Ernest Pretyman – 1900 Speech Supporting the Loyal Address

Below is the text of the speech made by Captain Ernest Pretyman in the House of Commons on 30 January 1900.

It is a kindly custom of this House to regard with special indulgence the Member to whom is entrusted the duty which I have to discharge to-day, and I feel sure that I shall have given me even double indulgence because the occasion is not an ordinary one, and I cannot and do not pretend to have that special knowledge which alone would enable me to do full justice to it.

Ordinarily our discussions here are upon controversial matters. As mover of the Address it is difficult to be non-controversial without being colourless. But to-day there is common ground I shall have to traverse, and there are feelings which we shall all share on whichever side of the House we sit. The first of these feelings is that of deep sympathy, which it is our privilege to express, as representing the nation, with all sufferers by the war which is going on in South Africa.

It will hardly be necessary to enumerate the sufferings which are in the minds of everyone of us here, but I think we must first refer to those who are suffering from wounds and from bodily disablement. Then, Sir, our sympathy must go out to those who are bereaved, to the widow and childless, and also to the weary watchers who have their dear ones at the front, and who are daily waiting for news—painful news such as we received this morning, and which carries sorrow and distress into many a home.

There is one other expression of sympathy which I am sure will not be wanting, and that is an expression of the deepest sympathy with the sufferings of colony of Natal. Half the colony is in the hands of the enemy, and not only have they put into the field a force far out of proportion to their numbers, but they have suffered grievous loss of property and life.

I trust we may be in a position at the end of the war to recompense them for the losses and suffering they have experienced. We have also feelings of the deepest admiration for the gallantry which our soldiers have displayed. Whether it be in the gallant defence of Mafeking, or the no less gallant and protracted defence of Ladysmith, or in the gallant action of Wauchope and the Highland Brigade at Magersfontein, where so many lost their lives, the story is the same, and it is a story of which we are all proud.

It is our only regret that so many of those to whom our pride goes out are lost for ever. In addition to that we have another common ground. We have pride not only in the gallantry that this contest has evoked, but also in the national spirit which has been evinced. That national spirit is not confined to the British Islands. It has found expression to the utmost bounds of this Empire. If we look at the present position of the Empire as a whole, we may say with truth we have set a girdle round the globe, and every link rings true and clear at this moment. I believe when this war is over we may look forward to South Africa being peaceful and tranquil and contented, and that any rift which may exist can and will be repaired in a way which will cause less offence and less trouble in the future.

Although at the end of the war there will, no doubt, remain a certain amount of race antagonism, which is the natural result of a contest of this description, we shall at any rate have purged the contempt with which that race antagonism was previously associated; the races will have learned to respect one another, and will be able to live side by side in amity, the hatreds of the past being merged into a mutual liking. Contempt is the kindling which fans antagonism into flame; and it was that contempt combined with race antagonism which brought about the present conflict.

When the struggle is concluded let us hope that the contempt which has arisen from surface causes will have been purged, that Boer and Briton will live side by side in peace, and that both will have a great future before them under the British flag. One other feeling we have in common, and that is the feeling of regret for the reverses which we have suffered in South Africa. Further than that we have the unanimous determination to retrieve those reverses. We wish to examine and to investigate the causes of the reverses and the failures, if they may be so called, which have occurred in our campaign. I am here, perhaps, on delicate ground, but I think I may say this.

We may ask ourselves with advantage whether our weakness or our failures, if I may use that word, are due to any deep-seated and inherent national weakness, or to temporary and removable causes. I think the latter can only be the answer. The Empire and the resources of the nation were never stronger than at this moment, but our power does not lie on the surface. It is deep-seated, and the causes which we have to inquire into if they are temporary and removable must be inquired into with a view to their being removed.

I feel sure that no obstacle will be thrown in the way, but that the Government will welcome an inquiry in any form which may be agreeable to the House and which will enable us to discover the causes of the difficulty, and to remove them. There is one consideration which occurs to me, and that is that of “inadequate preparation.” Is that one of the principal causes for our difficulties? I would rather say it is not so much inadequate preparation as the insufficient estimate of the forces arrayed against us.

In the case of the Crimean war the preparations were inadequate for any war, but I doubt if we were ever so well prepared to undertake a campaign on a certain scale as when this war broke out three months ago. If there was a fault it was the under-estimate of the forces arrayed against us, and it will be for us to consider how the under-estimate arose. There are many factors to be considered, some of which are new, but I think that we shall find—or, at any rate, it so appears to me—that those factors in themselves were to a certain extent foreseen, and that there was some knowledge of them. But the result of the combination of all those factors and the strength of the enemy, from a defensive point of view, which we had to engage, was not foreseen or measured, so far as I am aware, by any person.

