§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That a sum, not exceeding £1,482,000, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the Expense of Armaments and Engineer Stores, including Technical Committees, which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1911."
§ Mr. A. H. BURGOYNE
It will be within the recollection of every Member of the House that during the last few weeks a number of questions relating to cordite have been addressed to hon. and right hon. Gentlemen upon the bench opposite. They would be the first, I feel sure, to acquit the questioners of a desire to promote a feeling of insecurity in the public mind, yet I am bound to state that the comments and suggestions that have from time to time appeared in the Press do lend some colour to the idea that all is not as it should be. Sir, it is that, once and for all, every doubt should be set at rest that I venture to introduce the subject of cordite this afternoon. I would ask the especial indulgence of the House if I make an over-free use of my notes; it would be highly inexpedient open a Debate on so serious a subject without a careful attention to the facts of the case. I propose to call the notice of 1086 the House to several separate points: (a) The treatment of private manufacturers by Government Departments;(b) the efficacy of the test known as the "heat test";(c) the present state of Government or private reserves;(d) the adequacy or otherwise of the national means of output. In as far as is possible I shall be entirely non-technical, but the Committee will forgive me if, for the purposes of my argument, I enter a little fully into the history and manufacture of cordite in this country, from the time when it was first patented in 1889. Cordite was introduced into the Navy in 1890–1891. Its use was not generally adopted until about four years later, when tenders for its manufacture were called for from private firms. This cordite was what is known as ordinary cordite. Two firms, the National Explosives Company and Kynochs, Limited, named a price acceptable to the War Office, and received orders to manufacture at a price of 2s, 10½d. to 3s. per pound. The Nobels Explosives Company tendered too high, and did not receive an order until about three years later. In the spring of 1895 the first deliveries of cordite manufactured by the successful firms were made to the War Office. On the price paid, 2s. 10½d. to 3s. per pound, the profit to the manufacturers, allowing for a 5 per cent, to 6 per cent. rejection, worked out at about 1s. 3d. per pound. This fact was well known to the War Office, and could not be objected to, since the successful firms would be forced to lay down special machinery for its manufacture. This machinery is not capable of being used in the manufacture of any other type of explosives, and in one instance alone the capital outlay on it amounted to over £50,000. At this time glycerine ranged in price from £45 to £50 a ton and acetone from £50 to £60 a ton. The test made at Woolwich on the finished cordite is known as the heat test. This consists in the suspension of a small piece of filter paper, supplied by the Home Office, over a small particle of cordite, which is then subjected to a temperature of 180 degs. Fahrenheit. When this test was first instituted its duration was twenty minutes. The heat-test papers are prepared by dipping strips of white English filter paper, which have been washed with distilled water and redried, into a solution made from white maize starch (cornflour), boiled in distilled water for ten minutes. To this mixture is added pure potassium iodide dissolved in distilled water, the two solutions being 1087 thoroughly mixed and allowed to get cold, after which the filter papers are dipped into the solution for ten seconds.
How is it possible to be quite sure that the cornflour is pure, and again, how is it possible to so arrange the height of that filter paper above the cordite to be tested that the degrees of heat are correct? Within one inch inside the test tube there is a difference of some sixty degrees of heat, and, if the heat for one or two minutes gets just under or just over the right temperature, the test is negatived.
Finally, I come to the preparation of the cordite itself. It is prepared in this way. A certain portion of it is taken and ground in a pug mill. When it has been reduced to almost a dust, it is taken through three sieves. That on the top sieve and that on the lower sieve is thrown away and that on the second and middle sieve is retained. I ask the Committee to imagine how easy it would be for a few grains of dust to get in that portion of the cordite which they have got for testing. That really is my case about the heat test. This is a technical matter upon which experts are divided, but I would like to hear whether any experiment has been made with the test known as the total destruction test, where the cordite is entirely destroyed and disintegrated into its component parts. I believe they have tried the silver-cup test, which is not entirely satisfactory, and there is the gold-leaf test which, associated with the filter-paper discoloration test, is said to show the presence of mercury. Coming back to the firms who make cordite, about 1897 three other firms entered into competition: Messrs. Nobels, the Cotton Powder Company, and the New Explosives Company. Later on the Chilworth Gunpowder Company, Limited, and the British Syndicate commenced the purchase of cordite paste and they were therefore partly making cordite. Four years later, in 1904–5 the oldest manufacturers, Messrs. Curtiss and Harvey had plant prepared and obtained orders, making a total of eight firms capable of making or of partly making the cordite supplied to the Army and Navy to-day. The natural result, of this competition was that there came a drop in the price. No one can complain of that. The Army and Navy are sufficiently expensive to at least make one attempt to get the price of every commodity they use down to the very lowest basis.
1088 About this time, when so many of these firms had entered into competition, a new cordite was evolved. They had up to this been using ordinary cordite, but they then introduced cordite M.D., which is a modified cordite, the chief feature of which is that it possesses an increased percentage of gun cotton as against nitro-glycerine The advantage of it is there is less heat in the inner barrel of the gun. A part of it was heated and stood the test well beyond thirty minutes, with the result that the test was increased to a definite period of thirty minutes at Woolwich. Naturally, as a result of this increase of the heat test, the rejections became considerably greater. I would ask the Committee to remember that just at this period, when the rejections became greater, the prices were less, and on top of that the cost of the chief component parts went up. In 1908 came the greatest price of glycerine. It went up to about £80 per ton. I believe I am correct in saying that to obtain glycerine in the quantities that would be necessary in the event of war is absolutely impossible to-day. The price being paid for cordite at this time was only about 1s. 8d. or 2s. a 1b., giving a profit, if the rejections were 5 per cent. or 6 per cent., of no more than 2d. or 3d. per lb. The manufacturers have to meet the loss of the rejections and have to pay a greater price for glycerine. Acetone too has risen in price. It is now £70. In 1895 it was £56 a ton, in 1896 it was £54 a ton, and in 1897 it was £49 a ton.
We come now to the case of mercuric chloride. They put in such minute quantities that it cannot be seen except under the spectroscope, but it is nevertheless sufficiently present to prevent effective testing by heat. The percentage of compound used works out at between 1 in 150,000 to 1 in 200,000. Yet it did mask bad cordite. I believe there was a Welsh explosion which first brought it to the notice of the Home Office expert, Dr. Dupré, who found there was a minute quantity of mercuric chloride in cordite. I have given this to remove a misconception, because I do not believe there is anything in the mercuric chloride scare. All cordite has mercury in it, even the cordite got from Waltham Abbey. The reason is very obvious. The ingredients from which ordinary cordite is made, and the machines by which it is made are bound to introduce it in the minute quantities in which it has always been found since the discovery of Dr. 1089 Dupré, and I should be glad to hear whether any cordite has been turned out without a minute trace of mercury in it. Mercury as found in all cordite is not dangerous, but the mercuric chloride is dangerous, and it is to that you can lay with absolute certainty the explosion which blew up the French battleship "Jena," and a little later the explosion on the Japanese battleship "Mikasa," where two magazines went off at once, and where it was proved that there was mercuric chloride in the cordite's composition. Mercuric chloride is utilised in Germany where they do not regard the heat test as definite. They use a nitro-glycerine powder in the Navy and a nitro-cellulose powder in the Army. Since that time, owing to the discovery of this mercury and to the care taken in the examination of cordite, the rejections have been higher and higher. I believe in one or two cases they have reached 50 percent. I would like the Committee to imagine what that means where manufacturers have 200 or 300 tons of cordite, costing so many tens of pounds per cwt., and capable of being used for no other purpose whatever.
The situation, I contend, in face of that, is a very dangerous one, and certainly an unfair one to the manufacturers. It is dangerous because the Services are largely dependent for their supply upon one single factory, Waltham Abbey, and unfair because it leaves expensive machinery in manufacturers' factories, put up under a natural expectation of continual work, lying idle. I am informed that a deputation of manufacturers have waited upon the officials and informed them they cannot undertake to manufacture cordite under the present conditions. Waltham Abbey can turn out from 50 per cent. to 60 per cent. of the necessary peace supply of cordite, and, if they put on overtime, they can turn out from 75 per cent. to 80 per cent. of the necessary peace supply; but, if war came and it were found possible for an enemy to blow up Waltham Abbey, what would be our situation? At the present time there are few of the eight private firms turning out cordite. Their machinery is lying idle. They will be called on suddenly to make cordite. Our stock at Waltham Abbey would be blown to smithereens, including the acetone there, and they are the only people who have a big stock of acetone. The private supplies of cordite would have to be called upon and the Government 1090 reserves would be utilised. The private firms would know they were depended upon practically to save the Empire, and we should only be able to utilise them to manufacture cordite at an exorbitant price.
The First Lord of the Admiralty (Mr. McKenna), in answer to a question I addressed to him a short time ago, told me the time required to make cordite would be three months. Of course, that might well be qualified, because it is according to the size of the cordite and the time it takes to dry. From a naval point of view, the most important guns are the 12-in. and the 13.5-in. I propose to give the time required to make, say, from five to ten tons of ammunition for the 12-inch gun. The size of cordite required is that known as 45. To obtain the acetone it would be necessary for them to wire over to the United States, or to Hungary, and it could not be got over here under twenty-one days. During that time the necessary nitro-glycerine and gun cotton could be prepared. Then comes the making. If it is a large size, they can dry less, and if it is a small size they can dry more. The making would take seven days, and size forty-five would require fifty days to dry, making seventy-eight days or eleven weeks in all. I make no allowance for correspondence, the arranging of tenders, and delivery. I do not desire to instruct the Committee, but perhaps they will forgive me if I tell them what acetone is. It is a wood spirit, which dissolves cotton waste into a jelly pulp, and enables it to mix easily with nitro-glycerine. I believe there are no means in this country for the supply of acetone. It can only be obtained from America and Hungary. I shall be very glad to be corrected on that point; if the right hon. Gentleman can tell us we can get it here so much the better. I believe 100,000 tons of wood are required for the distillation of 1,000 tons of acetone. The forests in this country would soon be laid bare if you depended upon them for the necessary supply. No large stock of acetone is held in this country. I believe there is a stock held which is expected to last about eighteen months, but that is Government stock. It would be impossible with the price at £70 or £80 per ton for private manufacturers to hold a large stock. It would be unremunerative: it would bring in no dividend, and they cannot, therefore, afford it. In reply to a question I put to him, 1091 the Secretary of State for War said on 4th July:—Cordite can be made without the use of acetone Acetic ether or ethyl acetate can be employed as a solvent for cordite, but it has not been used in this country on a commercial scale.Ballistite is made with soluble nitro-cotton, and for this alcohol can he used.The wet process is mixing wet gun-cotton with the nitro-glycerine instead of dry, and does not affect the solvent afterwards used.There is a little story told of a Free Trader who was asked what would happen in the event of war if he could not obtain bread owing to the supplies of flour running short. His answer was that he would live on toast and biscuits. The right hon. Gentleman says we would use ethyl acetate, but that cannot be obtained without acetone, and as both these things are contraband of war, where will this country be able to get its supply of cordite.
Ballistite is mixed under water by means of a violent but steady jet of compressed air. It is of good ballistic qualities but untrustworthy keeping qualities. It is apt to absorb moisture from the atmosphere, to disintegrate and exude. It is also far hotter in combustion, and corrodes the bores of guns, and I am convinced the Admiralty would not guarantee a tube in a 12-inch gun after the use of forty rounds of this ammunition.
To find fault without suggesting a remedy would be like a doctor diagnosing a disease and refusing to state how it might be cured. These are the conclusions I have come to: (1) The regular supply of cordite is not safely assured, and no certainty can be entertained that the present stocks are sufficient to meet urgent possibilities; (2) the manufacturers have not received fair treatment in the matter; and (3) the heat test is not entirely satisfactory; but this, being a technical question, I cannot and do not press. I would therefore ask: (1) Is the present means of output sufficient for probably war supply lasting over a year? (2) Are the Government reserves at Purfleet, Woolwich, etc., at present up to the standard suggested by the Mowatt Commission? And (3) will the Government consider the necessity of encouraging manufacturers to extend their works and hold adequate stock of raw materials by a continuity of work at sufficiently remunerative prices?
