HL Deb 18 February 1908 vol 184 cc569-77

rose to ask whether His Majesty's Government would consider the desirability of postponing the enforcement of the provisions of the Territorial and Reserve Forces Act as regarded the Volunteers until after heir annual trainings, as in the case of the Militia. The noble Earl said: My Lords, I am sure that every Member of your Lordships' House who holds the King's Commission or Patent as Lieutenant of a county, and who has accepted the position of President of a County Association, is doing, and will do, his level best to make the territorial scheme a success, if possible, whatever may be his own personal opinion upon some of is features, and quite apart from the question whether he is politically a supporter or an opponent of His Majesty's present Government, upon whom, of course, rests the undivided responsibility of this vitally important measure. It is because I am so impressed with its vital importance and so anxious to see it succeed, that I ask the Question of which I have given notice.

My Question refers only to the Volunteers, and, in my own mind, chiefly to country corps. It refers incidentally to the Militia. I do not profess to understand all that is going to be done in regard to the Militia, but I believe I am right in supposing that those Militia battalions which are to be converted into Special Reserves, or third battalions of what are still called the Territorial regiments, are to remain as they are, Militia battalions pure and simple, until after their next training, and it is that which I suggest might be allowed also for the Volunteers.

I have long felt, and I think that my feeling is shared by some others, that the Territorial scheme has been rather unduly rushed. We have, of course, had ample time for forming our County Associations, and I believe that all these Associations have now been duly constituted, with the exception, perhaps, of the appointment of secretaries. It is not an easy thing to offer an appointment to a gentleman, perhaps to bring him home from abroad, I without being in a position to tell him what salary you are able to offer, what the duties of the position are likely to be, the amount of clerical assistance those duties will necessitate, and how that clerical assistance is to be found. This has some bearing on my Question, because, if the whole of the Volunteer Force is to be cast into the melting-pot on the very day upon which the County Associations and their secretaries assume their functions, the work placed upon them for many months to come must, I venture to say, be at the least abnormal.

One sign, I thought, of somewhat premature haste was that we were asked some time ago definitely to state how many units, and what kind of units, we were prepared to raise in our respective counties. The Army Council insisted upon categorical answers to these questions, and answers had to be given, but it is obvious that they were given absolutely without knowledge. In my own case they were given under a mild form of protest, and I think that attitude justified by what the Secretary of State said on Friday last in a speech to the London Chamber of Commerce. Speaking of the Territorial Force, he said it was a purely volunteer force of citizens asked to take on themselves the duty of defending their hearths and homes, and that no man who was wise would venture to predict the response that would be made in the months on which we are entering. Yet this is what we were called upon to say.

When the Volunteers first came into being they enrolled themselves spontaneously, a company here, and a company there, and were afterwards formed into battalions and then into brigades. No one could have said then how many men would be provided by any particular county, and I do not think that anyone now can predict how many men in a corps will be ready to re-engage on the new terms of enlistment, and, still less, how many men who have been summarily disbanded will be prepared to start afresh as recruits in another arm. The commanding officers have not had their battalions together to consult or sound them on the matter, and, if they had, up till quite recently, at any rate, the information which they could have given would have been very meagre and uncertain. Even now, in spite of various leaflets, I should find it very difficult to explain to a man exactly the number of drills he would be called upon to attend in time of peace, exactly the amount of allowance he would have for camp, what uniform he would have to wear, or the name of his corps. In recruiting, all these are matters of singular importance. The form of attestation has not yet been distributed to those concerned.

There is also another Question I should like to ask, although I do not expect the noble Earl to answer it now, as I have not given him notice—namely, whether the refusal of an employer to give leave to a workman to attend camp will be accepted as a reasonable excuse for non-attendance, and exempt the man from military punishment. No one knows that at present; yet how much turns upon that! I have heard, I am sorry to say, of three firms who have already given their men notice that if they join the Territorial Force they must leave their service. I hope that is exceptional, but, at any rate, the point is one to be considered before a man would be likely to attest.

Turning to the changes to be brought into force on 31st March, some of which, I must say, appear to me to be unnecessary, and also regrettable, I have some times wondered whether it is absolutely necessary that a division of troops who are never to leave their own country, with its network of railways and its own resources, should be constituted on the same sealed pattern as a division of Regulars who may be embarked, at twenty-four hours' notice, for service in a hostile country. I have gone further, and wondered whether some of the units required to complete these ideal divisions are such as can satisfactorily, or even safely, be trained under the Volunteer system, and, as Mr. Haldane says, it must be the Volunteer system and nothing else, whatever name you call it by. The units I am thinking of are Field Artillery and Horse Artillery. I suppose I am wrong if, as I believe, some officers of high distinction are sanguine enough to hope that complete divisions, with Cavalry, Artillery, Infantry, Engineers, and transport, will be ready for mobilisation by next summer. If that is probable, nothing could be more satisfactory, though I do not myself see how you can possibly get more than twenty-four drills out of any man, recruit or otherwise, during the three months which will elapse between this and then. If there is any doubt as to the success of the immediate working of this plan, it seems a pity if, by hasty action, you should risk a loss of any large proportion of the good material which we have already—magnificent material, I think it was called by an illustrious visitor—and should do that on the day on which the County Associations, who are supposed to be your advisers from the civilian and popular standpoint, take up their work.

