HL Deb 08 July 1904 vol 137 cc1070-83

My Lords, I rise to call the attention of the House to the fact that, according to the June Navy List, out of 123 naval interpreters only two officers on the executive list have passed in Russian, that the only executive officer who has passed in German is on the Reserve List, that no officer of any branch of the Naval Service has passed in Japanese; and to ask the First Lord of the Admiralty if he will consider the advisability of giving a certain number of selected officers further facilities and inducements for the study of the German, Russian, and Japanese languages; also to ask the First Lord of the Admiralty how many of the 123 officers who have passed as interpreters, and how many of the eighteen executive officers who have passed as French interpreters, are in receipt of the extra allowances payable to naval interpreters.

According to the June Navy List there are 123 officers in different branches of the service who have passed as interpreters in various languages. Sixteen of these have passed in German, and eight in Russian. But although fifty-five have passed in Oriental languages, not a single officer of any branch of the service "has yet passed in Japanese. But what is still more extraordinary is that not one of the sixteen officers who have passed in German is on the regular executive list. Lieutenant Simpson-Baikie, who has passed in that language, is an officer in the Merchant Service and is on the list of the Royal Navy Reserve. Thirty-seven officers have passed in French, of whom eighteen are on the executive list. Surely the French Navy is not eighteen times as important as the German? From the little that I know about the latter service, I consider that its methods are worthy of the most careful study. Yet such studies can scarcely be undertaken except by those who, in addition to a knowledge of the language, are well acquainted with technical details, with the manœuvres of fleets, and who have done duty on the bridge. If we were acting in alliance with the German Navy we should not be able to derive the full benefit of such an alliance, as more than a usual number of misunderstandings would take place.

I am, however, glad to see that eight Marine officers, one Engineer officer, and six officers of other branches of the service have passed in German. Executive officers have less leisure than those in other branches, are more likely to be disturbed at odd hours, and have had in consequence fewer opportunities. Of the eight officers who passed in Russian, only two—Commander Kemp and Lieutenant Duncan—are on the active list of executive officers. Naval men have not neglected the Oriental languages, for I find that eight have passed in Persian, nine in Arabic, twenty-eight in Hindostani, twenty-four in Swahili and two in Chinese. Yet no officer of any branch of the service has passed in Japanese, though one has passed in Chinook. I heartily congratulate the noble Earl on the addition he has lately made to the number of officers employed in the Intelligence Department, and though I have no doubt that that department is carefully studying the war in the East, still I consider that this ignorance of the languages of naval Powers of importance may be the cause of mistaken expenditure in time of peace, and a source of danger to the State in time of war.

Every naval officer is now studying the Russo-Japanese War. To do this thoroughly he must have translations before him. The ordinary civilian writer will not help him much. The translator must have technical as well as literary knowledge. The tactical arrangements of the Japanese, the means they have adopted to protect their convoys, how they make use of the secondary and improvised bases, such as the Elliott Islands, and how they repair most of their ships without sending them back to Japan, should be thoroughly studied by officers acquainted with their language. The systems used on both sides as regards telegraphy, wireless or otherwise, the methods of laying down and removing anchored explosives, of blocking and clearing the entrances of harbours, ' the details of the fittings of turrets ' and gun-carriages, the sighting of guns both for day and night firing, the plans adopted for torpedo attack and defence, and how far original fittings have had to be discarded or altered under the stress of actual warfare, are also well worthy of attention. I am aware that a large number of both Russian and Japanese officers are acquainted with our language, but that is not quite the same thing as our officers knowing theirs. We require officers with technical knowledge, able to translate whatever either side may publish. At the close of the war we may expect to find that a great deal of literature is available if we are prepared to take advantage of it. Unsuccessful or superseded officers will find some means of defending themselves, even in countries where the Press is muzzled.

At the close of the Franco-German conflict a large number of our military officers undertook the study of French and German for the sole purpose of being able to master the details of that struggle. Until the conditions of war had been altered by improvements in the weapons, I do not think that they could have employed their time better. While the Russians and Japanese are fighting, some of our executive officers ought to be studying their languages, so as to be able to take advantage of their experience directly the war is over. In the next great struggle for the supremacy of the seas, our success or failure may depend upon our having rightly read the lessons of the Russo-Japanese War.

