HC Deb 14 March 1892 vol 2 cc767-78
COLONEL HILL (Bristol, S.)

I rise, Sir, with some reluctance to propose the Resolution standing in my name. Recognising, as I do, the invaluable services of the First Lord of the Admiralty to the Navy, and having sat as a member of the Committee of the Naval Estimates three or four years ago, knowing, as I do, the importance of the economical and other reforms he has introduced into his Department and into the dockyards, I am somewhat loth to offer criticism on a matter which seems so small compared with many connected with the Department over which he so ably presides. From one point of view I hope the House will think I am justified in bringing under notice a subject wholly national and not in the least of a Party character. My Motion is in these terms:— That, in the opinion of this House, the disbanding of the Royal Naval Volunteers is undesirable and will weaken the efficiency of the Reserve Forces of the Navy. Sir, the Act establishing our Naval Artillery Volunteers was passed in 1873. The force was founded by Lord Brassey. It is not a large one, but it might have been made larger if the Admiralty had so desired. It now consists of about 1,700 men of undoubted physique, and I am quite sure there is no finer body of men serving Her Majesty than those in the City of Bristol, and I am quite sure the other forces in the country are equally good. It is a popular Service, inasmuch as there were always more members enrolled than the Establishment permitted. At one time they stood high in official favour, and it was thought that more honorary distinctions were distributed among them by the Admiralty than they ought to receive. Moreover, Lord Brassey, the founder, was rewarded by being made a K.C.B. Now, however, the force is undergoing the chilling blast of disfavour. I am told that the force is found to be no longer of any use, and I believe this change has been brought about to a great extent by the Report of a Committee which sat last year, presided over by a distinguished Admiral, who made the discovery that these men were not sailors, and would probably be sick at sea, and that, therefore, there was no longer any place for them. No one ever claimed for the Royal Naval Volunteers that they were sailors. But whose fault is that? The fault lies with the House, which passed the Act, the first paragraph of which says, that it is lawful to accept the services of any persons desiring to be formed under the Act into a Royal Naval Artillery Corps, and offering their services through the Admiralty I have a right to assume, from the wording of the Act, that it was never contemplated that the Force should be composed of professional sailors, but of individuals whose services might be of value for purposes of Home defence, due regard being had to their fitness to manage boats and guns, and so on. It may be said that these men have not taken the trouble to make themselves proficient, but if you refer to the Act yon will find the Admiralty cannot say that, as an annual inspection of every Naval Artillery Volunteer corps is provided for. That inspection has been conducted by such eminent men as the Duke of Edinburgh, Admirals Vesey, Hamilton, Seymour, Baird, Durant, &c, and in every instance—there is not a single exception—these officers have made a favourable Report. Now, Sir, if this Force has not attained the degree of efficiency required, it must be in consequence of the neglect of these officers, and these officers are not in the habit of neglecting their duty. If they felt that these men had not attained the degree of efficiency required, would they not have embodied that fact in their Report? I can only say that these Royal Naval Artillery Volunteers have been most anxious to have further opportunities of increasing their sailor-like qualities, and rendering themselves more fit for the performance of the duties they have undertaken. After having served for 19 years, to tell these poor fellows with a sneer that they are now no good, and that no place can be found for them, is an act of cruelty. It is not the unanimous opinion of the distinguished officers of Her Majesty's Navy that they can or ought to be dispensed with. I have discussed the matter with two Admirals, and both thought there was room for these men, and that they would form a very valuable adjunct to the Royal Navy. The personnel of the Royal Navy is magnificent, but the Force is insufficient to man the Navy in time of war, and that is a matter which must occupy the serious consideration and anxious thought of those who preside over this Department. I should be glad to welcome a scheme for collecting professional sailors, living ashore, in order that their services might be secured to the country in case of need; but, surely, it is unwise to deprive the Reserve of 1,700 men who, if they cannot reef topsails, can use an oar, can wield a cutlass, and what is more important, can man heavy guns. If the disbandment of these men be insisted upon, you will strike a blow at Volunteering in general; because, probably, some other clever General will discover some other branch of the Volunteer Service that is not composed of proficient men. The position of the Royal Naval Artillery Volunteers to-day may be theirs tomorrow. At a time when it is considered important to make the defence of this country as secure as possible, is it desirable to throw discouragement upon those who are willing and anxious to assist? My noble Friend the First Lord of the Admiralty has suggested to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War that he should take pity on these outcasts and allow them to become submarine engineers. But, Sir, they do not want to become submarine engineers. I do not suggest that the House should utter one word of censure on the action of the Admiralty. Doubtless the noble Lord felt it to be his duty to carry out the recommendation of the Committee suggesting this economy. Knowing his kindness of disposition I am quite sure the noble Lord regretted the necessity for such a proposal—a proposal that would cause pain to a large number of individuals who are desirous of doing what they can in a national and a good cause. But, Sir, what I do ask the House to say is this—"We thank you for your economical suggestion, but we do not wish to weaken the Reserve Force of the Navy by the loss of these men, nor do we wish to discourage the spirit of Volunteering, and therefore we deem it inexpedient to disband these Volunteers."

