HC Deb 14 August 1871 vol 208 cc1583-96
MR. SEELY (Nottingham)

, in rising to move— That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that She will be graciously pleased to appoint a Royal Commission to inquire into the best method of raising, drilling, and organising the military forces of the Country, so as to render them thoroughly adequate for home defence; and also of providing for India and general service abroad such a number of troops as would be sufficient to enable us to fulfil our treaty obligations, and maintain the interests of the Country at as moderate a cost as possible, said, that of course so long as they retained absolute supremacy at sea there was no fear of invasion; but, although what was commonly spoken of as their first line of defence was secure to-day, new discoveries might prove it to be defective to-morrow, and as it was absurd to suppose the Admiralty would take up an invention which had not been first adopted by a foreign Power, their first line of defence could not be wholly trusted. What, then, of their Army? Their difficulty seemed to be, in the first place, to get good soldiers at a moderate cost, and then to organize them. A good deal had been said about the importance of re-organization; but that was nothing more than the power of assembling all the forces of the country together, under generals capable of manœuvring them, and providing them with adequate ammunition and commissariat. The only practical way of getting this good organization was to put it in practice in time of peace. The best organization would fail if never tried, and the worst would fall into working order if frequently put into practice. The only reason why they did not assemble their forces together was want of money. They spent so much money in getting soldiers that they had none to spare upon proper organization. To keep a large standing Army without periodical practice in the field was like keeping a Navy in harbour until it decayed from age. The men in the Navy might know every rope by name and be theoretically acquainted with the whole system of navigation and gunnery; but if they were never allowed to test their theoretical knowledge by practice, they would fair badly in action. So it was with the Army; but no opportunities for practice were given to it. As regards the Army itself, the first and chief difficulty was the recruiting, and the inability to draw men to the standards was the high rate of wages obtainable by men outside the service. That was no temporary cause; the probabilities were in favour of its increasing. Not only were wages likely to increase throughout the country, but, as the people became educated, the offers of land in the Far West and the gradual decrease of taxation in America would increase the number of their emigrants and diminish the numbers of their agricultural population, their best source from which recruits were now gathered. The Government hoped by its plans to improve all this; but it was impossible to say, from the meagre information at command, whether their plans would produce the effect desired. The necessity for procuring sufficient information was his chief reasons for asking for a Commission. Accurate information was desirable upon the subject of remuneration, a most important point; in what way the interchange of officers between the Militia and Line would be effected, so as not to lower the officers of the Militia in the estimation of those whom they commanded; and in what way the short-service system had worked, and would be likely to work. Upon the last point he was clearly of opinion that respectable men were absolutely necessary to make the short system workable, because only men of good character ought to be retained in the Reserve. On a former occasion he had stated several objections to recruiting men who were not respectable for short service; only one had been answered in any way, and in that answer the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for War had expressed surprise that anyone should be afraid to trust the people with arms. He, however, was not afraid to trust the people with arms, but objected to a system which turned out a number of half-drilled men belonging to a class which it was not desirable to arm. The stock reply of the Government to all criticism was, that their new system was being designed for the correction of all the evils of the old. The Government expected that they would get a better class of men by teaching them trades, and by giving to them certain posts in the Civil Service. It would be excellent if young men could be drawn to the standards to be turned out in two or three years efficient soldiers and accomplished artizans; but there were no facts before the country to justify the presumption that this could be done. At present they had 100,000 men; if the system were to be of any use, it must be applied to at least 50,000; and as they could not have military workshops filled with apprentices, and as each apprentice must have a teacher, the machinery of the system would be expensive. Then the competition with ordinary trade would be great. If the Government induced lads