I will give your Lordships an instance of the foresight of the Japanese themselves, as regards this very question of learning languages. In 1858 Lord Elgin made a treaty with Japan, and several ports were it consequence opened to the British. In 1859 I was on board the ship that brought the British Consul to Hakodadi. £To our astonishment, shortly after we had anchored, a letter, written in English by the Governor of Hakodadi, was handed to our captain. It was on foolscap, in exact conformity with our Admiralty rules and regulations for correspondence, but written with a paint brush instead of a pen. There were only two "slight mistakes in it, which might have escaped notice had it not been carefully examined. The Governor of Hakodadi had been told off to learn English because his harbour was about t" become a treaty port, and I hope that the noble Earl at the head of the Admiralty will at once tell off a few of our executive officers to learn German, Russian, and Japanese.

I am not at all an advocate of making languages compulsory throughout the whole of the service. Some officers have a facility for learning languages, others, have not. The latter will be better employed in learning something else. But when a man has learnt another language besides his own he learns a second foreign language with much greater facility. On Monday last an excellent circular was issued by the Admiralty which goes far towards meeting the necessities of the case. It greatly increases both the facilities and the inducements for learning foreign languages. For instance, the number of officers who are to be allowed to study languages while on full pay is to be increased from ten to twenty. I think that that number may be a normal one. But we have great arrears to make up, and as the necessity for a proper study of the Russian and Japanese languages is immediate, I would suggest to the noble Earl that it would be desirable that executive officers studying the German, Russian, and Japanese languages should be considered as additional to the limit of twenty, until at least twelve of them have passed in each language. We ought to have a minimum of interpreters in certain tongues.

I hope the Treasury will not object to the slight additional expense that will be incurred if my suggestion is adopted. Taking the difference between full and half pay at an average of 8s. a day for the various ranks, the extra charge for thirty-four officers would amount to less than £5,000 a year, for one year only. I put the number at thirty-four, because we have already two executive officers who have passed in Russian. It is false economy to employ an insufficient number of officers to criticise this war. Next year millions will be spent on the Navy. Whether they are rightly or wrongly spent depends entirely as to whether we shall have learnt aright the lessons to be derived from it or not. The £5,000 that I ask for is a trifle as compared with the expense of our autumn manœuvres, and there is far more to be learnt from a real war than from any manœuvres. During manœuvres the complaint is constantly made that in a real war the result would have been different. But when a ship is put out of action by being sunk in battle, there is no use in complaining of the rules, or of the stupidity or partiality of an umpire. There is no getting over the fact that she has been put out of action in accordance with the stern realities of war.

There is another point in the circular to which I wish to draw attention. I regret to see that technical terms do not form part of the lower standard for Japanese. In the higher standard it is stated that some acquaintance with terms used in the naval service will be required. I have great doubts if one year is sufficient to allow for the study of Japanese. But if the Admiralty set twelve officers to commence their studies at once we shall be more certain about that in twelve months time. The candidate should certainly be made to translate a few pages from a gunnery book, and from text books on steam and torpedoes. Exact knowledge of the construction of sentences in Russian and Japanese classical works may be safely left to the gentlemen of the Foreign Office, who have to interpret treaties and protocols, and who are not expected to be naval interpreters. The exact construction of a gun or of a torpedo is of more importance to naval officers than the construction of a complicated sentence.