MR. HUGH WATT (Glasgow, Camlachie)

I wish, Sir, to second the Motion of my hon. and gallant Friend opposite. This is a question of patriotism and not of Party, and in asking the First Lord of the Admiralty to re-consider his decision to disband this Force we are not animated by any desire to throw any obstacle in his way. Speaking for myself, I may say that I have supported the noble Lord's policy from the first, a policy which has not only been ably carried out but a policy which was excellent in itself, and which deserved to be successful. But, Sir, the question of the disbandment of the Royal Naval Artillery Volunteers is not a matter of small importance. I venture to submit, in supplement to the observations of my hon. and gallant Friend, that the present corps of Royal Naval Artillery Volunteer's was raised in response to public opinion. The right hon. Gentleman opposite, who now discharges the duties of Chancellor of the Exchequer, when First Lord of the Admiralty in the Liberal Administration of 1870, brought in the Act of 1873, incorporating this Force in deference to expressed public opinion, and I venture to express the hope that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will not assist in the disbandment of the Force which he himself created. I have yet to learn that public opinion has turned round from the direction it took when the Act was passed in 1873 bringing this Force into existence. On the contrary, I have extracts from The Times of 15th May, 1891, with reference to the Report of the Committee presided over by Admiral Tryon. The Times described that Report as a most unsatisfactory and misleading document, and said it was never intended that the members of the corps should be professional sailors, but boating and yachting men. Professional seamen would be pursuing their usual occupation, and, therefore, would not be available for such service. I agree with the Mover of the Motion in regard to the question of expense. It should be remembered that this corps costs less than any Volunteer Corps, and that is shown by the fact that the whole sum these men receive is 30s. Capitation Grant for efficiency. First of all they received nothing, then £1,000 per annum, which has risen to £6,000; but that is explained from their point of view by the Government giving greater facilities for the training of these men. The number might be enormously increased, because the sum of 30s. is not sufficient to cover the expenditure necessary for their equipment. I fondly hope the First Lord of the Admiralty will not find it necessary to let this Debate go on much further, and that he will accede to the Motion of my hon. and gallant Friend. There are many heads of the Report, which I will not venture to trouble the House with further than to say these Volunteers are prepared to submit to whatever regulations the Admiralty may make. It cannot, therefore, be urged that they are not prepared to conform to the conditions which are laid down for them. It was recently urged that a Marine corps is wanted and should be allowed to be formed in addition to this corps. It cannot be said that our coast line, extending to thousands of miles, is effectually defended in the event of our being attacked by a large maritime power. That being the case, and seeing this force has been called into operation by an Act of Parliament, I venture respectfully to submit to the House that it is not the part of a Minister to do away with such a force upon the recommendation of any Departmental Committee. I hope the First Lord of the Admiralty will see his way to withdraw this disbandment, which comes into operation on the 31st of March, and allow the force to remain in operation for twelve months longer. Those recommendations which he recently urged are less than my hon. and gallant Friend (Colonel Hill) was prepared to recommend; but my desire is simply that the force should have a little longer time granted to it. If the First Lord of the Admiralty cannot see his way to do this, then certainly the movement to disband the corps will be one of the most unpopular of any that have occurred during the reign of the present Government. It is said that the corps consists of only 2,000 men and that that is a very small matter. Well, there is no doubt about that, but in looking over the Report I was very much surprised to see the name of one man whom I have known and respected for many years appended to it, I refer to Mr. Thomas Ismay, but I think the explanation of that is to be found in the fact that he rather treated the Royal Naval Volunteers as more or less an antagonistic or hostile force to the Royal Naval Reserve. But the Royal Naval Reserve is a very large force compared with this, which is a small force but might be very useful in time of war for coastguard purposes. I would also refer to the work of another gentleman who has spent 20 years of his life in connection with the Naval Service, in which he is an enthusiast, as well as a large amount of his own money—I mean my friend, Commander Seth Smith, who has deserved well of his country. He has gone, in order to ascertain accurately the movement about Volunteers, all round the world—to Australia, India, the Colonies and elsewhere. Here in this country it is maintained by Admiral Tryon that the Royal Naval Artillery Volunteer's are unfit for Naval service and that the corps is not fitted for torpedo work. But the thing is absurd on the face of it. A large number of these men are mining engineers and electricians, others are marine engineers, and to say that these men could not manage a torpedo boat or do service, even on board men-of-war, is out of the question. There must be room in such a Service as the Navy for this small force. 8,000 men have already passed through the Service, and why disband it now, when the good of it is beginning to be felt? Do the Government mean to insert the thin end of the wedge for conscription? I am sure the people of England will never submit to conscription? The Volunteer Force has received the sanction of the country for many years past. The same difficulties were then thrown in the way of the Military Volunteers as are now thrown in the way of the Naval Volunteers. I submit that not only has this Report been thoroughly answered but it has, in historical language, been demolished and pulverised. I beg to second the Motion.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "in the opinion of this House, the disbanding of the Royal Naval Artillery Volunteers is undesirable, and will weaken the efficiency of the Reserve Forces of the Navy,"—(Colonel Hill.) —instead thereof.

