HL Deb 08 July 1902 vol 110 cc1053-67

My Lords, I rise to call attention to the expenditure on shipbuilding for the Navy in the cruiser classes, and to the decline in the construction of merchant steamers under the British flag suitable for the reserve list. This subject needs examination under many aspects. In relation to the exten- sion of commerce it is before a Select Committee. The convertibility of merchant steamers into fighting cruisers is before the Committee, of which Lord Camperdown is Chairman. I propose to deal with merchant cruisers, not as fit to take the place of regularly built vessels of war, but as the eyes of the Fleet. The authorities on whom I rely, including Sir Nathaniel Barnaby, Professor Biles, Mr. Pirrie, Sir Donald Currie, the late Lord Inverclyde and others, have recommended State aid to auxiliaries as a plan of providing vessels in sufficient number at the least cost. Our latest cruisers are the most powerful as yet designed for any Navy. Vessels of great size and cost cannot be built in umbers, and numbers are required for scouting. Coal supply, armament, and protection could be reduced, but with the result that in fighting efficiency the regularly built vessel of war would have little advantage over the auxiliary cruiser. I have referred to considerations of cost. In dealing with naval raquirements, it seems vain in the present day to allude to economy. Influenced by the able writings of Captain Mahan, the country insists that the Navy shall be strong. Large Estimates are popular. Public opinion is not consistent. To spend freely on the Navy is approved: new taxes are resented. Some day an increase of Estimates, even for the Navy, may be difficult. In the present state of public opinion reductions need not be apprehended. With Estimates so liberal, it may be demanded that more should be achieved in the reinforcement of the Navy.

Our Navy Estimates for the year are nearly £32,000,000, as against £1 2,000,000 for France, and £10,000,000 for Russia. What is the relative strength? In battleships built we are well above a two - Power standard. The ships building are the fleets of the future. Great Britain is building thirteen, France four, Russia seven ships; tonnage, Great Britain 193,000, as against 144,000 for the two Powers. Our advantage m shipbuilding is scarcely commensurate with our expenditure. Turning to cruisers, the fine ships we are now building are chiefly of the armoured type. Of this class we are building twenty-two, tonnage 238,000, as against one ship only of the same class for Russia. Descending to protected cruisers, Great Britain has 105 ships; tonnage 513,000. Russia, seven ships; tonnage 35,000. We have incurred a heavy expenditure in recent years on protected ships, without adding materially to our naval strength. With an effective reserve of cruisers we might have built more battleships of the efficient Canopus class with improved armament. It has been necessary to build the powerful cruisers of the Drake class to meet similar vessels, but the high speed of the armoured cruiser is most costly, and such ships must, therefore, be few. In every point except speed the Canopus class are superior ships. They steam 18 knots, and they can lie in line. A reinforcement of the Navy in this useful class, which combines in a large degree the qualities of the cruiser and the battleship, is desirable. For certain services in which extreme speed is neceesary, the Navy could be reinforced from the mercantile marine. It cannot give us battleships, armoured cruisers, or a torpedo flotilla, but it can supply scouts, perhaps more effective than any regularly built vessel of war. For scouts in search of an enemy whose position is unknown, high speed and long coal endurance are essential qualities, and these the mercantile auxiliaries possess in a high degree. The experience of the British Navy is limited to the employment of the "Oregon" in the peace manoeuvres under Sir Edward Seymour in 1898. In the war with Spain the value of mercantile auxiliaries was practically tested, as many ships were taken up by the United States and successfully used as cruisers. They were manned by their own crews, and the guns were fought by detachments of Marines.

I turn to the relative position of Great Britain and foreign countries in oceangoing steamships having a speed of twenty knots and over. This is the type most suitable for auxiliary cruisers. Lloyd's Register gives a list of twenty-eight ships, but seven only are under the British flag. Since 1893, eleven ships have been built for foreign countries. The "Oceanic" of the White Star Line is the only vessel added to the British fleet; and no attempt was made to rival the speed attained under the German flag. The ships which carry mails across the ocean Tinder the British flag should be second to none in power and speed. We have lost the position we once held. It has been a difficult time for British shipowners. Competition with Germany in the building and manning of ocean greyhounds has been difficult, because in Germany that form of shipping enterprise is more concentrated than with us. According to Lloyd's Register, the Hamburg-American Company have a fleet of 117 steamships of 316,000 tons; the Norddeutscher Lloyd Company a fleet of 116 ships of 247,000 tons; the White Star Company, twenty-five ships of 115,000 tons; and the Cunard Company, twenty-two ships of 69,000 tons. Each of the German companies, as it will be seen, has the resources of an Atlantic Combine. Competition with the French companies is not on equal terms, because the Government is lavish in subsidies. Competition with American companies may become more difficult, because the railway companies can give an amount of support to Atlantic navigation which cannot be looked for on this side.

