HL Deb 19 July 1900 vol 86 cc435-48

My Lords, I think I shall best introduce the subject which I desire to bring very briefly under your notice with a few figures. The armed forces of Australia include for service afloat 350 permanent men, 1,250 reservists, and 1,350 naval volunteers. For the land service the numbers are 1,250 regulars, 8,000 militia, 13,000 volunteers, and 12,000 cadets, trained as the cadets are trained in the public schools of this country. When we compare these figures with the citizen army of the Swiss Re-public, it will be clear that hitherto preparations for defence, with the exception, perhaps, of harbour defence, have not been regarded as a matter of urgency in Australia. There was no formidable enemy near at hand, and full reliance was placed upon the Imperial navy. Today we stand in a different position. Patriotic feeling in the colonies has been keenly stirred. The war in South Africa has given occasion to our Australian fellow subjects to show how ready they are to share our responsibilities, and how great are the resources at their command. It seems a fitting opportunity to consider how best the mother country and the colonies may co-operate in the preparation of forces for the common defence. My Lords, I will deal first with the mounted infantry. The Australian colonies undoubtedly possess most exceptional resources for raising a force of that description. Every governor who serves in Australia is expected to travel widely over the country. Wherever he goes he is attended by a strong escort of mounted infantry, and it is impossible not to admire the endurance of men and horses under a fiery sun, and the skilful and bold horsemanship with which the escort will ride, fours abreast, over the most formidable timber fences. It was a natural reflection that here were men specially fitted for such a service as our forces have been called upon to render in South Africa. Privately I made inquiries, addressing myself to the Imperial and colonial officers in all the colonies, and I was assured that at least 5,000 men could be raised upon the same footing as our yeomanry at home, and at a comparatively small expense. It was much to be regretted that on a late occasion when there was a most patriotic desire to send contingents to South Africa, those 5,000 men were not ready at hand. In Victoria we had several hundreds of mounted infantry upon the musterrolls, but they were recruited from a class which could not be expected to volunteer in large numbers for foreign service. The majority were small farmers, to whom it would have spelt ruin to leave their farms at the commencement of the harvest. The true men of the bush were not numerously represented in the first contingent which we despatched. They came in later when special efforts were made and Imperial subscriptions had been contributed, and the resources were available for preparing a corps of bushmen. A force ready to serve whenever required must consist of the younger men. It should be raised rather from the wage- earning than from the wage-paying class. The training should be more complete, especially for the officers, than has hitherto been attempted in Australia. To a certain extent the force must be a paid force. Our mounted infantry in Victoria were not a paid force. I strongly urge that Her Majesty's Government should concert measures with the Government of the Commonwealth of Australia with a view to raising an Imperial Yeomanry in Australia of at least 5,000 men, under engagement to serve in any part of the Empire, the cost to be met by joint contributions from the Imperial Exchequer and from colonial funds. If the principle be accepted, a scheme could be best worked out on the spot by the commandants and the ministers of defence. It must take time to gather information, time to mature a plan, time to confer with the Colonial Government on the political considerations involved. The work I venture to say should be taken in hand without delay, in preparation for practical action as soon as the Federal Government of Australia has been set on foot. My Lords, I pass from the enrolment of a force of mounted infantry to the general efficiency of the colonial military forces. In deference to political considerations, the Imperial forces have been wholly withdrawn from the colonies. Their removal has left the colonies without infantry or cavalry up to the standard of smartness which can only be obtained by constant drill. In the altered circumstances in which we stand to-day the question of raising and maintaining a small Imperial force of infantry and cavalry in Australia would seem worthy of consideration. It will not be necessary that the forces should be kept at the full strength in the time of peace. A single squadron of cavalry and a few companies of infantry at the military headquarters in the several States would be of the greatest value for the instruction of large bodies of militia and volunteers assembled for reviews and for camps of exercise. They are needed to stiffen the Militia and Volunteers, which have not the advantage of constant drill. There is only one further suggestion which I should like to offer bearing upon efficiency. It is borrowed from a recent work by an eminent military writer, Sir George Clarice. I refer to the advantage of occasional, perhaps annual, inspections of the colonial forces by an Imperial officer of high standing. If it were possible that his Royal Highness the Duke of Connaught should pay a visit of inspection to Australia it would give great encouragement to loyal feeling, and I feel sure would be an immense advantage to the army. I may mention that under a recent regulation the naval forces of Victoria are annually inspected by the Commander-in-Chief on the Station, and that inspection has proved of the greatest advantage. My Lords, I pass from the military to the naval forces. Australia will not compare with the sister colony of Canada in the numbers of its seafaring population, but there are in Australia ample resources for the creation of a colonial naval reserve. Official inquiries have lately been made and it has been ascertained that we have, in the coasting trade and fisheries of Australia, more than 30,000 men. The men earn high wages, and