HC Deb 04 March 1878 vol 238 cc646-54

in rising to call the attention of the House to the question of the "organization of the regimental ranks of the Line," as referred to in the Report and Evidence of the Royal Commission on Promotion and Rotirement, said, he based his remarks on the passage in the Report of the Royal Commission which suggested that, either by assimilating these ranks to those of the artillery, or creating in some other way a greater similarity in the numbers of the ranks, the necessity for any compulsory retirement in the lower ranks might be removed. He thought that statement justified the importance of the matter, and he need scarcely remind (lie House that the period of the Session at which the Secretary for War found him- self in a position to lay before the House the proposals of the Government in connection with that Commission was so late that it was impossible to raise the question last year. The words, too, of the Commission sufficiently expressed the importance of the matter, when they said— It may be possible to benefit at once the position of the officer, to improve the organization, and to effect that which would render it less costly to the State. This proposal had met with a good deal of prejudice, because it was thought that it would strike at the regimental organization of the Army; but he denied that it would have that effect. No proposal would ever be made by him that would in any way tend to interfere with the regimental organization, which he regarded as being most valuable; but, on the contrary, he believed that this proposal would increase, strengthen, and develop it. The two principal units in the Army were what were called in the Infantry the battalion and the company. The exigencies of modern warfare, however, having rendered the unit of the company too small, the present formation of attack was two companies skirmishing, two in support, and two in reserve. In other words, a double unit had been adopted, the result of which was greatly to increase the danger of confusion in the field; and the question arose whether the company should not be made double its present size, under an increased number of officers. Lord Sandhurst, Lord Strathnairn, Sir John Adye, General Herbert, and other distinguished officers, had expressed themselves in favour of this proposal. Some other officers of distinction had opposed the scheme; but few of the objections appeared to him to strike at the root of the proposal. It must be clear to all that the proposal was not answered by discussing the question of whether the officers to be placed in command should have the rank of field officers or not. In the first place, it had been said that the companies would be too large and unwieldy. There was some difference of opinion as to whether a company should, like those of the Prussian Army, consist of 250, or whether they should consist of 170 or 180. That, however, was a practical question of detail, which might be left to be dealt with by the authorities. The second objection was that the proposal, if carried out, would diminish the number of regimental officers. Now, he did not wish to see the number diminished, because we spent our officers more freely than any other Army. The success of the Army greatly depended on the leading on the part of the officers. In reality, whilst it would diminish the number of regimental officers, it would not diminish but would practically increase the number of company officers. What would be the effect in a campaign or an action? What we required was to have sufficient officers to lead bodies of men, and to be sure that they would not all be struck down. The great thing was that the men should be led by those whom they knew. Now, the number of officers with each enlarged company being increased, greatly lessened the chance of all the officers of a company being disabled at the same time. The objection urged to the change by the Duke of Cambridge was that it would tend to the creation of new majors; but a major was to be in reality a company's officer, doing the duty of a captain. The illustrious Duke had said—"I object to more majors — that is, to more field officers. I have no objection to captains being mounted, but they are not field officers, they are captains." He, however, did not see any great force in that objection. The third objection was that it would take officers from the Cavalry. But it was only intended to let the troop commander command his troop in quarters as in the field. It was said that it had been tried in the Cavalry, and given up. It had been tried at the time of the purchase system, and found to affect the value of the commissions held by the junior captains. So far, he had spoken of organization simply with regard to the efficiency of the Army; but the changes advocated would, undoubtedly, not only be productive of economy, but improve the position of the officer, and so far from diminishing the efficiency of the Army, would increase that efficiency. And that was one of the points raised by Sir Garnet Wolseley in the able paper which he had recently published, in which he said that the Army was now the greatest and most important of our national schools, in which, in future, the officers would be the schoolmasters. The days, in fact, of special instruction were numbered; and it was one of the main turning-points of the proposals of the appendix that the heads of the Army should make the company officers responsible for the instruction of their companies. The proposal had also a serious bearing on the difficulty of getting and retaining good non-commissioned officers —a difficulty which was increasing every day. Under the proposed system, it would be easier to ensure the presence of at least some good old non-commissioned officers in each company. The proposal of having larger companies had been recommended by some of the most competent officers, and had not yet been sufficiently considered. The Royal Commission considered it outside the scope of their duties to report on it; but he thought it would greatly tend, not only to efficiency, but also to economy.


