HL Deb 04 March 1912 vol 11 cc292-303

My Lords, I rise to ask the Secretary of State for War whether in the event of the Expeditionary Force having been called out for service abroad last September, the rifles of that Force would have been inferior to those of the German Army. This question is to my mind of such vital importance to that branch of His Majesty's Forces with which I have been connected for so many years that that must be my excuse for bringing it forward again this evening. It will be within the recollection of your Lordships that when we had a debate upon armaments about a fortnight ago I put this same question to the noble Viscount the Secretary of State for War, and, as your Lordships are aware, I failed to receive any reply. Since that time the Under-Secretary for War has stated in public, at a meeting of the London Rifle Club, that this subject of the new rifle is of the greatest importance, for not only are the leading armies of the world better equipped with small arms than our own troops, but several of the smaller nations have adopted rifles which are claimed to be superior to those of the leading Powers. If that statement is true, I do not think it will be difficult to understand why the noble Viscount refrained from answering my question. I trust that in the circumstances your Lordships will consider that I am justified, in the interests of the Army, in bringing this question again before the House, and I hope that the noble Viscount will give us far more information on the subject to-day than he did on the last occasion. If the noble Viscount agrees with Colonel Sealy as to the rifle, it appears to me that the issue of the new rifle brooks no delay.

I venture to think that most of your Lordships will agree that an important subject such as this should not be lightly passed over, at any rate by this House, for this is not a Party question. It is a national question. It not only affects the safety of our troops when on the field of battle, but it also affects the security of our shores. When the noble Viscount on February 20 rose to deal with the points that ware brought forward on that occasion, he said— I think it will be convenient that I first deal with the question of armament. As your Lordships are aware, instead of doing so he proceeded to make a somewhat lengthy defence of the Military Correspondent of The Times. We were told that this gentleman received £500 per annum from public funds as editor of the Army Review, which I would like to point out to your Lordships is only published quarterly, and that at the same time he was permitted to write independently for papers such as The Times. Therefore this gentleman is not only a paid officer of the War Office, but also a paid servant of a public newspaper. I venture to think that such an appointment has never hitherto been known in the history of the War Office, and, as I said the other day, it is not surprising that the majority of the officers in the Army regard the articles of the Military Correspondent of The Times as simply written to champion the present administration of the War Office, and, therefore, as of no value at all. The noble Viscount pointed out that though the Military Correspondent of The Times was editor of the Army Review he did not have access to papers at the War Office without the leave of the chief of the Imperial General Staff. That question has since been brought forward in another place, and therefore I will not touch upon it again.

But with regard to the rifle, I am aware that other noble Lords on this side of the House also had complaints that during the armament debate a fortnight ago they did not get any definite answer from the noble Viscount on the points which they brought forward. My noble friend Lord Stanhope, in his able and forcible speech, brought out, in my opinion, a very potent question. He asked, "Who is responsible for the fact that our Army has been equipped for six long years with a rifle and ammunition not up to modern requirements? As your Lordships are aware, he received no answer to that question. In fact, the noble Viscount hardly replied to the noble Earl's remarks at all, except to say that his speech was a most interesting one. I quite agree with the noble Viscount there; and any one who heard Lord Stanhope's speech could not have failed to recognise that he was an expert on the subject and was speaking of what he knew. As far as I could gather, the main line of defence of the noble Viscount with regard to the present rifle was this, that the English soldier could fire out of his rifle double the number of rounds in a given time that could be fired out of the German rifle; that is to say, without bringing the rifle down from his shoulder, meaning to imply that the rifle was more or less used auto- matically. In spite of that assertion, however, the noble Viscount said later on, when speaking of the automatic rifle— The waste of ammunition and the inaccuracy in shooting which comes from it counterbalances…the advantage in the number of bullets you can send out of the muzzle in a minute of time. If he holds that view with regard to the automatic rifle, how does he contend that our rifle has any superiority over that of the German rifle?

