HC Deb 11 March 1901 vol 90 cc1241-76

Order for Committee read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair."—(Mr. Brodrick.)

MAJOR RASCH (Essex, Chelmsford)

said that before dealing with the subject of this motion he wished to say a few words with reference to the extremely elaborate speech made by the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for War. That speech was a very clever one, but he could not help thinking that they had heard something like it before. He could endorse every word the right hon. Gentleman had said about Mr. Cardwell, whose reforms had cost the country not a single penny, and that was a good deal to be able to say. He remembered a speech by Mr. Gathorne-Hardy in which he stated that there were to be eight army corps, but his promise proved to be absolutely futile and utterly worthless. Then they had the speech of Mr. Stanhope in 1892, which was very much of the same character. The Secretary of State for War had made a clever, lawyer-like and ex parte statement, but it reminded him of a magnificent superstructure without any foundation at all, because the raison d'être of the whole speech was the men, and if they could not get the men, the bottom fell out of the scheme. The right hon. Gentleman never told the House how he was going to get the men to enlist, except in reference to the Militia, who were going to have an extra bounty of 2d. per day. The number of men required this year did not bear any proportion to what were required in former years. There was sure to be a slump in recruiting next year, and the getting of the men would form a very considerable difficulty. There were at present in South Africa thousands of time-expired men, and they would go. The Reserve would be depleted, and although the right hon. Gentleman mentioned the number of Militiamen and Volunteers, he did not make the slightest provision for getting them. He noticed that the Royal Reserve battalions were to be formed into Regular battalions to take the place of those troops now serving in the Mediterranean fortresses, but was the Secretary of State for War sure of getting those Reserve battalions?


The hon. and gallant Member is in error. I am not in the least depending upon the Reserve battalions.


said he understood the Reserves were to be asked to volunteer, so as to relieve those battalions now serving in the Mediterranean fortresses. It was all very well to assume that you were going to get so many Militiamen and a certain number of Yeomanry and Volunteers, but how were they going to be got? As was pointed out in a very sensible article in The Times, this system was not suited to the con- dition of things existing in this country. There were some good points in the right hon. Gentleman's speech which they all appreciated, and which hon. Members had urged on the War Office for years, and which the right hon. Gentleman himself always opposed whenever he had the chance. One of them was decentralisation, and he congratulated the right hon. Gentleman upon having grasped that fact. Then there was the important question of reducing officers' expenses in the cavalry. There was no reason why a young fellow should have to pay £22 for a busby. If hon. Members desired to know how matters stood, they could not do bettor than look up in Thackeray's "Snob Papers" the passages relating to Major Ponto. Unless the right hon. Gentleman carried out drastic changes with reference to kit and uniform, the state of things there described would be likely to continue. There was no reason why this should be so expensive, and even Lord Wolseley had said that a British officer in uniform was like a monkey on an organ. Surely the right hon. Gentleman ought to try to get rid of some of the absurdities of dress, and he had made a very good suggestion that officers should be allowed to get their kit from a Government depôt.

The right hon. Gentleman was quite right in getting rid of that obsolete force the Militia Reserve. As for the Yeomanry, he had never been a great admirer of the force; still, after the experience in South Africa, he should never vote against the Yeomanry again, and he was delighted to find that they were to be put in khaki; that would make the force less expensive and more popular. Then the Secretary for War stated that he was going to get rid of the inefficient officers. But why had he not thought of doing that before? His hon. friend the Member for Tunbridge had stated that the only way to obtain the men was by a Militia ballot, but there were great difficulties in the way of such a measure. The Secretary for War had been ten years at the War Office, but it was hardly fair to press him when he had so much heavy work on hand, and he did not propose to move his Amendment. As the right hon. Gentleman prophesied some months ago, the war was being prolonged. He feared that that was owing to a repetition of of mistakes made by the right hon. Gentleman's own Office in Pall Mall. There had recently been what the French would call an extraordinary éclaircisse ment, and the ex-Secretary for War had been severely criticising the late Commander-in-Chief. The Prime Minister had also told them that at the War Office everything had happened for the best; if there was any fault it lay with the British Constitution. He was not sure that the attack upon Lord Wolseley was not a sort of red herring drawn across the scent, and he should like to hear whether Lord Roberts had accepted office under those conditions which Lord Wolseley had found to be absolutely intolerable.