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

(5.10.) MR. GOURLEY (Sunderland)

I consider that the Government are acting wisely in giving effect to the recommendations of the Committee which sat in regard to the disbandment of this corps. If the Royal Naval Artillery Volunteers are patriots, let them join the Volunteer Artillery. Volunteer Artillery corps exist in connection with nearly all our ports, and, after being disbanded, the Naval Volunteers may join one or other of these corps, so that their services would still be available for the country. The men connected with our established Reserve are all able sailors, or fishermen connected with the sea, and in the event of an emergency might be drawn upon. But, almost without exception, the men of this force have not been to sea, do not possess sea-legs, and would be of no use on board a man-of-war in the event of any emer gency. I therefore support the proposition of the Government with regard to the disbanding of the Royal Naval Volunteers.

(5.15.) MR. NEVILLE (Liverpool, Exchange)

It seems to me that this corps is worth keeping together. You want your Mercantile Marine manned just as you want your Navy manned, and if, in stress of circumstances, you have to call your Naval Reserve men from their Mercantile Marine duties, there will be gaps in your Mercantile Marine. Here is a force of 2,000 more or less efficient. Everybody knows, who knows anything about this country, that there are a very large number of men who, from force of circumstances, are turned into landsmen, but who at the same time are fond of the sea and habituated to the sea, and it is from this class of men that these Naval Volunteers are drawn. It is true in the case of these men that circumstances often compel them to follow trades and professions; but, nevertheless, they love the sea, are accustomed to the sea, and take pleasure in being upon the sea. If we are in the unfortunate position of finding ourselves at war, the manning of the Navy becomes a matter of extreme importance, and we shall not be in a position to discard the services of any man who may be reasonably capable of performing a seaman's duty. If anybody will take the trouble to discuss the matter with this Naval Volunteer Force, he will be able to satisfy himself that we have men who are reasonably capable of performing such duties amongst our Naval Volunteers. I must say it does not seem to me a wise or expedient thing to disband those Volunteers, and so get rid of the possibility of having their services in the future, considering what a small amount of money the existence of this corps costs the country. If it were a great thing, if some serious expenditure were under consideration, then it might be another matter, but when it costs a practically infinitesimal sum to get the services of 2,000 men, I must say the matter deserves re-consideration. Even at the last moment, it would be a wise thing on the part of the Government to re-consider their position. I know it is stated that these Volunteers could be more useful in another way, but it ought to be borne in mind that they are Volunteers who have volunteered for this particular service because it is service they love. I do not see that they are bound to transfer their services, and obviously they cannot be accused of want of patriotism because they do not choose to undertake the other duties which the Government may suggest to them. I therefore hope the Mover of this Motion may get such support in the House as to induce the Government to re-consider their determination.