During the recent debate we came to this universal decision, that the weak spot in the Lee-Enfield rifle was its breech action. No one can doubt, however, that with its turned down bolt lever we are in this respect in advance of other countries. Other countries, too, are at a disadvantage in not having the hand-guard in front of their rifle for rapid firing. The point that some bring out—that our rifles hold ten bullets and those of other nations only hold five—is, in my opinion, a doubtful advantage. But on the other hand the breech locking action of Continental rifles is well known to be far superior to that of our rifle, whilst their sighting is far simpler, more especially that of the French rifle with its battle sight. In the course of the noble Viscount's remarks respecting our rifle, he advocated that one of the great points about it was its lightness, that it could be quickly brought; up to the shoulder and down again. With all respect to the noble Viscount, I do not agree that that is much advantage, and for this reason—that in modern warfare, as the noble and gallant Field-Marshal who sits on the Cross Benches (Earl Roberts) well knows, the standing position for which that is useful is never used on the field of battle; in fact, the prone position is invariably used and nothing else except, perhaps, the sitting or kneeling position. But no one who has had any experience of our rifle can doubt that the greatest objection to it lies in this—the flatness of the trajectory of foreign rifles as compared with that of our own; and there is no question, if that is true, that our troops the moment they go on to the field of battle are at a great disadvantage—a disadvantage which I contend no nation can afford to run, more especially a nation with a small Army like ours, an Army which is now represented in part by a Special Reserve only partially trained annually in rifle shooting, and by Reserves hardly trained at all.

A few months ago this country was on the verge of war, and if it had taken place it would have necessitated the Expeditionary Force going to the Continent. Are we sure that that situation will not very soon, or in a very short time, recur? Surely, then, it is the duty of the military authorities at the War Office to hasten the issue of the new rifle before it is too late, so that our troops when they do take the field will be, if not on a superior, at any rate on an equal, footing with the troops of other Powers. In this connection it must be remembered that 80 per cent. of the casualties in battle result from rifle bullets, and our deficiency in respect to the rifle could not be compensated for by any superiority in regard to Artillery. That is my reason for asking the Question on the Paper, and I hope that the noble Viscount will give me a definite answer and will also state what he proposes to do in the immediate future.


My Lords, the noble Viscount began his speech with something like a resolution of virtue, but before long he had got away into a still more attractive topic than his friend the rifle, and that was the Military Correspondent of The Times, who seems to exercise a fascination for the noble Viscount comparable to that which King Charles's head exercised over a certain historic personage. I will not, however, pursue the subject of the Military Correspondent of The Times, which is not germane to this question.

The noble Viscount, in his Question on the Paper, asks whether the rifle which we now possess would have been, in the event of the Expeditionary Force having been called out for service abroad last September, inferior to the rifle of the German Army. I think it would have been inferior to the rifle of the German Army in very material points, but none the less I add to that that it would have been a very serviceable rifle and one with which no troops need have been afraid to go into action. It has various advantages which the rifle of the German Army has not. It is not the case that a flat trajectory is everything. A flat trajectory is important, but there are other things to be taken into account. A flat trajectory merely means that if you take aim at a man say 800 yards away, you have a better chance than with a high trajectory of hitting somebody in between whom you did not aim at. With a high trajectory the man standing in between and at whom you did not aim would have the bullet go over his head, but with a flat trajectory there would be a chance, although he would have to be a tall man indeed if he was in the centre of the line of fire, of his being hit. But for hitting the man at whom you are aiming, one trajectory is for all purposes practically as good as another. If you are aiming at a man 400 yards away you naturally sight for a man at 400 yards, and the rifle with a high trajectory is as good as a rifle with a low trajectory. Moreover, a rifle with a high trajectory has compensating advantages. If the high trajectory is caused by the heavy weight of the bullet, then the bullet hits with more force and the accuracy is greater. But I am not here to say that it is not an advantage to have a flat trajectory. It is an advantage, but not the only advantage.

It is some time since the Army had the advantage of the noble Viscount belonging to it. A good many things have happened since then, and if he had had to do, as the experts of to-day have to do, with comparing the qualities of rifles, he would know that a great many things are now taken into account. One in particular in these days of rapid firing is the possibility of covering the intervening space with a large volume of lead. For that purpose a light handy rifle has advantages over a long and heavy rifle, and in the new rifle we are endeavouring to preserve the great advantages which the short rifle, the rifle which was introduced by my noble and gallant friend who sits on the Cross Benches, possesses; but our purpose is to combine with those advantages a trajectory as flat as we can get it, for the reason that it is an advantage for the flight of your bullet to be low so as to cover the intervening space. The General Staff, however, inform me that it is an advantage which is a good deal exaggerated, because when you are sighting any one 800 yards away there are not usually people intervening. But it is one, at all events, among other advantages, and so long as you can have it without sacrificing the handiness of the short rifle it is an advantage worth obtaining. One reason why we are proceeding with a new rifle is to get a larger charge than is possible with the existing rifle.