§ The SECRETARY of STATE for WAR (Mr. Haldane)
The hon. Gentleman has just made a very interesting speech, and 1092 we are all the better for so much technical knowledge as he has shown. I do not propose to touch at length on the larger question of the Reserves, but I am glad to say they are all right as far as the Army and Navy are concerned. These Reserves are kept in a different way. The Army Reserves are kept in the form of cartridges, and we have the Reserves quite up to the standard. I am informed by the First Lord of the Admiralty that the Navy Reserves also are all in order. But that I want to come to is the more difficult question of the process of manufacture and the question whether we have got the means of keeping an adequate supply of cordite within the country. It is quite true, as the hon. Member said, that the manufacture not only of cordite, but fall high explosives, is a very difficult and to some extent a novel matter. No one country agrees with any other country as to what is the best form of powder. We do not quite agree with Germany, but we are not so far off from them as we are from the French. The United States has a different powder, Spain has a different powder, Italy has a different powder, and each country, I believe, maintains that it has the best powder. We cannot all be right, and every one of us is open to that criticism.
I may touch shortly on the grounds on which it is necessary to be extremely cautious in dealing with these powders, and subjecting them to more minute tests than the old gunpowder was subjected to. These so-called chemical powders are altogether unnatural things; they are particularly dangerous, for reasons which I will tell the House. I am speaking not only of British powder, but of the powder of every other country under the sun. The old gunpowder was admirably safe; it behaved itself in the most orderly, respectable, conservative fashion. It had no violent outburst, but, unfortunately, like many other institutions which proceed in that fashion, its proceedings were accompanied by obscurity, and vast volumes of unconsumed and wasted material were the result of its operation. The outcome was not only was the operation more difficult, but it afforded a beautiful target to the enemy itself. The sole purpose of the modern warfare presently became to dissipate the explosion in such a way that it would not reveal the place where the guns which were sending forth the projectile were situated, and thereby would not play into the hands of the enemy. It also would not involve a waste of so much 1093 material. When you go to war you carry as little as possible, and if you can produce your explosive in a small bulk so much the better. It is obvious, if you are wasting part of the constituents of your explosive by introducing unconsumed carbon and a great deal of the smoke, you are conducting a very wasteful operation.
The object of the chemical process was to burn up the whole of the carbon which was in the powder in such a fashion as to produce the maximum of gas CO2 or CO. For that it was necessary, as the hon. Member well knows, to take a very daring step. In gunpowder the carbon lies in separate atoms from the oxygen. In chemical powders the atoms of oxygen and carbon lay side by side, and the result is when these powders behave naturally the two atoms rush suddenly together and produce a violent explosion. Yet that was the only way in which we got the whole of the carbon burnt up and the whole material used. What was the discovery made when ballistite was first brought on the scene in 1888? Under the Nobel system it was found that when nitro-cellulose was mixed with nitro-glycerine it tamed the nitro-glycerine, and was in its turn also tamed by the nitro-glycerine. The burning took place very slowly. One high explosive tamed the other. They became harmless mutually, but served the useful operation of slowly driving out the projectile, using up nearly all the carbon, and producing no smoke. That is really the principle of modern cordite, which is substituted for the low nitration of Nobel. Observe what was the duty of the Government using a powder of that kind. If it was not extraordinarily well manufactured it burst the guns. Therefore you have to subject them to very careful tests, because if once the elements get out of their groups then you have all the materials for the detonation of the substance, the gun goes into a thousand pieces, and probably life is lost. These powders have to be watched in case of decomposition. What is the test? It is to see whether nitrous fumes are given off, and for that purpose what is called the heat test is devised—the heat test which we use in this country. It has been fully described by the hon. Member, and I need not go into it again. The silver heat test is very good but very slow. The other one was not so certain, but they all depend on the principle of detecting heat on decomposition. They are extremely dangerous, and those conducting them 1094 have to submit to very exacting conditions. We know that these tests are in themselves obscure and affected by varying conditions, and, therefore, there is a desire on the part of the authorities of the Army and Navy and the Research Department, which is carrying out these tests, to make things as easy as possible for the manufacturers. I am not sure that the right hon. Gentleman knows it, but I will tell him that there has recently been a conference between the Army and Navy Departments and the manufacturers, and we have been in consultation as to the heat test. We have frankly acknowledged their difficulties, and we have entered into arrangements with them which we trust will enable the heat test itself to be tested on such a basis as to make allowance for any possible unfairness in that test itself. It may be that some of the defects are due to the heat test itself and not to the cordite, and we have taken such steps as we can to see that the heat test is right, and we are in consultation with the manufacturers who employ chemists of eminence and who are just as anxious as we are to put this matter right and produce the best stuff. I do not think we have been at all excessive in our caution in the past, but I do think that we have always got to study the heat test sufficiently on the one hand to see that it is sufficient, and on the other hand to see that it does not produce defects.
§ Mr. HALDANE
We have known for ten or twenty years past that a certain amount of decomposition is to be looked for and some other facts. We have always taken a very reasonable view of the heat test, and always looked carefully about to see if it was subject to criticism in any particular case. I pass to the other point of the hon. and gallant Gentleman, the question of the acetone supply, and I quite accept at his hands a correction of what seemed on my part a slip. I said the other day you can use as an alternative to acetone in certain circumstances acetic ether. It is quite true you can do that, but you have to go back to the acetate of lime to get this, and if you go to the acetate of lime you may just as well use acetone. I was quoting from memory from a treatise on Service explosives. I pass to the question of acetone itself, and in one point the hon. and gallant Member is wrong. He 1095 spoke of being dependent upon foreign countries, but, as a matter of fact, acetone is now being produced in very considerable quantities in Canada, and we are placing large orders and getting large deliveries, which we hope will be larger in the future in that country where there are large areas of forest, so it is easy to produce acetate of lime.
§ Mr. BURGOYNE
The point I wanted to make was that you would have to get it from over sea, and then what about the event of war?
§ Mr. HALDANE
That is not absolutely vital, as I will show, in the case of war. We buy acetone from all sources, and we find it in all sorts of places where we can get it. We are now buying on the Continent a good deal, and a good deal from Austria, but in time of war we should not look to those sources of supply. We should look to Canada, and we hope to deal with Canada in any event much more largely, and to take a great deal more from her if they can give it to us, but we are busy with the question in this country, in connection with afforestation, and I think we ought to be able to produce a great deal of acetate of lime. We are going into it at this moment, to see how much we can do, but I do not wish to mislead the Committee, or to hold out any hope that it is either possible or desirable that—at any rate, in time of peace—we should be able to produce all the acetone we want in this country, but in time of war we should be driven to get a large amount here, and we contemplate getting a lot here, and we could, at all events, get a substantial amount in this country. We are taking steps to see how that can be done, and it is a question of cost if we should be driven to get a large amount here in case of war, which it would be absurd to get now. But we do get a large quantity. There is one firm, the United Alkali Company, of Liverpool, which is producing it on a considerable scale, and would be likely to produce it on a larger scale if we required it. I think there is an hon. Gentleman who is connected with the firm who will be able to tell the Committee much better than I can about this. Their chief market is Canada, but they would be able to produce it in this country in any quantity which we required.
§ Mr. HALDANE
They produce acetone. Trees do not grow in Liverpool, and you make acetate of lime. Where there are trees they make the acetone. We have a very much larger stock of acetone than we have ever had before; we have increased it. The hon. Member referred to the price which we pay, and, of course, we pay higher prices for the experimental tests which are being held, but we have six or seven competing firms producing the stuff which we buy. They regulate their own price to some extent, but not altogether, for there is wholesome competition among them, and the price adjusts itself, and, so far as I know, I do not think we behave unfairly to them in the matter. Then, as regards the time taken, all these high explosives take a considerable time to manufacture, and that time is covered by the reserve. We have made, and we are making, provision for that, and we should, I trust, if war broke out, find our reserves put us in a comfortable position. As to glycerine, to which the hon. Member referred, that is a home product. We find glycerine in the making of soap, and what I am glad to see is the prodigious manufacture of soap in this country. It is one of our national characteristics to use soap, and therefore it is one of our national characteristics to have more glycerine handy than most countries. I think I have covered the points which were raised by the hon. and gallant Gentleman, as far as they concern the War Office, and the other points which arose in the course of the discussion, and which touch the Admiralty, will be dealt with by my right hon. Friend the First Lord.
§ Mr. PRETYMAN
I do not propose to follow either my hon. and gallant Friend or the right hon. Gentleman into the scientific details which they have given to the Committee, and which are of great interest, but I do propose to raise one or two practical points arising out of this Question, more particularly referring to the First Lord of the Admiralty. As to acetone, there were one or two points which were not touched upon by the Secretary for War upon which we may perhaps have a word or two from the First Lord. I think it is estimated that a ton of acetone requires 300 tons of wood.
§ Mr. HALDANE
I know it requires a very large amount of wood, but I should hardly think so much. I should hardly like to contradict, however.
§ Mr. PRETYMAN
I think the Committee may take it that that is about the right quantity. My information is 300 tons, but that is a matter upon which the experts will pronounce. I am not an expert, and my information is secondhand. I never made any acetone myself. May I also add an important fact that acetone, I understand, is a by-product of charcoal, and the price of acetone mainly depends upon whether it could be made profitably in connection with the manufacture of charcoal. Charcoal again is mainly dependent for its prosperity upon the tinplate industry, and I understand that where large quantities of charcoal are made and used in connection with the tin-plate industry, acetone is a by-product. I was very glad to hear the right hon. Gentleman say that the question of production in this country was receiving close attention. I am sure that will be satisfactory to the Committee, but I could not quite agree with him that although it is not necessary to make acetone in this country in peace time we could do it in time of war. I do not think that we could. I speak again under correction, but I am informed that the production of acetone of the required quality is a very difficult process. It requires a great deal of experience and a great deal of practical knowledge, and it is therefore not possible to start the production of acetone with any prospect of success without very long experience.
§ Mr. HALDANE
What I meant to say was that in time of peace we should get no large quantity, but as much as was required for our consumption, but in the ordinary course we should get the experience by manufacture in time of peace in order to produce it in time of war.
§ Mr. PRETYMAN
If the manufacture is to be central, you must decentralise your operations. If, however, you are going to manufacture in one place only and educate a sufficient staff to explain what your working is, and to avail yourselves of your experience in war time which you have gained in time of peace, all is well. But the matter is so extremely technical and requires such a great deal of experience that you cannot start the manufacture in war time with any immediate prospect of success. As to reserve of acetone, I was extremely glad to hear the right hon. Gentleman say that they have a large reserve. I am told that there is no reserve whatever of acetone in the hands 1098 of the trade, and they live entirely from hand to mouth. Therefore we may take it that the reserve at the Admiralty and the War Office is the only reserve in the country, and until we have a home production it is necessary that there should be a large reserve of acetone maintained in the Government Departments. It is very satisfactory to the Committee to hear that statement of the right hon. Gentleman that these reserves are actually to be recognised. As to the manufacture of the United Alkali Company, of Liverpool, I understand that it is not on a large scale, and the acetone which they produce is very costly.
§ Mr. PRETYMAN
I suppose the amount of acetone required here. I do not want to say, but I could state figures.
§ Mr. PRETYMAN
The amount of acetone required for cordite manufactured in this country every year would be something like 12,000 tons.
