HC Deb 19 May 1915 vol 71 cc2414-24

I wish to refer to a subject which has been already touched on by previous speakers. I speak on it because the party to which I belong may have been suspect in this matter in the past. Reference has been made to a Coalition Government and to a truce which has to be observed. I think it is well that the present Government, or the reconstructed Government, should know the views of Members on both sides of the House with regard to the necessity of preparing for the great emergency in which we find ourselves. Some Members talk about a national register; others about universal service; others about conscription. The word "conscription" has no terrors for me. We are not now living in times of peace; we are living in time of war, and our leaders have told us in the best rhetoric that we are face to face with a peril, not only to our Empire, but to civilisation itself. We are, therefore, bound to utilise every energy that we can command in order to meet this great peril at the present moment. It seems to me that it is the duty of the Government—if I may say so with great respect, it was their duty months ago—to find out how best they can utilise the services of every man and woman in this country with a view to the present emergency. Especially was it their duty to do this in respect of three different matters—first, the food of the people; secondly, the munitions of war; and thirdly, the provision of men for the fighting line.

With regard to food, something has been said already to-day. There is no doubt that the high prices of food press very heavily on all classes of the community. I do not know whether any steps have been taken with a view to the coming harvest, or whether the Government are taking any steps anywhere with regard to the growing of wheat. That, however, is a very urgent matter which the Government ought to have in hand. With regard to munitions of war, I do not want to enter into a controversial matter such as this has now become, but we all know the necessity there is. The least thing we can do for the men who are now fighting for us at the front is to provide them with all the equipment we possibly can. I have some doubt myself whether, in some respects, our fighting forces are as well equipped as are those of the enemy; but I am sure that those who are responsible for the equipment of our soldiers should leave nothing undone to put them on a level with their enemy in this respect. Then there is the question of providing men. I am one of those people who, after nine months of war, do not much care to see recruiting advertisements. Advertising in capable hands may pay, and may have been useful at first, but the day of advertisements is over. I am bound to say, further, that I think that the day of recruiting meetings is gone also. It is idle for anyone on either side of the House to say that the people do not know that war is going on. It is an idle platform platitude that is all. Everyone knows that war is going on—more than ever now when to our villages are coming the wounded who have done their part in the fighting.

It seems to me that universal service or conscription—I do not quarrel about the word—is justified, not only by the necessity of having more men. That is the first and urgent justification, but that is not the ground I am going to submit. I put it not only on the ground of self-preservation, but on what I think is a better and higher ground than that, namely, the equality of service that is demanded from every citizen when his country is in peril. That duty and that obligation falls upon all. It falls upon all equally. It falls upon all equally, not according to their willingness, but according to their capacity; that is the right principle to apply to this emergency. I should like the Chancellor of the Exchequer to come to the House and say that he wanted a man to pay his taxes, and to say that he would tax him and other people, not according to their capacity, but according to their willingness!That is a perfectly analogous case to the duty and obligation of the defence of one's country. Therefore I think that if these principles are accepted, we are driven to the irresistible conclusion that every man of eligible age and available resources should feel that it is his duty to take his part, and he has no right to ask anyone else to do it.

To-day I asked a simple question—it is my habit to ask simple questions—of the Under-Secretary of State for War. I asked him why a man—and I had a particular man in view—who had gone out, fought in France, had returned wounded, and was not now convalescent, a man who had to have a glass eye instead of the eye he has lost, should have his Army pay of 2s. 7d. a day reduced to a pension of 1s. 6d. The Government may think that 1s. 1d. a day difference between the Army pay and the pension for a man who has lost his eye in the service of his country is a good move, but that is not the way to send men back to our villages. That man, who was earning £3 a week before he did his work for his country, is now receiving a pension of 1s. 6d. a day from the richest nation in the world. These are the dangers. These are the little matters that count. These are the little matters that the War Office have got to attend to, because in the absence of compulsory service all these little matters have great weight and effect in the different villages of the country.

I also submit another matter for the right hon. Gentleman's consideration. It may be accounted a very small one. I think that a man who has come back wounded, and is unable to return to service, should be allowed to wear the uniform of the King which he has honoured during the War. I dare say there are technical difficulties in the way. There always are technical difficulties in a Government Department. I never knew anything that was not a technical difficulty in a Government Department. But it is surely easy enough to hedge the privilege around with such restrictions as will make it possible for these men to wear the uniform, especially now. It would not matter if there was conscription and everybody doing his share, but at present you may confuse the man who has done his duty with the man who has shirked it. I hope the Government will take this matter into account. I was one of those who asked a question to-day, along with the hon. Member for West Toxteth. Our questions were on similar lines, and were intended to call the attention of the Prime Minister to the necessity of taking this matter in hand I am speaking now because I think there is a preponderating opinion on these lines on both sides of the House, and it is important the Prime Minister should know that—whether in this Government or in the reconstructed Government.

