HC Deb 14 March 1887 vol 312 cc225-9

I come now to the Volunteers, amongst whom it has long been a grievance that too little attention has been paid to them, and that too low a value has been placed upon them by military authorities. That complaint, if ever well founded, no longer exists.

The Volunteer Force has now been included in the mobilization scheme for the general defence of the country. In the event of any necessity arising, every corps within a fixed distance of the harbours and forts to be defended, will be called upon to join the other land services in garrisoning those places; whilst the remaining Volunteers outside those limits will be mobilized at such points as the circumstances of the case require. No greater compliment could have been paid to the Volunteer system, than that it should have come to be recognized as an integral and essential part of the organized defence of the country. But, if the Volunteers are really anxious, as I for one feel pure that they are, that the services they are prepared to render should be turned to account at such a crisis to the greatest advantage, they must be prepared to co-operate with the military authorities in supplying the deficiencies which at present exist, rather than in supplementing those branches of the Service of which the numbers are already adequate, if not excessive.

It was for this reason that my predecessor decided to entertain, this year, no applications for any increase of Volunteer Infantry. The enrolled strength of this force last November was over 226,000 of all arms, leaving only a margin of about 27,000 before the authorized establishment is reached.

It was, in his opinion (one in which I entirety concur), wise to arrest the increase of Volunteer Infantry until it was determined whether an increase in other arms could not be brought about, which would render the defence of the country more perfect. In some parts of the country there exists a strong desire to raise Submarine Mining or Medical Staff Corps, which deserves every encouragement, and a most interesting experiment is about to be tried at Crewe in the formation of a Railway Corps thoroughly fit to render service in the defence of the country, and to furnish a force of Engineers fit to lay a military railway in any part of the world. A certain proportion of this Corps will be passed into the 1st Class Army Reserve, and will be placed on precisely the same footing as the Post Office Corps, who have done such good service in the field.

On the other hand, in some parts of the county, the mobilization scheme has revealed a deficiency of Artillery, of Engineers, or of Submarine Miners.

Our first duty, then, appears to be to see whether the same loyal spirit, which has produced the Volunteer movement and given it that continuity which has so surprised its enemies, will not enable us little by little to supply the gap now existing in our system of defence, without largely adding to the total establishment of the force. In the same spirit, that of recognizing the Volunteer Force as an integral and essential element in the defence of the country, we ought to approach the report of the Committee on the Capitation Grant.

That report, I am sorry to say, discloses, on the face of the returns which have been made public, a most unsatisfactory financial condition. It is only fair to say that the alleged insufficiency of the grant of public money, which was the main reason for the appointment of the Committee, is confirmed by the report. But it shows, in addition, a very large expenditure upon unnecessary objects, which has, in many cases, imposed a burden of debt, threatening the existence of some of our most effective battalions, and which makes the difficulty of obtaining Officers a great and a growing one. It appears, further, that many Commanding Officers, who have long foreseen the danger which is threatening them, find themselves powerless to restrain this expenditure, or to find any successor to themselves willing to assume the burden of a growing debt.

If, therefore, Parliament is to be asked to increase the Capitation Grant, it seems to me that the opportunity should be seized to establish a proper examination of the expenditure of all Volunteer Corps. For this purpose a form will annually be issued from the War Office which will be returned by each corps at the close of the Volunteer year, showing its expenditure under different heads. This will afford an opportunity of examining not only the items of "necessary" expenses as defined by the Committee, which may fairly be charged to the Parliamentary Grant, but will also, as I hope, enable the War Office to strengthen the hands of Commanding Officers in checking unnecessary expenditure, and in gradually reducing the existing debts. Some forms of expenditure must, however, be in future absolutely prohibited, as, for instance, any extra payment for camp allowance, or extra pay for the Permanent Staff.

With these preliminary stipulations, I am prepared to propose to Parliament to increase the Capitation Grant to Volunteers, but in a form somewhat different from that recommended by the Committee. Their recommendation would establish two rates of grant, one of 30s. for each efficient, and another of 35s. for those who shoot out of the third class. This system would in practice be somewhat cumbersome, Reference to the Musketry Returns of the two previous years would be rendered necessary in every case of a Volunteer failing to pass into the second class, in order that the proviso suggested by the Committee, "that those who fail to pass out of the third class during the course of any three years should cease to draw any grant whatever," may be observed.

I prefer to adhere to the present system of one rate of Capitation Grant, and to make its amount 35s. But in return for this we are, I think, justified in endeavouring to obtain from the Volunteers even a higher rate of efficiency with the rifle than that demanded by the Committee. It will not be forgotten that up to the present time no accuracy with the rifle has been demanded of the Volunteers. As long as each man fired off 60 rounds of ball cartridge, he might shoot into the ground or into the air, and yet remain efficient as regards musketry. The great improvement in match shooting which has been so marked in recent years does not appear generally to extend to the bulk of the force, but it is confined to those who are really anxious to improve themselves as marksmen. The first condition of improvement in the Volunteer Force, then, appeal's to be a general efficiency with the rifle. I propose, therefore, that the first year (1887–8) shall be a year of grace and training, when the Capitation Grant of 35s. can be earned by all men who hit the target 12 times in their 60 rounds, but that in subsequent years it shall be paid only to those who pass out of the third class, with the exception of the recruits; and lost anyone should suppose that the test imposed is altogether excessive, I may add that even at the present time 90 per cent. of the efficients pass out of the third class. This will enable all corps to earn a large sum this year, and to prepare themselves, by weeding out those Volunteers who have no efficiency whatever with the rifle, for greater stringency in the future conditions of the grant.

I may add that special circumstances as to Artillery and Engineers justify me in recommending the increased grant in their case without any such conditions.

Closely connected with this subject is that of ranges, the closing of which in many parts of the country is placing great difficulties in the way of earning the Capitation Grant. Unfortunately, as the country becomes more densely populated, this difficulty is not likely to decrease, and some remedy, even if to some extent an artificial one, becomes urgent. Safety screens have been erected on several ranges by Mr. Morris and the Royal Engineers, with the effect of making them practically safe. The chance of a bullet missing the screens or the butt is reduced to a minimum.

Unfortunately, there are two objections to their use: one the expense (£60 per firing point), and the other that whilst the erection of a safety screen makes the range safe (say) at 200 yards, it obviously renders the range useless at longer distances, owing to the interposition of the screens. It has been suggested that the only way of overcoming this difficulty is to allow the Volunteer to shoot his course, in these exceptional cases, at the safe distance only, the figures on the target being reduced in proportion to the distance at which he is supposed to be shooting. This is, of course, an artificial expedient, to be justified only by the necessities of the case. But we are making experiments in the matter, and if may be desirable to adopt some such system rather than to throw upon the shoulders of the Volunteer Force or upon the public funds a charge for ranges of a very serious character.

Further facilities will, however, be also afforded to Volunteers by the adoption of the recommendations that allowances be paid to Volunteers having to travel long distances to their places of firing. Provision is made in the present Estimates for these allowances, as well as for grants for marching columns, and for knowledge of tactics and signalling amongst Officers.

I am not able to accept the proposal of the Committee for the general provision of greatcoats, which would obviously be liable to abuse; but I hope that Parliament will approve the items, which we have included in the Vote, for giving a grant of 2s. for each greatcoat of approved pattern produced at an inspection.

There remain a few special questions without a reference to which this Memorandum would be even more incomplete than it is.

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