§ Mr. PRETYMAN
No, it is half a ton of acetone for a ton of cordite, therefore the total you would require is about 1,000 tons. You would want 12,000 tons of acetate of lime. So that the production of acetone of first-class quality in any large proportion would obviously be of very great importance in this country. We have had a very interesting description of the heat test. I accept everything that the right hon. Gentleman has said and I only wish to make one small addition, namely, that the real object of the heat test, as I understand it, is to test durability. You require cordite to stand the test of a temperature of 180 degrees for thirty minutes to-day. You expect it to last twelve years, and at the end of the twelve years to stand a test of 160 degrees for eight minutes. It follows from that that the single test is not the final one, because it might easily be that cordite which would stand the thirty-minute test to-day might be found in twelve months' time to have deteriorated more rapidly than another sample which had stood perhaps not quite so good a test. The right hon. Gentleman has admitted that the heat test was uncertain, and 1099 that that has been known for a very large number of years. The crucial question about the heat test has only arisen since last January. I think until 1907 the Admiralty used to get cordite through the War Office, but in that year separate arrangements were made, and the Admiralty now have their cordite delivered to them at Waltham, and undertake their own negotiations with the manufacturers, and the War Office have theirs delivered at Woolwich, and they are also on their own. Since last January there has been great trouble between the manufacturers and the Admiralty, who, I understand, have done exactly what the right hon. Gentleman says they should not do, namely, regarded the heat test as infallible, and they have refused to pass a large quantity of cordite because it has not complied with the very fallible heat test—not one particular delivery of powder but deliveries from all the firms concerned. All these deliveries failed to pass the heat test. That would surely point to some defect in the test rather than in the cordite. I quite understand that the Admiralty are bound to protect themselves, but there has been great trouble, and I understand that the Admiralty have not been prepared until quite recently to admit the fallibility which the right hon. Gentleman says they have known of for years.
Arising out of that I would suggest that it is not possible in the case of cordite to act wholly on the commercial competitive principle. That has already been admitted in the case of gun-mountings. There is no real open competition in the case of the supply of gun-mountings for the Navy. There cannot be, in the nature of things, any real open competition for the supply of cordite or of any other article of which the Government are the sole consumers. Where there is no general market your object is the same as in ordinary competition; you want to get the best article you can possibly get at the cheapest price. Ordinarily you go into the commercial market, and the best way to get what you want is to go in for competition and adhere strictly to tenders. In this case this is an impossibility, therefore surely it is far better to do as you do in the case of the gun-mountings and to work with the firms in the closest possible manner, checking their prices and their quality by every possible test and by your own manufacture at Waltham, and by that 1100 means, rather than by a sham competition, which cannot really exist in fact, to endeavour to obtain the best article at the cheapest price. I am quite sure this is quite as much a matter for the House of Commons as for the Board of Admiralty. There may be some idea at the back of the right hon. Gentleman's mind that if he enters into a kind of partnership with the cordite firms he will be laying himself open to censure here. I do not believe that at all. I believe if he can show that the methods which he has adopted are the best in the interests of the country, and that he has devised the best safeguards possible under the conditions which govern the supply of the trade, that will satisfy the Committee, and it is not necessary to show that he has applied the competitive tests, which are not applicable to this particular case. If he will do with the cordite firms what he has done with the gun-mounting firms and keep in the closest possible' touch with them, and obtain from them the latest chemical information which is to be obtained, and will insist on getting the best article at the cheapest price, and when there is a difficulty, such as there was about this latest heat test, he would consult the firms and deal with them not as though they desired to force upon the Admiralty an inferior article, but as though there was some error which both parties were interested in getting at at the earliest possible moment, a great deal of this difficulty would be avoided, and cordite would be obtained very much more cheaply, and certainly of quite as good a quality.
The matter of reserves and of supply is after all the most important point from the point of view of the nation. What the nation will desire to know is whether the available supply of cordite in time of war is absolutely beyond suspicion. On that point the first question which arises is, What proportion does the capacity of output of the cordite firms of this country, including Waltham Abbey, bear to the war consumption? I believe the capacity of output is only about two-thirds of the war consumption. It may be, of course, that it can be extended to some extent, and that considerable time is required for the extension, and there will be no serious criticism on that proportion provided there is a sufficient reserve. I think the right hon. Gentleman said there was. I have some figures which it would not be proper to give to the Committee, but I 1101 have been very carefully into the figures of production and the figures of cordite actually supplied since the South African War to the Admiralty. The War Office is not in question, and is not nearly so much concerned as the Admiralty. I have compared these figures with what I believe to be the annual consumption of the Navy in peace time. There is a large surplus, and apparently there should be a sufficient reserve, but there is one uncertain factor, and that is that there have been presumably very considerable quantities of cordite destroyed after having been rejected. It was a matter of common knowledge that something like 50 per cent. of the cordite of the 1903 and 1904 orders was under suspicion. It was so much under suspicion that it was thought it might have to be destroyed, though I do not know whether it was absolutely destroyed or not. A quarter of the cordite supplied in 1905 and 1906 was similarly under suspicion. We might have a little enlightenment on that point and a definite statement whether the reserve is sufficient. I know a weight of cordite of all sizes equal to a year's consumption could be produced, but that does not cover the point, because the cordite mainly required is the large size for the 12-in. gun, and that is constantly a largely increasing proportion, and it takes 1,600 hours to dry, and the capacity of output is governed by the drying stoves, which are permanent brick structures. Taking all these facts, for the actual requirements of the Navy the capacity of output is only two-thirds. If there are ample reserves, and if there is an ample reserve of acetone, time will be given to extend the capacity of output in order to meet requirements. If the First Lord of the Admiralty will reassure us as to the supplies for the Navy and the reserve of acetone, and on the other point as to his desire not to apply too fully that useless competitive test, but, if he can, to work more in co-operation with the manufacturers, I think this Debate will have served some useful purpose.
§ 5.0 P.M.
§ Mr. MUSPRATT
This is a subject to which for the last fifteen years I have given very great personal attention, and I believe I was, to a certain extent, instrumental in introducing cordite into this country, and certainly in the earlier days of its manufacture at Widnes I was one of the responsible experts who had charge of the department concerned. 1102 In recent years perhaps I have not been in the same intimate touch with the working details of the question. I did not quite realise that it was coming up in such a very prominent form to-day, and I have not had an opportunity of communicating with my office to get posted upon the latest features. I think that is probably a great advantage to this House, because I will be able to deal with the matter in a broader way, and I can assure the Members of the Committee that my remarks will not lack accuracy because they are not absolutely up to date. Before dealing with the main question there are one or two matters on which, as a manufacturer, I should like to say a word. The hon. Member for North Kensington (Mr. Burgoyne) has raised a point as to the exacting tests which are utilised in testing cordite. As a manufacturer of twenty years' experience I can say that one of the facts we all have to realise is that as knowledge advances it becomes more and more necessary to have exacting tests. There was a time even in regard to inorganic chemistry when the tests for rough impurities such as sulphate of chloride were different from what they are now. At the present day things are not so smooth as they were then, and when you get into organic chemistry—and hon. Members know that acetone is well in the region of organic chemistry—you are getting into a field where you must have exacting tests. When my firm first went into the manufacture of acetone the test was a time test. Only two minutes was the time in which certain reaction had or had not to take place as a test of purity. We made our calculations on the basis of turning out the article on the test of two minutes. Almost before we were on the market the War Office raised the test tremendously and increased the stringency. This affected the amount of the article we could turn out, and it also affected our profits. A little later, when it became a question of storing acetone for a long period of time, the test was raised to four hours, and I confess that was the breaking point for us. We brought the matter before the attention of the War Office, and the experts of the War Office discussed the matter with our experts, and I think we came back to thirty minutes, or it may have been an hour. Every manufacturer has to accustom himself to the ever-increasing stringency of tests as scientific knowledge advances, and it is only when it can be 1103 shown that the stringency is becoming economically unsound that the War Office can be rightly called upon to make any relaxation in the stringency. As a manufacturer, I know what this increased stringency costs a manufacturer. One has to admit that the War Office, as the purchaser of these articles, has to be extremely stringent, and manufacturers can only claim a relaxation when it can be incontestably proved that the article they are producing is as good and that it is not of such a nature as to be economically unsound.
I should like to say a word about the home manufacturers of cordite. The hon. Gentleman opposite told the House in perfectly good faith that no acetone was manufactured in this country. If he had said that outside manufacturers of cordite did not use acetone he would have been right. I believe he is a considerable witness in encouraging British industries, and I hope he will take the opportunity of mentioning that fact to the friends with whom he has been in communication on this important matter. In regard to the actual quantity of British cordite manufactured with acetone a point was raised by the hon. and gallant Gentleman opposite (Mr. Pretyman). I have not the official figures, but he will doubtless remember that a White Paper is issued annually showing the purchases of various articles for the Admiralty and so on from outside sources. I think I am right in saying that the acetone bought from outside sources is about £30,000 worth, or a matter of 500 tons. When it is realised that in the manufacture of cordite we do not use very much acetone, and that we go on recovering the acetone and use it over and over again, it will be seen that we can get a large quantity of cordite with a comparatively small quantity of acetone. I venture to say that 500 tons is not a quantity that we need be frightened about.
As to the raw material of acetone, it has already been pointed out that it is made from the article known as acetate of lime, and that acetate of lime is a product of wood distillation. Some people say it is a by-product of which charcoal is the main product, while others say that charcoal is the main product of which acetate of lime is the by-product. If you go to buy any one of these products you will discover that the one you are trying to buy is the main product, and the other 1104 the by-product. I wish the Committee to keep very clearly in their minds the two stages in the manufacture, namely, the manufacture of acetone from acetate of lime, and the manufacture of acetate by the distillation of wood. Hon. Gentlemen who take an interest in afforestation and agriculture generally will no doubt bring forward the question of wood distillation. I do not want for a minute to discourage that, but I wish the Committee to bear in mind that, provided there is acetate of lime in England, the wood distillation industry, desirable as it is, and desirous as every manufacturer of these articles is to encourage it, it is quite of a secondary nature. The wood distillation industry is one that must be carried out, of course, where there are vast supplies of timber of uniform quality. To manufacture one ton of acetate you require something like twenty tons of timber that has been air-dried for over a year, and when it is remembered one ton of acetone requires five tons of acetate, you will see that you are running into very big figures, and I doubt if there is a tract of land in England at present available to turn out sufficient wood to give such a supply as would produce a paying quantity of acetone. These are things which, as we say in the chemical industry, you cannot do in a back yard. These operations which are carried out in the organic chemical industries require a great amount of time and space, highly intelligent workmen, and, even more, highly paid experts in chemistry. There is no use tinkering at this question, and trying to get out of it by distillation of wood, unless you are going to deal with it on a really large scale. I have here a paper which I read before the Society of Chemical Industry some years ago in which I state that I have come to the conclusion that an area of 6,000 acres is the very minimum on which one could have a proper wood distillation industry, replanting in rotation so that the supply would be continuous, if the replanting went on from year to year. We have not in this country great virgin forests, and we can only do this by artificial means. Whatever the possibilities are, I think that it would be twenty or thirty years before there was any chance of our manufacturig acetone in any appreciable quantity from English-grown timber. The practical point is that acetate of lime will not only be required for acetone but for a number of other products. Indeed, in our own case we had to start the manufacture of acetone because we had other chemicals employing a large 1105 amount of acetate. We thought we might manufacture acetone as well as other products made from acetate of lime. I venture to assert that even in England the stock of acetate of lime is sufficient to manufacture a very large amount of acetone, and I do not think that, on this side of the House, at any rate, we shall assume that we are going to so lose the command of the sea that we shall not be able, by hook or by crook, to get acetate in from Canada, where there are large supplies, and I think there will be a good deal of acetate available from the United States of America, even in time of war, however illegal it might be to get it. I am sure that acetate of lime would find its way across the Atlantic and into this Kingdom.
Coming down to hard facts, let me say there is very little doubt that at any given moment there will be in England well over 1,000 tons of acetate of lime for various purposes, in cases of emergency. That will remain available for the manufacture of acetone, and 200 tons of acetone is a pretty large quantity. I will now turn to the economic question, which stands in the way of a large development of this acetone manufacture. It is a very small but a very vital economic difficulty. Acetate of lime is a very bulky article, and when an article is bulky the difference in the rates, whether it is carried by ship or by rail, is very considerable. When one realises that the manufacture of one ton of acetone requires five tons of acetate one sees at once that the manufacturer who manufactures in England is handicapped by five times the freight as compared with the manufacturer from wood distillation who manufactures for himself, and so this inevitable handicap, I certainly believe and trust, will always be taken into consideration by the War Office. They have always treated us fairly well. It varies a good deal to who the buyer is, and from the point of view of the manufacturer it would be much more satisfactory if he could have some kind of system upon which this article were bought. As a matter of fact, we would be perfectly prepared to show all our books and have them inspected every three months or six months, at whatever time was desired, and to give the War Office or the Admiralty the acetone for the cost price, and we would be quite satisfied with the profit, not an enormous profit, that we could make out of a certain by-product in the manufacture which is of no use to the War Office.
