HC Deb 19 March 1885 vol 295 cc1719-33

in rising to call attention to the inadequacy of the defences of our military ports, said: I do not desire to exaggerate the importance of this matter; but if I refer to the language held by the First Lord of the Admiralty, I think I shall show it is one which deserves and requires the very serious attention of the noble Lord the Secretary of State for War and of this House. It will be in the recollection of the House that I asked the noble Lord, two or three days ago, whether it was his intention to make provision for the seaward defence of Portsmouth, Plymouth, Gibraltar, and Malta. I confine myself to these ports, because they were mentioned by Lord. North-brook. That noble Lord, in his speech in the House of Lords, December 2, 1884, said— The other important question is, whether it is not necessary, in consequence of the increased power of guns of late years and the changes in that respect, to make some alteration and improvement in the seaward defences of our great military ports at home and ahroad—I mean such ports as Portsmouth, Plymouth, Malta, and Gibraltar. That subject has also been under the consideration of my noble Friend the Secretary of State for War; and it is probable that he will have proposals to bring before Her Majesty'sGovernment."—(3Hansard, [294] 413.) In the position which the noble Lord occupies in the Government, the language which he has used is a distinct recognition of the importance of the subject. I think the statement is strong, because of its moderation; and therefore I ask the noble Lord whether he is prepared to take steps to improve those defences? This is not the first time that I have drawn attention to the necessity of doing so; and if I have refrained from insisting on the weakness of particular places, or the insufficiency of the means used for defending them, it has been from a desire to avoid anything which would cause embarrassment to Her Majesty's Government in the discharge of their duties, and also from the desire which everyone of proper feeling would have not to give occasion for panic or alarm. There is no occasion for panic or alarm if we exercise the common prudence, judgment, and energy which I ask for from Her Majesty's Government. The interpretation which I put on the answer of the noble Lord to a Question which I put to him the other day on the subject is that there must be delay, that of two things this is of the less importance, and that the energies of Her Majesty's Government must be devoted to a great extent to strengthening the defences of the coaling stations, and, therefore, that they are unable to take the steps recognized as necessary for the seaward defences of our military ports. I do not think that is a sufficient answer. If the military ports are insufficiently defended, the admission that our coaling stations should be better protected appears to me to be an argument that the military ports should be adequately defended. I understand the statement to be that we are justified in leaving half our defences unprotected, because a certain expenditure is to be incurred for outlying stations. I shall be told that we have gone on for several years, and that there has been no danger. My answer is, Why have we forts or other means of defence unless there is danger? But again I fall back upon the statement of Lord Northbrook as to the necessity for improving the defences of our military ports. Perhaps I shall be told that I am doing injury to the public interests by what I am about to say. I do not sympathize with the view held by the Department, and probably by the Government, that injury would be done by stating plainly the circumstances of the case. I believe the very reverse. Just consider what we are. We are servants of the Crown and the country; and if it is contended that it is our duty to withhold from the Crown and the country the simple facts of the case in which the country is so deeply concerned, I do not agree with that view of the case. If there is sufficient defence the country ought to know it. If the defence is insufficient, the country ought to know it too, because it is absurd to suppose that those abroad who take an interest in the matter are unacquainted with the facts. Everyone who reads the newspapers, and every Member of the House, is well aware that there are naval and military officers, some attached to Embassies, others not so attached, whose duty it is to keep Foreign Governments informed as to the condition of our defences and of our military and naval power. Therefore, to say that we should be giving information which might be injurious to the country in the event of a war is to keep up a delusion injurious to the public interests. But I will so far respect the position maintained for a great many years as not to state precisely what I know of the weakness and strength of particular ports. I will call them A, B, and C. I have information as to the calibre of guns, the number of guns not mounted or not having carriages, where the amount of recoil is greater than the space behind the guns, and a vast amount besides, which any man or any newspaper may get that chooses to take the trouble, and that without any breach of confidence or betrayal of trust by those whose duty it is to take charge of such places. I will now speak of A. No further steps whatever have been taken to organize the submarine mine and torpedo defence. Very weak in sappers (one weak company), who would require weeks instead of days to lay out these mines. Torpedo boats are necessary; but in the absence of the Fleet—and it would be at sea in time of war—there are no trained men capable of working them. I hear that representations on the subject have been made to the authorities; but nothing has been done. B.—The stores are incomplete, and the trained men could not lay the mines in less than three weeks. The ground to be defended has not been determined upon. C.—No boats. No station fixed or plans decided upon. No Royal Engineer torpedo officer here at present. No torpedo depôt yet established. In fact, if a war suddenly broke out with a Naval Power, this port would be quite unprepared with regard to the submarine defences. I mention these three ports out of six or seven of which I have information. If the noble Marquess wishes it, I will give him much more accurate details and complete information which will satisfy him that I am speaking with full knowledge of the facts; but I can say something more. As to mercantile ports, there has been a proposal for several years to make use of and train local Volunteer Engineers; but as yet no stores have been furnished for practice, nor any serious steps taken to train the men, although the artizans who constitute these corps are in some cases par ticularly well adapted for the work, and anxious to take it up. Proposals have for several years been in existence for creating submarine defences; but they have never gone beyond proposals. There are plenty of men, not necessarily Royal Engineers, who would be glad to submit to the necessary discipline, would be always found on the spot, and would be anxious to take up the work. There is no cause for alarm if we set to work at once; but it is to be regretted that schemes that have been on paper for years should never get beyond paper. We cannot afford to be less than ready with our materials for warfare. Is it to be supposed that a Foreign Power intending to make war upon this country would have the courtesy to postpone offensive operations until we could overcome every difficulty that might impede our action? The greatest security for peace is the fact that a nation is prepared for war; and I believe that we can only insure peace by making the best use of the materials and organization at our command. I trust that we shall receive some assurance from the Secretary of State for War that the work which ought to be undertaken in connection with our military and mercantile ports shall be taken in hand at once. A large expenditure is not required; but a very great responsibility will rest upon the Government if they fail to avail themselves of the means now at their disposal for the successful prosecution of this work.


