HL Deb 22 March 1889 vol 334 cc495-502

in rising to ask Her Majesty's Government whether, if it be the case that the Admiralty are dissatisfied with the present condition of the Corps of Naval Volunteers, any measure is in contemplation for promoting the efficiency of that Corps, said: My Lords, I do not know whether it will be out of order for me to quote words used in the other House of Parliament; but my question has reference to a statement made by the First Lord of the Admiralty in another place, which I cannot but regard as being made hastily and unthinkingly, and which has inflicted considerable pain upon a very gallant and deserving body of Volunteers. I am quite aware that the services of that Corps are not generally so well known as they are to myself, and as they ought to be to your Lordships. Many noble Lords have asked me who the Naval Volunteers are. The Corps has existed under adverse conditions, and with very little support, since the year 1872. It was not until 1884 that they received a capitation grant, although they had gone through a very severe training, had complied with all the requirements of the Admiralty, and had received from the officers who inspected them the most satisfactory testimonials of efficiency. There are four of these brigades round the coast. There is the London Brigade, which embraces a Corps at Hastings, and another at Brighton. There is a brigade at Bristol, which embraces two or three other western stations. A Corps has recently been formed at Liverpool, and there is one at the Clyde, both of which are under the command of noble Lords, Members of this House. The late-Government refused an application from Plymouth. These Naval Volunteers have received from successive Lords of the Admiralty a good many very fine words, but very bad treatment. When the noble Lord (Lord Northbrook) was at the head of the Admiralty, he did very little to encourage the Corps, although directly he was out of office he spoke of them in the very highest terms. I will, with the permission of the House, just refer to one or two documents which bear testimony to the efficiency of the corps. The first is one which comes last in date; but it is one of the most important. The noble Marquess at the head of the Government said "that the Corps had not received the attention which it ought to receive from the Admiralty." That is reported as the answer of the noble Marquess to a question in this House by the noble Lord opposite (Earl Cowper). [The Marquess of SALISBURY: I do not recollect it.] I beg my noble Friend's pardon. The words are, "The Motion has not received the attention which it ought to have received from the Admiralty." Then Mr. Ward Hunt, when First Lord of the Admiralty, several years back, visited the Bristol Corps, and said that— This was a movement that the Admiralty very much favoured, and they thought it a very important thing that every seaport town should have a number of Naval Volunteers prepared to serve in case of need. Then, there are a number of Reports from gallant officers who were sent down to the different ports for the purpose of inspecting the corps. Lord Charles Beresford, who is a thoroughly practical man, has spoken in the very highest terms, not only of the objects of the Corps, which he considers most important, but of the exertions, and the discipline of the corps themselves. I think it is a thousand pities that anything should proceed from high quarters calculated to discourage the corps or to lessen the zeal of men who have devoted their time and considerable sums of money to promote its efficiency. One of the complaints made by the First Lord of the Admiralty is that the corps are not proficient in their gunnery; but any deficiency of this kind that there may be is due to the fact that the Admiralty have declined to supply guns. In the few instances where guns have been supplied, the very hard condition has been imposed upon the corps of finding a permanent gun deck, which has cost the officers of the corps £50. The officer in command of the corps has charge of valuable stores, for which he is responsible, and after all the trouble and pains he has taken for many years he holds the humble position of lieutenant only. The Admiralty decline to give any higher rank; and I need hardly point out that that is one reason which very naturally renders the corps unpopular in many places where we might expect to find a large body of officers. The London corps is very highly distinguished. It is composed almost entirely of men of education and birth, who take upon themselves readily the work which is undertaken by able seamen in the Royal Navy. And, when they are taunted with not having their sea-legs, I may tell you that many of them have been on pleasure cruises as far as the coast of Normandy, and are constantly engaged in Naval pursuits about the English Coast for the purpose of promoting their efficiency as Naval Volunteers. On several occasions the corps have been exceedingly anxious to obtain permission to raise a body amongst themselves for service in Egypt and elsewhere, and have expressed their willingness to adopt any conditions that the Admiralty might choose to impose. Under all the circumstances, they feel, and naturally feel, that it is a little hard upon them that they should be spoken of in such disparaging terms by the First Lord of the Admiralty. Your Lordships will remember the coldness and disparagement with which our gallant Volunteer soldiers were spoken of when the Volunteer movement began; but now there is hardly an officer in the Army who does not recognize the Volunteers as a most powerful and efficient auxiliary force. Those Volunteers have had the advantage of advertisement, and they very naturally and properly have attracted crowds wherever they have gone, but the Naval Volunteers, living on the coast and making no display, have hitherto attracted but little notice. But now that the nation seems perfectly alive to the necessity of increasing the Naval Defences of the kingdom, it is to be hoped that the Government will give more support to the Naval Volunteers, and that the enthusiasm of a country having a much larger sea coast than that of France may be stirred up in that matter, so that we may raise an efficient, valuable, and numerous force of Naval Volunteers. I will now ask my noble Friend (Lord Elphinstone), who speaks with so much authority upon this question, from his great professional experience, the question which I have placed upon the Paper.


