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The Right Honourable Sir Francis H. D. Bell, P.C., G.C.M.G., K.C.,: His Life and Times

Chapter XII. — The World War, 1914

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Chapter XII.
The World War, 1914.

Massey's unique record—Bell and Sir John Salmond—War legislation—Death of Captain Bell—A Ministerial crisis— Conflict over convoy for troop-ships.


Massey held the unique distinction of being the only pre-War Prime Minister who carried on all through the War and into the period of reconstruction, holding office until his death. New Zealand was fortunate in having as her leader this man, who faced the long strain of the War and its many problems with invincible tenacity, and who at the Imperial Conferences and the Peace Conference impressed the statesmen of the old world by his honest patriotism and manly virtues.

But New Zealand was also fortunate in such a crisis in having in her service a man of the calibre of Sir Francis Bell, who as time went on earned for himself a high reputation as an Imperial statesman. He was to serve as Leader of the Legislative Council for a longer period than any of his predecessors since the foundation of Parliamentary Government in New Zealand.

In framing the intricate and novel legislation that was required to cope with various internal and external problems, the work was shared between Sir Francis Bell and the Solicitor-General, Sir John Salmond.

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These two men worked together in a fine spirit of co-operation and mutual understanding. In the absence of Bell, New Zealand was brilliantly represented by Salmond at the Washington Naval Conference of 1922. His fame as a jurist was world-wide, and on many occasions Bell paid generous tribute to the unique value of Salmond's work. He regarded him as the finest jurist south of the line. I may anticipate events to quote here Bell's tribute to Salmond in 1921:

"We are extremely fortunate," said Bell, "in having had Sir John Salmond as the legal adviser of the Government at the time of the signing of the Treaty of Peace, and this country—and I think I may also say the Mother-country—is greatly indebted to that great constitutional lawyer for the legal knowledge which he devoted to the initiation of our civil government of this dependency (Samoa). I would ask honourable gentlemen to think for themselves what might have been the position had we not fortunately had his expert guidance.

"It is a signal tribute to the estimation in which that great constitutional lawyer is held beyond our shores that this Imperial Order in Council, as drafted by him and telegraphed to London, was accepted by the great lawyers of England and by the Privy Council without one word of alteration. Not only are our own legislation and our own Orders in Council due to his minute particular care, but actually the authority of His Majesty in Council was drafted by Sir John Salmond here and accepted by His Majesty's advisers in London. I do not think a greater tribute has ever been paid to a colonial lawyer."

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Bell himself was a great parliamentary draftsman. On one occasion he was engaged in preparing a private Bill of a highly technical nature which was to settle a long-standing dispute between various groups. When the parties had spent some hours explaining their view to Bell, they assumed that he would require a few days to draft the legislation. But he forthwith called in a typist and dictated the whole Bill while the parties listened in astonishment. When the task was completed no one was able to suggest the slightest alteration. The Bill was perfect.

On another occasion Sir Francis objected to a Bill drafted by the Chief Law Draftsman (Mr. Christie) on the ground that it was too simple and direct. He asserted that he was not prepared to have the statute-book "looking like a child's copy-book." Christie replied that he had a good precedent in some of Sir John Salmond's short and direct sentences. Bell waived him aside with the impatient remark that "Sir John Salmond was sometimes absurd in his simplicity." But he was not always consistent. During the War Mr. Christie drafted the National Service Regulations (for conscripting, inter alios, Jugo-Slavs resident in New Zealand). Bell said he wished the regulations to be so plain and straightforward that not only "the man but his wife also should be able to read and understand them."

A good instance of Bell's skill as a draftsman occurred almost immediately after the declaration of war. His Mortgages Extension Act, 1914, which suspended the right of the mortgagee to call up his mortgage without the leave of the Court, was the first Act relating to the War. It was hurriedly drawn, but page 108it was soon copied and adopted by other countries, which, as Bell said, was the sincerest form of flattery. The Act was extended from time to time, and even after the War it was continued owing to the fact that the raising of War loans had so greatly reduced the moneys available for investment in loans that it was almost impossible for a mortgagor to borrow money to pay for his existing debt.

