HL Deb 11 June 1888 vol 326 cc1667-79

My Lords, I rise to call attention to the position and defences of our naval head-quarters and coaling station at Esquimault, in Vancouver's Island, and the superior advantage of Burrand Inlet. This coaling station is of immense importance to us; as your Lordships are aware, it is the only naval station and the only coaling station which we possess in the Pacific Ocean. On the whole of that very large area this is actually the only place where our ships can go for coal, for shelter, and for repair. Its strategic value has of late been increased tenfold. Within the last two or three years Western Canada has been developed at a very considerable rate, and a great railway has been thrown right across from end to end of Canada with its terminus at Burrand's Inlet, inside Vancouver's Island, creating simultaneously a large mercantile traffic, which bids fair year by year to steadily increase. This commercial progress has multiplied our responsibilities, and unfortunately this development has not been with us alone. Russia has slowly but steadily increased her great resources at Vladivostock, and has now a powerful naval arsenal, and a harbour which is described as one of the finest in the world. From this place, if a war were to arise, there could not be the slightest doubt that our great mercantile fleet in the Pacific Ocean would be in the utmost peril, and our naval yard at Esquimault would be the object of immediate attack. The Canadian Pacific Railway is now complete, and, besides its great commercial importance, is our alternative route to India in the event of the Suez Canal becoming blocked; and, if for no other reason, it is of the most urgent Imperial importance that there should be a proper and satisfactory defence of its terminus. Esquimault is the harbour of Victoria, the capital town of the Island of Vancouver. It is land-locked, and a good harbour for a small number of ships. A naval arsenal was established there by us during the Crimean War, when the French and English ships joined there for the purpose of making the disastrous attack on Petropaulovski. Since that time the naval yard has grown, and it is now in a most unsuitable and exposed place. One old gun is to be found on what is called Brothers' Island, and I believe there are a few other guns in front; but I do not think that anyone would venture to declare that this is any security whatever. At the present moment it is, for all practical purposes, absolutely undefended. Any vessel could completely destroy it from the outside. If my noble Friend argues—as undoubtedly he will—that provided we had a large Fleet and good torpedo boats we could prevent vessels from entering the Straits, and that the place is, therefore, practically secure, I would venture to assert that, to whatever extent our Fleet might be increased in time of war, it would be impossible to keep sufficient ships tied down to look after the defences of that coaling station and dockyard. It would be necessary for them to be scattered about, convoying and looking after merchant ships, and the other interests which, on this station, are so terribly scattered. I would also point out that, whatever we might do in that way in time of war, our Fleet is extremely small, and that the speed of the ships composing the Fleet is very inadequate. The so-called dockyard buildings are at present only sheds; and up to this time very little money has been spent upon them. Recently, however, a dock has been made by the Colonial Authorities jointly with our Government, and this seems to be the only reason in favour of keeping the dockyard where it now is. In Vancouver's Island, about 50 miles further up the Straits, are the coal mines of Nanaimo, which it is of the very utmost importance should be guarded, as from it, in case of war, we should have entirely to depend for our coal supplies, not only for the Pacific, but also for the China Station. Immediately opposite the coal fields at Nanaimo is Burrand Inlet. It is a great natural harbour, 20 miles in length, perfectly land-locked, in which there would be room for the whole Navy of Great Britain; and it is here that I venture to think that our Naval Establishment ought undoubtedly to be. It is here that the Canadian and Pacific Railway has got its terminus. The entrance to it is only a few hundred yards wide, and could be easily defended. With two or three torpedo boats in the Straits, the position would be absolutely impregnable. If a naval station was being selected, no naval man and no engineer would dream of placing the naval dock and arsenal at Esquimault, but would at once make it at Burrand Inlet. In face of the necessity of having the best possible base for our Navy, we ought at once, I think, to move our arsenal, notwithstanding the cost that might be thereby entailed. It may be said that the present harbour of Esquimault is capable of being defended by proper batteries being erected, and by proper torpedo boats being kept in position; that it is in a better position for ships coming and going, being only six hours from the sea; whereas, if they had to come to Burrand Inlet, they would have very difficult Straits to go through, and the distance from the sea would be a great disadvantage. It may also he urged that, having already expended a considerable sum on the dock, it would be foolish to go elsewhere; and there is also the argument that, if war with America at any time were to arise, Burrand Inlet would at once be captured, and that our ships would be taken like rabbits in a hole, as it is so close to the ninth parallel of latitude. In answer to the first argument, I venture to doubt whether, with all deference to the high authorities who may have been consulted, it is possible, without an immense and needless outlay, to defend this place, and even then I do not see anything to prevent men being landed on the East side of Vancouver's Island, and being marched across and taking the harbour in the rear. In regard to the second argument, it must be remembered that Esquimault was only selected when sails were the principal motive power, and that now, with steam power, the case is entirely altered. Nor do I think that the distance of Burrand Inlet from the sea is a very strong argu- ment, having regard to the fact that it was proposed to make this the starting point for our mail fleet. With regard to the argument of expense, I do not think it worth consideration, in face of the tremendous importance of the question. A war with America would be a fratricidal contest, and is so improbable as not to come within practical politics; but if such a war were to arise, I apprehend that Esquimault Harbour Dockyard could be as easily taken as Burrand Inlet, and a filibustering expedition