HC Deb 14 March 1907 vol 171 cc323-35

Postponed Proceeding on Question, That this House doth agree with the Committee in the First Resolution, "That a number of Land Forces, not exceeding 190,000, all ranks, be maintained for the Service of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland at Home and Abroad, excluding His Majesty's Indian Possessions, during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1908," resumed.


resuming his speech, said he was not quite clear as to the exact proposal of the Secretary for War in his statement in respect to the proposed reduction in horse, field, and garrison artillery by 2,630 men during the coming financial year. The right hon. Gentleman said in his Memorandum attached to Estimates that— No reduction of the establishments of the regular artillery can properly be made until personnel, trained on a non-Regular basis to the requisite extent, is ready to fill the gap. He contended that the substitute was not available at present, and that the small number of men forthcoming now were not trained sufficiently to fill the gap. The right hon. Gentleman appeared to be anticipating in his reduction of men the development of his Territorial Army. He thought it was a dangerous thing at any time to reduce the artillery.


said that the men would be trained with eighteen-and-a-half pounders.


said that the right hon. Gentleman had not satisfied him that the reduction in the Field and Garrison Artillery was justified by the substitute which was proposed to be found for the men in the Regular forces. The right hon. Gentleman promised, in his memorandum, not to deal with that force until an efficient substitute had been found, and he had not satisfied him that he had found such a substitute. It must be remembered that that was a most difficult force to improvise in time of need, and he thought if the reduction was to be carried out it would be found to be entirely premature.

MR. COBBOLD (Ipswich)

wished to repeat the protest of the hon. Member for Falkirk against the very large Army that the Estimates provided for. The Secretary of State in introducing the Estimates did not deal very much with the Regular Army, but spent his time in explaining about the Auxiliary Army. But the right hon. Gentleman said that they were to have an Army of 160,000 men, and that the reason for such a large Army was that he had been compelled by the Secretary of State for India to keep the present number of troops there, although they were commensurate with the number of Indian troops after the Mutiny. He urged upon the Government that, having regard to our present policy in India, as we were not now making the aggressive frontier wars that we did a few years ago, and, having found in the Ameer of Afghanistan a safe and sure ally, were not likely to embark upon them again, this large Army was not necessary. [An Hon. Member: What wars?] He should say that the wars in Afghanistan were foolish wars. He did not recollect any war in which he could not say with Lord Salisbury that we "put our money on the wrong horse."


said that he must remind the hon. Member that this Resolution expressly excluded His Majesty's Indian possessions. The Army in India was not before the House.


expressed regret for his ignorance of the forms of the House. He had noticed in Vote A that there was a statement to the effect that there were in India 76,000 men. He therefore thought he was permitted to speak on India. The Secretary of State had stated that they had reduced the number of troops in the Colonies by eight battalions and that they might be more largely reduced in future also. The eight battalions was a tale gone by, and he hoped that in the present year they would see a very considerable reduction in the Army in regard to the requirements of the Colonies. In South Africa alone provision was made for upwards of 16,000 troops. It had been truly stated that we were not going to dragoon South Africa into patriotism, and in present circumstances an army of upwards of 16,000 men in South Africa was a menace to peace. In Malta, too, although the right hon. Gentleman had reduced the garrison there, and although hon. Members said he was imperilling our position by that reduction, there were still 7,500 troops, and it was not a place in which a large army ought to be concentrated, because it was not healthy. If there was a war with the Mediterranean Powers it would probably become a fever camp. The right hon. Gentleman had twice said that he was not certain whether in the Colonies there was not still a margin for further reductions. If, therefore, they made their protest on that occasion they might persuade the right hon. Gentleman in regard to Malta, where so many troops were congested together, also Gibraltar, where there was a force of 3,800 men, and Eygpt, where there were 5,100, and elsewhere, that the forces might be diminished under present conditions in the course of the year. He hoped that their protest would be, as it were, recorded by the Secretary of State, and that they would not be assumed to assent to the maintenance of the present military forces which they thought were more than sufficient for the safety of the Empire.


said that while the hon. Member considered that the troops provided for in the Estimates were too many, he considered that they were far too few. He was afraid that there were some hon. Members who would be content if they had a two-Power standard equal to the Navy of Switzerland and Servia, and an army equal to that of Monte Carlo. It was almost pitiful to hear little Englanders making one speech after another, trying to pull down the flag of old England. We had tremendous responsibilities, and if hon. Members on the other side of the House would go round the world—he thought some of them could go round twice with great advantage—and see our great possessions and appreciate them, and if they saw foreign armies manœuvring, they would come to the conclusion that our Army was not big enough. It was only by years of travel that one got an idea of what the British Army ought to be, and what our responsibilities were. What was our Army of 190,000 in comparison with that of Russia, Germany, France, or even Japan? Heaven help us if we had to fight any of those countries, because if we did we should be beaten. He doubted whether the Territorial Army would have sufficient stiffening with their training to stand shot and shell—although they might be if the enemy was good enough to give us six months' notice of war.