There is no need to detail the various items of War legislation which followed in rapid succession dealing with banking, finance, commerce, the Expeditionary Forces, and other problems. All these Bills Bell helped to mould and expound with his usual lucidity. In the first year of the War, while the fires of patriotic enthusiasm were burning fiercely, neither Parliament nor the people were tolerant of criticism, and as it was still popularly believed that the War would be of short duration, every one acquiesced in whatever the Government proposed. Bell was conscious of this change of attitude. The Legislative Council had up to the outbreak of the War indulged in "more than substantial criticism and sometimes severe opposition," but he recorded the fact that when War was declared, one of his severest critics came over to him and said, "Take it from me we are all behind you now."*

In August, 1915, Bell wrote to General Godley: "Gradually we are beginning to believe that even 1916 may not see the end of this War—gradually to see what long training and preparation means to a nation. Only I hope we shall not become savage and unscrupulous in hatred—that is the danger. We are all here as anxious as men can be about you and

* Volume 238, p. 214, 1914.

page 109your Force and the desperate work you are engaged in. One has always before one's mind the memories of Walcheren, and the power and strength of your enemy in his position is evident from the slow progress of an army which contains so fine a body of fighting men as yours. It is good to read what you and other Imperial officers write of the quality and temper of our New Zealand men. To-day we have the news of the sinking of a transport with large reinforcements in the Aegean, and it brings home the danger to your sea-lines of communication and the provision of food and munitions."


Mr. W. H. D. Bell, son of Sir Francis Bell, who represented Wellington Suburbs in Parliament, was the first New Zealand member of Parliament to enlist for the War. He joined the advance party of New Zealand soldiers who left for Samoa in August, 1914. This small force had the honour of being the first troops of the Empire to take possession of German territory. At a later date Mr. W. H. D. Bell left for England and served with King Edward's Horse in France. He was mentioned in despatches. He was killed in action in July, 1917. He was a young man of great promise, and his speeches during his short career were marked by originality and ability of an unusual order. The death of his son came as a tragic blow to Bell in the midst of his heavy duties in Cabinet and Parliament. In his speech at the end of the session he acknowledged the kindness and consideration of the Council, "at a time during the session when a page 110sense of personal sorrow and loss almost obliterated for me the obligation of public duty."*

Bell's third son, Ernest, served as a trooper with the New Zealand Mounted Infantry, and his fourth son, Cheviot, served with the 10th Royal Hussars and the Royal Flying Corps, and was also mentioned in despatches.

Bell's daughters were all engaged in War activities. Mrs. Iris Rolleston was in charge of the Soldiers Hospital at "Taumaru," Lowry Bay, and was awarded the C.B.E. Miss Enid Bell served at Walton-on-Thames Hospital, and afterwards drove an ambulance in France; later, she served as a driver with the W.R.N.S. in England, and, as such, was present at the surrender of the German Fleet. She was awarded the British Empire medal. Miss Violet Bell (afterwards Mrs. Geoffry Denniston) also served at Walton-on-Thames hospital, and later with the Base Records of the N.Z.E.F. in France. She was awarded the M.B.E. Mrs. Johnston remained in New Zealand to manage the farm of her husband Harold (now Mr. Justice Johnston) who was then serving in the ranks of the London Scottish Regiment in France.


Something approaching a ministerial crisis occurred in October, 1914, when the first Expeditionary Force was about to leave New Zealand. The popular story is that the Governor-General, Lord Liverpool, in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief, ordered the transports to put to sea with what the Cabinet considered an inadequate escort, and that Massey thereupon told Lord

* Volume 181, p. 657.

page 111Liverpool, that if he insisted on this course he would have to find another Prime Minister. The story was partly true, but was unjust to Lord Liverpool, and when it was repeated many years later (in 1925) in the Legislative Council,* Sir Francis Bell made a statement in which he defended Lord Liverpool.

