HL Deb 28 April 1902 vol 107 cc5-14

My Lords, I have to ask the indulgence of the House while I endeavour to adduce reasons for the Motion which stands in my name on the Paper, and which results from the answer I received to two Questions in reference to National Defence which I put to the First Lord of the Admiralty immediately before the Easter recess. † It would appear to the ordinary unofficial mind that those Questions required the simple answer "Yea" or "Nay." But they did not appear in that light to the mind of the First Lord of the Admiralty. The Questions which I asked the noble Earl were—Whether in the case of this country being at war with one or more European Powers, he could rely absolutely upon the Navy alone for protection against invasion; and, further, whether by relying upon the Navy for security against invasion, its general power and its effectiveness, the world over, would not be pro tanto lessened by the necessity of retaining in our home waters a sufficient naval force for the protection of the United Kingdom. Instead of giving me the answer I expected—a simple "Yea" or "Nay"—the First Lord of the Admiralty replied to me as follows— With very great respect to my noble friend who has asked me these Questions, I hope he will allow me to say that I do not clearly see what public service is going to be gained by putting these conundrums. Nor do I consider it my duty to supply formulas to answer questions which contain material for debate for all the debating societies in London for years to come. That answer appeared to me to be somewhat strained and uncalled for. I turn to a dictionary and find that the †See (4) Debates, civ., 689. meaning of the word "conundrum," is "a jest." I can assure the House that nothing was or is farther from my purpose than to jest on such a subject as that of national safety. I asked the Questions in all seriousness, and I regret very much that the noble Earl did not answer them in the same fashion. Do the Government believe, or do they not believe, that the Navy alone is sufficient for home defence! Surely they could find an answer "Yea" or "Nay" to that question. The First Lord of the Admiralty seems to have "conundrum" on the brain, for he recently made a speech at Sheffield in which the word occurred twice. The noble Earl there said— Have the people of this country the knowledge they ought to have of the views of the naval and military experts as contrasted with the views of the Parliamentary chief? That was a very easy conundrum to state, and a very difficult conundrum to answer. The noble Earl displayed great care in the answer which he gave to my Questions on the last occasion, for it was written down and handed to the gentleman who reports our debates in this House. The answer was given, if I remember rightly, after a discussion on the subject of Wei-Hai-Wei, in the course of which he had clearly shown that there was no continuity of action on the part of the Admiralty, and that the policy which Viscount Goschen and his naval advisers thought best to adopt with regard to Wei-Hai-Wei had been entirely upset by the present Board of Admiralty. I can quite understand, therefore, the caution which the noble Earl displayed in his answer to me the other evening; especially as I observed the late first Lord sitting immediately behind him on the watch.

There is no question so vital as that of the safety of the Empire, and I contend that we have a right to know what the views of the Government are upon it. It is in the hope of eliciting an answer that I have placed my questions in the form of a Resolution, which I intend to divide the House upon. I should have thought that the Government would support such a Resolution, but I have been informed since I came down to the House that they have issued a Whip against it. I regard that as a most unreasonable thing for them to do. Why cannot they give me a definite answer? And why am I so persistent and insistent in this matter? I have brought it forward because there has arisen in this country a school, of which Sir John Colomb is at the head, which holds that we can trust to the Navy alone for security against invasion. In an address at the Royal United Service Institution on "The Garrisoning of our Coaling-Stations," Sir John Colomb thus stated exactly what his view was. He said— I feel more concerned, therefore, in arrangements to enable our Admirals to deal quickly and effectively in their several stations with the ships of the enemy, wherever found, than in Army Corps to sit down and wait behind the hedges of Sussex, or in the hop gardens of Kent on the 'off'-chance' of being of some use when the British economic position Vas in ruins because our naval means had been found insufficient. Those then who hold that view—the Colombines—seem to ridicule the idea that we need any land forces at all, and maintain that we can trust to the Navy alone for security against invasion. On the other hand, I contend that the whole teaching of history is that that is a wholly novel and dangerous policy.

