HL Deb 04 May 1911 vol 8 cc177-91

LORD WILLOUGHBY DE BROKE rose to call attention to the deficiency of trained horses for the Cavalry Division, and to ask the Secretary of State for War whether he proposes to rely on untrained horses to fill up the deficiency on mobilisation.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I desire to call public attention to the lack in the number of trained horses in this country—that is, trained for the purposes of war. The difficulty of trained horses and trained men is not at all a new one. It appears to have been present to the minds of people ever since the days of Hezekiah. Your Lordships will recollect that the King of Assyria sent a message to Hezekiah to say that he would provide a thousand horses if Hezekiah would provide a thousand men to put on them. It seems to me, looking at the number of trained horses in relation to the men you have in this country at the present moment, that the noble Viscount the Secretary of State for War is going to do even better than Hezekiah did. He is going to put three men on one horse instead of one man on each horse. But be that as it may. What I desire to call serious attention to is not so much the method of increasing the number of trained horses—we shall come to that later on, because I understand that the Secretary of State for War has under consideration a scheme for dealing with this matter—but the present peace establishment. We cannot say with what nation we may be allied in the event of a European conflict. We have an entente with the French nation. The French have a large Army of Infantry; and. I submit that it is not too rash a statement to say that in the event of a European conflict the French, or any ally that we had, would rely mainly for assistance from this country upon the Cavalry Division of twelve regiments, which contains, if our information is correct, some of the finest trained Cavalry soldiers and Staff that Europe has yet seen. But it is absolutely vital that you should be in a position to place your Cavalry Division in the field at the very first moment after the outbreak of hostilities.

I am told that the war establishment of the Cavalry Division, including Horse Artillery and the rest, is 10,618 horses, and that the peace establishment you provide at present is only 6,810. I know that it is difficult, probably impossible, to keep your Cavalry Division supplied with trained horses for every man, and I am not able to state positively what is done in other countries with regard to this; but I submit that some of them have the double training establishment on which they can count for a certain number of trained horses at the outbreak of hostilities. I submit with great respect to the Secretary of State for War that the fact that there is a supposed deficiency—I hope the noble Viscount will be able to contradict it—of 3,808 horses required on mobilisation, is a very disquieting factor in considering our military strength; and it should be further remembered that this figure of 3,808 horses has been arrived at after deducting 10 per cent. as unfit to take the field, which percentage in the opinion of all experts is, I am informed, a very low rate of deduction.

The next question that arises is, where are you going to get trained horses from supposing your Cavalry has to be mobilised suddenly? Do you propose to take totally untrained horses to the front? I am aware that in the Boer War a great number of comparatively untrained horses went to the front, and I believe they behaved in the field with more or less satisfaction, but I should say that a European campaign would be quite a different matter. In support of that opinion I am fortified by the view of General Haig, who, I believe, is one of the experts upon whom the noble Viscount the Secretary of State for War relies. He calls attention to a very striking incident in the Battle of Gravelotte, owing to a squadron of the 9th German Hussars being mounted on untrained or comparatively untrained horses—at any rate, horses added on mobilisation. These horses stampeded as soon as the slightest confusion arose, as soon as a shot was fired, and carried with them not only that regiment but several other regiments and the baggage wagons which were standing on the side of the road down which the horses stampeded.

Another question which has to be seriously considered in the event of mobilisation is that if you have to send, as you must endeavour to send, all your trained horses to the front, what provision is going to be made for a certain number of horses for the recruits who are to be trained at home? You will be compelled to leave some of your stock of trained horses, which ought to be sent to the front, for your recruits to train on or else they will have to train upon horses which will not enable them to carry out their training as quickly as with trained horses. I understand that some scheme is being proposed for training the horses of private owners with a view to their being mobilised in a satisfactory condition, and I should like to tell the Secretary of State for War that as a private owner of horses I will do everything in my power to help him and the War Office to make that scheme a success. I think he is very wise to undertake it, because the trouble is not the lack of horses in the United Kingdom. I have some horses myself which would be very safe mounts. If the noble Viscount could see his way to foreshadow this evening anything he has in his mind for the strengthening of the supply of horses I am sure we should be much obliged. But the point I particularly want his views upon is whether he thinks, putting on one side altogether the number of horses in the country which might become available, that the present peace establishment of trained horses is adequate supposing the Cavalry had to be mobilised at anything like short notice?


