HC Deb 19 February 1891 vol 350 cc1173-84

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a number of Land Forces, not exceeding 153,696, all ranks, be maintained for the Service of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland at Home and Abroad, excluding Her Majesty's Indian Possessions, during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1892.

(11.9.) MR. E. STANHOPE

I am afraid I shall have to ask the indulgence of the House, first of all because I have had occasion to address it many times and at great length this evening, and also on personal grounds, because I am afraid I hardly feel equal to doing justice to the very considerable task before me. I have more than once appealed to hon. Members to allow me to make the statement I have to make earlier in the evening; but I make no complaint on this score, because I have no doubt hon. Gentlemen felt that they had no other opportunity of alluding to subjects of importance; and I therefore cannot complain that they preferred to discuss them instead of giving me the opportunity I desired. On the present occasion I hope to be able to compress my remarks within very reasonable limits, for I hope to be able to explain very shortly the progress that is being made with the three great works which have been undertaken during the past three years. And here I venture to claim very considerable credit for our Finance Department. Although within the last four years we have been undertaking improvements in every direction, involving a large expenditure of public money, it may fairly be said that substantially we have never had a real Supplementary Estimate. We have been able to give such accurate information to Parliament as to all the steps which we have proposed, that practically the House has not been called upon in any case to vote additional sums in conse- quence of any excess of expenditure' For this result I feel that I owe—and that the House owes—a debt of gratitude to my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary and to the Civil Staff at the War Office. The first great work which has been undertaken has been that of improving the defences of our ports and coaling stations. It will be recollected that the Imperial Defence Act of 1888 made provision for this object, and it was then estimated that the work would be completed in three years. I am happy to say that this anticipation will be almost exactly realised. The armament of our coaling stations, according to the accepted programme then laid down, is on the verge of completion, with the addition of Table Bay, as to the armament of which an agreement was come to between Sir Thomas Upington and myself at the Colonial Conference. It is not necessary to dwell upon the enormous additional advantage which these protected coaling stations will afford to the Navy in all parts of the world. The armament has now gone out to Singapore, Hong Kong, Table Bay, Simons Bay, Colombo, Jamaica, St, Lucia, and Sierra Leone; and the last guns for Aden and the Mauritius are now awaiting shipment. The armament is also ready for Esquimalt, for St. George's Sound, and for Torres Straits; but in none of these three places, I am sorry to say, have the Colonial Governments yet undertaken the preparation of the necessary works for mounting the guns when sent out. The task of adding modern guns to the armament of our great fortresses at home and abroad is also nearly complete. For obvious reasons I do not think it right to enter into detail, but I have no reason to doubt that the end of three years will find almost every item of the work disposed of, and within the estimates originally explained to the House, I cannot allow this work to come to that state of completion without expressing the great obligation which the country owes to the Inspector General of Fortifications, General Sir Lothian Nicholson, for the energy which he has thrown into the work and for the extreme pains he has taken to insure—a matter of no small difficulty in works going on in all parts of the world—that the expenditure shall be kept within the sums assigned. I do not think that the House will feel that I am informing them of anything which they would not be glad to hear, when I say we are now going to avail ourselves of Sir Lothian Nicholson's services in the command of the important fortress of Gibraltar. Nor can I omit to congratulate the Director of Artillery, General Alderson, upon the satisfactory completion of the necessary armaments. The new Naval programme, undertaken since the contracts were put out for the guns for the Imperial Defence Loan, has thrown much additional work on his Department and on the Director of Contracts, and it is all the more creditable that so little delay has been experienced. The result of this expenditure has been that, whereas three years ago no modern guns were effectively mounted in any one of our fortresses or coaling stations, except the four big guns at Malta and Gibraltar, now a powerful modern armament has in all cases added largely to their security. Amongst the places so strengthened are Portsmouth, Plymouth, the Thames, Malta, and Gibraltar. Any one who looks at the table which I presented to Parliament three years ago, showing all the places where improved armament was to be mounted, will see that the work that we then undertook and which we are now completing is work which undoubtedly will tend to give increased strength to our fortresses in every part of the world. The second great work which has been undertaken is the improvement of barrack accommodation. The changes that are being made are not, however, limited to the funds provided by loan, because the increased attention paid to barracks generally, and to the comfort of the private soldier, has caused so many urgent demands for sanitary and other services, that I have found it necessary considerably to increase the sum provided for these purposes in the Estimates of the year. The work of barrack improvement has, unfortunately, been considerably delayed by the long and severe winter, and the preparation of plans is a long and troublesome process, which is, however, being actively pushed on, while in many directions considerable progress has been made in building. Visitors to Aldershot during the summer will see the new brick camps rapidly springing up, and I hope that the occupation of some of the new blocks early next year will enable the much-needed work of demolition to begin. The increase of the troops at Alder shot has necessitated an addition to the hospital accommodation, which is being provided partly at the Cambridge Hospital, and partly on a new site in North Camp. Active work is also going on at Shorncliffe, while at Dover the improvements are nearly complete. In London, the large alterations required at the Albany Barracks will be almost immediately begun, and the additional officers' quarters provided at Wellington and Chelsea Barracks are in active progress. In Ireland the opportunity has been taken to re-consider, upon comprehensive grounds, the distribution of the reduced number of troops to be maintained in that country. Lord Wolseley has, with great activity, visited almost all districts, and a scheme of distribution has been agreed upon. Its main features are included in the endeavour to concentrate as much Royal Artillery and Cavalry as possible at New bridge and at the