The want of prophetic power was not confined to the Government alone, it was common to the country as a whole. That, at all events, was the impression at which I arrived in this House three months ago: that nobody on this or that side of the House, or in the country, had measured the strength of the enemy arrayed against us or, if so, the expressions of opinion were few and far between.

Who could have realised that this campaign would resolve itself into the taking of a series of natural fortresses of enormous strength, ably defended by troops of unexampled mobility, instructed by Continental experts, and armed with the most perfect weapons ever used in warfare? It is perhaps difficult to realise how small a factor will determine success or failure. Such a thing as a barbed wire fence may easily turn a victory into a defeat, and to sum up all these factors is almost impossible after fifty years of peace, which we have passed through, when many of these factors are to a large extent unknown.

There has been some criticism in which I as an artilleryman feel particularly interested. Our field guns have been condemned on all sides because they are of less range than the guns of the enemy; but one thing has been forgotten, and that is that our field guns have been compared with guns of the enemy, which are guns of position and not field guns at all, and for an artilleryman to estimate the efficiency of a field gun solely by its range is—I should look on as very much the same thing as a pressman who would judge the merits of a newspaper solely by its circulation. The situation is a most grave one, but it has its better side: I do not think that the resources of our opponents were immediately realised.

The Boer Republic had formed itself into a vast military machine, every part of which was perfect; our military machine was imperfect in the sense that our resources had not been called together. Is it therefore any wonder that the smaller perfect machine should for the moment be successful? But we have resources, and I hope that this House will support the Government in bringing every one of those resources into action to bring about our supremacy. They are only just now coming into play, and although we have now been checked more than once, when once the ring is broken the collapse may be as sudden as our progress, up to the present, has been slow.

The last struggle for the relief of Ladysmith, it was hoped, would be the beginning of the end, as it is it is only the end of the beginning. But this House has not only to consider the cause of the difficulty, but the cause and the motive which led up to the war itself. Here I am on very delicate ground, and it would not become me in the duty I have to perform to-day to examine the questions which have been, and which will have to be, discussed here; but I should like to make one observation. Although some may attribute a motive to this or that person or politician, I think we may all agree that the national motive for this war is a pure and just one.

The motive which has for centuries animated this country, and which animates it now, is that we shall obtain justice and freedom for all races and all creeds. That is the great stream in which our national sentiment has run in the past and is running now. It will always occur that where there is a great stream of pure water there will be draining into it streams which are not so pure as the river itself, and no doubt uses will be made and motives attributed that do not exist.

The motive that animates us here, and the House and country generally, is to restore peace and freedom to all throughout South Africa. So far as I have observed that is the motive animating us all, and although we may have to engage our attention with that legislation which we are more accustomed to consider, our hearts will be with our soldiers in South Africa. But that is no reason why we should not consider other measures. We have submitted to us to-day no measures of heroic legislation or costly legislation. The only costly legislation will be the estimates for the war in South Africa.

Last year the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer asked for a vote of eight millions. He would be a bold man who would say how much we shall be asked for this session. But whatever is asked for I hope will be cheerfully given. We cannot set money against the lives of our fellow subjects now being risked in South Africa. We shall be asked to sanction measures of improving and remodelling the Companies Act, and that a matter we shall gladly do because we know the loss which is suffered by those who are induced to part with their money under false pretences by fraudulent companies.

Another measure we shall be asked to consider is what is called an Agricultural Holdings Bill, and anything that this House can do towards the improvement of our agriculture will be greatly welcomed. We have, however, to remember that the conditions of our agricultural industry, vary greatly in different parts of the country. We have also to consider the incoming tenant as well as the outgoing, tenant. Sir, the situation before us is indeed a serious and a difficult one. It is, perhaps, the most serious and, perhaps, the most difficult situation which this country has had to face since the earliest years of the century. This is, indeed, a momentous session.

Our, ill-wishers, we know, are looking eagerly for any signs of weakness, of vacillation, or of disunion within these walls. On the other hand, the country, and the Empire in arms, are looking to us to express their unanimous determination to bring this struggle to a successful issue. Now, Sir, I need hardly ask the House to which of these we should afford satisfaction. The question can have but one answer. Therefore, I trust that the touchstone of all criticism will be not party advantage, but the needs and necessities of the Empire.