HL Deb 26 August 1895 vol 36 cc769-74

My Lords, I was questioned a few days ago by the late Under Secretary of State for War in regard to the arrangements which Her Majesty's Government had it in contemplation, to carry out in connection with the impending retirement of his Royal Highness the Commander-in-Chief. I was then obliged to ask the noble Lord to excuse me from giving him any explanation of those arrangements or from stating whether we intended to proceed or not upon the lines laid down by our predecessors. I am now able to supplement what I said the other evening, not by a full and final account of our proposals, but by a statement sufficient to give a description of the general lines upon which it is our intention to proceed. I may state at the outset, and I am glad to do so, that on the main principles there is no material difference of opinion between ourselves and our predecessors. Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman stated in another place that it was his intention to proceed upon the main principles of the report of the Hartington Commission. It is our intention to do the same, to this extent at all events, that we regard that report as a sufficient and authoritative exposition of the defects presented by the then existing system of military administration. What were those defects? They may be summed up under three heads. The Commission reported:—(1) That there was an excessive centralisation of responsibility in the Commander-in-Chief; (2) that, in the distribution of work amongst the heads of the great military departments, no sufficient provision had been made for the consideration of the plans for the military defence of the Empire as a whole, or for the examination of larger questions of military policy; (3) that what the Commissioners spoke of as the consultative element was not sufficiently represented at the War Office. We believe this to be an accurate diagnosis. We accept it as the point of departure for our proposals, and we shall endeavour to apportion responsibility as it has not yet been apportioned amongst the heads of the great military departments, to distribute the duties of the head-quarters staff so that executive work will not absorb the whole time of every member of it, and to supply that consultative element upon the absence of which the Commissioners remarked. So far our course is plain, but when we proceed to give effect to these intentions the widest divergency of opinion becomes apparent. In these cases nothing is so easy as destructive criticism. It is only when you begin to rebuild the edifice which you have pulled down that your difficulties commence. I have been supplied with any number of schemes of War Department reorganisation, each of them, I have no doubt, perfect in the opinions of their authors, unquestionably many of them possessing very valuable features of their own. I should like to mention, in the first place, one point on which, agreeing with our predecessors, we propose to diverge, in appearance at all events, from the recommendations of the Commission. It will be remembered that one of the most noteworthy of its recommendations was that there should be created a central organising department under an officer to be styled the Chief of the Staff, whose duty it should be to advise the Secretary of State on all matters of general military policy connected with the defence of the Empire. He was to be entirely free from the executive work, and to be the confidential adviser of the Secretary of State. The Commission proposed the appointment of such a Chief of the Staff, and it proposed that in the new scheme a Commander-in-Chief in the present acceptation of the term should not have a place. There was, it was true, to be a general officer in command of the troops in Great Britain, just as there is now a general officer in command of the troops in Ireland, but I need say that such an officer would have little in common with the kind of Commander-in-Chief to which the public and the Army have hitherto been accustomed. I will not take up the time of the House by recapitulating the arguments against the arrangement recommended by the Hartington Commission, if it seems to us that a Chief of the Staff with attributes such as those which were suggested would, particularly if no Commander-in-Chief were to be appointed, inevitably become the real Commander-in-Chief of the Army, and that there would be no true responsibility on the part of the heads of the great military departments if their recommendations were liable to be set aside on the advice; of such an officer. We felt, moreover, that a Chief of the Staff, if entirely dissociated from executive work, would be out of touch with the Army, and would, in all probability, not secure its confidence. In our scheme we have, as your Lordships are aware, provided for a Commander-in-Chief, but we do not intend to provide for a Chief of the Staff of the kind proposed by the Commissioners. I will now state broadly the manner in which the duties of the principal military Departments will be distributed. The Commander-in-Chief, who will hold his office under the usual rules affecting Staff appointments, will exercise general command over Her Majesty's forces at home and abroad, will issue Army Orders, and will hold periodical inspections of the troops. He will be responsible for commissions, promotions, appointments, honours, and rewards, and for the departments of military information and mobilisation, and for the general distribution of the Army. He will be the principal adviser of the Secretary of State, and will give him general as distinguished from departmental advice upon all important questions upon military policy. The Adjutant-General will be charged with the discipline, education, and