HC Deb 19 March 1936 vol 310 cc723-37

8. "That a sum, not exceeding £40,000, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the charge (reduced by a sum not exceeding £97,000 to be transferred from the Supplies Suspense Account), which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1937, for the Expense of the Royal Ordnance Factories, the Cost of the Productions of which will be charged to the Navy, the Army, the Air Force, &c."

First Resolution read a, Second time.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House doth agree with the Committee in the said Resolution."

9.12 p.m.


As compared with the armies of the world to-day, the force that the Minister is asking for is very moderate, but it is much more powerful than it appears from the numbers. One would think that an increase in power and strength would mean that one got more value for less money. As a matter of fact, the cost is increasing by strides. The outstanding thing is that the Army is numerically below standard. During the Debates on the Estimates there was a good deal of discussion as to the best means of recruiting. A great many suggestions were made, but some were made in ignorance of the facts of the conditions of the soldier's service. I dealt with one which did not, and will not receive much consideration from the Government. If man power is decreasing in this nation you are going to suffer when men offer themselves if certain standards are desirable. If I read the signs aright, although we had a "C3" standard during the last War, we look very much like having a "C4" standard during the next war.

If the right hon. Gentleman wants to get the desired number, and an increased number of applicants, I suggest that he might consider dealing better with the dependants of soldiers who lose their lives or die from disease while their service is going on. The right hon. Gentleman said that the soldier himself was the best recruiter. The soldier from a working-class home is a potential earner, and very often when a soldier dies or is killed, the home loses the assurance of someone who might help them in the future. The War Office might consider being more generous than they are at the present time in considering dependants, when soldiers die. I want to ask the right hon. Gentleman a question about the educational side of the Army. In times past the soldier was very often considered to be a sort of inferior citizen when he enlisted, and it is very striking how the status of the soldier in the Stage has risen as compared, say, with the days of the Crimean War, or even with 1914. The soldier to-day is in a different category altogether as a citizen, and one thing that has made a considerable contribution to that alteration has been the educational system in the Army.


I rather think that that would come on a Vote which is not now before the House.


I was dealing, as I thought I should be able to deal, with the men who are needed and the general treatment that they will receive.


On Report, we are strictly limited to that which is before the House, and the question with which the hon. Gentleman is dealing would come under another Vote, for education, which is not before us to-night.


I am very much obliged to you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, for your Ruling, but that was one of the chief points that I wanted to put to the right hon. Gentleman, as it seems to me to be important in connection with the general status of the soldier. My hon. Friends and I have certain matters that we want to raise on some of the other Votes, and some of my friends have points that they want to raise on this Vote. We do not intend to vote against these numbers, because we agree that, if we have to have an Army, it must be an efficient Army. We shall take our opportunity later on the other Votes.

9.18 p.m.


Before we agree to this Resolution, I should be glad if the Secretary of State for War would give us a little further information. I understand, from the figures which he has submitted to the House, that it is suggested that this year the establishment of the Regular Army, including British troops in India, shall be increased by, in round figures, 6,000 men. We are already 10,000 men short of our existing establishment. Moreover, during the coming year some 26,500 men will be due to leave the Colours. If we look at the numbers of recruits that have actually been taken into the Army last year and the year before, we see that in each year less than 26,000 recruits have been secured. Therefore, if recruiting continues at the present rate, at the end of this year we shall not have got enough recruits to replace the men who will leave the Colours this year, let alone make any impression on the 10,000 that we are already short of last year's establishment, and still less to go any way towards the extra 6,000 men for whom we are now asked to provide. Putting it in another way, if we are to replace the men who leave the Colours this year, make good the present deficiency, and provide for the increased establishment for which the Government now ask, we shall have to find some 42,500 recruits this year.

I submit that, unless we have some reasonable hope of getting the recruits required, we are deceiving oureslves and deceiving our friends abroad by making this nominal increase in the establishment. As I cannot believe that my right hon. Friend would willingly indulge in deception of that kind, I am driven to the conclusion that, from the sources of information at his disposal, he has some grounds for hoping that the recruits required, or at all events a large number of them, will be forthcoming. I want to invite him to-night to tell the House what grounds he has for this hope. I know that he has suggested one or two improvements. He has suggested an improvement in housing, and an improvement in the matter of subsistence allowances when on leave—both admirable things in themselves, and calculated, no doubt, to have some effect on this problem. I see also that it is proposed that an increased sum should be spent on advertising for recruits—a very reasonable provision, no doubt, in the circumstances. But I want to submit that all these things of which we have been told, added together, unless there is something else of which we do not know, cannot lead us for one moment to suppose that there will be an increase in the number of recruits this year anything like sufficient to fill the gap to which I have alluded.