Curragh, which afford the best places of training. The garrison of Dublin will be reduced by one cavalry regiment. In the meantime, improvement is going on in all the Dublin barracks. The question whether it is desirable to discontinue the use of the remaining portion of the Royal Barracks has been very carefully threshed out by the Sanitary Committee and at the War Office. The result is a decision to occupy the barracks, after complete sanitary overhauling and partial re-construction, with a battalion of Infantry and the Army Service Corps, leaving the rest of the buildings to be occupied as storehouses, for which they are very conveniently situated. Good progress is being made at Wellington, and the new barracks at Grangegorman will be partially occupied by cavalry in a very few months' time. Work is also going on at the various fortresses and coaling-stations where improved or additional barrack accommodation is required; though, in several cases, the negotiations with the Colonial Governments for the necessary land have caused very considerable delay. But, taking the work all round, it will be seen that very considerable progress has been made in barrack improvement. Now I come to the third head in which progress has been made. We have during the past year pushed on in all directions measures for the speedy mobilisation of our defensive forces in time of war. These measures are based, not upon preparations for sending a large force abroad—and for this reason alone they cannot properly be compared with those of Continental armies—but upon the idea that, while we ought always to be able at short notice to send a comparatively small force abroad, and while we must make provision for strengthening certain colonial garrisons, our duty also is to organise all our Defensive Forces, Regular and Auxiliary, into the most effective engine for the defence of the country against invasion. It is not necessary for me to recapitulate the general features of the scheme, which have already been explained to the House, and upon which we are working. We have taken stock of all our available resources, and after making full provision for the necessities of the garrisons of ports and coaling stations at home and abroad, we are organising all our remaining home forces into an army of defence. The general officers of districts have received detailed information as to the composition of its various sections, and as to the points of mobilisation, concentration and storage; and at the War Office itself every effort has been made for as complete decentralisation as is possible, which will put it in the power of district authorities to carry out the steps necessary for mobilisation, without reference to headquarters. That decentralisation of stores in particular has, to a large extent, been effected. The stores, for instance, required for the troops at Aldershot, which, under the old system, might have taken six weeks to get out of Woolwich, are now actually stored between Alder shot and Southampton, at which latter place some of the heavier equipment is placed, so as to be ready for immediate shipment in case of the Alder shot troops having to be sent abroad. There are other centers, also, where the scheme of decentralisation is practically complete. I hope that the House fully understands what is intended, and what is, to a large extent, actually carried out. On the occurrence of an emergency the troops (mainly drawn from the Regular Army) forming the first line of defence will concentrate at the appointed stations, which are all situated at important railway junctions, enabling them to be transported, with the least possible delay, to the threatened district. Every detail necessary for this, purpose is being laid down, and when our store arrangements are quite complete the stores necessary for them to take the field will be either at their peace stations or in magazines situated at or near to the points of concentration. Behind the Army is the great Volunteer Army, consisting of 19 brigades of Infantry with 80 batteries of Artillery, who will assemble at the points where danger is principally apprehended, and who will find there all that they require for encampment. In this country, with the immense variety in the conditions of service, the details of such a scheme are specially difficult to arrange. But they are all being worked out so as to leave nothing uncertain when the emergency arises. Among the many points in which advance has been made—because in this year I have to speak mainly, not of new principles, but of the manner in which these principles have been applied—I may mention the attention which has been paid by the Army Medical Department to the formation of base hospitals, and all the necessary organisation required for the wounded. A system has also been devised for providing in every Volunteer brigade a bearer and a supply company, so as to render them independent of the Regular Army in these respects. Much progress is being made in both cases. The demand for horses on mobilisation has been thoroughly dealt with by the Remount Department, which was founded three years ago. We have now actually upon the register 14,000 horses, of which over 3,000 are riding horses, broken to bit and bridle and suitable for cavalry. And here I cannot help saying how much we are indebted to the masters of hounds who have registered to a great extent the horses under their control, which every one will admit to be the horses exactly suited to our purpose and such as our cavalry would require on an emergency. An increasing number have been registered by masters of hounds, whose patriotic action in the matter cannot be too highly commended. And when it is remembered that of the large number of horses required by the cavalry on mobilisation a very large proportion are draught and not riding horses, our position will appear still more satisfactory than it does at first sight. I may add that the great experience now gained by the officers of the Remount Department will enable them at a critical time to lay their hands on the remaining horses necessary for home defence with very little delay. We have now by law obtained the power to take those horses whenever any difficulties may arise, and therefore in this most important matter of horses it is difficult to exaggerate the improvement that has taken place during the last two years. But in the course of framing a scheme for the general defence of the country we have been led very carefully to consider the question whether we are satisfied that the number of regular troops asked for is really necessary, and whether the increased strength of the Navy and the advancing efficiency of the Volunteers do not justify some reduction. Having regard, therefore, to the purposes for which our regular Army is required, I would venture to make the following remarks upon the different arms of the Service. We have sufficient cavalry for all expected requirements. In an enclosed country like England cavalry could not easily operate in large bodies, and after providing for the modest requirements of any force we should send abroad we should still have enough left for the work they would have to do. The cavalry manœuvres sanctioned last year have been of very great value. They have exposed certain defects, and they have taught useful lessons. To what changes, if any, they ought to