I beg the noble Viscount's pardon, but did he say that he is proceeding with a new rifle?


Yes, the pattern is approved for trial, and manufacture on an experimental scale will proceed. I will say a word about that presently. The great difficulty with the existing rifle is that the breech-chamber is too small. Consequently you cannot get in a large charge, and you cannot get as great a muzzle velocity as otherwise you might obtain. The way that has been dealt with in the new rifle is that the breech-chamber is larger and will allow of much greater pressure. The noble Viscount spoke as though all you had to do when you had adopted the pattern of a new rifle was to make it and issue it at once. I can assure him that there is a great deal more to be done. First of all, you have to do what necessitates a great deal of experiment on a large scale; you have to determine the proper charge and the relation of the charge to the bullet. We shall not have determined that satisfactorily until this rifle has been used on a considerable scale. Therefore we are at present proceeding to manufacture a considerable number of them for the purpose of arming one or two battalions which can practise over a prolonged period with the new rifle, and at the end of some months furnish us with satisfactory materials on which to decide whether or not we have got the right form of charge and the right form of bullet.

There is every kind of question to decide. There is the question whether you should use shred cordite or small tubular cordite, or whether you should use flake cordite. These considerations involve scientific and mathematical problems of a high order, so complicated that the result has to be obtained largely experimentally. The German Army changed their charge almost the other day. They adopted an entirely new cartridge notwithstanding that their rifle had only been brought out in 1908. The reason why we cannot do as much as we would wish with the existing rifle is that the chamber is not large enough. That is why we have adopted a new rifle, and these experiments on a large scale are necessary before we know exactly how we stand. The new rifle we have adopted has the flattest trajectory in the world, and I think it possesses a great many other advantages. I should be sorry to say that nobody will discover a better rifle in the course of the next few years, but what I wish to emphasise is that the important point is not so much the rifle as the cartridge. If you make a rifle with a large enough and strong enough breech-chamber you can put in new ammunition as new ammunition presents itself. We think we have the best ammunition; but what we do not know is whether we have got the cordite in the most perfect form for a high pressure rifle.

Meantime the steps we have taken are these. Although the existing pattern of rifle does not admit of as large a charge as we are attempting, it admits of a considerably larger charge than we have ever had before, and the new cartridge with which four Divisions of the Expeditionary Force were armed last December, and with which the whole six Divisions will be armed in the course of a month or so—the new cartridge for which we have taken a large sum of money in the Estimates this year—contains a considerably larger charge, and we get a substantially increased muzzle velocity and a trajectory which is four feet lower than the trajectory of the present rifle. These things are never accomplished very rapidly. If they are accomplished very rapidly, failure and disappointment result. Far the most difficult part of the problem is the ammunition in its relation to the bullet. That can only be determined by experience. As soon as we know that we have hit upon the right form of ammunition, the right proportion of what is in the cartridge and what is in the bullet, we shall, now that we have determined the rifle, proceed very rapidly. If an automatic rifle is invented which fulfils Service requirements we shall take to it at once and without difficulty, because the new rifle is so adapted that it would be able to take ammunition suitable to an automatic rifle, and all that we would have to do would be to proceed with the manufacture of automatic rifles and substitute them. It is the wildest notion that you can invent a rifle out of your head, so to speak; still more that you can adapt the ammunition for it without most careful consideration. Every Power that has adopted a new rifle successfully has done so after the most minute care. Our rifle is the most modern of all rifles, and but for its defective breech-chamber we should have been able to put in a charge which would have made it equal to any.