1106 I do not expect that to develop to-day, but I do think that justice should be done in this matter, and if this question of security is to have some kind of weight given to it, that a firm, even a big film like ours, to which the actual money is not very much here or there, because it is only a very small branch of a very large business, should not be unfairly treated. I certainly remember one contract where we lost about £15 a ton owing to a change in the acetate market. We took a contract from the War Office for a year, or we would not have got the contract at all. The acetate market went strongly up against us almost immediately afterwards. Of course over a term of years those things average out, but boards of directors are human, and when at the end of a year figures like that are brought before them there is always a chance that some member of the board who does not take very broad views of the matter might raise the question of stopping this plant, and although I do not think there is the smallest intention of stopping the plant as long as we do not lose too heavily over it, I think it is a fact which ought to be borne in mind. And if we could have a rather closer co-operation with the War Office and not depend upon selling acetate as if it were a parcel of biscuits or something else which is uniform, and can be submitted upon tender and specification, I think it would be a great advantage. Certainly if anything in the way of a sliding scale can be adopted it would be entirely satisfactory to the manufacturers, and in the long run to the War Office, in dealing with contracts. As regards quantities I do not know whether it is contrary to public policy to say anything about quantities, so that I am to a certain extent in the dark. But I do not think I am wrong when I say that at the present moment we are absolutely selling to the War Office considerably more than one-third of the total amount that they use, and we are working at something like half-rate at present. I think it is perfectly right and fair as regards the large stocks which the War Office is purchasing for emergencies that they should be bought from all over the world at the cheapest price at which they can get them, but for the emergency quantities and the kind of qualities that they would require in war time, in addition to these stocks, I think that they ought to make quite sure that the capacity is already in existence. I believe it is in existence. I feel perfectly confident that 1107 at a very short notice we could answer all the kind of demands that are likely to be brought upon us even in war time, and I can assure hon. Gentlemen opposite that as far as acetone is concerned, they can sleep perfectly safely in their beds at night time.
§ Lord CHARLES BERESFORD
I do not propose to enter into the most interesting discussion in reference to the chemical properties of cordite, but I should like to ask some questions as to the practical utility of the cordite supply which we have to count on in the Army and the Navy. The right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for War was quite correct in his remarks as to the difficulties we have with all chemical powders; they are always treacherous. We have particular difficulty with chemical powders, because we have to use or store so much of it in the tropics and under all sorts of conditions. Owing to magazines those difficulties have been got over to a certain extent in the Navy by a very large expenditure of money—I think over £500,000—for the cooling apparatus; but that only proves the case as to how treacherous this powder is. The right hon. Gentleman was quite clear in explaining to the Committee how he got that powder. We have got absolutely to do the best we can with what we have got. The First Lord of the Admiralty was rather charged, I think, by one hon. Member with having the tests too high. From the information I get the cordite is, I believe, all right, but though the tests may be high, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not for one minute—and I hope his advisers will tell him the same—consent to ease off that test, because it would be fatal in time of action or at any moment for the officers and men to have any doubt of the powder in the magazine or the powder in the gun. And as the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for War showed, the quality of the powder makes little difference as to what would occur if it is not properly looked after, or it is even manufactured in certain kinds of weather. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the atmosphere and the time of manufacture even affect it. But if this chemical powder is ever fired in a condition in which it is not intended to be, either by heat or disintegration, it will not blow the shot out of the gun. It would blow the breech out of the gun. It would 1108 be a very serious thing in action if ever the officers or the men doubted the gun or doubted the explosive that is supplying the shot. Therefore I hope the right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Admiralty will be as strict as possible with the test he has got and not ease it off unless he is very sure that it should be eased off.
I have certain questions I wish to ask the First Lord of the Admiralty. Am I to understand that we have not enough cordite now, notwithstanding the amount that has been rejected and the amount that has been destroyed, because a great deal of the cordite that was destroyed, as the First Lord knows, came out of the magazines of ships? I find no fault at its being destroyed. It is a very wise proceeding if there is any doubt about it. The First Lord of the Admiralty will remember how nearly we were to having a very serious accident on the "Revenge" owing to some powder that ought to have been rejected. It was in a six-inch charge that got alight and smouldered in the magazine, and if there had been anything that would have detonated it it would have blown the ship to pieces. That was a very dangerous occurrence and it was owing probably to the test not having been as good as it should have been. Now, about the reserve. Will the First Lord of the Admiralty tell me what he means by reserve? Has he got a reserve of cordite for the Navy with the possibility of a war that would last eighteen months? I think the Committee should know what is the reserve. A reserve for six months would not he enough. I consider we ought to have a reserve for over a year, and to have a proper reserve of cordite for what might happen in case of war. The hon. Gentleman opposite bears me out in that because he tells us we cannot manufacture in this country and that we must be dependent upon other countries. I will not enter into a discussion as to whether the trade is properly protected or not, but our reserve should be above all doubt in regard to these explosives in the country. I hope that the First Lord of the Admiralty will, therefore, tell us what his reserve is. I would also like to ask the First Lord as regards the cordite that was rejected, whether it was rejected because of mercuric chloride being found in it or entirely because it was not up to the test. My own idea is that the cordite was very good. At the same time the test must be very severe. I would like to ask the First Lord also, is 1109 it a fact that for three years past we have had a large supply that has not passed the Government test, and does the Government now require twelve months guarantee for the cordite? He said the other day he was experimenting. Will he tell us where he is experimenting? Is it at the magazine of one of the arsenals? I hope he is not experimenting on any cordite in a ship on active service at sea. It was in answer to a question, I think, which I asked him that he said he was experimenting with a certain amount of cordite at the present time. That is as far as I remember——
§ The FIRST LORD of the ADMIRALTY (Mr. McKenna)
Would the Noble Lord quote the question to which he refers as I do not exactly recall it?
§ Lord CHARLES BERESFORD
I have not got it now but I asked him a certain question and he told me, or at least I thought he told me, that he was experimenting.
§ Lord CHARLES BERESFORD
Another point as to which I wish information is: Has he taken any cordite into the Service that has not passed a heat test? I think I can touch on this Vote on gun-mountings, or can I only refer to cordite?
§ Lord CHARLES BERESFORD
These are the only practical questions which I should like to ask the First Lord, and the most important is the question of reserve.
§ Mr. McKENNA
The Noble Lord has addressed to me a series of questions, and I think, perhaps, it would be well that I should answer first the last question which he put, and before explaining what the position of the Admiralty is with regard to reserve of cordite. He asked me whether we retained any cordite in the Service which had not passed the heat test? The House will understand that passing the heat test does not mean that the cordite is or is not safe to be used. All that the heat test does is to tell us whether cordite can be relied on for a 1110 certain length of time. Our reserve of cordite in ordinary times of peace is so large that it takes thirteen or fourteen years for us to work through our supplies. Consequently if we have no war, we have to anticipate that every pound of cordite that we buy will be kept in reserve for fourteen years before it is used. Consequently we have to subject the cordite to a very severe test in order to make sure that it will last fourteen years without deterioration.
§ Mr. McKENNA
In any part of the world. The Committee will observe, therefore, that although cordite may not pass the very severe test to which we expose it it would nevertheless be perfectly safe cordite if it was going to be used in any period of time less than fourteen years. For instance, supposing the heat test is thirty minutes. If the cordite lasts through the test for only twenty-nine minutes, it is rejected because it has not passed the test. Nevertheless, that cordite would be perfectly safe for eight, ten or twelve years.
§ Lord CHARLES BERESFORD
How does the right hon. Gentleman know that twenty-nine minutes will give twelve years, and thirty minutes will give him fourteen years?
§ Mr. McKENNA
These figures are always experimental. It will be understood that we cannot commit ourselves to any definite period. We do not know that the cordite that has passed the test of thirty minutes will last fourteen years; all we can say is that we find it does so, and that we believe thirty minutes will secure a life to the cordite of fourteen years, or longer, and will prove safe for that period. We also know that cordite which has passed a test of twenty-four or twenty-six minutes has lasted for a very long period. I only put it hypothetically, and all I can say is that twenty-nine or thirty minutes will give very nearly fourteen years. The Noble Lord has asked me whether we have taken into the Service any cordite that has failed to answer the test. We obtain cordite from two sources—from the manufacturer and from the Government factory at Waltham. The cordite which is supplied to us from Waltham factory sometimes fails to pass the heat test. What do we do with it? If we throw it back into the hands of the 1111 Government factory at Waltham that is a loss to us. The Government factory cannot sell it elsewhere, and there is no use for it. So that if the cordite, as it always is, be nearly up to the heat test, it is perfectly safe for the time being, and safe for many years, though it does not satisfy the test for the full fourteen years. We take it into the Service; we do not put it on board ship, we do not put it into the reserve, we use it up on the first opportunity. We do not destroy it, we do not waste it, we use it up. My answer to the Noble Lord's question is, then, that we do take the cordite into the Service although it fails to answer the full test. But it is a very erroneous conclusion to draw that in doing so we run the smallest danger, because we do not put the cordite on board ship, we do not put it into the reserve, and we use it up immediately.
§ Mr. McKENNA
For experiments on shore. As to the second source of supply of cordite from the manufacturers, if the cordite fails to pass the heat test it is rejected, so that with regard to their supplies we do not take it into the service unless it passes the full heat test.
§ Mr. McKENNA
The hon. Gentleman has rather got hold of the wrong end of the story. From the manufacturers we do not take into the service any cordite which fails to pass the heat test. It may be said, "That is very hard upon the manufacturers. You take the Government cordite, but you will not take ours." But all that goes into the price. We pay more to the manufacturers for the cordite which they supply than we pay to the Government factory. Under the conditions of competition between the manufacturers we pay them a considerably higher price than we pay the Government factory. The question of hardship to manufacturers, therefore, does not arise. It is quite obvious we could not take cordite from the manufacturers on the same terms as from the Government factory, because if we did we should have too much cordite to use for experimental purposes, and we should not get cordite 1112 going into our reserve stocks. The answer to the Noble Lord's question is in the affirmative as regards Government supplies, and in the negative as regards supplies from the manufacturers. On the question asked as to the supply of cordite during this year by the hon. Member for North Kensington, much comment has been made in the newspapers, and very erroneous conclusions might be drawn. No doubt more than the usual amount of rejections took place this year in the supply of cordite from the manufacturers. But what does this rejection amount to? For the year's supplies, from June to June, the rejections amounted to 6 per cent. of the whole, and not this vast volume of 50 per cent. of the cordite supplied by the manufacturers.
§ Mr. BURGOYNE
Do these figures refer to cordite rejected for ballistics, or were they real rejections?
§ Mr. McKENNA
These rejections had reference to the heat test, and they amounted to 6 per cent. The rejection for ballistics is not serious. The quality of the goods supplied to us, excepting very rarely, is first rate. Whether the cordite actually comes up to the full heat test or not is, comparatively speaking, a small matter, but it may be serious for us who have to keep the cordite so long in reserve. The whole amount of cordite from the manufacturers we have rejected during the year from June to June was, as I have said, only 6 per cent., which, though a small percentage of the whole, is still a large quantity. In January or shortly afterwards, owing to the rejections, we had a conference with the manufacturers of cordite. Some little suspicion, or I would say some little doubt, was thrown upon the accuracy of the heat test, or rather upon the certainty of the heat test under all the conditions of temperature and other things. I will not go into the conditions. The Admiralty agreed to take conditionally from the manufacturer 4 per cent. out of the 6 per cent. which had been rejected. The hon. Gentleman asked me about the guarantee. The condition under which we took this cordite from the manufacturer was that they would guarantee to repay us the money which we paid if after the expiration of a certain time the cordite then failed to satisfy another heat test. The hon. Gentleman asked me whether we had not accepted this cordite and put at into stock although it had failed to pass the test. We have not put it into stock, and we are keeping it 1113 to be submitted to a further test. We have no doubt that a large part of it would satisfy the test under the new conditions which will come about after the lapse of the necessary time. I cannot state exactly the precise time. I do not think it is material.