It is not as though the men were not available. Everyone knows that among the unemployed there are great numbers who, from age or from lack of physical fitness, cannot be counted as men available for the Army; but I do not suppose that anyone in this House would deny that there are to-day among the unemployed plenty of young able-bodied single men eminently fitted to be taken as recruits if they were to come forward. There is no compulsion in the matter; they must be induced to come forward by the conditions of service offered to them. I want to ask the Secretary of State specifically to tell us whether he is satisfied with the present conditions of service, and, if not, what steps he proposes to take with a view to overhauling those conditions. The problem is a very grave and a very urgent one, and I venture to submit to the House that we should hardly be doing a reasonable thing in agreeing to this increase in the British Army on paper unless the responsible Minister can hold out to us some hope that that increase will be made a reality.

9.33 p.m.


It is refreshing to see sitting before us one real live Cabinet Minister in charge of a Defence Department. I complained earlier about not being able to speak directly to the other two, because I think that the three Ministers in charge ought to be in this House. I want to touch upon one or two points in reference to the number of men in the Army. There is to be an increase of 6,200. I gathered from the War Minister that the number at present is not sufficient, and that recruiting has not worked out as well as he would have liked, and it is time that the House concentrated its attention upon the reasons why that is the case. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Chester-le-Street (Mr. Lawson) in thinking that it is largely due in many cases to lack of physical development because of the conditions under which many of our people have to live. I have referred once or twice to the cotton industry, and the very low wages paid in that industry, which must have an effect on members of the families concerned. At the present time the children of cotton operatives are not getting proper sustenance, and very few of them are fit for service in the Army even if they had any desire to enter it. I hope the House will take a long view of this matter. If it wants fighting men, it must see that they are properly fed and that decent wages are paid.

Another point that I want to raise is in reference to one recruit who is anxious to get out of the Army. I have done my best to persuade the Secretary of State for War to get him out, and I think it is a matter that I ought to ventilate in the House to-night. This young man got into trouble with a young woman, and like many others he joined the Army to get out of the way. Remorse struck him after he had joined up, and he returned to the girl and married her. A child has been born, and an offer of work has been made to him. I have made an appeal to the Minister to allow this young man out of the Army. To-day I am sorry to say that I have had a letter saying that he cannot do that, that an allowance of 19s. is given to the man and that he should contribute some of it to the girl, that the girl is living with her parents and that they can manage. I claim that that is not fair. Either some marriage allowance should be given to the man or else he should be allowed out of the Army and enabled to go back to work.

I went to see this family. The mother of the girl wrote to me to see whether I could have the matter investigated. It is a very decent home where this girl lives. Her mother is in poor circumstances. They have a sort unemployed. The father was on the point of becoming unemployed. He said to me, "I have the girl and her child to keep. I cannot turn her out. Is it fair that I should be saddled with them?" I said, "It is not, but the Minister for War has assured me that he is prepared to consider cases of real distress. The position is that at the moment he cannot see his way to do anything in this case." I hope that as the result of my appeal the Minister will make a further investigation and see whether he cannot do something. Any action by him will have its after-effects. A gesture in the right way would enable young men to know that if there was a serious case for investigation they might be able to get out of the Army and return to work. But a bad gesture in such a case would have a serious effect on recruiting.

The other matter I want to raise is in reference to the mechanisation of some of the cavalry regiments. I have hammered at that for years, and the right hon. Gentleman has skittled me by saying that I have become obsessed with the idea. But the change that has overcome his point of view is rather remarkable. En the Debate on the Estimate last Thursday he said: It has already, been announced that eight cavalry regiments are to he mechanised in the coming year … Here I should like to pay a tribute to the spirit in which this decision has been accepted by the cavalry regiments concerned. There is no country where the love of the horse is more profound and more widespread than this country. And further on he said: I heard the other day of an officer who was particularly devoted to horses and had expressed in the past his greatest contempt for every form of machine. He was a fine authority on horses, and was much consulted about horses. Within a year of his regiment being mechanised he has become an equally expert authority on motor cars, so that ho is now consulted by the same friends upon the internal difficulties of their cars."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th March, 1936; col. 2358, Vol. 309.] That is what I said at the time, and I said that it was only the obsession of the cavalrymen that was costing the country a lot of money in keeping on obsolete things. I could see that the time had come when horse warfare had gone. It would be a very difficult thing to put horses on aeroplanes if the occasion arose for quick transport. These things could have been seen many years ago, and I say that we have lost many thousands and millions of pounds by our delay in this matter.