Naval preparation must to some extent depend on the action taken by other Powers. If they develop along a certain line, we must follow. All the naval Powers of Europe give liberal subsidies. The policy of subsidies has been recommended to Congress by President Roosevelt, and Mr. Gage, the Secretary of the United States Treasury. It is contrary to our public policy to encourage commercial enterprise or to foster industries by bounties or Protection. The carrying trade, in which our shipping is mainly employed, needs no assistance from the State. To pay for a reserve of auxiliaries for the conveyance of mails, and for the means of rapid communication which have brought the Colonial Premiers to London, which carried the contingents to South Africa, and which do so much to unite the Empire, is certainly to the public advantage. Our mail steamers show the flag in distant harbours. They create an influence similar in kind and scarcely inferior in degree to the visits of ships of war. I will say no more on the general question. It must be for the Government to use opportunities. Canada may desire improved communication as a means of extending trade. The Mother Country may assist in order to obtain auxiliary cruisers. For the conveyance of passengers and mails to Australia the P. and O. and Orient Companies give an efficient service. If their ships could be made more effective as cruisers, it would be worth while to pay the cost. I may briefly refer to a personal experience. In 1884, on the occasion of the Pendjeh incident, the Board of Admiralty, of which I was a member, was called on to make hasty preparation for war. We turned to the Mercantile Marine. The vessels were taken up and, at a great cost, converted into cruisers in China and Australia. They were not as efficient as we could have wished. If the vessels then employed in carrying mails had been effective auxiliaries, the Admiralty would have been relieved of grave anxiety, and wasteful expenditure would have been saved.

Having dealt with the reserve of ships, I pass to the reserve of officers and men. I have twice addressed your Lordships on our naval reserves, and their training at home and in the Colonies. I have had the honour of giving evidence before the Committee on Manning. I have little to say that is new. Parliament and the country will be much more interested to know any recent decisions of the Admiralty on these important subjects. I have given to my noble friend private notice that I would ask him to make a Statement. The only new suggestion I desire to otter is this, that mail steamers could be used for training Engineer officers and stokers. We need a strong reserve. The State should train, not only stokers entered for long service in the Navy, but reservists. In foreign countries, the subsidised mail steamers are manned by the reserves. Similar ships under the British flag might be utilised in the same way. The work would be done at less cost, and, in some respect, more efficiently than in a training squadron and in ships not profitably employed in peaceful service. I have brought the subjects with which I have been endeavouring to deal before the First Lord of the Admiralty under circumstances which call for careful consideration of policy, rather than for hasty decision. The time seems opportune for those not in a responsible position to otter suggestions.


My Lords, I noticed that the noble Lord in introducing this subject was careful to disclaim any advocacy of the idea that merchant cruisers could be used as a substitute for building an adequate number of proper cruisers for the Navy. I am glad that he did so, because it could be easily shown that, while merchant cruisers have their proper place in our order of battle in time of war, they can never be regarded in any full sense as a substitute for cruisers of the Navy proper; nor do I think that our shipbuilding Vote would ever be materially, if at all, diminished by the possession of merchant cruisers. Why is it that we must have such a large number of cruisers? It is simply because the tonnage of our Mercantile Marine is so large, and the trade of the Empire is so vast. Cruisers are required as scouts and for other purposes with the battleships; but beyond that there is the whole of our trade to protect; and, if yon compare, the trade of the Empire for the year 1900—which in round numbers was considerably over 1,000 millions sterling—with the aggregate trade of any combination of Powers with which the imagination could conceive us to be at war, you will see at once how vast is the problem which our Admiralty has to face, as compared with that of any foreign Admiralty in the matter of the protection of trade. It would never do to rely in time of war on the possibility of all this country required being supplied by the merchant ships of other nations. I think it is greatly to the advantage of this country that the carrying trade of the world, and especially in those articles on which we so much depend, should be in the hands of other nations as well as ourselves. But if you eliminate the tonnage of British shipping from the calculation, you will find that this country simply could not be supplied by the tonnage belonging to and registered under foreign flags; and it could not be to the interests of this country that on the outbreak of war there should be any wholesale transfer of British shipping to foreign flags. Therefore, in considering the Navy Estimates these circumstances must be borne in mind. And beside this unique task which our Navy has to perform, it must also be remembered that our Navy is a voluntary service, and that we cannot fall back upon compulsory service as the great Continental nations can.

