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Chapter XXVI, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 8 page 2


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Although the Conference had closed, Count Buol persisted in thinking that he could devise terms of peace. He had pledged himself to discover such terms, and when the British Government pressed upon Austria the fulfilment of the treaty of December, the answer was that Count Buol was engaged in his search after a satisfactory measure of pacification. Now it happened that, although the Western Powers were not adverse to an honourable peace which they did not believe Russia would grant, they were extremely desirous to obtain the active support of Austria in the war. Therefore Count Buol went on with his search, and by the middle of May he had hit upon a scheme so weak and ineffective that the allies warned him beforehand they could not assent to it. This scheme contained the guarantee of independence and integrity for Turkey; maintained the principle that the Straits should be closed, but gave the contracting powers the right of keeping two frigates in the Black Sea; laid it down that Turkey and Russia should agree as to what force they would maintain there, the amount not to exceed, on either side, the force of Russian vessels then (May, 1855) afloat in the Euxine; and stipulated that this agreement should form an integral part of the treaty. Subsequently an article was added whereby Austria bound herself to regard as a casus belli such additions to the Russian fleet in the Black Sea as would bring it up to the number existing in 1853! As the Western Powers would not agree to any such proposals, Austria declared that she had fulfilled her part; that Russia was now no longer exclusively to blame for the failure of negotiations; that Austria regarded herself as absolved from her pledge in the treaty of December 2nd, and that she had nothing to do but wish success to the allies. So the great central German Power shuffled out of her engagements; and it cannot be doubted that one of her reasons for so acting was to be found in the fact that the flag of Italy was waving in the breezes of the Crimea. There was a meeting of the Conference on the 4th of June, called solely that Austria might record her propositions, and place herself in a position to say that she had redeemed her promises. The only result of it was this: it enabled Prince Gortschakoff to boast that Austria had proposed bases which she deemed sufficient, but which her allies deemed insufficient, and thus to placard the dissension in the allied camp. Such were the conferences at Vienna in 1855. The allies had agreed to them solely at the instance of Austria, and because she had made her active co-operation in the war depend upon the failure of attempts to conclude peace on the terms agreed upon between the Three Powers. The allies were, therefore, discredited in the eyes of Europe by their complaisance towards Austria; but although she gained her end, which was to evade the obligations she had undertaken of her own free will, the conferences served to show Europe more clearly than ever that Alexander was as obstinately bent as Nicholas upon maintaining Russian preponderance in the Black Sea.

But, in fact, no such conferences should have been held. The only effective mode of negotiating for peace was by prosecuting the war until Sebastopol fell, and the last Russian ship sank beneath the surface of the harbour.

The conferences had nevertheless important results. In the first place, they made manifest the dogged persistence of Russia in the policy of Peter and Catherine. In the next place, they finally convinced the Western Powers that it was useless to pursue the receding phantom of an active Austrian alliance. Thirdly, they liberated the allies from the fetters of the Four Points, and enabled them to declare that they held themselves free to propose those or any other conditions of peace which might be deemed expedient by them. Lastly, the conferences were fatal to the official existence of a Minister in France and England.

There was something enervating in the atmosphere of Vienna; for, as the Conference proceeded, the spirit and firmness with which M. Drouyn de Lhuys and Lord John Russell began their task diminished visibly. Lord John became painfully conscious that Austria would not propose or support any efficacious plan to abrogate Russian preponderance in the Black Sea, if the support he gave led her into war. " The occupation of the Principalities by Russia," he wrote to his Cabinet, "she felt to be dangerous to her existence as a great power, and she risked a war to put an end to it. But that point accomplished, I fear we must not count upon her aid to save Constantinople from the encroaching ambition of Russia." This is the language of despair. England and France could continue the war, "but the waste of life and money would be enormous." This was written on the 16th of April. On the 17th Lord John had become so down-hearted that he consented to support the Austrian proposal fixing the Russian maximum at the force possessed by Russia before the war. If this, which would have sacrificed the whole of the exertions of the allies, could have been made an ultimatum by Austria, he thought the "Western Powers should accept it. The Western Powers had resolved not to sink so low. M. Drouyn de Lhuys, who was equally despondent and submissive, went home and resigned, because he had compromised his Government by giving even a qualified assent to terms so disastrous. Lord John Russell went home, pleaded his cause in the Cabinet, and being overruled, did not resign. He remained in office, and, on the first opportunity, made a speech, not in favour of his Vienna views, but in favour of " the vigorous prosecution of the war."

