Sassoon - Commons Debate
Mr. LEES SMITH: I wish to raise the case of an individual officer which has some connection with the subject which the hon. Member for Haggerston raised. It is the case of Second-Lieutenant Sassoon, of the 3rd Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers. This young officer, I think, appears to have one of the finest and most gallant records of service in the Army. He enlisted as a private - without waiting for the War to break out - on 3rd August, 1914, and I imagine would be one of the first 1,000 men to enlist. He has been wounded, and has been awarded the Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry. He has received formal recognition from the General Commanding for distinguished service in the field. About three weeks ago this young officer came to see me, and told me he had written this letter to his commanding officer. The Under-Secretary will see that this letter raises the question of policy which has to be considered in the light of the treatment which is meted out to those soldiers who break up meetings. It raises a question of policy, and why there should be differentiation of treatment between soldiers who hold one set of opinions and those who hold another. The writer says:
"I am making this statement as an act of willful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this War, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellows soldiers entered upon this War should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them, and that, had this been done, the objects which actuated us would now be attained by negotiation. I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolonging those sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the War, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed. On behalf of those who are suffering now, I make this protest against the deception which has been practised upon them; also I believe that it may help to destroy the callous complacence with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realise."
Terrible experiences at the front...
This young officer asked me if I would follow up his case and, if necessary, bring it to the notice of the House. What he anticipated has occurred. After some delay he was forced to appear before a medical board, and the board, having heard the opinions he had expressed in the letter, informed him that he must be suffering from the effects of a passing nervous shock due to his terrible experiences at the front. He was sent to a hospital for officers suffering from shell shock and other minor ailments. I read that letter, because I think, however profoundly hon. Members may disagree from it, that it contains no indication whatever of having been written by a man suffering from any kind of nervous shock. This young officer is known to Members of this House. I myself had a long interview with him only a few weeks ago, and he certainly impressed me as a man of most unusual mental power and most extraordinary determination of character. The fact is, that the decision of the medical board is not based upon health, but based upon very easily understood reasons of policy.
It was quite clear that it was the easiest way to avoid publicity. I think it was also based upon reasons of personal kindliness. This was a very popular and distinguished young officer, and the medical board was only too ready to believe that this letter could only be written by someone suffering from nervous shock. But the evidence is the letter, and I really do not think that any impartial person would say that that letter is any evidence at all. As a matter of fact, this officer had been in this country for three months, and it had never occurred to a soul that he was showing evidence of nervous shock until he wrote the letter.
Soldiers breaking up meetings...
I raise this question at this moment for the reason that it raises the question of what policy the War Office is going to adopt towards those who break the King's Regulations. During the whole period this War has lasted soldiers in uniform have been permitted month after month to break up meetings held by those whose opinions are opposed to those of the Government. That is a breach of the King's Regulations. The Home Secretary said that these soldiers did not attend the meeting. He has only to read the newspapers and see the photographs to ascertain that soldiers were inside the meeting and damaged the property inside the hall. The War Office, from the beginning of the War up to this time, has never lifted a finger to stop these scandals taking place. [An HON. MEMBER: "It has encouraged them!"] I object to it, because these little groups of soldiers, got together by disreputable newspapers, misrepresent the feeling of the Army. If the Under-Secretary would give the necessary leave for twelve hours, the organisers of this very meeting could bring up to London in two hours, as he knows very well, whole battalions of soldiers in this country in their support. We do not want to raise this question in the House, but the hon. Gentleman knows it is so. A brigade could have been brought up within two hours, with 95 per cent of the soldiers in that brigade ready to support the initiators of this meeting. What is the use of the Home Secretary saying there are no soldiers on that side? The fact is the War Office ought to be impartial. It ought not to allow soldiers to break up meetings to support its policy, and then, as it has done, when soldiers in other places meet peaceably together, to speak contrary to that policy, point to Article 451 of the King's Regulations. This policy is using the soldiers as a pawn in the political game. That is why I have brought this case up. This letter of a young officer is worth reams of articles in the newspapers, and it is worth hundreds of soldiers got together in order to break up a meeting without knowing what the meeting is about. That is why it is necessary in the House to prevent the action of this young officer being stifled and discredited by the absurd doctrine that it has been due to the effects of nervous shock.
Mr. MACPHERSON: There are a great many small things which affect leave apart from military exigencies. A man may forfeit his leave by an indiscretion, or he may have been sent down to hospital. I am going now to deal with the main question raised by my hon. friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Lees Smith). The first I heard of this question affecting this gallant young officer was on the 21st July when I was asked a question, put down by my hon. friend opposite, asking whether any disciplinary action had been taken in this case. I consulted my military advisers and they at once telegraphed as follows:
"A breach of military discipline has been committed but no disciplinary action has been taken since 2nd Lieutenant Sassoon is reported by Medical Board, 20th instant, as being not responsible for his actions, suffering from a nervous breakdown. This officer proceeded to the Craig Lockhart War Hospital, Slateford, Midlothian, N.B., 23rd instant."
What is the position which my hon. Friend adopts? He put down his question first of all thinking that a cruel and callous War Office Department were going to court-martial this young officer.
Mr. L. SMITH: My question was put in order to have the case put in as official form as possible, and I put down the question whether he did create this breach of discipline, and I ask whether disciplinary action had been taken. I knew he had been told that he would have to come before a medical board and I knew he had refused to go.
Mr. MACPHERSON: If that is the case then my hon. Friend did not put down a very candid question, and I should be very sorry if hon. Members were in the habit of treating myself and my colleagues in this way. I thought he had put down a bona-fide question, and that with his well-known humanitarian feelings he thought the War Office or the military authorities in the Western command were going to treat this man as if he had committed a breach of military discipline. I called the attention of the Director-General of Personal Services to this case. Here is a case where, if what they are accustomed to say is true, the War Office would at once court-martial this man for writing this letter as a breach of discipline, but they have not done so, and there must be some other reason.
Mr. SNOWDEN: There is.
Guilty of a breach of discipline...
Mr. MACPHERSON: The proper reason is that which is given in this telegram, that the military authorities saw that there must be something very wrong in the case of such an extremely gallant young officer who had done excellent work, and who had shown, by getting the Distinguished Service Order, that he was no mean soldier. He comes home, and when it is found that a man of this character has written a letter of this sort to his fellow officers, conclude that there must be something radically wrong, and instead of taking disciplinary action they take the natural course of asking him to appear before a medical board. I do not think even my hon. friends opposite would go so far as to say that a medical board, knowing the man to be guilty of a breach of discipline, in order not to assist the political attitude of my hon. Friend and his colleagues, would say that this man was suffering from shell shock. I have great respect for medical boards, but I do not believe for a single moment that they would solemnly send a man to an institution of this sort under those circumstances, and I hope my hon. Friends opposite will not press me to accept that view.
Here is a gallant young officer who has done his best at the front, and done nobly, and, like so many others, has received a nervous shock; he comes home, and in a state of very great nervous agitation he writes this letter, which I understand is now going to be published by the No-Conscription Society. I think my hon. Friend should hesitate before making use of a letter written by a man in such a state of mind, because I do not think that will help the No-Conscription movement, and I am quite convinced that such action would not be appreciated by the relatives of this gallant officer. Therefore I ask my hon. Friend and those associated with him who have made use of this letter to hesitate long before they make further use of it.