of 18 to sign a paper in a moment of destitution, and set them to work at a trade for 1s. 6d. per week, and sold the produce in competition with that manufactured by men paid 25s. per week, there would be an outcry at once. Then it was proposed to pass the men from the Army to the Civil Service; but he found that the men in the Post Office, Civil Service, Inland Revenue, and Customs, excepting, of course, the dockyard labourers, in 1861 were only 30,000, and their average term of service was 30 years, so that only 1,000 men a-year were needed, and therefore if the Civil Service were monopolized by soldiers, it was clear that only a very small number could be employed in that way. That showed how ill-digested the scheme of the Government was, and how necessary it was to gather information on the subject. A Royal Commission would be able to place the facts of the question clearly before the public, so that instead of the vague ideas that now prevailed their information would rest upon a firm basis. Questions were, moreover, continually arising as to the number of troops actually required for foreign and home service; but there was no official data to go upon. There had been no sound estimate formed of the number of men it would be possible for an enemy to land, presuming the Fleet to be defeated; indeed, he thought the general tendency had been to underrate the number it would be possible to disembark upon their shores. Some spoke of 100,000; but Napoleon assembled 2,000 transports, capable of carrying 120,000, with guns and stores, when he contemplated the invasion of England; and in these days arrangements could be made for transporting three times the number. An expedition from France had been compared to the transport to the Crimea; but it was ridiculous to compare a sea journey of 300 miles, starting from a base of operations 3,000 miles from home, with a 60 miles trip in weather that could be chosen. All these questions of detail could be better inquired into by a Commission than by Parliament. A Commission could take evidence upon which it would be safe to form conclusions as to the number of men required for home defence, the number necessary for foreign service, and what length of training a recruit would need. At present the most conflicting statements were current upon those points—especially the last. Sometimes Volunteers were treated as a useless body from want of organization; then they were counted as soldiers; one Minister stated that three years' training was needed to make a soldier, another gravely announced that three months' drill and a monthly drill for a year afterwards would suffice. These statements could not be all true, and some competent authority was required to inform Parliament on the subject. There was also the question of physical ability, and the country should not be left in ignorance as to how many soldiers we had capable of carrying a knapsack, marching 30 miles, and going without their dinner into the bargain. Now, what information had the country respecting the feelings of those whom it was desired to enlist. No information of the kind existed; and surely it was advisable that if the men themselves could not be examined those who understood their feelings should be—perhaps their employers or foremen. The Commission which had inquired into the subject examined 44 witnesses; but 41 were officers or soldiers, two had been, and the remaining one was officially connected with the Army. A Commission, too, would do good service if it could get evidence from which to form an opinion as to what the Army would be in five years' time and the cost of producing it. The different military systems of other countries, and especially France and Switzerland, might be examined by the Commission, and in many other points its labours could not but be extremely useful. But the greatest benefit of all would be that it would remove these questions affecting military administration from the domain of party politics, and would examine into them with an exclusive regard to their intrinsic merits. In the great changes which the Government were making in the Army it was desirable they should associate themselves with men of independent and unbiassed judgment, so as to inspire the public with a greater degree of confidence in their plans; for otherwise very inconvenient results might follow from the sudden accession of men to power who had made a party attack upon the military schemes of the Government. There were only two objections to a Commission. One was that it would delay, the other that it would relieve Government of responsibility. If the Government had the information at command, as it should have, it could be easily laid before the Commissioners, and it would not cause delay; while as regards responsibility, it was most desirable that the facts of the case should be put on record in case of a change of Government, so that the responsibility might be transferred; in short, neither of those considerations ought to stand in the way of their obtaining a good and efficient Army. Under these circumstances, he begged to move the Resolution of which he had given Notice.