I am not surprised at the hon. and gallant Member for Bristol (Colonel Hill) and other hon. Members interested in the Naval Artillery Volunteers calling attention to this subject. I can assure my hon. and gallant Friend that it was with great reluctance the Admiralty came to the conclusion that it was their duty, if not to disband the Royal Naval Artillery Volunteers, at all events to transfer their services from the Admiralty to the War Office. But when I state the circumstances every hon. Gentleman will see that we had no alternative and that we were right in the conclusion at which we arrived. Some years ago the Admiralty had to give attention to a most difficult subject with which they had to deal—namely, the finding of sufficient men and officers to man the Fleet, including both ships in commission and those which are approaching completion. And, before we could arrive at any decision as to the number of men who should be retained on the active list, it was necessary for us to ascertain how far the Volunteer Auxiliary Forces of the Navy could be trusted in an emergency. And, therefore, last year I appointed a Committee, of which Sir George Tryon was Chairman, for the purpose of investigating this particular point. This Committee was composed partly of naval officers and partly of civilians, and I do not think the hon. Member for Bristol (Colonel Hill) or anybody else, will complain of the composition of that Committee. The civilians were in the majority. The decision which that Committee unanimously arrived at was to increase the Royal Naval Reserve, and, on the other hand, to disband or transfer the services of the Royal Naval Artillery Volunteers to the War Office. And the reasons were quite good. At present it is clearly laid down as part of our system of national defence that the War Office are entrusted with service on land, and that the Navy perform duties on the high seas. Therefore the Naval Reserve men are men who are accustomed to the sea, and come from a seafaring population. It is not a question as to whether a man will be sick or not when he goes to sea, because many of our most distinguished sailors are subject to that malady. The question is, does the man know his work when he is put on board ship? And it is essential that any person associated with the Navy should be drawn from a seafaring population. These Naval Artillery Volunteers were started some years ago when there was not so much attention given to the national defences as is now done. The division between the Admiralty and the War Office was not then so strictly laid down. The intention was to enlist the services of the seafaring population, so that they might be of use in time of war or on the arrival of any cruiser or hostile force. But the Royal Naval Artillery Volunteers have fulfilled neither one nor other of these requirements. The first thing that strikes one as regards the composition of this Force is that it is composed almost exclusively of landsmen, men who may have some liking for the sea but who are not sailors, and who have not been to sea scarcely any portion of their lives, as their occupations on shore prevent them going to sea for any considerable time. Therefore, they do not fulfil the first condition of Naval Volunteers; they are not drawn from the seafaring class, and have no practical knowledge of the sea. The second point in the composition of the corps was the large number of recruits. For the last two years there has been a change of 56 per cent. in the total strength of the corps, i.e., 56 per cent. of the corps have less than three years' training. Not only is the corps not composed of the class of men from whom the Admiralty originally hoped they would be drawn, but the great bulk of them are recruits. And there is nothing to show that what has occurred in the past may not occur again in the future. Under these circumstances, the Committee arrived to what I maintain is a sound conclusion. The War Office has established a Volunteer Force associated with coast defence, submarine miners and others, and these volunteers could be very useful if associated with the submarine mining force under control of the War Office. Therefore, the suggestion has been made that we should transfer their services to the War Office. The War Office would then be enabled to take them under their authority. The War Office is quite ready to accept their services, and they also undertake, when those volunteers have been transferred, that their officers should have the same authority and the same honorary rank as at present. That seems to me the only practical way in which to proceed. It has been suggested in many quarters that the Admiralty are influenced by a desire and a wish to strike a blow at Volunteering. Well, I have shown that we propose to increase the Royal Naval Reserve, but it must be recognised that no system of volunteering would convert landsmen into seamen. That fact must be recognised, and the further fact that a number of landsmen might like to be sailors does not qualify them for sailors. What we want is not a Volunteer Force in the Navy, but to get seamen and officers who will put themselves on the register and who will be ready in any emergency to be transferred to other ships. We have never been able, in any mobilisation, to assign any duty to these Naval Volunteers, because they were not sailors, and because the officers had not got the necessary training to enable them to discharge the duties of officers on board a man-of-war. If in the past our Navy has been successful in times of war, we must bear in mind to what that success is to be attributed. It has been mainly due to the superior training of the men, and not so much to the ships. It would be a most unwise thing to lead people to believe that this is a reliable Force, on which the Admiralty could depend in cases of emergency, either in the shape of Matériel or personnel, I have had a good deal of pressure brought to bear on me on this and similar questions, and the larger question of Volunteering. And I may say I recently had a deputation of all the Members from the North of England, asking me to allow the use of northern coal on board Her Majesty's ships. But I pointed out to them that we could not use that coal in time of war. And so in the same way we cannot rely on these Volunteers in time of emergency. I do not think we ought to retain them annually upon these Estimates, and annually vote a sum for them. It was with great reluctance I came to this conclusion. I have endeavoured as far as I can to meet the wishes of those who compose this corps. We will deal liberally with them. When they go over to the War Office they will retain their rank and position. If, on the other hand, these gentlemen do not wish to join the corps under the War Office, special arrangements will be made that they shall be allowed to retain their rank, and wear their uniform. I have done everything in my power to meet the wishes of those who compose this corps, and I hope, under these circumstances, looking to the conclusive character of the arguments in favour of their disbandment, the hon. and gallant Member will be content, with this discussion, and not ask the House to divide.


After what has fallen from the noble Lord, though I regret he cannot accede to my Motion, I will, by leave of the House, withdraw that Motion. I would remind him, however, of the old days in which, when we wanted men to man the Navy, we were compelled to take them where we could get them in times of emergency.


I would like to ask the noble Lord a question. I hold in my hand a letter from the Commander of a London corps, stating that £1,000 had been put on the Estimates, and that that sum has been exceeded already in claims allowed and claims made. I think the right hon. Gentleman has not drawn a distinction between claims made and claims allowed?


Yes, I drew the distinction between claims made and claims allowed.


The claims allowed at Glasgow at present amount to £800.

Question put, and agreed to.

Main Question again proposed.