§ Mr. McKENNA
No, the same heat test and the same conditions. It is a very difficult matter to know what the conditions are, and it is believed that the same heat test, under exactly the same conditions, vary in their results. As to the contractors concerned, we have to pay them for the cordite used, and if the cordite ultimately fails to pass the test they will return the money. Meanwhile cordite has come in which does satisfy this heat test, and our reserves at this moment are fully up to their proper standard. I was asked by the Noble Lord whether our reserves are satisfactory. I noticed that when he put the question he was cheered by the hon. Gentleman who sits below him (Mr. Pretyman). I gather from that that the hon. Member for Chelmsford and the Noble Lord agree as to what our reserve should be.
§ Mr. PRETYMAN
The Noble Lord asked the right hon. Gentleman if the reserves of last year were for a year or eighteen months, and as I considered that reasonable, I cheered, deeming it to be a very proper question, and that there would be no possible harm in answering it.
§ Mr. McKENNA
The question cannot be answered with any certainty as to what or how rapid the consumption would be during war over a long period of time. Whatever conclusion we might come to as to what should be the amount of our reserves, I understood from the cheer of the hon. and gallant Gentleman that he agreed with the Noble Lord as to what the amount should be. If that is so I am happy to be able to assure them both that our reserves at this moment are fully up to standard established by the Board of Admiralty when the hon. and gallant Gentleman was himself a Member of that Board. We are not one single pound of cordite behind. The Noble Lord asked me whether our reserves would last a year or a year and a half. I cannot tell anybody what the conditions in time of war would be and how long it would be before all our guns were run out.
§ Mr. PRETYMAN
The Noble Lord did not mean that. Surely in regard to the reserves a calculation must be made by the Admiralty as to the probable amount required in a year's time. It must be so. and unless you can form an estimate, all that the right hon. Gentleman says is, and I am sure everybody will agree with him—that an estimate cannot be guaranteed. I quite admit that. But surely an estimate could be made, and perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will answer that question.
§ Mr. McKENNA
I really would not commit myself at all as to any estimate of time, nor do I think it would be the best way to proceed to say what the reserve should be. It must depend on the guns and outfits. The reserve should be proportioned to the guns you have got and the outfits to be supplied for those guns. Guns will not last more than a certain time, and the ammunition on reserve should last as long as the guns, whether for six months, twelve months, or longer. We do not undertake to have reserves for a period of time, but to have reserves proportioned to the number of outfits or portions of outfits. I will not enter into the proportion, but whatever that proportion was at the time the hon. and gallant Gentleman opposite was at the Admiralty, that proportion is preserved at this moment. After investigation and reinvestigation of the question, the Board of Admiralty are quite satisfied that the reserves are sufficient. That is on the general question. Now as to particular questions. Owing to the failure of certain cordite to pass the heat test our reserves appeared to be for a short period about 1 per cent. below the standard. Much has been made of this, and a certain number of experts in the Press raised an outcry, which might almost become the foundation of a scare. I hope the Committee will appreciate this point. Although there was, owing to the failure of deliverance by the contractors a temporary loss to the reserve amounting to about 1 per cent., that was not a real deficiency in the reserve in the event of war. In the event of war all the cordite which was rejected would have been accepted, because, as I have already explained, the cordite was perfectly good cordite for immediate use and for very many years to come. We were never 1 per cent., or a half per cent., or one-thousandth part of 1 per cent. below the standard for war. We were only 1 per cent. below, because for peace purposes we have to keep the cordite for 1115 fourteen years. If war broke out tomorrow all the cordite which is now in the manufacturers' hands, if it fulfils the substantial tests which assures us that it will be safe for immediate use, would be accepted, which would bring our reserve above the standard, while the reserve is actually now satisfied for peace purposes.
The Noble Lord gave the Board of Admiralty one piece of advice which the Board of Admiralty are very grateful to receive from him against some other opinion expressed on this point. He advised us not to ease off our heat test, no matter what the manufacturers might say. No doubt it is a very severe loss to the manufacturers when cordite fails to pass the test and is thrown back upon their hands. I sympathise with them very strongly, but still nevertheless in the interests of safety we must fix a definite line, and the cordite must come up to that test and that standard, or it is not safe for us to put it into stock. We do not propose to ease off the test. We have been, we are, and we always shall be, willing to consider any question which seems to give rise to doubt whether a particular test, owing to test paper or something else, was a fair test. It we are satisfied that the test was a fair sample test, then we are bound to maintain the standard which has been recently set up. I think I have answered all the questions put by the Noble Lord. The hon. and gallant Member for Chelmsford put one point to me, and that was with regard to our dealings with the contractors. I have already explained that we do in fact pay the contractors a higher price for the cordite which they supply us than that at which we could buy it from the Government factory. I justified our action in paying that higher price because we reject the manufacturers' cordite which fails to pass the test, whereas we do not reject the Government cordite. When the hon. and gallant Member asks me to abandon the practice of competition in dealing with the contractors, I regret I cannot go with him. If he had listened, as I have no doubt he did, to the interesting speech of the hon. Member for North Kensington, who gave us a very fair history of the growth of this trade, he cannot fail to have observed how the trade in cordite, which originally was in the hands of three firms, was gradually absorbed by new firms, until at the present time eight firms are engaged in it, and so late as 1904 Messrs. Curtis and Harvey joined in the 1116 competition. When three firms are conducting a trade and when a fourth comes in, and a fifth, and a sixth, and even up to an eighth, I think that the House may rest assured that the profits of that trade were sufficient to justify the introduction of new capital, and therefore down to the year 1904, when Messrs. Curtis and Harvey were the last to join in the competition, I do not think it can be suggested that the cordite manufacturers were doing bad business.
§ Mr. BURGOYNE
The point I made was that the stringency on the manufacturers did not come until 1908.
§ Mr. McKENNA
It will be observed in any growing trade of this kind that where capital for a period of years is coming into the trade it is a notorious fact that the profits in that trade, until the whole of the capital at present engaged in it has been absorbed, are above the average, and the cordite manufacturers for a period of years had not done badly out of the nation. At the present time their raw materials have risen in price, and consequently the times are not as good or as profitable for them as they were in the past.
§ Mr. PRETYMAN
I was not speaking from the manufacturers' point of view; I am not interested in that. I was speaking from the point of view of getting the best article at the cheapest price. The right hon. Gentleman has told us that there is no competion in price now, but that there is a uniform price amongst all the firms.
§ Mr. McKENNA
No, I do not quite agree with the hon. and gallant Gentleman. I think his case was that we ought to deal with them as with the manufacturers of gun mountings, for which in his time there was no competition, although there is now. I think the hon. and gallant Gentleman knows that the conditions of the manufacture of cordite are very different from those of gun mountings. We know what the price of the manufacture of cordite ought to be from the Government factory, and we are perfectly satisfied that whereas the price we pay is sufficient to remunerate a well-conducted business that it is not an extravagant price. We can judge whether the cordite manufacturers are attempting to extort an unfair price for themselves by the competition of Waltham Abbey. That is what we are doing at the present time, and that is our present system. If you dealt with the 1117 manufacturers of cordite upon any other principle than the principle of ordinary business you would, I am afraid, take away from those manufacturers the incentive amongst themselves to produce cheaply. It is in their competition with the Government factory that we can guarantee that we shall get the best article at a reasonably cheap rate. I do not think under those circumstances we are dealing unfairly with the contractors at the present moment. The hon. Member for North Kensington says that the profits of the contractors are not what they were eighteen years ago. I do not think, despite that fact, that the contractors have any reasonable ground for complaint. I think I have now answered all the questions put to me.
§ Mr. DOUGLAS HALL
As representing the part, of the United Kingdom which is more heavily fortified than any other part, I wish to refer to a question of cordite supplied to the fort in the Isle of Wight and the forts which defend it. It is within the knowledge of the Committee that lots of cordite are standardised in the Navy for a given amount of velocity for a particular gun. In the land defences that is not done, and the consequence is that they do not know what muzzle velocity cordite would give, and consequently they have to make careful experiments with very exact instruments to see what the muzzle velocity is. That is a very expensive way of doing it, and causes endless trouble and waste of time. I would suggest that if it is good for the Navy to standardise their lots of cordite, so that a given lot of cordite gives a given amount of velocity per gun, that they should do the same for the land defences. There was another point in regard to the quantity of the ammunition. Ammunition is no good without guns, and you must have guns to fit the ammunition and ammunition to fit the guns. In consequence of having reduced an enormous amount of guns from the forts and batteries of the port defences, the reserve of ammunition is necessarily very much less than it was before. This has gone on to such an alarming extent that I think I should draw the attention of the Committee to it. I could give instances of different forts and batteries on the island which had had their armament reduced, and consequently the stock of cordite necessarily reduced too.
A great many guns are no longer in armament, but are placed in the mounted 1118 reserve, which, as the Committee knows, means that there is no personnel provided for manning those guns, and that the stock of ammunition is very much less. Consequently in the Government statistics, although they say that the rounds per gun are the same, yet they calculate that almost entirely on the guns in armament, and not on the guns in the mounted reserve. The consequence is, as a matter of fact, the guns in a great many of the forts and land defences throughout the Kingdom in time of war would not have a sufficient amount of ammunition to properly fight with. Whether a gun is in armament or whether it is in the mounted reserve, at the time of war those guns would have to be properly fought. As regards that, if we take the western defences of the Isle of Wight, and without mentioning the names of the forts, but calling the first fort A, that was reconstructed and rearmed just previous to 1906, when the right hon. Gentleman took over the duties of Secretary for War. Since that three 6-inch guns have been removed, and one of the 9.2 guns placed in the mounted reserve, which means that there is no personnel provided for it, and that there is no reserve in ammunition for it, as in the case of guns in armament. I understand that another 9.2 gun is now under orders to be removed. In the case of another battery two 6-inch guns have been removed and not replaced. Consequently if we do not have guns, necessarily we do not require cordite, and although the Government say they have the necessary quantity of cordite per gun it is not so because so many of the guns in fortresses and fortifications have been put in the Mounted Reserve. In the case of a large battery which was decided upon previous to 1906 there are only two 9.2 guns. The obvious origin of this work was to prevent battleships bombarding or taking up position for bombardment. Those battleships are armed with 12-inch guns which are capable of firing from 18,000 to 20,000 yards. What is the good of arming a fort like that with 9.2 guns which carry only about 14,500 yards? It is the same all over the Portsmouth defences. Guns have been reduced in all the batteries, and a great many batteries have been absolutely done away with. I might mention Southsea Castle; it was re-armed previous to 1906 with certain guns which have since been removed. The Lumsden port has been disarmed; Eastney East has been disarmed; Eastney West has been disarmed; 1119 Cumberland Fort has been disarmed; and at the sea fort of Spithead many of the guns have been removed and not replaced, and the hydraulic machinery for working the 12-inch guns is not now in working order. This is a very serious state of things, and I think, if the right hon. Gentleman says that he has the proper amount of cordite, he should also explain whether he has the same amount of guns. I have information, which may or may not be correct, regarding a great many of the forts throughout the Portsmouth defences, in nearly every case guns have been put into Mounted Reserve or have been removed; consequently the cordite for fighting the guns is very much reduced, and the reserve is not kept up.
§ Mr. ROWLAND HUNT
The First Lord of the Admiralty has just told us that our reserve of cordite is quite sufficient to wear out our guns, but that he does not know whether it would last six or twelve months—that is, he cannot tell us whether we should be able to continue a war after six or twelve months. The result seems to be that in six or twelve months we may have all our guns worn out and our cordite used up. When this happens, according to the First Lord, we shall have no ammunition left and only a certain number of reserve guns, and we do not know whether they also will not be worn out. I do not see how we are going to carry on a war under those conditions.