A remarkable analysis of the Estimates of the Navies of the world was issued a few months ago by the Reporter on the French Nay Budget to the French Chamber. Although, of course, that official had valuable criticisms to offer on all the Estimates, yet he undoubtedly came to the conclusion that, on the whole, the British Estimates showed good value for the money. In fact, he compared the results obtained under our expenditure with the results obtained in some other countries distinctly to our favour. I may be pardoned if I do not follow the noble Lord into the large question of large versus smaller battleships. There is an important school of officers who think we might be content with a smaller class of battleship than we possess. I do not say they are right, nor do I say they are wrong. I merely indicate, on the other side, that it will be noticed, if the tonnage, of other countries is observed, that the displacement of their battleships is steadily and constantly rising. Although I do not think merchant cruisers can ever be regarded as a substitute for cruisers proper to the extent that some advocates have supposed, yet, of course, in time of war a merchant cruiser would perform an important function as an auxiliary to the regular battleships. There are all kinds of purposes to which they could be turned, including that most important one of scouting, to which the noble Lord referred. But, whatever function they are fulfilling, it must be remembered that they will never be able to meet in action any ship, except corresponding ships of other nations—they never could engage a regular cruiser.

How to secure a sufficient number of these ships for use in time of war—either by some retaining fee or by taking them up on an emergency—is not a difficult problem so long as we are dealing with ships of a moderate speed; but, as the noble Lord pointed out, it is when we get to the highest speed that the real difficulty supervenes, and the figures which the noble Lord has given you are, if you examine them, most eloquent. He showed that although the tonnage of the British Mercantile Marine is superior to an immense degree to that of other nations, yet, in the matter of ships of over twenty knots, not only have we lost all the proportion which is to be found in the percentage of aggregate tonnage, but we have fallen far behind. The explanation is perfectly simple. These vessels of high speed are not built purely for commercial purposes. As commercial investments they do not pay, and therefore they can only be built by trading corporations if those corporations receive extraneous assistance in the shape of Government subsidies or material advantages; and it is because foreign nations have given those advantages and those subsidies on a higher scale than we have ever yet contemplated that we have fallen behind in the number of ships of this class. But when you get to the high speed of twenty-three, twenty-four, or twenty-five knots, the horsepower becomes so great that the corresponding cost of the ship rises immensely. It has been roughly calculated that whereas a ship of about seventeen knots might be built for something under half a million, one of twenty-three knots would cost over a million. I only mention these figures in the roughest way as being the personal calculation of one who is interested in the subject. It follows, of course, that no country can afford many ships of this class. But can we afford altogether to be without them? Would this country be content if in any conceivable war we found ourselves confronted with merchant cruisers of a foreign country while we possessed nothing afloat—man-of-war or merchant cruiser—which could overtake and capture them? I do not myself think that the country would be content with that position. Therefore, this is a problem with which we have to deal. The expense involved is so large, and a subsidy policy so insidious, and a subsidy contest between us and other countries would be so disastrous—that, in my opinion, the subsidising of commercial corporations for the building of steamers of this speed should, be and must be confined to a limited number for a special and definite purpose.

I cannot pass from this question without making an allusion to that Atlantic combination which has aroused so much attention, and by which this question is affected. Your Lordships will remember that on first receiving the information of the probability of such a combination taking place, the Admiralty took immediate steps to safeguard those merchant cruisers which might be affected by it during the period of three years, which was the unexpired portion of the term of the current agreement. I am not professing to discuss the general question or the principle of these combinations now. All I would say is that it seems to me the balance is one of disadvantage, because they do necessarily put very large powers in the hands of a few men, and they affect interests that are not confined to those private corporations—they affect National concerns. A good deal of what has been written on this subject has referred to what I may call the National aspect of this case, as between the British Empire and the United States of America. I have no sympathy of any sort or kind with any consideration of that aspect of the case. Your Lordships' House and this country and His Majesty's Government disclaim any sort of jealousy at the intention of the American people to have a mercantile marine of their own. It is, in my opinion, natural that they should desire to have a mercantile marine. They have a perfect right to a full share of the Atlantic trade, and I unhesitatingly say that it is to our interest that they should have it, and that it should not be, as it has hitherto been, almost a British monopoly. But, on the other hand, we cannot afford to see ourselves squeezed out of the Atlantic trade. It is one thing to express our complete readiness and pleasure to share that trade with America; it would be quite another thing if we were in danger of being squeezed out of our legitimate share.

In considering this question we are justified in remembering that the natural state of such a combination as that which now exists cannot be that of rest; it must be one of absorption. Therefore, our attitude towards it may be easily described—it is in no sense one of hostility, but it is one of anxiety. Now, I was rather surprised, on taking up The Times the other day, to see the evidence that Mr. Pirie gave before the Select Committee of the other House. I was surprised to read that evidence, because I think the course he adopted was unusual and, indeed, inconvenient. It was a broad statement, and not a detailed one. Moreover, it necessarily referred to that shipping only in which the witness himself had an interest. But His Majesty's Government must regard the present position of British shipping engaged in the Atlantic trade as a whole; not only that which is included in the combination, but that which is excluded; and it is not until they have formed their final conclusions on the whole question, and can frankly state them to all concerned, that they can wisely or fairly enter into agreements-with one party or another. No avoidable or unnecessary delay in considering this matter has taken place, and I should not have referred to it at the present moment if it had not been for the evidence recently given.

I think your Lordships always feel that the noble Lord, when he deals with naval matters, is dealing with questions that he thoroughly understands, and to which he has devoted his life. I thank him, therefore, for the contribution that he has made today to this1 particular aspect of naval policy. It is only one of a series of contributions which he has-made on different occasions and in other places on this subject. I also thank him for not having suggested that if it had not been for his action here and elsewhere the Admiralty would have paid no heed to this question. I am obliged to make that observation, because the pretensions which have been put forward on behalf of certain bodies in analogous cases have been so absurd. The impression on the Navy would be disastrous, if it really believed for one moment that it was administered by the Admiralty in such a manner as has been suggested, and therefore I am bound to give notice to your Lordships and to the country at large that the Admiralty is studying this question, as it us also studying a great many other questions allied to it, such as those on which the noble Lord has touched today; and it is studying these questions, although it does not think it absolutely necessary daily to advertise the action which it is taking. Take the question of the Reserve. I do not propose to deal with it at any length, because it is being, in a preliminary way, thrashed out by a particularly strong Committee under the able presidency of my friend Sir Edward Grey. That question is being examined, and we shall try to grapple with it once for all, because anybody who knows what the Navy is knows that the questions affecting the personnel are more difficult and more important than all the questions of matériel that we have to face. Nor are we neglecting the question of the training of the officers and men of the Reserve or of the Navy proper. These are big questions, as also are those which follow on them, such as the relation of the several branches of the Navy to each other, the organisation of those branches, and their mutual position. All these difficult questions are allied and dove-tail into one another, and the Admiralty is dealing with them all. I only state this now in order that if, some months hence, your Lordships learn that the Admiralty has decided to make certain changes or not to make certain changes — though I think some change is certain to come—you will remember that it in the result of our own careful and prolonged study, and that our decisions have not been excited by the pronunciamiento of some Irresponsible body which, just before we have announced our decision, has issued its views to an expectant world.

Now I come to a subject which is, perhaps, the most important of all—the education of the naval officers. That is a subject which has been greatly discussed in the public Press and magazines, and discussed with great knowledge and great advantage to the Board of Admiralty. All that has been written and said on the subject I regard as contributions to our deliberations and aid to the final solution of the problem; for very difficult it is, and the difficulty is exemplified by the dilemma in which many of the writers on this subject find themselves. They find no difficulty in proving that the present system of naval education is contrary to all received theories of education; they can also prove that there are many anomalies in it. The results, therefore, ought to be bad. but they are good, and that is a fact that they find it difficult to explain. I notice that the general method of getting out of the dilemma is to accuse me of incurable official optimism. I repeat that the naval officers are good, and I think I can explain how this apparent paradox exists. Education is not a simple but a complex thing, and consists of two parts—the imparting and the acquisition of knowledge, and the formation of character. Now, these two things are by no means always combined, they are very often divorced. Take our elementary and our public schools. I believe our elementary schools are very successful as establishments where a certain amount of knowledge is imparted. I believe they are altogether failures in respect of the formation of character. Then, take the public schools, on the other hand—who can say they are great successes as places where useful knowledge is acquired? Yet there is only one institution more successful in the formation of character than our public schools, and that is the British Navy. But in endeavouring to improve the system of naval education, we must take great care not to mar that conjunction of circumstances in the boy's life which makes for the formation of naval character. There is no reason why we should not improve the knowledge and retain the school for character. But it' I had to choose, I would rather retain the school for character, than run the risk of losing it by unwise attempts to improve the Navy as a machine for acquiring knowledge. I say that, not because 1 do not believe the two are compatible in the Navy—I believe they are—but to show that I personally, and my colleagues, attach more importance to the formation of character than we do to the acquisition of knowledge. My Lords, 1 have endeavoured to deal with the points which the noble Lord has brought forward. Perhaps I have trespassed by going a little beyond the matters he dealt with, but if I have done so, it is only because I desired to take this opportunity of showing your Lordships that those great questions are not being neglected by the Board of Admiralty.


