HL Deb 10 March 1902 vol 104 cc842-50

My Lords, I rise to call attention to the report of Lieut.-Col. Birkbeck, Assistant Inspector of Remounts in South Africa, and to ask if His Majesty's Government contemplate of extending the system of registration of horses for war purposes. It may be convenient that I shall explain, for the information of the House, the system of horse registration. Your Lordships maybe surprised to hear that not more than fifteen years ago there was no such thing as a Remount Department, and no such person as an Inspector - General of Remounts. What we should have done in those days if there had been a sudden and large demand for horses, such as we have had in this war, I cannot conceive. At that time there was an officer who was responsible for the purchase of horses for the Royal Artillery, but each Cavalry Colonel bought for his own regiment. There was no central organisation whatever. Soon after I went to the War Office in 1886, a Report came before me with regard to the purchase of Hungarian horses for one of the Egyptian campaigns, and I remember that the experience then gained showed how almost useless such animals were when brought in large quantities out of a grass country with no corn in them, and how much more useful and efficient for making war were horses fed on corn and trained on hard work. General (then Colonel) Ravenhill, who was the officer charged with the purchasing of horses for the Royal Artillery, proposed that a Remount Department should be established at headquarters, together with a system of registration of horses, the idea being that upon payment by the War Office of a certain sum per annum as a retaining fee, owners might be induced to register their horses for purchase by the Department, at a fixed price, on mobilisation. I was able to convince the War Office that the scheme was a sound one. The establishment of a Remount Department and of a system of registration of horses was then approved, but it took some time to persuade owners that it was worth their while to register their horses. General Ravenhill, however, had a very intimate knowledge of horses and horse dealing, and also a very persuasive tongue, and in a comparatively short time he was successful in inducing several large omnibus, tramcar and other companies to register a very large number of their horses. I believe I am within the mark when I say that one company alone registered as many as 2,000 horses. The registration fee was fixed at 10s. a year, and the system was started under very favourable circumstances, Masters of Hounds and gentlemen in that position also coming forward, and registering animals of the hunter class. At the beginning of the hostilities in South Africa there were something like 15,000 horses on the register, and it would be very interesting if the noble and gallant Lord who represents the War Office could tell us how many of those horses were taken up for the purposes of the war. In his Report Lieutenant-Colonel Birkbeck speaks of the value of these trained, corn-fed horses as compared with untrained grass-fed horses. He adds— It may well be stated here that it has been absolutely impossible latterly to attempt to train remounts; they have passed through the Remount Department's hands far too rapidly to enable us to do more than keep back any which appeared more than ordinarily wild, and the remainder have gone to the Cavalry depôt or to the ranks, just capable of being ridden and no more. In comparing the different horses Lieutenant-Colonel Birkbeck says— Nothing has really come up to the English horse for Cavalry and draught. Notwithstanding change of diet and climate, he has worked and stood hardship better than any. He goes on to state that much of the wastage of horseflesh is due to the fact that animals are bought, probably off grass (except English horses), kept in kraals till shipped, and, after having spent a month on board, are landed and kept generally a week or ten days at the coast, where they can get only enough exercise to keep them in health and not enough to harden them, and make them really fit, after which there is the long journey up country to a high altitude, followed often by immediate issue to units and hard work. Lieutenant-Colonel Birkbeck continues— It is this combination of circumstances against which the English horse, whose muscles are developed by continuous work to a much greater degree than stock or prairie horses, has, more than others, been able to stand up. And, this, I think, points to the necessity of a much larger supply of trained Cavalry and Artillery horses being always kept up in a time of peace. A regiment of Cavalry should be able to go on service with its ranks full of trained horses, with, further, a sufficient percentage to cover loss by sea, and yet leave behind with the reserve squadron a considerable surplus of horses, either temporarily incapacitated or in training, which can be drawn upon to remount them during the campaign. So long as we have the great omnibus companies to fall back upon, we need never want for a supply of Artillery horses. On page 41 your Lordships will find a telegram from the General Officer commanding the lines of communication at the Cape to the Secretary of State for War, in which he states that— The English omnibus horse is also very good. The Report of Lieutenant-Colonel Birk-beck provesincontestably that the corn-fed English horse is of infinitely more value-than anything we can buy abroad fed on, grass. This is the first official Report we have had on the results of the system of registration introduced some ten years ago, and I submit that we are bound to conclude from it that the system has beers a success. The whole secret of the business is corn and work. I think it would have been extremely useful if, when the war broke out, instead of 15,000 horses, we had had 100,000 horses on the Register. As to the expense, if we had had that number of horses registered it would have meant £50,000 a year, or, to put it in a different way, it would, if the horses had been registered for ten years, have added £5 to the price of each horse. That may sound expensive, but it would have been very cheap for us if we had had 100,000 horses so registered at the beginning of the war. I submit that it would not have been a waste of money, for we should have had fit material and should have been able to make war effectively. It, is bad policy to put unfit horses into the field when, with the expenditure of a few pounds more, you could make certain of getting horses in good condition. I do not know what answer the noble and gallant Lord is going to give, but I sincerely trust that he will inform the House that the Secretary of State has decided to extend the system of registration. I beg to ask the Question standing in my name.