could be very easily drawn across the mainland, so that the harbour would be very difficult to defend. These are the considerations which are thought by many very great authorities strong reasons why our naval base of operations should be established at Burrand Inlet. But I wish to ask Her Majesty's Government this question—If you decide on remaining where we are, how are you going to defend Esquimault? Have you done anything whatever there? Some years ago certain plans were drawn up, and arrangements entered into for properly defending the harbour, the work to be done partly by the Colonial Government and partly by ourselves; but, as far as I can ascertain, nothing whatever has been done, and the defences consist of two old-fashioned torpedo boats, which were purchased from the Chilians, and are entirely out of date. This subject has been dealt with on previous occasions by Sir John Colomb, who has written many able papers upon it, and by Major General Lawrie, late Deputy Adjutant General of Canada, who, in 1883, read a most able paper before the Royal United Service institution upon it. In the last few months the following weighty words had been written on the subject by the author of Greater Britain, a gentleman who was well known to their Lordships, and who had given very great attention to this subject:— It is vital to us that we should have a coaling station and a base of operations within reach of Vladivostock and the Amoor at the beginning of a war, as a guardhouse for the protection of our China trade, and for the prevention of a sudden descent upon our Colonies, ultimately as the head station for our Canadian Pacific Railroad trade, and at all times, and especially in the later stages of the war, as an offensive station for our main attack on Russia. But it must be, of course, a defended station, and not one to which our Fleet would be tied for the purpose of its defence. Englishmen are hardly aware of the strength of Russia in the Pacific, where, if we are to attack at all, we must inevitably light her, and where, if we are to adopt the hopeless policy of remaining only on the defensive, we shall still have to meet her for the protection of our own Possessions. While talking about their European Fleets, the Russians are paying no real attention to them, and are more and more concentrating their strength in the North Pacific. Then we have the views of Admiral Sir Leopold M'Clintock, who is another very considerable authority upon this subject. He says— I think we can hardly over-estimate the importance of this subject. We know the extreme importance of fortifying the Canadian Railway terminus on the Pacific, by means of which war material could be brought for our forces on that shore in about 14 days, instead of going by sea and occupying four months in its passage. But what I wish to bring prominently before you is the absolute necessity of having our one coal depot in the Pacific Ocean defended. We have but this one, and on it our Fleet would be dependent for supplies, and also our trading steamers, in time of war. If we lose it we must relinquish our trade in the North Pacific, and if we lose our trade in that sea we lose just so much of our daily bread. I wish to emphasize the vital importance of fortifying our coal depot out there, and of having our naval position, now at Esquimault, capable of resisting an attack. We may at times temporarily lose the command of that sea, and if such an event should happen Esquimault would be exposed to attack. I presume it is the intention of the Government, in the event of war, to at once withdraw from Esquimault; and I fully agree as to the great importance of having a fortified naval station at Burrand Inlet. Well, my Lords, I could read other quotations; but I think that what I have read shows the very strong feeling that exists upon this subject amongst the greatest naval authorities. Undoubtedly, on an important question like this it is quite possible that there may be a difference of opinion as regards whether I am right or not in saying that our naval station ought to be at Burrand Inlet instead of Esquimault; but of this I am certain—that all are agreed as regards our coaling station and naval station, wherever it is—whether it is at Esquimault or at Burrand Inlet—that it ought to be defended. There must be a proper system of fortifications; and, above all, you must have some first-class torpedo boats ready to defend the Strait. You must remember that in time of war your ships would be required elsewhere. There is no doubt that in the present day wars are very short. They come upon you suddenly; and you must bear in mind that your Naval Fleet out there is naturally a very small one; unfortunately, too, I am afraid that it will be found that the speed of those vessels is very inadequate. But, however that may be, of this I am quite confident—that long before you would be able to strengthen that Fleet largely you would have your naval station, your coaling station, and the terminus of the Canadian Pacific Railway taken away, or, at any rate, placed in a position of very great jeopardy. Some years ago I spent two years myself on that station, and although we had orders to go and meet the Admiral's ship, for certain reasons, during the whole of those two years we were away from the Admiral, and we came home without ever having seen the Admiral; and that shows you how scattered our Fleet is on that station. My Lords, this is no impossible question. Your Lordships are, no doubt, aware that a few years ago, when there was a scare of war with Russia, a squadron of Russian ships assembled at San Francisco, and their intention, undoubtedly, was to make an attack upon Esquimault. What is there to prevent this squadron of Russian ships, being only three and a-half days from Vancouver's Island, from starting off immediately they hear the declaration of war, and at once capturing Esquimault Harbour, our coal stores at Nanaimo, and the terminus of the Canadian Pacific Railway? Supposing there was a declaration of war, you might possibly have one or two ships; but, with that exception, the harbour is absolutely open and absolutely undefended. Perhaps I ought to mention that there are two old Chilian torpedo boats; but I apprehend that my noble and gallant Friend would not place much reliance upon them. My Lords, I shall not take up your Lordships' time any longer; but I am sure that when you consider the great interests we have there, and when you remember the vast and increasing arsenals of Russia, and when you reflect how important a naval and coaling station is, I am sure you will agree with me that if Her Majesty's Government neglects in some form or other to fortify this station they will have incurred very serious responsibility.