The question of the Territorial Army does not arise on this Estimate.


said that Malta had before now proved a very convenient half-way house. It was so in the Egyptian Campaign, and a number of Indian troops were quartered there when we were on the brink of war with Russia, and perhaps their presence averted it. Malta was a great possession, and the troops there were a great help towards peace. Those who remembered the trying times the Britons went through in Egypt about a year ago would not, he thought, grudge the few troops we had there. The only way to rule those Eastern Powers was to show that we were just and strong, and the more the troops were reduced in our dependencies or Colonies, the greater danger would there be of insults to our flag.


did not agree with the hon. and gallant Gentleman opposite, He had seen the great armies of France, Germany, Russia and Italy; he had seen a great review of 250,000 men, a most magnificent sight, but 30,000 of those men were cuirassiers with front and back plates and therefore unfit for battle. One thousand mounted infantry would have beaten them all. He congratulated the right hon. Gentleman upon the reduction he had made in the Army in the last two years. The Army now was 190,000 men, a reduction of some 30,000 on what it was two years ago. He suggested that the right hon. Gentleman should continue to reduce it for the next five years in the same ratio of 16,000 a year. That would result in a reduction of a further 80,000 men, and they would then get the Army down to what it ought to be, 100,000 the highest degree effective, not birds of strong. They might then have an Army in passage as now, but all highly trained, every soldier an expert in his business and fit to be an officer, and every man entering the ranks with the object of being an officer. No one should be an officer unless he passed through the ranks. That would attract the intellect of the country, and the right hon. Gentleman would have such a force as had not been seen for a long time. There had been times in history when similar armies had existed, and when 1,000 of such men were as good as 10,000 of the insufficiently trained troops of to-day. It had been truly said that training was necessary before an efficient soldier could be obtained, but he would point out to the hon. and gallant Member opposite that the soldiers of to-day were amateurs. Engineers, lawyers and doctors practised their professions every day, but as we fortunately did not have a war every day military men for the most part never practised their profession, and were mere amateurs, who got into what might be called a college groove and thought they knew something. When, however, they came into the field they were totally smashed by a body of farmers gathered hurriedly together. That happened in America 130 years ago and in Africa recently, and it would happen again, so long as we had officers who were proud in their own conceit, and without a really sound training. Of course he had a great respect for men who had seenservice—real veterans. They ought to reduce the Army until they got it efficient. After all, we had not such a small defensive force for the Empire. There were 1,300,000 armed men who were subject to the orders of the King. What was wanted was not more troops, but more application on the part of the soldier to his business, and a large, Territorial Army to defend the county against raids. What good purpose did the 16,000 troops we had in South Africa serve? That was now an independent Colony. Supposing the Boers rose again, what would become of those 16,000 men? They would not be safe, because the Boers would take possession of the communications, and those 16,000 men would be prisoners. Sixteen thousand men were too many to be lost in that way, and the sooner they got home the safer they would be. The object of the Government should be to get the Army officered only by those people who had passed through the ranks of the Army. The Secretary of State for War had confessed that he was in a difficulty with regard to the officers—then why did he not adopt the course of passing them through the ranks? Of course there was the old tradition, the old social objection, that the soldiers would not obey a man unless he came from a superior rank. He did not believe it for a moment. In the mines of the country the discipline was of the strictest, and the men cheerfully obeyed the man who knew his business who was put over them. It did not matter where that man came from, whether he came from the ranks or from above; and in the mines the men would obey to the last letter any instruction of the officials in dangerous enterprises. As it was in the mines, so it would be in the Army. Let them have good men who had passed through the ranks and the troops would cheerfully obey them.

