HC Deb 19 May 1915 vol 71 cc2393-400

After the very weighty statements to which the House has just listened from the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition it is with some hesitation that I rise to address it, but, as the Leader of the Opposition justly said, the feeling of everybody now must be to carry through this War to a successful issue and to direct every thought, act and energy to that one end. It is with that in view that I wish to draw the attention of the House to a question which is of first importance in order to attain that end—that is the provision of men for carrying on the War. We have lately had some very weighty pronouncements on this subject. Yesterday the Secretary of State for War in another place, after making a very high eulogium of the Armies that have already been raised, stated that 300,000 men will be immediately required. In the same place, only a few days before, Lord Haldane, the late Secretary of State for War, made a statement which may be an epoch-marking statement in the matter of the raising of our Army. Lord Haldane said that— Although we may think under ordinary conditions in a time of peace that the voluntary system is the system from which it will be most difficult for us to depart, yet we may find that we have to reconsider the situation in the light of the tremendous necessities of the nation. He went on to say that— Whilst agreeing with the Noble Lord (Lord Midleton) who has just spoken, to a certain extent, we are not face to face with that problem at present, but I think that it may come. If that be the position—if a man of the experience of Lord Haldane tells us that we may have to reconsider the whole question of the basis upon which our Army exists—then I think we are face to face with a problem and that it is not being considered now. It is too late to consider a problem when it is forced upon one in an acute form. We realise that at this moment, when we read the reports of the "Times" correspondent from the front—it is the third of those statements to which I refer—where he tells us that we can scatter the German armies whose offensive causes us no concern at all, but to break this hard crust we need more high explosives, more heavy howitzers, and more men. We are face to face with that question about more high explosives. Fortunately, we have every reason to believe, thanks especially to the energy of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that the question of the provision of munitions is likely to be satisfactorily solved. But we cannot wait for another acute crisis to come upon us in regard to the question of men. I would urge now that it is time for the Government to make a definite statement as to what they propose to do, or what has been the result of any consideration that they have given to this matter.

It does not appear to me that in considering the question of recruiting in this country the two inseparable factors have ever been considered together, that of the provision of men for the ranks and that of the provision of men for the workshops. When we are dealing with the question of munitions, we are also dealing with the question of recruits for the Army, because it is from the same source that we have to draw our supply in both cases. It is from the mass of the workers of the country that we are going to draw the men into the ranks, and it is from the same source that we are going to derive a proper supply of munitions of war. I do not wish in any way to be critical. I do not think this is a time for criticism; it is a time for action. I do not propose either to be critical or to indulge in that formula so beloved of critics, of saying I told you this, or I told you that, or so and so warned you of this beforehand and you did not pay any attention. It is no time now for such arguments as that. We have to deal with the question itself, that of the provision in a steady flow of the requisite number of men to carry out the operations of war. Without being critical I may say, speaking quite dispassionately, what everyone knows, that in the early days of the War there were regrettable incidents in connection with the raising of the New Army. I leave it at this; that there was a condition of great pressure under which a transformation had to be made such as we never before had experience of in this country. We were transforming our military force from the small professional body, which existed before the War, into a great, national Army on the basis of Continental armies. That involved tremendous change, and I think it is not unduly critical if I say that, having regard to the immensity of that change and the pressure of other important matters, the whole matter was not thoroughly and adequately considered in relation to the effect which was going to be produced on the industrial population of this country. Whatever may have been the regrettable incidents to which I refer, the results were such as we may be proud of. We have now an Army that we reckon by millions. That has been produced by patriotic efforts, and not by any elaborate and co-ordinated official effort. For that we have every reason to be proud and satisfied. We can therefore afford to look over any little incidents of which we might have been at all critical.

But there can be no doubt that when one recalls all that has been done, I am quite sure that all Members of the House—and there are a great number—who have taken a very earnest interest and done very valuable work in connection with the raising of these armies, will all agree in saying that they have observed that we have used our human resources wastefully. We had a statement only a few days ago by the hon. Gentleman (Sir J. H. Dalziel), on authority which he held to be good, that thousands of men had been withdrawn from the great munition works, from Vickers, Maxim and others, and been allowed to go into the ranks. That is an instance of the wasteful use of our resources that has taken place. We have taken men from war industries and have put them into the ranks to do work which ought to have been done by other men, whilst we retained those men doing the most important work in connection with the War for which they were fit. There was, and I think there is still, a failure to realise the intimate connection that exists between what I called just now the provision of recruits for the Army and the provision by the male population of this country of munitions of war for the Army, and it is on that particular point that I should like to hear what the views of the War Office are. It is time, in my opinion, to approach this question from a purely business point of view, and to do what any business man would do in his own concern, to take stock of what we have got in the way of men in this country, and to take stock also of the manner in which they can be most usefully applied. We must lay out our resources to the greatest advantage, and they must be applied to the one and only purpose we can take into consideration at this time, that is the prosecution of this War with the utmost vigour and efficiency.

