HC Deb 14 March 1887 vol 312 cc211-7

The success of the Prussian organization in 1870 for the first time drew the attention of this country to the question of the localization of our forces in peace time, and to the means of mobilizing them with rapidity when war was anticipated; and accordingly, in 1874, a plan for the localization of the forces was worked out and adopted, followed shortly afterwards by one for the mobilization of the Army. The former practically applied only to our Infantry. Under it our whole Infantry, whether Regulars, Militia, or Volunteers, was formed into brigades, each attached to a certain portion of the country, and each having a general head-quarters at the depôt of the Line regiments belonging to the brigade. The tie between these Linr regiments and their district was at first slight, and consisted only in the fact that their depot was situated therein; but the Auxiliary troops were really and genuinely local, and belonged entirely to the district with which the localization scheme associated them.

The next step taken was to arrange for the proper mobilization of our forces when war was apprehended; that is, for their assembling, receiving their reserves, their stores, and their fighting equipment, and for their classification into Army Corps, each ready to move to the point where its services might be required, as an organized fighting body complete within itself in all arms of the Service. It was with this object that the mobilization tables of l875 were drawn out, under which the whole of our land forces were divided into definite brigades, divisions, and Army Corps, each with its local head-quarters and its staff organization; and also, speaking broadly, these tables indicated the place at which each unit was to receive its reserves, its arms, and its stores.

This scheme of mobilization was very carefully devised, but it had the serious defect of aiming too high. It assumed as its starting point that the whole of the Militia, as well as the Regular Army, was available for mobilization, and it passed over the fact that the strength of our Cavalry, Artillery, and other branches of the Service was much below what it should have been, to correspond to the strength of our Infantry. It was, I believe, hoped at the time the scheme was framed that the deficiencies in these former arms would be gradually made good, and on this basis the constitution of eight Army Corps was arranged for, in addition to the garrisons of our fortresses. The materials to complete these Corps were, however, not forthcoming, and hardly any attempt was over made to fill up the gaps existing. The result was that the mobilization scheme of 1875 never had more than a paper existence. A partial mobilization of two Corps took place in 1876, but the occasion never arose of testing any one of thorn at a war strength; and after remaining for some years as a sort of academic exercise in military organization, the scheme dropped out of the pages of the Army List and disappeared. When in 1878 it was considered desirable to make preparations for placing an Army Corps in the field, the selection of the troops to constitute it was not governed by the scheme of 1875, but was determined by independent considerations.

The next endeavour to make our standing arrangements in peace, preparatory for war, was made by Mr. Childers in 1881. He carried the localization of our forces considerably further than had been done by Mr. Card well. The whole of our Infantry, except the Guards, the Rifle Corps, and the Rifle Brigade, was definitely territorialized, and local designations, and sometimes namo3 of unnecessary length, were substituted for the old titles. The Militia and Volunteers were, of course, already local, and from 1881 it may be said that our Army has had a distinctive territorial constitution.

The preparations for mobilization made by Mr. Childers only extended to providing one Army Corps, which it was intended to be ready to take the field at any time, in any of the small wars in which we are so often engaged. It was to consist entirely of Regulars, and to furnish it, and at the same time meet considerations of expense, the establishments of our battalions were carefully graduated so that those first for foreign service stood at the highest strength. Twelve of those, together with six battalions from the Mediterranean and three battalions of Guards, were to form the Infantry of the Army Corps, which it was considered we should be able to put into the field at any moment.

This scheme, being mainly intended to meet the exigencies of the small wars in which this country is so often engaged, was inadequate to meet the real and permanent requirements of our position; while, on the other hand, the abortive scheme of the eight Army Corps in 1875 had required larger numbers than our forces at our highest strain could furnish.

The result of all this was that, until 1886, we were no further advanced toward actual mobilization in the event of an European war than we were when the Prussian successes first compelled a consideration of the question. But it may be fairly said that although until recently the arrangements for combining our different military units into larger organizations for the purposes of defence had not materially advanced, the military value of those units is very different now from what it was in 1875. The Auxiliary Forces have been steadily approaching more and more to the standard of efficiency of Regular troops, and short service has given us a strong and available reserve on which we can place our hands at short notice.

It was under these conditions that, in 1886, a third attempt was made to grapple with the question of mobilization. The method followed on this occasion was, however, somewhat different from that which had previously been adopted. In the first attempt to deal with this problem, the proposed organization required larger forces than were really available for mobilization. In the second, the exigencies of our smaller wars had chielly been taken into account. In 1886 the calculations began with a careful examination of our actual military assets and the endeavour was made to see how these could be best put into an effective fighting organization with the least possible disturbance and the fewest additions. The problem attempted to be solved on this occasion was not what army we ought to be prepared to put into the field in the event of a big war; but, how we could get the maximum result out of our existing force with the minimum of change and of expense.

This examination brought very clearly to light one essential defect which has hitherto prevailed in our system. In every army the various arms and the various services, such as the Cavalry, the Artillery, the Infantry, the Engineers, the Commissariat, and the Medical Department, should bear to each other a certain proportion; and this proportion has been so thoroughly worked out by military experience, that within very narrow limits it may be said to have been practically determined.

But our composite Army has grown up piecemeal, and no real endeavour has ever yet been made to introduce into it any proportion between its various branches. It was at once evident, when stock was taken of our military strength, that in order to extract the full value from our material, a certain amount of conversion was necessary. There was too much of one arm and too little of another. But making allowance for this conversion and for some comparatively minor additions, the results arrived at were as follows:—

Subject to these changes and additions, our present forces might be so arranged that they would be sufficient to provide men for all our home and Colonial garrisons, and also to furnish two Army Corps of regular troops, each stronger by four battalions than those contemplated in 1875, together with a strong Cavalry Division, and the necessary troops to guard their line of communication. After doing this, there would still remain a balance of disciplined troops, which would form a nucleus round which a further army might be collected.

The details of the measures by which the above results would be arrived at are almost completely worked out at the War Office: and I hope before long to be able to show to every unit of our home forces the precise functions it will have to fulfil should this country be either threatened with invasion, or called upon to take part in a serious war. I feel assured that when our Auxiliary Forces realize what an integral part of our national defence they will form under the new scheme, they will cheerfully submit to any modifications in their present condition that it may require.

I am not going to assert that our land forces have in all respects reached the condition aimed at by these measures. But there are two great points which may be urged in favour of the mobilization scheme of 1886. In the first place, the aim is one well within our reach, without any substantial increase of our forces, or of our expenditure. And, secondly, if this aim can be accomplished, it will give us an enormous advance in the defensive powers of the country. It must, however, be remembered that this scheme can only succeed if a certain amount of finality be attached to it. If it be accepted, as I hope it may be (and it is for this purpose that it is described in this statement), as the standard up to which our military arrangements have to work, all these must steadily be made to fit in with it. The establishment of our Infantry battalions, the raising of a Militia or Volunteer regiment, the strength of all branches of our Artillery, must all be considered and dealt with as part of a general scheme. And, above all, by establishing the standard at which we ought to aim, it will strengthen the hands of the Secretary of State for the time being in resisting, on the one hand, any attempt to enlarge any branch of our establishment beyond the strength so declared to be essential, and, on the other hand, in pressing upon Parliament, as circumstances permit, the additions to, or alterations in, our existing system which are still urgently required.

This scheme of mobilization having been generally accepted by my predecessor (the present First Lord of the Treasury), the steps which are necessary, or are being taken to make it a reality, may be best described by a short reference to each branch of the Service.

I take first those services in which the mobilization scheme mainly contemplates the utilization, and not the extension or conversion, of our existing forces.

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