I have no complaint to make of the manner in which this subject has been brought before us. On the contrary, I think the House is indebted to the right hon. Gentleman for the careful, moderate, and guarded statement which he has just made. I gather that the chief subject to which he desires to call attention is what he considers to be the condition of unpreparedness of our submarine mining defences. The House will not expect that I should follow closely the right hon. Gentleman's criticisms upon the subject, because by the very proper mode of description which he has adopted in his references to our forts he has put it out of my power to correct any mistakes into which he may have fallen. However, if the right hon. Gentleman will give me privately the information which he has received in regard to any deficiency in the submarine defences of any forts I shall be very happy to inquire into the matter, and to give the House such further information as may be in my power when we come to consider the special Votes. I may now mate a few general observations which I think will be thought to a certain extent satisfactory. Three extra companies for the protection of submarine mines of the principal military stations are being formed. Although this has been effected at some sacrifice of the strength of some branches of the Corps of Royal Engineers, yet the importance of the branch is considered so great that no consideration can be allowed to interfere with the formation of these companies. Local aid is being developed in the formation of Militia companies for Submarine Mining Companies in Devonshire and Kent. The wants of coaling stations are being met by the formation of a special battalion for training the men. A sum is being taken in the present Estimates for raising a native battalion which shall take part in the submarine mining defence of Singapore, Hong Kong, and other important coaling stations, and some of these stations have certainly been very much strengthened. At Chatham the Submarine Mining School has been formed into a separate battalion. To obtain the advantage of having a Submarine Mining Company, a large number of intelligent boatmen and other intelligent men have been employed, and recruiting is going on at seaports. At present the Corps of Royal Engineers labour under a certain disadvantage compared with other corps in the absence of any chance of promotion from the ranks. This will for the future be remedied by the formation—for which some provision is made in the present Estimates—of a Coast Corps of Royal Engineers on lines similar to those upon which the Coast Corps of Royal Artillery was formed. The Corps will take charge and superintend the submarine mine defences of important stations, and take part in the recruiting, drilling, and training of Militia and Volunteer Submarine Mining Companies. The plans of the defences of the principal forts have been lately revised in consultation with the Naval Authorities, in order to obtain unity of action between them and the Military Authorities. I am not able to state what has been actually expended on the preparation of submarine mines; but very considerable expenditure has been, and is still being, incurred. The right hon. Gentleman will, therefore, see that the subject is not being neglected. I should like to say a few words upon the more general question raised by the right hon. Gentleman in the Motion which he has placed upon the Paper—namely, the question of the defences of our principal military stations. When the fortification of those stations was provided for by Lord Palmerston—by the raising of a long loan for between £7,000,000 and £8,000,000—it was intended that the cost of the necessary armaments should be defrayed out of the annual Estimates; and in 1860 it was estimated that £5,250,000 had been employed for this particular purpose. From 1860 to 1878 £3,250,000 were expended, leaving a balance, according to the original Estimate, of£1,750,000 still to be provided. About £750,000 has since been spent, so that about£1,000,000 is still due on the original Estimate; but the increased cost of heavy ordnance, although, of course, the number of guns required at the works has considerably diminished, has considerably increased the total cost of the necessary arms, and it is now considered that about £1,250,000 are still due to complete the approved defences of the principal military stations at home and abroad. The alterations in the character of ordnance have also rendered necessary certain structural alterations in the works themselves, and