HL Deb 17 July 1900 vol 86 cc196-207

My Lords, in asking the noble Marquess the Secretary of State for War the question standing in my name, I need not detain your Lordships by a long list of military deficiencies, or a long indictment of the War Office. I think I may safely claim a concensus of opinion as to the necessity for the reconstruction of the War Office. I use the word "reconstruction" in the sense of building anew upon a cleared site, as opposed to patching up an antiquated structure. I apprehend that a patch-work policy would not be acceptable to your Lordships. For instance, an inquiry into the War Office by officials and ex-officials, or still more useless, an inquiry by means of a Departmental Committee. Possibly the noble Marquess could indicate in outline the principles upon which the Department over which he presides will in due course be reconstructed. At the very beginning of the South African campaign the Commander in Chief advised the country that war was a game of ups and downs. But of the latter we have experienced a greater share than can be fairly ascribed to bad luck alone. It is from the real reasons for our reverses, and not from the supposed causes of our successes, that the most valuable lessons of the war are to be learnt. It is impossible to conceive any scheme for Army reorganisation at the present moment which has not been preceded by an inquiry into the reasons for our failures in South Africa. But, my Lords, if such an inquiry is to command the confidence of the country, if it is to arouse that national interest in military matters indispensable for the future development of the Army, its results must be submitted to the judgment of Parliament. It is essential that Parliament should know the advice upon which the Secretary of State founds his plan of reconstruction. When we know the real reasons for our disasters, then we can take the first step towards the reorganisation of the Army. The second step is the formation of a correct idea of the military needs of the Empire. Previous to the present war, the defence of the Empire was considered amply secured by two Army corps for service abroad, and one for home defence. In round numbers that means 120,000 men. We have now an army of more than 220,000 men in South Africa, in addition to our home forces. With an error so colossal as the basis of all calculation in time of peace, there is small wonder that war should have revealed dangerous military deficiencies. This miscalculation seems to me in no way the fault of the War Office. The War Office was told, I presume, by the Cabinet that its maximum output was to be three army corps. On the outbreak of war it was not three army corps but the equivalent of six army corps for which provision was wanted. It is most important that the country should know who will be responsible in the future for calculating the military needs of the Empire. The reorganisation of the Army is one matter. To fill the ranks with men of the right stamp is another. Unless Her Majesty's Government can solve the problem of recruiting, manifestly the solution of all other military problems will be of no value, because the Army will have no men. The receipt for increasing the quantity of recruits has hitherto been to diminish their quality—that is, to lower the standard of physical development. The noble Marquess has told us that he does not think an increase of pay for the Army and the Militia would give results proportionate to the increased expenditure. I do not know why the noble Marquess considers that the Army should form the solitary exception to those influences which always have governed, and still govern, the labour market of the world, namely wages. I recognise that to increase the pay of the Army is to incur a great cost which is in itself a great evil. But in my opinion conscription is a greater evil, and the greatest evil of all is a wholly insufficient Army. It is scarcely possible to separate at the present moment the reconstruction of the War Office and the reorganisation of the Army from the still wider question of Imperial defence. Until a few months ago it was an article of faith in this country that the fate of the Empire would be decided by battles fought either upon the sea, or, if the worst came to the worst, at home. Recent events have shown that such decisive battles may be fought, and probably will be fought, neither upon the sea nor in the United Kingdom, but in Africa, in Asia, or in some other continent. Hence the pressing need of a comprehensive plan for Imperial defence. From among the many lessons of the war in South Africa, one stands out like stone, and it is this, that without the help of our colonies we should never have gone through with the war in the way which we have done. Presumably in any scheme of Imperial defence the colonies will be invited to join, as may seem good to themselves. Then, if we are to have an Imperial Army, is it to be a paper army only, or will it be assembled from time to time for the purposes of training and comradeship? Now, an Imperial Army can no more be trained for the field in England than a racehorse can be trained to gallop in a kitchen garden. Where, then, is the Imperial Army of the future to receive its field training? Is such a force to be trained where the Imperial Army now is, and where a strong garrison must always be maintained, in South Africa? South Africa is close to India and the East. It is not far from Egypt and the Mediterranean. It is a half-way house for Australia and New Zealand. It is not, as we gratefully acknowledge, beyond the reach of Canada. Then the climate is magnificent, and the area for field training and manœuvres unlimited. Finally, the concentration for the field training of an Imperial Army in South Africa would perfect our system of sea transport for cavalry, artillery, and infantry, and enable us to acquire that rapid mobility which the defence of our Empire absolutely demands. I have brought these questions to the notice of the noble Marquess, well knowing that it is impossible for Her Majesty's Government to deal with them during this session; but before next session we hope to welcome home a victorious army. My Lords, I fear lest that triumphant return, by obliterating the memory of disasters, should become the means of establishing more firmly than ever that old order which ought now to change and give place to the new. I therefore beg to ask the noble Marquess whether Her Majesty's Government intend to inquire into the deficiencies of our military system, and to submit the results to Parliament with a view to the reconstruction of the War Office and the reorganisation of the Army.