My Lords, I wish to say a few words on this very important subject, after the remarks of the noble Lord the head of the Admiralty, and those of my noble friend near me. And I join cordially in what has been said by the First Lord when he paid a tribute to the services which my noble friend has rendered to the Navy, in the way in which he has dealt with this and other difficult Navy questions. I shall not follow my noble friend in the latter part of his speech, and the First Lord has said truly that he has travelled rather beyond what has been said by my noble friend. I am not going to discuss the great and interesting subject of the education of the Navy, though the noble Lord has introduced it very pertinently in the remarks he has made upon it. Nor shall I refer to what has been the common experience of nearly every First Lord with regard to outside opinions in relation to various naval matters of importance. Now I should like to come to the great subject of the merchant service, and what is to be done with regard to it. I am glad to hear the interpretation which the noble Earl has put on my noble friend's speech with regard to subsidies to merchant ships. I confess I thought he was relying too much on merchant cruisers rather than on the cruisers which have been added in large numbers to His Majesty's Fleet. He said a good deal about these merchant cruisers, and I confess I was afraid that he was going to place these merchant cruisers almost on the same level as our armed cruisers; but I entirely agree with the noble Lord in what he said on this important point—that you cannot place these merchant cruisers in the same roll with the cruisers of the Navy. They must not be considered as belonging to the line of battle.

I have been impressed by the argument which has been used, that in the work which these merchant cruisers could do, we could at almost any moment, by paying sufficient sums, find a great number of this class of vessel without, resorting to the policy of subsidising in time of peace. I think that is a matter which is well deserving of careful consideration by your Lordships, by the Admiralty, and by the Government. At the same time, I am quite of opinion that there are many sound reasons which may be adduced to show why it is desirable that we should take care that we can lay our hands at a moment's notice on these vessels which my noble friend has described. It has been argued that these vessels have been of the greatest possible assistance as armed cruisers on more than one occasion, and in many ways. They have been spoken of as the "eyes of the Navy" in accompanying the Fleet. These points have all been brought out with the greatest possible clearness by my noble friend, and I do not deny that there may be strong reasons why subsidies should be given in time of peace to secure the service of this class of vessel. But I should not like to say that all the money that has been spent already on merchant cruisers has been wholly well spent. I am not at all sure about that. I think the general principle is this—You ought to pay, and pay liberally, for all service rendered, and for work done. There are cases, no doubt, in connection with the Admiralty and the Post Office where subsidies have had a great commercial and political effect—I would instance the Canadian Pacific Line, which would not have been formed if it had not been for these subsidies—but the principle for which I contend is this — that there should be nothing like a general subsidy.

We have been told that there is no need for subsidies to the ordinary cargo carrying ships — ships that carry the trade of the country; that these are quite independent of subsidies; and that all we need regard in the matter of subsidies are the mail ships, which, no doubt, are of very great importance to the country. It has been said that it is impossible to get these ships of very great speed on ordinary commercial lines. I should like to know whether that has been absolutely and distinctly proved. We hear it from persons interested in those matters, but it seems rather extraordinary to my mind that the passengers in ships which carry the richest people should be unwilling to pay for what, no doubt, they desire very much—increased speed on their voyages from one side of the Atlantic to the other, or from hero to Bombay and Australia. Those who urge this matter upon us are very much interested in getting subsidies. The noble Lord says he does not wish to commit himself to any special policy. I would venture to say emphatically at the present moment, that I think it is most desirable that we should not commit ourselves to any great new policy, with regard to bounties to ships. We ought most carefully to look into the subject and to consider all the investigations which are being pursued at the present time in more than one place before we commit ourselves to any new policy. So far as I am concerned, I shall carefully consider any proposal that may be made, after due consideration and inquiry, by His Majesty's Government.

House adjourned at half past Six o'clock, to Thursday next, half past Ten o'clock.