HL Deb 18 July 1901 vol 97 cc798-807

My Lords, I beg to draw the attention of His Majesty's Government to the military training given to boys between fourteen and seventeen years of age in the British colonies of New South Wales, Victoria, Natal, Tasmania; to ask whether it is not the case that in some of these colonies encouragement and financial assistance are given by the local governments; whether, as reported at the time in the public press, in reviewing some cadets and schoolboys at Pietermaritzburg on his way from the Transvaal to this country, the present Commander-in-Chief, Field Marshal Earl Roberts, made the following remarks:— I hope the old country will follow the example of one of her children, and insist upon all boys joining cadet corps; and whether His Majesty's Government will take steps to follow the example of those colonies which give special financial and other encouragement to lads old enough to become efficient in the use of the rifle. I have asked these questions with a view to drawing the attention of His Majesty's Government, of this House, and, I hope, of the public, to the very important question of whether or not it is advisable that we should train our lads up to the age of eighteen years, so that if they choose, and only if they choose, they can be of service to their country in time of stress and need. I believe it is difficult to conceive in the present day a question of greater importance to the country than this one. If any serious struggle arose at this moment between the Empire on the one hand and any one or two large Powers on the other, we should find it absolutely impossible to depend entirely on the resources of the regular army. We should have to call for a universal—I will not say conscription, but assembly, of the free citizens of this country to assist the regular forces. What I wish particularly to remind your Lord ships of is this, that the state of things which exists to-day is quite different from that which existed when the present system originated. Matters have entirely altered, and the conditions of the British Empire to-day are absolutely different from what they were, let us say, when her late lamented Majesty came to the Throne. What was the condition of affairs now? Take Europe. At that time we were absolutely supreme at sea, and there was no Power which in any way approached us. What is the case at present? France is openly vieing to be on an equality with us; and all the countries are increasing their naval strength. We are, therefore, even at sea, in a very different position from what we were at the time the late Queen came to the throne.

Now let us take the position of Great Britain and America. At the time Queen Victoria came to the throne there was practically no population on the frontiers of the United States and Canada, but we now have on both sides of those frontiers an active, intelligent, and intensely jealous population. I hope the day will never come when the Anglo-Saxon race will be divided by conflict, but we must, as common-sense people, look to the future and avoid offering temptation even to our cousins of the United States. If we turn to the Atlantic and the Pacific, we have miles and miles of British frontiers which have to be defended. Let us look at Asia. In olden days Asia was almost an unknown country, which took three months or more to reach. Asia, so far as England was concerned, meant India, and India was isolated altogether from European influence by mountains and enormous tracts of country. There was no civilised or military Power which could endanger India, and all we had in those days to consider was the maintenance of internal order and the keeping up of an army which could protect us against the uncivilised tribes. I believe that at the time of the Indian Mutiny there were not more than 12,000 British soldiers in India. But what is the case to-day? India has been nearly doubled since the annexation of Burmah, the frontiers have been considerably increased, and we have to keep 70,000 men in India alone. Our Indian Empire is now almost conterminous with Russian and French territory. Let us next turn to Africa. In the days when her late Majesty ascended the Throne the Briton was practically supreme in Africa. There were a few French settlements, but they were very small. The French had not even claimed authority in Algeria, and if at the time of Her Majesty's accession some person had said that before the accession of another Sovereign to the throne of this country France would have surrounded our West Indian possessions, and would have extended her territory so that it would spread from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic and away to the East bordering upon a country under the protection of Great Britain, namely, Egypt, he would have been laughed at. In those days Germany had no possessions in Africa; now she has large possessions there. Italy had no possessions in Africa; now she has. And we have France with thousands of miles of frontier conterminous with our own. All the nations of the world, you may say, have come in and are dividing Africa with us, and consequently we have enormous land frontiers to protect. We have land frontiers in America, in Asia, in Africa, and yet we go on under the impression that we are a tight little island with nothing to think of except the defence of these shores.