§ The CHAIRMAN
The question of guns for the Navy will come on the next Vote. I allowed the question of cordite to be dealt with as regards both the Army and the Navy because it was obviously convenient that that course should be followed.
§ Mr. G. L. COURTHOPE
I wish to turn the attention of the Committee to the question of small arms ammunition. Some time ago the Secretary of State very courteously and fully answered some questions which I put to him with regard to the new experimental bullets, but he was unable to state what results had been achieved at Hythe, for the very good reason that the experiments were then only just commencing. They have now been going on for some time, and I hope before the De- 1120 bate closes the right hon. Gentleman will give the Committee some information about the actual trials of these experimental bullets, particularly at extreme ranges. I understand that there are two of the experimental bullets—one of 160 grains and the other of 175 grains. I gather also that the right hon. Gentleman and the Army Council have jumped to the conclusion that the 60-grain bullet is necessarily the better, because it more nearly approximates to the weight of the German Spitzer of 154 grains. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will not reject the slightly heavier bullet simply on that ground. There is a great deal of difference in the conditions under which the German bullet and our bullet are fired. To begin with, the bore is different; secondly, owing to the up-to-date nature of the German rifle it is possible for their bullet to be fired with a muzzle velocity of 2,900 foot seconds and with a very great number of revolutions per second on leaving the muzzle. Consequently a very light bullet can be given great accuracy, even at extreme ranges. With our rifle it is different. The rifle is not at all up-to-date; it was designed for black powder; it has the smallest chamber capacity, I believe, of any service rifle in the world. Consequently it is possible, even with the new bullet, and with an increase of pressure from about seventeen tons to nineteen tons to the square inch, only to achieve a muzzle velocity of 2,480 foot seconds and about 3,200 revolutions at the muzzle. These figures suggest that they are insufficient to give accuracy at extreme ranges to so light a bullet as one of 160 grains. The results would probably be better with the slightly heavier bullet of 175 grains. I hope, therefore, the right hon. Gentleman will not rule out the heavier bullet, but will give it as fair a trial as he is giving the 160-grain bullet. and in the course of the Debate tell us the result of the trials of both.
I wish to make one or two criticisms arising out of the same subject. I fully believe that these new bullets, whether 160 grains or 175 grains, are the best it is possible to turn out under the severe limitations imposed. Those concerned have to attempt to turn out an up-to-date service ammunition for an out-of-date rifle, and it is impossible to do it satisfactorily. I wish to appeal to the right hon. Gentleman once more, as I have often appealed before, to give up this attempt at compromise, to give up tinkering with a great 1121 question upon which the fighting efficiency of our troops so largely depends, and to give us not only new ammunition, but up-to-date ammunition. That means a new rifle, because it is impossible to have up-to-date ammunition with our present rifle. I believe it would be far and away the cheaper course in the end. Take the cost of the new bullets. The right hon. Gentleman will admit that the new bullets are going to be very costly. They are not homogeneous, and under existing conditions they cannot be. If we could have a rifle with a slightly smaller bore and greater chamber capacity, so that the pressure was distributed over a greater area, there is little doubt that we could get most satisfactory results with a homogeneous bullet, and therefore a cheap bullet, as some other countries have done. That is only one of many reasons why I think that in the long run it would be more economical to embark at once on up-to-date arms and ammunition than to go on tinkering with an out-of-date weapon.
I said just now that these bullets were the best that could be turned out under present conditions. But, after all, what are they? At 800 yards, the range usually taken for comparisons, you get with this 160 grain bullet, according to the right hon. Gentleman's own figures, a trajectory vertex of about eight and a half feet. That is a great improvement on our present bullet I admit, but in the case of the German Spitzer, with a small breech pressure, it is only six feet. In other words, with firing going on at 800 yards, even with our new improved bullet, a whole army, horse, foot, and artillery, could cross, with perfect impunity, between the rifles and the object at which they were being fired, which is not the case with the German bullet. The German rifle, being an up-to-date weapon, has so much in reserve. It has a strong bolt action, and yet has these great results with ammunition which exerts only seventeen and a quarter tons pressure to the square inch; that is, only a quarter of a ton more than our present Mark VI. bullet, and one and three-quarter tons less than the 160-grain bullet. Surely these points are sufficient reason why we should have a new rifle and new ammunition at the same time. Would it be difficult to design a satisfactory new rifle? The right hon. Gentleman and his experts have so much material at hand that in the course of a few weeks they could design the most perfect rifle the world has seen.
1122 I am perfectly convinced of that. A rifle with breech action, powerful enough to take even more powerful ammunition than any foreign country uses, a chamber with a capacity large enough for the distribution of pressure, a bore which should be rather less than.303, but that is a matter of detail; I am not finding fault in this direction—last, but not least, it should have up-to-date sights. The right hon. Gentleman knows, and his advisers know perfectly well, that we must have an aperture sight close to the firer's eye, within three or four inches on a service rifle, if we are to bear comparison with foreign armies, and if our troops are to go into action properly armed. I know that only two or three years ago this question of aperture sights was laughed at. Everyone is convinced now that the aperture sight has come to stay, for it increases not only the accuracy of the shooting, but the rapidity of it. Other countries are adopting it, and it is a thing we must have. Great efforts have been made by associations, such as the National Rifle Asociation and others, to find out all that is best in these matters—where the sights should be, what size the aperture should be, and so on. All that information is at the disposal of the right hon. Gentleman's advisers. I repeat that within a few weeks a rifle thoroughly up to date in all these details could be designed. Of course it will take time, I know, before it could be issued, because a change of arm also involves a change of ammunition, and cannot very well be done in driblets; it must be done in big lots. It will take time and costs money, but the cost will be spread over several years, and I do not believe that the total cost of rearming our land forces with a new rifle would exceed the cost of a single "Dreadnought." When once the plant had been laid down the manufacture of the rifle could certainly be cheaper than the manufacture of our present weapon. We could design a rifle that would cost materially less than the Lee-Enfield that is now being issued. Yet I believe it is only the question of cost that is delaying this matter. I do not think the right hon. Gentleman can really conscientiously inform the Committee that it is owing to our anxiety to have an automatic rifle that we are doing nothing to improve our present arm. I do not think that that reason will hold water any longer. Can the right lion. Gentleman tell the Committee that his Expert Small-arms Committee 1123 advocates general adoption of an automatic weapon? Can he tell us Hythe recommends it? He cannot, I am sure, because they do not. I apologise for disturbing the right hon. Gentleman's conversation——
§ Mr. COURTHOPE
If the right hon. Gentleman was listening, I gather that he did not deny the assertion that I made, and that he admits the accuracy of what I have said: that the excuse I have mentioned no longer exists—i.e., that we intend to adopt for general use an automatic rifle, and that we cannot do anything until that automatic rifle is issued. He knows quite well that there is no automatic rifle in existence suitable for military purposes, and there is no prospect of there being one in existence. I do not say that it may never happen. I do not say what invention may or may not do. My point is that we are no nearer a satisfactory automatic rifle to-day than we were twenty years ago. We have no metal that will make a barrel at present that would stand sixty or seventy rounds of rapid automatic firing without absolutely altering its accuracy for all time. The right hon. Gentleman knows that unless there is a water jacket sixty or eighty rounds of an automatic rifle will spoil any barrel so far as accuracy of shooting is concerned. Apart from all that, there is the question of military expediency. Is it really expedient from a military point of view that an attempt should be made to issue generally an automatic rifle to our troops? I am not going into detail in that. Personally, I think it is very doubtful. But those two facts, doubt as to the military expediency, and doubt as to when a satisfactory automatic rifle will be in existence for the purpose, are quite sufficient to justify me in saying that we are no nearer the issue of a satisfactory automatic rifle than we were years ago, and that, at all events, the hope, however strong it may be in the right hon. Gentleman's breast, to find a satisfactory automatic rifle is not a sufficient excuse for the delay in arming our troops with a weapon with which they can oppose on equal terms any rivals they may have to meet. They cannot do it at present. They will not be able to do it until we have designed and adopted an up-to-date, satisfactory magazine arm. I do hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be able to hold out some 1124 hope that this will be done, instead of these tinkering experiments, which must be unsatisfactory, however ably and well they are carried out.
§ Mr. ASHLEY
I hope when the right hon. Gentleman answers that he will really tell us when the new howitzers are going to be issued to the Army. The question is an old one, because, if my recollection is correct, these howitzers have been in process of manufacture for the last two years. Over two years ago I myself saw the first experimental battery being fired on Salisbury Plain. I was told at that time that the manufacture of these howitzers was going to be taken in hand at once. It does seem a very long time that the Army should have to wait for its new howitzers, because the old ones are notoriously not of equal standard to those of foreign armies. What is even as important is that the Territorial Forces are waiting to get the old howitzers before they can make themselves efficient. I do hope the right hon. Gentleman will be able to tell us, at any rate, when the immediate issue of some of these howitzers is going to be made I think my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Wight did the Committee a great service in raising that very important question as to whether our land fortresses are properly gunned or not. Naturally, he mentioned the Isle of Wight and Portsmouth. He speaks from special knowledge, representing, as he does, that part of the world; but, Mr. Emmott, this question ought to be considered in this Committee not only in respect to the Isle of Wight and Portsmouth, but in respect of all our so-called fortresses all over the British Empire. It is notorious that during the last five or six years, year in and year out, guns have been and are being removed from land forts all over our Empire. We are not able in this House to ascertain whether efficient up-to-date guns are being put in their place. I fear, from all one hears, they are not. It is notorious that at Gibraltar, Malta, and many stations around the English coast, and I believe in coaling stations still further afield, in the China seas and other places, guns have been and are being removed. The military garrisons have been reduced. The man who is not expert in these matters asks himself on what principle this is being carried out. Do we expect now, as compared with ten years ago, that our coaling stations are less liable to attack? If we look at foreign Powers I do not think that 1125 is likely. Has the Government come to the conclusion that fewer guns are more efficient than the larger guns? It is true that a Commission was sent out to the Mediterranean two or three years ago. They visited various stations, and if rumour be true—of course I do not make it as an assertion—they went out with orders as to what they were to report. In Malta, Gibraltar, and on other important stations they found that the number of guns were being diminished and the number of men were being diminished. We have never been told from that day to this by the right hon. Gentleman why these reductions have taken place. Does any other Power except England consider that important dockyards, important strategical positions, can be properly defended with either no fortifications or with fortifications which carry hardly any guns? Go to any German or French dock or fortress. We see them every year more heavily armed. If we come to Portsmouth we will find that the defences of Portsmouth, if not non-existent, are at any rate very deficient in the number of guns that they ought to bear. I can speak from personal knowledge of these forts and of those in the Isle of Wight. I went over a great number of them last year. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman objects to that. At any rate, I did go. With every wish to think that what the right hon. Gentleman was doing was the right thing, it did seem to me, in talking with the officers in charge and everybody I came across, that the number of guns in those forts were absolutely inadequate. So far as I could make out the guns of the Isle of Wight, the only use they could possibly be put to would be by an invader to bombard Portsmouth with them when the Isle of Wight had been taken; for the only object on which these guns could be trained was Portsmouth Docks. Portsmouth is called a fortress. What is there of the fortress about it? Portsmouth should surely be defended by guns? There are no guns in Portsdown. There are a few old howitzers which the Territorials are supposed to put to use in case of invasion. But to defend that most important dockyard with a few old howitzers does not seem a satisfactory state of things. We may be right, and all foreign nations may be wrong, but in this Debate we are entitled to have some statement from the right hon. Gentleman as to why these reductions have taken place and why also when armament be- 1126 comes obsolete—as naturally it does—no steps should be taken to replace it.