It has been said that the new Army comes into existence on 31st March or 1st April. We have the order for a Church parade on the following Sunday—5th April—to render thanks for the patriotic spirit which has hitherto imbued our Yeomanry and Volunteers, and to ask a blessing on the Territorial Force. I ventured to ask, but I have not received an answer, whether that was supposed to be the last Church parade of the Volunteers, to give thanks for their past patriotism, or whether it was to be the first Church parade of the new Force. But surely the new Force cannot be spoken of as in existence! You cannot have enlisted a single recruit, or equipped him, or put him through his facings, between 31st March and 5th April. The Force can only then consist of the present Volunteers minus all those battalions which have been summarily disbanded, and all those men who find it impossible to enlist on the new terms. The delay which I venture to suggest would give time for the County Associations to get into working order, to inquire into the conditions and requirements of the different units, to form some scheme for their action before the arduous and complicated duties they will have to perform are absolutely thrust upon them. It would give time for the commanding officers to ascertain the feeling of their men, and so enable the Associations to report with some degree of knowledge, and give also to the Army Council some information which might be useful to them and to the country as to what it is all going to cost.

The Secretary of State has recently recognised that the changes in regard to the civilian Army will cost a great deal more than he anticipated, and a great deal more than it costs now. And yet he holds out hopes of reduced Army Estimates! That can only mean that economies are to be carried out in the Regular Force, and the money expended on the Volunteers. Much as I admire the Volunteers, I regard that with alarm. I know I shall be told that any postponement now will upset the financial arrangements for the year. I should think myself that the direct effect upon the finances would be in favour of the taxpayer, and that the Chancellor of the Exchequer would be rather glad of a certain number of months reprieve from the additional charges which will come upon him, including one whole year's clothing account, which appears to have been forgotten, and to have only just been put into a Supplementary Estimate.

I conclude as I began, by saying that I think all those who are connected with County Associations are most anxious to make the scheme a success, but I think it would have been better, and more conducive to success, if it had not been pressed so hastily, and if, instead of its being carried out by a stroke of the pen, as regards all the destructive part of it, on the very day when the tremendous responsibility of reconstruction on new and hard-and-fast lines is imposed on the County Associations—if instead of that you could have given more time for the successors of the men who originally created the Volunteer Force, and have kept it going ever since, to consider your proposal and offer to meet your requirements, as I feel sanguine they would do, in the old Volunteer spirit.


My Lords, on behalf of two counties I should like strongly to support the noble Lord's request. The noble Lord has said that all the County Associations are now formed. I am afraid that is not quite the case. Owing to accidents, for which, I believe, the counties on whose behalf I am speaking were not responsible, our Associations will only meet for the first time as a complete body to-morrow. But, of course, there is no secretary. We are called upon to change three battalions into two—a matter which is excessively difficult owing to topographical and geographical considerations and local jealousies. I believe it can be done, but it will, I think, be absolutely impossible to make the necessary redistribution and arrangements before 31st March. I am afraid that it will mean that, if the War Office refuse to recognise the existing three battalions after 31st March, there can be no training for the men in those counties this year, which I should think would be a very serious disadvantage, both for the men themselves and for the future of the Territorial Force. I hope it may be possible for the battalions to remain as they are for this training.


My Lords, my noble friend who has just sat down gave us an extremely interesting speech, and if I may say so, touched upon a good many larger questions than that involved in the notice on the Paper. I think he himself rather anticipated that I should be unable to comply with his request. Much as we must all appreciate the difficulties of starting a great scheme of this kind, the postponement of it would involve us in still greater difficulty and complication. In the first place, a great deal of the preliminary work in connection with the formation of the Territorial Force has been accomplished during the recess. The ninety-three County Associations have all been incorporated, and their presidents are already in active communication with the War Office regarding the various details of the work to be assigned to them. In fact a Supplementary Estimate amounting to about £350,000 has just been voted by an economical House of Commons for the sole purpose of wiping out the old Volunteer debt and enabling the new force to start on its own financial basis in the new financial year.

Numerous instances have already been given by Volunteer corps of their readiness to accept the new system loyally, and there has been nothing in the nature of an official demand for a postponement of the Act. All over the country annual distributions of prizes to Volunteer corps have been held, which, by the way, afforded my right hon. friend the Secretary of State an opportunity of establishing a record in speech making, and at none of these functions was there anything to indicate that the Volunteers wanted a moratorium. But, above all, nothing in the nature of such suggestion was made at the time which would have been most opportune for its consideration—namely, when the Bill was being discussed by your Lordships.

Moreover, I cannot admit that there is much analogy between the ease of the Volunteers and that of the Militia. The terms of service in the case of the former have not been radically altered. It is true that a definite period of engagement within a maximum of four years has been laid down, but then the Bill gives power to the proper authorities to relieve men from the obligation of completing it in certain circumstances. But the Territorial Force will still be, like the Volunteers, a purely home defence force, and the periods of annual training will be much the same. The case of the Militia is very different. They are asked in the first place to become a Reserve for the Regular Army bound to service abroad, in the second place to become liable for drafting if the contingency demands it, and in the third place to undergo a preliminary training of six months as compared with the preliminary training of six weeks proscribed for the old Militia. The War Office quite appreciate the gravity of the changes in the case of the Militia, and they quite understand the importance of the suggestion made by those noble Lords who have always made the Militia their special care. It was in such circumstances that, after careful consideration. I was empowered on behalf of His Majesty's Government to give the Parliamentary undertaking that the Militia battalions selected to form the Special Reserve would not be touched until after their commanding officers had had the opportunity afforded by the annual training of ex- plaining to the men the new conditions and using their influence with them to make the new arrangement as successful as possible. As regards what was said by Lord Carlisle, if the noble Earl will confer with me on the subject I will consider how far we can meet the case to which he referred.


My Lords, I have no doubt your Lordships will sympathise with the difficulty in which the noble Earl finds himself in putting off for a considerable period the final consummation of the Territorial Force. But there are two points on which I had rather hoped he would have said something, but on which we are still left in doubt, and which, I fear, if the Government carry out their present proposal to constitute the force at the end of next month, may prove to be a considerable stumbling-block in the way. In the first place, a very considerable uneasiness exists in regard to the Volunteer battalions that are to be reduced. It is not clear at present whether they are to be summarily reduced at the end of next month, or whether they are to be allowed, at the end of their normal engagement, gradually to fritter away and disappear. The second point refers to the attestation form to be signed by men on joining the Territorial Army. It contains what have been described by several County Associations as minatory clauses. A man asked to sign the form is told that if he joins the Territorial Army he will make himself liable to three months imprisonment, I think with hard labour, if he falsely answers any of the questions it contains. One of the questions is, "Are you married?" Some of the men are afraid that if they marry after signing the attestation form they will render themselves liable to three months imprisonment with hard labour. It is very desirable that nothing should be said or put forward officially which is likely in any way to frighten those intending to take the new terms of service. I think there is a little disposition on the part of the War Office to regard the Territorial Force too much as a fait accompli, and to ignore the very serious sacrifices which have to be made. With regard to the proposed Church parade on 5th April, to which my noble friend behind me alluded, can your Lordships imagine anything more absurd than to suggest to a Lord-Lieutenant that he should call upon all the commanding officers in his county to bring their battalions to Church? A Lord-Lieutenant of one county informed me that he would have to ask one of the commanding officers, a personal friend of his own, to march his men to Church in order to give thanks to the Almighty that his regiment was about to be disbanded by the Secretary of State. I hope the noble Earl will be able to assure us on the two points I have put to him.


It is difficult to follow exactly what the point was which my noble friend raised as regards the attestation form. Of course, if there is any danger of any misunderstanding arising as to the terms of the attestation form, it is desirable that the matter should be looked into and corrected. I think the noble Lord has touched a practical point in his Question—How is the selection to be made in the case of disbanded battalions of the Volunteers? Where there are one or more Volunteer battalions superfluous as battalions in a particular area under the new scheme of distribution it is proposed that the general officer commanding, acting in concert with the County Association, should decide on one of two alternatives, viz.:—(1) Whether all the existing units should be disbanded and an entirely new cadre raised, filling it to the necessary establishment from the officers and men of the disbanded units, or (2) whether all the units save one will be disbanded and the cadre of one retained and any gaps in its establishment made up from the individuals set free by the disbanding of the other battalions. But in either case every effort will be made to prevent the loss of the service of officers and men thus displaced. Every facility will be given them to transfer to other units, retaining their rank as far as possible. Should they not be disposed to accept transfer, the officers will be kept on a supernumerary list, to be absorbed in their county battalion when the opportunity occurs, and the men will be dealt with on similar lines, recruiting for the unit being closed until all those men whoso names are registered have been absorbed.