HC Deb 23 March 1920 vol 127 cc298-306

Resolution [22nd March] reported, That a number of Land Forces, not exceeding 525,000, all ranks, be maintained for the Service of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland at Home and Abroad, excluding His Majesty's Indian Possessions, during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1921.

Resolution read a Second time.

Question proposed, "That the House doth agree with the Committee in the said Resolution."

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

I understand that this Vote is simply for the number of men, and, as on the last Vote, the question of policy cannot be raised. I wish to draw attention to the number of men voted for one of our outlying posts, which I consider inadequate. I referred to this last year, but the Minister for War was unable to answer. Singapore, in the Straits of Malacca, is an extremely important place, which might be of unrivalled strategical value in any war in which we might be engaged, yet we are asked to vote there only a battalion of infantry, 140 artillerymen, 20 engineers and a few details. This shows that Singapore is going to be regarded as a third-rate base. I stated yesterday that I considered that the Army was very much too large—which was a matter of policy—but this is a case in which I make the opposite claim. The Straits of Malacca are of tremendous importance and should have more men supplied, and steps should be taken if possible to obtain native troops. I am not aware whether Malay troops have ever been raised. I have been a good many times in Singapore and I have seen the personal bodyguard of the Rajah of Johore. It did not impress me favourably at the time. I never heard of Malays being in any way used in the Army, but I do not see why they should not make very good fighting men with British officers, and I would ask the right hon. Gentleman whether the matter is being examined from that point of view. In time of war Singapore would be the utmost point which we should have to garrison, and it is of great importance from the naval point of view. The Navy without a secure base behind it is very much hampered. Singapore is also of tremendous importance from the aerial point of view. It is the meeting point of routes to the East and West and to Australia. I am sorry to see great numbers of men as I consider quite wasted on the Rhine. Of course there may be questions of policy in connection with the Peace Treaty into which I cannot enter, but I think that there should be a redistribution of many of these men who, some of us consider, are not being used to the best advantage on the Rhine and in other parts of the world. The extraordinarily strong home service army, many thousands greater than it was before the upheaval, contains plenty of men who could with great advantage from every point of view sent from their present post to this extremely important outpost of Empire. I am speaking now looking five or six years ahead, and making a few suggestions to avoid blunders in future. I hope that the suggestion which I make in the most friendly and constructive way will be accepted and that this garrison at Singapore shall be strengthened at once. It may be impossible in times of strain later on to rush troops out there, or it may be a false step from the political point of view to take later on, but now when we are on good terms with all the nations of the world, except those with whom we have just fought, it is a good thing to lay our plans for some years ahead. If the right hon. Gentleman cannot reply now I would suggest an examination of this particular problem to him and his advisers. I am afraid that the present position is the result of an oversight, due to a lack of co-operation between the two services, but if the Army Council do not consider that a larger garrison is required in the Straits of Malacca I am quite certain that both the Air Staff and the Naval Staff, having studied the problem of the Pacific, will point this out.


I rise to ask two questions. I would like first to ask the right hon. Gentleman as regards the Yeomanry what arrangements are being made to secure the horses. The right hon. Gentleman, in reply to questions put to him in this House, told an hon. and gallant Friend of mine the alterations which he had made in the original scheme. I will rot labour the point, but I would like to ask him where he is going to find the enormous number of which there is need. In years gone by there was a gentleman called Mr. Tilling, who bought horses on behalf of the Yeomanry regiments throughout the country. Who is going to replace Messrs. Tilling I cannot say. I shall be glad to hear what arrangement he has made in regard to mounting these men? I would like also to understand how many of these regiments have announced their intention of becoming artillery and not accepting his offer of remaining as cavalry for two years? On the question of uniform I understand that it is the intention of the Government to re-create pre-war full dress uniform. The whole of the uniform required in pre-war days should not now be required by officers joining. I would like some information on that point. It is possible that the Government will issue some of these uniforms to officers. I believe that in pre-war days the cost of the Foot Guards' uniforms—these are uniforms including the frock coat—was a sum of £287 to the subaltern on joining, and that that of the Household Cavalry was about double. I do not know whether the right hon Gentleman could tell us the cost now of the uniform suggested by the War Office to a subaltern joining the Household Cavalry or the Foot Guards. Those figures would enable the House to form some opinion as to whether or not it is desirable to have the whole uniform. I would ask him also whether he has based his proposal, especially as regards the Foot Guards, upon the suggestion of the Departmental Committee which was set up by Lord Derby to inquire into the question of Guards' uniform, and also is it the intention to retain the frock coats in the Cavalry and Guards?