those wages are well earned. The seamen in the coasting trade and fisheries of Australia are men of superior qualifications both in seamanship and in general intelligence and conduct. Having for many years taken the deepest interest in the question of a Colonial Naval Reserve, it was to me an immense satisfaction when I came home two years ago on leave, to hear from Mr. Goschen that the Admiralty had at last decided to take steps to raise a Colonial Naval Reserve. The announcement was followed by an official communication from the Commander-in-Chief on the Australian station. The terms offered by the Admiralty were identical with those established for the Naval Reserve at home, and without modifications they were not acceptable to the seafaring class in Australia. I may refer more particularly to the regulation requiring six months service on a man-of-war upon a low scale of wages. I earnestly hope that the Admiralty will not allow this matter to drop, and I would urge that instructions should be given to the Commander-in-Chief, directing him, in consultation with the local officers, to revise the regulations which are established for our Naval Reserve at home, so as to make them suitable to Colonial conditions. In this connection, I would like to say a few words with reference to the report made by the naval advisors of the Australian colonies with reference to this question of a Colonial Naval Reserve. That report has boon criticised as a proposal to establish a merely local force. I believe that report to have been misunderstood. The true feeling in the colonies must be gauged by recent events. When we stood in a recent crisis face to face with the sudden emergency in China, no objection was urged to the removal of certain vessels from the Australian squadron to China. The colonies offered a ship, which has been accepted; they offered the services of their naval brigades, which have also been accepted. What has happened lately I feel sure would happen again. I feel certain that all the available naval forces of the Australian colonies will at all times be available for Imperial defence. My Lords, I have only one other observation to make. The proposal that payment should be made from Imperial funds for the maintenance of forces in Australia may be challenged in certain quarters, but the principle of paying men from Imperial funds in Australia was accepted when the Admiralty consented to the enrolment of a Naval Reserve. If a retainer is paid to the seamen, why not to the mounted infantry? In conclusion, it seems to me clear that recent events have made it evident that steps must be taken to strengthen our military and our naval resources. If the work is to be done without imposing intolerable burdens, it must be by means of reserve forces, and I hope I have shown to the satisfaction of your Lordships that proposals for raising reserves in Australia should be included in the comprehensive scheme for which we look to the Government in the next session of Parliament.

*VISCOUNT FRANKFORT, in rising to ask the Secretary of State for War whether his attention had been drawn to a letter in The Times of July 12th "on Colonial Reserves," and whether he approved of the suggestion therein made by Major General French, commanding the New South Wales military forces; and whether he proposed to consult the Secretary of State for the Colonies in regard to the advisability of taking steps to obtain the insertion in the Federal Defence Act for all Australia, shortly to be brought forward, the necessary powers for the formation of such war reserve, said: My Lords, I have listened with great attention to the noble Lord who has just sat down. The question I have put on the Paper is rather with regard to war reserve than with regard to forces to be raised in the colony, but I think we must all agree that the defence of the Empire is a most important subject. A few days ago the Australian Commonwealth Bill received the Royal Assent, and there is no doubt that the people of Australia are willing to take their share in the defence of the Empire. I am anxious that no time should be lost in taking steps to obtain the insertion in the Federal Defence Act for all Australia of the necessary powers for the formation of a war reserve. The writer of the letter which appeared in The Times of the 12th of August is by no means an amateur. He has served some 12 years in Canada and a like number of years in Australia. He was more or less responsible on the military side for the Military Lands Act of 1884; at the present moment he is commanding the New South Wales Military forces. He has come to the conclusion that a scheme is feasible which would be mutually advantageous to England and the Colonies and of benefit to the Empire in which they live, and to use his own words "for which we ought to do our utmost." With regard to Canada, the suggestion Major General French makes is this. He suggests that the 75,000 fishermen and sailors on the Atlantic seaboard might make a very large and a very useful war reserve for our fleets. With regard to Australia the rate of wages current in Australia is so high that it is impossible to have a very large force for peace duties. But on the other hand any number of men will come forward in time of war at a fair rate of pay. Now what is proposed is to form a reserve of, say, 10,000 men with a retaining fee of £8 per man per annum for efficient privates of infantry, £12 per man per annum for troopers of mounted corps who have horses and saddlery effective for service, and other ranks in proportion. The approximate cost of this force at, say, £10 per head would be about £100,000. The requirements of efficiency would involve an annual course of training and musketry. This reserve force should be formed mainly from the efficient officers and men who have passed through the ranks of the defence forces, and who agree to serve within or without Australia in war time. The 6,000 men that are now out in South Africa would make a capital start for this reserve. As I have said, the notion is that the reserve pay is to be paid by the Imperial Govern- merit as a retaining fee. I am quoting word for word from General French's letter. He knows well the feeling of the Colonies, and