HL Deb 17 March 1871 vol 205 cc152-63

, on rising to move an Address for Returns relating to Powder in store, said, that in making his Motion he would avoid the wide range complained of by his noble Friend (Lord Northbrook), on a recent occasion, but would confine himself to the question; and would draw no inferences from the statements he was about to make. It was obvious that no military question could be of greater importance than the supply of gunpowder, and that if any serious deficiency existed in point of quantity or quality it was a very serious matter. He would first of all explain the different classes of powder. There was, to begin with, the L.G., or large grain powder, then the R.L.G., or rifle-grain powder, next pellet powder, and, finally, pebble powder. The L.G. powder represented the old gunpowder, and had practically been obsolete for many years, it being disused and condemned by a Committee about the year 1859, when guns were first manufactured on a large scale. The objections urged against it were very serious. It was fit only for smooth-bore guns; its velocity and power of penetration were less than those of other powder; it was very violent in its explosion, so as to injure the gun with which it was used; it had a tendency to foul the gun, and to diminish the accuracy of aim; it interfered with the loading; and last, and worst of all, it was destructive to the gun itself. The second-class—R.L.G. powder—was substituted in 1860 for the L.G. on the introduction of rifled cannon. This was, in many respects, less deleterious. It was less violent in exploding, and less injurious in all points. It was, however, adopted only provisionally; and in 1866 a Committee recommended as far superior a powder of larger grain, called pellet powder. This recommendation was adopted in 1867, and pellet powder was stamped with the official imprimatur. Last year another kind of powder was introduced and approved, as, on the whole, the best—namely, pebble powder; but he believed that, for all practical purposes, pellet and pebble powder might be regarded as much the same. The advantage of pellet or pebble powder was that larger charges could be used, and, consequently, greater power obtained; that there was greater velocity, penetration, and accuracy of aim; and that the explosive power, or power of injuring the gun, was materially reduced. Having said so much by way of explanation, he would now pass to the amount of powder which ought to be in store. The figures on this point furnished by various military authorities varied much; but he thought his noble Friend opposite the Under Secretary for War would agree that he should not be taking an exaggerated estimate if he said that 300,000 barrels, according to great military authorities, was the minimum which we ought to have in store in time of peace. Now, what was the actual amount? His noble Friend had kindly furnished him with a corrected account of the figures which he gave a few nights ago; and this showed that the amount in stock of L.G. was 214,536 barrels, of R.L.G. 66,075, of pellet 149, and of pebble 567; making a total of 281,327 barrels. Perhaps his noble Friend opposite would say that this was a close approximation to the minimum of 300,000, which the military authorities decided ought to be always in store; but it must be remembered that 214,000 barrels were of the obsolete, almost worthless L.G. class; that there were less than 67,000 barrels of the other classes, and that there were only 700 barrels of the powder which four years ago was stated to be the best, and which ought to be used. In order to comprehend the full meaning of this fact it must be borne in mind that the 35-ton gun, described by the Secretary for War as the most formidable weapon in Europe, and on the manufacture of which he so much prided himself, required for each discharge nearly one whole barrel of powder; so that we had in store little more than 750 charges of the best powder for the best gun. To say the least of it, this was not very satisfactory. Practically speaking, we have none of the best class of powder, more than we know what to do with of the old and almost worthless class, and an insufficient supply of the R.L.G., an inferior sort, unfit for those new guns, but still a degree better than the L.G. How did that affect the question of guns? Why, the power of the large new guns, manufactured at an enormous cost, was practically undeveloped; and they would be injured, if the inferior powder, which alone we had in store in sufficient quantities, was used. He did not want to trouble the House with any quotations; but there was one which he should like to read, as it stated the case so very succinctly. It would be found in an article in The Times of the 10th of January, an article written expressly on the subject of gunpowder, and written, as those who had studied it were aware, rather with a view of dispelling apprehension than otherwise. The