lead in cavalry organisation is a question to which much consideration is being given. But upon that point I am not able at present to give any information to the House. We have barely enough Royal Engineers for the requirements of colonial garrisons and of home defence; and the demands upon this corps for all sorts of practical purposes in every part of the world tend rather to increase; but here we have a considerable body of Volunteer engineers, upon which we could rely for assistance in the work of home defence. We have just sufficient Horse and Field Artillery for our requirements. It is assumed, of course, that it is not necessary to associate batteries of Regular Artillery with our Volunteer Army. Indeed, the steadily increasing efficiency of the new batteries of position makes this an assumption which can be made with safety. With regard to the Garrison Artillery, it is more difficult to speak, because its whole position has been materially altered by the introduction of the new and complicated armaments now in use. Everything points to the necessity for coast defence of a small picked body of men with special acquirements and practical knowledge of the armaments of each place to be defended, who must be supplemented by a larger body of less skilled, and to a large extent af Auxiliary Troops. I hope, in the present Session, to fie able to make proposals in this direction, but it is in the meantime premature to discuss the matter further. It is upon the strength of the Infantry that difference of opinion is most likely to arise. I state the case, therefore, as it is presented to me from a military point of view. According to the principle accepted by Parliament at the time of the introduction of the territorial system, it was always intended that for one battalion maintained abroad one should be kept at home to supply the necessary drafts. This is not, and has never been, the case, though the disproportion between the number of battalions abroad and at home is beyond the normal, in consequence of the occupation of Egypt. It may be added to this that it has been found necessary first of all in 1885 to add 10,000 men (of which 8,000 are Infantry) to our Indian Establishment; and, secondly, since that time, to increase somewhat the strength of certain colonial garrisons, and to make also provision for further reinforcement at short notice in time of emergency. At this moment we have 65 battalions at home, besides the Guards, and 76 abroad, the drafts for the extra battalions being provided by larger depâts maintained at home. I think that mere statement from me without one word further will show that no reduction in the number of battalions can be thought of. Then it may be asked whether they are maintained at an excessive strength. The establishment of the battalions first for service is fixed at a much higher figure, but the regular home establishment now is 720 rank and file. Looking to the fact that we have annually to provide as drafts for the battalions abroad no less than 170 men who must all be over 20 and have had six months' training, and that we must at least be able to maintain our home battalions, after providing for these drafts, in a reasonable state of efficiency for home defence and for the other purposes of our Army, it is, I think, very difficult to avoid the conclusion that the establishment we maintain is no more than adequate. There are just a few other points as to which I ought to say a few words. They shall be very few, because I think I have trespassed at enormous length on the attention of the House to-night. As to the division of the Vote that took place a few years ago between the Army and the Navy, the Navy has accepted the responsibility of accounting to Parliament for its portion of the Vote; and, in respect to the division of the stores, both the Army and Navy will co-operate to carry out what is desired. Similar steps to those we have taken at home remain to be taken on foreign stations, but that matter requires further investigation, and I do not think I am entitled to express an opinion on the subject at present. And there is one other question I should mention. The Committee will remember that when I spoke last year of the changes that were taking place in the administration of the War Office, I also undertook to take an opportunity of mentioning the changes we propose as to Promotion Boards. Though I cannot even now give any details—for I should be detaining the Committee too long—I can state, generally, the effect of the changes we propose to make. Everybody will understand that under the present system Lieutenant Colonels will not be promoted to be Colonels, except by selection; and, therefore, we find ourselves in this state: that Lieutenant Colonels, after promotion abroad to regimental commands or service on the Staff, will be placed on half-pay, unless they elect to take retired pay. It would be obviously unfair to allow officers in that position to remain on half-pay, unless, in the opinion of the Authorities, there is a chance of their obtaining employment or promotion. A Promotion Board is, therefore, necessary. We propose to appoint a Board which will be composed of five general officers, three of whom will be senior Generals holding command in the United Kingdom—not, of course, connected with the War Office. Independent of that, three senior officers, for the time being in command in the United Kingdom—and who are willing to serve—will be members of the Board, and the remaining members will be two general officers added according to the particular branch of the Service which is under consideration. That is to say, if a question of promotion in the Cavalry is under consideration there will be two Cavalry officers on the Board, and if a question of promotion in the Artillery is under consideration there will be two Artillery officers on it, so that such arrangements have been made that each branch of the Service will have the opportunity, through its representatives, of taking care that the claims of any particular officer are fully considered before they are rejected. As far as practicable, in making selections, seniority will be observed in order to avoid supersession, but where a younger officer has special qualifications to meet special requirements his selection must necessitate supersession. I believe the Services would recognise that the Board has been framed with an earnest desire to give every officer, whether he has seen foreign service or not, the fullest opportunity of selection. There is one change contemplated during the year as to which I have not been able to enter into details; I refer to the change introduced into the Royal Artillery. I have taken money in the Estimates to enable that change to be carried out, but until the House can be placed in possession of this very important change in its complete form, I think the best thing I can do is to abstain from speaking of it. I think I have stated enough to the Committee to show that the past year, certainly the three years that have passed, have not been inactive, and that we have done much, at any rate as much as we think we could do with all the great interests that we have to protect on one side or the other, to improve the general defensive position of the country, and to increase the efficiency of the defensive forces to whom that defence is intrusted.