Great Britain at this moment has the largest land frontier of any Power, and our territories, we must remember, are conterminous with those of the greatest military nations in the world—nations that have conscription and millions of warriors whom they can call to their aid at any moment. I think I have shown that the conditions of Imperial defence are absolutely different from what they were when the late Queen came to the throne, and yet we are going on the same old principle and neglecting our military forces. In the colonies, however, a very much wiser view of this question has been taken. There is at this moment an Act passing through the Parliament of the Australian Commonwealth which says that it is the duty of every Australian to be prepared to be called upon at any moment, if need arises, to serve his country. They do not say he should be conscripted or go into the regular army—they trust to voluntary service for the regular army—but they say every man ought to be compelled to defend his country. I hope the day is not far distant when a similar policy will be carried out by His Majesty's Government. But in the meantime we desire that the young lads of the country should be trained, I will not say in a military fashion, but trained so that they can without unnecessary loss of time be placed in the ranks of their country's defenders in case of need. It is many years since I was in the diplomatic service, but I have kept in close touch with foreigners, spending a couple of months every year out of England, and I am convinced that our attitude on the military question has been the cause of a great deal of our trouble, and that owing to that action foreign countries imagine that we have no force behind us except the Navy, and that if they press us we must give way. I believe that if it had been known to ex-President Kruger that we had, behind the regular troops, a nation trained in their youth to the use of the rifle, there never would have been any Boer war, and the enormous amount of money which is being spent on South Africa would have been saved. It is because we always make the foreigners believe that we have no force behind us that they venture to attack us. I was unable to speak on the Military Instruction Bill the other day, and many of my noble friends had no opportunity of speaking on the subject. I believe that on that day our proceedings were irregular from beginning to end, and that all of us, from the Archbishop of Canterbury to the noble Marquess who leads the Government, were out of order.




Monday of last week, the day on which the Military Instruction Bill was before the House. In this matter the colonies have taken the lead. In Victoria drill has been obligatory for many years in State schools. Until the financial crisis the local government gave 10s. a year for every efficient cadet, and from £3 to £10 for every efficient corps. Masters of schools had to qualify as drill instructors, and drill was given to the lads in school hours. The Government provided them with rifles, bayonets, ranges, etc. In Natal they have gone still further. Every boy in the State schools has to drill from the age of six to ten years, at ten years of age he must enrol himself as a cadet, and at fourteen he must proceed to the butts. Therefore since 1893 conscription has been carried out within the British Empire. It has been a very sensible conscription, and one which has not pressed too hard on the population. In Victoria they have had some 6,000 cadets, and in Natal 26,000. Of the 2,445 officers who left Victoria for South Africa, two-thirds passed through the cadet corps. I think the noble and gallant Earl the Commander-in-Chief and all who took part in the war will acknowledge that the fact of these lads having been trained in their youth was of enormous assistance to our Army in Natal at the time when we only had a few thousand men there, and when it was of the greatest importance to hold our heads against the Boers till reinforcements arrived. I know it has been said, "This is all very fine, but we cannot spend money upon lads. We must have trained soldiers." Surely, it is wise to look ahead and remember that in a few years these lads will be trained soldiers. Lord Roberts has himself said that after three years a trained lad will be as efficient a soldier as a Reservist who has left the Army and gone back to his work. It has been said, also, that these cadet battalions would not furnish lads for the Army. The idea is not that they should furnish any large percentage to the Army, but that they should be a Reserve. As a matter of fact, however, cadet battalions do supply recruits for the Army very largely. In the last ten years the 1st Cadet Battalion of the King's Royal Rifles has passed 500 boys to the Army, or 10 per cent. per annum, and I know another battalion which has supplied 25 per cent. to the Army, Navy, and the Militia, and 25 per cent. to the Volunteers. I hope that during the autumn His Majesty's Government will take the whole subject into their serious consideration with a view to doing something next session to enable patriotic lads to fit themselves for the defence of the country.


My Lords, the noble Earl has explained what is done in our colonies. I should like to say a few words on the training of boys in Switzerland, as I think the Swiss system could be easily adapted to this country. The Swiss boy begins training at eight years of age. He commences in school to be instructed in the rudiments of drill, and between ten and fifteen years of age he must attend a course of gymnastic instruction. On reaching the age of sixteen all compulsory instruction ceases for a period of four years, which enables him to learn his trade or whatever business he proposes to enter; but during that time he is encouraged to join voluntary classes which practice rifle shooting and military exercises. When he is twenty years of age he presents himself for a recruit's course. The infantryman has to undergo forty-five days drill, the artilleryman and the engineer fifty-five, and the cavalryman eighty. I mention these figures to show your Lordships how well the lads must have been trained for these few days training to be sufficient. Our militiaman goes up for forty-eight days military drill; and when he comes down he knows about as much as a Swiss boy when he commences. Something has been said about conscription, but I feel sure it will never be agreed to as a permanent measure. The idea and character of the Saxon are opposed to it. During the war in America the North had conscription for a time, but as soon as the war ended conscription ceased. If Great Britain were in difficulties I believe she would agree to conscription for a time, but only for a time. Therefore we must never depend upon it. If the youth of the country were to drill at school, and were taught the elements of soldiering, what a strong position we should be in! Suppose a panic occurred, instead of having to learn to march and shoot, these drilled men—for they cannot always remain boys—could fall in, understanding discipline, drill, and musketry.