asked if this was a question which the House of Commons could decide? He did not think it was. It would have been a different thing if his hon. and gallant Friend had based his argument solely on the ground of economy, and had suggested that the subject ought to be considered by a Departmental Committee. Not very long ago a discussion was raised on the pay of the adjutants, when his right hon. Friend the Secretary for War said the question was hardly a fit one to be considered by the House of Commons. If so, how much less was this question as to the size of a company and the manner of attack a question for the House of Commons. There was, he believed, danger in the House of Commons attempting to decide questions of this kind. He only rose to deprecate the consideration of matters so entirely technical by the House of Commons. It not only led to waste of time, but might be dangerous.


agreed with his hon. and gallant Friend who had just spoken that that House was a body ill-suited to pronounce a decision on military organization and tactics.


said, he could not altogether agree with the criticisms of the last two speakers; because his hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Longford (Mr. O'Reilly) did not ask the House to pronounce a decision, but merely took this opportunity of urging upon the Secretary of State the importance of the question. The question raised by the hon. and gallant Mem- ber had been mentioned as of great importance in the Report of the Royal Commission on Promotion in the Army, and the views of his hon. Friend had been advocated before that Commission by several weighty authorities, and certainly deserved their consideration. When he said this he must guard himself against being supposed for a moment to contemplate an organization made with a view to a system of retirement and the regular flow of promotion. The first object ought to be the efficiency of the Force as a military machine, and when they came to deal with that they found great diversity of opinion on the subject. A great deal was said about the size of the company as the unit of organization last year when the Government scheme of promotion and retirement was under consideration. He was unable to attend the sittings of the House at that time; but, if he had been present, he should have joined with those who expressed surprise that the Government should ask the House to incur a large annual charge without first making it certain that the organization we possessed was the most efficient and the most economical. The hon. and gallant Member had expressed his views, and he did not suppose that the right hon. Gentleman would either repudiate or acquiesce in them altogether, because there were so many different opinions that it was difficult to say what course should be pursued. The right hon. Gentleman might, however, well turn his attention to the question. It was with the object of urging the importance of the subject that the hon. and gallant Member had brought the matter forward; and, without expressing any opinion himself, he could not help rising to say that he thought the hon. and gallant Member had discharged a duty to his country and the House in bringing this matter forward, and certainly did not deserve the remarks that had been made upon him.


pointed out that the right of that House to raise the question of the organization and strength of a company of Infantry was by no means a new one. It was debated in that House in May, 1854 long after war had been declared against Russia. He maintained that to put forward the claim that the War Office was to be independent of the House of Commons in regard to the organization, composition, and strength of the units of the Infantry or Cavalry, was to take from that House the power it ought to exercise over the expenditure of the country. Not only was the war strength of the Infantry company agreed to in that House in 1854, but the number of companies forming the field battalion was also fixed. Since then the organization of the Cavalry unit into squadrons was also agreed to in that House. It was Sir John Pakington who had made this change. It was in his administration that a different organization was made for the Cavalry, and he protested against the squadron organization being changed back again into the troop organization, when his Successor (Lord Cardwell) was induced to assent to the retrograde step of having the troop formation reverted to. They all knew how that was done. It was done by His Royal Highness the Commander-in-Chief, who had never taken kindly to the change which had been made by Sir John Pakington. The real author of the proposed formation of the squadron unit for administrative purposes, as it was, and still is, for tactical purposes, was Sir Hope Grant, who, in this kind of change, was peculiarly qualified to advise. He thought that his hon. and gallant Friend had done good service by bringing forward his Motion. As to the units composing the battalion, there was a great opening in this direction for effecting useful changes in our present organization. England alone maintained the wasteful and weak unit of 10 companies to a battalion. There need not be so many men in a company as 196, which was the strength of a German Infantry company of private soldiers; but between that strength and 65 privates, the average of all our companies, there was ample room for an increase to 150 privates in a company of Infantry. He considered that they had a right to ask, seeing the feeling there was on the subject, that the question should be properly investigated by a Committee, who would go thoroughly into the organization, and who should say not only what the organization of a company should be, but what the organization of a battalion should be, and still more, what should be done to make it an effective unit of organization for brigades and divisions.


