HC Deb 31 March 1862 vol 166 cc254-63

Order for Committee (Supply) read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair."


said, he rose pursuant to notice to move the following Resolution:— That in the opinion of this House it was not desirable that the annual training of the Militia should be of less duration than the minimum period recommended by the Royal Commission. The question involved in the Resolution was an important one, and the circumstances under which he brought it forward he thought justified him in doing so. The Militia Estimates were in this respect different from the other Estimates for the service of the Crown, that they were annually submitted for preparation to a Committee of that House; and though they could not be altered or amended, the fact that they were submitted sufficiently proved that the militia were a Parliamentary force. In asking the House, therefore, to interfere he was asking them to do no more than was consistent with their authority and responsibility. For the first time for several years the Government intended to diminish the time granted for training the militia. Since the Royal Commission, appointed to consider that and other questions relating to the militia, had reported to the House, the time for annual training had been reduced to a period of one month. During the last year it was agreed that that period might be modified so as to give a preliminary training to recruits, and that arrangement had been attended with very beneficial results; but twenty-seven or twenty-eight days was taken as the starting point. That year, however, a circular had been addressed by the Horses Guards to the Lords Lieutenant of counties requesting them to fix one uniform period of twenty-one days, and fourteen days for preliminary training for recruits—a change which, he contended, affected injuriously the efficiency of the regiments, and was opposed to the report of the Royal Commission which considered the whole question in 1859, and which had collected a mass of evidence of the most valuable description. Now, of the necessity which existed for maintaining the efficiency of the militia he need say nothing, inasmuch as it was an object in the expediency of accomplishing which all statesmen seemed to concur. The militia force, having lain dormant for several years, had been revived in 1852, when public attention began to be called to the inadequate condition of the public defences, and the policy of having a body of men at home to protect the country in case of emergency. The Bill for its revival in 1852 was introduced by Lord John Russell, and the fact that a new force, the Volunteers, had arisen, called together by the most patriotic and praiseworthy motives, in no degree rendered the militia less necessary. It was important for them, therefore, to consider the state of what the late Lord Herbert had designated as "our army of reserve," and of what was pre-eminently a constitutional force. The late Duke of Wellington had referred in the most laudatory terms to the services of the militia during the last French war, and remarked on the readiness with which he was able to transfer them into the regular regiments of the line; and in introducing the militia Bill into the House of Lords, the noble and gallant Duke had prophesied that 50,000 or 80,000 men levied for the militia would in a short time attain a state of discipline worthy of their predecessors. To show the important advantages which such a force was calculated to render, he need only point to the case of Switzerland; which, secure in the courage of her people, was making a bold stand against the supposed designs of a neighbouring and powerful empire, depending for her defence on a militia organized in a manner not very unlike our own. Now, between a militia kept up efficiently and one which was not the greatest distinction prevailed, and therefore the difference between three weeks' and four weeks' training was of great importance. During the Continuance of the Crimean war the value of the militia had been tested, and owing to their embodiment, opportunities had been given for sending many regular regiments abroad. Such was the admirable state of discipline to which the militia had attained that a very distinguished officer, speaking of the state of discipline of the troops in the camp at Aldershot, pronounced that a certain militia regiment was the best regiment in the camp. In 1860 the late Lord Herbert made a speech in that House on the subject of the militia, which, as far as its number were concerned, had then fallen into a most unsatisfactory state, owing to the regiments having been embodied and disembodied in an arbitrary and uncertain manner. Lord Herbert mentioned that in that year there were 40,000 men in training, but he added that there were 30,000 absentees, a state of things not only unsatisfactory but alarming. The changes which Lord Herbert carried out in order to secure the efficiency of the militia had been attended by the best results, and at the present moment the militia was in a condition immeasurably better than in 1860. No return of the number of militiamen trained last year had yet been published; but, as a specimen of the great improvement which had recently taken place, he might cite the case of the regiment which he had the honour to command. In that regiment in 1860 there were 600 men in training, and 130 absentees; in 1861 there were no absentees; and in 1862 the regiment was full, and there were thirty candidates on the list waiting for vacancies to be enrolled. The regiment was a credit to the county to which it belonged, and it gave no trouble to the town in which it was billeted. But what he wanted to show was that, according to the concurrent opinion of the Royal Commissioners, and of all the witnesses who were called before them, the efficiency of the militia depended upon the length of its training. The Commissioners stated that the number of days for training in each corps should never be less than 28. Some of the witnesses, officers of great experience, thought that even in 28 days proper musketry instruction could not be given. General Hay, at the head of the Hythe musketry establishment, was of opinion that 28 days for recruits, and 28 days for the whole regiment, would be sufficient. For artillery regiments a longer period appeared to be necessary. All the witnesses concurred in stating that the difference between 21 and 27 days was all important. The recommendation of the Commissioners was that a minimum period of 28 days should be allowed for recruits in their first year, with 28 days additional for the whole regiment, making a total per annum of 56 days, or 168 in all. Last year the period was reduced to 126, 134, or 135 days. This year 21 days were to be allowed for the whole regiment, and 14 for recruits, making a total of 105 days instead of 168, as recommended by the Commissioners. The proposed reduction would operate most injuriously upon such regiments as happened to have few recruits. He believed the question was one of expense. The War Office had a larger number of regiments to train this year than they had last; but was it right, or prudent, or economical that, because they had more regiments to train, they should render the whole force less efficient in order not to exceed the Vote of last Session? It would be far better to reduce the number of rank and file, for a regiment composed of 700 well-trained men would be in all respects more efficient than one consisting of 800 ill-trained men. Out of a period of 21 days there were only 15 really available for training men fresh from the loom and the plough. The only difference in the expense of 21 and 28 days' training was 8s. 6d., and for that they were sacrificing efficiency. In a letter written by an officer who took a lively interest in the subject, but whose name he would not mention, the writer stated that 28 days was the shortest possible period that should be given for training men for the ranks of the militia. Instead of spending our hundreds of thousands upon fortifications at the other side of the Atlantic, which many persons considered a worse than useless expenditure, he thought it would be much better if the Government would spend money in the more advantageous direction of making the militia, which was the cheapest force in the kingdom, more efficient for the purposes for which it was established. He ventured to think that the course taken by the War Office was not consistent with a desire to maintain the efficiency of that force, nor with the principles of real economy. He should, therefore, move the Resolution of which he had given notice.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words" in the opinion of this House, it is not desirable that the annual training of the Militia should be of less duration than the minimum period recommended by the Royal Commission, —instead thereof.


