HL Deb 18 May 1896 vol 40 cc1509-14

asked the Secretary of State for War what progress had been made in the re-arming of batteries of horse and field artillery with the new 12-pounder and 15-pounder Mark II. equipment respectively, and how many batteries were at present without any serviceable guns whatever. He also called attention to serious defects in the new equipments issued to certain batteries of the First Army Corps. He said that their Lordships would remember that the horse and field artillery batteries were not long ago armed with the 12-pounder breechloading gun. It was an excellent gun, found to be too heavy for horse artillery and not heavy enough for field artillery; and it was decided to convert the old 12-pounder into a 15-pounder for the field artillery, not by altering the size of the gun but by giving a longer and heavier shell, while the horse artillery were to be armed with the new 12-pounder gun. Several field batteries were re-armed with the new 15-pounder shell gun, but it was found that this long shell did not suit the gun, and the shooting was bad. Accordingly, it was decided to reduce the length of the shell, and make it a 14-pounder instead of a 15-pounder. But they did not call it a 14-pounder because for some reasons—he was told for Parliamentary reasons, whatever they might be—it was decided to still continue the name of 15-pounder, but it was christened "15-pounder Mark II." He mentioned this in order to emphasise what he had said with regard to it, because it was not enough for the noble Marquess to inform the House how many 15-pounders had been added to the Royal Artillery, but how many 15-pounders Mark II., of the latest approved pattern. He was sure that the result of this change of ammunition in the midst of the process of re-arming an important branch of the Service had caused a considerable amount of confusion. There were three batteries of field artillery of the First Army Corps now stationed at Woolwich. One of these was armed with the 15-pounder Mark II., with a 14-pounder shell, and their sights were the same as designed for the 15-pounder shell. The other two batteries, belonging to the First Army Corps at Woolwich were still armed with the 15-pounder shell, and with limbers and equipment for the 15-pounder. Those two batteries were high up in the list of service; they stood third or fourth on the list for foreign service, and they were batteries which were supposed to be ready for mobilisation at any moment. Either they would have to go on service with 15-pounder shells, or else they would have to get their limber boxes altered at the last moment and go with 14-pounders or fall back upon 12-pounder ammunition. At the present time he understood that they were going to practise with the old 12-pounder ammunition for the purpose of using it up, so that they would have guns intended for 14-pounder shells going to shooting practice with 12-pounder shells, and using sights designed for 15-pounder shells. To add to this, there were two batteries, also belonging to the First Army Corps, one of which was armed with a 14-pounder shell and the other with a 15-pounder equipment. When the guns were sent down to Woolwich Arsenal it was found that the limber boxes of those batteries would not remain shut; the ammunition fell out on the road; and the result was that artificers had to be sent from Woolwich to put them right. He was aware that allowance must be made for certain mistakes which might be made with regard to guns issued in the hurry in which the present equipment was being issued, but he thought that in the case of those batteries of the First Army Corps, which were supposed to be absolutely ready for service, it was a mistake to forget the old maxim of "great haste less speed." He did not wish to impute any blame to the noble Marquess or to those under him with regard to these matters, because he knew that since the noble Marquess assumed office he and those under him had done their best to remedy the somewhat disastrous condition which the field and horse artillery armaments were then in. But he thought there was serious ground for complaints against the want of foresight exhibited by those who went before him, and he maintained that it was a great mistake to decide upon the rearmament of the artillery with a certain gun and then find out, after a considerable number of guns were made, that it shot badly, and then change it in the middle of the process. He should also like to know how many batteries were without any guns at all? There were nine batteries of field artillery at Woolwich, three of which belonged to the First Army Corps. The other six had not a gun of any description, except that the other day they were armed with the guns of the old pattern for the purposes of driving drill. Another battery at Coventry had been without guns of any description for two-and-a-half months, and he hoped that the noble Marquess would be able to give some satisfactory assurance that the resources now at the command of the Arsenal authorities were such that the field artillery might soon be armed with a satisfactory gun of uniform pattern.