He wished to say a few words about the reinforcements which should have been sent out to South Africa. There was the greatest danger in the continuance of the war, because the longer our troops continued unsuccessful and the longer the end of the war was delayed the nearer came the possibility of foreign intervention. He was anxious to know why reinforcements were not sent out as they should have been during the past six months. Reinforcements were called for by Lord Kitchener, but until the last three months the Government sent hardly any forces. The Member for the Forest of Dean alluded to a statement made by General Mackinnon, in which he condemned the hasty and haphazard way in which recruits were sent to the front. He himself had seen some of the South African Constabulary embarking, and they were all without arms and accoutrements. Those were the men whom the War Office sent out as mounted men. With regard to the Yeomanry, he did not know why the right hon. Gentleman called them yeomen; at any rate they were nothing like the yeomen who used to exist in the county of Essex, who had been extinguished by foreign competition. The right hon. Gentleman had appointed two War Office Departmental Committees, but surely he must be aware that there had been something like forty such Committees appointed since 1815, and the concentrated result of their wisdom had been the recent disasters in South Africa. They knew that the Prime Minister had suggested the formation of rifle clubs under the auspices of the Primrose League. Nothing could have shown the blissful ignorance of the Premier more than that statement. The Prime Minister had stated practically that the defence of the country was not the business of the Government, and under those circumstances they need not expect very much reform at the War Office from him. With regard to the Reserve battalions, they were very fine regiments, although the men measured rather more round the waist than they did round the chest. The unfortunate part of the matter was that the battalions cost £3,000,000, and in two or three weeks time they would disappear, and there would be nothing to show for the expenditure. If the, War Office had put the money into the Militia there would have been something to show for it, and it would have put some backbone into the force, which it had not had for years. The Royal Reserve regiments contained some of the finest men he ever saw, and it was not proposed to ask them to serve in the Mediterranean garrisons. He ventured to say that that was a great waste. Some years ago, when it was proposed to send the Foot Guards to Gibraltar, he ventured to say that it was very foolish, because there was not room for them to drill, and now they were bringing the Guards back again.

The other evening the Secretary for War stated that the Government were going to allow £5 per annum to the soldier who provided his own horse. Those hon. Members who were generally called the "Colonels" in the House did not receive very much attention; but he thought that the hon. Member for Oldham, with all the experience of the South African War behind him, and all that he had said with reference to guns and horses, should hardly have made the remark that he did. Of course some gentlemen were of the Service Members, but not with them. The remarks of the right hon. Baronet the Member for the Forest of Dean were always received, as they should be, with great attention, as those of the greatest military expert in the country, but the remarks of the Service Members were not. However, they did their duty to the best of their power in laying their views before the House. He would respectfully remind the right hon. Gentleman on the Front Bench of an incident that occurred a hundred years ago across the Channel. The Ministers of Louis XVI. were confronted by a reformer. He did not know whether Jean Jacques Rousseau was a military reformer or not, but they had it on the authority of Carlyle that though the Ministers of Louis XVI. laughed to scorn the first edition of his book, their skins went to form the binding of the second. However, he did not anticipate any such calamity happening here, and he should be the first to deprecate such a proceeding as applied even to the Secretary for War. After all, the man in the street considered that War Office reform was a matter of business, and should be carried through as such, and surely the Government, with the assistance of the Secretary for War, whose eloquent speech they had all admired, should be able to add up the cost of putting the defences of the country on a proper footing and be prepared for anything that might happen. The doggerel of the American poet might be appropriately quoted:— Thrice armed is he who has his quarrel just, But four times he who has his fist in fust.