SIR A. ACLAND-HOOD (Somersetshire, Wellington)

said he would not follow the hon. Member for Sleaford into his novel form of recruiting whether from the heights above or from the depths below. He often thought how exceptionally fortunate the House was in having more Army reformers and strategists than any other such assembly in the world. He was quite certain that if foreign nations only realised the immense amount of latent power at our command in the House in the way of the organisation of our naval and military forces they would disarm to-morrow. He simply desired to put a few questions to the right hon. Gentleman, not as an official, but as an old soldier who for thirty years had had to study Army circulars and War Office documents which, however they might encourage young soldiers in the hope of something they were going to get or create disappointment because of something they were going to lose, gave neither encouragement nor disappointment to the old soldier, because he knew he would get nothing. The question he desired to put was with regard to the 3rd Battalion of the Coldstream Guards. The right hon. Gentleman would agree that in all cases of reduction great hardship fell upon the private soldier, the non-commissioned, and the commissioned officers, for the reason that though the private soldier might be absorbed in the other battalions he must necessarily lose his chance of promotion to non-commissioned rank, because, though the battalion was increased, the establishment of non-commissioned officers was not. The number of non-commissioned officers was limited. As with the non-commissioned officers so with the commissioned ranks. Every keen subaltern looked forward to the time when he would become a captain and command his company, and to the time when having passed through his majority he occupied the proudest position that a soldier could fill and became the colonel of a really good regiment. Everybody would see by the reduction of the number of battalions that hardship was being cast upon all ranks alike. The 3rd Battalion of the Coldstream Guards was in this curious position; it was the only battalion in the Army which figured in the Estimates as a battalion. As the right hon. Gentleman knew, there was no finer battalion in the Army. They were sent to Egypt at a critical moment. No regiment could drill or shoot better, or had a better character. They deserved better of His Majesty's Government than to be put into the Army Estimates as a battalion in a state of suspended animation. Those who had joined that battalion were now to be deprived of the chance of that promotion to which they looked forward when they enlisted. The right hon. Gentleman well knew, as every soldier in the House knew, that the success of the scheme on which he had embarked depended, first of all, on whether he could get the necessary number of men; and, secondly, on whether he could get the right and the best sort of officers. It was not a great encouragement to officers, non-commissioned officers, and men, when they had taken up the most difficult duty of forming a new battalion of an old and historic regiment, and had succeeded in making it as efficient as either of the two preceding battalions, to find themselves disbanded. He be longed to a battalion of the Guards, and he held that these officers had formed a battalion as efficient as any battalion of the Guards. It was on esprit de corps that the right hon. Gentleman's scheme depended, and he did not think that the Secretary for War had helped himself by throwing this very wet blanket on officers, non-commissioned officers and men, who had done their best for King and country. There were many posts in our Colonies—he did not mean the self-governing Colonies, but Nigeria and others of our possessions under the Crown—which could be filled by officers, non-commissioned officers and men. It was in those Colonies, in unhealthy climates, and amid uncertain, savage warfare, that many of our most distinguished soldiers had received their military training and laid the foundation of their great reputations. He urged that where vacancies occurred in those Colonies the first offer of them should be made to officers, non commissioned officers, and men of experience and training, who were now supernumerary to the establishment at home because the battalions were disbanded. If the right hon. Gentleman would take that suggestion into consideration, he would do something to mitigate what was undoubtedly felt by many officers in the Army to be a very serious blow indeed.

MR. CARLILE (Hertfordshire, St. Albans)

said it was difficult for Members sitting on that side side of the House to listen to the hon. Member for Ipswich without protesting against his attitude of mind on the subject of the Army. The hon. Member had told them that the presence of troops in South Africa was a menace to peace. He thought that the hon. Member was not aware that the troops in South Africa were put in a centre where they could be trained exceptionally well under semi-service conditions for the duties which naturally devolved upon them. The hon. Member seemed to think that 16,000 troops were a source of danger to the peace of the country where they were. He (Mr. Carlile) was sure that was not the mind of most of the people of the country, certainly not the mind of the people in South Africa, who were more immediately concerned. The troops were in the midst of a country where hostilities had recently been in progress, and they were halfway between us and India, where they might at any time be required. He was afraid that the protests of the hon. Members for Ipswich and Sleaford, raised within hearing of the Minister for War, had fallen on ready ears. They had to regret that the right hon. Gentleman, trying to meet the views of a small section of the community, had taken very efficient steps towards reducing the number of our soldiers, to the manifest loss of service in all its ranks. Reference had been made to the presence of troops in Malta and in Egypt. Their presence in those places was of the same advantage as their presence in South Africa; it was where they could be trained, and where they were halfway to those great centres of military responsibility which lay about the British Empire. The hon. Member for the Sleaford Division said that we did not have a war every year. Of course, that condition of things was never likely to obtain, but at any rate if such minds as those of the hon. Members to whom he had referred were in control of the affairs of the country, then, should we have even one war, it would wipe us out so far as being a first or second or third class Power was concerned. But those hon. Members knew perfectly well that their homes were safe. They knew that they represented a small minority, and that they could indulge in that sort of talk against the Army and its interests with impunity; and they could go home to their beds knowing that, although they raised their voices against the power of the Army, yet others looked after the interests of the Empire.