My Lords, I wish to join with my noble and gallant Friend in impressing upon Her Majesty's Government the great importance of this question. It was, perhaps, a misfortune that Burrand Inlet had not been originally selected as a naval and coaling station; but, whether that place or Esquimault is to be made the permanent naval station, no time should be lost in putting it into a proper state of defence. It is really deplorable to see the defenceless condition of our naval station in the Pacific. My noble and gallant Friend has not said too much upon this question, which is of the greatest importance; and I hope that, whatever decision Her Majesty's Government may come to, they will take steps at once to provide a safe harbour of refuge there.


My Lords, this question as to the condition of the naval station in the Pacific is one to which attention has been from time to time directed, and more particularly since the completion of the great Canadian Pacific Railway, and it is a question about which there is a great difference of opinion among officers of high standing in both Services. On the one hand, you will get officers of both Services, officers of high standing, whose great experience carries great weight—and justly carries great weight—who will tell you that Burrand Inlet is the proper place for a naval station; while, on the other hand, you will get officers of equal standing who will tell you that Esquimault is the only place fit for a naval station, and that Burrand Inlet in the case of a war would be little better than a rat-trap. The noble and gallant Lord (Lord Sudeley), who introduced this question, appears to have been struck with the superior advantages of Burrand Inlet as a naval station; but the noble Marquess (the Marquess of Huntly), who has recently seen the country for himself, is not so decided in favour of one station or the other. And the two noble Lords who were out with me last Autumn were greatly struck with the advantages, as it appeared to them, of Burrand Inlet; and I know that they entertain that opinion strongly at the present moment. It will be my business to show—and I think I shall be able to show—that Burrand Inlet is not a desirable place for a naval station, and that Esquimault in every respect is superior. I visited Burrand Inlet last Autumn, and I remained the greater part of two days in Esquimault; and the impression which I formed during my visit was that in some respects Burrand Inlet was superior to Esquimault—first, because of the railway communication; secondly, on account of the expense of sending stores from the terminus of the railway to Esquimault in the event of our trade routes being interfered with in the case of war; thirdly, on account of the magnificent site for a naval station at Port Moody, 11 miles up the Inlet, and safe from the fire of an enemy's ship; and, lastly, because in the event of Burrand Inlet being threatened from the West, the whole military strength of Canada could be brought by the railway for its protection. However, since this question has been put down upon the Notice Paper, I have gone more thoroughly into the matter, and I have come to the conclusion that it is not desirable to transfer our naval station from one place to the other. The noble and gallant Lord described the position of the two places; but, although I have no desire to detain your Lordships, I cannot make my point good without entering a little more minutely into the situation of the two places, and I shall, therefore, endeavour to give an explanation of their relative positions and characteristics for the information of such of your Lordships as may not be acquainted with that district. To begin with Burrand Inlet. Burrand Inlet is an arm of the sea at the South-Western extremity of British Columbia, within 20 miles of the boundary line of the United States. It is 12 miles in length—not 20 as the noble Lord thought—and its average breadth is two miles. It has good anchorage, along the whole length of the Inlet, and its entrance is about a quarter of a mile wide. When once you are inside it is perfect. I say, "When once you are inside," because the harbour has this drawback, that the tide runs so strongly in the narrow entrance—from eight to nine knots an hour—that sometimes it is a matter of difficulty to attempt to enter with a large ship, except at certain states of the tide. I think my noble and gallant Friend will understand what I mean by "attempt to enter," when he recollects that the entrance to the harbour is only a quarter of a mile wide, and that with a 9-knot tide running the slightest touch of the helm would be sufficient to run a ship ashore; so that, except at certain states of the tide, it is not safe to enter. Along the Southern shore of this Inlet runs the Canadian Pacific Railway, having its terminus near the sea at Vancouver. I think the City of Vancouver is, perhaps, the most marvellous city in the world, the small pioneer town having been destroyed by fire two years ago. Now, the forest has been cleared away and a granite city has sprung up upon the ruins of the former wooden