My Lords, we are most anxious to withhold from your Lordships' House no information with regard to military matters which you may reasonably desire to possess, and I think I shall not be contradicted when I say that during the debates that have taken place this year we have invariably given the House frank and full information both with regard to matters of fact, and, as far as possible, with regard to our own intentions. But I think the questions which the noble Duke has addressed to me carry us to a point at which I may fairly ask, and at which I think the noble Duke himself will almost expect me to ask, for your forbearance. Indeed, the noble Duke, in his concluding words, made it, I think, pretty clear that he did not expect that I should give him a full and detailed answer upon the many points he referred to. He asked me whether it was our intention to institute an inquiry into the deficiencies of our military system; whether that inquiry would be made with a view to the reconstruction of the War Office and the reorganisation of the Army; whether I could place him in possession of the principles upon which that reconstruction was to take place; whether we were informing ourselves as to the causes of the reverses which had been sustained during the course of the South African campaign; whether we were seriously addressing ourselves to the recruiting problem; whether we wore forecasting the military needs of the Empire; whether we were elaborating a scheme of Imperial defence in which the colonies were to have a part, and which, as I understand the noble Duke, was to involve a system of training the Imperial Army partly upon the sea and partly in South Africa; and finally, whether we wore going to submit the whole of our proposals to Parliament. I venture to say that in the history of Parliament so many formidable questions were never compressed into a speech so brief as that which the noble Duke has delivered. I cannot give the noble Duke information upon the whole of those points—upon some of them we do not possess the information ourselves; but if the object of the noble Duke is to obtain from me a general assurance that it is the intention of the Government to spare no effort to turn to account the experience acquired during the course of the present campaign, that assurance I give him in the strongest and most unqualified terms. I say, further, that if the conclusions to be derived from that experience are such as to lead to the belief that changes are necessary either in the organisation of the Army or in the system under which the Army is administered, we shall approach those questions with minds unbiassed by preconceived opinions, and with the determination to ask Parliament for the means of giving effect to any changes which may be proved to be necessary. But in a case of this kind it is surely true to say that the only solid foundation upon which we can set to work is a foundation of ascertained facts, and with many of the facts we must perforce at present be but imperfectly acquainted while the war is still in progress. Until those facts have been ascertained I do not think it will be possible for me to give the noble Duke any information as to the extent to which either the reorganisation of the Army or the reconstruction of the War Office might possibly be desirable; still less can I tell him, even in outline, upon what principles that reconstruction is likely to proceed. Reorganisation and reconstruction are very big words; they are words which seem to afford infinite consolation to the minds of many people who use them; but they are not only very big words, they are very vague words, and I confess I prefer not to use them until I have in my mind a clear idea of the meaning which I wish to convey by their use. That this war will lead to changes in the organisation of the Army, in its training and equipment, I feel myself very little doubt. But I would put it to the noble Duke and to your Lordships' House that we can scarcely condemn the whole of the old machinery, we can scarcely begin to construct new machinery, until we have made ourselves fully aware of the extent to which the old machinery has broken down, the points at which it has failed, and, above all, whether the failure has been due to imperfections of the machinery itself or to errors on the part of those who had control of and directed its operations. While the war in South Africa is still in progress we cannot obtain evidence upon many of these points. We cannot yet obtain a class of evidence to which I, for my part, attach very great importance—I mean the evidence not of the critics, but of the men who have seen the conduct of these operations upon the spot, and to whom the success or failure of the present system has been a matter of life or death. When the campaign is over, as we all hope it will be before long, we shall, I have no doubt, have ample opportunities of conferring with distinguished soldiers who will be able to give us most valuable evidence on points of that kind. I would add that whore the war has taught us already a lesson which appeared to us clear and unmistakable we have not hesitated to take action. I cite in support of this what we are doing in regard to the increase and rearmament of the artillery, which is already proceed- ing; I cite also the large measures which are now in progress for building up a sufficient reserve of military stores and equipment of all kinds, stores which have, in my opinion, at no time been maintained at a sufficient amount, and which we mean to accumulate in large quantities, and under conditions which I hope will render it incumbent not only upon us, but upon those who may follow us to make good at once any deficiency in those reserves created by the exceptional demands of a great campaign. The noble Duke indicated not obscurely his own preference for an external inquiry of some kind. I should like to throw out for his consideration, and that of those who believe that Committees and Commissions are a panacea for all the ills of the body politic, this reflection—if you wish for speedy and effectual improvements, are you quite sure that inquiry by Royal Commission is the best way of obtaining it? When you have collected those men of sound commonsense—who, the experience of the last few days seems to show, are either very rare or very reluctant to place their services at the disposal of the country— they are apt to proceed with very great deliberation and care. The result is, a long time passes while the inquiry is proceeding, and you are very fortunate indeed if you get advice on which you can act at once without further delay and without further investigation. With regard to the noble Duke's suggestion that whatever we may determine to do should be fully submitted to the judgment of Parliament, I cannot conceive that any considerable changes either in Army organisation or administration should be made except under conditions which would leave to Parliament the fullest opportunity of criticism and review. I feel perfectly confident that whatever is done the noble Duke and other Members of the House who take an active interest in the affairs of the Army will not be denied the amplest opportunity of discussing and considering our proposals.