My Lords, I crave your indulgence in addressing your Lordships for the first time. My excuse is that, having served something like fourteen years in a Cavalry regiment, this question of trained horses naturally appeals very much to me. I heartily support the noble Lord in raising the question of the shortage of trained horses for the Cavalry Division. I do not think it is necessary to call your Lordships' attention to the enormous handicap that any trained soldier is under when placed upon a horse that is not properly trained. Many of your Lordships have had experience in the hunting field and on the polo ground, and I am sure as regards yourselves the last thing you would wish to do would be to take the field on untrained horses.

What would be the position of the Cavalry soldier, who in time of peace has probably no horse at all allotted to him owing to the number of horses being short, when he is called up suddenly on active service if he is given, say, one of those delightful Irish four-year-olds and asked to ride it in his squadron or troop? Any one who has had experience of Cavalry will tell you the enormous mischief an untrained horse can do in the ranks. I had the honour of serving in a regiment with General Haig to whom Lord Willoughby de Broke referred, and also with the present Commandant of the Cavalry School, and in that regiment great stress was laid on the training of our horses. I have also had some experience on active service of untrained horses, and I had the pleasure on one occasion of riding some sixty miles after 150 horses which had stampeded, mainly owing to the fact that we had bought horses which were not trained. I do hope, and I speak very feelingly as a late Cavalry soldier, that this question of trained horses for trained men will be considered, because I do not think there is any use spending money on the trained Cavalry soldier if you are unable to give him a trained horse to take the field on. You might just as well keep him an infantry soldier.

Attention was also called by Lord Willoughby de Broke to the question of recruits. We all know that a very large percentage—a much larger percentage than I care to think of—are put in all regiments to fill up. With regard to the recruit on an untrained horse, I leave it entirely to your Lordships' imagination to consider what would be the result on active service. I understand that the noble Viscount the Secretary of State for War is taking an interest in flying machines. He is going to pay a visit to the headquarters, and perhaps take a ride in one. May I suggest to the noble Viscount that when he next visits Aldershot he should ride a trained horse and also an untrained horse, so that he will be able to appreciate the position of the trained soldier?


My Lords, we owe a good deal to the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, and to the noble Lord who has just spoken for bringing this matter before the public, because the subject of Cavalry horses has for long been the least explored part of the whole of the not very deeply explored military organisation of this country. Our practice has been when we wanted horses on the outbreak of war to go and buy them wherever we could get them. Those horses, of course, were not trained, and the unfortunate Cavalrymen were put on them. We did the best we could. That practice contrasted in an extraordinary fashion with the Continental practice, where the question of remounts has been carried to a very high pitch of perfection.

There are two systems. There is the German system, where the regiments have their own mounts, and there is the Austrian system, where boarded-out horses are used extensively. I may say to your Lordships that it was not till two or three years ago that I myself realised the gravity of the situation in this country, and there is very little in what Lord Willoughby de Broke and Lord Greville said that I dissent from. Supposing our Cavalry are mobilised, they are obviously at an enormous disadvantage particularly if opposed to well-mounted Cavalry. We therefore set to work to consider what was the best to be done, and in what has been done I have been guided by men such as General French and General Haig, great Cavalry experts, who were consulted at the beginning of this business—and a very difficult one it is going to be. The constitution of the Cavalry Division two or three years ago brought to light an enormous number of new points never dreamed of. The whole machinery was put to the test, and we found that the weakest points were the remounts. Since then we have added men and horses to the regiments. We have added to the men and substantially to the horses, and we have added remounts—regimental horses and boarded-out horses. But I say at once that although we have a peace establishment which shows an actual number of horses in excess of the war establishment, we have not yet solved the problem of how to produce that war establishment of trained horses; and I entirely agree with Lord Willoughby de Broke that until your horses are trained your Cavalry cannot be said to be properly efficient.