*MR. MADDISON (Burnley)

said the hon. Member for St. Albans had stated that those who were advocating so strongly a reduction in the Army represented only an insignificant number of people in the country. He knew that a great majority not only of Labour Members but also of the Liberal Party, put in their programme at the last election retrenchment in regard to both the Army and the Navy. He could assure the hon. Member for St. Albans that although he had hurled against them the charge of cowardice—


said he had used no such expression with regard to the hon. Member or any other hon. Member. He had charged nobody with cowardice. He asked that the hon. Member should be called upon to withdraw the statement, which was altogether unwarranted.


said that if the expression had offended the hon. Member he would willingly withdraw it.


Do you withdraw it? I ask you, Mr. Speaker, to call upon the hon. Member to withdraw the offensive expression.


The hon. Member for Burnley did not accuse the hon. Member of cowardice. All the hon. Member said was that the hon. Member charged certain friends of his with cowardice. If the hon. Member says that he did not make use of such an expression there is an end of it.


said the hon. Member accused him of using an expression which he never used, and upon that ground he asked for the withdrawal of the accusation.


I do not think the hon. Member for Burnley intended by using the word "cowardice" to imply that the hon. Member actually used that word.


But he said so.


I do not think he intended to say so. What he intended to summarise was that the general trend of the speech of the hon. Member would lead people to suppose that his friends had shown cowardice.


said he was quite willing to withdraw the word if it was offensive to the hon. Member. They did not yield one inch to hon. Members opposite in their recognition of the bravery, devotion, and self-denial of the Army, nor would they be slack in defending the country which was to them everything, and which they loved with as intense a devotion as those who wanted to keep up the present bloated armaments. So far from the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for War having listened to the voice of Labour Members, as the hon. Member for St. Albans appeared to think he had done, they did not think he had gone far enough, and they asked him to continue the method of safe reduction until the Army had been brought down to something like reasonable proportions. After all, it was not military experts who ought to decide the number of the British Army; that had to be determined by policy. They had every reason so far to trust implicitly the policy of the Government. They had read with delight the speeches of the Prime Minister in which he had shown an intense interest in the promotion of international peace. They all remembered the great ideal he had held up to the nation to form part of a League of Peace. They were pleased with all those expressions and believed in their sincerity, but they wanted the reduction of the Army to follow those expressions. They had just granted a Constitution to the Transvaal, and at the head of that Government was General Botha, whose presence in that capacity was one of the best securities for peace they could possibly have. They expected His Majesty's Government to remember what had happened in the Transvaal, and they would not expect to have an Army quite so large when a saner and a truer policy had been adopted in the Transvaal. Without occupying further the time of the House, he would make a strong plea to the right hon. Gentleman to go on reducing the Army, and to make it more substantial than it had hitherto been. He believed that they were still a long way ahead of the margin of safety in regard to the Army. Hon. Members on the Opposition side seemed to think that they were now getting somewhere near the danger point in regard to reductions. He hoped the Government would not allow themselves to be led too much by military experts. The hon. and gallant Member for Somerset had made an appeal on behalf of the men who had been disbanded. He agreed that they should look after such men and do what they could for them. In such matters Labour Members were as much alive to the interest of the country as hon. Members opposite, but he wished the Government to remember that every man in the Army had to be kept by some man working outside the Army. Not one of their soldiers earned his breakfast or a button on his uniform. Someone was working in the mill or in the mine to provide, the uniform and the meals for the soldier. [Opposition cries of "No, no."] That was an economic truth which could not be disputed. The Army was unproductive, and it had to be kept by those in the productive sphere. There must be an Army, he admitted, but it should be kept as small as was consistent with the safety of the country.


suggested that the Resolution might now be agreed to, so that he might introduce the Army Annual Bill.


said he was quite ready to agree to that with the concurrence of hon. Gentlemen behind him. He hoped the Government would be able to give more time to the Consolidation Bill on Monday.

Ordered, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide, during twelve months, for the discipline and regulation of the Army; and that Mr. Secretary Haldane, Mr. Edmund Robertson, and Mr. Buchanan, do prepare and bring it in.