I will not take your Lordships back to the time of the Vikings, of the Romans, or of the Norman Conquest. I have no doubt there were Selbornes in those days, and that they did their best with the means at their disposal but they failed, and England was conquered. It is sufficient for me to take the House back in the history of our country to the time of Queen Elizabeth and the Spanish Armada. England happily had then some of the best sailors she ever had, and the Armada was broken up by the British fleet under Lord Howard and Admiral Blake, and defeated. But did Queen Elizabeth and her advisers trust solely to the fleet for the safety of the kingdom? No. We are told that the land defensive preparations of England at that time were, such that, in a pamphlet, found some thirty years ago at Althorpe, Lord Spencer's, it is stated that the whole nation was armed and organised, and that the organisation was such that even the number of horse shoes and nails each company was to carry is there laid down. I pass to a later period—to the Wars of Napoleon in the first years of the late century. At that time elaborate preparations were made for the invasion of this county upwards of 2,000 vessels of varied kind were collected at Boulogne to convey the 150,000 men there assembled. But the Englishmen of those days organised strong detensive forces on land in the event of failure of the Navy. Conscription was in force; you had the King and Prince of Wales offering to head the Army, and there were at that period, plus Regular and Militia forces, 360,000 Volunteers as the result of patriotism combined with ballot for the Militia. The British Navy was never more powerful than then, in the time of Nelson and Collingwood, and yet the wise men of those days did not trust solely to the fleet but made all possible preparations to resist attack on land. And since then remember how other fleets have arisen—now steam has affected the situation—how Cherbourg has sprung into being—enormous dock accommodation being created at Boulogne and Calais, as any one can see who goes to Paris; that Heligoland is no longer ours, and that there is a great harbour at Kiel

After peace was restored we fell into a lethargic state, and little was done, till at length the country was roused by the famous letter of the Duke of Wellington in 1847 to John Burgoyne, in which he said he had done all he could to induce the Government to look to their laud forces, and he concluded by stating that he had passed nearly seventy-seven years in honour, and hoped he might not have cause to die in dishonour. As a result of the Duke's letter the Militia Bill was introduced in 1852, and I would venture to quote a statement by the Lo Lansdowne of the day, whose successor is now Foreign Secretary, which expressed the feeling of the responsible Ministers at that time on the question of home defence. Lord Lansdowne said— It was a duty which the Government and Parliament owed to the country to place it in a condition of safety. I trust this (the Militia Bill) will not be the only measure which Parliament and the country will have recourse to for the purpose of placing-England on that point of security which is essential to its glory, its independence, and its continued prosperity. The Militia Bill passed in 1852. In 1859 General Peel, Minister for War, wrote a letter, sanctioning the revival of the Volunteer Force, as a result of which Volunteers enrolled themselves to the tune of something like 200,000 men. Then followed Lord Cardwell's Army Bill of 1870, sixteen clauses of which were for the purpose of securing compulsory militia service, through the ballot, for home defence. In 1899 or 1900 my noble friend Lord Lansdowne brought in a Militia Ballot Bill, which lay derelict, but which showed the feeling of the Government of the day that it was necessary to have a strong land force for home defence. Lastly, we have the present miltary measures introduced by Mr. Brodrick, who expects to have 600,000 men in this country eventually. That does not look as if, even at the present day, the Government rely solely on the Navy, as the "Colombines" do, for home defence.

But I have kept two cards up my sleeve, which I shall now venture to play, and which will show that men in high and responsible positions do not believe in this theory that the Navy is alone sufficient, for home defence. The first card I thus keep up my sleeve is the Prime Minister. Speaking some time ago at a great meeting of the Primrose League at the Albert Hall, the noble Marquess the Prime Minister made it dear that he did not rely on the Navy alone for home defence; for he told us then that things were looking awkward abroad and that We must set our house in order, and he suggested the formation of rifle clubs. I, therefore, look upon the noble Marquess as one of those who do not believe that we could rely absolutely on the Navy alone as a protection against invasion. The other card I have to play is one of vital importance. I find, on turning to the Army Annual Bill of this year, that the preamble states that— Whereas the raising or keeping of a Standing Army within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in time of peace, unless it be with the consent of Parliament, is against law: and whereas it is adjudged necessary for His Majesty and this present Parliament that a body of forces should be continued for the safety of the United Kingdom. Therefore, you annually pass a Bill for the protection of the nation, not by the Navy alone, but with the help of the Army. Thus, I think I have clearly shown that from the early days in our history down to the present time no one responsible for our national safety has relied, as some would have us now do, on the Navy alone.