The resignation of the French Minister of Foreign Affairs did not pass without comment. The reason soon became apparent, and it was broadly stated that Lord John Russell himself had participated in the line of action adopted by M. Drouyn de Lhuys at Vienna. Count Buol himself, resenting the publication of the protocols of the Conference, issued a circular in which he stated that the English plenipotentiary had supported the Austrian scheme of pacification. Then followed the publication, by the British Government, of several dispatches, showing clearly the course taken by the English plenipotentiary and the English Cabinet; and in July Mr. Milner Gibson brought the conduct of Lord John under the notice of the House, and demanded explanations. Lord John explained and defended the course he had taken; but not to the satisfaction of any one. The public feeling was strong; and the Opposition, taking advantage of the incident, Sir Edward Lytton gave notice of a motion censuring the whole of the Government. In the meantime there was a commotion in the Ministerial ranks. The Minister then offered to resign, and in answer Lord Palmerston frankly said that it was for Lord John to judge; but if he determined not to resign, then the Cabinet would stand by him. But Lord John was informed that a large number cf the Liberals could not resist the motion, and, to save himself from censure and the Government from defeat, he resigned. Thus the Opposition was foiled. The resignation did not prevent a debate, although it prevented a division; and Lord John, having six months before broken up one Ministry by a rapid retreat, now saved another by a similar manoeuvre. This may be called the climax of the ill- fated Vienna Conference of 1855.

During the course of the session the Opposition had done what it considered to be its duty, as a body of critics on the proceedings of the Government. It was well known to Mr. Disraeli that, independently of the purely party votes he could command, a number of gentlemen of various opinions, if they did not vote with him, would at least help him to damage the Cabinet. When, therefore, in the middle of May, Mr. Milner Gibson gave notice of a motion in favour of peace, Mr. Disraeli promptly took it out of his hands, with his full consent, and framed a resolution, which, while it censured the Government for its ambiguous language and uncertain conduct in reference to the great question of peace or war, yet promised to give Her Majesty every support in the prosecution of the war until a safe and honourable peace had been obtained. Ignorant, or professing to be ignorant of the real conduct of the Government in the negotiations, he affected to believe that the country was drifting into an ignominious peace, and, in a speech of ambiguous import and uncertain aim, devoted mainly to an attack upon Lord John Russell, he stigmatised the conduct of Ministers by declaring that they carried on an aggressive war and a protective diplomacy, so that the one neutralised the other. But it was seen that this was a purely party attack, devised for the purpose of a party field day, and that its only chance of success lay in the barely possible union of the genuine peace party and the ultra war party with the followers of Lord Derby, whose views were by no means clear. The House of Commons were not of a mind to be trifled with. The country was for the war, and had no confidence in the Tories, who, as Mr. Lowe said, kept their patriotism for their speeches and reserved their votes for faction. Accordingly, Mr. Disraeli's motion was rejected by 319 to 219; and when Lord Grey made a similar motion in the House of Peers, Lord Derby would not even divide the House upon it, so plainly was the general conviction against it. Nevertheless the debates in the House of Commons - debates raised upon amendments to Mr. Disraeli's motion - went on for several days, revealing the true character of the different sections, and showing the inadequate views of the objects at stake which many had formed. Mr. Bright and Mr. Cobden thought Russia had a claim to preponderance in the Black Sea. Mr. Sidney Herbert, Mr. Gladstone, Sir James Graham, and their friends declared that the negotiations had been broken off on a question of "terms," mere phrases, a few ships more or less; that enough had been done to show that Russia could not be dominant in Europe; and that the wretched propositions of Count Buol were adequate bases of a safe and honourable peace. Thus it was seen that the Aberdeen section of the Aberdeen Cabinet had entered on the war with Very feeble views of what it involved, and a dread of attempting any real reduction of Russian power. The exception to this was the brilliant one of the Duke of Newcastle, who, from the first, had the foresight to see and the hardihood to declare that Sebastopol was the standing menace to Turkey, and the object at which the allies should aim. There, under the shelter of formidable forts, lay the accumulated military stores of a quarter of a century; there lay the fleet which could domineer in the Black Sea, and suddenly transport an army to the Bosphorus, or lend essential aid to an army advancing on Constantinople, either through Asia or Europe. It was an instinctive sense that the destruction of this aggressive stronghold was the thing which the allies should resolve to accomplish that made the British people so heartily support the war, which threw doubt and hesitation into the Tory ranks, and enabled the Government to triumph, not only over its professed enemies on the Opposition benches, but its late friends on its own side. But while we lament the defective judgment and blindness of the Peelites, and the utter incapacity to understand the dynamics of the question displayed by the peace at any price party, we are bound to admire and applaud the courage of both. They did their duty bravely - for it is the duty of the chief men of a nation to speak out; and no nation is well-served in which the chief men, yielding to menace or succumbing to apathy, withhold their opinions in moments of great trial. The debates on the policy of the war, on the conduct of the war and of the negotiations, ended by rallying a larger support than ever to the Government; for even the leading Tories admitted that the war was so just that the Government ought not to have avoided it if they could, and so necessary that they could not have avoided it if they would; while no less a person than Lord Derby, allowing his judgment to get the better of his party feeling, insisted that it would be humiliation for England and Prance to retire from the contest baffled before Sebastopol.

