HL Deb 10 February 1887 vol 310 cc1064-7

, in rising to ask Her Majesty's Government, What steps the authorities are about to take in order to ascertain who are responsible for having passed the defective sword-bayonets, and having taken them off the contractor's hands; and, what was the contract price paid for them, said: My Lords, I am not animated in any way by a feeling of hostility to the War Office; but it seems to me that the Question which stands in my name arises directly out of the answers given in this House and the other House of Parliament on Monday last. It seems to me that there are two manifest defects in the reply which was given by the noble Lord the Under Secretary of State for War (Lord Harris). In the first place, it seems to me that he did not give any expression to what I think is the feeling of the majority of your Lordships, as to the great gravity of the state of things revealed in regard to the defective condition of certain weapons which have been supplied to the different branches of Her Majesty's Service. Secondly, there did not appear to be any expression of an intention to find out who is really responsible for the admission of these defective weapons into the hands of officers and men. There can be no two opinions but that this is a very serious question, both for its own sake, and on account of the moral effect which it might produce, if the Army were to become afraid that the weapons served out to them were in a large measure defective. Therefore, I do not think it necessary for me to make any apology for bringing the matter before your Lordships. It is of the utmost importance, if possible, that we should find out who is responsible for what I think is a neglect of duty in allowing defective weapons of this nature to pass into use. If my noble Friend says that there is a more rigorous test demanded now than before, that may relieve individuals from blame; but if he lays blame on the system, I shall be glad to hear that, in the future, that system is to be changed; if the Department does not admit that the system is defective, then I think that the Department is bound to say who is responsible for not having put the weapons to the proper test. The contract price paid for these weapons is also a matter of great importance. I may be wrong with respect to the information that has reached me, to the effect that the prices of these sword bayonets were so low that it was practically impossible for proper weapons to be supplied at the price paid for them. If that is a misapprehension, it will be for the noble Lord to state what was the price paid for the articles, and then any practical man will be able to say whether there would be a reasonable expectation that a good article could be supplied at that price. The noble Lord concluded by asking the Question of which he had given notice.


Before the noble Lord answers the Question, I am anxious to say a few words. I do not know anything about the particular batch of bayonets, or cutlasses referred to; but I should like to tell your Lordships what I saw yesterday, because it shows, at any rate, that however severe a test may be to which these weapons are submitted, they will not, and cannot, resist treatment that any irresponsible people may subject them to. I happened to be at Enfield, yesterday, on business, with several Members connected with the Committee which is now sitting, who are well acquainted with metals and their working. I was not directly inquiring into this, or any other technical subject, but into administration. While at Enfield, we looked very carefully into the tests which all sorts of swords, cutlasses, and sword-bayonets are now subjected to. I think it was their unanimous opinion that those tests were extremely severe and satisfactory. The present tests are very much more severe than those formerly used. Two cutlasses were taken and put through all those tests, which were of three kinds—first, the striking test; secondly, the bending test, which was of a severe character; and, thirdly, the weight test—that was to say, how many pounds a weapon would bear without bending, and how many inches it would bend to every additional pound. These cutlasses passed through all those tests. Then we put one into a vice, and it was perfectly easy, when applying sufficient manual force, to bend it in any way you liked, and not merely to bend, but to break it. It is impossible that any steel will remain unbroken, if sufficient force is applied in a vice, or, even, if you bend it over your knee; and it is quite possible for a sword or cutlass to pass all the tests which are admitted to be satisfactory and stringent, and yet be unable to stand this severe treatment. It does not follow, however, that the article is bad, because it will not stand the particular treatment to which it is subjected, and I venture to state that no steel which could possibly be made could stand such tests as that of the vice.


My Lords, with reference to the answer of my noble Friend the Under Secretary of State for War on Monday, I would suggest that he would do better to give a candid answer and say that flexible swords which bend are better than brittle swords which break, rather than to endeavour to screen the Department. There was no precedent for flexible swords unless you went back to ancient history. Julius Cæsar relates that some of the Gauls had swords which bent at every blow, and that they had to straighten them under their feet. What was involved was not the credit of this or previous Governments, but the safe equipment of the Naval and Military Forces of the Crown.


I can assure my noble Friend (Lord Stan- ley of Alderley) that, so long as I represent one, that it will not be my object to screen any Government Department. The reply which I made the other day was perfectly honest, and without any attempt to screen anyone. With regard to the Question of the noble Lord (Lord Balfour) I must point out to my noble Friend that, following upon my answer the other day, there is something more than a Question. There is an assumption which I cannot admit in using the word "defective." I am not at present prepared to admit that these sword-bayonets are defective. If it cannot be shown that they will not stand the test to which they were submitted in 1871, and which was considered at the time to be perfectly sufficient, then I say the sword-bayonets are not defective. If it can be shown that they will not stand the test, I will admit that they are defective. At present, my information is that they will stand that test, but that a certain percentage will not stand the increased test demanded of swords and sword-bayonets at the present day. There is, undoubtedly, a great deal of interest taken in this subject. The noble Lord has further asked who is responsible for the issue of these sword-bayonets. In answer to that, I can only repeat what I stated the other day—that the Superintendent of the Royal Small Arms Factory issued the cutlasses and the sword-bayonets on his own responsibility, and there is no reason to suppose that they were not up to the test when they were passed. The last contract price was 14s. each, including the scabbard.