The rearmament to which the noble Earl's question refers is that which was mentioned in the explanatory Memorandum laid upon the Table with the Army Estimates for this year. It was explained in that Memorandum that two operations were in progress—first the rearmament of the Horse Artillery with the new 12-pounder gun; and secondly, the conversion of the whole of the guns of the Field Artillery from 12-pounders to 15-pounders. I may say here that, although it is usual to speak of these guns as 12-pounders and 15-pounders, the old 12-pounder shell was, in fact, slightly over 12 lb. in weight, while the new 15-pounder shell does not weigh quite so much as 15 lb. It was decided that out of the ten new batteries required for the Horse Artillery, six batteries, or 36 guns, should be provided by the ordnance factories, and four batteries, or 24 guns, by the trade. It was also decided that the whole of the conversion of the Field Artillery guns, numbering in all 306, should be carried out by the ordnance factories. In the explanatory Memorandum accompanying the Estimates we undertook that the six batteries of Horse Artillery to be provided by the factories should be ready by the beginning of June, and it was hoped that the four batteries which were given to the trade would be ready about the end of the month of August. I am glad to say that the factories have been as good as their word. Five out of the six batteries for which they are responsible have already been issued, and the remaining battery is now ready for issue. Whether the trade will be equally successful in fulfilling our expectations I am not yet able to say. As to the Field Artillery, we undertook that guns sufficient for two Army Corps—that is for 30 batteries, or 180 guns—should be ready by the beginning of June, and that the remainder of the conversion should be completed as rapidly as the engagements of the factories would permit. Here, again, I am glad to say, that the factories have not disappointed us. They promised 180 guns by the beginning of June, and they have already converted and issued 204 guns, or 34 batteries, instead of the 30 promised. These batteries are complete in their equipment with carriages, limbers, ammunition wagons, and all accessories. The remainder of the Field Artillery guns will be proceeded with as quickly as possible, and there will be sufficient guns for three Army Corps by the end of June. When the whole of these operations have been completed we shall have for the Horse Artillery the full equipment of 10 batteries of six guns each, with a reserve of eight guns, and for the Field Artillery the full equipment for three Army Corps, or 45 batteries of six guns each, with a reserve of 24 guns besides some surplus guns. The noble Earl has called attention to what he describes as certain "serious defects" in the new equipment issued to certain batteries. Considering the rapidity with which the rearmament has taken place and the fact that these changes were, in the first instance, to some extent experimental, it would be surprising if no hitch had taken place. The noble Earl has, in the first place, mentioned the confusion which he believes has arisen in regard to the sighting of the field guns. I will state exactly what has happened. It was decided, as I have already said, to adopt a heavier shell for the 12-pounder gun. The shell first issued, and which weighed 14½ lb., was found to be slightly too heavy. This shell, which is known as "Mark I." shell, was given up after a very small number only had been manufactured, and a lighter shell, weighing very little over 14 lb., known as "Mark II." shell, was adopted in its place. The whole of the Field Artillery will have this shell, and we are now turning them out at the rate of between 3,000 and 4,000 a week. No Field Artillery guns have been sighted for "Mark I." shell, and no sights have been or will be issued for that shell. These guns all retain their old 12-pounder sights, and they will also be sighted for the 15-pounder "Mark II." shell. I can explain why, for the present at all events, it has been thought desirable to retain the old as well as the new sighting. It is intended that the whole of the Field Batteries should practise this year with the 12-pounder shell. This decision has been come to, first, because we have a considerable quantity of that shell in stock and do not desire to waste it, especially as it is held that instruction gained with it at gun practice is, for general purposes, equal to that gained from the new ammunition; and, secondly, because it is not thought desirable that we should begin using the new shell until we have accumulated an adequate supply of it to complete our ammunition columns. The noble Earl has mentioned cases in which limbers fitted for the "Mark I." shell have been issued, although, as he correctly says, it is not intended to use that mark. I have ascertained that the eight Field Batteries first issued after conversion had limbers fitted to take the "Mark I." shell, but the alteration required is extremely simple, and by the time the "Mark II." shell is ready for issue, limbers will have been fitted for them. The noble Earl spoke of batteries which, he said, had been without guns since the month of March. Those batteries are included amongst those referred to in the earlier part of my statement. At the present moment there are seven batteries without guns; these are the seven batteries which were raised in April 1895, and their guns, which have been withdrawn for the purpose of conversion, will very shortly be returned to them. Meanwhile, they are using some older guns for drill. I think I have said enough to satisfy your Lordships, first, that the rearmament has made good progress in a comparatively short space of time, and next, that, if there have been some slight hitches or imperfections in the equipment issued, they are not of a serious character, and can be easily remedied.