HC Deb 19 February 1891 vol 350 cc1149-56
٭(9.20.) MR. HOWARD VINCENT (Sheffield, Central)

I rise to call attention to the immense difficulty Her Majesty's regiments of the Standing Army, the Militia, and the Volunteers stationed in the large towns of Great Britain have in finding adequate range accommodation to fulfil the requirements of the authorities in rifle shooting; and to move— That a Select Committee be appointed to consider whether the compulsory acquisition of land for this purpose, either by the Govern meat or Local Authorities, is not essential to adequate preparation for the National Defence. This Motion is, I am afraid, of a very much less interesting character than that which we have just been discussing, still, it is one of vary considerable importance to the training of the Army, the Militia, and Volunteers of England. No troops can be considered properly trained to their duties unless they are trained every year in the use of the rifle. In the case of the Standing Army, there is usually ground available in the neigh bourhood of the quarters of the troops. For the Volunteers the case is different. The shooting time of the Volunteers is usually restricted to a chance half-holiday, which very often falls upon a wet day, or at a time when our foggy climate makes shooting impossible. Then the Volunteer has often to travel long distances to the ranges, which makes the matter still more difficult, besides adding to the difficulty of earning the Capitation Grant. Take the case of the Metropolis. I have here a return of the number of ranges in and about London. I find that of the 22, no less than eight have been recently closed as dangerous, others are subject to floods, while many of them are closed for a month, at the very time the Volunteers can use them, for the purpose of haymaking The rents of all ranges in and about London are enormous, and the tenure is most insecure. And what applies to London I believe holds good of all the large towns of the country. It is true that there are ranges at from 19 to 30 miles from London, but it takes a long time to reach them. I ought also to mention that efforts are being made to acquire a range at Staines, 15 miles from London. Whether those efforts will be successful is doubtful, but the Volunteers are none the less grateful to those who are making them. The regiment which I have the honour to command has five ranges, and the rent they have to pay is far more than they can properly afford, for one day a week. I have had correspondence on this matter with commanding officers in every part of the country, and every one of them dwells on the great difficulties experienced with regard to ranges. Colonel Methuen, of Bristol, states that the Volunteer range there has just been destroyed by a Railway Company, and he says there is no possibility of obtaining another in the vicinity. The new magazine rifle is to be issued, and before the Committee on this subject last year, Sir Redvers Buller, the present Adjutant General of the Forces, said quite half of our present ranges would be useless for the new rifle, and that evidence is strongly corroborated by Major Waller of the Royal Engineers. He was asked this question—"The volunteers have great difficulties with the ranges, have they not?" "So great," was the answer, "that for class firing men have sometimes 40 or 50 miles to go to fire ten rounds of cartridges." It is quite unnecessary for me to press the point. I would only ask the Secretary for War, who has done so much for soldiers and Volunteers, to give his serious and anxious attention to this matter, and appoint either a Select or Departmental Committee. So rapidly does building and population increase that the longer this matter is delayed the greater will be the cost; and so long as this House recognises the maintenance of a Volunteer Force the means must be provided for giving it proper training. I beg, therefore, to move the Amendment which stands in my 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 consider whether the compulsory acquisition of land for range accommodation, either by the Government or Local Authorities, is not essential to adequate preparation for the National Defence,"—(Mr. Howard Vincent,) —instead thereof.