My Lords, my noble friend has given your Lordships an account of the original formation of the Remount Department at the time when he occupied the position at the War Office which I have now the honour to hold, and he has expressed the hope that the system of registering horses for the use of the Army in the event of an emergency will be greatly extended. It is impossible in a question of this kind to exaggerate the importance of condition; horses in good condition bear a sea voyage tar better, and, of course, condition is a sine quâ non in the field. The greater part of our difficulty in South Africa has been due to the fact that, owing to pressure of circumstances, the Commander-in-chief there has been obliged to make use of a very large number of horses which were not in a fit condition. The registered horses are divided into two classes—namely, riding and draft horses. In the case of riding horses the registration system has not been altogether very satisfactory, and the class of horses obtained has not been quite what we should like to have seen. There is, however, no dispute as to the excellence of the draft horses obtained in this way. The omnibus horse, in addition to providing a good deal of amusement at home and of interest to the soldier, has shown himself to be one of the very best animals for artillery purposes. These horses are very strong, are hard worked, and are fed liberally by the companies, and they ale as hard as possible. We have in this year's Estimates taken a sum of money for extending the system of registration. There are strong doubts, however, whether this system can be extended very largely and the same class of horse be got without increasing the registration fee. Moreover, the object of registration is to get a sufficient number of horses to meet the first demands on mobilisation. The noble Lord talked about 100,000 horses, but I think that number would be out of the question. To meet the first demands on mobilisation we require to lay our hands on 14,000 or 15,000 horses, but subsequent purchases would naturally have to be made in the open market. Bearing these two points in mind, we will proceed, in all probability, in the direction the noble Lord wishes.

The noble Lord spoke of £50,000 a year. This, after all, is a very considerable sum, and it must be remembered that the peculiarity of the British Army is that it never knows what sort of war it will next be called upon to wage. For instance, you may have a war in the West of Africa, where you require nothing but camels, and another up the Nile, in which your means of transport would be whale-boats. The noble Lord may rest assured that we have the matter under our serious consideration.


My Lords, my noble friend Lord Harris, in calling attention to this Report, did so for the purpose only of speaking on one matter in which he has taken particular interest, namely, the system of registration of horses. I quite agree with the noble Lord that it is an excellent plan to push the registration system as far as is possible. It is especially suitable for the obtaining of heavy draft horses for artillery and transport purposes, but I do not think His Majesty's Government have taken full advantage of their opportunity in this respect, for in the case of the London County Council not more than one third, or a quarter, of the horses that were placed at the disposal of the Government by that body were taken by them, though they were of the very class which have proved so serviceable in South Africa. I do not think, however, that this system will provide us with all the horses we are likely to want in any war. The number likely to be obtained by registration is, after all, comparatively small. If we had relied upon it in the present war, in which such an enormous number of horses are required, we should have been deluding ourselves into a position of false security. This Report is a most serious document, and one which must bring home to all who read it the terrible position we were in at the beginning of the war, and the want of foresight and judgment displayed in the preparations for the war. Indeed, I look upon this Report as a monument to warn people of the way not to do things.