At the present time the peace establishment of a Cavalry regiment is as follows. I will take regiments as more convenient than Divisions, because the figures of a Division are complicated by transfers and other things which prevent your getting the right figures as regards the horses. The peace establishment of a Cavalry regiment is this:—With the regiment, 469 horses; boarded-out, 73—total 542. The war establishment is:—With the regiment, 434; at the base depôt, 48—total 482. But the surplus is only a nominal one, because a considerable number of these horses are untrained horses, and as I have already said I agree that the problem we have to solve is how to get trained horses for the Cavalry. There is no difficulty about numbers. Numbers can be got by means of the boarding-out system. If that proves, as the result of experiments, to be useful, it may facilitate our task, but I should be sorry to dogmatise about this business, and I will tell you why. This is one of those things that can be solved only by making careful investigation by the best experts. We have had sitting now for about a month a Committee which I think leaves very little to be desired. Some of the best Cavalry soldiers in the country are sitting on that Committee, and I believe we are to have the advantage of the evidence of Lord Willoughby de Broke as a Master of Hounds on the subject of what training can be given to boarded-out horses in order to make them efficient.

There are two views on this question. One view is that you can by perfecting your system of training secure that every boarded-out horse may reach a certain condition of efficiency. The other is that you can only provide properly trained horses if the horses are allocated to a regiment. That view can only be tested by experts. Germany takes one view, Austria the other; but the Committee must take some time to inquire. There is a good deal of evidence, and therefore I do not want to say anything about the subject or in any way to prejudice the conclusions to which the Committee may come on this subject. One very important point arises in this connection. We know how wasteful it is in war to use horses under six years old. Our custom has been to use for war purposes four and five year old horses. That has not been done on the Continent, although you may do it very well for the Yeomanry where the stress is not so great. But for Regular Cavalry, particularly for the Expeditionary Force, who may have severe work, it is wasteful to use horses under six years old. What we want to do is to train our horses thoroughly if possible, and not use them until they are in a proper condition. There are experts who say that British horses can be taken at less than six years old, that you can utilise them between five and six years old, but that is a point upon which the Committee will come to a decision.

I think I have said enough to show your Lordships the extraordinarily conflicting character of this problem. At all events, the War Office is very busily engaged with it at the present time. We hope under the new legislation of this year to complete before long the census of horses. No doubt we shall find many more horses than we require, but the difficulty will be when you come to the Cavalry to get trained horses, and I doubt very much whether the census will help us in this matter. The problem that remains is a Cavalry problem, and I can only say that I hope the light thrown upon it by the Committee will enable us to come to some practical conclusion. We have so far solved the problem that we have increased the establishment for Cavalry very substantially within the last two years, and there are more than enough horses to mobilise them; but you cannot properly mobilise with these horses, and therefore there remains this secondary problem which I consider in some respects a more difficult problem than the first.


My Lords, the Secretary of State for War has most frankly stated how indebted your Lordships are to the noble Lord for bringing this subject forward, and I desire to associate myself with the noble Viscount in saying that. It seems to me that this is really a most important question, more specially important perhaps because it is not the kind of question that, from its ordinary nature, comes very much before the public eye. At the same time it is a question about which rumours fly around, and one on which the public should be reassured.

It seems to me that there are really two questions involved—the question of the provision of trained horses on mobilisation to which the noble Lord has referred and to which I desire to refer no further, and the question of reassuring the public as to the fitness of the horses you have in the ranks at the present moment. The noble Viscount spoke the other day of mobilising four Divisions in ten days and the remaining two Divisions in twenty-one days. I did not gather at the time in which of these two categories the Cavalry are at present considered to be, apart altogether from the question of the provision of the number of horses. But I rise this afternoon in order to ask the Secretary of State for War if he will consider whether something might not be done to bring clearly to the mind of the public the fact, and I believe it to be the fact, that the horses you now have in the ranks are as efficiently trained as they ought to be if they had to go to war at ten days' notice. I do not think the public mind is satisfied at the present time on that point, and I think it ought to be.

The French Cavalry during the last few weeks have performed a most remarkable achievement, with the details of which I have no doubt the noble Viscount is familiar. It arose from a good deal of discussion in France as to whether the horses in the ranks were kept as fit as they ought to be. The result was that a prize was offered to the regiment which should prove itself best in a competition organised more or less on the lines of a scouting movement. The trial took place about four weeks ago, when I had the good fortune to be in France. Although I did not actually see any of the trials going on, I think I fully appreciated the atmosphere. The tests were to be that parties from the various regiments—an officer, a non-commissioned officer, and four men—were given seventy-two hours in which to cover a distance of 300 kilometres, or, roughly, 188 miles. They were to perform this feat, all converging upon Paris, as a unit. It was perfectly useless for a horse or a man to fall out; disqualification met them the moment one of their number was unable to keep up with the others. It was not a race, because no unit was allowed to enter Paris before the seventy-second hour, but you will see at once that it was a very high test of courage and endurance—a very high test of the brains of the officer in charge, and of his power to study his route and look after his horses and men. It was also a very high test of the efficiency of the turn-out, the efficiency of the fitting and the saddlery, and, in fact, a very high test of a Cavalry unit.

Well, the remarkable part of this trial is that whereas twenty-seven parties started from twenty-seven regiments to take part in this competition, twenty-three parties actually carried it out. There were only four failures, and of those one was caused by a horse slipping on the tram line as it was entering Paris and thus becoming lame. It was coming along, therefore, in the last few yards of the competition. Another failure was caused by a piece of bad luck— a horse going lame. The non-commissioned officer and the men sat up all night but failed to get it right, so it had to be sent home to Paris by rail. But they felt so disappointed that although they only remained five in their unit and were disqualified, they determined to complete the competition themselves, and in order to be in at the proper time they did eighty-four miles in twenty-four hours, and arrived spic and span on the last morning of the trial. These sort of failures are not failures to be ashamed of. They only illustrate more fully, I think, the excellence of the whole performance. The very heavy feat of going 188 miles in this time was performed successfully by twenty-three units out of twenty-seven, the four failures being really very small failures, and two were almost, as I have pointed out, successes.

The reason I have drawn attention to this matter is this. There is no doubt whatever that this competition made a most profound impression upon public opinion in France. It profoundly impressed public opinion there as to the efficiency of their Cavalry. I would suggest to the noble Viscount the Secretary of State for War whether he would like to give us a similar impression in England. It would be possible for him to carry out a similar competition amongst thirteen regiments at this moment which are all within that distance—188 miles of London. He could bring fourteen regiments if he chose to bring in York, but he would have to arrange for York to start 10 miles this side of London. If the noble Viscount thought it desirable and found it convenient to carry out such a trial as this, it is important that a start should be made very soon because it is undesirable that horses should be put in special training. We want to know whether the horses in the possession of our Cavalry are fit to go to war in ten days' time. If the noble Viscount thought it desirable that this trial should take place here, I do not wish to put myself unduly forward but I think I might undertake, having consulted Lord Willoughby de Broke and one or two others, that a small sum would be forthcoming to give a prize to the successful men and a piece of plate to the successful regiment. I do not myself doubt that the British Cavalry could carry out this trial every bit as well as the French Cavalry, but I do not know whether the public also realise that. I should like them to, and therefore I commend this idea to the noble Viscount opposite.


My Lords, I have been a Cavalry soldier for a short time myself, and although I agree with a part of what the noble Earl, Lord Donoughmore, said, I think he rather—I do not like to put it too strongly—cast an aspersion on members of the Cavalry in this country. I could not quite hear what he said. I was sitting behind him, but I think I heard him describing a ride of French Cavalry recently towards Paris. The ride, I understand, was about 188 miles, but I could not hear the time which the noble Earl gave.


Seventy-two hours.


It is two or three years since I was in the Army, but I remember that a squadron of the regiment in which I had the honour to serve certainly did as much as sixty or seventy miles in a day in reconnoitring and that sort of thing, and although it was manœuvres carried on as much as possible under the conditions of war that squadron continued its very active operations next day and the next day after that, and I do not remember that there were any casualties in that squadron or that the horses were in any way put out of action. I fancy in course of time the officer commanding that particular squadron took a certain amount of pride in having carried out this ride, and it certainly surprised several people that the horses of an ordinary Cavalry regiment in England could do such a thing. But there it was, and I do not think the noble Earl would find any difficulty in discovering several Cavalry regiments in England who would be able to carry out a ride and compete with any Cavalry regiment abroad.

The root of the trouble in regard to the supply of horses is, to my mind, the initial difficulty of getting horses at all. The Remount Department are limited as to the amount of money which they can expend. At least they used to be. Formerly they were limited to a certain amount as the price which they could give for a horse. I suppose the Exchequer did not like to produce as much money as the Army officers would like, and the result was that Cavalry regiments as a rule had to train their men on an insufficient number of horses. Besides that, the Remount Department used to obtain horses of too young an age. They could not afford to pay a longer price, and the result was they bought three or four-year-olds. What was the effect of that? These horses were trained in the riding school and given a very severe training, and in several cases the constitutions of the horses were ruined and they never recovered. That will be borne out by any Cavalry soldier in your Lordships' House, and that is where the British Army suffers such a disadvantage as compared with the German Army. I believe the Germans never fight with, or even train, a horse until it is six years old, and the result is that it lasts much longer. The reason we cannot do that is that we have not the horses.

The Secretary of State for War, of course, knows all this. He has a Committee sitting, and all these points are naturally gone into. The great difficulty so far as trained horses are concerned is, as I have said, the initial difficulty of supplying the horses to begin with. If you give the Cavalry regiments sufficient horses you will find sufficient trained horses to go to war when the time comes; but, as everybody knows, the Cavalry regiments are insufficiently horsed, and the result is the horses have to do a great deal too much work. They are worked from morning till night, from year's end to year's end. In the regiment I was connected with we had this great advantage over other Cavalry regiments, that our horses were not worked all the winter as well as all the summer. They had a certain amount of rest, and the result was they were much better; and though I do not say it in derogation of any other Cavalry regiment, our horses were much fitter when manœuvres came than the other horses of the Line, for the reason that they had been cared for a bit more because we could rest them.

I was in Canada about two years ago, and an officer of the Canadian Pacific Railway was talking to me about the supply of horses. He said, as everybody knows, that it is quite feasible to obtain a supply of horses fit for Cavalry regiments from Canada, if the Government would only give the ranchers an undertaking that they would go and buy a certain number every year. The Government did not do so, and the result is that the ranchers do not any longer breed the class of horse fit for this particular work, but go in for the shires and the hackneys. But this officer told me that a few years ago he was authorised by the President of the Canadian Pacific Railway to write to the War Office and offer them 10,000 acres of land at a nominal price, about a cent an acre, the idea being that this land would be carefully chosen and would act as a collecting station for troop horses to mount Cavalry, or gun horses. I asked him what happened. He said, "They never even answered my letter." This was several years ago and the noble Viscount the present Secretary of State for War is quite exonerated in the matter, because he probably never heard of the letter much less ever saw it. But there it is. The Canadian Pacific Railway Company made this offer. They hold to it, I believe, to-day. They would produce these 10,000 acres at the nominal rent, as I say, of a cent an acre, and you would then be able to collect your horses and buy the very best, for in Canada, as is well known, there are most excellent horses. It is difficult to improve upon them; and so long as you had the command of the sea you would be able to ship them over very quickly during war time.


My Lords, I entirely agree with the last speaker, that the English Cavalry would be perfectly competent to carry out the exercise which Lord Donoughmore so graphically described. The question is not so much one as to the training and fitness of the English horses, but as to the quality of the horses themselves. I was told only a year or two ago by one of the Inspectors-General of Cavalry—I will not mention his name—that he had attended in an official capacity the manœuvres in Germany, France, and Austria, and the conclusion he had come to was that the Cavalry in those three countries were far better mounted than the Cavalry in this country. And the worst of it is that the horses on which these Cavalry are mounted are either English horses or their descendants. The reason this is so is that the foreigners come over here and buy our horses at three years old, whereas we do not buy them until they are four years old; the result is we only get what they will not take.