9.32 p.m.

Wing-Commander JAMES

I cannot be accused of having belonged to a Service that would predispose me in favour of cavalry. The hon. Member who has just spoken appears to me to think too much in terms of what we saw on the Western Front. If you think of the Western Front, and in terms of La Basso payee, the horse in warfare is obsolete. But we have responsibilities in other parts of the world. I did not realise the scope for mounted troops until recently I was in Poland on the front fought over by the Russians and Austrians. I was so impressed at the type of ground I saw that I made inquiries and was told that in the new German Army they are making provision for the equivalent of 20 British mounted cavalry regiments. The hon. Member will not suggest that the German General Staff does not know a good deal about war. If they are having that number of cavalry, we who have responsibilities over very "unmechanisable" parts of the world must have cavalry also. Mechanisation is coming, and rightly, but you cannot hurry these things. It has not yet been proved that our types of mechanised machines in substitution for horses are satisfactory, and it is not until better types have been evolved that the present mounted troops can be replaced. As a very keen officer, in an arm that is partially mechanised, said to me recently "my grandmother's Daimler goes beautifully over Salisbury Plain "

9.35 p.m.

Brigadier - General Sir HENRY CROFT

It is only too certain that the time may come when we may require the cavalry arm. In many theatres of war where we have been previously engaged we may be engaged again in days to come and the total abolition of the cavalry would be a frightful blunder. Whatever you may do in forming other types of organisation, you cannot make horses, and, if you destroy your last cavalry regiment, you will be in a difficult position in certain kinds of terrain, such as Iraq, where you will not be able to use tanks anything like as efficiently as horses. The right hon. Gentleman must be deeply concerned with the question of the pool of drafts in time of war. I am very anxious, now that he has done so much to improve the conditions of service in the Territorial Force, that we should all feel confident that Territorial units will not be broken up in time of war. I want to know whether he will not consider the possibility of preventing any such disaster as that and at the same time having 'a flow of recruits for the Regular Army by re-establishing the Special Reserve. It was a very cheap form of insurance for providing recruits for the general pool of drafts for the Army in time of war, and, even if it was only on an experimental scale, he would be doing perhaps the greatest thing imaginable for some of these young unemployed if he could put them under canvas for six months, train them, feed them, and clothe them. It would restore their morale and give them hope once more in life—


The hon. and gallant Gentleman must not develop this. It comes under Vote 2.


I hope the right hon. Gentleman really is disturbed. I think he must be. It is, I believe, along those lines that he can find the best material for filling the gaps in the Regular Army.

9.39 p.m.


I wish to stress the importance in my opinion of the permanent staff instructors. I notice that in Vote A the numbers are slightly increased, but I should have liked to have seen their numbers larger because of their tremendous influence in recruiting for the Regular Army. Under the present regulations they cannot recruit for the Territorial Army; they can only recruit for the Regular Army. They would be of much more use if they could first of all recruit for the Territorials and then for the Regular Forces. We should recruit more for the Regular Army through the channels provided by the Territorial Army. I am certain that many men will not join the Territorial Army because they do not know what they are in for, and it is far more natural that they will not join the Regular Army because the whole conditions of life are completely different from their normal occupations. If the permanent staff instructors of a Territorial battalion could induce men to enter the drill hall and learn something of the career in the Territorial Army we should see a real improvement in recruiting.

I should like to mention the case of the officers. We must rely for recruiting on the Officers Training Corps. Here again I do not think there is sufficient connection between the Officers Training Corps and the Territorial Army or the Regular Army. Take my own case. I was a very ordinary member of an Officers Training Corps. I never rose above the rank of a private. As soon as I left school I was only too pleased to get rid of the restrictions of the Officers Training Corps and I missed great opportunities. It was not until some years later that I joined the Territorial Army. Sometimes I wish that I had joined the Regular Army. I feel that if the Officers Training Corps could give a greater insight into the opportunities offered to Regular officers we should realise that we stand to gain much more help from those associations of young men, on whom we must rely. I know that in my own district we cannot get the right type of men as officers, public school men, who have previous training not only in public schools but in secondary schools as well through the Officers Training Corps. We lose all contact with them as soon as they leave school. They cannot know, except by attachment to a Territorial battalion, what opportunities there are for recreation and public service.