writer of the article remarked— It is said that the 12-inch gun of 25 tons will fire a charge of 85-lb pebble, instead of a 67-lb R.L.G., and that the velocity of a 600-lb shell is thereby increased about 120 ft. per second, while the pressure is reduced 20 per cent. The importance of this result may not be apparent to the non-professional reader; but it means that the Monarch could, with pebble (or pellet) powder, knock an enemy to pieces, so far as weight of blows goes, as easily at 1,000 yards as she could with R.L.G. at 10 yards. This, he (the Earl of Carnarvon) thought, stated the matter as briefly and conclusively as it was possible to do. His noble Friend the Under Secretary of State said, on a former occasion, that the quantity of R.L.G. in stock was double that which was used in the Russian War; but he was at a loss to understand whence he got his figures. He had seen it stated that during the Seven Years' War, in the middle of last century, the annual consumption of powder was 72,000 barrels, and that during the Russian War the consumption was 80,000. He wondered his noble Friend could make use of so transparent a fallacy, as such averages were obviously deceptive. It might as well be stated that because in 1866, in their seven weeks' campaign, the Austrian soldiers fired away only four cartridges per man, an Army might safely be sent into the field with only that number. It was idle to arrive at any estimate as to quantity on any such basis. It was evident that over and above the powder that would be required for the armies on land and for our fleets, a certain quantity must be kept at the great forts—such as Malta Gibraltar, Plymouth, and Portsmouth—for it was absurd to suppose that in all future wars the campaign could be localized. His noble Friend, on a former occasion, also contended that the L.G. powder, of which we had such an excessive supply, was useful and good for service; but he ventured to think that this statement could not be seriously maintained. Putting aside the question that there was very little demand for the L.G. powder in the trade, it was a fact that the Navy had refused to accept it. Then was his noble Friend aware that an official Order had been issued, the first provision of which was that "As a temporary measure L.G. powder may be used for breech-loading guns up to 7-inch"—thus limiting it to low charges and to guns of 7-inch calibre? The Order went on to say— 2. In cases of emergency, L.G. may be used for muzzle-loaders up to 9-inch, but to be reported at once to officer, and gun to be examined after 25 rounds. 3. When L.G. is used the same charge shall be used as with R.L.G. The House would understand that this implied a low charge, and, consequently, loss of power. How, in the face of this Order, could it he contended that L.G. was suitable for the service of the Army? If a more decisive proof to the contrary was wanted, it would be found in the fact that the War Office, as he was informed, had just contracted, and had resolved on contracting, for the supply of pebble powder at the rate of £6 10s. per barrel. Now, it could be manufactured at the Government factory at Waltham for £3 10s. or £4 per barrel; so that the Government were paying a fabulous price for the article, either because—which he did not believe—they were reckless to a degree in matters of expense, or because they had so full an appreciation of our insufficient supply as to be willing to buy powder from the trade, even at the exorbitant rate of 75 per cent above the cost of production at Waltham. His noble Friend had implied that if more was wanted it could easily be procured; but it was a slow and hazardous manufacture; mills could not be multiplied in England; and even if we went to the trade we could not get all we desired, either as to quantity or quality. Contract powder was notoriously bad, and required great vigilance. The only gunpowder manufactory the country had was at Waltham. There was no such thing as overtime at Waltham; but even if it worked night, day, week-days, and Sundays, it could not turn out more than 25,000 or 26,000 barrels a-year. It must not, therefore, be supposed that on a pinch powder could be got in any sufficient quantity. We should have to go abroad for it, and then who could answer for the quality? His reason for moving for Colonel Younghusband's Report on the supply of gunpowder was that it had been publicly stated that Colonel Young-husband, early in 1869, called the attention of the War Office to the great deficiency in the supply, and advised, as a temporary measure, that certain quantities of L.G. should be got rid of in exchange with the trade, or as it best could, and that the R.L.G. should be used simply to keep things from a standstill. He (the Earl of Carnarvon) feared, however, that these deficiencies had not been remedied. Indeed, incredible as it seemed, he understood that during part of 1869 the works at Waltham were, in