I always admire the statements of the right hon. Gentleman, because he always manages, as on the present occasion, to tell us extraordinarily little, but to make that little extremely interesting. The right hon. Gentleman has told us that he has placed his heavy-stores between Alder-shot and Southampton instead of at Woolwich. I rather doubt, however, whether stores can be obtained with such extreme rapidity from the new station if it takes so long a time to get them from Woolwich. I agree that the acquisition of the horses mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman is a valuable one, but as to the scheme of organisation put forward by him I would point out that it was purely a paper organisation. The War Office produces every year a new scheme for the defence of the country. I wish the right hon. Gentleman had gone a little more into figures. His usual custom is to be extremely explicit, but in his speech to-night he has sketched out everything vaguely. He told us he had organised 19 brigades of Volunteer Infantry, but he did not tell us how many men there were in them. Then he told us there were 18 batteries of Volunteer Artillery. Does he mean that they all have field guns, or that they are batteries of garrison artillery? I did not know that there were 18 batteries of Volunteer Artillery at the present moment. The right hon. Gentleman has also been extremely vague on the question of barracks. As an Irish Member, I positively object to the policy of Lord Wolseley in Ireland, as sketched out by the right hon. Gentleman. The right hon. Gentleman says the greater part of the troops in Ireland are to be concentrated at New-bridge and the Curragh.


The Cavalry and Artillery.


In that case it is a matter of less importance, but it is still of considerable importance. The troops are accustomed to be in town quarters, and like to be there for a large part of the year, whilst the inhabitants of the towns like the troops and make money out of them. I do not say the men will not be better instructed if concentrated in camps; but the system is very much against the interests of the inhabitants and against the comfort of the troops, whilst it is opposed to the custom of every European nation.

It being Midnight, the Chairman left the Chair to make his report to the House.

Committee report Progress; to sit again to-morrow.