According to Bell's narrative, two transports actually left Auckland before the end of September under a small convoy of our own naval force, to cross the Tasman Sea to Australia. They were recalled almost immediately because the Government had reason to doubt whether the Tasman was safe from the German warships—the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau.

This doubt was not shared by the British Admiralty. Its proposal was that the New Zealand transports should cross over to Australia as soon as possible and there join the Australian troopships. The flagship of the China squadron, the Minotaur, and the Japanese battleship, the Ibuki, were at that time off the Australian coast. The proposal was that the Australian and New Zealand troopships should join forces and proceed urgently under convoy to the Suez Canal where an enemy attack was expected. It was very difficult to divert forces from Europe to the defence of the Canal, and it was believed that the Australian and New Zealand forces would be invaluable at that danger point. Now, if the two battleships Minotaur and Ibuki had first to proceed to New Zealand to convoy our troopships to Australia, this would occupy at least a fortnight and valuable time would be lost. Lord Liverpool was therefore being urged by the Admiralty to bring every pressure he could in the way of argument

* See speech by Hon. M. Cohen, Hansard, Vol. 206, p. 55 and p. 301.

page 112to bear on the New Zealand Government to hasten the despatch of the New Zealand transports to Australia without this delay. The Admiralty was confident that there was no danger in the Tasman Sea, and that they knew where the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were.

"Well, Sir," said Bell, "the late Mr. Massey and his Government took the view that the Admiralty's grounds for their confidence was insufficient, and adhered to their decision, with the result that it did come to the point that Mr. Massey did, I believe, say —although I was not present—that if Lord Liverpool, as Commander-in-Chief, pressed that request, he would have to find another Prime Minister to carry his point. It was not His Excellency, Lord Liverpool's point; he was merely doing his duty in pressing the fact that time was of the essence at the moment, and that the Admiralty were absolutely able to assure us that there was no danger of the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau being in the Tasman Sea."


In the above narrative Bell says nothing about the fact that he was the prime mover in insisting on a proper convoy, and that in fact he tendered his resignation some time before Mr. Massey threatened to resign. Mr. F. M. B. Fisher, who was a Cabinet Minister at the time, has kindly supplied me with some notes of the part played by Bell. According to his narrative, when the main Expeditionary Force was about to leave, the British Government was asked through the Colonial Office for an adequate convoy. The reply was that no convoy was available and the New Zealand Government was bluntly told that if the transports were not page 113sent without convoy the responsibility rested with the New Zealand Government for failure to despatch the New Zealand Army to Egypt. The matter was so important that the Governor-General (Lord Liverpool) took the unprecedented course of meeting Cabinet and taking a vote on what should be done.

"Sir Francis Bell was furious," says Mr. Fisher, "with the attitude and tone of the Colonial Office telegrams. He was horrified at the thought of sending over 8,000 of our young men on a perilous voyage to Australia without adequate precautions. He begged and beseeched us collectively and individually not to agree. He informed Massey in plain and outspoken terms, that if Cabinet despatched the Force he would at once resign. He was deeply moved. Other Ministers pointed out that we had promised Britain every man, every shilling, and every gun, and we could not quibble over the advice of the British Government. A vote of the Cabinet was taken and it was decided to send out the ships. Bell wrote out his resignation, handed it to Massey, and left the Cabinet room."

On September 24, two of the transports left Auckland under convoy of a small and almost obsolete ship, H.M.S. Philomel, the intention being that these ships should join up with the rest of the expedition leaving from other New Zealand ports.

"It wasn't pleasant for any of us," Mr. Fisher says, "I think we all had a feeling that we had done wrong, but it was the only course we could take … I was working in my room at the Ministry of Marine in the small hours of the morning. The transports (from Auckland) had now been at sea about fifteen page 114hours. Suddenly I was summoned to Mr. Massey's room. I found him sitting at the head of the Cabinet table, his head on his hands, and great beads of perspiration standing out on his large head. Without a word he pointed to a telegram on the table. It was from the Governor-General of Australia (Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson) and was to this effect:

'If your transports have already left advise recall. Am advised German warships probably in New Zealand waters.' A wire of recall was at once despatched."