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

(9.28.) COLONEL LAURIE (Bath)

Mr. Speaker, I beg to second the Amendment; and I would remind the House that one of the conditions imposed upon Volunteers is that they shall undergo target practice. Three years ago, when the new regulations were issued, the Volunteers were severley affected, especially in the Metropolis; and I find, according to the Memorandum of the right hon. Gentleman, that the number of Volunteers has decreased by 3,000. That decrease is attributed, in some degree to the retirement of the older and less energetic men. But that is a course which has operated all along, and the number has been filled up by the recruits always to hand. I attribute the diminution to the difficulty of getting ranges, more especially in London. The time of the Militia, when they are out, is entirely at the disposal of the Military Authorities. Volunteers are only able to utilise an occasional half-holiday to go to some range, often having to cover a distance of 20 or 30 miles. It is extremely hard on the officers. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will carefully consider this appeal of my hon. Friend, and will be able to see his way to obtain ranges, especially in the neigh bourhood of London. With respect to the financial part of the matter, I think the amount which the Volunteers already pay for ranges should be taken into consideration. Surely the very heavy expense might be taken into consideration of the Government assisting in finding the necessary money. I believe I am right in saying that the diminution in the strength of the Force, especially in urban districts, is due to the want of ranges. I am sorry we have not the Volunteer Returns before us, and I do appeal to the Secretary for War to arrange that in future years the Annual Returns of the Volunteers shall be issued to Members of the House before the Army Estimates are taken.

(9.33.) MR. E. STANHOPE

With regard to the point just mentioned by the hon. Member for Bath that this year the Army Estimates have been brought forward earlier than usual, he will remember that in the public convenience we are taking the Estimates earlier, and it has been impossible to get all the Returns in. Otherwise I quite agree that the Annual Returns of the Volunteers should be presented, if possible, in time for discussion with the Estimates. No doubt they will be ready before we reach the Vote for the Auxiliary Forces. I am very glad that the hon. Member for Sheffield has brought this Motion before the House, for I fully appreciate the importance of the question. It is of enormous importance both to the Regular Army and the Volunteers. Difficulties exist in many places in finding suitable ranges, and therefore any suggestions which can be made to overcome those difficulties will be welcomed. At the same time, I am not prepared to admit that there is any difficulty in the law in reference to the acquisition of land for ranges; it may be obscure, but I believe the law does provide means by which sites may be obtained compulsorily by the War Office, both for the Regular Army and the Volunteers. Nor am I prepared to admit that it is the duty of the War Office to provide the necessary funds for ranges for all the Auxiliary Forces in all parts of the country. At the same time, I fully recognise that the subject requires investigation, and that it would undoubtedly be a great advantage if the various difficulties connected with it could be inquired into by a Select Committee, who might make suggestions of great value, and thus assist Parliament to deal with the whole matter in a satisfactory manner. In these circumstances, although I am not prepared to accept the Motion on the Paper, I shall be very glad to consult with the hon. Member for Sheffield at a later period as to the terms of a Motion to be placed on the Notice Paper asking the House to appoint a Select Committee, and with that understanding I hope the discussion will not be continued.

(9.36.) MR. MUNRO FERGUSON (Leith, &c.)

I am very glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield put this Motion down, for the matter is one of urgent importance and it is satisfactory that the Secretary for War should receive it in so favourable a spirit. The difficulty of securing ranges is by no means confined to the Metropolis; it exists all over the country, and seriously affects the efficiency of the Auxiliary Forces. I have three rifle ranges on my own property and I am glad to give what facilities I can; but, at the same time, any arrangements I may make are liable to be upset by any old woman who is going along the road and is afraid she may be hit by a bullet. I think, of course, it is necessary the Military Authorities should take the necessary precautions for the safety of the public, but too much weight should not be given to alarmist views by local people. At present, moreover, a very heavy tax in connection with ranges is imposed on Volunteer officers, and I think they should be relieved of it, to some extent at least, by the State, as ranges are necessary to enable the men to make themselves efficient.

٭(9.40.) MR. TOMLINSON (Preston)

As a Volunteer officer who has suffered from this difficulty I should like in a very few words to thank my right hon. Friend for the reception he has given to this Resolution. The force was greatly inconvenienced last year by the closing of our local range. The result is that much inconvenience and expense are caused to Volunteers who are obliged to go to ranges at a long distance. It should be remembered that ranges become dangerous, not only from not being of sufficient length, but from the lateral deviation of bullets which strike the ground before reaching the target. Under the circumstances, I would suggest that the Committee to be appointed on the subject should inquire also into the possibility of providing short ranges for recruits, who might be able to fire at short distances with small charges, and thus learn the elements of shooting before going to the long ranges. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will give this matter favourable consideration.

