HL Deb 11 May 1888 vol 326 cc1-7

My Lords, seeing the illustrious Duke the Field-Marshal Commanding-in-Chief (the Duke of Cambridge) in his place, I take the liberty of putting a Question to him with respect to a paragraph, or rather an article, which appears in to-day's Daily Telegraph. The article is evidently intended to be very sensational. It is headed, in large letters, England in Danger, Our Army without Arms, Worst Guns in the World; and then it goes on to say— We have to state on the highest military authority that the subjoined facts are indisputable, and it is, therefore, a matter of supreme importance for Ministers, discarding all less important business, to devote their earnest attention to the statements which follow. My Lords, I have always understood that the highest military authority in this country is the Commander-in-Chief. The Secretary of State's responsibility is complete; but the Commander-in-Chief is the responsible adviser of the Secretary of State in all military matters, aided by his staff; and if he is not the highest military authority in this country, I do not know who is. Now, I cannot read the whole of the article to your Lordships because it would take up too much of your time; but I must, in order to enable the Commander-in-Chief to answer the article satisfactorily, mention one or two of its most salient statements. The article then proceeds to say— Owing to the deplorable neglect of Parliament and the mischievous system adopted by successive Ministries in deliberately hiding the truth from the people, it has at last to be sorrowfully acknowledged that we are wholly unprepared for war, if not, indeed, at the mercy of any European enemy, unless immediate and energetic steps are taken to put the kingdom and the Empire into a state of security. The strength of our Army is insufficient; more men are instantly required. If the, men were enlisted to-morrow, barrack accommodation for them does not exist. The country is in the shameful position of having many of its artillery batteries in possession of the worst guns served out to any army of the present day. In the service it is true that we possess a gun which is unsurpassed, but we have no means of manufacturing this arm except after much delay. We are said to have the best magazine rifle which has yet been invented, but up to the present moment not one single regiment in the Army is provided with this weapon. Army stores are lamentably insufficient. … At this moment there is not, it is authoritatively stated, in any one of our land fortresses, from Portland Bill to the Tweed, a modern breech-loading gun. The latest type actually in use is the seven-inch Armstrong. The guns served out to the Volunteers are obsolete; the armaments of the forts are obsolete; the piles of shot and shell at Woolwich are for the most part obsolete. I do not, my Lords, propose to make any comment on these statements. These allegations are most serious. At this moment the country takes great interest in the question of the national defences; and I have thought it my duty to take the earliest occasion of giving the illustrious Duke an opportunity of expressing in this House, the only way in which he can do so, his opinion on these subjects. I venture, therefore, to ask him whether, as stated in this newspaper, these facts are indisputable, and what foundation, if any, there is for these very serious allegations.


My Lords, I rejoice that my noble Friend the noble Viscount has put to me this Question. I do not suppose that anyone in this House, or anyone out of it, could have been more astonished than I was this morning when, on opening The Daily Telegraph, I observed this extraordinary sensational article; and I asked myself whether anything could possibly have emanated from me to call for anything so extraordinary and so sensational. I can only say that I have reason to believe that "the highest Military Authority," which I admit that, up to this moment, I believed I was, is intended for somebody else. Well, of course, on that I can give no opinion; but, so far as I am concerned, I can hardly suppose that anyone should have imagined that this article could have been ascribed to me or that such sensational remarks should have appeared on so important a subject. The question referred to in that article has been a good deal before the public; and I have given very decided evidence, no doubt, before a Committee in "another place" on the general condition of things connected with the Army. To those statements I adhere; but I do not believe that my noble Friend or any of your Lordships will expect me to go into any details of that sort at the present time. I will only say that the circumstances are such that these questions are well worthy of the fullest and most anxious consideration of Her Majesty's Government and of this House and of the country. But as to probable danger, imminent danger, or anything of that sort, I, for my part, cannot be a party to any such words. But I believe that Her Majesty's Government are as fully alive as I am to the present condition of things. I have not the slightest doubt that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Members of the Cabinet are considering all the evidence which has been brought before the various Committees now sitting; and I have no doubt that the result will be such as will at the same time be satisfactory to the country and agreeable to those who, like myself, take a warm interest in the naval and military position of the country. I cannot for one moment deny that this is a very grave and important matter; but I certainly have had nothing whatever to do with the sensational article which has appeared to-day, and I absolutely and entirely repudiate it.