*MR. TREVELYAN (Yorkshire, W.R., Elland)

said he had put down a motion on the Paper to call attention to the fact that the Army was not a profession in which the officers could support themselves on their present pay; that the unprofessionalism in the Army, about which the Secretary for War had complained the other night, was chiefly due to the present expensive standards of living amongst many officers in many regiments; and that unprofessionalism would not be remedied until the pay was raised so as to attract quite a new class of officers into the Army. His feelings in introducing this subject were different from what they would have been two or three days ago, before the right hon. Gentleman's speech. Hon. Members in all parts of the House had received that speech with great approbation; they were delighted at its businesslike tone, and its spirit of true and energetic reform. No part of the speech, however, bore the ring of determined conviction more than that in which he spoke of the necessity for insisting upon a professional spirit on the part of the officers, on the necessity of promotion by merit, and on the necessity of cheaper living. That was a clearer statement of what Army reformers wanted than anything that had come from the War Office since the abolition of purchase; and, personally, so far as the greater part of the right hon. Gentleman's fiction was concerned, he intended to support him with all his vigour. He did not particularly believe in civilian criticism on the details of Army matters, such as the best kind of artillery and the best sort of rifles. But such criticism might usefully be directed to huge questions of principle.

The fact was the door of the Army was closed at the present moment to any man who had not got an independent income. It was admitted on all hands that in order for a man to be an officer in a cavalry regiment he must have, at least, £500 for his outfit, and at least £500 a year in addition to his pay. He was talking during last summer to a colonel who had just retired from a cavalry regiment, and he asked him how much it was necessary for an officer in that regiment to have. The colonel replied, "From the first moment he comes into the regiment, something between £1,000 and £1,500." The situation was, that a subaltern of twenty-two or twenty-three years of age must, forsooth, have as much money to horses free and spend as any hon. Gentleman who was sitting in that House for a county constituency. [An Hon. Member: Exaggeration.] An hon. Gentleman said that that was an exaggeration; but in regard to his general statement that an officer of a cavalry regiment required to have an income of £500 over and above his pay, and an officer in an infantry regiment £150, he quoted a higher authority than himself—namely, the late Under Secretary for War and the present Chief Secretary for Ireland. When the war was at its height, and there was great need of officers, the Government went to the universities and asked them to give so many men from each university to become officers, and they put it in the hands of the Vice-Chancellors to make this selection. The Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University issued a memorandum inviting candidates, and one sentence in that memorandum was to the effect that he could not recommend any candidate to the War Office unless he could find an income sufficient for the branch of the service he wished to enter. He would not say anything against the paternal solicitude of the Vice-Chancellor, but he must say that it was most extraordinary that that confession should have been deliberately made, and that the War Office should have said they could not blame the Vice-Chancellor for making that recommendation. It showed how obvious it was that it was impossible for many men to go into the Army. He had made special inquiries in Cambridge, and had been told that there were many young men who were prevented, though ready to offer their services, from doing so by that clause in the Vice-Chancellor's memorandum.

But further, anyone who went into the Army had to look forward with an increasing anxiety to the time when he rose in rank. The low pay in the higher ranks was just as much a deterrent to a man who thought ahead, who did not go-into the Army to amuse himself, and who did not wish to run into debt. The proposals of the Secretary for War hardly seemed to him to meet the situation. The right hon. Gentleman proposed to promote in future to higher commands much more strictly by merit; to cheapen the cost of officers' clothing, to give them various other advantages; but that did not make the Army a profession in which a man would be able to live on the pay he received. A great many people were very much afraid of democratising the Army. Personally, and many others agreed with him, he would not be afraid of democratising the Army to any extent. Honours were open from the lowest ranks to the very highest in the Napoleonic armies. Every private soldier, it was said, carried a field marshal's baton in his knapsack. In one great Anglo-Saxon army, Cromwell's, the officers were many of them mere millers and blacksmiths and brewers. [Laughter.] Yes, and brewers, too, who in those days were humbler people than they were at present. [An Hon. Member: They brewed pure beer.] Again, another great Anglo-Saxon army, that of the Civil War in America, was democratic, and admitted to the position of officer any man of merit, however humble his birth or the class from which he came. What was wanted in the Army was more of the professional, the middle, and the manufacturing classes, who were the strongest classes in the country, and on whom the industrial prosperity of the nation chiefly depended. These were excluded from the Army now. It was perfectly true that there were in the Army the sons of many men who had made their money in manufactures; but he came from the middle of one of the great industrial districts in Yorkshire, and he said with certainty that there were hardly any of the sons of these manufacturers who ever went into the Army. They knew that they could not afford it, and their fathers very wisely prevented them. Therefore, he said, something more drastic was needed, than what the right hon. Gentleman had proposed. They wanted to find a minimum of pay on which a man could live as an officer in the Army. This great nation could afford to pay that minimum standard. They wanted to get good brains, and to pay the men better in the upper branches. He thought that the right hon. Gentleman would find it difficult, if he wanted to carry out his reforms, to entirely avoid sumptuary laws. He did not at present wish to do anything which might appear hostile to the progressive plans of the right hon. Gentleman, but if this question of expensive living and inadequate pay in the Army was not taken up voluntarily by the Government, there would be a movement in the country to demand it. The Government kept on speaking of the enthusiasm of the colonies for the mother country; but he was rather surprised I hat the right hon. Gentleman, in the course of his speech, had said nothing about the colonies or of asking them to join in this great Army reform. He thought that that was to be regretted, but they might be quite certain that the colonies would never take part in any Army in which they could not send their own sons to form some part of the officers. They would not be content that the only officers should be the sons of rich squatters; they would insist, if they were to take some part in it, that the Army should be made more democratic than now. In conclusion, he would say that in view of the sympathetic treatment of the general question by the right hon. the Secretary for War he would not move the motion of which he had given notice.