Lieut.-Colonel WHITE

On page 98 of the Estimates I see that the expenditure for medals this year represents a sum of £2,426,500, and last year £1,760,000. The note says that this represents the value of medals actually issued, and makes reference to the Stock Account on page 86; but on turning to that page I find that the explanation column is blank. I should like to know what is meant by the words "actually issued." Are the medals in stock at the War Office or have they been issued as war medals. If so, it seems unfortunate that they should be issued to the men before the clasps have been settled. Once medals are issued you cannot get them back without loss and delay if they are to have their clasps added. In regard to the question of clasps I hope the right hon. Gentleman will be able to get that question expedited, because, so far as I can remember, in the summer of 1917 the question was under consideration. After three years one would think that we might have something settled in connection with the matter. It will be a great pity if the issue of the medals is delayed through the authorities not having settled what clasps are to be issued.

The SECRETARY of STATE for WAR (Mr. Churchill)

The extra burdens thrown on the Army through the assumption of the new responsibilities which I described to the House when I introduced the Estimates cannot be met by us within the limits of our present military establishments unless we carefully prune every other part of our military areas in order to save as many men as possible in aid of these new burdens. Almost the only field which we can glean in this respect is the marine forces scattered about the Empire, the Naval bases, the coaling stations, which spread from the Mediterranean to the Pacific Ocean. We have secured about 12 battalions by the revision of the garrisons of these coaling stations, and my only hope is that by the aid of this transmission of troops we may to a large extent meet the permanent after-war garrison of the new provinces without any great new additions. Gibraltar, Malta, Aden, Singapore, all have come under the scrutiny of the general staff, and reductions have been adopted in all of them, I cannot feel that it is unwise to make these reductions, having regard to the general strategic situation, not viewed from the War Office point of view, but viewed from the general point of view. The power of the Navy, which has no potential antagonists at the present time, and the absence of the great menace of the German fleet, have placed all these military stations in a position for a good many years to come of enormously greater security than before the War.

It is absolutely right that if we have increased expenditure in one direction that we should endeavour to effect corresponding economy in others. Of course, the naval and military authorities must be the judges in the main of such a distribution, and I have been guided by their advice. The hon. and gallant Member (Lieut.-Commander Kenworthy), who is otherwise a great advocate of economy, only contributes one positive suggestion for our discussion, and that is that we should make an increase in the garrison of Singapore. I have no doubt that other hon. Members could also find directions in which they could advocate increases being made in our military provision. If you go over the British Empire, station by station, garrison by garrison, fortress by fortress, there would be very few fortresses that would not find one friend who could not make a case for the retention of an extra unit. Where would our economy be at the end of that survey? I welcome the prudent care with which the hon. and gallant Gentleman has addressed himself to this one small spot in the great area of British interests and British responsibilities, and no doubt his observations will be studied by the General Staff; but whether or not they will lead to a reversal of the policy which has hitherto been adopted, it would not be prudent for me to attempt to declare.

My hon. friend (Sir S. Scott) asked about the Yeomanry. I cannot say at this moment what the choice of those units has been; how many regiments have undertaken to do what we wish in the way of forming these new arms, and how many will avail themselves of the opportunity of taking a couple of years to make up their minds, and of informing themselves first before they make up their minds. I am not going to hurry them. The whole object of this latitude and elasticity was to give them a full opportunity of making up their minds. I know something about Yeomanry regiments and my feeling is that if you said to them, "Raise two batteries of artillery," instead of, say, the Blankshire Hussars, a great many people would not attempt the task at all. The officers might lose interest, or the men might feel that a break had been made in the continuity of their service, and you would not get what you desire. If, on the other hand, you give them an opportunity to consider the matter, and if when they are in camp representatives of the War Office are sent down to explain fully to the officers and men the conditions of the new service, and you let them know what it is we want them to undertake, and the reasons behind the course we propose, and if at the same time you attach to their course of training a section of artillery, so that the Yeomanry can see the kind of work and the kind of life in the artillery, my belief is that they will come along in a very much spontaneous and enthusiastic spirit than if you give no such indulgence. At any rate, that is the course which we have embarked upon, and it is much too early to say how-far it will prove a success. In a number of cases, certainly, Yeomanry regiments have decided to reform themselves on the permanent basis, and the more they do that the better we shall be pleased. But I do not want to make them jump two fences at once if they feel themselves unable to do it. Reconstitution is a great effort, and if the unit is to be absolutely transformed into something quite new and different from what it has been before, it is putting too heavy a burden upon them to ask them to do the two things at one and the same time. This burden I do not want to put upon them if those who have the interests of a regiment at heart think that it is more than they can bear at once.