I think this paragraph is most important as regards pay for extra services. Your Lordships know that the Colonial Government are paying the difference between the imperial rate of pay and the rate of pay to their own men in South Africa. Major-General French goes on to say, "They might well do so in the future in view of the substantial advantage of having 10,000 trained reserves kept up in Australia in peace time at no expense to them." Thus, My Lords, by this scheme the imperial Government would have 10,000 men, and when they are called up for service in any future war they would only have to pay them the imperial rates of pay. I think steps should be taken by the Government to form a reserve in Australia something on these lines, and steps should be taken soon. As soon as the war in South Africa will allow it these Australian soldiers will go back to their country, they will be disbanded, they will disperse all over the country, and it will be most difficult to collect them again to form this reserve which I am suggesting. With these observations I beg to ask the noble Marquess the question standing on the Paper in my name.


My Lords, with the general principle laid down by the two noble lords, who have addressed your Lordships I desire to express my entire concurrence and sympathy. The war which is now going on in South Africa will be ever memorable as that in which for the first time the troops of this country and those of our great colonies have fought side by side, and I do not think we can overrate the deep impression which has been produced, not only upon the people of the United Kingdom, not only upon the people of the British Empire, but upon all parts of the world, by the exhibition of colonial patriotism and loyalty, which we have lately witnessed. Throughout these difficult and arduous operations, during the initial stages when success seemed to come to us with slow and halting steps, and later, when our progress has been more rapid and satisfactory, the colonial troops have borne a distinguished and honourable share in the hardships and in the dangers of the war. My Lords, as I have mentioned this, I am impelled to refer to the telegram which we all of us have read from Lord Roberts two days ago in which he mentions how in a recent hard-fought action beyond Pretoria, two young Canadian officers, when leading their men in a counter attack on the enemy's flank at a critical juncture of an important engagement lost their lives, one of them being the only son of the Canadian Minister of Militia and Defence, a young officer whom Lord Roberts describes as having twice before been brought to his notice in despatches for gallant and intrepid conduct. When we think who was the writer of that telegram, and with what feelings he must have written it, I think we may say that no more touching tribute could have been paid to the memory of these brave young representatives of our Colonial forces. With regard to the Australian contingents, I do not think the noble lord who spoke first at all overrated the value of the services which they have rendered. I think there are between 8,000 and 9,000 of them at this moment fighting for us in South Africa, and they have exhibited those qualities, not only of personal courage, but of great endurance, fine horsemanship, and resource and readiness which his experience of the Australian Colonies led him to attribute to them. I think the noble lord is perfectly right when he describes Australia as pre-eminently a country of mounted infantry. You have there men of the right stamp, and you have abundance of horses of the right stamp. There may be a certain difficulty in obtaining horses of the type that we require for cavalry and artillery, but the mounted infantry horses can be obtained in almost infinite numbers. I am sure we all of us feel that this co-operation of the colonial forces has not been the result of any passing mood on their part; it is not a mere momentary effervescence of loyalty, it is the result of a deep-seated patriotism and an abiding desire to bear with us a part in the burden of Empire. I am sure one and all of us would wish and hope that if this country should find itself again circumstanced as it has been of late we should find the colonies ready to take their place by our side. And if it would be possible, as the noble lord behind me desired, for us to come to some understanding with the colonies by which that co-operation might be rendered easier both for them and for us, I for one should greatly rejoice at it. But I venture to suggest that the matter is one in which we can scarcely proceed with too much caution. I cannot help thinking that increased assistance in numbers and increased efficiency, might be too dearly bought if they were paid for by any loss of that wonderful spontaneity which has characterised the co-operation of the colonies on this occasion, I could not help being struck by the concluding sentence of the letter of General French, which the noble and gallant Lord quoted, in which he says:— "Now is the time to act. If we wait till the cold fit comes on progress may be made impossible." I cannot help saying that this sentence suggested to my mind an inference rather different from that which the writer probably intended to suggest. I should be sorry if we were at this moment to take advantage of the manner in which the colonies have come forward during the last nine or ten months in order to hurry them into any arrangement which upon mature Deflection afterwards some might think irksome or inconvenient. I confess I am a little reminded of the analogy of the Volunteer Bill, which I lately passed through your Lordships' House and which was severely criticised by noble Lords opposite, who said we were endeavouring to persuade the Volunteers in a moment of popular excitement to assume permanently a liability which the force as a whole might afterwards object to. That provision met with an unfortunate fate in another place. But I think there is an object lesson to be drawn from that Bill, and I would say that if it is necessary to proceed with caution when we are dealing with our own forces in this country, still more must we be cautious when we are dealing with the forces of the colonies. I