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Wednesday, 27 April 1921

Senator PEARCE (Western Australia) (Minister for Defence) . - It is rather difficult for me to know just what I am to reply to; whether to the unfortunate fault of my limited reading or my inability to draw correct deductions from what I have read. But I can assure Senator Elliott that I did not intend to convey the impression that I had read only the book referred to by him. I merely gave that as one authority. I could have quoted many others, and have shown that General Elliott was not quite correct in assuming that I had made wrong deductions. I have read the Book of Joshua, but on the strength of that I did not suggest to the officer commanding Australian Imperial Force that he should command the sun to stand still. I have read the Biblical story cf Samson slaying the Philistines with the jawbone of an ass, but again I did not propose to arm the Australian. Imperial Force with asses' jawbones. Then, again, I have read the story of David killing Goliath with a sling, but still I would not suggest, on the strength of that story, arming the Australian Imperial Force with shanghais. I endeavoured to apply common sense to the subject of training and handling the Australian Imperial Force. But this, after all, does not appear to be the gravamen of the charge made by Senator Elliott. The gravamen of the charge is that on the appointment of General Birdwood to the command of the Australian Imperial Force I gave him uncontrolled power over the troops under his command, requiring from him only success to justify anything that he did. That is a travesty, an absolute travesty of what I said. This is my statement as to what I said to General Bridges, who had been appointed to the command of the First Division : - "You will find that, as regards the choice of your subordinate officers and appointments to commands, I shall give you a free hand. The Government will judge you by the results which are obtained in the training camps, and in the field, and if the time should ever come when wethink you are unfitted for your present command, we shall recall you. But while you are there, we shall not interfere with you."

I added -

When General Birdwood was appointed to command the Australian Imperial Force, I wrote him a letter in similar terms. From the commencement to the close of the war, I. never interfered with General Birdwood or with General Bridges either, in the matter of their appointments, or in the disposition of their commands.

That does not indicate that I authorized General Birdwood to suspend the right of appeal which every officer has under the Army Act. Therefore to say that my statement gave General Birdwood power to supersede the Army Act is a travesty, and I am surprised that the honorable senator, with his legal training, should read that meaning into my words.

Senator Elliott - It had that effect at all events.

Senator PEARCE - Neither did it have that effect in the very instancewhich Senator Elliott has brought before the Senate so repeatedly. I may also remind him that the letter which he quoted from General White, and which he gave us to understand was received on the eve of the offensive of August 8th and 9th, was, according to his statement this afternoon, written in May, so that he had from May until August in which to make up his mind to appeal, without interfering in any way with the preparations for the August offensive.

Senator Elliott - We were fighting all the time.

Senator PEARCE - General Elliott did not avail himself of his opportunity to appeal. Neither does the letter written by General White imply that General Birdwood assumed he had any power from me or anybody else to prevent General Elliott from appealing under the' Army Act if he thought fit to do so. What General White's letter does point out is that there was no supersession. General Elliott would have us believe that he had been superseded owing to a bias against him, and that it was an entirely personal matter. But there were other officers whom I could name as being superseded, if I may employ the term used by General Elliott. I hope that they will not be offended if I name them, but they are very distinguished and capable officers. I refer to Generals McNicoi and Tivey, both of whom were senior to General Elliott, and both of whom were passed over when Generals Glasgow and Gellibrand were selected for the Divisional Commands. Therefore, the charge of bias made by General Elliott falls to the ground because these officers, who were senior to General Elliott, had not complained of supersession.

Senator Elliott - They knew there was no hope.

Senator PEARCE -On the ground of seniority they had much stronger claim for the Divisional Commands.

Senator Foll - But seniority is not the main factor.

Senator PEARCE - It is not a factor at all outside of the regimental list. As General White pointed out, and as General Elliott knew, promotion outside of the regimental list is by selection, and the Commander-in-Chief uses the discretionary power invested in him. In this case he made his choice over three Citizen Force officers and a permanent officer as well.

Senator PRATTEN (NEW SOUTH WALES) - Does not the Minister admit that it was unfortunate, to say the least, that a threat was made against General Elliott?

Senator PEARCE - No threat was made.

Senator PRATTEN (NEW SOUTH WALES) - He says yes.

Senator PEARCE - General White's letter is to this effect -

Your letter has greatly pained me: but I refrain from a detailed reply, as I hope to substitute a visit to you, and perhaps you may wish to withdraw something of what you have written. There are one or two points upon which I must touch. . . . Supersession is an act which is only possible within an established unit - the battalion, to wit. Once an officer is out of the regimental list his future employment is determined by selection, and if he is not selected he is not informed of the fact.

General White went on to say -

Do you think that any one doubts your courage? No one in the AustralianImperial Force, I assure you. Or your ability? It is well known. But you mar it by not keeping your judgment under complete control.