I believe there is an immense majority of the Members of the House of Commons in favour of compulsory service. I refer to both sides of the House. I am quite sure of this, that there is a vast preponderance of feeling in the country in favour of it. Why should those of us who have only one son send that son to fight for his country while in another house three, four, or five sons of eligible age do nothing but shirk their duty? It is neither right nor proper, and I am bound to say that I have every sympathy myself with those married men who say, "At any rate, ask the unmarried men to go out first: we are willing to take our share." I asked the right hon. Gentleman to-day another question about the house-to-house canvass connected with this sort of semi-voluntary, compulsory service that took place some time ago. What, I ask, has become of it? He told us that there were 300,000 who had put their names down on that list. I asked him, further, whether the married men were asked to join before the unmarried men, which I think ought to have been the case. He had no information upon that point.

The UNDER-SECRETARY of STATE for WAR (Mr. Tennant)

I gave my hon. Friend an answer.


The right hon. Gentleman gave me a full answer to my question as to whether the unmarried men were applied to first; but it was the absence of information that I complain of, not that I did not receive an answer.


There is the Recruiting Committee.


I do not know to what my right hon. Friend refers. It is a new thing for me to hear that a recruiting committee has a spokesman in this House. It is not a matter of question so much as a matter of fact. If my right hon. Friend is not aware whether the unmarried men were asked first or not, I think they ought to have been asked. I think the Government ought to bear in mind, when the first call is made upon this list, that it should be on the unmarried men. I feel sure of this, that the country is more and more realising its duty in the matter of this tremendous War in which we are engaged. I feel certain of this, that the best way to get men, even willingly—although it seems a paradox—is to compel everyone to enlist. Each one is waiting for the other. Ask them all! The country has a perfect right to their service, and when the call comes and the appeal is made for the men of this country to take their part, I am perfectly certain that it will meet with a glad response.

Sir J. D. REES

I should like to say how earnestly I hope that the national register referred to will be adopted, and will prove the beginning and the prelude to national service. I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his speech, which seemed to suggest his conversion to principles held on this side of the House. I would like to ask the hon. Members who have been so extremely severe upon racing to-day, before they finally make up their minds, to read the debate at the Jockey Club, and particularly the speech of Lord Villiers, in which the arguments for and against racing as connected with our great national industry were most ably marshalled and most admirably argued. I leave the subject, though I think it is worthy of being discussed at length here. [HON. MEMBERS: "NO, no!"] Only I do not think that I am worthy to deal with it. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear!"] I would like to ask the Under-Secretary whether he will kindly—and I do not propose to reargue the matter—inquire into the wearing of the brassard. Compulsion should not be exercised in respect of men who are of some age, but who are trying to be of some use to their country. Will the right hon. Gentleman give a hint to Lord Des-borough and his Committee that they are not carrying out the wishes of Lord Kitchener or the War Office in insisting upon this symbol, which is detested by the regiments. The matter is probably due to some misunderstanding, but I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that having been out with some 1,500 of these men I can say that the men could not see why their uniforms should not be recognised instead of red, glaring, staring brassard, which, seen at a long distance, looks like some Christy minstrel kind of symbol. I am speaking on behalf of a very large number of the men who are trying to do something for their country.

The second point I wish to ask about is this: A case has come to my knowledge in which a person holding a high command in His Majesty's Service has in his service a German. In many cases, I admit, that is not necessarily unpatriotic, but in a case of an officer holding a high command it does seem to me really—to make the very least of it—to be an extremely injudicious thing that the officer should be served, at a time like this, by one who is unmistakably, and indisputably, and probably admittedly, a German in sympathies as well as in race, name, and custom. I understand from the Prime Minister that the police are not authorised to interfere in such a matter. I daresay not; but if I were to give any information to the right hon. Gentleman in a case which I thought really required to be noticed, would he be good enough to look into the matter privately, because I think one does not want to bring the names of the people concerned before the House of Commons if it can be avoided?