also, in some cases, the construction of new works, and works in new and more advanced positions; and for these purposes, and for the completion of preparations for the new mode of defence, it is estimated that something like £1,000,000 will be required in addition to the works for submarine mining. There is, therefore, about £2,250,000 to be expended before the defences of the great military ports at home and abroad can be considered completely satisfactory. I am very far indeed from saying that this expenditure ought to be very long delayed; but the question of how and when, and in what mode it should be proceeded with is one of very considerable difficulty and embarrassment. Certainly it is no Party question, because both Parties in the country have acquiesced in the delay that has been in- curred. The difficulty is not only the very great difficulty common to all Governments of finding the money, but it is necessary that we should be satisfied that we had got something which, if not absolutely final, presents a reasonable prospect of being satisfactory for a very considerable number of years before calling upon Parliament to make a great effort in the matter. Up to the present time I am bound to say no such stage of finality can be said to have been reached. Then, Sir, the question of the time when we ought to make a great effort is one that requires a great deal of consideration; and, above all things, we ought to avoid by a hasty expenditure making the country indisposed subsequently to make those efforts and sacrifices which it may ultimately have to make. If these ports and military stations are defenceless, we should not be justified in acquiescing in any further delay; but that is by no means the case. Although the armaments have not been completed up to the approved scale, the defences are exceedingly strong. The opinion, I believe, of military authorities derived from recent experience—from experience such as that gained by the attack on the forts at Alexandria, and from the still more recent experience gained from the attack by the French Fleet on the Chinese forts—the opinion is that the defence of fortifications is gaining ground in comparison to the power of the attack; and both at Alexandria and the Chinese forts I believe that the general opinion is that the forts, if defended by a resolute garrison, would have been able to offer a very successful resistance to the attack of even a powerful fleet. I believe that our forts at any rate, even in their present position, are exceedingly strong. It is extremely doubtful whether any Power or combination of Powers would venture to attack them, unless they were assured that they would not themselves be exposed to the possible attack of our own Fleet. They are, I think, strong enough to make a successful resistance, except under a combination of circumstances almost impossible, if not utterly out of the question. There is, therefore, no cause whatever for a panic—there is no cause for alarm, or for a hasty and ill-considered expenditure. We have upon our hands at the present moment an expenditure of a very heavy nature, not only in connection with military expeditions, but also for Imperial defences. We have also undertaken to protect a number of Colonial coaling stations; and that, in the opinion of the Admiralty, is a service of a most urgent nature. We have also undertaken and are making provision for an expenditure of more than £1,500,000 in the next five years in an addition to the naval guns, and we have also to make some provision for replenishing military equipments and stores. These services tax severely, I will not say the resources of the country, but certainly to a very considerable amount the resources of the Military Departments, both engineering and manufacturing. The Engineering Department at the present moment is occupied almost to the utmost in connection with the Expeditions that are in hand, and also in connection with the works in progress at the coaling stations; and I doubt whether it would be in the power of this Department to undertake any very heavy expenditure at the present time. The House, however, may rely upon it that as soon as there is any reasonable prospect of a finality in these matters being attained, and that as soon as we are convinced that we can assure the country that it will have its money's worth, we shall not hesitate to make such proposals as will provide for the complete security of these important stations, and to call upon the country to make such sacrifices as may be necessary for the purpose.