I am inclined to think that Senator Elliott is falling into the same error in Australia. Another extract from General White's letter, quoted by Senator Elliott, was as follows : -

Finally, you actually threaten me with political influence.

Senator E D MILLEN (NEW SOUTH WALES) - Then there was a threat.

Senator PEARCE - Senator Elliott's letter to General White was not so much a request for the right of appeal to the Minister for Defence as an intimation that if the matter were gone on with lie was going to appeal to the Parliament and press of this country. This is what General White said in reply -

You have obviously written hurriedly, and I am therefore not going to regard your letter as written. But let me say this: If the decision rested with me-

I remind the Senate that this is not General Birdwood who is writing to Senator Elliott. It is General White, aaAustralian officer writing . to a fellowAustralian officer: -

If the decision rested with me I should send you off to Australia without the least hesitation if, calmly and deliberately,you repeated your assertion to seek political aid. And if you managed to raise a dozen political and " military " enquiries, I would fight you to a stand-still on them.

Let honorable senators read that, calmly and ask themselves wherein lies the threat. The letter penned by General White was kindly advice, such as

General Elliott would have been well advised to accept in the same spirit. I do not believe that General White then - I am sure he has not now - had the slightest animus towards General Elliott, for whom, indeed, he has the greatest admiration.

The PRESIDENT (Senator the Hon T Givens - Order ! The Minister is out of order in continuing a general discussion upon his instructions to General Birdwood. I must ask him to desist.

Senator PEARCE - I shallrespect your wishes, Mr. President, and not follow this phase of the subject further, but I do ask Senator Elliott to read what I have said as reported in Hansard. If he does, he will see that he has misrepresented entirely the substance of my remarks. I could, perhaps, give instances which would convince Senator Elliott that we did by no means hand over the Australian ImperialForce body and soul, and wash our hands of them. Other members of the Senate who acted as Assistant Ministers of Defence during the war know that the welfare of our troops repeatedly came up for consideration in Cabinet. They know that during the early period of the war the question of placing our troops on Salisbury Plain for training was dealt with, and that one of the things that determined the Government to select Egypt was the belief that it would be unwise to send our troops directly from Australia and plant them in the Salisbury Plain Camp in the middle of winter.

SenatorFoll.-But Egypt was worse.

Senator PEARCE - No, it was not. It may have been unpleasant, but from a health point of view it was much better than Salisbury Plain in the middle of winter. In connexion with the supply of food and rations, the condition of transports, the boots the troops were to wear, and a variety of other matters, the Government frequently interfered throughout the course of the war, and insisted on certain things being done. It is quite beside the mark for Senator Elliott to read into my' statement the suggestion that I. simply handed over the troops body and soul to General Birdwood, and surrendered all power with respect to them. We did not do so, nor did we give General Birdwood any power orright to sus pend the Defence Act in connexion with our troops. In proof of this, I need only inform honorable senators that during the war the question of the penalty for desertion from the Australian, Imperial Force came up, and the Government were asked by the General Officer Commanding the British Forces to consent to the death penalty for desertion. We refused to do so. That question came up on more than, one occasion. Under the Army Act, the penalty provided for desertion is death, but under our Defence Act that penalty is not provided, and, rightly or wrongly, the Government decided that in this matter they would stand by the provisions of our Defence Act.

Senator Duncan - Rightly so.

Senator PEARCE -If I had time, I might refer to numberless instances to show that the Government never gave up their power over our troops, nor did I give up my power over them. I say, further, that General Birdwood never was under the impression that I surrendered my power over them.

Senator Elliott - Then, why does the Minister say that he will not question the acts of General Birdwood now?

Senator PEARCE - I gave the reason when referring to this matter before. It is impossible at this juncture to review such matters, because of the necessary witnesses whose evidence would be required to decide them; many are dead, and others are scattered to the four corners of the earth. It is impossible for us in the circumstances to judge such matters. I take the very question of supersession which has been raised by Senator Elliott. Is there any member of the Senate competent at this juncture to review what was done by General Birdwood and say that he was not justified in appointing some other officer rather than General Elliott? General Elliott was not superseded. The question of supersession did not come in. It was merely a question of selection. How are we now to decide that General Birdwood was wrong in selecting General Gellibrand or General Sir Thomas Glasgow, and that he should have selected General Elliott? I frankly confess that I am not competent to decide such a matter, whatever other honorable senators may think. For all I know, General Elliott was the right man to select, but I was not competent to make the selection, especially as I would have had to do so sitting here in Australia, whilst! the 'difficulty was raised on the' other* side of the world. I do not wish to say anymore' on the. motion, except that. Senator Elliott ' has quite misunderstood what I have said, and I advise him to drop this matter, and say that if he does, so he will do himself more, justice.

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