My Lords, I am sure your Lordships must have heard with great satisfaction the statement of the illustrious Duke and his opinions on this important question. I can only say that I am glad to find that "the highest Military Authority" is not the illustrious Duke, as I should have imagined it was, but some lower Military Authority who has furnished this very startling and inexplicable statement. I do not wish to pass from this subject without entering a protest against the impression which seems to prevail that because Her Majesty's Government do not talk on this matter, because they do not make public speeches or show their feelings, that, therefore, deep anxiety and vigilance are not directed to this question. It has been, and is still, the subject of our anxious thought; but, owing to the very nature of the subject, we cannot do otherwise than practise the utmost reticence and reserve with respect to it. If such things existed as Secret Committees, I should have no objection to lay before such a Committee everything we know and do on the subject; but Secret Committees are not in our habit; and everybody must see that nothing would be more insane than to explain to all the world what our strength or what our weakness was, what the nature of the precautions were which we were taking, and what the subjects were as to which we were directing our vigilance and our care. It would be absolutely not only insane, but treacherous, if we were to commit such matters as these to a publicity which does not include merely our own subjects, but which must extend to all the nations of the world. I therefore rise to say just these few words as a protest against the tones of panic which prevail and the language which is used, as though the Government were passing by all these matters in utter apathy, which, in the present state of the world, would be a flagrant dereliction of their duty. But though it is satisfactory to think we are increasing our precautions, I would commend to your Lordships the following rough figures as to our action in recent years. I will take them so as to cover several years, so that there should be no question of Party in the matter. I wish to make no distinction between ourselves and the noble Lords opposite, but only to show that there has been a considerable increase of preparation in this country. I find that if your Lordships compare 1884 and 1888 it will be found that the number of men of all forces that were under the colours were 181,817 in 1884 and 212,241 in 1888—a very large increase, much larger than some of the increases which at that time were demanded even by the most alarmed persons. And in the same way with regard to the expenditure on the Navy. I have here a comparison of the money devoted to shipbuilding and armaments. In 1883–4 there was an expenditure of £4,445,000; in 1887–8 the sum was £6,611,000. Now I do not quote expenditure as in itself a thing that is admirable, but I am merely showing that there is no ground whatever for the implied reproach of parsimony and that we are neglecting the defences of the country. I merely wish to make that one protest and observation. But before I sit down I feel that I cannot avoid taking advantage of the opportunity to enter a protest against another practice. That is, the practice of those who are, or ought to be, distinguished authorities upon military affairs making statements against the Government under whom they serve, and making them in a place where they cannot be answered. I have here the report of a speech—apparently an authorized speech—made by a Member of this House, the Adjutant General of the Army. I read in that speech these words— The answer to the question why the Army and the Navy are not as strong as they ought to be is to be found in the system of our Government by party—that curse of modern England which is sapping and undermining the foundations of our country, which is depriving our statesmen of the manly honesty which was once their characteristic. What do we see when any new Administration comes into office? Remember, we were the last Administration which came into Office. What directly takes place? It is the same with all Parties. The first thing is the endeavour made by the Minister in Office to obtain some claptrap reputation by cutting down the expenses of the Army and Navy. That is the comment of the Adjutant General on the conduct of the Secretary of State for War. The next thing he says is this— This is the result of what? The result of a low and vicious standard of morality which is now uppermost in men's minds. In speaking so light-heartedly he forgets, in his pride of having reduced the Estimates, the fault he has committed, the crime he is guilty of against the country. My Lords, I am not going to answer these comments. They relate to matters of whose existence I am ignorant; but what I do earnestly protest against is that panic producing speeches should be made at public dinners by public men. The Adjutant-General is a Member of this House. If he thinks his duty forces him to make such statements as these, let him come down here and make them, and we will answer them. What would be thought of any man in the Army lower in rank than the Adjutant-General who wrote to the newspapers in the tone of the Adjutant-General? What is to be thought of the Adjutant-General who speaks in that tone of the Government? If the Adjutant-General thinks it worth his while, we have our case; we have something to say for ourselves; we can defend ourselves if we are attacked. But the attack is made where we cannot defend ourselves instead of here, the Forum which is open to him—your Lordships' House.