HL Deb 10 February 1887 vol 310 cc1067-71

My Lords, I have a Question, which is supplementary to that which I put the other night; but, after what we have heard from the noble Lord, I suppose I ought to strike out the words "admittedly defective," as the War Department do not appear to admit that they were defective. The Question I desire to ask Her Majesty's Government is with reference to the answer lately given by the Under Secretary of State for War, showing the admittedly defective state of the sword-bayonets supplied to H.M.S. Indus. Whether any complaints have been received at the Admiralty from command- ing officers of other ships, and, if so, of what nature; what steps are the Admiralty about to take to ascertain whether any of Her Majesty's ships on foreign stations have been supplied with defective sword-bayonets; what was the test applied to the sword-bayonets found defective in H.M.S. Indus; and to what extent are the Naval Authorities answerable for the admission of these defective sword-bayonets into the Naval Service?


My Lords, in answer to the first part of the Question, complaints have been received from the commanding officers of four ships, the Active, Volage, Rover, and Devastation. Some cutlasses and sword-bayonets on the Active having been found defective in actual use, orders were given for about half of those on the ship to be tested as follows:—The point of the sword was placed in the deck, and pressure applied at the handle until the point was turned about 50 degrees from the straight line. On being released, the whole of those marked "defective" remained permanently out of the original line. Of the 50 cutlasses tested on the ship, 34 were found defective; and of the 55 sword-bayonets tested, 40 were found defective. The same course was followed on the Rover, when 45 out of 50 cutlasses were found defective, and 54 out of 55 sword-bayonets. On the Volage, with the same test, 12 out of 50 cutlasses were reported defective, and 17 out of 55 sword-bayonets. The following is the report from the Devastation, at Queensferry— On examining sword-bayonets, it was found that many would bend like hoop-iron. Some could be bent easily by hand, and remain bent. With regard to the second part of the Question, the War Office has been communicated with to know what steps they wish to be taken, sword-bayonets being a War Office store and not a naval. What was the test applied to the sword-bayonets found defective on Her Majesty's Ship Indus? The point of the sword was placed on the deck, and a fair pressure applied on the hilt; when this was released, a permanent deflection of the blade existed. The point was then fixed in a vice, and the blade bent evenly round until it assumed the appearance of a screw. As to the last part of the Question, I have to say that the Naval Authorities are in no way respon- sible for the admission of those defective sword-bayonets into the Naval Service. When a new weapon is designed for the Naval Service, a pattern is sent to the Admiralty. If approved of, notification is made to the War Office, and there all responsibility ceases. The Naval Authorities are not consulted further. They are not consulted as to the wording of the specifications, as to the selection of the contractor, as to the details of the metal to be used, or as to the nature of the test to which the weapons are to be submitted before being accepted as serviceable weapons. Your Lordships will readily understand that the approval of a pattern weapon is a very different thing from the approval of the weapons themselves. A pattern weapon would not be likely to exhibit inferiority, either of workmanship or metal. The Admiralty can, therefore, accept no responsibility of the admission of these defective weapons into the Naval Service.


My Lords, I must be allowed a word in reply to what has been said by the noble Lord (Lord Balfour) with regard to these sword-bayonets. With respect to the tests, your Lordships have heard that the sword point was placed on the deck, and pressure was applied upon it until it had obtained an angle of 50 degrees. I am not sure that your Lordships will be able to understand what an angle of 50 degrees is. Certainly, we found very great difficulty about it at the War Office, and, having the advantage of his presence, I asked a distinguished naval officer to explain what was meant, and he was entirely unable to do so. But your Lordships will perceive that this was a purely arbitrary test, and it was not at all fair, inasmuch as it may have been a far greater test than the sword-bayonets were submitted to in 1871, and even a far more severe one than that to which they are submitted now. What fell from the noble Earl opposite (the Earl of Morley) will show that the subsequent test of placing in a vice was positively unfair. I would ask any of your Lordships to go to any eminent sword manufacturer in this country, and ask him whether he considered it fair to put any sword to a stronger test than that which it was made to stand. I have seen a manufacturer bend a sword until the blade was shortened six inches, and when I asked him to bend it another inch he declined, because, he said, it would be unfair. The test on these ships, therefore, may or may not have been a fair one. If it was a fair test, the War Office is perfectly ready to assume the responsibility; but I would remind your Lordships that a Royal Commission of Inquiry is now sitting to inquire into the system by which ordnance stores were issued. There is also a Committee inquiring into the manufacture of ordnance stores, and the terms of Reference will permit of the question of sword-bayonets being included. The Secretary of State has determined, further, to investigate this matter by instituting an impartial inquiry on the spot.


I think that there exists an immense amount of red-tapeism connected with this subject, and it appears to me very hard upon our soldiers and sailors that they may be called upon to go into action armed with weapons which they cannot rely upon. I hope that the Committee and the Royal Commission which the noble Lord has just mentioned will be able to throw some light upon the matter, and that the result will be that more satisfactory weapons will be supplied to the Services in the future.


I think that the noble Lord the Under Secretary of State for War (Lord Harris) has misapprehended what I have said. I did not mean to charge him with indifference; I only desired to state that, in the answer I gave, he did not seem to sufficiently appreciate the importance of the state of matters.


My Lords, it is obvious that one of the statements made on behalf of the Government—that made by my noble Friend (Lord Elphinstone)—contains some very startling revelations. I wish to know whether any previous discoveries of this nature have been made, or whether these are the only defective weapons found?


I think that this is somewhat a wide Question, and I must request that Notice may be given of it.


I wish to ask, whether there is not reason to suppose that these weapons had become defective by reason of the alterations which had been made in them from cutlasses?


That is not the opinion of the authorities at the Small Arms Factory; but it is possible: and the question will be tested by chemical process.

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