The mounting of the Yeomanry will, of course, be a difficulty whether as artillery or as mounted troops. The whole ques- tion of horses is extremely difficult, because the ever-growing introduction of motor and mechanical transport must tend continually to reduce the number of horses available in the country, apart from the special measures taken to maintain their numbers. That is one of the reasons why it is necessary that the whole future of the cavalry arm, whether Regular cavalry or Yeomanry cavalry, should be re-considered in order that they may get to a very large extent on a modern and mechanical basis, as opposed to the old basis on which they have hitherto acted. I should not be prepared at this moment to enter into a detailed explanation of the steps which are being taken to maintain the supply of horses. I quite admit that before the War it was not satisfactory that so many Yeomanry horses had to do so much Yeomanry training in the year, one horse perhaps serving in turn for seven, eight, or nine regiments. I hope we shall be able by the system of boarding out the horses—which is of very great importance, and ought to be carried on to the largest possible extent—to arrive at a better system than that. Still, when the War came, it was found that there were plenty of horses in the country for the immediate purposes of the War, and I do not think that the system to which so many objections are rightly taken of some horses going to regiment after regiment worked out as badly in practice as one would have believed it would do from its obvious defects. Perhaps later in the Session, if my hon. Friend will give me notice beforehand, I will take the opportunity either of laying a paper on the subject, or of making a short statement.

The hon. Member also asked me about uniform. This is an exceedingly difficult question. There is no doubt whatever that a great preponderance of military opinion is in favour of the resumption in a cheap and simplified form of the prewar uniform. The walking-out dress of the soldier is regarded as a matter of great importance, affecting not only his well-being, but his discipline and the general smartness and esprit de corps of the Army. A Committee under Sir Archibald Murray sat for many months considering this matter, and came to the unanimous conclusion that it was essential that in some form or other a full-dress uniform, which should also serve for walking-out purposes, should be supplied, and that is the view of the Army Council. But we have to consider the expense at every stage, and it is essential before such a change can be made, first of all, that the uniform should be simplified to the last possible point, both by simplifying the whole dress, by pruning it of expensive gold lace, and by reducing the number of articles of uniform as much as possible. It is also necessary that all the existing stocks of khaki should be used up economically and effectively for a certain period of time. In the third place it is necessary that some provision for outdoor allowance should be made to officers now unprovided with this uniform; otherwise a heavy and serious capital liability will descend upon them. We have always foreseen that it would be a very heavy burden. On all these matters we are now in communication with the Treasury.

I propose at an early date to lay a carefully considered written Memorandum before Parliament explaining exactly the steps which we propose to take and the cost in each year. In any case, we propose to take three or four years in bringing about the change, beginning in the first instance with the Guards and Household Cavalry, and going forward gradually as our funds allow. We have also to consider what would be the effect upon the trade of putting forward a very large and complete demand at once for new uniforms, whereas if it is spread over three or four years reasonable prices may be secured, because a regular flow of manufacture will be maintained. It is a subject to which I have given a great deal of attention, and I should like to deal with it by memorandum when the final decisions have been taken in the discussion with the Treasury and the Cabinet. It is rather difficult for me to say here the sort of trade negotiations which will have to take place, but it is perfectly clear that it must be an essential part of the scheme to get the cooperation of the trade on terms fair to them and excluding the element of profiteering, which would certainly spring up if we cast the full demand on a limited trade at one particular moment. We have also studied the subject of the supply of field service kit to officers from a Government institution. Money is taken in the Estimates for this year to enable us to make a beginning with the supply, at regulation prices, of the field service kit to officers as well as to men from Government stores. That, I think, will be a great advantage, and will help to reduce the burden on the officers. After the original capital expenditure that scheme will be self-supporting.

I come now to the question of the medal and the clasps. As to a blank in the Estimates, I would like to say that the preparation of these Estimates in time was a very remarkable feat on the part of the printers and of all concerned in the War Office, because many of the decisions which govern Army policy have been taken only step by step, and some of them were very long delayed owing to the difficulty of settling matters. In consequence, the number of days left before the Debate were so few that I had great doubts of our ability to place the Estimates in the hands of Members. I said, "Place the best Estimates you can, and if a particular scheme has not been fully developed, let that be presented in blank, and as soon as possible thereafter issue a revised edition." It is not at all true to state that we are paricularly in arrear with the presentation of Estimates.

Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER (Sir E. Cornwall)

We are discussing now only the number of men, and we cannot discuss any other portion of the Estimates.


I must apologise. As these various points have been raised I thought it might be for the convenience of the House if I dealt with the general topic.


It would not be in order on the Report stage.


I will resume my observations at the point at which you have interrupted me, as soon as a condition of order favourable to that discussion is re-established.