said, he rose to second the Motion. His hon. and gallant Friend had entered so fully into his reasons for asking the House to resolve that the militia should have a further period for training, that he (Lord Burghley) should not consider it necessary to trouble the House with any lengthened observations. Having, however, since the organization of the militia in 1852, been intimately connected with that force, he trusted that the House would allow him to say a few words in support of the Motion of his hon. and gallant Friend. He could assure the House, speaking from experience, that twenty-one days were not sufficient to instruct the militiaman in all that it was necessary for him to know in order to make him an efficient soldier. The modern improvements in firearms rendered it more necessary than ever that a longer time should be devoted to the instruction of the militiamen in the use of their rifles. It was no longer of such advantage to teach the soldier how to load and fire as quickly as possible; but it was all-important that he should be instructed upon certain principles, without the thorough knowledge of which the rifle placed in his hands would be a comparatively useless weapon. The period allowed by the Government for musketry instruction was six days. That time was wholly insufficient. He held in his hand a letter from an officer who, from his having passed a long time at Hythe, was of course competent to express an opinion on that subject, and this gentleman stated that the period allowed by the Government for musketry drill was quite inadequate to impart the instruction that was absolutely necessary, and without which, the militia, as a force, would be comparatively useless in times of emergency Sixteen days, at least, should be devoted to teaching the soldier the use of his rifle. Owing to the improvements in modern gunnery, it was especially necessary that the militia should be instructed in light infantry movements. He believed that the great majority of the force was only partially instructed in light infantry drill, and that the remainder possessed no knowledge whatever of those movements. He therefore thought that the twenty-eight days asked for by his hon. Friend—a period which was strongly recommended in the report of the Royal Commission—was not an hour too much to devote to the training of the militia. In order to show the House that he was not exaggerating the insufficiency of the time granted by the Government to the training of the force, he would remind hon. Members of the number of days which must necessarily be deducted from even the limited period allowed by the War Office for the purposes of drill. After making allowance for the days of assembly and dismissal, and three Sundays, six days were required for musketry inspection, and two days for giving out the stores, and two days for putting the clothing back. Altogether fourteen days were to be deducted from the twenty-one allowed, winch left only seven days for the instruction of the militiaman in manual and platoon exercise and drill. He knew that the hon. Member for Lambeth (Mr. W. Williams) and some other hon. Members who concurred with him, considered that the militia force was not so much required now, in consequence of the organization of the Volunteer force, which the hon. Member and his friends thought was not only a cheaper force, but one able to perform all the duties of the militia. Far be it from him to depreciate the merits of the Volunteer force. On the contrary, he believed it to be a most useful force, and that it ought to be encouraged by the Government. He must, however, be excused for saying that it was impossible for the Volunteers to fulfil to any extent the duties which were expected from the militia force. The Volunteer force, for example, could never be made a nursery for the line. In times of war it was well known that the militia was often called upon to fill up the vacancies in the ranks of the line. The great majority of the Volunteers, from their social position, would be wholly unable to do this, or to perform the ordinary duties of soldiers. Suppose a sudden call is made upon the Government to send out 10,000 or 20,000 men to serve abroad, or to recruit the ranks of our regular army. Surely it Could not be supposed that the Volunteer force would respond to such a sudden demand? The militia force had, however, acted upon such a sudden emergency over and over again, in the campaigns of the Duke of Wellington, and more recently in the Russian war and Indian mutiny. He therefore trusted that the House and the Government would not deny to that valuable and constitutional force the means of rendering itself thoroughly efficient. The invasion of this country was not a contingency dependent, as in former days, upon fine weather or a fair wind. In these days of steam power invasion might be a question of a very few hours. It was then of the utmost importance that the militia should have ample time given them for being thoroughly instructed in all those duties it was necessary for them to learn before they could be marched against the enemy. The state of Europe was such as to warn the Government against the folly of being parsimonious in regard to their military forces. France was armed to the teeth; Sardinia was in a most disturbed and unsettled state; Austria appeared to be only waiting for false steps on the part of Hungary or her other dependencies, to pour her legions into the disaffected provinces. Greece was still in the throes of an active revolution. The Poles were only kept quiet by the presence of a strong military force in their country. Looking to all those circumstances, he thought the Government would be acting most unwisely if they did not use every means in their power to secure the thorough efficiency of every branch of the country's defence—Navy, Army, Militia, and Volunteers. He begged to second the Motion of his hon. Friend.


The hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Ayrshire, at the commencement of his speech, proved with elaboration certain points which I think he was entitled to assume without so much expenditure of argument. In the first place, he proved that the militia was an ancient constitutional force; that it was to be considered as an army of reserve; and that it was highly valuable to the country in the event of danger from invasion. The hon. and gallant Member then proceeded to establish this proposition, that four weeks of drill would render a regiment more efficient than three weeks, and that it was not expedient that a military force should be insufficiently exercised. I should have been quite prepared to concede as much as that to the hon. and gallant Member without any formal proof. But, as he truly remarked on proceeding to deal more closely, with the subject, this is substantially a question of expenditure, and the House must choose between submitting to the privation of a certain amount of military efficiency or incurring a considerable increase of expenditure. Now, the Government had to choose the best and safest means which they could under the existing circumstances; and I think, when I state the facts to the House, it will be of opinion that it is better to acquiesce in the proposal which we shall submit in the course of the session in Committee on the Militia Estimates. In 1860 the number of regiments trained was 123, and the Estimate voted by the House was £ 520,129. Last year the total number of regiments was also 123, and the Estimate £ 637,000. The reason of that increase was that in the first of those two years the number of days' training was 27 simply, while in the second year there were three classes of regiments, having different periods of training, coupled with different periods of preliminary drill. In the present year we have 160 regiments, instead of 123, to estimate; and the arrangement which the Government have thought it advisable to propose is that there should be 21 days' training, instead of 27, and that we should allow 14 days for preliminary drill. The expense for that period of training and that period of drill is £ 697,000, as compared with £ 637,000 last year, being an increase of £ 60,000. Now, if the number of days' training was 28 with seven days' preliminary drill, on the present number of regiments the expense would be £ 749,500. What I think the hon. and gallant Member proposes is that there should be 28 days' training, with 14 days 'preliminary drill.