I have the liveliest recollection of the first time that I ever acted as a naval interpreter. I was a naval cadet on board one of our three-deckers which touched at Brest for coal when on her way back from the Crimea. The master —that is, the navigating officer—told me to tell the French officer in charge of the moorings that he was going to get a hauling-line out of the starboard hawse-hole so as to be able to bouse in the bight of his cable. I know that many of your Lordships are well acquainted with the French language, but I doubt if even the noble Marquess at the head of the Foreign Office would be able to translate such a sentence at short notice. Ten years later I passed in French as naval interpreter. Had our parts been reversed I should certainly have rejected my examiner. He was a French Professor utterly ignorant of any technical terms. The question arises in my mind as to how far the Civil Service Commissioners are competent to examine officers in nautical terms. The term "maritime idiom" which appears in the circular is very vague. It appears in a former circular, in which 100 marks out of 1,200 are assigned to it, but I have no recollection of seeing it in any other document. It has been supposed by some persons to include words that are unfortunately still occasionally made use of by some nautical men when suffering from impatience. Whether this be so or not, I should suggest that in future out of the 1,200 numbers mentioned in the circular seventy-five numbers should be given for nautical terms, seventy-five for words used in steam, and seventy-five for words used in gunnery and torpedo work; and I further think that the Civil Service Commissioners would do well to call in nautical experts to assist them at these examinations. I have alluded to these matters because I am afraid that if the literary and grammatical standards are placed too high, officers may be deterred from studying these languages.

What I suggest to the First Lord is that, while retaining a high technical standard, he should lower the literary standard required for Russian and Japanese interpreterships, and that he should give even more 'special facilities for the study of those languages, until we have at least twelve executive officers who have passed in each of them. The second part of my Question has been put because, hitherto, officers who have qualified as interpreters have been much discouraged by not receiving the pay that they considered to be due to them, on the plea that they had Dot been specially appointed as interpreters. But as the schedule attached to this circular says that— Interpreters will be appointed to flagships, and that an interpreter in French and German will be allowed in each ship carrying midshipmen, I hope that in future that grievance may be considered remedied.

I heartily congratulate the noble Earl on his recent circular, which is, I think, well calculated to deal with the normal state of the Navy, when the arrears that I have referred to have been worked up. But I hope that he will ask the Treasury for that extra £5,000 and that he will at once appoint a number of officers to study the three languages I have referred to. It is a matter that might well be brought before the Committee for National Defence. I shall conclude by asking a favour of the First Lord of the Admiralty. When a person is suddenly surprised by being asked to do something unexpected and to pay some money, his first impulse is to say, no. I would therefore ask the noble Earl not to give a definite reply to my request for £5,000 and thirty-six interpreters at present, especially as I have given him no notice of it, but to think it over with his colleagues, and to consider the subject as an open one at present. I now put the Question that stands in my name.


My Lords, before the First Lord of the Admiralty answers the Questions which have been put to him by the noble Lord who has just sat down, I should like to say a few words with regard to the difficulty which may exist in removing officers for a considerable time from their proper work. I am quite certain that no man can thoroughly acquire languages, especially those very difficult languages to which the noble Lord has referred, without sojourning abroad. He must mix with the natives of those countries before he can acquire the language in a conversational form; and what I wish to ask the noble Earl the First Lord is, whether he will consider the necessity of giving officers facilities for studying abroad, at the same time allowing them to retain their former position in the Service? By that I mean that no man should lose anything in consequence of his having remained abroad; he should not lose his chance, for instance, of commanding a ship because he had spent the requisite time abroad to make himself proficient in a particular language.


My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Lord who brought this question forward for his kind words about myself, and I am very glad to be able to say what I think will not surprise your Lordships, that I agree with almost every word he has uttered. I do not pin myself to adhesion to exactly every detailed proposal he has made, but to the general spirit of his remarks I cordially adhere. This question of foreign languages has undoubtedly been sadly neglected in the Navy, and it is, I think, essential that there should be an adequate staff of officers of the executive as well as of the other branches who can speak all the important languages of the world if the Navy is in all respects to be equipped for its work in war and the study of its profession in peace. I can assure the noble Lord that the war now in progress is being most deeply studied by the Admiralty, both here and on the spot so far as the opportunities present themselves; and he will, I think, be glad to know that the first officers, in both cases a captain, attached to the Japanese and the Russian Fleets were both able to speak the language of the nation to which they were attached.