said, he rose to call attention to the formation and organization of brigade depots, and to the practice of appointing officers who had served exclusively in the Cavalry to the command of Infantry brigades. When these brigade depots were first formed in 1873, out of 70 there remained 33 unformed, and to these were appointed commanding officers having £576 a-year with no duties of any kind to perform. The matter caused a good deal of scandal in the Army, as it appeared that these appointments were only sinecures for officers for whom no other employment could be found. Then there was a paymaster for the brigade depots with £270 a-year, which was an unnecessary and superfluous appointment. The brigade depots were a total failure. At the present time the depots were greatly over-officered, there being 1 colonel, 1 major, 4 captains, and 4 subalterns to command a force of 50 men, and there were still 15 brigade depots which were unformed. The object of having brigade depots was to have a battalion there which should consist of 700 men to aid in drilling and exercising the Auxiliary Forces; but how were they to achieve that object with only 40 or 50 men. in a battalion? If it should be necessary to call out the Militia and the Volunteers, each of these depots would be raised to a strength of 3,000 men, and an officer who was completely ignorant of Infantry drill was placed in command. He considered that such appointments would bring the Army into discredit and ridicule. Were none of the colonels of Infantry who had lately been placed on half-pay through no fault of theirs fit for such appointments?


said, he must protest against the idea that technical questions of that nature should not be discussed in that House. The hon. and gallant Member for Brighton (General Shute) and the hon. and gallant Member for Renfrewshire (Colonel Mure), who had laid down that rule, had both infringed it themselves in speeches where practical utility proved that the rule was not a sound one. Any military question that was sufficiently large should be brought under the attention of Parliament. In France, these and similar questions underwent the fullest discussion, which extended over days, and even weeks, instead of only a few hours; and, it was, in fact, the turning-point of the Prussian system. With reference to the question he had to bring forward—the promotion of non-commissioned officers and men of the Royal Artillery, it was formerly considered that they should be shut out from getting commissions, but after the Crimean War a change was made in their favour. There were special reasons why artillerymen should be promoted, quite as much as the Line and Cavalry. It was of great importance that men should be able skilfully to move heavy guns; a great many non-commissioned officers could do that service, and those who could do it well, besides those who carefully kept the accounts of stores, should have some hopes of promotion. The number of commissions open to noncommissioned officers had been considerably reduced. At least two-thirds of them were formerly given to men promoted from the ranks. Five or six years ago 42 were practically abolished. Lately there had been a re-organization; but it had borne very hardly on the future prospects of non-commissioned officers and men, and he brought forward the subject chiefly that he might get an assurance that the reduction would not be tarried further. Six quartermasters and one riding - master had been reduced. Four had been lost by re-organization. There were also 12 quartermasters and nine riding-masters placed on the district staff of India which were in a precarious position. So that altogether about 40 per cent of these commissions had already been suppressed, while the possible losses, in connection with the Indian staff might bring the number up to more than 50 per cent. He trusted that the matter would receive consideration, as it must be a great inducement to those non-commissioned officers and men to know that a certain number of commissions were always open to them as prizes for good service.


said, he wished to protest against the extraordinary observations of the hon. and gallant Member opposite (Major O'Beirne), in regard to the qualifications of officers in that branch of the Service to which he belonged. He (Sir Henry Wilmot) had the honour of serving under one of those officers whose qualifications were called in question, and he could only say that he had much benefited by the advice and supervision of that gallant officer. He thought that those objections came with very bad grace at this time, when they had just learned that a distinguished Cavalry officer, Baker Pasha, with a very small force composed of the three branches of the service, had defeated an enemy ten times as numerous.