HC Deb 02 March 1891 vol 350 cc1978-85
(6.40.) CAPTAIN PRICE (Devonport)

By the indulgence of the House I wish to say a few words upon a notice which stands on the Paper in my name: It is to call attention to the want of a proper system of promotion from the ranks. Hon. Members, no doubt, noticed a few weeks ago in most of the newspapers an appeal which was made from the ranks of the Navy in favour of a proper system of promotion to the rank of lieutenant and upwards. I do not wish to dwell on the appeal, or to take it in any sense as the text of the few remarks 1 desire to make, but I refer to it for one or two reasons. In the first place, those who read the appeal were very likely struck with the very strong point the appellants made of the paucity, or the supposed paucity, of lieutenants in the Navy, and that lieutenants could be taken from the ranks of warrant officers very much more cheaply than they can be found under the present system. I notice this, because I wish to correct what I think is an error. I have noticed, in talking over this matter with naval officers and others, that there is an impression that what is wanted by seamen and warrant officers is a regular system of recruiting from their ranks. I do not think that this was intended, and it is not what I advocate. Whatever is done must be done tentatively and gradually, and it ought not to be done on a very large scale. I have been told that the appeal did not come from the majority of the Navy. No doubt it came only from a minority, but that minority does not consist of the drones of the Service. There are many in the Service who cannot benefit by what is proposed, but there is a minority who really wish to have some means of raising themselves from the position they hold, and it is a laudable ambition that ought to be encouraged. What is the present system in regard to promotion? There is a certain amount of promotion from the ranks now, but it is so very small that it is practically at a deadlock. Many years ago the Admiralty issued a regulation to the effect that on certain conditions warrant officers might be promoted to the rank of lieutenant, and an Order in Council stated that the promotion should be given for exceptional gallantry in action. That is not the way to reward a warrant officer—for exceptional gallantry. I can conceive that a man may show conspicuous gallantry, and yet be the very last man who ought to be given a commission as lieutenant, because he is not qualified for it in other ways. Up to the present time only two have been so promoted. A certain number of chief warrant officers, who have served a certain length of time, are allowed on retirement to take the rank of lieutenant. I propose that this list should be considerably increased. As to promotion on the Active List, there are several objections, the first of which is the social difficulty created by the rise of rank. I have noticed that until quite recently that has been put forward as the leading objection, but latterly it has rather melted away. In a letter to the Times the other day Admiral Sir Geoffrey Hornby, who is regarded as one of the highest authorities in the Service, said that so far as regarded association on shipboard difficulty need not be apprehended, and Admiral Colomb, who is also considered a high authority upon these matters, does not think the existing body of lieutenants would be touched by the social difficulty. In the Navy there are so many different kinds of duties to be performed that appointments might be found for warrant officers where there would be no social difficulties at all. Then it is objected that our naval officers ought to be highly-educated men in every branch of their profession. I thoroughly endorse that. It is also said that the education of to-day is very different from what it was; and that the whole professional status of the lieutenant has very greatly risen. That is perfectly true, but it is also true that warrant officers have to pass examinations which are far more formidable than examinations were in days gone by. The warrant officers who aspire to be promoted to the higher ranks know perfectly well that they will have to undergo certain examinations. Let me remind the House what are the examinations that have to be passed by ordinary lieutenants in the Navy. They consist mainly of three subjects—seamanship, gunnery, and navigation. I do not think there is any naval officer here tonight who will deny that a gunner in the Navy is quite as well instructed in gunnery as any officer, or that the boatswains or the gunners are not quite as well up in seamanship as the ordinary lieutenant. In fact, it is the warrant officers who instruct the lieutenants in seamanship and gunnery. Then we come to navigation. Until very lately there were very few warrant officers who had any knowledge whatever of navigation, but some short time ago the Admiralty gave permission to warrant officers to qualify in that branch of a naval officer's education, and I think I am correct in saying that about 30 warrant officers voluntarily, and at their own expense, passed the examination in navigation. I think about six of them are at this moment surveying in the navigation line. This shows that it is not beyond the power of the warrant officer to qualify himself in that branch of a naval officer's education. Sir Geoffrey Hornby touches on this point, and says it will be easy for warrant officers to acquire a knowledge of navigation. Other officers who have written on the subject make no difficulty at all on the point. Admiral Hornby, however, goes on to say that capacity to handle a ship will be at their age much more difficult to acquire. I really