At early dawn Mr. Fisher went to the house of Sir Francis Bell, and advised him that the ships were returning.

"Bell was most deeply affected, and tears of thankfulness and gratitude streamed down his face. That he had been right and we all wrong was not a point to give him any satisfaction at all."

When the British Admiralty still refused to admit that an adequate escort was necessary, the Prime Minister tendered the resignation of himself and his colleagues.

This produced the desired effect. Finally, the whole expedition left Wellington on October 16, escorted by H.M.S. Minotaur, Psyche, and Philomel, and the Japanese cruiser, Ibuki. Mr. Fisher adds:

"Never once did I hear Sir Francis Bell boast or gloat over this crisis wherein he had displayed such fine, firm, strong judgment. Many years later I told him I was going to put this incident on record to his honour and credit. He said, 'Please don't—it's all over and forgotten and in any case nobody would be interested'."

It should be added that Captain Hall-Thompson, page 115C.M.G., R.N., in the New Zealand Official History of the War, says that, on September 24, H.M.S. Philomel left Auckland in charge of transports Nos. 8 and 12, but was ordered to return during the night owing to rumours of enemy danger in the Tasman Sea. "It is now known," he adds, "that the rumoured danger did not exist, and that the German cruisers were nowhere in the vicinity."

A curious incident is recorded by Mr. Fisher about the earlier despatch of the Samoan Expeditionary Force on August 15, 1914, eleven days after the outbreak of War. The story begins on August 6, when the British Secretary of State for War cabled, "If your Ministers desire and feel themselves able to seize the German wireless station at Samoa we should feel that this was a great and urgent Imperial service …" But when a cable was sent to the Colonial Office to ascertain what German forces and defences existed in Samoa, Sir Lewis Harcourt (later Lord Harcourt) replied to the amazement of the New Zealand Cabinet that the War Office advised "for information regarding the defences of Samoa see Whitaker's Almanac"! A search of this publication afforded no information and Cabinet was alarmed at the idea of sending a force to Samoa under the convoy of Philomel, Psyche, and Pyramus. [Captain Hall-Thompson says:

"At this time it was known that a large German naval force was in the Pacific although its exact location was uncertain. Had they become aware of the Expeditionary Force leaving New Zealand, the strength of the convoying ships would not have been sufficient to resist the Germans for five minutes"]

Mr. Fisher proceeds to say that as Cabinet could get no page 116satisfaction from the Colonial Office the advice was sought of Admiral Patey, H.M.A.S. Australia. He advised against sending out the force, but later agreed to pick the transports up at a rendezvous 200 miles east of Gisborne. On this assurance the transports sailed but were not met at the rendezvous. As the use of wireless was not permitted, neither Cabinet nor anyone else in New Zealand knew till later that the Expedition crossed to Noumea with only the convoy stated by Captain Hall-Thompson. It is said the transports missed the German cruisers by less than fifteen miles as was proved by the time at which the Noumean cable was cut by the German ships. Mr. Fisher says, had the facts been known, "it would have aroused a perfectly justifiable frenzy of criticism."

At a later date Mr. Fisher took an opportunity in England of inspecting the reports from Admiral Patey. It appears that he advised the Admiralty that the Samoan Force should not leave without a strong escort.

"During the night of August 16," says Admiral Patey, "I received information from the Admiralty that the New Zealand Expedition for Samoa had actually started. I did not think the Expedition would have started before I was ready to meet it nor did I contemplate that the Australian Expedition for New Guinea would have started until after the New Zealand Expedition had been safely landed. I now found myself with two Expeditions to convoy and therefore had to relinquish all other operations."

By great good fortune the perilous voyage to Noumea was accomplished and with the additional convoy of the Australia and Montcalm proceeded to Samoa.