, in seconding the Motion, said, that that subject was one that had occasioned a feeling of great anxiety and concern throughout the country, and the impression generally prevailed that their Army was in a state of unreadiness and of unpreparedness for any sudden emergency that might arise. He was no alarmist, and was willing to admit that there was little probability of their shores being invaded; but the very existence of an Army presupposed a necessity for it. A short time since the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for War declared that nothing was further from his intention than to have recourse to the Ballot—that the Ballot ought only to be resorted to in case of emergency. But it would not do to postpone all reforms until an emergency arose. The youthful age of the men who were now being recruited deserved their most serious attention. Only the other day a most experienced officer assured him that even in his own regiment—the Guards—it had been impossible during the last year to obtain recruits over the age of 18, and, under the three years' system, they would be growing lads the whole time that they were in the Army, and would be sent to the Reserve just when they had become fit to undergo the hardships of actual service. Such was the experience of their crack regiments, and it was certain that the case was not better in the regiments of the Line. No greater extravagance could be committed than to accept the services of lads who, if they should be suddenly called upon to take the field, would succumb under the hardships and privations of actual war. Every Member of that House must often have noticed, in the course of the Session, the proceedings of the recruiting sergeants in the neighbourhood of King Street. He believed he was overstating the result when he said that each of the 10 or 20 sergeants employed obtained on an average only something like 30 boys between 17 and 18 years old in the course of the year. Now, what would be thought of any mercantile establishment, when hands were wanted, which should have recourse to such a system of obtaining them, and with such a result? He repeated that the greatest possible amount of efficiency in their Army ought to be their first consideration, and he was certain that one of 100,000 thoroughly competent men would be more useful in every way than an Army of 130,000 men and boys. The question really was, how long it would take to make an efficient soldier, and he thought it should be decided by competent authority. If the Government did not grant the Commission which his hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham (Mr. Seely) had asked for, he hoped they would at least give some satisfactory answer to the questions put to them. It was the duty of the House not to wait for a demand from the country, but sometimes to anticipate it. It was their duty to tell the people what the real condition of their defensive establishments was. It was not for them to say that this was a very unpopular measure, and one that would expose them to odium. Let them reduce the number of men if they did not want them; but if they needed the instrument it ought to be efficient, and one on which they could rely at any time and under any circumstances. Reference had been made by his hon. Friend to the facilities with which an Army could be conveyed by sea, and they might have thrown on their coast a very large force at very short notice. He was informed, on good authority, that a transsport of 1,500 tons would carry 1,000 men with a full complement of stores, horses, and materials, and everything necessary for a voyage of three or four days—by that they could see the feasibility of the measure. At present he had no apprehension that they were in the slightest danger; but if such a danger arose from any quarter there would be no time to make their preparations, to obtain the men, to get their commissariat, their transport, and various forces into an organized and efficient state. The notice given to Prussia, except the low distant murmurs heard three or four years before, was but 14 or 15 days. With only 14 or 15 days' notice what would they be able to do? Could they call men into existence? It was almost ridiculous to speak of that as an emergency; it would be a simple catastrophe. With regard to the Civil Service absorbing a portion of the Reserves, supposing it were possible for that to be done to any large extent, surely they could not wish the whole Civil Service of the country to be stopped and disorganized the moment war broke out, a time when it was most necessary that the internal machinery of the country should be kept in good working order. He should be glad to see old soldiers who were not expected to render future military service absorbed into the Civil Service; but it was absurd to speak of the Civil Service as a source whence they could draw large Reserves for the Army. He thought this was a time of all others for ascertaining whether their present arrangements were such as could be justified in the face of the country. There was no danger at the present time; but it was their duty to make sufficient provision for the safety, honour, and dignity of the country, and that could only be done by the exercise on the part of the Government of the most prudent and careful foresight.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that She will be graciously pleased to appoint a Royal Commission to inquire into the best method of raising, drilling, and organising the military forces of the Country, so as to render them thoroughly adequate for home defence; and also of providing for India and general service abroad such a number of troops as would be sufficient to enable us to fulfil our treaty obligations, and maintain the interests of the Country at as moderate a cost as possible,"—(Mr. Charles Seely,) —instead thereof.