do not see where the difficulty comes in. You do not want any special education for that. Like myself, many naval officers who had never been in charge of a ship before were suddenly appointed to the command of one, and had suddenly to acquire a knowledge of handling a ship. It is not a question of navigation, but of a cool head and plenty of nerve; it is rather a matter of a man's digestion than of a knowledge of history or navigation, or anything of that kind. It requires merely an average knowledge of the use of the sextant, and a cool head. I will deal with only one further objection, and that is a small one. It has been said this will be of no advantage to the men. As far as that goes, I really think those people who are advocating this change should be allowed to be the best judges whether it is of advantage to them or not. One gallant officer talks about its being a "Dead Sea apple." Well, there is an increase in the pay, and that is not a Dead Sea apple. But it is said that when one of these officers is on shore he will find it much more difficult to get on in society. I do not see that that follows at all. Many officers in the Navy at the present moment have risen from very humble positions indeed, and they find no difficulty in getting on on shore. We ought not to lose sight of the fact that it is not only an advantage to a man himself to become a commissioned officer, but it is also of advantage to his family. Undoubtedly there are many appointments which a commissioned officer's sons would be able to go in for, and which would not be open to so great an extent to the sons of a warrant officer. I have seen a great many of the men on this point, and they do not look upon it as a Dead Sea apple. They have indicated an alternative to the scheme under which, side by side with the proposal to advance warrant officers to the rank of lieutenant, warrant officers should, after a certain number of years, take the honorary rank of sub-lieutenant. I believe the appeal made by the men is a serious one, and I commend it to the House and the Government, because I believe its adoption will lead to the greater efficiency of the Service.


I regret very much that my hon. and gallant Friend has taken up this subject, as I think without due consideration, and without taking the opinion and advice of those officers in the Service who are most qualified to give sound opinions on the subject. I find myself in a very difficult position. In the first place, it is very unpopular to condemn anything which appears like helping the poor man to get on. As far as the social difficulty is concerned, if it consists in having as a messmate a man who has risen from the ranks, I do not believe there is one officer in 20 who would ever think of it. If there were any feeling at all it would be on the part of the man who had risen from the ranks, and not, I think, on the part of those among whom he is placed. The greater part of the hon. and gallant Member's speech advocated the promotion of warrant officers to the higher ranks of the Service. Well, the other day I saw a number of these officers, and I put to them various questions on this subject. The result was that they asked me to strike out of the proposal all that part which relates to the promotion, as all they wanted really was the honorary rank of lieutenant into the general line of the Service. I asked if they were authorised to say that on behalf of the warrant officers? and they said, "Yes, we have full authority, we do not want any substantive rank; we shall be perfectly content with retired rank." Now, I do not quite believe that they could undertake to answer for the whole of their class; but if that be so, of course that clears the ground to a great extent, knocking away most of the arguments against the proposal. Whether it may be possible to give them some better retirement is a question which may well be considered. I think the hon. and gallant Gentleman who brought forward this proposal has not spoken on behalf of any but a very small minority of the warrant officers; in fact, if I am rightly informed, some two or three men have got up the whole question. This small minority want something, but they do not know exactly what. The hon. and gallant Gentleman says this should be left to them; but there I differ from him, and experience in the Service tells me that when you give an officer rank, unless you give him pay according to that rank you immediately create another grievance. It is no use giving an officer gold lace without pay. I know in such a case the man promoted finds it is no good to him with the expenses of uniform and mess on the other side of the balance sheet. As a matter of fact, the two officers to whom the hon. and gallant Gentleman has referred, who were made lieutenants, have to be kept in two small commands, one at Portsmouth, the other, I think, at Plymouth; at any rate, two small commands; because the Admiralty does not consider itself justified in putting them to the expense and other awkwardnesses, if I may use the expression, of the ordinary ward-room mess, but keeps them in these two small commands by way of saving them expense and enabling them to eke out their pay by the command money. But the Admiralty cannot create small commands for all the warrant officers to be promoted. I remember a case in which a chief petty officer complained to me that he had much better have been left to follow his old lines, and that it had been no kindness to him to be removed from the lower deck, and be made a warrant officer. I remember a chief boatswain's mate refusing a warrant again and again, and when I questioned him he said, "I shall only be put out of my