9.42 p.m.


I wish to deal with one or two points raised by the hon. Member for Leigh (Mr. Tinker). The first was with regard to getting one of his constituents back out of the Army. I had a similar case which led me into acrimonious correspondence and discussion with the Under-Secretary. It was a distressing case as his father was dying of cancer. His mother kept a public-house. He got out of the Army, but about two years later I had a most pathetic appeal from him to get back into the Army. He had sold the public-house and could get no other job. It is always necessary to be very careful in these cases and to be quite certain that the man has permanent employment.


This man has a permanent job.


Even so, he might change his mind and wish to go back into the Army later on.

The other point was with regard to the cavalry. The hon. Member and I have often had discussions on it. The duty of cavalry—reconnaissance, rearguard actions and pursuit—must be conducted by whatever means are available. It does not matter whether they are on horses, camels, or donkeys or in motor cars or light tanks or aircraft. We want the best, quickest and most effective means of transport to get these functions performed. Horses are the most difficult to provide. In country where there are roads, mechanical vehicles can be used and mechanised cavalry will be of avail, but in the mechanisation of cavalry regiments they should continue their cavalry training and have a certain number of horses on which recruits must do their riding school and undergo cavalry training. Apart from the fact that that will help them in any kind of vehicle that they may be called upon to use, including aircraft, there is always a very considerable chance of having to operate in country where mechanical vehicles cannot be used—hilly, rocky, boggy, woodland country where there are no roads. In that case, there arises the difficulty with which we have often been faced in the past and in which it is necessary to mount whoever you can get hold of, in whatever way is available—on mules, or donkeys or whatever you can find—and trust for the best. We ought to see, therefore, that we have plenty of men who are trained in that respect. There are large numbers of horses, particularly in Egypt, which will become available now owing to the fact that the regiments to which they were attached have been mechanised. I hope that those horses will not be given to the Egyptian peasants or unnecessarily slaughtered, but will be drafted into the cavalry regiments which are still mounted and the establishment of those regiments increased.

9.46 p.m.

The SECRETARY of STATE for WAR (Mr. Duff Cooper)

The hon. Member for Leigh (Mr. Tinker) is completely successful in all his undertakings. He attributes my own elevation to his efforts and if he undertakes to perform the same task in respect of my two hon. Friends who reply in this House for the Navy and the Air Force I am sure we shall all hope that he will be equally successful. I do not think he was in this place when I replied to the Debate on the Estimates, or he would have heard that on that occasion I paid him a tribute. I expressed some surprise that he had not taken his usual part in the Debate on the Estimates, and I ventured the supposition that it was because he thought he had won his battle and therefore forebore having his usual tilt at the cavalry. He has, however, returned to the charge to-night. Apparently, he could not allow the occasion to pass without taking part in the battle or at any rate sounding a paean of triumph over his victory, with the inevitable result that once more the cavalry responded to the challenge. He will forgive me if I, on this occasion, refuse to take any part in the conflict. The question is one which the House is always prepared to argue at length, and great feeling and eloquence are always expressed on both sides.

I can assure him, with regard to the special case which he raised, that I shall again look into it and that I shall also examine carefully into any cases which he brings to me. As the hon. and gallant Member for Central Bristol (Lord Apsley) pointed out, these cases have to be very carefully considered. It is all very well for a young man to say that he has been offered a good lasting job and that he has just incurred the responsibility of matrimony, but in the Army he is earning 19s. a week with full upkeep and he can make what is not such a bad contribution towards his family. I notice that, owing perhaps to a slip, the hon. Member for Leigh in describing the circumstances of this case mentioned that there was one unemployed son in this family. It seems extraordinary that the son who is in the Army should have a good job open to him, while, apparently, the other son who is not in the Army and is unemployed should not have that job open to him. It is very difficult in these days to be certain that any job will prove a lasting one and in many cases I think a young man in those circumstances would do better by remaining in the Army and would be more likely in the end to get work and to be able to make an important and lasting contribution to the support of his family. However, as I say, I shall look into the case and see whether there are any special circumstances in it which escaped our notice when it was first considered.

