HC Deb 14 March 1887 vol 312 cc233-8
COLONEL DUNCAN (Finsbury, Holborn)

, in rising to call attention to the heavy expenditure caused by neglecting to employ the protected barbette or disappearing system in coast fortifications; and to move— That a Select Committee he appointed to inquire into the best way of utilizing the protected barbette or disappearing system in coast defences and coaling stations, said, that in these Military Estimates there was nothing which was in any way a mystery, or into which the common sense of a Parliamentary Committee was not competent to inquire. Military affairs owed much to the Volunteer movement, which had made all classes in the country familiar with such questions. It was the duty of Parliament to legislate not merely for the laws and liberties, but also for the lives of the people, and he thought that if he could show that the adoption of the system he advocated would minimize the risk not only to our soldiers, but to the whole population in time of war, he would be justified in bringing forward this Motion. He thought that he might take it as a postulate that we were no longer able to feed our people without importing food from abroad. That implied the existence of a Naval Force to protect the food-bringing ships; because the interruption of even one day in our supplies would give rise to panic and distress. But a Fleet for the purpose which he had described would have but an ephemeral value if it had not a protected base. The noble Lord the Member for South Paddington (Lord Randolph Churchill), in his apologia, had said that we flung ourselves into the arms of engineers. We certainly had done so some score of years ago, and the engineers had created frowning fortresses, which had merely invited notice, and the system of which had become obsolete before the mortar was dry. Time had passed, until the demands of the country and the resources of our manufactures showed that it was necessary and possible to make some change, although every obstacle had been for many years put in the way; and in spite of the opinion of a Committee in favour of some system of giving invisibility to our fortifications, and in spite of the opinions of the ablest engineers, every difficulty was put in the way of Colonel Moncrieff, as to the merits of whose invention there could be no doubt, and which consisted in this—and he thought it was the principal—that its adoption would greatly minimize the risk to which life was exposed by the present system. The official mind, however, was an interesting, but very irritating study; and the officials of the War Office had started with the assumption that all change must be deprecated, and detested the very presence of an inventor. But circumstances sometimes proved stronger even than permanent officials, and the recent development in machine and quick-firing guns had shown the absolute necessity of making a change. That necessity had now given weight in the official mind to arguments long neglected, and the angel of common sense had at last troubled the waters of the pool of officialdom. In fact, to make a man stand at a gun in open barbette, in an embrasure or elsewhere, exposed to the fire of these machine and quick-firing guns, was an utter impossibility, with any regard to the end to be attained; for it was simply to pronounce upon him a sentence of certain death. It might be asked why he wished for a Parliamentary Committee and not a professional one. His answer to that was, that although a professional Committee might be very useful for advice, and even as an Executive Body, a Parliamentary Committee had more power as an expression of the opinion of that House. He should like to see Committees of that House studying questions of design and principle, and not only that of paying the bill; he thought that, in such matters, the Representatives of the people ought to take some share of responsibility. The question which he had brought up was becoming more and more important. In various parts of the world besides the Coasts of our own country, on which there were over 1,600, we had muzzle-loading guns which might be efficiently and economically worked by moans of this system, by which the guns were absolutely safe, being only exposed at the moment of firing. The system was not only applicable to small guns, as had been thought at one time to be the case; it was applicable to all. All that was wanted now was a little wind to fill the sails of the War Office officials, such as could only be given by that House. The adoption of the protected barbette or disappearing system would save the money which was spent upon the maintenance of the old fortifications, and there would also be a saving as regards garrisons. Great interest was undoubtedly taken by Members of that House in such matters, but this interest must not cease with criticism; they must also accept some responsibility for the consideration of these questions. As a soldier, he wished to see Parliament inquiring into such matters. For two years a movement had been going on quietly in the right direction; but a little incentive was required, and every-thing should be done to insure that the plan, unlike these of General Trochu, should not be only a plan upon paper. When things were done in a scare and a panic they were always done at great expense; and by the House and War Office officials working deliberately and hand-in-hand the country would be enabled to get more value for its money. Although the Continent was at the present moment quiet, it was a matter of serious concern to think what the position of England would be in the event of a European war, when they looked at the huge armaments of other nations. If a Committee such as he now asked for were appointed, the country, for the first time in its history, would be undertaking the consideration of our fortifications without panic. It was stated that £3,000,000 sterling would have been saved if this system had been adopted some years ago; and he thought that an inquiry by a Parliamentary Committee into a system of defence admirably suited to the conditions of modern war-faro might obviate the spending of perhaps many millions more. Lee them, at all events, avoid the risk of spending more money uselessly, and this they would do by the adoption of the system, which lie had referred to. In conclusion, he begged to move the Resolution which stood in his name.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the test way of utilising the protected barbette or disappearing system in coast defences and coaling stations,"—(Colonel Duncan,)—instead thereof.