entirely agree with what the noble lord on the back bench said, that in a case like this the scheme must be worked out on the spot. There is no doubt about that. I also agree with him that it should be worked out under the supervision of that Federal Government which is about to come into existence under such auspicious circumstances. All I can say is that we are perfectly ready to discuss a scheme, but in our opinion it is desirable that the initiative should come from the colonies, and that we will certainly give them all the advice, all the assistance, and all the expert cooperation that they can possibly desire from us. The discussion of the details of such a scheme would at the present moment, I cannot help thinking, be a little premature. The two noble Lords seem to be agreed upon this, that they would like to see raised in the colonies a special body of troops, receiving special training, paid partly by us and partly out of colonial funds, and liable in certain circumstances for active service beyond the limits of the colony to which they belong. The noble Lord opposite spoke, I think, of a force of 5,000 Yeomanry. He did not mention the particular financial arrangements which he would recommend. The noble Lord behind me regarded with favour the scheme of General French, who proposes that we should have a force of 10,000 men in Australia, receiving, in time of peace, a retaining fee of from £8 to £12, to be paid by us, and who would be liable for active service in case of Imperial emergency. I must ask the noble lord to receive with a certain amount of caution General French's estimate of the relative cost of these proposals, because, I see that according to his calculation, while 10,000 British cavalry would cost this country £1,000,000 a year, 10,000 Australian mounted infantry would cost £100,000 a year. To begin with, I do not accept a calculation based upon a charge of £100 per head for each British cavalry soldier; and then, of course, it is impossible to make a fair comparison between the cost of troops who are only available for active service at rare intervals and on special occasions and the cost of troops whose liability is continuous and whom you can always make use of whether the emergency be great or little. There are obviously a great number of points which it would be necessary to consider with the greatest care before any scheme of this kind could really be adopted. I can only mention one or two of them. In the first place, I presume that if the British taxpayer is to be called upon to pay for these colonial reserves he will require to be satisfied as to the efficiency of the troops for whom he pays. Then would arise the question of the tests of efficiency which would have to be applied. Who would lay down those tests? Who would from time to time inspect these troops? What facilities would they have for training at intervals?—these are all points which would require to be examined. Then there is the most important question as to the extent of the liability which these troops would be expected to assume. I think it was the noble Lord behind me who quoted General French's letter and proposed that these troops should be liable to be called upon within or without Australia in war time. Who is to decide whether the war is one of such importance as to justify a call upon the colonies? We know that in this country we cannot call out our Reserves, we cannot embody our Militia, we cannot call up the Volunteers without a proclamation of emergency. In the Case of the colonies who would issue the proclamation of the emergency? Would it be the Parliament at home or the Parliament in the colonies? It would be very regrettable if it should ever happen that while in the opinion of one Parliament it appeared that there was emergency, it appeared in the opinion of the other Parliament that the emergency was not sufficient, Those are all points that would have to be looked in the face and, as the noble lord said, worked out on the spot before we could arrive at an understanding. There is another point. What would be the place of these colonial troops in the military system of their own colonies? The noble Lord knows very well that for many years past it has been our policy to concentrate our Imperial troops at home, in India, and in a few of the great garrisons We have withdrawn our troops from the outlying colonies, and our policy has been to induce the colonies, so far as possible, to make arrangements for their own defence. Now, would the Empire really gain unless those colonial reserves, which the noble Lord wishes to form, were additional to the colonial forces required for the defence of the colony itself? If the Imperial Reserves were only a part of the colonial Militia, I do not think it would be very satisfactory if, at a time of emergency, we found ourselves calling away from the Colonies the very élite of their force. That would be what is called "picking the eyes" out of their little army. That, again, is a point that will have to be considered. Then the noble Lord made another suggestion. He said, "Why should we not raise in the colonies an Imperial corps of cavalry or infantry which would form part of the British Army, but which would be raised and maintained in the colonies?" The noble Lord knows the colonies a great deal better than I do, but I confess that I should have thought that an almost insuperable obstacle in the way of the adoption of such a, proposal is the very high rate of wages which obtains in the colonies. General French tells us in his letter that the minimum rate of wages paid by Government contractors is 7s. a day. I am afraid that that is a rate which, when compared with the wages the British Army receives, becomes almost prohibitive. When the noble Lord, not long ago, was in communication with the War Office upon this subject calculations were made, and I believe the result was to show that a force of 5,000 men paid at the rate of 6s. a day would cost no less than £400,000 more than a similar force paid at Imperial rates; and at the rate of 7s. a day it would cost nearly half a million a year more. That is rather a formidable obstacle, I think, to the proposal that we should raise a part of the Imperial Army within the colonies.