a great measure, suspended, and for a certain time absolutely closed, the skilled workmen not being dismissed, but employed in unskilled labour, unconnected with the production of gunpowder. This was so serious a statement that he hoped his noble Friend would be able to contradict it. He wished to point out to the House, as strongly as possible, the folly of this system, under which we were buying an article of prime necessity at an enormous cost, and paying £6 10s. for an article which could be manufactured for £3 10s. or £4 10s. He did not know what the total amount of gunpowder required was; but he would certainly be under the mark in putting it at 100,000 barrels in stock, which, at £6 10s. per barrel, amounted to £650,000; of which, a great portion, if provided by the trade, must be sheer waste, for it was notorious that contract gunpowder was never so good as that manufactured in the Government works. There were formerly two Government factories in addition to that at Waltham; but these in a fit of economy many years ago were closed, and the evil results of this measure were still felt, for our peace consumption was no less than 36,000 barrels a-year, and Waltham could not by any possibility turn out more than 25,000 or 26,000 barrels. Thus, for 10,000 barrels a-year the Government had to fall back on the trade and expose themselves to all kinds of dangers. The best policy was to maintain a sufficient number of Government factories, to provide, at least, for the ordinary annual consumption of powder, and to have a tolerable supply in hand for emergencies. He believed a practice prevailed of changing the skilled officers at the head of these highly elaborate and scientific departments every few years, though anybody who looked into the subject, however cursorily, must see the necessity of keeping the best and most scientific men at their posts and of avoiding perpetual changes. He presumed the Government would not object to a Return of the amount of gunpowder suitable for small arms—for he feared there was as great a deficiency on this head as with regard to cannon powder. He believed the peace consumption of powder for small arms ought to be 7,000 barrels a-year, and he very much doubted whether there was more than a year's consumption in hand. He had reason to believe that the Government had at this moment taken up, or were about to take up, contracts for small arms' powder at about £8 per barrel; whereas it could be manufactured at Waltham for £5 or £6—a plain proof that they were conscious of an insufficient supply. He had endeavoured to understate every fact and figure, and to abstain from all inferences; but if it were true that artillery in these modern times played a principal part in military affairs, gunpowder was the soul of that article, and their Lordships would see the uselessness of highly elaborate and scientific guns with a deficient supply of powder. The deficiency was not merely serious in itself, but was more serious as showing that parts of our system were terribly out of order. If the moving spring of our whole system was wanting in quality or quantity, what assurance had we that our whole military administration was not equally rotten? It was all a part of the miserable unpatriotic system which had prevailed for some time of nibbling at the Estimates, and making reductions and economies in obedience to some popular cry of the moment. Of course, it was not a pleasant thing to spend money; but if the Government and Parliament, who were equally to blame in this respect, did not make a change—if they could not have the manliness and courage to face these necessary expenses, to look this difficulty in the face, and to alter the whole system on which we had proceeded for many years, we should one day be overtaken by some great and irreparable disaster. No man could look at the present state of Europe without the deepest anxiety. Europe was undermined with secret treaties and schemes, and the small States were trembling for their very existence. Russia was arming to the teeth; Prussia, we knew, was armed; and this country, the richest in the world, and which had the most to lose by any impolicy or miscalculation, seemed to be living in a state of mere dreamy self-deception, flattering herself that she was secure when her Army was really helpless either for offence or defence. For years past this country had not been engaged in a single war in which we had not found ourselves unprepared, and in the early part of which we had not consequently suffered. If we were again unfortunately engaged in war, and found ourselves unprepared, the consequences now must be much more serious than they had ever been before. Then war was a protracted game; but now it might be entirely different. The declaration of war might be sudden—the war might come upon us at a few hours' notice—one sharp decisive stroke might be struck, and the first catastrophe might also be the last.