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


said, he thought that one remark made by the hon. Member for Westminister (Mr. W. H. Smith) would hardly find support from the noble Lord the Member for Haddingtonshire (Lord Elcho). No doubt in the event of invasion, if they had to withdraw men from the Civil Service, the Civil Service would to a certain extent be inconvenienced; but still it was right to hold out encouragements to men who had served in the ranks of the Army; and surely the example of Prussia ought to be an answer to the hon. Member in that respect. The hon. Member for Westminster, like himself, had never borne arms in any capacity; and his speech appeared to bear evidence of that fact, for certainly the appointment of a Royal Commission to inquire into the Army from top to bottom was not a course which military authorities would recommend. The hon. Gentleman said it was an emergency if their ranks were not full, but it happened that their ranks were full; that they were on the very verge of being obliged to consider what they should do, unless they exceeded their limit set by the Estimates. It had been said that the Reserve men would not come when called, and he thought that was a matter of experiment. If it was a matter of experiment, only think of referring it to a Royal Commission. How were they to solve it? There was no reason to suppose the men would not come, but there was every reason to believe they would, if the experience furnished by the Royal Naval Reserve could be taken as proof. A portion of the First Reserve had been called out for service, and he believed—although he had not yet received the Report—that the experiment had been perfectly successful. Then it was said there was a difficulty about recruiting. Why, they had obtained more than 33,000 recruits in ten months. That, surely, was a proof that their recruiting had not failed. As to the youth of the recruits, they would always have young people as long as they went on the old system of long service, and would be obliged to add to the Army by taking young men. But let them establish a large Reserve, following the Prussian plan, and they would have older men who had already served in the Army ready, and who were under engagement to join the ranks when emergency arose. By that plan they would do away with the necessity of having recourse to the services of such young men. The Government had done great things already; they had abolished bounty—a thing that was thought impossible. Nevertheless, they had got 33,000 recruits in ten months; they were doing everything they could to raise the character of the recruits; and the Reports of the Inspector General of Recruiting showed that their efforts were not without success. It was said they would have a difficulty in obtaining recruits for the Militia. Well, circulars were sent to the commanding officers of Militia in the autumn, and their answers were on the Table, and would not be found to confirm that assertion. With regard to the future increase of agricultural wages, he could only say if he held his present office when agricultural wages reached 30s. a-week, he should be delighted to see it, and would endeavour to meet the difficulties of that day. But surely it could not be gravely proposed that they should now appoint a Royal Commission to inquire what was to be done when the wages of the agricultural labourer attained that figure? Moreover, they had a Royal Commission recently, and the result of its recommendations was that the pay of the soldier was raised by 2d. a-day—a measure to which in a great degree their facilities in obtaining recruits were, he believed, owing. Then it was urged that the Commission did not go to the bottom of the subject, and that much more remained to be found out than they discovered. What encouragement, then, was there to appoint another? [Lord ELCHO: Their powers were limited; it was simply a Recruiting Commission.] They were appointed to inquire very much into what the Commission now proposed would inquire, for its object was the raising, drilling, and organizing the military forces of the country. He was surprised to hear that time was no object, because they were not exposed to any particular danger, and yet in the next breath, in the event of an hostile attempt to cross the Channel in order to invade their shores, they were told that they could not rely on their Navy—their first line of defence. If their first line of defence was so insecure, how could time be of no consequence in regard to their second line of defence? Then they were told that Napoleon had been ready to throw more than 100,000 men on their coast, and the hon. Member for Westminister thought it impossible to tell how many men a foreign nation might at any time land here. But could any Royal Commission tell them how many men might be so landed? Would they call as witnesses on that point high functionaries from different foreign countries? Such an inquiry would be both useless and interminable. Then, again, it had been intimated that they ought to foresee what forces they might require. With regard to that, it was the duty for which the Executive Government was responsible to determine not once for all—that was absolutely impossible—but every year, what was the force which it was necessary that Parliament should be called on to provide for; and as to the appointment of a Royal Commission, with regard to that part of the subject, he believed such an idea had never before been entertained by anyone. With regard to settling the time requisite for training, had not the experience of last autumn taught them a great deal more as to that than any theoretical information obtained through a Royal Commission? Again, it was proposed that they should inquire why there was a difficulty in getting men, but he respectfully said there was no such difficulty at all. Further, he thought that, if the scheme of short service and Reserves, which they desired to institute, were left to work fairly, it would establish a large and efficient Reserve long before any Commission could come to any opinion on the multiplicity of questions to be referred to them. With respect to the matter of cost, he should have thought the last thing the House of Commons would be asked to do would be to part with the control over the cost of the Army, or to intrust the preparation of the Estimates to anybody but the Executive Government. Then as to party questions, he hoped there was no party in the State which had anything at heart on these subjects except the maintenance of the honour, the dignity, and the safety of the country, and it was not necessary that the House should discard them from its consideration to prevent their being made party questions. The hon. Member for Nottingham (Mr. Seely) had complained of a former speech of his having been misrepresented, but he had repeated the purport of that speech again, in saying that what he objected to was not trusting the people with arms, but to trusting that particular class of the people from whom they obtained their recruits with them. Aristocratic Prussia could venture to form her Army on the principle which the Government had recommended; Republican France was following her example; Monarchial Italy and Autocratic Russia were doing the same, and he saw no difficulty in Constitutional England venturing to rely on the same source of supply. He denied that they obtained nothing but worthless recruits; they were endeavouring by every means in their power to raise the character of the recruits; they had discontinued the use of dishonourable markings and badges; they had done away with the bounty system; they were extending as much as possible the education of their soldiers; and when the hon. Member for Nottingham asked what sort of factories and what kind of competition they were going to establish in the Army, he said none; they were going to enable a man entering the Army to be taught that which would make him a valuable member of society when he left its ranks, and fit him better to earn his livelihood, on his return to civil life. In conclusion, he did not complain of that Motion being brought forward, but felt convinced that it was not intended now seriously to press it to a division.


