from eight to nine per cent. Russia, on the other hand, is an Empire against which three great Empires, if Turkey can be counted one still, are now combined, and it is said that a fourth great Empire will soon join the ranks of its enemies. But Russian funds at this moment are very little lower than the stock of the London and North-Western Railway. You have engaged to set this Turkish Empire up again—a task in which everybody knows you must fail—and you have persuaded the Turk to enter into a contest, one of the very first proceedings in which has forced him to mortgage to the English capitalist a very large portion—and the securest portion, too, of his revenues—namely, that which he derives from Egypt, amounting, in fact, in a fiscal and financial point of view, to an actual dismemberment of the Turkish Empire by a separation of Egypt from it. Why is it that the noble Lord has to-night come forward as the defender of the Greeks? Is it that he has discovered, when this war is over, that Turkey, which he has undertaken to protect, the Empire which he is to defend and sustain against the Emperor of Russia, will have been smothered under his affectionate embrace? or, to quote the powerful language of the Times, when the Vienna note was refused, that whatever else may be the result of the war in which Turkey has plunged Europe, this one thing is certain, that at its conclusion there may be no Turkish Empire to talk about?

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Now, I am prepared to show that, from the beginning of this dispute, there is not a single thing which Austria wished to do in the course of the negotiations, or even which France wished to do, that the Government of the noble Lord did not systematically refuse it assent to, and that the noble Lord’s Government is alone responsible for the failure in every particular point which took place in these negotiations. I will not trouble the House by going into the history of these negotiations now, further than just to state two facts, which will not take more than a few sentences. The noble Lord referred to the note which Russia wanted Turkey to sign, known as the Menchikoff note; but the noble Lord knows as well as I do, that when the French Ambassador, M. De la Cour, went to Constantinople, or whilst he was at Constantinople, he received express instructions from the Emperor of the French not to take upon himself the responsibility of inciting the Sultan to reject that note. [“No.”] I know this is the fact, because it is stated in Lord Cowley’s despatch to the noble Lord.

I am expressing no opinion on the propriety of what was here done; I simply state the fact: and it was through the interference of Lord Stratford de Redcliffe—acting, I presume, in accordance with instructions from our Cabinet, and promising the intervention of the fleets—that the rejection of that note was secured. The next fact I have to mention is this: When in September, last year, the last propositions were drawn up by Counts Buol and Nesselrode, and offered at Olmütz by the Emperor, as a final settlement of the question, although Austria and Prussia were in favour of those propositions; though Lord Westmoreland himself said (I do not quote his exact words, but their substance) that they were of such a nature as might be received, thus indicating his favourable opinion of them; and though, likewise, the Emperor of the French himself declared that they guarded all the points in which England and France were concerned (for this was stated by Count Walewski when he said that the Emperor was prepared to order his Ambassador at Constantinople to sign them along with the other Ambassadors, and to offer them to the Porte in exchange for the Vienna note), nevertheless, the Earl of Clarendon wrote, not in a very statesmanlike manner in such an emergency, but in almost a contemptuous tone, that our Government would not, upon any consideration, have anything further to do with the Vienna note. The rejection, first of the amended Menchikoff note, and then of the Olmutz note, was a policy adopted solely by the Government of this country, and only concurred in, but not recommended, by the French Government and the other Governments of Europe. Whether this policy was right or wrong, there can be no doubt of the fact; and I am prepared to stake my reputation for accuracy and for a knowledge of the English language on this interpretation of the documents which have been laid before us. That being so, on what pretence could we expect that Austria should go to war in company with us for objects far beyond what she thought satisfactory at the beginning? or why should we ask the Emperor of the French to go to war for objects which he did not contemplate, and to insist on conditions which, in the month of September of last year, he thought wholly unnecessary?

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I say now what I stated in March last, and what I have since said and written to the country, that you are making war against the Government which accepted your own terms of peace; and I state this now only for the purpose of urging upon the House and upon the Government that you are bound at least, after making war for many months, to exact no further terms from the State with which you are at war, than such as will give that security which at first you believed to be necessary; and that if you carry on a war for vengeance—if you carry on a war for conquest—if you carry on a war for purposes of Government at home, as many wars have been carried on in past times, I say you will be guilty of a heinous crime, alike in the eyes of God and of man.