My Lords, I think we ought to be very grateful to the noble Duke for having brought this subject forward. I think we may also congratulate ourselves on the fact that the criticisms of the War Office and our generals in the field have been free from the party spirit which marked the time of the great Duke of Wellington and the Crimean war. No doubt that has been brought about, to a great extent, by modern facilities of communication. We now have the telegraph at work, and any criticism that is made here is immediately reported, not only to our generals, who may be affected, but also to our opponents in the field. As I have said, I think it is a matter of congratulation that this change has taken place. But at the same time it is imperative on the Government to look facts in the face and see, not only what defects exist in the organisation of the Army at home, but what militates against success in carrying on war in a foreign country. No doubt things have taken place which show the necessity for changes. We think that the opportunity must be seized to look into these matters in time of peace, in order to make such arrangements as will prevent their recurrence. We shall probably be obliged to keep a considerable force in South Africa for some time to come, but the training of the Army will surely take place in England rather than in South Africa. I can hardly think that the noble Duke means that the main instruction should be given to our Army in South Africa. The noble Duke seems to look for some Commission or inquiry independent of Her Majesty's Government. I venture to differ from him entirely in that. I think the Government of the day themselves must be responsible for a thorough, entire, and complete investigation into the management of the war, and if they do not deal with it completely and satisfactorily it will be for Parliament to take vigorous action if they consider the action of the Government is not sufficient. I hope no Commission will be appointed, and that the Government will investigate the whole matter themselves.


My Lords, I am very glad to find myself in agreement with the Secretary of State for War on two points. He said that reorganisation and reconstruction were two very large words, and with that description I agree. I think the noble Duke has done good service in bringing this matter forward, but I agree with the Secretary of State for War that the words reorganisation and reconstruction do not apply to the situation. Attention is required not to reconstruction and reorganisation, but to what is signified by another big word —namely, "administration." I believe that our Army system is perfectly right and sound if properly administered. Thus we found ourselves in South Africa without big movable guns of position, such as the Boers had; such, too, as we found, through the taking of the Tienstin arsenal, that the Chinese have in abundance. And had it not been for the naval guns, thirty-five of which were borrowed from the Navy and made available by Captain Scott—a service for which a C.B. appears to be a poor reward —we should, as President Kruger intended, have been driven into the sea. The irony of the situation is that we had in 1860 big movable guns of position, but the improvement in the field gun rendered these obsolete, and no step had from that time to this been taken to obtain a big movable gun of position, the relative up-to-date equivalent of the gun of 1860. Now, this is an administrative scandal. It is not, I repeat, a question of reorganisation or reconstruction, but of administration. There is someone responsible in the organisation of the War Office for this deficiency. That man ought to be found out and hanged.