said, he agreed with the noble Marquess that this was no Party question; but it was very desirable that it should be discussed apart from other questions of Army administration, and in such a manner as would show to the House and the country that the Government were keeping themselves in accord with the general desire that these stations should be strengthened. There was only one point in the speech of the noble Marquess with which he should have found fault, and that was contained in almost his last sentence. The noble Marquess said the House might rest assured that whenever the Government saw a reasonable prospect of finality they would take such steps as they might deem necessary to complete the defences of the country. That was just laying down the one condition that was most difficult of fulfil- ment. There could be no such thing as finality in these matters. What the country was fairly entitled to ask was that the Government, without committing themselves absolutely to the expenditure of money on schemes which might be valueless before the time came for their completion, should yet make such preparations as might enable them in the event of any emergency to meet it without delay. Over and over again it had occurred that before schemes for forts and other extensive works were completed a great change in the original plans had had to be made at great expense owing to various circumstances. The noble Lord had overlooked the fact that his right hon. Friend was well within his right in making the observations that he did, having regard to the statement of the noble Earl at the head of the Admiralty, who, in "another place," gave as a ground for showing that the ships of the Navy were sufficient for the calls that might be made on them the fact that— This subject was also under the consideration of his noble Friend the Secretary of State for War; and it was probable that he would have proposals to bring before Her Majesty's Government."—(3 Hansard, [294] 413.) The House and the country were very anxious to know what these proposals exactly were. When they came to discuss the Votes themselves the Government would have to be pressed in greater detail on these matters. There certainly was an impression abroad that there was not quite that state of preparedness at some of these ports which the country had a right to expect. It was not enough to have the materials on the spot. There should be in the hands of the authorities some intelligible plan as to the means by which they would carry out their system of defence, and from time to time this system ought to be tested. He believed that when the late Government left Office there were very ample and carefully worked out plans for the defence of some of the principal ports of the Kingdom. Of course these plans required revision from time to time; but it was most important that such plans and schemes should be brought up to date, and kept in a condition to be worked efficiently without delay.


