HL Deb 08 May 1896 vol 40 cc843-7

presented a Bill to amend the Reserve Forces Act of 1882. He could explain in a few words the reasons which had led Her Majesty's Government to introduce the Bill he now asked their Lordships to read a First time. The House was aware that under our present military system the soldier divided his service between service with the colours and service in the Army Reserve. That system had been in force ever since its introduction by Lord Cardwell, and although in matters of detail there had been changes and modifications from time to time, the general principle had been maintained and had found acceptance. At the present moment, in regard to the bulk of the Army, a soldier enlisted for 12 years, seven or eight of which were served with the colours and the remaining four or five in the Army Reserve. That system had given us a body of 80,000 Army Reservists, the bulk of whom had had seven or eight years training, and had not been away from the colours more than five years at the outside. Those men not only presented themselves for their reserve pay, but upon all occasions on which it had been found necessary to call them up for service they had responded in the most satisfactory manner. In the year 1878 out of 14,000 Army Reservists 92 per cent. responded to the call, while four years later in 1882 out of 11,000 men 90 per cent. presented themselves; and upon other occasions when a certain number had been called up for some special purpose, in order, for example, to receive special instruction, they invariably responded in a manner that left nothing to be desired. In spite of their separation from their regiments for a few years, they recovered their military efficiency in a wonderfully short space of time. Therefore, there was very good reason to anticipate that of those 80,000 Army Reservists we could count in case of need upon all save a very small proportion. But he had to call their Lordships' attention to the extent to which the military authorities could make use of this most valuable force. As the House was aware, the battalions of the Regular army were linked in pairs, of which one battalion was abroad and the other was, or should be, at home. He said "should be" advisedly; for, though it was a main principle of our Army organisation that there should be a battalion at home to feed each battalion abroad, yet the great and ever increasing demands upon our foreign Army were such that at no time since the system was instituted in 1870 had it been possible in practice to preserve the balance. He mentioned this, though it did not directly bear upon the Bill, as he was anxious that their Lordships should not think that he was neglecting this most important question. The foreign battalion was always kept at a high establishment, which might be taken in round numbers at something over 1,000 men. The home battalion was kept at a lower establishment, which might be taken at about 800 men. The foreign battalion contained no recruits. On the other hand, the home battalion contained a large number of recruits, and might be regarded as a sort of training establishment for itself and for the linked battalion abroad. It followed that the home battalion, as it stood, was quite unfit for service abroad, nor was it indeed, ever intended that as it stood it should be used for active service. What would happen in the case of mobilisation was that the men of less than one year's service and the men who were medically unfit for service abroad would be sent to the depôt, and the home battalion would be brought up to the proper strength by calling out a sufficient number of Army Reserve men. If the military authorities were always able to use the Army Reserve men, who numbered 80,000, in this manner, there would be nothing whatever to complain of; but their powers of so using them were limited by the terms of the Army Reserve Act of 1882, which the Government now desired to amend. Clause 12 of that Act enacts that the use of the Reserve may be resorted to in cases of imminent national danger or of great emergency. It was perfectly clear that even the most liberal interpretation that could be given to those words would not render them applicable to such a case as the sending out of a small expeditionary force of 10,000 or 15,000 men. In such a case the military authorities were face to face with the fact that of the 800 men in a home battalion a large proportion were, as he had explained, necessarily unfit for active service in a foreign country. What then were they to do? They did not wish to denude India of troops or to weaken our colonial garrisons. There were only two courses by which in such a case they could make good the weakness of the home battalion—they could call for drafts from other battalions, or they could call for volunteers from the Army Reserve. With regard to calling for drafts from other battalions, those who have had experience of Army organisation were unanimous in agreeing that it was not possible to discover a more profligate way of strengthening home battalions for active service. ["Hear, hear!"] It meant that, in order to strengthen one battalion they were to weaken another battalion, which in its turn was to be strengthened from another, so that the process of weakening one battalion in order to help another went on in an ever-widening rate and with ever-increasing bad results. As for the other remedy—that of calling for volunteers from the Army Reserve men—he had the greatest confidence in the patriotism and spirit of the Reserve men; but, for all that, he did not think that at a moment when the condition of the labour market might be favourable to employment, or if the particular expedition did not offer any great inducement in way of honour or glory, they should be justified in counting upon obtaining a sufficient number of men by calling for volunteers from the Reserve. There remained, therefore, no course open to them but the course which it was proposed to take under this Bill; that course was to increase the liability of the Army Reserve men in a such manner as to render a sufficient number of men available for use under circumstances which would stop short of that imminent national danger or great emergency which the Reserve Forces Act specified as the condition without which the Army Reserve men could not be called up for service. It was obviously their duty to increase the liability of the Army Reservists to such an extent only as to give us what we wanted, and nothing more; and they were advised that, by making these men liable for war service during their first year in the Army Reserve, a sufficient number would be obtained to bring up to the proper strength the number of units which we should be likely to make use of in the case of such minor operations as he had endeavoured to indicate. That would be allowing, of course, for a certain number of absentees, men who might either not present themselves or who, when they did, might be found medically unfit for foreign service. The liability was strictly limited by the Bill to war-like operations, and did not include purposes of training in peace time. The Bill applied only to men who might enlist after it had become law. It followed, therefore, that no Army Reserve man would incur the new liability except those who might accept service after this Bill passed. That meant, of course, that the operation of the Bill would not commence to any large extent for seven years. But power was taken by the first clause to make use of Army Reserve men who may have given their assent in writing to accept this new liability; and should the principle of the Bill find favour with Parliament, it would be for the Government to consider whether some special arrangement could not be made to provide for the interval. Perhaps it might be said that the Bill would increase the objections of employers of labour to give civil employment to Army Reservists, and that would be an objection the weight of which he certainly would not underrate. He was most anxious we should do nothing to deter employers from giving employment to Army Reserve men; but he believed that the suspicion with which employers of labour at one time regarded Army Reserve men tended to diminish as time went on, and would in time disappear. They would find as a matter of fact that these men were but very rarely called up, and they would know that at any rate this new liability to be called up for active service with the colours was a liability which would only apply to Reserve men during the first year of Reserve service, and that when that year was over a man would stand in exactly the same position as he did before. He had said enough to show that there was at all events a primâ facie case for this alteration of the law on a matter of some military importance. [Cheers.]

Bill read 1a; to be printed; and to read 2a on Friday next.—[No. 87.]