HL Deb 17 February 1881 vol 258 cc1064-70

in rising to call the attention of the House to the desirability of the publication of the Re-port of Lord Airey's Committee on Army Organization before the production of the Army Estimates for the ensuing year, said, that the reasons for which he had ventured to solicit their Lordships' attention to the precedence which the debates in "another place" were to take of the Report of Lord Airey's Committee were financial, Constitutional, and military. He would not weary their Lordships by travelling in detail over beaten ground. He would simply state a few leading facts of the progress of Army reforms of 1870 which would justify the appeal he had made to their Lordships' attention A noble Friend of his opposite animadverted the other day on the general disregard of officers for economic considerations. But he could not agree with that opinion as regarded his brother officers and himself. What was the real state of the case? What had been a main cause of disapproval of the present system of short service on the part of officers and himself? The increasing and heavy expenses of the system, particularly as it was introduced with the recommendation of a great economy. How often had he not wearied them, for the last 10 years, with comments on the expense of the First Class Army Reserve, into which short service merged after six years, and the burdens that Reserve imposed on the taxpayers, whose cause he had specially advocated? Had he not complained continually of the original expense of the Reserve, rising successively from 2d. to 4d., and then to 6d, for the daily pay of the Reserve soldier, which, together with the expense of his uniform and other charges, amounted to nearly one-half of the pay of the Regular Army, although they had none of its discipline, supervision, or duties? And he had complained the more because the taxpayer had to pay double and then treble of the original cost he was promised, although the Reserve was rendered proportionately inefficient for the country's protection by having no drills and instruction, in order to suit the civil employer. Civil employment had always been the lame limb on which the First Class Army Reserve had always limped, until it expired after its call to arms in the Russian emergency, which added another burden on the taxpayer for the maintenance of the wives and children of the Reserve men when they had to give up their employment. And the subsequent debates in their Lordships' House proved the existence of another fatal objection to the First Class Army Reserve; and that was the decision of the Lord Chancellor, in order to avert the disappearance of civil employment, that this expensive Reserve was not to go to South Africa, and was only to be called out in the event of an European War, which they all knew was an event of only once in 50 years. But the worst of all remained to be told. A call-out of the Reserve to the Army for foreign war was the signal of its destruction, for no civil employer would employ Reserve men who, at any moment, might be called out to fill up the casualties of foreign war; and there could not be a bettor proof of the utter inutility of the First Class Army Reserve for England, saddled with vast Dependencies in every part of the world, than the fact that this Reserve would not, and did not, proceed to reinforce the army in South Africa, although in distress for help and reinforcements greater than ever before known, so much so that Royal Marines were sent off in great haste at a very great expense 3,000 miles to take the place of the Reserve at a time when their services might, at any moment, have urgently called for their presence with the Fleet in the Mediterranean. So much for the financial objection. Now came the Constitutional one. The Constitutional objection appeared, in his humble judgment, to be that to embark the country for another year in a vast and, he believed, useless expense for the short service system, without Parliament having before it the proceedings of a body of highly distinguished and selected officers assembled for the express purpose of inquiring into the evil effects of the present short service system, was unconstitutional and not deferential to the other House, whose special competency it was to vote Supplies. As regarded the military aspect, so clear was it that he should be very brief. He should only ask whether the want of discipline and esprit de corps, of which the results were very inferior noncommissioned officers, unparalleled desertions, and fraudulent enlistments, had not been the feature of the short service system at home, followed, alas! by fatal results in South Africa, where the inability of under-aged youths caused the collapse of the physical power, and necessarily with it the moral power of the Army. Should not those evils and their proposed remedy have been made known to Parliament before asking Parliament to maintain and continue those evils? While the results of this system were such in England and South Africa, they would all learn from the very able and very patriotic speech of Sir Frederick Roberts on Monday last, at the Mansion House, that his views, although pronounced with all the delicacy and consideration which characterized him, entirely coincided with those of his brother officers and himself, who, in a numerous body, from the rank of Major to Field Marshal, were assembled at the United Service Club at the first dinner given to Sir Frederick Roberts on his return to England, and received with enthusiastic applause the utterance of the very same sentiments—preference for long service to short service—that he uttered at the Mansion House. The language of Sir Frederick Roberts at the Mansion House admitted of no misunderstanding. He said— That he should best show his gratitude to the assembly gathered together there that evening by giving to them the results of his experience as a soldier who had had opportunities of testing our past and present system, and that, if he had not seized that opportunity of doing so, he would have failed in his duty to the Army, to the country, and to the Queen, He thought that on every ground it was desirable that Parliament should have before it a Report of Lord Airey's Committee; and he hoped to hear from the Under Secretary of State for War that the Government would lay that document on their Lordships' Table.