Take the case of the Tyne. I am credibly informed that there are two guns only to defend that very important industrial centre. Are those enough to place against a hostile cruiser? Take Barrow-in-Furness. There are some sort of defences there, but they are absolutely inadequate to defend that important position. Take the case of Belfast—is it fortified? I doubt it; at any rate, not satisfactorily. It cannot be denied that this reduction of guns has taken place all over the Empire in all the coaling stations, and that in England the so-called fortresses are open towns; nothing more, nothing less! If it is right that our important dockyards should be practically undefended except by the Fleet—they are, I know, well defended by the Fleet—and if they should not be defended on the land side at all, and that we should really have no guns in these forts, but depend entirely upon the mobile Territorial Forces—which, as we saw from the Debate yesterday in another place, do not exist—it is strange. We have thus nothing at all to defend our fortresses in England. I do hope when the right hon. Gentleman speaks that he will give us some information on these points.
§ Mr. GUY WILSON
From my practical experience I thoroughly endorse every word that was spoken to-night about the absolute inefficiency of our small arms as compared with foreign countries. We have the old weapon with a poor bore and a small breach. Other countries have got weapons just as old, but with a very strong bore, which enables them to admit of a more or less high velocity. Five or six years ago, when the British Army was rearmed, instead of tackling the question then and providing an entirely new rifle with a proper bore, the matter was only tinkered with, and the only good part of the old rifle was interfered with—that is to say, the barrel was cut down. I think it is safe to say that the barrel of our old Army rifle was the best for such a weapon. That barrel was cut down and reduced by about three inches, with the result you had to make the rifling inside very much more rapid in order to get the necessary speed upon the bullet, and the result of that undoubtedly is that if you went into active service in a campaign your barrel, in a very short time, would be worn out. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to tell us whether it is not a fact that many of the 1127 present short rifles get absolutely worn out after a limited range fire.
I ask the right hon. Gentleman to give up this will-o'-the-wisp of an automatic rifle. We are as far off from an automatic rifle as ever we have been. I know, of course, there is a Republic in South America which has adopted it. The automatic rifle has no water-jacket, and therefore its value for rapid fire would be absolutely useless. Again, these automatic rifles are very heavy. In all the automatic rifles brought before the National Rifle Association at Bisley every year, We never found one that was at all satisfactory, and this year no automatic rifle came before us for testing. With regard to the question of sights it is absolutely necessary we should have an entirely new form of sights, that is the aperture sight upon the rifles. It is absolutely essential that we should have a new rifle altogether, because you cannot put the aperture sight upon the present rifle. If you look at the shooting at Bisley in the last three weeks by men with aperture sights, it will be seen the enormous advantage this form of sight gives, not only at the despised bull's eye, but also at moving targets which we have been using at Bisley in the last few years. It was a most pitiable sight in the United Service competition to see the Regular Army at home compelled against their will to use these useless short weapons with the open sight. With all the improvements in ammunition and barrels, and arms generally, we have practically the same sights on our rifles that were used on rifles or muskets three hundred years ago. You see these men compelled to shoot with those open sights with no slings. I am told one of the reasons why slings were not allowed to be used is that the barrels are so bad and thin that if you used the sling over the barrel it would be bent and made quite useless for military purposes.
The right hon. Gentleman ought to make some rearrangement in connection with the Small Arms Committee. At present it consists entirely of gunners, and I say these are not the men who have the expert knowledge necessary. The gunner looks upon the matter from an entirely different point of view from what we do. We demand a much lower trajectory. In field pieces you want a higher trajectory, so that gunners look at the position from an entirely different point of view from infantry and cavalry, 1128 and I hope these branches of the Service will have a better representation on that committee in the future.
I think the Secretary of State should see that the long guardian bucket should be given to the yeomanry. At present the Yeomanry have but a short bucket in which to carry their rifle. And it is not at all satisfactory. People in authority are not always very common-sense in their new regulations. They order that, when the magazine is charged, and you have been in action, you must not uncharge it, but put on the safety catch. You give a, Yeoman a short bucket, you tell him to get on his horse with his magazine charged and with nothing but the small safety catch between him and certain death. That is one example of the modern way of doing things. We should have much better methods. I appeal to the Secretary of State to give up tinkering with ammunition and looking for an automatic rifle, and give us instead a really good weapon. There is no doubt it could be easily got, with proper sights upon it.
§ Mr. ARTHUR LEE
I rise for the purpose of supporting the appeal made to the right hon. Gentleman from both sides of the House with regard to the rifle and the ammunition of the Army. In his heart I think probably the right hon. Gentleman sympathises with the appeals addressed to him. What he has to con sider mainly is the question of expense. The arguments laid before the Committee this afternoon are really unanswerable. They have been put before the Committee by the hon. Member for Rye and the hon. Member for Hull, both expert rifle shots, which I do not profess to be, and they have been testing their capacity, I understand, in the last few days in practice against the Members of another House—I do not say with any felonious intent. They are experts, who have been just using the Service rifle, and I am sure the arguments they have brought forward must appeal to the right hon. Gentleman. First of all, there is the question of the new bullet. The right hon. Gentleman, I suppose, cannot get money for a new rifle all at once, and therefore he goes on tinkering and trying to improve the ammunition. When he has got his new ammunition, his trajectory, which is so far inferior to the trajectory, for example, of the Germans, would neutralise at once the real advantage which I believe our Army possesses in the higher standard of 1129 marksmanship. It is possible, if the bullet has no higher point in its trajectory than the height of a man in 800 yards, the standard of marksmanship for infantry soldiers in decisive ranges is infinitely lower. We spend money in improving the marksmanship of our infantry, and we place upon them this mechanical handicap which really neutralises, to a large extent, the advantage which we ought to derive from our expert training.
The Small Arms Committee has been referred to, and although I was a gunner, I think it would be absurd if this Committee was composed entirely of gunners. I am sure the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for War will agree that the Small Arms Committee should consist, as far as soldiers are concerned, of officers of those branches of the Service that have to use small arms, and while a gunner may be able to offer very valuable advice, he should not be looked upon as the last authority in matters of this kind. The right hon. Gentleman might tell us what the Small Arms Committee are actually doing in regard to the new rifle. We may be told the matter is being most carefully considered. We all know the kind of official answer that may be given, but really it is time that the Small Arms Committee did produce some result. We have been asked to wait and see for a long time, but here now is an opportunity of which the right hon. Gentleman can avail himself to make some statement as to the actual position of affairs with regard to this question of the rifle.
The problem of the new rifle cannot be insoluble. It has been solved in many foreign countries with very satisfactory results. We are not behind other countries, or, at all events, should not be, in regard to these matters. We have succeeded in producing what is, I believe, the best field artillery gun, and surely we can do the same with regard to the rifle. I am afraid that the whole trouble is that whatever the Small Arms Committee may evolve in the way of a new rifle, the real question is a question of money. And it is because the Government are not willing to face the expenditure that this delay has taken place. I do not share the views that it is a question that ought to wait until a satisfactory automatic rifle is evolved. Apart from mechanical difficulties there is the question of additional weight. No one wants to add to the weight of the rifle which is carried by the Infantry soldier, because the main object would be 1130 that he should be able to carry at the critical moment a large amount of ammunition. Some genius may arise who will be able to design a rifle which will be practically automatic, but I cannot believe that any genius will be forthcoming who will be able to devise a means by which a modern army will be able to largely increase the amount of ammunition it can carry, and until we can do that it is futile to bring into use an automatic rifle. I do not believe myself that development is likely to proceed along those lines at all. There is much more likelihood of development in the direction of small portable machine guns, of which a supply may be issued to units for use at decisive points. I do not believe the issue of a perfect automatic rifle to the ordinary Infantry of the Line would be an experiment beneficial to our Army or any other army.
Then there is the question of the sight. This seems a very technical matter, but it must be obvious that the difficulty, more particularly in the case of men not very highly trained and having to get three objects in line in their eye at one time, is much greater than having to get two objects in line. With the aperture sight it is only necessary to get two objects in line, and consequently this brings rifle shooting more within the reach of the comparatively untrained troops. I think the right hon. Gentleman ought to be sympathetic with this point, in view of the fact that he is bringing in a larger body of untrained troops for the purposes of war than have ever existed in any other army. For this reason I think they ought to be provided with the most efficient weapon that can be devised. The old theory that you can give less efficient troops a less efficient rifle than you need for efficient troops is a great mistake, and if there is any difference the best weapon should be given to the worst troops, because they suffer so intensely from the point of view of morale, and, therefore, it is not fair to give them anything but the best weapon. Anything which simplifies accurate shooting is of the utmost importance when you are considering the utilisation in time of war of comparatively untrained troops. I believe the only solution of this difficulty is the new rifle, and it is the falsest of false economy to take two bites at a cherry. You may evolve ammunition which will produce better results, but you will have spent upon it a great amount of money, and 1131 after all your new ammunition may not be suitable to the new rifle. In this way you may waste an immense amount of money without really producing any practical results. This expenditure has got to be faced. I confess that I do not like the argument put forward by the hon. Member for Rye (Mr. Courthope), who suggested that to rearm the whole of the Infantry would only cost as much as one "Dreadnought." I do not wish to see even one "Dreadnought" sacrificed in order to help the Government out of this expenditure. No Government has a right to send British troops out to war armed with inferior weapons. I do not think there is any doubt whatever that the British rifle and British ammunition is inferior to the weapons and the ammunition in use in the armies of the greatest military Powers in Europe. Our Army is too small as it is, and its strength cannot be increased until we have for home defence a Territorial Army which is able to engage on fairly equal terms with any troops that can be brought against it. Until such a time arrives it is tempting Providence and doing an injustice which can scarcely be measured in words to arm our troops with weapons inferior to those possessed by their possible enemies. I hope the Secretary for War, when he replies, will not try to put us off with mere assurances that the matter is being very carefully considered. We think it is time some conclusions were arrived at on this question, and I hope the right hon. Gentleman will be able to tell us what those conclusions are, and that he is doing all he can to persuade the Treasury to provide the necessary funds to rearm the British Infantry.
§ Mr. CHARLES BATHURST
I have addressed certain questions recently to the Secretary of State for War in reference to the production of acetone as a branch of woodland industry. I think it is desirable to develop this production not merely for national reasons but also to develop a new industry which is likely to give employment to a large number of people. It has been some comfort to the Committee to learn that there are prospective supplies of acetone to be derived in the future from Canada. We have heard from an hon. Member opposite who represents the United Alkali Company that that company is manufacturing to some extent acetone at the present time. What I wish to ask is whether these two possible sources of supply will be available for the 1132 purposes of the War Office? Will this country be able to rely for a supply of acetone upon those who are manufacturing it in Canada and those who are manufacturing it in this country for certain economic purposes, both photographic and medicinal? What reason has the right hon. Gentleman to suppose that he can divert the supply of acetone from those purposes for which it is being manufactured at present to the purpose in which we are mainly interested in this discussion? Assuming that it is possible to divert the supply of acetone to national needs, is the right hon. Gentleman sure that he will be able to get this article at anything like a reasonable price? The effect of our own needs in this respect is likely to send up the price of acetone to an extent which may prove almost prohibitive. I would like to know whether in an emergency it would be possible to commandeer for the purposes of the manufacture of cordite the acetone which has been actually manufactured in this country? Bearing in mind that the strength of the chain is the strength of its weakest link, it seems to me that the weakest link in our national defence is this question of cordite. Surely the time has come when it is in the best interests of the Empire that we should have some reserve, not merely of acetone supply, but of acetone manufacture in this country. I live on the borders of the Forest of Dean, where up to twenty years ago there were a very large number of what used to be called chemical factories. producing various kinds of wood spirit such as naphtha and methylated spirit. This trade in the Forest of Dean has been almost killed by foreign competition from Germany and the United States of America. Here is a case for even a Free Trade Government to revive to some extent an important woodland industry which flourished in former days in one of the Royal forests, and which with a little encouragement from the Government of the day might be made a flourishing industry again. The Secretary for War has assured us that he has a larger supply of acetone at the present time than there has been for many years past, but I would like to ask him whether he is quite certain (bearing in mind how acetone depreciates, to the extent so far as the Government supply is concerned, of something like £10,000 a year) that in the event of war the acetone supply is going to be adequate for our needs, and is not such as may be cut off by the non-provision of this article on the 1133 part of those foreign Powers which are now supplying us with a large portion of our supply at the present time.