(9.42.) SIR H. FLETCHER (Sussex, Lewes)

As Vice Chairman of the National Rifle Association, I feel deep interest in this question, and I think the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for War is well advised in consenting to full inquiry into it. With the permission of the House, I will point out the facilities which the Association are prepared to offer to the Volunteers. The Association are prepared to receive applications from Metropolitan and Home County Volunteer Corps for the use of certain targets at Bisley throughout the year 1891, excepting during the time when preparation is being made for the annual meeting and when the ground is being cleared after the meeting. They propose, also, to provide targets available for both class firing and match shooting, with 20 third-class targets and 24 first-or second-class targets. Those ranges have lately been extended to 300 and 800 yards respectively. The Council of the Association propose to allow class firing up to 300 yards at the 90–target butt, and field firing will be allowed on the long-range ground. Sleeping accommodation will be provided in the huts and barracks at nominal charges. Shelter contiguous to the ranges will be provided in the event of bad weather. It has been arranged that railway third-class return fares from Waterloo or Vauxhall to Brook-wood shall be 1s. 6d., and the London and South-Western Railway Company have agreed to endeavour to give a more satisfactory service. The Council have also decided on the following rates of charges, which, however, will be re-considered if they prove either insufficient or excessive:—One ordinary target (class match or volley firing), for a whole day, 9s. with markers and 6s. without; for a half-day (forenoon or afternoon), 5s. with markers, 3s. without. Any pattern target will be supplied on due notice being given. The National Rifle Association is doing everything to encourage the Metropolitan Volunteer Corps to go down to Bisley. Barrack accommodation will be afforded at the rate of 9d. a night, and furnished rooms can be obtained at 2s. 6d. a night. Ordinary food and refreshments will be obtainable at reasonable rates, and arrangements have been made for the provision of ammunition on the ground. Regiments intending to fire any portion of their allowance at Bisley can have such portion delivered to the National Rifle Association at Bisley on intimating the same on their annual indent. Ammunition so received at Bisley will be stored in a suitable magazine, and will be ready for issue on the ground as required. As one who has been a Volunteer for over 30 years, and Vice Chairman of the National Rifle Association for a great part of that time, I can say that the Association have endeavoured to carry out not only the suggestions of the hon. Member for Sheffield, but also the suggestions of the Secretary of State for War, in endeavouring to provide suitable ranges from 300 to 800 yards for those who wish to go down to Bisley, which, after all, is not very far from London.

(9.48.) MR. BRODRICK

The discussion has been extremely valuable, if only on account of the announcement which the hon. and gallant Member for Sussex has been able to make. Yet it must be remembered that these facilities offered to Metropolitan Volunteers have only been rendered possible by an Act of Parliament, allowing the roads to be stopped where necessary. I desire to emphasise that fact, as it bears directly on the Motion of the hon. Member for Sheffield, and shows how the needs of other localities may be met. With regard to the suggestion of the hon. Member for Preston, although it is most important that ranges of full distance should be made available where possible, the Secretary for War will be ready to consider, in cases where this is not possible, the practicability of some such arrangements for short ranges as has been suggested.

(9.50.) GENERAL SIR F. FITZWYGRAM (Hants, Fareham)

I have always been of opinion that, after men have been through their musketry training, all shooting should be at unknown ranges, and before shooting the men should run at least 100 yards at full speed. In war everything is bustle and haste, and those who have learned to shoot in the tranquil atmosphere of Wimbledon would not, I think, fare so well on active service. The proposal that rifle practice should be carried on with a small-bore rifle in a room simply reduces rifle practice to a perfect absurdity.

Question put, and agreed to.

Main Question again proposed.