observed, that he should be quite satisfied if the same option were allowed to commanding officers of regiments with respect to the different periods of training and drill, as was given them last year.


At all events, I may state that the cost of 28 days' training and 14 days' preliminary drill would be £ 757,000, the cost of 28 days' training and seven days' preliminary drill would be £ 749,000, while the cost of 21 days' training and seven days' preliminary drill (or less than we propose) would be £ 689,000. The question for the House to consider is, whether the proposal of the Government is adequate to the requirements of the country. It appeared to us, looking to the state of foreign affairs, to the existence of a large body of Volunteers, and the strength of the regular army, that 21 days' training for the militia, with 14 days' preliminary drill for recruits, would be sufficient. The hon. Gentleman says it would be far preferable to reduce the strength of the militia regiments from 800 to 700 men, and increase the number of days' training. That, no doubt, is an opinion which anybody may fairly entertain. But I am strongly inclined to think, that if the Government had proposed to reduce the strength of the regiments in order to increase the period of training, there would have been more hon. Members in favour of the course we actually have adopted than in favour of a diminution in the numerical force of the militia. Because it is easy in future years to increase the number of days' training; but when the strength of the regiments is once diminished, it is not so easy to augment it again. Therefore, although the arguments of the hon. Gentleman, founded exclusively on efficiency, are unanswerable, there being no doubt that you will have a more efficient militia if you train it a greater number of days, yet the Government had to take into account not only what amount of efficiency might abstractedly be desirable, but what amount would be sufficient for the wants of the country, and could be obtained consistently with a proper economy. Taking, then, each of those elements into consideration, I trust the House will not be disposed to support the Motion of the hon. Member, but will agree with me in voting for the order of the day.


said, he thought it was clear that twenty-four days' training were not enough to make the men efficient. His object in rising was to suggest what he believed to be the best course the Government could adopt under the circumstances—namely, that of reducing the number of the regiments and increasing the number of days' training. The right hon. Baronet seemed to anticipate that there would be an outcry against reducing the regiments, and that a difficulty would be felt in afterwards obtaining recruits. But if he consulted officers of experience, as to the number of men brought on parade for drill, he would find that nearly two-thirds of the present complement of the regiments would be sufficient, and that there would be no real difficulty, if the men were required, in bringing them up again to the full standard. By following that plan the Government would save the recruiting money and would prevent desertion. The commanding officers, too, would have a greater control over the men, who would form an efficient nucleus, because they would belong to their own respective neighbourhoods.


said, he thought that the right hon. Gentleman at the head of the War Office would do well if he followed the suggestions offered by the hon. and gallant Member for Ayrshire—namely, of giving the commanding officers, the option of training their men either twenty-one or twenty-eight days, because circumstances varied in the different counties, as every gentleman knew who was connected with a regiment of militia. It would be impossible, he presumed, to make any alteration in the arrangements this year, but he ventured to call the attention of the Government to the point, and the right hon. Gentleman would on inquiry find that commanding officers would prefer having an option in the matter.

Question, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question," put, and agreed to.