This White Paper contains two sets of documents. There is, first, the Report of Lieutenant-Colonel Birkbeck. I do not think that Report takes us very far, because it is dated as far back as July, 1900. In the second place, there are the telegrams which have passed between the Generals in the field and the authorities at home. The Report opens by stating the position of affairs in Cape Colony at the commencement of the war, and Lieutenant-Colonel Birkbeck states that on the declaration of war the strength of the remount animals in Cape Colony was two horses, 402 cobs, and 866 mules. That was the total reserve of horses provided in Cape Colony in October, 1899, at a time when His Majesty's Government had been carrying on negotiations with the Dutch in South Africa, which they knew ran the risk of terminating in war. It has been said that it was impossible for the Government to accumulate any great body of men in Cape Colony and Natal, because it would have given offence to the Boers, and because it would have met with criticism from the Opposition. I do not think that argument can be used against the accumulation of more than two horses. It seems to me that the Government might have secured the option of a great number of horses in South Africa. Throughout these Reports you find that among the very best class of horse for service in South Africa has been the native African horse, which is accustomed to all the surroundings. As far as I can gather, no steps whatever had been taken, in spite of the fact that His Majesty's Government has been on the verge of war, at any rate for four or five months, to secure for the future use of the troops in South Africa any considerable body of horses, either by purchase or by option, supposing war were to break out. Lieutenant-Colonel Birkbeck states in his Report— This capacity for efficient expansion in time of war is lacking in the Remount Department. Its only representatives who could be spared from the regular home establishments for service in Cape Colony have been Staff Captain Mackenzie, R.A. (since dead) and Staff Captain H.S.H. Prince Francis of the remainder of the war establishment, not a single one has had any technical training or previous experience in the Department, and many of them, fifteen out of thirty-five officers, now employed have not even had experience with the mounted branches of the Service. Is not that a terrible revelation as to the condition of the Remount Department in South Africa during the first five or six months of the war? Lieutenant-Colonel Birkbeck goes on to state what are the particular duties required of the remount officers. He says— The special work required at the seat of war is (1) landing and classification of animals; (2) purchase; (3) forwarding by rail to the advanced depôts; (4) issuing to units, in all of which a knowledge of horses and stable management, on a large scale, is necessary. It is perfectly clear that hardly any of the men under Lieutenant - Colonel Birkbeck's authority were endowed with either the knowledge or the experience to enable them to fulfil their important duties, I will not say well, but even decently. I submit again that it would have been very easy to have got together, at the beginning of the war, a body of non-combatants well experienced in the landing, classification, and purchase of horses, who could have undertaken these duties efficiently, and have obviated the necessity of weakening the forces in the field by delegating officers to this work.

The next point to which I would draw attention is contained in the telegrams which follow at the end of the Report, and some of them are very remarkable. Lord Roberts, telegraphing from Paardeberg on February 24th, 1900, said— Please arrange for early and steady supply remounts for batteries of Horse Artillery, Cavalry, Field Artillery, and Mounted Infantry. Without mobile force I can do nothing in this country. Again, telegraphing from Poplar Grove, on March 9th, 1900, Lord Roberts said— Am anxious to bring your notice urgent necessity for constant supply horses being sent to South Africa. Owing to want of forage and hard work a great many have been lost during the last mouth. Success campaign so materially depends on mounted troops being efficient, that trust there will be no want of good, serviceable horses. The point I want to insist upon with regard to these demands is, that at that time there were, in South Africa, any number of horses. I have been informed by a Member of your Lordships' House, Lord Denman, who has served in South Africa, that at one time —during the months of August and September, 1900—an area of fifty miles round about Harrismith was overrun with thousands and thousands of horses of excellent quality. But he and the troops in the Harrismith district, as, indeed, throughout the whole of South Africa at that time, had the strictest orders not to take the horses, and not even to purchase them. We heard at the time of the last election that every vote given to a Liberal was a vote given to the Boers. I maintain that every horse left to the Boers at the beginning of the war was a fighting man given to the Boers. As far as I can make out, it never occurred to the people at home that it would be desirable to seize these horses until towards the end of December, 1900. On that date, the Secretary of State for War telegraphed to Lord Kitchener— It is felt here that you should not hesitate to commandeer all available horses in Transvaal and Orange River Colonies. Consult Sir A. Milner, and report whether any similar steps are desirable in districts of Cape Colony, which may be placed under martial law to check the enemy's advance. But, in the meantime, General De Wet had paid a visit to the district and had swept up the best of these horses. The Boer General had no scruples about seizing them, and he took them without paying for them, and used them as mounts for his own men and for those of his compatriots. When the British policy changed, and the military authorities began to commandeer horses, they found that all the best horses had been appropriated by De Wet, I think that two points on which we have a right to demand explanation are, first, why, at the beginning of the war, steps were not taken to secure horses in South Africa, and, secondly, why so long a time was allowed to elapse when the war did begin before the opportunity of taking a full number of the horses that were running about the country was used. The information conveyed in the White Paper is sufficient to fill us with wonder and regret that, through want of better care and management, so much should have been done to prolong the war and to cause loss and suffering to our troops in South Africa.


I desire to express my thanks to the noble and gallant Lord who represents the War Office for his reply, and to say that I am very glad to hear that the system of registration is going to be extended, if only with regard to draft horses. With regard to the number of 100,000, that was simply a round figure which I used. I must not be held too tightly to it. At the same time, I am still of opinion that if it were possible to get 100,000 corn-fed horses on these terms, it would be much more advantageous than obtaining from foreign countries horses which are not in condition.