I wish to ask one or two questions with regard to the manufacture of cordite. Without in any way disagreeing either with the right hon. Gentleman or the Noble Lord who is sitting beside me that it is an absolute necessity to maintain the standard of cordite that we are now using in the interests of national safety. I would like to ask also whether the heat test is, in the opinion of the Secretary of State for War, at the present time an adequate and fair test to impose upon the cordite submitted to the War Office. I am given to understand that so far from the heat test being an adequate one from the chemical standpoint, it depends very much upon the atmospheric conditions under which the test is carried out, the colour of the test tube in which the cordite is placed, and upon whether or not the substance of the tube itself is of such a character that it can be acted upon by the oxides of nitrogen to which it is subjected. I should like to know whether, in the opinion of the experts, a heat test can be relied upon at the present time, not merely so far as the constituents of the cordite are concerned, but as to the stability of the cordite and the value it has for resisting atmospheric conditions in every part of the world. To what extent has the cordite of private manufacturers been rejected on account of its containing not merely mercuric chloride but insoluble mercury? Since Mons. Dupré invented this delicate test to ascertain the presence of mercuric chloride a still more delicate test has been found by which the presence of a very small quantity of mercury can be discovered. I wish to know if this more delicate test is being applied to the cordite of private manufacturers, and is this test the cause of a large amount of private cordite having been rejected? Bearing in mind that there is scarcely a single article in this House, even including the clothes we are wearing, that does not contain an infinitesimal proportion of mercury, it certainly looks as if the private manufacturers are having a large amount of their products condemned without adequate justification. That is a question which I should like to put to the right hon. Gentleman in the interests of private manufacturers. I have no interest whatever from a commercial standpoint in the prosperity of the private manufacturers of cordite, but I do feel very strongly that it is not safe for this country to depend almost 1134 entirely for the production of cordite apon the Government factory at Waltham Abbey.
What would happen supposing an explosion took place at Waltham Abbey? Where is the right hon. Gentleman going to look for his supplies of cordite? Owing to the Government competition, the private manufacturers at the present prices find it almost impossible to produce cordite at a profit. Surely it is in the best interests of the Government itself and of the country that there should be something like a working partnership between the War Office and Admiralty, on the one hand, with their factory at Waltham Abbey, and the private manufacturers, on the other. In case of ultimate necessity the Government will undoubtedly have to fall back upon the private manufacturers for this most essential item in national defence. It would be only fair to the manufacturers, and it would be in the best interests of the country, that the estimated amount of cordite required for the year should be allocated at the beginning of the year, according to the equipment possessed, between the Waltham Abbey factory and the privately owned factories in the country, so as to ensure, if for any reason the supply from Waltham Abbey is cut off, there will always be a supply from private manufacturers upon which to fall back. I should like to make one last appeal to the right hon. Gentleman, in considering this question of the production of acetone for the manufacture of cordite, to have regard to the woodland industry aspect of it, because by doing so he will not only provide for our national needs, but he will revive a national industry.
§ Mr. NEWMAN
I represent that part of the country where the rifles are made, and I can assure the House that Enfield are only too anxious to supply a good and a better weapon than they have ever made before. We see the country with a weapon out of date, and we see Enfield with no work. Give Enfield the chance of getting full work, and let the country have a new rifle. My opponent at the last election suggested that the present Secretary of State for War had an automatic rifle in his pocket, and, if the Liberal Government were again returned to power, he would at once produce it and proceed with its manufacture, but if the present Government were not returned to office, and if we got into power, the right 1135 hon. Gentleman would not give it our Secretary of State for War, and the suggestion was, Vote against myself and put in my opponent. It was not done. I assured them that we understood all about the automatic rifle, and they believed me. May I join in the appeal to the right hon. Gentleman not to delay this matter, but to give us an effective rifle. Let us keep up to date and manufacture the best rifle we can, and let Enfield have the chance of making it.
§ Mr. HALDANE
One thing that has struck me very much in this Debate is the extraordinary consensus of objectors to an automatic rifle. Up till lately I was told I was not thinking about it and was not bringing plans forward, but now the whole current seems to have changed. The hon. and gallant Member opposite (Mr. Arthur Lee), the hon. and gallant Member for the Rye Division (Mr. Courthope), and all of them say, "An automatic rifle! What a retrograde thing!" This attitude is something quite new. I can only remind the Committee there is not a general staff in Europe or anywhere which has not set before it this problem of an automatic rifle and which it not working at it at the present time. As far as one can judge from the information, all the Powers seem to be on the verge of discovering an automatic rifle, and I do think it would be a very serious responsibility for any Minister to take, even on the request of this Committee, if he were to abandon the prospect of securing for the country an automatic rifle by turning his mind to something else, because abandonment it would be.
Look at the situation. I am just finishing rearming the Army with a rifle which was very recently designed under the auspices of the Government of which the hon. and gallant Member (Mr. Arthur Lee) was a Member—the new short rifle. The proposal is to throw that aside altogether and to start a new non-automatic rifle. It has taken years to rearm the troops with the short rifle, and, if we started the new rifle to-morrow, it would take us years before we could rearm the troops with it, and by the end of that time, or probably sooner, there is, at any rate, a very excellent chance we may be called upon to provide ourselves with an automatic rifle. If other Powers get an automatic rifle then we must have one. In these circumstances, I venture respectfully to say to those who think otherwise that 1136 it would be the height of folly if I were to take the advice given to me. The hon. and gallant Member for Rye (Mr. Courthope) spoke of two or three weeks in which we could design a new rifle if we would only give up the absurd notion of an automatic rifle. I am not sure of that. It took a very long time before the present rifle was designed, and apparently, according to the hon. Member, it was not long enough, because, he says, not without point, that the inventors of the Enfield did not consider enough the breech mechanism.
§ Mr. HALDANE
When the short rifle was designed, and when an opportunity occurred for re-designing the breech mechanism cordite was the order of the day. It is only a few years since, in the time of the late Government, that consideration was given by the War Office to that breech mechanism, and the hon. Member asked me to produce in a few weeks another rifle for which, when it had been in existence about a year, I should be denounced if I were so unfortunate as to be responsible for it in this House. I altogether repudiate the notion of jumping at conclusions about the automatic rifle, or giving up the hopes of getting one, and proceeding with the summary manufacture of some new rifle, practically nobody knows what. There is another course, and it is the course which has been taken. It is to use the present rifle and to adapt it to the 160 grain bullet, and see what we can get with that. You can, with the 160 grain bullet and the present breech mechanism, get a cartridge which gives up to a certain range very good results indeed. Experiments on a large scale are going on at Hythe at the present time, and we shall know presently how far further we can go, and whether with certain improvements that are being made you can get at still longer range accurate shooting. That process is one which can only be brought to a satisfactory result if the ammunition is manufactured on a considerable scale, and that is now taking place. When we have got that knowledge we shall know better whether we have secured something—and I hope it will be the case—which makes our rifle a comparatively good rifle and certainly good enough to carry us to the period when we can undertake the manufacture of a new one with some certainty 1137 that we are producing something up to date and reliable. The hon. and gallant Member referred to the comparison between our rifle and the German rifle. I do not think the difference is as much as the difference of which he spoke. The difference between the danger space is not more than from 1 foot to 1½ feet.
§ Mr. HALDANE
I think at about 600 yards. I have not the particulars here, but I gave them to the House on a previous occasion, and my recollection is that at 500 or 600 yards the difference is only about 1 or 1½ feet. It was put to me 8½ to 6 but my recollection is that it is about 8½ to 7.
§ Mr. HALDANE
I think not, but at any rate I will not dogmatise. The difference is not so startling as to prevent us having this satisfactory result, that we are nearer the German danger space than every Continental rifle of first-rate Powers.
§ Mr. ARTHUR LEE
Could the right hon. Gentleman tell us, as a matter of fact, what is being done in the matter of the automatic rifle? Is the Small Arms Committee engaged in trials, and, if so, when may we expect the results?
§ Mr. HALDANE
Not the Small Arms Committee, but a special Committee. We are progressively getting nearer what is desired, but none of them fulfil the conditions laid down about a year ago, and published. The competition for designs has been thrown open without distinction, and rifles have been submitted of various patterns, but up to now none really fulfil the conditions so as to satisfy the Committee. With regard to the new howitzers, I am informed that delivery has been somewhat delayed owing to difficulties in the manufacture which are now surmounted, and the first instalment will be issued next month. A brigade will be armed next month, and it will go on steadily from that time.
A question was also raised with regard to the Small Arms Committee. I may say that the Chairman of that Committee is the Commandant of the Hythe School of Musketry. There has been a good deal of discussion with regard to the reduction of the guns at various fortresses. That was raised by the hon. Member for the Isle of 1138 Wight who seems to have been making a kind of detective tour around the fortresses, and to have listened to a good deal of gossip, not confining his observations to one class or one sex.
§ Mr. HALDANE
That is very interesting. I gather that the hon. Member found them all in a state of alarm. But the question how the armaments of these fortresses is to be dealt with is determined by a joint committee of the Army and Navy, which makes its adjudication according to certain scales laid down. It set up a standard of what the defence ought to be. I may say that these defences are constantly under the notice of a joint committee representing the Army and the Navy. The defences of Portsmouth and other forts are also constantly under the review of the Ordnance Committee, as well as the joint committee to which I have referred, and the conditions both of naval and of land attack are carefully considered in every detail.
§ Lord CHARLES BERESFORD
May I interrupt? That Committee came out to the Mediterranean when I was Commander-in-Chief. I saw several members of it, and pointed out that their recommendations were very bad from a naval point of view. They told me, in reply, that they were sent out in the interests of economy and not of efficiency.
§ Mr. HALDANE
That Committee was sent out by the late administration, and I am not sure that at that time the Noble and Gallant Lord had not some controversy going on with the authorities. Apparently he met with some of his sympathisers on the Committee. However, although that Committee was started by the late Government I have always had the deepest respect for its recommendations, and the fact that as a result I have had to supply larger and more powerful armaments will go to show that they have not always been on the side of economy. All the schools of thought with regard to attack and defence have been considered by that Committee, and after very careful inquiry we have acted on the basis of their recommendations. The question was considered in this connection of the class of vessel likely to attack, and the most appropriate guns were chosen, together with the most appropriate places in which to establish them.
§ Mr. ASHLEY
Did the Owen Committee make any recommendation with reference to the defences of the Portsmouth forts?
§ Mr. HALDANE
The land defences all round the coast were dealt with. I think I have covered most of the points which have been referred to in this Debate. There are minor matters such as of the aperture sight. We have not given, so far, close attention to that, but it is one of those matters which it takes a good deal of time to work out. The Minister responsible for the Services, of course, listens to the blandishments and suggestions of his critics, but necessarily he must take time in order to give them mature and deliberate consideration.
§ Mr. ARTHUR LEE
Will the right hon. Gentleman clear up one point? I am informed that the Small Arms Committee is not, as a matter of fact, the body which deals with small arms. That question was taken away from it and handed over to the Board of Ordnance. It may be quite true that the Small Arms Committee is not composed mainly or even partially of artillery officers. I think the right hon. Gentleman should clear up the doubt as to what is the duty of that Committee.
§ Mr. COURTHOPE
Does not the manufacture of small arms take place under the direction of the Master General of the Ordnance? Is it not a fact that the Small Arms Committee is merely an advisory body, and that on many occasions during the last two years its advice has not been taken?
§ Mr. HALDANE
There are a great many Committees whose advice is not taken, but I can assure the hon. Member that the recommendations of the Small Arms Committee are regarded with great respect.
§ Mr. HALDANE
I am not aware that acetone deteriorates. Our object is to keep a reserve of acetone in suitable condition.
§ Mr. GUY WILSON
What is the use of having a Small Arms Committee when you prohibit it from taking any part in the experiments with new rifles.
§ Mr. HALDANE
That is a highly technical subject, involving all sorts of abstruse considerations. Far be it from me to say that the Small Arms Committee Members are not versed in these matters of higher mathematics, but I may point out that a special Select Committee is dealing with the question of small arms, and after it has finished its deliberations its verdict will be submitted to the Master of Ordnance, who may wish to consult the Small Arms Committee.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.