Although the number of officers in the Navy List who speak certain languages is meagre as analysed by the noble Lord, and although I agree with him that the general linguistic attainments of the Navy fall far short of what we desire, yet there are, as a matter of fact, a considerable number of officers who do speak foreign languages but who are not registered in the Navy List because they have never thought fit to endeavour to register themselves as interpreters.


They are afraid of the high literary standard, I expect.


Not necessarily, I think. The officer who is at present attached to the Russian Fleet in the Far East is a captain who had spent a considerable time in Russia, and he speaks Russian, I believe, excellently, but he had never, for some reason I do not understand, registered himself as a qualified interpreter. The circular letter of the Admiralty to which the noble Lord has referred was issued last Monday, and therefore it is much too soon to say what its effect will be. The Board of Admiralty will naturally watch its working very carefuly, and I do not for a moment put it forward as our last word on the subject. If experience shows that changes in the regulations are necessary, and that the movement is not progressing fast enough, we shall be quite ready to endeavour to improve our machinery. The number of officers on the list of interpreters in the June Navy List is not 123, as quoted by the noble Lord, but 122—a correction of no importance; but of this number only twelve are appointed at the present moment as interpreters. Two of these are executive officers, and of them, one is an interpreter in French. Allowances are payable in the case of each officer appointed as interpreter to a ship.

That is the state of things which we find in existence. It is not the state of things which we hope will exist when the new regulations have been working for a year or two. In the last few years there has been such a dearth of lieutenants, owing to the expansion of the Fleet, that there really has been no possibility of giving them leave to study languages on the Continent. But the list is now so rapidly increasing that I hope we shall shortly have a margin. Perhaps those noble lords who have not seen the circular will allow me very briefly to recapitulate the principal points with which we have endeavoured to deal and to comment a little upon them. In the first place, the number of officers who are to be allowed to study abroad at any one time is increased to twenty; that does not mean twenty in the year, but that every day in the year there may be twenty officers studying abroad—a very different thing. They will be on full pay the whole time, and it will count as "service."

The full pay will also be granted without any condition as to subsequent qualification; that is to say, an officer will not go with the dread before him that he may fail in his examination and have to refund half his full pay. Whether he succeeds or fails he will get his full pay for the period he is studying abroad. The period during which study abroad on full pay will be allowed is regulated according to the language which the officer is studying. The reward of the successful officer is to take the form of a gratuity according to a scale, a distinction being drawn between officers who qualify in the higher standard and those who qualify in the lower standard. In the next place, the allowances to officers appointed hereafter as interpreters will be regulated according to the language or qualification. Officers on the list of interpreters will be required to requalify every five years, and for this purpose they will be allowed to go abroad to the country speaking the language in which they are qualified on one month's full pay, in order to prepare themselves for requalification. Again, officers who are qualified to give instruction in foreign languages to junior officers on board His Majesty's ships will receive 5s. for each lesson of one hour's duration, the number of lessons for which payment will be made being limited to four a week. That, of course, is in addition to their pay as interpreters.

The prizes to midshipmen who attain proficiency have been increased to the annual value of £130. That is, of course, with the object of encouraging midshipmen to keep up the language they may have learnt previous to entering the service, so that they may start with some knowledge when they go abroad to qualify as interpreters. With regard to the study of foreign languages at the new Royal Naval College at Osborne, I believe we shall do more there in respect of French and German than could be done through these regulations, or through any efforts made by officers at a later period of their career to learn French and German abroad. This is, perhaps, a rash thing to say in your Lordships' House, where the experience of public schools is so universal, but I do thoroughly believe that we are going to succeed at Osborne where the public schools have so notably failed. We are going to teach the boys French or German, or both, in a way which will enable them to make themselves understood in France or Germany, and to understand what Frenchmen and Germans say to them, and be competent to study any literature in those languages.