I now turn to the other part of my Resolution, which refers to the uses of the Navy and its employment for home defence. Do not for one moment imagine that I wish to suggest in my Resolution that I do not take a pride in the Navy. On the contrary, I want it, if possible, to rule the world, and not to be tied to the protection of these Islands. It is a self-evident proposition that if reliance is placed on the Navy alone for the protection of these shores, the effectiveness of the Navy the world over will thereby be greatly diminished. I cannot do better than quote in this connection a passage from the speech which the noble Earl the First Lord of the Admiralty made in your Lordships' House with reference to the question of fortifying Wei-Hai-Wei. The noble Earl said— We are going to keep there [at Wei-Hai-Wei] nothing which in time of war would require protection, because, whether fortified or not, the fleet is not going to be tied to Wei-Hai-Wei or any other base, primary, secondary, or tertiary. The fleet must be absolutely free to go where the officer commanding at the moment of war thinks that it can do most damage to the enemy, and it should be his duty to leave Wei-Hai-Wei, whether fortified or not, absolutely out of his consideration as against his primary duty of finding the enemy's fleet and destroying it. If instead of Wei-Hai-Wei you substitute the United Kingdom, that passage states my case.

I want to see the United Kingdom so strong on land in the matter of home defence that the Navy can be free to roam the world over and attack the enemy wherever he may be found without being tied to these shores. By being strong at home, and allowing the Fleet freedom to go anywhere, you double the power of the Fleet. My Lords, I have now, I think, shown that the history of the past, the facts of the present, and common sense alike support the Resolution which submit to your favourable consideration, and I do thus in full confidence that you will be able without the aid of debating societies, to solve the conundrum that now is insoluble to the First Lord.

Moved to resolve that, looking to the possibility of our being at some future time at war with one or more European Powers, it would not be wise to trust to the Navy alone for security against invasion; and the more so as the general power and effectiveness of the Navy, the world over, would be pro tanto thus lessened by the necessity of retaining in our home waters a sufficient Naval force for the defence of the United Kingdom.—(The Earl of Wemyss.)


My Lords, I am sure my noble friend will do mo the justice of believing that my previous reply was not meant to convey any want of respect to him personally, but I do think that the very peculiar nature of the questions he asked justified the rather peculiar nature of my reply. Now, what was the noble Lord's question? Broadly, it was whether the Navy alone could guarantee the safety of the United Kingdom against invasion. Observe, my Lords, if I had answered "Yes" to that question, the noble Lord would have got up at once and said, "Do you mean that you require no Army at all, no regular troops, no Militia, no Yeomanry, no Volunteers?" Of course I was not prepared to say that we could dispense with all our land forces. On the other hand, if I had said "No," then hereafter it would be given in evidence that the Navy was not the main and proper source for the security and salefy of these Islands.


No, no!


I prefer, my Lords, to stand by the broad principle which I indicated in my brief reply. I said that I thought it would be a bad day for this country when it ceases to rely on the Navy as the main source of national strength, and I added that the function of the Navy in war would be to follow the ships of the enemy wherever they were to be found. The noble Earl, if I may say so, has shown what an imperfect conception he has of naval strategy in his suggestion that in any circumstances the duty of the Navy in war would be to perform a sort of sentry-go up and down the coasts of these islands. The duty of the Navy will be in all circumstances to find the ships of the enemy and to defeat them. That mere bald statement only opens the door to a great number of questions which the noble Earl might ask me. He might say, "Does it not depend on what ships of the enemy are left in the Channel or in home waters, and what ships of ours have followed them elsewhere In what circumstances is a raid feasible or not?" These are all questions open to the widest field of speculation and to many divergent views. Another point mooted in discussions on this subject is: "At what point would a raid become serious to the nation?" I am not prepared to deal with any of these questions in your Lordships' House, because I do not think that they belong to the class of questions which lend themselves to useful debate. I do not say—no Minister in his senses ever would say—that this country does not require an Army; but I do say that we cannot too closely study the proper coordination of the Army with the Navy, or determine too accurately the proper limits of the sphere of action of the Army. As the noble Earl has quoted the preamble of the Army Act. I sum up my position by quoting the preamble of the Naval Discipline Act, which states that— It is the Navy upon which, next after God, the safety of this country doth mainly depend. I cannot see what useful purpose or public service is going to be fulfilled either by affirming or by rejecting the proposition of the noble Lord; and therefore I beg to move the previous question.