I would suggest, approaching this question as I do, with some experience both in the past and also in the months which have lately elapsed, that we should practically register every man in this country with regard to his fitness for service in the field, and with regard also especially to those occupations in which he may be most valuably employed, and we must bring home to the men of this country that there is a duty for everyone of them. It is not to go about and say, "You must come and enlist," and "fall in," and so forth, in the way we see it expressed upon posters in every part of the country. I think many men have failed to realise that they have a special duty which they can perform even if they are not actually in the ranks carrying a rifle, and possibly even that duty may be as valuable, or even more valuable, to the men of the Army than that of falling in and learning a profession in which there has been no previous instruction. The principle which I should wish to see driven home and inculcated now, is national service for everybody. That term has been used in the past to designate propaganda with which I have very little sympathy. I have argued it here and elsewhere, and I have generally been in opposition to those who represent the views of what we call the National Service League. But, again, I say this is not the time for these academic discussions. I think it was very possible in those days to maintain a very strong case for the views that I adopted, but now we are not in a position to follow those interesting discussions. We are face to face with a problem, or rather, as Lord Haldane said, we are not face to face with it at present, but it is coming. I prefer to look ahead and see my difficulties before I come to them. I maintain that now we have reached that stage when the Government should take the strongest possible measures to bring home to every man and into every home that there is work of some sort for every man to do, whether it is military service or whether it is not. There are many who are not physically fit who can release those who are physically fit. But that must be laid down in a far more emphatic manner than can possibly be done by private speakers on platforms, as we have heard it all over the country of late, and more than that, the proper measures must be taken to carry this really into effect.

Those who have advocated and do advocate now on platforms, compulsory service have, I think, often overlooked the fact that before you can put into force any enactment which would compel men to serve in the Army or Navy compulsorily you would have to set up certain machinery by which you would be able to relegate to the branches of the National Service each man according to his capacity, otherwise you are no further advanced than you were before. You will be going on in the same wasteful way which undoubtedly occurs under voluntary enlistment. Therefore the point which I wish to bring home strongly to the representative of the War Office, who I feel sure will be sympathetic, as he always is, is that, whether or not hereafter compulsory service is necessary, we have to be ready for it. It is no good waiting until some great crisis comes upon us, and then to find that we are unable to do that for which perhaps the whole country may be crying out. A very useful work, and a work which will not be lost in any organisation such as I have indicated, is that which has been done by Members of all parties in this House in connection with the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee. They have made very useful inquiries, and have employed agencies which we all know are so useful to us at certain periods of our career, but which for the present are not necessary for their ordinary and normal purposes. They applied to these particular organisations the work of finding out, if they could, what men were willing to serve in the Army, and I know, from my own experience, that as a result one has been able to bring in a great many men who otherwise had not realised what was going on, and who were willing to do their duty but did not know exactly how to set about it. We have to go further than that.

5.0 P.M.

I learn that in many districts of the country there has been a sort of inquiry set up through the police into matters connected with families—a sort of private inquiry which is not understood. I cannot pretend to know exactly what the object of that inquiry is, or the method which has been applied, but it is apparently to ascertain what men are available for military service. I deprecate these sort of half measures. They give rise to a great deal of misunderstanding, and they are contrary to the natural feelings of our people, who dislike to have inquiries made, especially by the police, in regard to their family matters. If we are to deal with this at all it should be dealt with thoroughly and with a view to scheduling right through the country every man for the work which he has got to do, and which he ought to be doing, during this great emergency. I can assure my right hon. Friend (Mr. Tennant) that I do not wish to criticise his Department, and certainly not in any hostile way. It must, however, have been patent to a great many of us that the existing official system of recruiting was altogether inadequate and ill-adapted to the conditions which arose the moment we called into being the great Armies which we have got now. The time of the old non-commissioned officer paid for recruiting was past. One of the first things I had to do was to eliminate them, because they very often did more harm than good. The direction of recruiting was somewhat inadequate and inefficient, not so much for the want of ability on the part of many men engaged in it—many of whom, I know, are men of considerable ability—but because it had been impossible to reconstruct the machine so as to deal with the material which they had to deal with to meet the emergency which had arisen. That is a criticism which may be applied generally, I think, to the whole of the War Office. It was a machine created for one work which was being applied to a very much greater work, and therefore we must be charitable when we criticise.

We have had at the head of the War Office an officer of great distinction and no one would fail to give him the full meed of recognition, for the work that has been done in raising the Armies which are now popularly connected with his name. But it is a question whether his experience and his genius were altogether adapted to the circumstances which surround a Minister of War in a country under Parliamentary institutions, and whether a long residence out of this country in the East did not perhaps blind him somewhat to the immense reserve force, the immense reserve administrative force, that exists under our system of popular government. I think probably that he would be one of the first men, after his experience now, to admit that this may have been the case. We have recently seen, under the stress and pressure of the present crisis, a certain devolution to other bodies within the War Office, so as to put things on a business basis in regard to the great question of the production and supply of munitions. We want something of the same sort in connection with the supply of men. In dealing with the question of the supply of men in every district we want to have the help and the influence of those men who have to deal with the mass of the workers in this country, both the employers and the representatives of the workers. It is only by that way that we can so sort out our human material as to be able to allocate each one to the work for which he is fitted and for which he is required. I know in my own particular district there was at one time very great uneasiness as to the rush of men from works that supply the Navy, and from other works engaged in supplying very important munitions of war. Therefore there must always be in our present system—

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