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


said, he wished to take the earliest opportunity of stating to the House the reasons why the Government were not able to accede to the request just preferred by the hon. and gallant Member with so much ability. As regarded one point touched upon, he would only say that, while he had no exception to take to the praise which the hon. and gallant Member bestowed upon inventors, he could not but remember that, when last Thursday the claims of a valuable invention were voted upon by the House, the hon. and gallant Member found it necessary to vote with the opposite Party. With regard to the alleged necessity for Parliamentary inquiries in order to fill the sails of the War Office, he thought, on the contrary, that the War Office was already scudding under quite a sufficient press of canvas. In fact, it was, if further over weighted, in danger of foundering, and none of its officials had any disposition to whistle for a breeze. the Government were unable to accept the Motion for several reasons. In the first place, they could not accept it for the same considerations which prevented them accepting the suggestion to refer the Brennan torpedo to a Parliamentary Committee—namely, that there must be a limit to the devolution of Executive authority, and when the whole question had already been considered by competent and responsible officers, they must throw upon them the responsibility for the advice they gave to the Secretary of State for War. In the second place, it was already proposed that a Parliamentary Committee should be appointed to go thoroughly into the question of the Army and the Navy Estimates, and it was possible that the matter which had been raised by the hon. and gallant Gentleman would come within its purview. And, in the third place, there was a special reason why a Special Committee should not be appointed, in the fact that, generally speaking, the War Office had practically accepted the view which the hon. and gallant Member had put forward. They had accepted the principle, as a principle, of the protected barbette or disappearing system of emplacements as against casemates; and, as a matter of fact, out of 48 guns ordered for coaling stations, 32 were on disappearing mountings, and 16 on the barbette system. At present, as the House might be aware, there wore in the Service two classes of disappearing mountings—the Moncrieff counter-weight carriages, and hydro-pneumatic mountings, the former being the old type of mounting, the latter the now. Of the counter-weight type they had 79 in position, and five in store at Woolwich unappropriated. Of the 79, 34 were in the Western and Southern Districts of England, one in the South -Eastern District, 11 in Ireland, 19 at Bermuda, 12 at Malta, and two at Halifax. Of the hydro-pneumatic mountings, the War Office- had ordered six 6-inch muzzle-loading guns and 28 6-inch breech-loading guns. Eight of those were allotted, temporarily, at all events, to Home Stations, 12 to Aden, nine to Hong Kong, two to Jamaica, and one to St. Lucia. It had not yet been demonstrated that these hydro-pneumatic mountings were suitable for heavy guns; but two experimental mountings were under order from Elswick and Messrs. Easton and Anderson for 9.2-inch breech-loading guns—the gun from Elswick would be ready this month—the latter was complete—and if they wore successful, further orders would probably be given. Two orders for 10-inch mountings had also been given to the same firms. There was a proposal now under consideration, made by Colonel Moncrieff, to apply his counter-weight system in substitution for the fixed mountings of the 9-inch and 10-inch rifled muzzle-loading guns now in the Service, and the Inspector General of Fortifications and the Director General of Artillery were now considering the possibility of carrying out Colonel Mon- crieff's idea. Such was the exact position of the Service as regards the disappearing mounting system; and he might be allowed to add that, as between barbette and hydro-pneumatic mountings, the former was 50 per cent cheaper. Thy cheaper way of mounting was, generally speaking, used when the guns were placed in an elevated position; when they could be more or less concealed from the sight of an enemy—the hydro-pneumatic mounting was employed when guns could not be so withdrawn. Already all questions regarding fortifications, including the mounting of guns, went through a seven-fold process of inquiry and report—surely a good reason for not adding an eighth in the shape of a House of Commons Committee. It was upon that ground, and on the further grounds that he was unwilling to relieve officers from all Executive responsibility, and that a Parliamentary Committee to inquire into the Estimates was about to be proposed by the Secretary of State for War, that he ventured respectfully and regretfully to say that the Government were not able to accede to the proposal of his hon. and gallant Friend.

Question put, and agreed to.

Main Question proposed, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair."