HL Deb 03 August 1909 vol 2 cc904-8

My Lords, I rise to ask whether it is a fact that in consequence of the shortage of horses the Divisional Transport and Supply Park had to be omitted in the experiment of the mobilisation of one of the four Divisions at Aldershot during last week. The reason I put this Question on the Paper is that it illustrates the very unsatisfactory condition of the horse question to which I have called attention on one or two previous occasions in your Lordships' House. It is an object lesson which I think will bring home to your Lordships the state of the horse problem at the present moment. According to the newspapers, the Supply Park and Divisional Transport had to be left behind last week because of the shortage of horses. According to The Times Correspondent, the establishment of horses for a Division is 7,504, but the number actually on parade last week was only 6,854, or a shortage of 650. The number of vehicles, which should have been 1,130, was actually only 946—a deficiency of 184.

It is said that the reason why the requisite horses could not be obtained for the Divisional Transport and Supply Park was that they were engaged by the Territorials. This means that in ease of real mobilisation the horses would be taken, and rightly taken, by the Regulars, and that the Territorials would have to go without horses altogether. As an example of what happened last week, I may mention that the Territorial medicals had to lend their horses to the Royal Army Medical Corps to fill up their numbers. This seems to me to be a strange commentary on the Aldershot Command, which is supposed to have two Divisions always ready for war. Many of these horses, I am also told, were very thin and unsuitable for the work they had to do. As a further evidence of Territorials not getting their horses, I would quote from the report of a meeting which took place on Saturday of a branch of the Imperial Horse Society at Colchester, at which the Master of the Essex and Suffolk Hounds, said, with regard to the supply of horses— Whenever the Regular Army wanted horses the Territorials would have none at all. Indeed, there were not enough horses to mount the Regulars. I venture to submit that the principle of three men to one horse is absolutely unsound and is bound to break down when the pinch comes. The Yeomanry, especially those in the South and in London, have not much more than one-third of their own horses. I read a comment upon this in one of the newspapers this morning, and if it were not so serious it would be really amusing. The newspaper observed— The Yeomanry horses are nearly all supplied by contractors and come mostly front between the shafts of London cabs. The young City Yeoman sometimes recognises in the horse he is riding in the field the animal behind which he was driven to Waterloo. I shall be told, of course, that this is all a question of money, and that it would have been quite possible to hire the requisite number of horses if the Government had thought it worth while. I should like to point out that the amount spent for the encouragement of horse breeding in this country is about £5,000 a year, whereas a country like Austria spends £370,000, and most of the other Continental countries spend in a similar ratio. Surely if we have, as was announced last night, a sum of £78,000 put away to provide aeroplanes, we might have a little more money put down for horses.

The question of horses seems to occupy the attention not only of the War Office, but also of the Board of Agriculture, and the noble Earl the President of that Board told us on a former occasion that he had a well-thought-out scheme, and that if the Treasury would supply the money he would be able to do something for the Army. That at the time was a very big "if," but I hope that the noble Earl will be able to give us some satisfaction on that point to-night. What we really want is immediate action. I do not think that plans are of any use because this is pressing and should be attended to at once. We were told on a former occasion that in 1906 there were 10,000 fewer foals in the country than there were in 1905. As far as I can see, one of the chief reasons for our shortage of horses is that foreigners come over and buy our horses at three years of age, whereas our War Office do not purchase till the horses are four years of age. The result is that we only get what the foreigners will not take; and I have it on the highest authority that the Austrian, German, and French Cavalry are very much better horsed than we are, and they are mostly mounted on English horses or the descendants of horses bought in this country. This state of affairs is highly unsatisfactory.

I am sure it is not the fault of the noble Earl the President of the Board of Agriculture. He is an old Cavalryman and an old brother officer of my own, and I am sure he will do his best to help the Cavalry. The number of horses required for one Division is comparatively small, and I should like to ask your Lordships what would happen if we had a general mobilisation and instead of wanting 7,000 horses we required 150,000, and 300,000 before the end of the first year, and at a moment when probably the Continental market would be closed and we should have great difficulty in getting horses from our Colonies. It seems to me that we must depend on our home market, and that some steps ought to be taken, and taken at once, to provide against all our best horses being taken out of the country. I do not mean to say that any restriction should be placed on horses going out of the country because that would interfere with the market, but I think our own War Office ought to purchase horses at an earlier age and make some arrangements by which they could be kept in this country until they were ready to be put with the regiments. I hope the noble Lord will be able to give me some satisfaction on this point.


My Lords, I think I can best answer the noble Earl's Question by telling your Lordships quite shortly what the object of last week's operations at Aldershot was. The experiment that was being tried was that of bringing a Division up to its absolute war strength. I do not like to call it mobilisation. This was not mobilisation technically speaking, though the result was for our purpose the same. We desired to bring this Division up to war strength in order to test certain tactical problems. We wanted to see, for instance, how much space they would occupy on the roads, how much space they would occupy in bivouac, and there were certain problems as to the feeding of the men—all technical problems which did not require extended operations to give us what we wanted. In fact, the whole of the operations of this Division lasted only forty-eight hours. In military operations the theory of your Supply Park is that it moves one day's march behind your Division—that is to say, that in last week's operations supposing you had horsed your Supply Park it would not have left Aldershot. In fact, the Ammunition Park which we did horse did not move out of Aldershot at all. Therefore, there was nothing to be gained and no lesson to be learned by horsing the Supply Park, and to have done it would have involved a considerable sum of money. We did not consider the expenditure of this money justified because no useful results could possibly have accrued from it, and that was the reason we did not horse the Transport and Supply Park. Although we call it Divisional Transport, it is more fair to look upon the Transport and Supply Park as part of the lines of communication, which you could only have really made use of if the whole thing had been on a very much larger scale than it was. There was no question at all of any shortage of horses due to the fact that a large number of Territorials were out for training or to any other reason whatever. I think we should have found it perfectly easy to obtain the necessary horses had they been required. As to the general question of the supply of horses, I would ask your Lordships to remember that, after all, the number of horses available for training purposes and the number of horses that would be available in the event of mobilisation and of the Government taking the powers which the Army Act confers upon them are two entirely different things. Until the census of horses which is now being taken throughout the country is completed it will be impossible to know the number of horses available, but from what we do know we are perfectly certain that there is a number sufficient not only for the First and Second Line in case of mobilisation, but to leave a large surplus over and above our immediate requirements on mobilisation. The future supply of horses affects my noble friend the President of the Board of Agriculture more than myself, and I will leave to him any further answer that can be made.


My Lords, I am glad to be able to inform my noble friend opposite, who has taken great interest in the horse breeding question, that I am authorised to say that a Bill will probably be brought in next week embodying the proposals relating to development which were described by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his Budget Speech. This Bill will provide a fund for agricultural schemes such as my proposals with reference to horse breeding for Army purposes, which have been approved of by the War Office and the Army Council, and which I am confident will permanently insure a sufficient supply of horses being immediately available for military purposes besides giving a great impetus to the breeding of the right class of horses by the farmers of the United Kingdom. I hope this answer will be satisfactory to the noble Earl.


Will the Bill be introduced in this House?


The Bill will be introduced. That is all I can say.