I can assure the hon. Gentleman, the Member for Nottingham, that if he will give me the names of the persons he has referred to I will have such investigation made as is necessary with regard to the German servant. With regard to the brassard, I shall certainly see Lord Desborough, and represent to him what the hon. Gentleman seems to feel strongly about, and I will also represent the matter to the Secretary of State for War, to see whether any alteration in the rules can be made. I cannot, how-over, hold out any great hope that it can be, owing to the War, and to the circumstances with which I think the hon. Gentleman is familiar. I come to the other speeches, that of the hon. and gallant Gentleman for Monmouthshire and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Anglesey. I should like to preface my observations in dealing with these speeches by saying that I am sure my hon. and gallant Friend will understand that it was really not necessary for him to remind us of the responsibility which we are endeavouring to carry out. We are fully seized of the importance of our responsibilities and our burdens.

I, for my part, am constantly alive to the difficulties of the case, and the great responsibility which must rest upon the Department which I represent in this House. I wish to make that perfectly clear. I would go further and say when my hon. Friends and Members for Barnsley and Liverpool asks us to take every step in our power to mobilise the resources of the country, in order to provide our troops at the front with all that is requisite and necessary for the successful prosecution of the War, that that is our end and aim, and that that is what we are endeavouring to do day after day. If hon. Members think we fail it may be some other fault, but not the fault of our will. As I understand my hon. and gallant Friend's observations they resolve themselves into two portions; the first relating to the registration of all males in the country, and the second the power to direct our operations into channels in which they would be most successful for the prosecution of the War.

I am not authorised to announce any definite policy, and I dare say my hon. and gallant Friend will understand that I can only represent the feelings which have been manifested in the observations he has made and in the reception by the House of my right hon. Friend's speech earlier in the Debate, to the Secretary of State for War, and see whether any machinery can be devised for carrying that policy into effect. I recognise the desirability of imposing upon all persons in this country what my right hon. Friend has described as equality of service, and I do not think that that necessarily entails military service. Many of us are unable, owing to our age or other infirmities, to contribute military service, but we may do something to help our country in its great hour of need. I think most men are really and truly endeavouring to do that service, and they are genuinely anxious to put forward every effort which lies within them to give the best they can to their country. I think I can say that truly of most men. But we are informed, on the other hand, by hon. Members in this Debate that there are a certain number of persons in this country who do not realise the gravity of the situation in which we find ourselves. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Anglesey (Mr. Ellis Griffith) says the days of advertisement are over. He said further that the days of the platform are also gone by, and that it is idle for anyone to say that by the one process or the other the people need to be informed of the fact that this War is a very serious and grave matter.

I would like to paint in the most glowing colours possible the really remarkable achievement we have made under the voluntary system which some hon. Members are endeavouring to alter, or, at any rate, they suggest an alteration—an addition to it, shall I say? I would like the House to pause and consider with a reflective mind what it is we would be abandoning and what adopting as an alternative to the voluntary system, and I would ask the House also to reflect whether it is possible or desirable to ask men who have, of their own free will, come forward, spurred by patriotism, to join the ranks—many of them, as we know, having made great sacrifices for that purpose—to serve side by side with the man who has been driven into service, not because he likes it, but because he is told he must. Those are considerations which I would ask the House to weigh well before coming to a decision in their own mind that there is no alternative in front of us but to embark on compulsion, which is, I think, foreign to the British nation, the British character, and the genius of our people. It would be with reluctance that one would have to embark upon a policy which involved coercion. But I do not deny it may be possible that there may arise a time when such a policy may be desirable. I trust the House will not expect me to say more than that at the present moment. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley (Sir Joseph Walton) asked me to consider whether it would be possible for us to issue a circular to all the owners of motor cars in order to get their motor drivers and mechanics to enlist in the Motor Transport Service. I understand that that procedure has already been adopted by the Automobile Club. I think the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. C. Wason) told us that an enormous number of owners of cars belonging to the Automobile Association or the Motor Union had done so.


Only a minority.


My hon. Friend may speak with authority on that subject, but it is not in accordance with the information I have unofficially received. Perhaps he would be able to tell me whether that is so or not with definiteness and precision. I think my hon. Friend must leave us to consider whether, in the light of further inquiry, we may be able to do something in the nature of what he suggests. I must not be taken as promising to undertake it. My hon. Friend made a further suggestion that we should raise the age for service in this country to fifty-five years. This war is a very strenuous business, and I do not think I should view, nor would my hon. Friend view, exactly with complacency battalions going to the front between the ages of forty-five and fifty-five for fighting purposes. [An HON. MEMBER: "Thirty-eight"!] Fifty-five is a very different story from thirty-eight. I need only mention that fact to hon. Members in all quarters of the House and they will reluctantly bear me out. It is true we have enlisted a certain number of battalions up to the age of forty-five. The enlargement of the principle, increasing the numbers to a somewhat higher age, is, I think, deserving of consideration; but as regards fifty-five, I cannot recommend my hon. Friend to put his trust in men of that age for this purpose. My hon. Friend also mentioned the case of a man who, he considers, contracted disease or illness in training in camp from which he died, and that his widow had been refused a pension on the ground that at the time he was not on active service. If it is true that the man did contract that illness on active training, the widow will not be denied relief, but, of course, I must have proof. With regard to the wastage of food, that matter, of course, has been brought to the notice of the War Office before. Very urgent orders have been issued by the Quartermaster-General's Department to all camps, military and internment. Some small wastage is possibly necessary, or, at any rate, is very difficult to avoid, but as to wholesale waste, of course we deprecate anything of the kind in the strongest possible terms, and every effort will be made to see that that is avoided.