desired to know whether any progress had been made to find out whether the large ports were willing to contribute themselves towards their own defence? The time for action had now come; and he hoped that the noble Lord would, in the statement he was about to make, re-assure the country by making it feel that no step would be left untried to settle this most important question upon a sound and adequate basis.


said, he had never heard such an idea expressed in the House before. In his opinion, the whole country was equally interested in the defence of the various ports; and it was altogether out of the question that the inhabitants of places like Plymouth and Portsmouth should be called upon to contribute specially to their defence, as the noble Lord opposite suggested.


said, it was not his suggestion. The Secretary of State for War had stated, in reply to a Question last year, that the matter was under consideration how far a locality should contribute to its own defence.


said, that the subject under discussion last year was that of commercial harbours as distinguished from military ports, and he had thrown out the idea whether commercial harbours should not contribute towards their own defence; but his remark did not apply to naval ports like Portsmouth and Plymouth.


said, that was a very different thing. He should like to know whether the guns were ready for the forts if they were required to be used?


said, there was a part of our Dominions in North-West America which possible contingencies might render it desirable for us to look after. The coast of British Columbia, for a distance of several hundred miles, was absolutely without a harbour. During the months that preceded the ascent of our Fleet to Constantinople, Russian ships of war were cruising off the coast of British Columbia. There were two powerful Russian ironclads, but no British Force at all. The strength of our squadron on this coast was one iron-clad and three corvettes, a force which was totally inadequate to protect the enormous range of coast, practically speaking, extending from Australia in the South to Behring's Straits in the North. Russia, no doubt, was fully alive to the importance of those possessions, and her first step, in the event of war with this country, would probably be to seize the principal harbour, which commanded the whole coast of British Columbia; and if they did this the whole of the North-West Coast would be at their mercy. He desired, however, to call the attention of the House to the subject of which he had given Notice—namely— To call attention to the dissatisfaction caused by certain conditions of Army service as at present regulated; and to move, That, instead of the system of stoppages under which the soldier is called upon to pay for certain indispensable articles, these should he supplied free of charge, and the scale of pay altered, if necessary, in consequence. He believed that there was no point in the Military Service which caused such widespread dissatisfaction as the system of stoppages of pay. In the proclamations by which recruits were attracted to the Army certain attractions were held out for military service. There would probably be no dissatisfaction on the part of non-commissioned officers and men were the terms of the proclamation adhered to; but there was no reason why the War Department should enlist soldiers under what were practically false pretences. A short time ago there was placed at the door of the Horse Guards a proclamation which contained a direct mis-statement. It contained the catalogue of supposed advantages which men obtained on enlistment, and among them there was a statement that free rations were supplied. In the official paper it was true that a free ration of bread and meat was stipulated for. That was, no doubt, correct, because the soldier received 1 lb. of bread and three-quarters of a pound of meat per day. But he asked the House whether, if they enlisted a soldier on condition of his receiving free rations, and then gave him only 1 lb. of bread and three-quarters of a pound of beef, they were fulfilling the spirit of the proclamation under which they had attracted the soldier to the Service? He said they would not be fulfilling its spirit. The soldier got what was barely sufficient to maintain him in life, but not sufficient to maintain him in health. He received 1s. a-day, which, no doubt, he calculated upon having to spend; but, as a matter of fact, he had to supply himself out of this 1s. with certain necessaries, such as tea and other groceries, and vegetables. When he enlisted he was said to be supplied with a free kit, and that was to last him for the whole time of his service—namely, seven years. In this kit he was supplied with two shirts, and if they did not last for the seven years, as he was obliged to wear a shirt under his tunic, he was obliged to supply the deficiency out of his 1s. a-day. By the Regulations the soldier was bound to pipeclay his belts—the pipeclay he had to provide himself. Then, again, he was compelled to have the articles in his kit marked, and he was charged 1d. for each article marked. Indeed, the deductions from the soldier's pay, consequent upon and inseparable from the conditions of his service, amounted from 4d. to 7d. per day. In addition to the Regulation stoppages, there was a form of stoppage which came under the head of barrack damages. It was unfair and unjust that men should be charged for the inherent defects of articles supplied by the Government. As an instance of what he said was of daily occurrence, he mentioned that a soldier in a certain barracks in London was ordered to affix to the chimney-piece of the barrack-room a board with certain Regulations upon it. The board was supplied by the Department duly marked. In order to hang up the board the soldier had to bore two holes in it, and he was assured by the superior officer of that soldier that it was absolutely impossible to bore the holes without splitting the board. There was no cause for surprise, therefore, that the board in the course of being fixed was split; but there was considerable cause for surprise to find that the soldier was charged 10d. for a new board. Also with regard to brushes, they would not last for seven years, and the soldier had to supply new ones at his own cost, the result being that the cleanest soldier suffered the most in this respect. Then, again, a soldier was compelled to shave, and yet he was only supplied with a 1s. razor, which certainly would not last for seven years. The whole system of stoppage out of pay was a bad one, and the first Secretary for War who devised a means of putting an end to it would deserve the thanks of the Service. He asked the noble Lord the present Secretary for War to satisfy himself by personal inquiry as to the justice of the complaint of the soldiers upon this point. If he found that they had a real grievance, he was bound to devise some means for remedying it. With regard to the question of deferred pay, he might say that there was a very strong inducement to the soldier to draw his £21 at the expiration of his first term of seven years' service. Many soldiers married without leave, and at the expiration of their first term of service they felt themselves compelled to draw their deferred pay. He suggested that at the expiration of the first term of service a soldier, upon re-enlisting, should be allowed two or three months furlough. If this course were adopted, they would keep many good men in the Service, and should induce them to re-enlist at the expiration of their first term, and thus we should greatly increase the efficiency of the Army as a whole.