village. The Railway Company have covered several acres of ground with warehouses, workshops, and other buildings, and a large trade is being carried on with China and Japan. Steamers are running North to Alascar and South to San Francisco; and I hope that in a short time there will he another line of steamers running from there to Australia and New Zealand. Opposite the harbour, 35 miles distant on Vancouver's Island, is the coaling station of Nanaimo; and with these advantages Vancouver has already become a place of great and rapidly increasing commercial importance, with a population of 7,000 inhabitants and Burrand Inlet, a harbour of no less importance. Steaming to the South, 70 miles through the channel between the Island and the Mainland, you reach the Port of Victoria. Victoria is the capital of British Columbia, with a harbour small and shallow; and two miles further West is the Port of Esquimault. And here we have a naval station, naval stores, hospital, and magazine; and joining the naval station is the dry dock, built by the Dominion Government at a cost of £230,000, of which £50,000 was contributed by the Imperial Government. Beyond Esquimault is the Juan de Fuca Strait, a long arm of the sea, 60 miles long and 10 miles wide. That Strait loads into the Pacific Ocean. That is a short description of the geographical position of the district. From Esquimault there is also railway communication with the coal fields at Nanaimo, our only coaling station in war time. The Committee on Colonial Defence have set forth in their Report their reasons for preferring Esquimault to Burrand Inlet as our naval headquarters. As is stated by Admiral Sir Cooper Key, and concurred in by the other Members of the Committee, Esquimault is better situated and better adapted for naval purposes, and the Admiralty have expended a large sum of money there on permanent improvements and docks. It is also observed that the defence of Esquimault would so enhance the security of the whole sea-board of British Columbia that no separate defence of Burrand Inlet or Esquimault would appear, for the present, at any rate, to be required. Well, now, my Lords, passing from the recommendations of the Colonial Defence Committee to some of the other reasons that appear to render the retention of Esquimault absolutely necessary. In the first place, the entrance to Esquimault can be defended by mines, whereas the entrance to Burrand Inlet, on account of the strong tides, could not be so defended. Then, again, Esquimault is accessible at all time, either by day or by night, and situated as it is at the entrance to the inner waters, its strategic position is of the greatest importance, because no ship would attempt to pass Esquimault (supposing our Fleet to be in existence), for the purpose of attacking Burrand Inlet or Nanaimo, leaving a fortified place in their rear. Were we to make Burrand Inlet our naval station instead of Esquimault, Esquimault would be made the base of operations against us. Our ships would in all probability be blocked in Burrand Inlet, and. Vancouver's Island be lost to us. Then in the event of war with the United States—we must take into consideration the possibility of such a war, though I hope it is a bare possibility—but in the event of war with the United States, what would happen? The great value of Burrand Inlet is the existence of the railway; the very first thing the Americans would do would be to cut that railway; and then what would be the value of the Burrand Inlet? Burrand Inlet and our naval station would in a very short time fall into the hands of the enemy. A few men would be quite sufficient to cut that communication. We could not successfully defend Burrand Inlet in case of a war with America, but we could successfully defend Esquimault. The very fact of it being on an island is to us, as a Naval Power, most important, as it is on the sea that our strength lies. We must endeavour to meet our enemy in the Juan de Fuca Strait. It is from there the enemy must be stopped by our Naval Forces blockading the Strait. If war broke out to-morrow the Naval and Military Authorities would not go to Burrand Inlet. Esquimault is accessible at all times, either by day or by night. The noble and gallant Lord said that four days after a declaration of war with Russia the Russians might seize Esquimault; but I do not see how that could be done, because in the Pacific Squadron we have seven ships, whilst I see that the Pacific Squadron of Russia is nil. There is no ship there at all. We have also 17 ships on the China Station, while Russia has 12; so that how the Russians could take Esquimault on the first declaration of war I confess I do not see. As I have said, we have at Esquimault a dock, and if it be found necessary for mercantile purposes as trade increases, another dock, no doubt, will be made at Burrand Inlet. The plans for the defence of Esquimault are all completed. They are cut and dry, so to speak, and most of the guns are ready to be sent out to-morrow. I think these are all the points that were referred to by the noble and gallant Lord.