*MR. CHARLES DOUGLAS (Lanarkshire, N.W.)

said that in rising to move the motion standing in his name he recognised the extreme difficulty and delicacy of the task he had undertaken. The House was invited to form a decision on a question of personal right and justice to an individual. He deeply and unhesitatingly deplored the necessity of adopting that method, for he did not think it was a suitable one, and if there had been a better he would have taken it. For this discussion, however, he could not be blamed. It had all along been and still was in the power of the Secretary for War by granting an inquiry to prevent the discussion taking place. It was not any part of his intention to make a partisan attack upon the right hon. Gentleman. If he had had that desire, there was nothing which would have made him less inclined to gratify it than the brilliant speech made by the right hon. Gentleman on Friday night. Especially he did not dissent from that part of the speech in which the right hon. Gentleman expressed his adhesion to, and urged on tile House the policy of, only employing in peace commands generals who had shown themselves fit to hold those commands in war. He hoped the light hon. Gentleman would take it that that policy lay altogether outside of the area of any difference that might arise between them. He recognised further that it was a matter of common sense as well as simple justice that the Commander-in-Chief should choose his own officers, more especially when engaged in a campaign and bearing a responsibility which even the most foolish person in the country would not desire to share. He thought it was altogether right that the Commander-in-Chief and the Government should refuse to recall an officer from his command merely because there was a little popular clamour on the subject. The people of the country, however, had shown their willingness, almost their eagerness, to suspend their judgment in all such cases because they had perfect confidence in Lord Roberts, and there was a general feeling that they ought to approach the judgment of men who were risking their lives and reputation for the sake of the country with peculiar care and peculiar humility. There had been throughout the nation a very sincere desire that no man should be punished without a full, complete, and thorough trial.

The more he felt the delicacy of the task the more he felt it incumbent upon him to be perfectly frank with the House. One matter he would refer to in the outset. A very considerable prejudice had been created against General Colvile by the fact that he had published in the newspapers a statement of his treatment by the War Office. He did not defend that action of General Colvile's. It was most desirable and necessary that they should uphold and fortify the great tradition of Army reticence. Sometimes it led to hardship, but it was essential to discipline, and more than ever necessary now in view of the extreme activity displayed by the newspapers. He did not defend General Colvile's action, but he hoped the House would allow him to submit one or two considerations in regard to it. In the first place, reticence could not be all on one side. If their generals were never to take means of vindicating themselves publicly, then he ventured to think that a little reticence should be observed by the War Office. When General Colvile returned to this country the first thing which he saw was a newspaper paragraph, which was obviously inspired.


The only statement I saw came from Gibraltar, and could not have come from the War Office.


So far as the right hon. Gentleman is concerned, I entirely accept his disclaimer. On the other hand, if he denies that the statement came from the War Office, then I must invite him to perfect his information. But I will read the article, so that the House may judge of its character,

    1. cc1251-76
    2. AN IRREVOCABLE DECISION. 9,759 words