After the statement of the First Lord of the Admiralty, I am more perplexed than ever at the opposition offered to the Motion of the noble Earl. I can only account for it on the hypothesis that my noble friend is looked upon as a kind of political Ishmael, and that it is the duty of the Government and the Opposition to stamp on any Resolution which he brings forward. The Motion appears to me to contain the veriest platitude and truism—[The Marquess of SALISBURY: Hear, hear!"]—and that being so, what is the harm of accepting it? If the noble Earl on the Cross Benches were to state in a Motion that two and two make four, I believe the Government and the Opposition would consider it necessary to marshal their forces against him. I maintain that it is impossible to preserve consistency by voting against the Resolution. The First Lord of the Admiralty may say what he pleases, but opposition to this Resolution amounts to this: that you practically state that the Navy is the sole line of defence we need consider, and that the Army and the Auxiliary forces are absolutely unnecessary institutions.


I should not have risen to take part in this debate but for the speech we have just heard from Lord Newton. I cannot accept the view which the noble Lord has stated as to the meaning of the Amendment embodying the previous quesion. By accepting the previous question we are not voting against the principle of the Resolution. What the Amendment means is—and I feel this very strongly—that your Lordships' House is not the place where His Majesty's

Government and the First Lord of the Admiralty should disclose minutely the strategy which they would adopt in the case of invasion or war. I thoroughly agree with what the First Lord of the Admiralty has said on the subject, and I shall certainly vote for the previous question if the noble Earl on the Cross Benches perseveres with his Motion.


To move the previous question on such a vital question as this, which requires the simple answer "Yes" or "No," is ridiculous. My object is to prevent the public mind from being diverted from the real issue—namely, that we should have land forces of the proper kind. In the name of the people and of common sense, I ask the Government whether or not they look upon the Navy alone as being sufficient for the defence of the country. If only to show up the action of the Government in moving the previous question, I shall certainly divide.

The question being stated, the previous question was put, whether the said question shall be now put.

On question, resolved in the negative. (Contents, 6; not-contents, 53.)

Wellington, D. Stewart of Garlies (E. Gal-loway). Wymess, L. (E. Weymss) [Teller].
Crofton, L.
Newton, L. [Teller] Wimborne L.
Halsbury, E.(L. Chancellor) Waldegrave, E.[Teller] Harris, L.
Devonshire, D.(L. president) Wharneliffe, E. James, L.
Salisbury, M. (L. privy Seal) Cobham, V. Kunnaurd, L.
Marlborough, D. Cross, V. Kintore, L. (E. Kin tore)
Lansdowne, M. Gordon, V. (E. Aberdeen) Lawrence, L.
Ripon, M. Ridley, V. Mendip, L. (V. Clifden)
Camperdown, E. Avebury, L. Moncreift, L.
Cawdor, E. Barnard, L. Mount Stephen. L.
Coventry, E. Belhaven and Stenton, L. Powerscourt, L (V. Powerscourt)
Ducie, E. Boyle, L. (E. Cork and Orrery) Raglan, L.
Hardwicke, E. Brassey, L. Rathmore, L.
Jersey, E. Churchill, L. [Teller] Reay, L.
Morley, E. Congleton, L. Ribblesdale, L.
Onslow, E. Digby, L. Robertson, L.
Romney, E. Douglas, L. (E. Home) Shute, L. (V. Barrington)
Selborne, E. Dunboyne, L Tweedmouth, L.
Spencer, E. Glanusk, L. Wandsworth, L.
Vane, E. (M. Londonderry) Harlech, L.