HL Deb 01 August 1889 vol 339 cc41-9

My Lords, I have to call your attention to, perhaps, one of the greatest anomalies that ever existed—namely, a standing Army—which has grown within the last 30 years to the number of 250,000 men, unprovided with transport. We have, within the last week or two, had the powerful assistance of the Lord Mayor, who has interested himself in the question of providing the Volunteer Regiments generally with proper equipment. However successful the Lord Mayor may be in London, and however successful the provincial towns of England may be should they follow his example, it is perfectly clear that without transport that Army of Volunteers must be practically useless, for the simple reason that it must be immovable. It can neither advance to the front to meet the enemy nor can it retire, if necessary, to take up a better position. Defeat, therefore, under such circumstances would simply mean its total and entire destruction. Inasmuch as the Volunteer Force has existed for a period of 30 years, it does seem somewhat extra- ordinary that, until quite recently, as far as I know, no attempts have been made on the part of the Military Authorities to organise in any way whatever a Volunteer Transport. Like many other requirements for the benefit of the Volunteer Force, the first suggestion of Transport has come from Volunteer officers themselves. Colonel Sir William Humphreys, a man of great ability and energy himself, undertook—one can hardly call it the organization, but an attempt at the organization of a Transport Force for his own corps in Hampshire, and I believe he met with some what unusual success. I think it will be found that similar success will not attend other battalions of the Volunteer Force, even should their officers exhibit the same ability and energy. It cannot be expected from the general public in this country that they will be willing, without either money reward or some honorary acknowledgment, to give gratuitously their horses, their carts, and their men, too, perhaps two or three times during the year in order to try whether the proposed scheme will be effective. I cannot therefore but come to the conclusion that although this able officer has been successful in his attempt, it is idle to suppose that such attempts, if carried out in other parts of the country, can attain like success. But it was upon this favourable Report of Colonel Humphreys that the War Office has been induced to-issue two different Circulars in relation to transport for the Volunteers. The first of these Circulars was issued on the 14th February, 1888, when 10 regiments were selected in certain localities for the purpose of ascertaining whether the scheme suggested by Colonel Humphreys promised success. Now I do not know whether the localities in which these regiments were selected were localities most favourable to the trial of the scheme, or least favourable to it; but of this I am certain, that in trying such an experiment as this it should, to have been really of value, have been tried in the least favourable places. Whether that was so or not I will not pretend to say—certainly some of the localities, from what is stated in a Paper which I have read recently, do not appear to have been the least favourable. Now, the War Office Circular lays down very properly certain requirements in relation to this Transport Service, and in looking at the Return that was furnished it would appear, as it has been with regard to many other things in the Volunteer service, as though the War Office authorities would say, "you must do it yourselves. "They have had no scheme of any kind whatever, and they have no scheme now; for the new instructions which they issued after this experiment to Colonels of Volunteer regiments were to register the cart and horses (I do not think men) in their several districts is hardly to be called a scheme. They have also intimated a wish that every encouragement should be given to those who are willing to lend their carts and horses for different days in the year that the experiment may be fully tried. Now, in the first instance, the War Office intimated its willingness to give £45 towards the expenses of the experiment to each of the battalions. In some cases the expenses will be found to have been in excess of that amount, though in one or two cases I believe the expenses of the battalion were kept within the margin of £45. Let me take the first Volunteer Battalion that stands upon the list. A very important part of any experiment of this kind was not tried— namely, the picketing of the horses. And why? The report says that the weather was unfavourable, and that the horses were therefore not picketed. Certain artificers were required, three to each battalion; it does not appear that artificers were forthcoming in anything like the number required. In one case the horses were too big for the water cart; in another case the horse bolted with the water cart, the shaft was broken, and it became utterly useless. In four or five instances in this return the horses were not picketed, because, as reported, the weather was wet or cold, or because the horses had no picketing-gear. In this Report it is stated that the Volunteers applied to the Government for the use of picketing-gear, which was refused. Now, seeing the small allowance—for small I must call it— that is demanded for all the exigencies of the Volunteer Service from the War Office, I think there should be no objection to an addition being made in this respect in order that a force of this character may be brought to a state of efficiency. At some time there can be no doubt a very great increase in the expenses will have to be provided for, and Her Majesty's Government must therefore be prepared for it. My Lords, after having tried this experiment, and after having received the Reports from the different regiments, there came this letter of the 22nd March, 1889, relating to the transport of