I greatly regret that any words uttered by the First Lord of the Admiralty have given pain, as the noble Lord opposite seems to think they have, to the gallant corps to whom reference has been made. I am perfectly sure that in anything which the First Lord said, nothing could be further from his wish or intention than to cause them any sort of pain. The noble Lord asks me whether it is the case that the Admiralty are dissatisfied with the present condition of the corps of Naval Volunteers. The term "dissatisfied" cannot be applied to the views the Admiralty hold with regard to the present condition of that corps. On the contrary, the Admiralty fully recognize the zeal and energy displayed by that corps, and the willingness with which, at great cost and sacrifice to their time and convenience, they have come forward in order to go through their training. The difficulty which the Admiralty have with respect to the extension of the corps to other districts is the difficulty of any means of employing them. By the Act under which they are embodied, they cannot be called upon to serve away from their own ports, except in the case of apprehended invasion. Therefore, unless that contingency arises, they are not available for the only service for which the Admiralty could utilize them—namely, in supplementing the crews of ships employed round the coast. When the corps was first raised it was understood that it should be employed in vessels stationed at the various ports. But the Admiralty cannot, of course, undertake to localize the ships of the Navy to particular ports. It is essential to the proper safeguarding of our ports that the Admiralty and the admirals in command of our forces should have a free hand in the distribution or in the concentration of their ships as the exigencies of the moment required. That would be especially essential in a maritime war, and that precludes the employment of the Naval Volunteers in Her Majesty's ships when invasion is not apprehended. The local defences of the ports, whether by batteries or by sub-marine mines, are under the War Department; so the Admiralty cannot allocate to the Naval Volunteers any share in those duties. There is no analogy whatever between the Naval and the Military Services as affecting the Volunteers. The Military Volunteers are, so to speak, self-contained—that is to say, they are supplied with arms and munitions, and with instruction; but in the case of the Naval Volunteers they must not only be supplied with arms and munitions and instruction, but must also be supplied with ships, and this the Admiralty cannot undertake to do. They are prepared to supply them with guns, ammunition, and instruction. [Viscount SIDMOUTH: You could let them train.] But there is no object in training men unless there is a prospect of being able to turn that training to account, and of this the Admiralty can hold out no prospect. Short of localizing ships to individual ports, the Admiralty would gladly encourage the Royal Naval Artillery Volunteers, and would be quite prepared to consider any scheme which could be devised for utilizing their services; but until some such scheme can be determined upon, the Admiralty are reluctant to add to a force which, as now composed, affords no adequate return for their cost to the country.


I am sure it is the desire of all your Lordships that this corps of Naval Volunteers should, if possible, be placed in such a position that they may become a permanent and efficient part of the defensive forces of the country. As the noble Lord (Lord Elphinstone) has pointed out, the chief difficulty seems to be that the training necessary to efficiency is impossible, because the men have not the necessary ships, and the Admiralty do not see their way to provide them. I beg to ask the noble Lord whether, if the ships are provided by volunteer effort, either by hiring or constructing vessels, the Admiralty will consider the question of increasing the number of Naval Volunteers?


My Lords, I think the disclaimer which my noble Friend below me (Lord Elphinstone) has made will be beneficial, because the words uttered by the First Lord of the Admiralty, in another place, seem to have been misunderstood. It would be particularly unfortunate that the words of anyone—especially one in a high position—should be construed as throwing cold water upon the Naval Volunteer movement at such a time as this, when the public mind is greatly excited upon the great question of naval defence, and prepared to welcome any force that may defend our shores. There is no difficulty whatever in raising any number of men; the only difficulty is one which the Admiralty themselves have raised—namely, as to the employment of the men. It is no use raising the men unless they can be drilled. The men are anxious to raise themselves to that pitch of efficiency which is required of them, but they say that this is really a matter for the Government, and that ships should be supplied to drill them in. There is another difficulty which has arisen and which requires considering, and that is to define precisely the duties which in an emergency those men might be required to perform. If it is assumed that we held the command of the sea round our coasts, these men would have very little to do; but if we should lose at any time that command, no body of Volunteers we could raise would be sufficient to protect our ports from injury and probable loss. I understand the Admiralty, however, to say that they must have seafaring men, and I think they are right. The functions of this corps will be twofold—first, to support and assist the submarine mining corps, which are drilling with considerable alacrity at various ports; and secondly, to defend the immediate vicinity of any particular port to which they might be attached against what are called raiders. The first thing that would happen in war would be the sending of a number of light vessels fitted with guns to operate effectively against our commerce, and we ought to have a number of corresponding vessels to meet those raiders. It would be of immense importance to have, at any rate, a nucleus of such a force in each of our great ports, and the Admiralty may, I think, reasonably be pressed to afford the necessary facilities for drill. Any gunboat, though old or obsolete, would do for the purpose in time of peace, if fitted with modern guns. I have in my hand a list of the ships which are in the course of the present financial year to be removed from the Navy List, and I find there are at least ten second class gun vessels, and gun boats, which would make an excellent nucleus for the purpose. As this is a National movement, it is not right to ask the Naval Volunteers to find their own vessels, and there is no earthly reason why the Government should not spare some of the old vessels now about to be struck off the Navy List.


My Lords, I regret that I am not in a position to commit the Admiralty by any statement as to the provision of ships for the Naval Volunteers. The difficulty is, as I said before, that we have not the money to provide ships. I think that if the large towns were to take steps to provide ships themselves, no difficulty would be raised by the Admiralty on the question of increasing the force. The noble Lord behine me (the Earl of Ravensworth) has said there are a number of obsolete ships that could be used for the purposes of the Volunteers. Now, then, is the opportunity for the Volunteers to approach the Admiralty with a view to obtaining some of those ships. The noble Lord also suggested that the Volunteers should work with the submarine miners, but I must point out that those submarine miners are under the War Office and not under our control in any way. With regard to guns, we have as far as possible supplied them, but, as I said before, the whole difficulty is with regard to the ships.

House adjourned at half-past Five o'clock to Thursday next, a quarter before Eleven o'clock.