remarked, that what was required for the better defence of our commercial harbours was an organization of all our available Forces on the spot, whether Regulars or Volunteers.


also desired to impress upon the Secretary for War the necessity for taking steps in order to prevent in some instances the calls which were now made upon the soldier for providing part of his kit out of his pay. He should do away with some of the stoppages; but before going into that he wished to say a word as to free rations. He considered it most desirable to increase the meat ration. Three-quarters of a pound of meat was absurdly little—hon. Members would not dare give such a quantity to their own servants. The ration might be free, but it was not a "ration." As to the constant re-issue a free kit, he thought that was out of the question, some men being much more careless than others. He had seen soldiers lose everything in a few weeks, whereas others could keep their kits for months most economically. There were, however, exceptions—such as the Autumn Manœuvres—where he should make special allowance. The question of deferred pay was most important. It was, indeed, highly important to see that everything was done to induce good men to stop in the Army. He was afraid, however, some Regulations had gone against that, short service being so much encouraged.


urged that they should do away with the stoppages altogether. He would rather see the British soldier have some defined pay and no stoppages at all. He knew from experience that men entered the Service thinking they had Is. a-day, whereas they soon discovered how false their hopes were. There was an important leader in The Times last year on this subject; and he thought it could not receive too much consideration, and he hoped the Secretary for War would not allow it to escape his attention. A reform in the direction would very much stimulate recruiting and increase the popularity of the Service. As regarded the deferred pay, he had always been against it, and he believed it interfered with the desire of soldiers to re-engage. He considered that soldiers, at the expiration of their term of service, should be allowed some more on leave. If this were done he believed many would rejoin the Service, and would prove very valuable additions to it.


said, the House would not expect him to make a lengthy reply to speeches which, although of an important character, might, he thought, have been better delivered on the same points in Committee. He could assure the hon. Baronet that this subject had been fully discussed by the Royal Commission for Recruiting; and General Peel, in introducing that Report, said that in order to make the Service more attractive it was better to increase the pay than make any alterations in the stoppages. He held that 2d. a-day would be more attractive. That was at a time when it was desirable to obtain more men for the Service. He thought hon. Members could hardly be aware of the enormous amount of money involved in this question of the stoppages. They must do one thing or another; they must leave the pay intact or reduce it pro tanto. The amount, if they were to concede this to the soldier, would be £400,000, if valued at 2d., and £80,000 was the sum estimated for stoppages for necessaries. If, on the other hand, the pay was to be reduced pro tanto, they should have to reduce the daily pay below 1s., which was the proverbial sum always recognized by the recruit. He believed this would be most unpopular in the Army and prejudicial to recruiting. Some system of stoppages for necessaries was obviously required, for otherwise the public would not be protected against the improvident soldier. They must also have stoppages for barrack damages, or great harm might be done. On all occasions on troops marching out or marching in two officers attended—one belonging to those going out and one to those coming in, and the damages were assessed in their presence. This was done in order that nothing but what was really fair should be assessed against the troops going out. There was great variety in the stoppages as between different ranks and different regiments. On active service the soldier had a free ration, and allowance was made for the wear and tear of his clothing. Having regard to the fact that the ranks were now full, and that they were under no necessity for holding out extra inducements, and considering the enormous sums involved in the stoppages, he could not, if it had been made, agree to the Motion of the hon. Baronet (Sir Herbert Maxwell).

Main Question, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair," put, and agreed to.