My Lords, I wish to say a word on a subject which has not been dealt with—namely, the pressing need of attention being given to the question of remounts. This war has been essentially a cavalry war. But again and again throughout the campaign we have seen our cavalry helpless for want of horses. Porter's Brigade, which was sent to the assistance of Broadwood at Koornspruit, and which should have had 1,500 men, arrived with only 150. I heard of another brigade being ordered south from Pretoria which should have had 1,500 horses but which only had 300, and I am told that the horses which they did have were not capable in many cases of standing a three days march. I believe that many of the difficulties with regard to remounts might have been avoided if proper arrangements had been made in the past for the supply of horses as they were required. We should have done much better if, before the men went out, horses had been gathered in South Africa ready for them. Even in this country the whole system of the purchase of remounts has been one which would not commend itself to impartial inquirers and observers; £30 and £40 have been paid for horses which turned out useless in South Africa, quite breaking down under the severe test applied to them. I hope the question of remounts will be carefully inquired into, because in the immediate future, more than in the past, our success in the battlefield will depend on the efficiency of our cavalry.


My Lords, the noble Marquess the Secretary of State for War justly took upon his Department credit for the greatly improved condition of stores and equipment—


What I said was that our reserves of military stores had, in my opinion, never been as large as they should have been, and that we were already, as one of the lessons of the war, greatly increasing the amount of those reserves.


I apologise for not quoting the noble Marquess correctly, but we mean very much the same thing. I would point out that there are deficiencies still existing in regard to our troops at home. I am cognisant myself of one regiment of Volunteers, consisting of two battalions, which is going into camp within the next ten days. They would go in 1,500 strong, but are 350 rifles short. A recruit without a rifle is not much good, and I think this is a point which deserves the careful attention of the War Office.


My Lords, I should like to ask why faith has not been kept with the Militia regiments embodied in the spring in the matter of tents. At the present moment, instead of every officer having a tent to himself, as Volunteer officers have when they are sent into camp, two officers have to go into one tent. Exactly the same thing happens with regard to the men in their proportions, and the men have been crowded to a far greater extent than was anticipated. I should like to support the observations of Lord Tweedmouth. There cannot be the slightest doubt that over and over again troops in South Africa have been obliged to stand still because they had no horses for the cavalry, and when they had them, many of the horses could not do the work. I venture to say that in the recent marches in the Transvaal there have been more horses tethered behind wagons without saddles than there have been with men on their backs. I hope the question of remounts will be one to which the Government will give their earliest attention.


It does not, I am sorry to say, at all surprise me to find that there has been a short supply of tents, and that consequently the men have been crowded into a less number of tents than would otherwise have been the case. The difficulty of obtaining tents is enormous. The number of contractors who are able to supply tents of suitable quality is very limited indeed, and if my noble friend is able to put me in the way of discovering new sources of supply from which additional tents can be obtained he will earn my gratitude and that of the Director-General of Ordnance, who for many months past has been at his wits end over this question. With regard to remounts, I am quite ready to believe that the experience of this war may have some very valuable and instructive results; but I rather wish to demur to the suggestion made by the noble Lord on the front bench opposite (Lord Tweedmouth), and, I think, repeated by the noble Lord below the gangway (Lord Heneage), that because at particular moments our troops had been brought to a standstill for the want of horses, that was necessarily due to shortcomings in the supply of remounts. We all know that for many weeks Lord Roberts was dependent for all his supplies upon a single line of railway, and that it was only with the greatest difficulty, in the earlier days after his arrival at Bloemfontein, and again at Pretoria, that he was able to secure for his troops the food and forage which was essential for their existence. It was perfectly well known that at that moment he was unable to get up the horses which were actually in the Cape Colony, as they had either to travel on their legs or to wait until other more important stores and equipments had been conveyed to the front. With regard to the complaint of my noble friend below the gangway (the Marquess of Granby), I am afraid that it may be the case that the corps in which he is interested have had to wait for rifles; but the noble Marquess must be aware that the demands on the Ordnance Department have been enormous of late, and it is quite conceivable that from entirely unavoidable circumstances rifles may not have been supplied as punctually as would otherwise be the case.