Moved, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty for the following Returns:—

  1. 1. Amount of serviceable cannon Powder of all sorts in store on the 1st January 1869, specifying the quantities under the heads of L.G., R.L.G., Pellet, and Pebble Powder, and distinguishing the amount in made-up ammunition:
  2. 2. Ditto, on 1st January 1871:
  3. 3. Amount of R.F.G. Powder for small arms on 1st January 1871:
  4. 4. Colonel Younghusband's Report on the supply of Gunpowder, dated March 1869, and any subsequent Report by Colonel Younghusband on the same subject.—(The Earl of Carnarvon)


said, he thought the noble Earl might have waited for the production of the Returns which would be laid on their Lordships' Table before raising a debate on the subject to which they referred. The noble Earl appeared to have already obtained a certain amount of information, which he had used in his speech. He disclaimed drawing inferences, but his speech somewhat inconsistently abounded with inferences; and he did not hesitate to use such terms as "folly" and "miserable and unpatriotic economy" to characterize what he assumed to have been the conduct of the War Office. His noble Friend's speech had reminded him of Mr. Croaker in The Good-Natured Man. The noble Earl had virtually said—"I tell you I'm fixed, I'm determined, so now produce your reasons. When I'm determined I always listen to reason, because it can then do no harm." As to the supply of powder, his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, on acceding to Office, found that pellet powder, which was about the size of a large button, had been recommended for guns of large calibre, but that the machinery for its manufacture had not been completed. He consequently ordered the completion of the machinery. In the meantime, a Committee was appointed to examine the effect of powder when exploded in guns of a large size, under the presidency of Colonel Younghusband, the superintendent of the Government factory at Waltham. Almost the first thing that Colonel Younghusband did was to come to him (Lord Northbrook) at the War Office, and represent to him that a new sort of powder—prismatic powder—had been tried, the effect of which was so superior to that of pellet powder that further inquiries were necessary before deciding on adopting the latter as the service powder. Colonel Younghusband thought this of such importance that he asked to be allowed to visit the Continental manufactories. He accordingly inspected the Prussian and Russian manufactories, and reported upon their different systems of manufacture. On his return the experiments which had been before instituted were continued, and the results were very remarkable and interesting. A machine had been invented by one of the Committee—Captain Noble—called the chronoscope, which, by inserting copper wires into the inside of the tube of the gun, communicating electrically with rapidly revolving wheels, guaged the pace of the shot between the ignition of the powder and the discharge from the muzzle. The result of the experiments was that the Committee recommended for guns of large size a third sort of powder called pebble powder, of about the same size as pellet powder, but made in a different way. This class of powder had consequently been ordered to be manufactured, as much as possible having since that time been in course of manufacture at Waltham, while some had been ordered of the trade. The experiments, however, as to the nature and qualities of different kinds of gunpowder were by no means concluded; although satisfactory up to a certain point, there were some striking discrepancies, and those who had the responsibility of manufacturing large guns were doubtful whether pebble powder could safely be adopted in charges greatly exceeding those of the ordinary powder. The noble Earl (the Earl of Carnarvon) had referred to the different effect of a 35-ton gun with ordinary and with pebble powder; but Colonel Campbell, the Superintendent of the Royal Gun Factories, reported as follows as the result of the experiments up to the present time:— The experiments with the 10-inch gun have shown that, with proof charges, the strain on the gun is the same whether R.L.G. or pebble-powder is used. The experiments with the 35-ton gun, of 11.6-inch calibre, have shown very extraordinary discrepancies—firstly, with charges of 75 lb fired from a rear vent, the strain on the gun was less and the velocity diminished when compared with the same charge fired from the service vent; secondly, with charges of 110 lb fired from a rear vent, the strain on the gun was greater and the velocity increased when compared with the same charge fired from the service vent; thirdly, with the same charge of powder (120 lb) the velocity varied 109 ft., and the pressure 26 tons, the charge, in all cases, being fired from the service position of vent; fourthly, in the case of 130 lb being fired the velocity is given as 1,348 ft. and the pressure at 63.8 tons, when, with a charge of 120 lb the velocity is given as 1,353 ft., and the pressure only 21.7 tons. Their Lordships would observe the important variations which had occurred, and which proved that further information was necessary before it could be taken as established that it would be safe in these large guns to increase the charge and fire large charges of pebble powder. It was the opinion, indeed, of the most qualified men that no theory could be adopted as conclusive with regard to the different classes of gunpowder to be used in guns of different calibres. It seemed likely that each particular calibre had a particular kind of powder more suited to it than any other. As to the conclusion to be drawn from these experiments, Colonel Campbell continued— From these results I am indisposed to consider that the pebble-powder, as