I just wish to say a few words upon this question. In the first place, I wish to express my thanks to my noble and gallant Friend (Lord Sudeley) for having brought this question forward. I think he has done a useful service in bringing it forward, and in having it discussed. But, as regards the reply of my noble and gallant Friend (Lord Elphinstone) on behalf of the Government, I cannot say that I am altogether satisfied with it. He has told us what ought to be, what might be, and what ought not to be, defended; but I failed to gather from what fell from the noble and gallant Lord whether any fort of any sort or kind, whether at Esquimault or any other place in that district, is at this present time defended, and I would like to ask for some information on that point from my noble and gallant Friend, because the object of my noble and gallant Friend (Lord Sudeley) in bringing forward this matter was not to show whether this or that spot should be defended, but that, at any rate, there should be some defence for the great interests of this country in that quarter of the world. Then the noble and gallant Lord talked about the number of ships in the Pacific. I would like to point out that those ships might be employed, when the occasion arose, in defending our commerce, rather than in defending places which ought to be capable of defending themselves. Perhaps the noble and gallant Lord would say whether it is intended in any case to defend our naval and coaling stations; and whether it is the intention of the Government to put Esquimault in a sufficient state of defence?


I think, my Lords, that if the noble Earl (the Earl of Wemyss) had listened to my noble and gallant Friend, and had not been carrying on a conversation with his noble Friends behind him when he was speaking, he would have heard that plans were actually cut and dry, and that some of the guns were ready to be sent out to-morrow.


Yes; but that is not the question. The question is whether at the present moment we have got any guns there?


Yes; there are some guns there, but they are not of a modern type; and there are some batteries there ready for the guns to be placed in them. But the noble Earl will understand that the Royal Commission on Coaling Stations did not in the original instance select the North Pacific Coast as one of the stations to be defended. It was not until 1885 that it was decided to defend this point. The reason why Esquimault has been preferred over any other has been fully shown by my noble and gallant Friend, I think, who answered the question of the noble and gallant Lord; and it only remains for me to say what the armament is to be. The armament has been slightly altered from that fixed in 1885, which included four 9-inch guns. The armament will now consist of six 6-inch guns of 5,000 yards range, four 9-inch guns for high angle fire of 7,000 yards range, two quick-firing guns, six 16 pounders for general use, and six rifle machine guns. The Imperial Government are prepared to spend £31,000 upon the armament, £10,000 upon submarine stores, and about £10,000 upon submarine buildings. The works, as in the case of all the coaling stations, had been undertaken by the Colonies. The guns, as my noble and gallant Friend has said, are nearly all ready to be sent out tomorrow; and there will be sent out with them a suitable supply of ammunition, and I believe that the real question at the present moment between the Imperial and the Colonial Government is the question of garrison. I should like to refer to one point mentioned by my noble and gallant Friend opposite with respect to the land defence in Esquimault. This whole question of the defence of the naval station upon that particular shore was considered most carefully by the Colonial Defence Committee, and by the Inspector General of Fortifications, at that time Sir Andrew Clarke. I do not question in any way whatever the advisability of any noble Lord asking a question for information upon a subject so important as this; but I venture to deprecate, very humbly, the calling in question the opinion of experts upon questions of this kind, because I do not see how we are to depend upon the opinion of anyone else except experts. These cases were carefully considered by experts to whom they were referred, and suggestions were made to them by officers of the Royal Engineers and the Royal Artillery who were on the spot. The advice of these officers was considered, and ultimately they came to their decision. If the decision is to be called in question by persons who would not put themselves forward as experts on questions of that kind, then all I can say is that the same questions might be raised with regard to all our other coaling stations. The Royal Commission must depend upon the opinions of experts in dealing with every one of these questions; and for that reason, I think, for good or ill—and I hope it is for good—it would be wise to rely upon the opinions given to the Royal Commission and adopted by them.


My Lords, I hope I may be allowed to explain one matter to which the noble and gallant Lord (Lord Elphinstone) has referred. The noble and gallant Lord was, no doubt, technically right in saying that Russia has no Fleet in the Pacific Ocean, but it is absurd to say that Russia could not send a Fleet there. When a few years ago there was a Russian scare, a large Russian Fleet, as I have already said, came up at once and concentrated at San Francisco for the purpose of taking action.