the Auxiliary Forces, by which, at the direction of the Commander-in-Chief, Volunteer Officers were informed that the reports from the various districts had shown that a system of Volunteer transport was not requisite, and that it had been decided to discontinue, as far as the War Office was concerned, any steps in that direction. The circular further stated that officers commanding Volunteer battalions should annul any contracts of this nature which they had entered into on behalf of the State, and they were instructed to give notice to terminate them as soon as possible. The whole scheme has come to an end, and the War Office simply says that we are to rest where we are. My Lords, can it be contended by anyone that this is a proper condition for a standing army to be in? Is it possible that in a week or a fortnight the carts required for the transport of ammunition and baggage can be got? Your Lordships know from your own personal experience that matters of this kind certainly take a month or so, and if, as has been supposed by some authorities, an attack on this country would be settled one way or another in a week or ten days, I should like to know what would become of the Volunteer army without transport. This circular goes on to say that the experiments have proved that "ample transport is forthcoming for the use of Volunteers. "Whether or not this has been proved in the places which are least favourable, "I do not know. I believe that in the places selected there was abundance of transport. But it is not an abundance of transport alone that is necessary; it is the organisation of transport. Anyone who knows anything of these matters is aware that to carry them out requires a great deal of time and practice. You can no more organise the necessary transport at a moment's notice than you can organise imme- diately any other great undertaking. Then it is further stated that— No further grants in aid will be made, but His Royal Highness desires that there may be kept up in all districts a careful system of registration of available transport which can be obtained upon any emergency so as to ensure that the transport requirements of the Volunteer Force may be met with ease and rapidity. As the practical testing of such a scheme will materially aid to efficiency, Volunteer Officers should be encouraged to take this transport with them when going into camp, and on other occasions. I do not know, my Lords, where the encouragement is! If withdrawing the sum at first granted is encouragement, I think it is strange indeed. If they think the farmers will lend them horses and carts on all occasions for nothing, I think they will find themselves greatly mistaken. We all know that the Englishman is a very fine fellow, but I am not quite certain that he is not a tradesman before he is a patriot. Then the Circular says that— All Inspecting Officers should forward Reports with regard to this scheme, and of the practical steps taken from time to time to put it into execution. I do not desire to detain your Lordships longer on this matter. I simply desire to call the attention of the noble Lord the Secretary of State for War to those two Circulars, which are certainly inconsistent with each other. When I say inconsistent, I mean that the experiment has not been sufficiently tried to satisfy the War Office that what they are proposing to do is likely to be effective. I am satisfied it would not be effective, and the question I am desirous of putting to the noble Lord is this—Has the Government abandoned, once and for all, its intention, not of registering carts and horses, but of organising a transport system for the Volunteer Forces? I say that, as far as I can judge, if they propose to abandon to the efforts of the Volunteers themselves the organisation of transport for that service, they are not doing justice to a force which has endeavoured to the best of its ability to supply a defence for the country in case its services may ever be required.


My Lords, the great interest which the noble Lord has always taken in the Volunteer Force fully justifies him in bringing forward any subject having reference to that force in this House; but I am afraid that the views of the noble Lord on this question and the views held by the Military Authorities hardly go together. I take it that the noble Lord starts with the assumption that the total and entire destruction of the Volunteer Force would ensue if they had to meet an enemy and have not an organised transport. I can quite understand, in the case of a country being invaded, or an expedition advancing from the coast where carts and horses were not easily procured, that dictum as to the necessity for transport being correct; but I submit to your Lordships, in the case of a country like England, with its vast supply of carts and horses, we are in a very different position, and that, as a matter of fact, it would be extremely easy on any sudden alarm to obtain such transport as was required for any Volunteer Forces. The noble Lord has called special attention to certain War Office Circulars, and it is necessary for me to detain your Lordships for a few moments while I explain what occurred in regard to the two experiments made which those Circulars had reference to. As the noble Lord has stated, the result of the experiment made by Sir William Humphreys induced the War Office last year to select 10 infantry battalions to further try the experiment whether carts and horses could be procured and the men to drive them, and whether those carts and horses could be brought out for three days' practice during the time the battalions went into camp. By that arrangement, to pay the expenses of those carts and horses being out for three days the sum of £45 was given to each battalion. The noble Lord appears inclined to cavil at the opinion of the War Office that the experiment was successful, and he instances the fact that, in one or two cases, horses were