I was very glad to hear the noble Viscount opposite say they were not going to send out any horses until they are six years old. I think that is economically correct. I took a horse to South Africa which had never been worked at all until he was six years old, and I have got him running in a cart now, and he is over twenty years old. I believe that is entirely due to his not having been hard worked when he was three or four years old. I would point out, further, that in the case of a Continental war there might be difficulty in providing horses for this country, as the foreign markets would probably be closed to us. I speak with some diffidence on this question, as the noble Earl the Minister for Agriculture has put me on the Advisory Board. When I was in a regiment and anybody grumbled at the food he was immediately put on the Mess Committee, and I think it was on this principle that the noble Earl placed me on the Advisory Board. As far as I understand, the duty of the Board of Agriculture is to provide the horses and to see to the breed of horses in this country, but I think, on the other hand, it is the business of the War Office to retain them, either by buying them at three years old or getting a lien on them, so that they shall not be taken away by the foreigner, or so that we, at any rate, shall have the first choice.

It seems to me that if we had to mobilise suddenly the Territorials would be more or less denuded of horses to fill up the Cavalry Division when they started. I think it would be the right thing if every Yeoman had a horse registered on which he could rely at the moment of mobilisation. At the end of six months we should probably want to entirely remount the Cavalry in a campaign, as the mortality is something enormous amongst horses, not only from want of food and from exposure but from the extraordinarily hard work which they have to undergo. The Yeomanry, as your Lordships know, are very short of horses. Three men as a rule have to ride one horse. Mr. Tilling, I believe, provides these horses; and I was much surprised the other day to hear from the Secretary of State for War that Colonel Repington had said that two Yeomanry regiments were equal to one Regular Cavalry regiment. I should like to know whether those Yeomanry regiments are mounted, because if they are not I do not think it is putting the Regular Cavalry regiment very high.


My Lords, nobody is more conscious than I am of the difficulties which beset the Secretary of State for War, and I have no doubt that every effort is being made by the War Office to overcome them. There is one point which I think is not sufficiently realised by some Cavalry officers, and that is that the difficulty as regards the shortage of horses for regiments in ordinary times, in time of peace, is not by any means due to the parsimony of the War Office. I myself on two occasions had a Committee of Cavalry Officers and directed them to let us know the largest number of horses they would take in a regiment in time of peace, and on each occasion the War Office exceeded the number which these officers declared themselves willing to take. The difficulty was that with the number of duties to be performed one man was found to have to groom two horses unless you kept down the number to a reasonable limit. The difficulty before the war was that Cavalry officers found it impossible to house, or rather to maintain, as many horses as the War Office would have been glad to give. Then, of course, there comes the difficulty as regards age, and the provision of horses on mobilisation. I believe that those officers who had the advantage of the first 14,000 registered horses which were used—some for Cavalry, some for Artillery, and a few for transport—all agree that on the whole the first demands in the South African war were well met. I might even now commend to the noble Viscount the suggestion made by the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, that there should be a registered horse for each Yeoman. I believe that would not be an undue demand, and would really make the Yeoman efficient for the immediate purposes of mobilisation without waiting for a further supply.

What I rose chiefly to say was this. It fell upon me later in the war, after the original difficulties of supply had been more, or less met, to have to maintain a supply of 10,000 horses per month for a year and a half—300 horses a day to be landed in South Africa; and I have always been convinced that we could never attempt that again unless we had some supply from British territory on which we might depend. I would therefore ask the noble Viscount opposite, before all these vacant lands are taken up in Canada—I mean lands con- venient for this purpose—to consider such offers as Lord Clanwilliam said had been made. The sooner we make this provision in some country where there is ample range and where we can secure the class of horse which we desire, the better it will be for the Army. I dare say it is well known to all those who have studied this question that the breed of horses in Australia for this purpose left a great deal to be desired; and I am sorry to think that in the years that have elapsed since the war we have not at the War Office made any change in this respect.

I hope that the noble Viscount will, if he possibly can, enable a system to be set on foot which will register for every trooper who will be mobilised, whether in the Regular Army or in the Yeomanry, a horse on which he can put his hand on the day of mobilisation, and that the noble Viscount will also be able to find for us outside the United Kingdom, without in any way prejudicing the supply from here, some supply which will enable us in that particular country where we get the horses to keep them until they are five years old if not till six years. I know that the noble Viscount the Secretary of State for War is fully alive to this grave and increasing danger in regard to a sufficiency of horses, a danger which must increase owing to motor traction so largely diminishing the supply of horses in some parts of the United Kingdom, and one which I am sure your Lordships will be glad to help him to overcome.