Finally I would say a word or two upon two pastimes raised in this Debate, football and racing. With regard to football, I myself have taken a great interest in it, and have made speeches on the subject, in which I thought it was desirable in the great struggle in which we find ourselves that such sport as a regular and professional undertaking ought to be abandoned, and I told the Football Association so. I had many meetings with the gentleman who seized upon the mace last night (Mr. Charring-ton), and with Lord Kinnaird and other gentlemen interested in this question, and I may tell the House exactly what happened. I made some impression, I am glad to say, upon the Football Association. I think they were genuinely impressed, so much so that the chairman was quite of my way of thinking. But I was informed after the meeting had taken place with representatives of all the leagues throughout the country, that if we as a Government were to forbid, under the Defence of the Realm Act, or some legislation such as we might introduce to stop football cup-ties, the only result would be the leagues would play exactly the same matches, and another cup would be given by some generous donor; that the people in the districts where football is so popular would insist upon having some match that they could watch; and that, therefore, it was perfectly futile for the Government to embark on such a policy. But they went the length of saying that they would abandon the international matches between England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, and those were abandoned. After that had taken place I did not see any useful purpose could be served by prolonging the controversy, and, therefore, I was reluctantly compelled to abandon my point of view. That is the position to-day—that, while the international matches have been abandoned, cup ties are still going on, or just coming to an end. With regard to racing, my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade has the matter in hand, I understand, and it is not for me to make an announcement upon the policy which he is adopting, but I would like to assure the House that that policy is a strong one.


I wish to intervene in the Debate for a few moments, at the request of the President of the Board of Trade, because the matter raised by the hon. Member for the University of London (Sir P. Magnus) and other hon. Gentlemen opposite, is one with which I have had to deal lately. He mentioned the serious deficiency which had existed for some time in this country in the facilities which we possess for supplying ourselves with optical instruments, and various kinds of special chemical and other glasses which Are very necessary for various war purposes. I quite agree—we all must agree—with the seriousness of the state of affairs. The hon. Member knows, I believe, that this has been the subject of close inquiries for some time past, but the production of these highly specialised instruments requires, as he knows, the provision of a very considerable supply of trained workers, and you cannot produce trained workers in delicate operations of this kind in a few months; in fact, it is a question of years. Then, also, the quality of the glass, of which many of these lenses and other things are made, depends upon the particular variety of sand which is available. It appears to us that there are three branches of this matter which require attention, and which are receiving attention. The first is, we must have a better supply of trained workers, capable of turning out instruments of this kind. The hon. Member mentioned Clerkenwell Institute, where excellent work has been done in this respect—I think, in this particular respect, I may say more than in any other instance in the country. He said that that Institute ought, perhaps, to be encouraged in the matter of research. I am not quite sure what he meant by research. I think he must bear in mind that the training required for skilled workers is quite different from scientific research. We do not want to mix things up. What we ought to do is, as far as we can, to promote the activity of this industry in this country with regard to the training of skilled workers and their proper instruction in trade matters. With regard to the Imperial College of Science, South Kensington, it is argued that there should be a proper Department for technical optics for the production of these special instruments which we are wholly without in this country, and in regard to which we have no provision whatever upon an organised scale. I think it is very desirable, that a Department of that kind should be promoted and assisted on proper lines as soon as possible. In connection with this we have, to bear in mind that the National Physical Laboratory is also concerned in these questions. They make tests at various times, and periscopes and other instruments are submitted to them for examination. The department for the testing of glass needs substantial development, and the necessary application has been made for this purpose, and for the furtherance of provision for the investigation of matters connected with the manufacture of the glass used for these highly technical instruments. All these institutions are concerned, but I am not in a position now to make any statement as to what provision will be made because other authorities are concerned, such as the county council and the governing body of the Imperial College of Science. All I can say is that this subject is being closely attended to, and we hope, at a very early date, to have a comprehensive scheme to deal with this somewhat complicated and technical question.

Forward to