place. I am happy in the position in which I am." He objected on that very ground which the hon. and gallant Gentleman seemed to think an advantage, that his wife, his sons and daughters would be put into a position to which they were not bred and educated, and which he would not have money enough to support. I think it would in many instances be cruel kindness. The hon. and gallant Gentleman makes no claim on behalf of carpenters and engine-room artificers; but why should they be left out? Why should one class of warrant officers be selected for personal advantage, and not others? The fact is, warrant officers' rank was meant to apply to men specially selected because they had served well, and were good men to put into a class in a somewhat better position than their comrades, the principal object being to lessen the distance between the two classes on board ship, and give the men a better representation, so to say. I will not go into the question of the handling of ships, because I think that may be learned by some, but can never be learned by others, no matter what is their rank; and it is, as has been said, to some extent, a question of nerve and digestion. But the social position of a commander is another matter, and does not mean merely his position in a ball-room. If you put a man in command of a ship, you have to consider how he may bear himself in all the varied conditions imposed by the nature of the service on captains of ships on foreign stations. I remember very well the answer of the late Lord Malmesbury when questioned as to the chances of a war with America after the Trent affair. He replied that is depended very much upon the naval officers in command of ships meeting with each other at sea, and he expressed the greatest reliance on the tact and judgment, of the various officers in command, and, therefore, did not believe there was any imminent danger. Such tact and judgment, which are essential, can only be relied on with men in the position from which our officers are selected and educated from earliest youth in its exercise. I had a letter from a captain the other day in which he says— This question of promotion from the ranks is got up by a few warrant officers of advanced ideas, and he had six warrant officers serving with him, and none of them were in favour of it. They believe that the extra expense that they would have to incur would do away with any advantage they would derive. And he adds— If you make the bluejackets lieutenants, what about the engineers, stokers, and carpenters? The warrant officers do not wish for this change. It is proof of the general contentment that we can maintain a higher state of discipline than is maintained anywhere else without the slightest trouble, and at the present time the heaviest punishment you can inflict upon a man is to discharge him from the Service. I think before we make so fundamental a change as altering the whole rank of warrant officers, some more sufficient reason must be shown than has yet been advanced.

(7.12.) MR. GOURLEY

I am glad the hon. and gallant Member has brought this question before the House, and for my part I do not see why a similar system should not govern promotion from the ranks in the Naval as in the Military Service. In the Army a "ranker" or private soldier has the opportunity of rising from the ranks to the highest position of "General." I would not have the promotions limited to honorary rank. I think there should be a system of substantive promotions from the ranks for a specified number of seamen. I hold the opinion that the whole system of officering the Navy requires reform. The special system of education on board the Britannia is no longer required for naval officers. The progress made in the education of the great masses of the people is such that the men who now fill the ranks of the Service are very different in education and qualifications to the seamen of 30 years ago. The exclusiveness of the Britannia system ought to be abolished. That opinion was expressed by the present Chancellor of the Exchequer many years ago and in that sense the present Under Secretary for India brought forward a Resolution in 1880, which I then seconded. I quite agree with the opinion expressed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer years ago that the Britannia system might be abolished and, under a specified curriculum, in our public schools and colleges boys should be prepared for naval examination, then enrolled as cadets, be taught seamanship and navigation in sailing vessels, and then be transferred to our men-of-war for the study of gunnery and other matters. The question as raised by the hon. and gallant Member for Devonport comes to this, that if men pass a certain examination they shall be promoted from the position of warrant officers. There have, as the hon. and gallant Member has said, been only two promotions to the rank of lieutenant, and a warrant officer retiring with the rank of lieutenant does not receive anything like the pension awarded to an ordinary lieutenant. The Admiralty should lay down a system under which a certain number of boys should be under certain examinations and qualifications as to seamanship and navigation, and such matters, entered for the position of warrant officers, and be entitled to be promoted to the substantive rank of lieutenant. The honorary rank of lieutenant is no encouragement to a boy to exert himself and qualify himself to rise in his profession. Promotion from the ranks would, in my opinion, be a real benefit to the Service, and would increase esprit de corps in the Navy. I hope the Admiralty may see fit to accept the suggestion of the hon. Member for Devonport.