The hon. Member for Chester-le-Street (Mr. Lawson) reminded us of the difficulty of recruiting, and referred to the number of rejections that were made on physical grounds. There is a slight improvement in that respect. The percentage has fallen and while I do not pretend that it has fallen very much or that the fact is very reassuring, yet, as far as it goes, it is all to the good. It is not within my sphere to deal with the conditions of the people generally in regard to nutrition. That is a matter for the Ministry of Health and a great many steps are being taken in that direction to improve the nation's physique. Any further steps which can be taken will be welcomed by everybody and by nobody more than those responsible for the War Office. It is some slight encouragement to know that the percentage of rejections on this ground have slightly fallen in the present year.

The hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Lewis) was a prophet of gloom. He said it was impossible to get the recruits we wanted this year. He asked me whether I hoped to get them and how I hoped to get them. I do not think it is impossible to get them but I recognise that it is a big task. We fully realise the great difficulties that lie before us. I have made some suggestions myself as to ways in which we hope to encourage recruiting. I have asked hon. Members to make their suggestions. They have done so, and all those suggested means and measures will be taken into consideration. I have no secret plan which makes me confident of accomplishing my purpose but I am considering a great many schemes which I hope will develop and prove useful. These however cannot usefully be discussed until they have been further examined and their value proved. What I am relying upon more than anything else is the assistance of my colleagues in this House. They can act as recruiting agents in their own constituencies and bring home to the people of the country what their duty is and also what an advantageous opening in life the Army has to offer a great many of our young men.

I appealed the other day to hon. Members opposite for their assistance and I feel that many of them will be prepared to give it. I welcome the tributes of the hon. Member for Chester-le-Street and the hon. Member for Leigh to the type of man who joins the Army now. The type going into the Army and the type coming out of the Army in these days are vastly changed from those of 25 to 50 years ago and the more it is known what a good life the Army provides and what good educational facilities it provides, the better. I cannot go into the question of education now but hon. Members opposite will see if they inquire into the Estimates, that more soldiers every year are getting certificates of education. I can assure them that the educational staff very carefully supervise the work and that we get the very best men for it that we can afford.


Will the right hon. Gentleman consider the fact that many parents become anti-recruiters because they have lost sons in the Army and have received no financial recognition whatever I think that the authorities ought to act in a more generous spirit in that respect.


That, with the other suggestions put forward by hon. Members will be considered, but all these proposals would cost money. At present, if a man loses his life, owing to Army service, his dependants get a pension. If his death is not attributable to Army causes, that is not the case. We have to rely upon our medical advisers to say whether a man's death is attributable to his Army service or not. It would be a revolutionary change to say that the dependants of everybody who happened to be in the Army and who lost his life in any way while in the Army should be entitled to pension. However, all these questions and all the suggested methods of recruiting, are now engaging our earnest attention. I do not take as gloomy a view as does my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester. I believe that the country itself is waking up to the importance of being properly defended. and I think also that the steps which are being taken will bring home to the people both the value and the amenities of Army life in such a way that, as a result of a year of strenuous work, we shall have a very much better report next year with regard to recruiting.

9.56 p.m.


The right hon. Gentleman has just made some appeal to Members of this House to help him in recruiting. I think probably nothing has so much effect upon recruiting as do the prospects that a man will have when he leaves the Army. I know we have vocational training and all that kind of thing, but at the same time, if only they had some system at the War Office by which, after a man had left the Service at the end of the year, they could ascertain what happened to him, it would make a great deal of difference. If they could have some kind of record at the War Office as to the eventual fate of these men, showing what callings they were taking up and also the percentage of men who got jobs on leaving the Army—


On a point of Order. I had a very good speech spoiled because I could not deal with this matter.


I have not been called to order by you, Mr. Speaker, and therefore I hope I may finish my few remarks. There is only one other observation that I wanted to make and that was that if it were possible to bring back those men who return from foreign service six months or a year before their time of service ended, that would be of great help to them in getting employment. It would give them six months or a year in which to look round for a job here instead of coming straight back from abroad and then, as they are always inclined to do, taking their discharge at once and not immediately getting employment.

Ordered, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide, during twelve months, for the Discipline and Regulation of the Army and Air Force; and that Mr. Duff Cooper, Sir Philip Sassoon, Lord Stanley, and Sir Victor Warrender do prepare and bring it in.