training of the Army, with returns and statistics, enlistments and discharges. To the Quartermaster-General will be entrusted such matters as supplies and transport, the quarters of the Army, remounts, the movement of troops, the Pay Department, and the Army Service Corps. The Inspector-General of Fortifications will be responsible for fortifications, barracks and War Office lands, and for kindred matters; the Inspector-General of Ordnance for the supply and inspection of warlike stores and equipments for armaments, patterns, and inventions. The precise distribution will, of course, be laid down by Order in Council, and the sketch which I have given does not profess to be exhaustive or complete. Each of these five officers will be immediately responsible to the Secretary of State for the efficient administration of the department entrusted to him; each of them will have direct access to the Secretary of State, and will advise him with regard to the matters with which his own department is concerned; each of them will in particular submit proposals for the Estimates of his own department. The Commander-in-Chief and the other heads of departments will act together as a Board, to discuss such questions as may be from time to time referred to them by the Secretary of State. The Commander-in-Chief will preside over the Board. We propose that the Accountant-General shall attend the Board, not as a Member of it, but rather with the object of supplying it with such information as it may require as to the financial aspect of cases under discussion. The Board will be specially valuable in those numerous cases which concern more than one department of the War Office, and in which it is so desirable that each department should be fully informed of the proceedings and views of the others. I may add that it is intended that promotions and appointments above the rank of major shall always come before the Board. We shall, perhaps, be asked how we have; provided for the discharge of those duties which the Harrington Commission assigned to the Chief of the Staff. My answer is that those duties, or the most important of them, are of a kind the performance of which ought not to be dissociated from the Commander-in-Chief. They must be performed, if not by him, at all events under his eye and direction. It is our belief that, with a proper distribution of work and responsibility among the heads of departments, and with proper arrangements for giving the Commander-in-Chief assistance in the discharge of his own particular duties, we shall be able so far to relieve him of ordinary executive work that he will be able to give a large part of his time and attention to those duties which were to be the special concern of the Chief of the Staff. It is intended that the Commander-in-Chief shall be assisted by two officers, one of whom will deal, under the Commander-in-Chief, with questions affecting the personnel of the Army, while the other will have charge of military intelligence and mobilisation. I may, perhaps, add that I am informed that during the last few years a great deal of the work formerly carried on in the Horse Guards has been decentralised and entrusted to the General Officers Commanding of Districts. I feel no doubt as to the wisdom of this policy, and I trust we may be able to carry it still further. The more we do so, the greater will be the relief given to the Commander-in-Chief and his assistants. It remains for me to show what arrangements we have made for providing that consultative element upon the absence of which the Commission animadverted so strongly. That element will be provided partly by the Board which I have already described, and partly by a consultative War Office Council, presided over by the Secretary of State, which will meet when required for the discussion of such subjects as lie may refer to it. That Council will consist of the Undersecretaries of State, the Financial Secretary, the Commander-in-Chief, and the four heads of the great military departments, and any other officers who may on special occasions be summoned to attend the meetings. The formation of a Council of this kind was strongly recommended by the Hartington Commission, which advised that such a Council would be of the utmost value for the purpose of securing unity of administration and the harmonious working of the several branches of the War Office in all cases in which they are collectively concerned. A Council somewhat of this description has, in fact, been for many years past assembled, from time to time, at the, War Office whenever the Secretary of State had occasion to seek its advice. Its meetings have, however, been held at irregular intervals and have lately become infrequent, and it is our hope that we may be able to recur to them with greater regularity. Such discussions, of which a record would be kept, will afford a very valuable opportunity to the advisers of the Secretary of State for a free interchange of ideas. It will, of course, be understood that the Secretary of State alone is responsible to Parliament, and it is therefore with him that the final decision must rest. The description which I have given does not purport to be more than a brief and imperfect sketch of the main outlines of the new system as applied to the heads of the great military departments. The precise terms of the Order in Council which will be necessary in order to give effect to it will require closer examination than we have yet been able to give them, and I need scarcely add that upon points of this kind it will be natural that, before the terms of the Order in Council are finally decided, I should have an opportunity of conferring in regard to them with Lord Wolseley. ["Hear, hear!"]

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