Nevertheless, when the Government proposed to become a joint guarantee with France for a loan of 5,000,000 to be contracted by Turkey, Mr. Disraeli, who had, earlier in the session, cavilled at a loan of 2,000,000 to Sardinia, now, seeing a prospect of obtaining a majority by a surprise, divided the House against the project, and was only defeated by a majority of three. Yet the propriety of both measures was manifest. We wanted the aid of 15,000 Sardinian troops, and it was not too much for so small a State to ask us to lend her the means of setting them fairly on the theatre of war. In the same way the war had disordered more deeply the deeply involved finances of Turkey. By giving a guarantee, in conjunction with France, that the interest should be paid to the lenders, we enabled the Sultan to raise the money at smaller cost to the Turkish Treasury, and by so doing we were, of course, aiding her as effectually, in kind but not in degree, as we were by our fleets and armies. But a Turkish loan was a good subject for a hostile division. Mr. Disraeli saw his chance, seized it, and nearly surprised the Ministry. He would have been content to imperil the alliance and the war at the price of a Parliamentary victory. This was short-sighted but characteristic. Short-sighted, because the House would have rescinded the vote the next night; characteristic, because it is Mr. Disraeli's defect as a leader to be unable to resist the temptation presented by the momentary numerical weakness of a Government.

Mr. Disraeli pursued a similar course, but with a divided party and no chance of success, upon another occasion. Mr. Roebuck, the head and front of the incomplete and abortive Sebastopol inquiry, moved on the 17th of July a vote of censure on all the members of the Aberdeen Cabinet, whose counsels led to what he was pleased to term the disastrous results of the winter campaign in the Crimea. General Peel, as one of the committee, moved the " previous question," on the ground that the inquiry was incomplete, and that the greater part of the sufferings of the army arose in the very nature of the duty which it fell upon them to perform. Mr. Disraeli and the bulk of his supporters made the motion a party question. But the course of the debate was decidedly against them, and they and Mr. Roebuck failed utterly in procuring from the House, either a retroactive censure on an extinct administration, or an endorsement of the Sebastopol Blue Books. The House decided, by 289 to 182, that the question should not even be put from the chair. Thus ended an attempt, first to discover evidence which would bear out the fierce accusations advanced during the winter, and then to base upon the imperfect and conflicting evidence discovered a censure not deserved.

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