It has been frequently said that boys learn very little drill and musketry at school. That is not the conclusion I have come to. The school and cadet corps which I have seen drill well, are very steady, and thoroughly versed in discipline. The inspecting officer would see that their military training was up to the standard laid down. Only a few weeks ago it was my pleasure to see the cadet battalion of the Grocers' Company's school. The boys had no uniform, but they drilled very well, and did some difficult battalion movements without loss of distance in a manner which would have done credit to any well-trained body of men. They also did manual exercises and physical drill as a battalion with decided credit to their colonel, to themselves, and to their instructors. Look at this training from another point of view. See the good it does. Look at the poor boys with rounded backs, sloping shoulders, narrow, sunken chests, and almost fleshless limbs who abound in our large towns. We do a great deal to educate these sickly boys, but what is the use of book work if they have not the strength to put what they have learned to any use? First make the boy strong and healthy by physical training, and then he will be able to learn his lessons and put them to some practical use. I cannot understand why, when all our colonies are doing so much to improve the physique of their youth and protect their country, the Government of this realm should do nothing but throw cold water upon the movement by naming fabulous sums as the cost of drilling a few thousand boys, and placing difficulties in the way of an easy and inexpensive scheme when it is suggested. You may depend upon it that to do anything well we must begin young, and military raining is no exception to the rule.


My Lords, with regard to the noble Earl's first question, as to the military training given to boys in the British colonies, I have not, I am afraid, been able to find out anything very definite, but I will give your Lordships such information as I have been able to gather. The noble Lord was quite correct in saying that in Natal military training is compulsory on all boys over ten years of age attending the Government schools. They are arranged in cadet corps, under the command of the Volunteer commandant. They have been provided with uniforms, in some cases by school entertainments, and in others from the Government allowance. The number of drills attended is not known, but the corps usually attend a general encampment, lasting about four days. From this year's estimates it appears that £2,695 was spent upon the cadet corps in the year 1899–1900; £3,500 was down as the estimate for 1900–1; and £2,000 is put down for 1901–2. From the Defence Report for 1899 it appears that there were 1,964 cadets, of whom 995 attended under arms at the annual general encampment from 24th June to 30th June. With regard to New South Wales, the cadets are formed into two different classes—senior and junior. Senior cadets' corps are affiliated to the partially-paid units, and are under the Military Department. Presumably they undergo the same drills, namely, twenty-five half days and a course of musketry. Uniform is found by the Government. Junior cadets, actually attending school, are under the control of the Minister of Education. For the year ended June, 1900, £4,310 was estimated to be expended under the sub-head "Cadet Branch" of the head "Public Instruction." This £4,310 included amounts of £1,000 for the purchase of arms and ammunition, £300 for the pay of military instructors attending country schools, £350 to complete the equipment of school cadets, £150 for rifle practice, musketry instruction, etc., and £40 for school drum and fife bands.

In Tasmania the cadet corps, which is 300 strong, undergoes twenty-four evening drills per annum, and is under the commandant of the local forces. In 1898—which seems to be the latest year of which particulars can be found—£196 odd was spent on cadets' corps at Hobart and Launceston. With regard to Victoria, the senior cadet corps, formed of youths between fifteen and twenty years of age, is about 530 strong. It is under the commandant of the local forces. It is practically a Volunteer battalion, and as such the members must attend twelve daylight drills and twelve night drills. The members are supplied with clothing, and a capitation allowance is granted for each efficient member. There are several junior cadet corps, with a total strength of 3,800. These do not appear to be under the local commandant, and consequently are not likely to receive any allowance beyond the use of arms and equipment. This is all the information I have on the subject. The remarks quoted are correctly attributed to the Commander-in-Chief. The difference in position between the colonies and this country is considerable. In the United Kingdom there is a large force of trained and partly-trained men in the Army, Militia, Yeomanry, and Volunteers, and besides these there are able-bodied men to the number of hundreds of thousands who at some time have served in one of these forces. In the colonies, with the exception of Canada, where there has been a Militia for many years, there are only small armed forces recently established, and no reserve of trained men, and therefore a system for training cadets is the readiest way to create a reserve. The position of Natal is peculiar. There is a small white population in the midst of a large coloured population, and on the frontier hostile tribes or a hostile nation of European blood, and so it is that in Natal military training is compulsory on all boys over ten attending Government schools. The system in Switzerland is part of the compulsory service, and is adopted so that the service should press as lightly as possible upon the population by commencing training in youth. The views of the Government I have recently expressed. The figures I gave on a former occasion have been questioned, but there is no doubt that the expense of carrying out such a scheme would be considerable, and for boys who when they became men would not be liable for military service. I cannot follow the argument that because military expenditure is large this opportunity should be taken to extend it still further. The value of military training for boys I fully appreciate, but the question is largely a financial one, and on the part of the Government I can make no promise in the direction desired.

House adjourned at a quarter before Seven of the clock, till tomorrow, half-past Ten of the clock.