said, he thought that an officer of the experience of the noble and gallant Lord (Lord Strathnairn) was fully justified in calling attention again and again to our present Army system, respecting which there was little or no difference of opinion among competent authorities. For his own part, he would rather have 12,000 of the old soldiers, whom some years ago it had been his fortune to command, than 30,000 of the weeds that wore now occasionally sent out to regiments, even when in the field. Neither he nor the noble and gallant Lord who had brought these matters forward could be accused of any Party feeling, or of any desire to embarrass the Government, for they had expressed the same views, when sitting on the opposite Benches, repeatedly. These were matters of such vital import- ance that he thought they should be continually brought before Parliament and the country, until the necessary amelioration had been carried into effect.


said, he was of opinion that the short service system had failed, and that those who were the best judges of the matter were convinced that, if the Reserve were called upon, it would be found that only 20,000 would be available out of the 30,000 brought into the ranks. He complained that their Lordships had no opportunity of knowing what the Reserve resources of England were; and, without making any imputations, he maintained that it was the duty of the Government to place before the country all available information they might have had the opportunity of collecting, when, in their discretion, it was not disadvantageous to the public interest to do so. He apprehended that it could scarcely be urged that the promulgation of the opinions of distinguished officers on this matter could be disadvantageous to the country. The opinions of the field officers who sat on the Committee would throw much light on the much controverted short service system, which had recently been so strongly condemned by Sir Frederick Roberts. The Government should give them an opportunity of forming an opinion as to how far Sir Frederick Roberts was justified in his remarks. If the Report were favourable to the short service system, it would prove a justification of Her Majesty's Government. If it were unfavourable to that system, it would show the points in which it required improvement. He thought their Lordships were much indebted to the noble and gallant Lord for moving in this matter.


was understood to say that he entirely agreed with his noble and gallant Friend. (Lord Strathnairn) that it would be well to lay the Report on the Table before the Secretary of State for War made his Statement in the House of Commons.


said, he had not anticipated from the Notice on the Paper the wider scope of the remarks which the noble and gallant Lord had addressed to the House; and he hoped the noble and gallant Lord would acquit him of discourtesy if he declined on such a Notice to discuss the very large and important question of long service and short service. In answer to the inquiry of the noble and gallant Lord, he had to state that the Report of the Committee would he presented to both Houses of Parliament after his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War had made his Statement on introducing the Army Estimates. When it had been presented, the noble and gallant Lord would have an opportunity of raising a discussion on the Army system, and the Government would be prepared to take their part in the discussion. With regard to the publication of the Report, he must point out to the noble and gallant Lord that this was not the Report of a Parliamentary Committee or of a Commission, but the Report of a Departmental Committee, which was a very different thing, for Reports of Departmental Committees were not usually presented to Parliament. He did not know that it had been the intention of the late Government to present this Report; but as it was on a subject respecting which it was desirable that Parliament should receive the fullest information, his right hon. Friend thought it was advisable to lay it on the Table of both Houses. While, however, his right hon. Friend and the Government were most anxious that they should not appear to conceal any information from the country on the most important subject, it was, in their opinion, undesirable to produce the Report until the time when the Statement on the Army Estimates was made in the other House, which, he hoped, would be before any very long period.


admitted that it was not the custom to produce the Reports of Departmental Committees. To do so would sometimes be, of course, attended with much inconvenience to the Public Service; but when a Secretary of State for War had given Notice that he would allude to the Report in his Statement on the Army Estimates, it seemed only reasonable that Parliament should have an opportunity of approaching the discussion with full knowledge of the subject. If there had been any reason for keeping back the Report he should not have pressed for it; but when it was known that the document was to be laid on the Table, he could not conceive any possible reason for not publishing it before the Secretary of State for War made his Statement. To have it in the hands of the Members of both Houses before that Statement was made was very properly the object of his noble and gallant Friend.

House adjourned at a quarter before Six o'clock, till To-morrow, half past Ten o'clock.