As regards Japanese, the arrangements in respect to that are quite special. In addition to the institution of a special scale in connection with the study of Japanese, we are going to appoint a Japanese teacher at Wei-hai-Wei. In normal times the China Fleet is constantly using Wei-hai-Wei as headquarters for months together, and a Japanese instructor will be stationed there, who will be at the service of any officers of the Fleet. Officers who are now holding appointments as interpreters or acting-interpreters under the old regulations will be allowed to retain their appointments until the expiration of the commission of the ship in which they are serving, and an interpreter qualified in French or German will be allowed to each ship which carries midshipmen. Candidates for these interpreterships will have the opportunity of being examined by the Civil Service Commissioners three times a year, in April, July, and October, and I think the noble Lord need not be anxious lest the Civil Service Commissioners should be incompetent to examine these officers in technical naval phraseology. After all, it is not a subject with which we are altogether unfamiliar. There is drawn up for the instruction of cadets on the "Britannia" as perfect a comparative table of French and English terminology as exists in the whole world, and what his been done in the case of French could be done in the case of other languages. At any rate, I can assure my noble friend that the importance of the special terminology will not be forgotten.

In this examination a thorough knowledge of the language selected by the candidates will be required, and he will be examined orally as well as by written papers. I do not think the noble Lord need be afraid lest the examination should de generate into one purely of grammar. Of course, it is desired that these officers should have a real grasp of the language they are acquiring in every respect, but the main point to be aimed at is that the language should be an instrument which the officer can use from day to day in his rough service as a naval officer, and, therefore, that he should be able to understand it when it is spoken, and to speak it fluently, is of the utmost importance.

Perhaps your Lordships will allow me to quote the scale which has been drawn up. In respect of Japanese, an officer will be allowed to reside in Japan for twelve months on full pay for the higher standard, or six months for the lower, and, if he succeeds, he will receive a gratuity of £200 for the higher standard, or £100 for the lower standard, and his pay as interpreter will be 2s. 6d. per diem. In the case of Russian, the duration of residence abroad will be nine months for the higher stipend and six months for the lower; the gratuity on qualifying will be £150 and £75 respectively, and the additional pay whilst employed as interpreter, 2s. 6d. per diem. In the case of German, Dutch, and modern Greek, the duration of residence abroad will be six months for the higher standard and four months for the lower; the gratuity on qualifying, £70 and £35 respectively, and the additional pay whilst employed as interpreter, 2s. per diem. In the case of French, Italian, Spanish, and Portugese, the duration of residence abroad will be four months for the higher standard and three months for the lower; the gratuity on qualifying £50 and £25 respectively, and the additional pay whilst employed ls.6d. per diem.

Noble Lords may think the period of four months in France very low, but it must, of course, be remembered that it is not expected that any officer will go to France with a complete ignorance of the language. The officers who will go are those who already have some knowledge of it, an when the cadets trained at Osborne are in the service they will be lieutenants who will really have had adequate instruction in the language already. I have only, in conclusion, to ask your Lordships to allow me to read the two concluding paragraphs of the circular, because they indicate exactly the point of view from which the Admiralty has studied this question— In revising the regulations in the manner indicated my Lords have been influenced by a strong sense of the disadvantages attending the want of familiarity with foreign languages shown by officers of His Majesty's Navy, and of the importance of promoting among them a knowledge of the languages spoken by officers of foreign fleets, with whom friendly intercourse is of frequent occurrence. Their Lordships accordingly desire that these regulations may be made known generally in the Fleet, and it is their wish that officers should be encouraged to volunteer for study abroad in accordance with the provisions of the regulations. It is further their Lordships hope that as the number of officers qualified to instruct in foreign languages increases, greater opportunities will be afforded to midshipmen to study foreign languages, especially French and German, while serving afloat. Advantage is to be taken, whenever possible, of the presence of a qualified instructor to form classes on board ship for this purpose. The object for which naval officers should study foreign languages is not only to enable them to converse with the officers of those fleets when they meet them, but to enable them to study the naval literature and the literature generally of those countries; because, great as is, I hope, the field of study which the British Navy offers to the other navies of the world, I am quite sure there is not a single navy from which we cannot learn something ourselves if we study it adequately, and it is in that spirit that I believe and trust the officers of the Navy will approach all naval literature emanating from rival navies.