One other remark perhaps the House will permit me to make. The noble Lord spoke very confidently tonight; and a very considerable portion of his speech—hoping, as I do, for the restoration of peace at some time or another—was to me not very satisfactory. I think that he would only be acting a more statesmanlike part if, in his speeches, he were at least to abstain from those trifling but still irritating charges which he is constantly making against the Russian Government. I can conceive one nation going to war with another nation; but why should the noble Lord say, “The Sovereign of that State does not allow Bibles to be circulated—he suppressed this thing here, and he put down something else there“? What did one of the noble Lord’s present colleagues say of the Government of our ally? Did he not thank God that his despotism could not suppress or gag our newspaper press, and declare that the people of France were subject to the worst tyranny in Europe? These statements from a Minister—from one who has been Prime Minister, and who, for aught I know, may be again Prime Minister—show a littleness that I did not expect from a statesman of this country, whose fate and whose interests hang on every word the noble Lord utters, and when the fate of thousands—aye and tens of thousands—may depend on whether the noble Lord should make one false step in the position in which he is now placed.

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Now Sir, I have only to speak on one more point. My hon. Friend the Member for the West Riding, in what he said about the condition of the English army in the Crimea, I believe expressed only that which all in this House feel, and which, I trust, every person in this country capable of thinking feels. When I look at Gentlemen on that Bench, and consider all their policy has brought about within the past twelve months, I scarcely dare trust myself to speak of them, either in or out of their presence. We all know what we have lost in this House. Here, sitting near me, very often sat the Member for Frome (Colonel Boyle). I met him a short time before he went out, at Mr. Westerton’s, the bookseller, near Hyde Park Corner. I asked him whether he was going out? He answered, he was afraid he was; not afraid in the sense of personal fear—he knew not that; but he said, with a look and a tone I shall never forget, “It is no light matter for a man who has a wife and five little children.” The stormy Euxine is his grave; his wife is a widow, his children fatherless. On the other side of the House sat a Member, with whom I was not acquainted, who has lost his life, and another of whom I knew something (Colonel Blair). Who is there that does not recollect his frank, amiable, and manly countenance? I doubt whether there were any men on either side of the House who were more capable of fixing the goodwill and affection of those with whom they were associated. Well, but the place that knew them shall know them no more for ever.

I have specified only two; but there are a hundred officers who have been killed in battle, or who have died of their wounds; forty have died of disease; and more than two hundred others have been wounded more or less severely. This has been a terribly destructive war to officers. They have been, as one would have expected them to be, the first in valour as the first in place; they have suffered more in proportion to their numbers than the commonest soldiers in the ranks. This has spread sorrow over the whole country. I was in the House of Lords when the vote of thanks was moved. In the gallery were many ladies, three-fourths of whom were dressed in the deepest mourning. Is this nothing? And in every village cottages are to be found into which sorrow has entered, and, as I believe, through the policy of the Ministry, which might have been avoided. No one supposes that the Government wished to spread the pall of sorrow over the land; but this we had a right to expect—that they would at least show becoming gravity in discussing a subject the appalling consequences of which may come home to individuals and to the nation. I recollect when Sir Robert Peel addressed the House on a dispute which threatened hostilities with the United States,—I recollect the gravity of his countenance, the solemnity of his tone, his whole demeanour showing that he felt in his soul the responsibility that rested on him.

I have seen this, and I have seen the present Ministry. There was the buffoonery at the Reform Club. Was that becoming a matter of this grave nature? Has there been a solemnity of manner in the speeches heard in connection with this war—and have Ministers shown themselves statesmen and Christian men when speaking on a subject of this nature? It is very easy for the noble Lord the Member for Tiverton to rise and say that I am against war under all circumstances; and that if an enemy were to land on our shores, I should make a calculation as to whether it would be cheaper to take him in or keep him out, and that my opinion on this question is not to be considered either by Parliament or the country. I am not afraid of discussing the war with the noble Lord on his own principles. I understand the Blue Books as well as he; and, leaving out all fantastic and visionary notions about what will become of us if something is not done to destroy or to cripple Russia, I say—and I say it with as much confidence as I ever said anything in my life—that the war cannot be justified out of these documents; and that impartial history will teach this to posterity if we do not comprehend it now.

I am not, nor did I ever pretend to be, a statesman; and that character is so tainted and so equivocal in our day, that I am not sure that a pure and honourable ambition would aspire to it. I have not enjoyed for thirty years, like these noble Lords, the honours and emoluments of office. I have not set my sails to every passing breeze. I am a plain and simple citizen, sent here by one of the foremost constituencies of the Empire, representing feebly, perhaps, but honestly, I dare aver, the opinions of very many, and the true interests of all those who have sent me here. Let it not be said that I am alone in my condemnation of this war, and of this incapable and guilty Administration. And, even if I were alone, if mine were a solitary voice, raised amid the din of arms and the clamours of a venal press, I should have the consolation I have to-night—and which I trust will be mine to the last moment of my existence—the priceless consolation that no word of mine has tended to promote the squandering of my country’s treasure or the spilling of one single drop of my country’s blood.