I said only a small force for the purposes of instruction.


No doubt the smaller the force the less the expense would be. One reason the noble Lord adduces in favour of his pro posal—and I think it a very sound reason indeed—is that since we have withdrawn British troops from the colonies there has necessarily no longer been in the colonies that high standard of smartness and efficiency provided by the well-trained and permanently trained forces forming part of the Imperial Army. I confess I think it is extremely desirable that that standard should, if possible, be afforded, and an attempt has been made to arrive at that by a system of interchanging units between the colonial and the Imperial forces. I mean that a colonial corps should for a time take its place in a British garrison and a British force should take its place for a time in a colonial station. That is a matter that was discussed by the present Secretary of State for the Colonies at a conference with the Colonial Premiers in the year 1897. The idea was, on the whole, favourably received, and the War Office entirely approved of it. New South Wales, I believe, accepted the proposal, and was prepared to exchange a company of its garrison artillery with a company of Imperial Garrison Artillery. I believe New Zealand made an offer, and in Canada there have been similar interchanges between the troops belonging to the garrison of Halifax and the troops belonging to the Canadian Militia. The matter was progressing far from unfavourably when unfortunately the war came, and put an end to the negotiations which were going on. With regard to Naval Reserve, I can say little of my own knowledge, but I am authorised to say that, in principle, the First Lord of the Admiralty entirely accepts the idea of a colonial Naval Reserve, but he thinks, as, no doubt, does the noble Lord opposite, that it would be more prudent to wait for the accomplishment of Federation before attempting to advance the matter any further. My Lords, I can only add to what I have said that, agreeebly to the suggestion of the noble Lord behind me, I shall make it my business, in consultation with the Secretary for the Colonies, to advance the policy the noble Lord has advocated as much as we can possibly advance it. I can assure you no one hopes more anxiously and keenly than I do that in years to come we may find the soldiers of the great colonies fighting side by side with our own Imperial troops in the same patriotic and loyal spirit which they have exhibited during the war now in progress.


I hope your Lordships will bear with me for one single moment while I express the pleasure with which we on this side of the House have heard the eloquent words of the Secretary of State for War, when he spoke of the patriotism of the Colonies, in answer to Lord Brassey, whom we are glad to see present after five years service rendered with so much pride to himself and so much advantage to the great colony of Victoria. With regard to what Lord Brassey has said as to colonial mounted infantry, perhaps I may be permitted to say that fifteen years ago when I was in Australia I was much struck with the possibilities of mounted infantry in those colonies, and it was with peculiar pleasure that I read that the New South Wales Lancers were the first of the colonial contingents to arrive at the Cape, the first to be sent to the front, and the first to come under fire. Lord Brassey spoke of the deep-seated patriotism that exists in the colonies. I hardly think that the colonists themselves know how deep-seated that patriotism is. It seems to me to be like one of those great Australian underground rivers that disappear in the bowels of the earth and then come up again, and appear and disappear again, and then when they are tapped they rise in a huge geyser, finally rushing down in a mighty torrent to the ocean. I think we can always rely on having the colonies on our side, but it must be on one condition. This country must recognise that there must be perfect equality between the soldiers of our great self-governing colonies and the English, Scotch, Welsh, and Irish troops. The noble Marquess said that we must move with great caution. Naturally, great caution is necessary, but I would venture very respectfully to suggest to him that we ought to insist that there shall be perfect equality between the Imperial and colonial forces, and that all honours and rewards shall be shared and dealt out equally to both branches of Her Majesty's servants in proportion to the strength of the men turned out.