said, his object in advocating the opening of the Civil Service to deserving soldiers was not to form a Reserve, which in time of war would be called out of the Civil Service to return to the Army, but to hold out a prize or an inducement to the soldier to serve well while in the Army; and one element of that inducement or prize was, that when he had settled in the Civil Service for life he should not be called away to serve even in that "emergency" of which the Secretary of State spoke so glibly, but which neither he nor his Colleagues ever attempted to define. He thought that the War Office might have more soldiers employed in it than at present, and that the Secretary of State should look to that office being manned mainly by retired soldiers. An hon. Member had said it was a mistake to have a civilian at the head of the War Office. That was a great question; but if the clerks were military men and competent to deal with those details, very likely many of those things would be better done than they were now—although he cast no slur on the civilians—and greater prizes would be held out to deserving soldiers. As to the present Motion, his hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham (Mr. Seely) had done good service in bringing that question forward at the close of that eventful Session in so comprehensive and clear a manner. And when his views were endorsed by a practical man representing a large metropolitan constituency like the hon. Member for Westminster (Mr. W. H. Smith), he trusted they would have their due effect. The Government objected to a Commission, and the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for War had dipped his brush in those rosy colours in which he invariably painted everything connected with the Army and his Department. Unfortunately, however, the public would not view matters in exactly the same complacent light, but would prefer that they should be portrayed in graver and more sober tints. He believed that a Commission of this kind would be most valuable, and that it would be able to get at the bottom of many things which could not be fathomed by that House so long as the Government were backed by so large a majority. He felt so strongly on this point, that next Session, if the Government did not give the House some clear and satisfactory explanation of the organization they had established, and of their exercise of the powers which the House had confided to them, he hoped the House would appoint a Committee to inquire into the organization of the Army. If no one else did so, he should himself move for such a Committee, believing, as he did, that the Government had organized nothing, disorganized the only thing that was sound in the Army, and entailed on the country an unknown expenditure.


regretted that the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for War had not yet given any information to the House or the country on various subjects which had occupied much time and attracted much attention. The remark made by an hon. Member of the Government that Parliament had nothing whatever to do with military questions was significant as to the temper in which the Government was disposed to treat such matters; but hon. Members would discuss the military administration of this country, when it was found to be in a state of hopeless and inextricable confusion. A mild reform would not do, a complete change being absolutely necessary; and he hoped that at the beginning of another Session the Government would take up such questions in a totally different spirit, for in that way only would they be able to do that good which could not be effected by putting hon. Members off with replies that were not answers. He desired to know how promotion was to be made in the Army for the future, and the way in which its proper flow was to be kept up, for up to the present time the House had only been told that the subject was under discussion. Another question had been raised as to whether an end was to be put to military sinecures such as full colonelcies, and he asked for some information also on this point, which would be sure to secure much attention from the constituencies during the Recess.


said, he regarded that discussion as showing that the interest felt by the House and the country in military matters had not diminished, and that the mistrust which was excited last year was not in the least allayed. Although they had now reached the end of the Session, nothing had been done, and both soldiers and civilians felt nothing but dismay at the policy of the Government as to military matters, and they looked to the future with despair. He should be sorry to see the matter referred to a Royal Commission, for there had already been 16 Royal Commissions and between 20 and 30 Select Committees on military matters. They were told that in the cellars of the British Museum were great treasures from which the public derived no benefit, and the same might be said of the Reports of Commissions and Committees. The appointment of a Royal Commission was the resort of a Minister who wished to avoid responsibility and to shelve a disagreeable question, and the only hope of the House was in keeping responsibility fixed upon the Government. If the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for War appealed to the officers commanding regiments he would be told that the quality of the recruits was now inferior to what it was 10 or 15 years ago, and that they had the greatest difficulty in finding men who were fit to be non-commissioned officers. Purchase having been abolished, he hoped that next Session the House would hear something of that military organization which had been promised, and that some attempt would be made to provide an Army worthy of this country.


said, he thought that, on re-consideration, the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for War would see that their system of short service was not identical with that of aristocratic Prussia.


, in explanation, said, that what he alluded to was the training of the men and their return to civil occupations.


still contended that the two systems were totally different, the Prussian one being the compulsory taking of men from every class of society, and thus their Army embraced some of the finest, and a large proportion of the most respectable men in the country, none of the men being under 19 years of age; while England had to draw younger men from the inferior part of the population. The country looked upon the question with great anxiety, and he would urge the right hon. Gentleman to reflect upon the responsible position he occupied, and to endeavour before the next meeting of Parliament to satisfy the nation on the subject of its Army.


said, he hoped the matter would be thoroughly investigated before the commencement of next Session, but was indifferent whether by Royal Commission or otherwise. It was desirable to include in the inquiry some reference to the colonies, and to the defence of their coasts and harbours, and he would suggest the propriety of there being deliberations on those subjects between the Admiralty and the War Office. The question of war and defence ought at the same time to be fully considered.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.