at present manufactured, should be introduced into the service at once, believing it still to be in an experimental stage, and that the favourable results in some instances already obtained require confirmation before they can be considered sufficiently reliable to justify the adoption of the pebble-powder. I deprecate the hurry with which the pebble-powder has been introduced into the service, remembering that the same advantages were claimed for pellet and prismatic powder, which, on further trial, they could not maintain. The state of the 10-inch gun, to my mind, proves that the large charges of pebble-powder increase the scoring; indeed, I do not see how it can be otherwise, as greater heat must necessarily be produced. Our present guns have now for some years used the R.L.G. powder; it would seem, therefore, that as there has been no complaint of failures, the introduction of a new powder may be delayed until the experiments have been completed and it has been shown that the new powder is suitable for all our heavy guns. This was the opinion of the Superintendent of the Royal Gun Factories, who had constructed heavy guns with great ability and success, and who was therefore, in his humble opinion, a higher authority than the noble Earl (the Earl of Carnarvon) who had no responsibility, and could only form an opinion on hearsay information. The noble Earl had quoted a remark from The Times that pebble-powder was as effective at 1,000 yards as R.L.G. at 10 yards. This might be so; but if, as he believed, the results were at present uncertain, the effect of one shot might differ materially from that of another; and the risk to the gun from any great variations in the effect of the powder would militate against the advantage obtained from greater velocity. If the pressure was at all equal to what the experiments had indicated, these large charges could not safely be used in the 35-ton gun. The L.G. powder, though not as good as the R.L.G., could be properly used in the greater part of our artillery—and he said this on the authority of General Adye, the Inspector of Stores, who was eminently qualified to judge of the matter. The idea that the L.G. powder strained the gun more than the R.L.G. powder had been found to be erroneous. A report, indeed, had recently arrived from India of a gun bursting through the use of R.L.G., which was consequently supposed to be more powerful and dangerous than the L.G. As to the Circular quoted by the noble Earl, it was issued at a time when experiments were going on with the two classes of powder, and the regulation as to examining a gun after every 25 discharges of L.G. powder had since been cancelled. There was now an ample supply of L.G. and a considerable supply of R.L.G., both of which were perfectly serviceable; while efforts were being made to obtain a satisfactory supply of powder of a better class, suitable for very large guns, the pebble-powder being only advantageous with these guns. The upshot of the whole was that on the 1st of April next there would be 4,500 barrels in store of this powder—the figures which he gave the other night being very much understated as to that class, through his having taken the figures at the end of September instead of at the present time. 2,000 barrels were also expected from the trade; and this was a much wiser plan than embarking largely in the manufacture of powder of an experimental nature before its fitness had been fully established. Colonel Younghusband had authorized him to say, in the event of his name being mentioned, that he was perfectly satisfied with the steps which had been taken for the supply both of pellet and pebble-powder. As to the Returns moved for by his noble Friend, it might not be good policy to give Returns of warlike stores; but so anxious were the Government to show they desired no concealment in the matter that they would consent to their production, provided his noble Friend altered the dates to the usual half-yearly periods, and would not insist upon the special Reports of Colonel Younghusband. One of Colonel Younghusband's Reports contained incomplete information; but he was quite willing to furnish his noble Friend with copies, and if he then thought their presentation advisable for the public service he would interpose no objection. Nothing could be further from the policy or intention of the Secretary of State than to exercise petty economy with respect to the Army supplies, especially in the important matter of gunpowder. The reason why the manufacture at Waltham was suspended for a short time in 1869 was a great want of store accommodation, there being too much powder in the magazines, and no room for that which was being manufactured. As to the fine grain powder for rifles, the Surveyor General of Ordnance had deliberately delayed the manufacture of more of the present class of powder among other reasons on account of the introduction of the Martini-Henry rifle—it being very doubtful whether the fine grain powder would be suitable for that weapon. No difficulty whatever existed in making powder for small arms in any quantity when required. The consumption of small arms, powder compared with that for great guns was exceedingly small, being only about 3,700 barrels per annum. He regretted that so much had been said and written upon this subject by those who were only imperfectly acquainted with what passed in the Department.

Motion, as amended, agreed to.

Address for—

  1. "1. Amount of serviceable cannon Powder of all sorts in store on the 30th September 1868, specifying the quantities under the heads of L.G., R.L.G., Pellet, and Pebble Powder, and distinguishing the amount in made-up ammunition:
  2. "2. Ditto, on 30th September 1870:
  3. "3. Amount of R.F.G. Powder for small arms on 30th September 1870."—(Parl. Paper, No. 71.)