not picketed. I believe that in a few cases they were not picketed, but that was simply because it was not thought necessary for climatic reasons to incur loss which could be avoided. Whether that was due to the action of Local Authorities or to the Commanding Officers of the battalions, or the Officer commanding the sub-district, I do not know; but it was considered that colds might result to the horses from being picketed out at night, and I think that most people will agree that the Officers were perfectly right. At any rate, the opinion of the War Office was that the experiment was eminently satisfactory, and that it showed there was an ample supply of carts and horses for the transport of Volunteers. From what we know of the resources of the country, we have every reason to believe that this applies equally elsewhere, and that the same conditions will be found to exist in other parts of the country. The noble Lord will see that the Circular expressly refers to it as an experiment—nothing more. It was never intended that £45 should be granted to every infantry battalion in the country for the purpose of organising transport; the experiment was solely made to see whether the same thing could be carried out in other parts of the country, and our experience has shown that it can. Then the noble Lord referred to contracts, which, in some cases, had been entered into by Commanding Officers with persons owning carts and horses to supply them under certain conditions of emergency or when required. But it is obvious that we could not allow Commanding Officers to enter into contracts in which we were pledged to purchase those carts and horses at a future time. Clearly, in such a matter, it is necessary that headquarters should have the last word as regards the price that should be eventually paid. Therefore, it was proposed to carry out the idea in another way; that a skeleton form of contract should be sent round to all Commanding Officers of Volunteer battalions asking them to ascertain whether persons owning carts and horses in their neighbourhood would enter into such contracts. That scheme had nothing whatever to do with the scheme which Sir William Humphreys originated; it was a distinct system altogether, and was adopted in consequence of one or two Volunteer officers having entered into contracts. That was to some extent a little misunderstood by Commanding Officers, but at any rate the returns which they made showed that owners of carts and horses were unwilling to pledge themselves in the future to supply them without a price being agreed upon beforehand. But, my Lords, in the meantime, something else has happened. The National Defence Bill has passed; and we can now requisition carts and horses, not for a limited period merely, but we can actually take those carts and horses and purchase them for as long as they are wanted. Before that Bill passed carts and horses could only be taken for a day's journey, but now they can be bought out and out at a value fixed; and when there is disagreement the matter may be referred to a County Court Judge. So that we are in a much more advantageous position with regard to obtaining transport now than when we issued the skeleton form for such contracts. As I have stated to your Lordships, we can now take carts and horses when they are wanted, according to the value set upon them at the time by the valuers. My Lords, I do not think it would be reasonable to ask the taxpayers of this country to keep up for what the noble Lord has called "a standing Army, "that is to say for the Volunteer Force, a Standing Transport. I do not see how it could cost less than £10,000, taking it even upon the basis of the £45 each given to the 10 battalions; but whether that is considered a large or a small sum, I am bound to say that in my opinion we should not be justified in asking the country to keep up a Standing Transport Service for the Volunteer Force, because we know that there is an ample supply of both horses and carts in this country which would be forthcoming in the event of any attempt at invasion; and from the experience of the Military Authorities, it is believed that that transport could be adequately organised in the time within which it would be necessary for it to be organised. My Lords, upon those grounds it is, that the scheme for testing the supply of transport in the cases mentioned by the noble Lord has not been pursued, and as regards the scheme for contracting for the supply of carts out-and-out, that has been rendered unnecessary by the passing of the National Defence Act. But it is obviously a very great advantage, as pointed out in one of the letters, that Commanding Officers should keep a register of the carts and horses suitable for this purpose in their neighbourhood, because in the event of emergency, those are the carts and horses which we should be able to obtain and organise for transport purposes if they were wanted. I do not think from what I have heard from the Military Authorities that there is any necessity for establishing a Volunteer Transport Service; but such a register to be kept by Commanding Officers as is proposed in the War Office Circular would be of great value. I think it is very possible as the noble Lord has said, that we have not received from the Volunteers the last demand that will be made upon the country's purse in order to make provision for their equipment; but I am glad to hear the noble Lord acknowledge that the last grant made has been an assistance to them. My Lords, I can only say that whenever we think it is essential that the Volunteer Force should be assisted by schemes of a tentative nature such as those which have been brought under your notice by the noble Lord to-night, we shall most certainly carry them out in order to increase the efficiency of the Volunteer Force; but where we do not think they are absolutely essential we certainly decline to put the taxpayers to increased expense.