The new rifle, as we believe, will be in calibre, in the weight of the bullet, in the size of the charge, and in the qualities of the rifle, superior to anything which at present exists in the world; but I do not wish to rush into the arming of the troops with it until the troops have had some opportunity of using it experimentally on a large scale, and until we can be sure that it is the best rifle. Meantime we have, by adopting the new ammunition, taken steps which give us a very serviceable weapon, nearly as good as the French, something short of the German in point of trajectory, but possessing advantages over both in the rapidity of fire and the consequent volume of lead that can be sent from it in a given time over a given space. My answer to the noble Viscount's question is that if, unfortunately, some cataclysm had taken place which had called for the use of our troops last summer or at any other recent time, we should have found ourselves with a rifle inferior in trajectory to the Continental rifle, but nevertheless a very serviceable weapon, possessing in many respects advantages over the Continental rifle, and not a rifle with which our troops need have been afraid to go into action.


How soon will the new rifles be in the hands of the two battalions?


Very soon now. The specimen rifle has been completed and we are proceeding to the experimental manufacture. A considerable number will be manufactured at once. There is to be no delay.


My Lords, I did not intend to take part in this discussion, but one or two of the remarks made by the noble Viscount are so extraordinary that I feel compelled to draw attention to them. The noble Viscount made a great point of the fact that if you aimed at a man 800 yards away you would hit him whether the trajectory was high or low. That is perfectly correct, but, as the noble Viscount knows, the real difficulty in shooting in the field is to judge the distance. It is almost impossible, under varying conditions of atmosphere and of ground, to judge distances accurately. You have not always a range-finder at hand, and it is obvious that if you estimate the distance at 800 yards and it happens to be 700 you are more likely to hit the enemy if your trajectory is low than if it is high. In other words, with a low trajectory you increase the area of danger space. Every soldier will agree that that is the point in favour of a low trajectory, not whether anybody would be standing 400 yards away while you are firing at an object 800 yards distant.

In the previous debate the noble Viscount referred to the remaining velocity of the heavier bullet. I made the remark then that our bullet compared badly with the German bullet at all ranges, and the noble Viscount promptly denied that statement. It is quite true that the German bullet has less striking velocity and less remaining energy beyond a certain distance, but the German bullet is better than ours up to that distance. It is better than our bullet up to 1,100 yards; there is nothing to choose between them up to 1,500 yards. But in all drill books it is held that effective rifle range is only up to 1,400 yards; after that it is considered long range firing. Therefore the point of the remaining energy of our bullet as compared with the German bullet is not worth consideration. I entirely agree with the noble Viscount that the cartridge is, if anything, more important than the rifle. But that only brings out the extraordinary statement he made on the previous occasion. I have an impression that he has edited the remarks he then made to some extent, and that as printed in the Official Report they are not quite so serious as at the time he made them. He then remarked that the old bullet could be used in the converted rifle and that it would make quite fair shooting, but I think he has since put in the words "up to 500 yards." If the sighting of a rifle is of any value at all, it has to be accurate. The sighting that is right for one bullet is absolutely wrong for the other, and that holds true at all ranges, though less so at ranges under 500 yards. In war at short ranges men are going to lay as flat as they possibly can, and therefore it is not a question of whether you can hit a man standing at 500 yards or so. The question is whether your rifle is absolutely accurately sighted, and the probability is that you will have to consider hitting a man the top of whose head is not more than eighteen inches at the outside from the ground.

The point that will have to be raised when it comes to the question of the Army Estimates is the far more serious situation as regards ammunition. I not by any means satisfied, either by the remarks of the noble Viscount or by the information with which we have been supplied, as to the state of the ammunition during last summer, and, in fact, up to the present time. I have not yet been able to discover what reserve of ammunition we had of the old type, because most of the rifles, in fact practically the whole of the rifles, of the Expeditionary Force had then the old sight, and I think this House will desire to know what reserve of old ammunition we had to go with the old rifle. The other point made by the noble Viscount on the last occasion was that the reformed rifle, if I may so call it, could use the old bullet. Well, perhaps it can; but I should like to know whether the old rifle can use the new bullet. The new bullet is longer than the old one, and it is a question whether it can go into the magazine at all. That is a matter on which we desire information, because obviously if you reduce your rifle to single-loading instead of charger-loading you do away with the whole of the advantages which the noble Viscount mentioned with regard to rapidity of fire. Secondly, there comes the serious question whether you would not send your troops into action possessing a rifle sighted accurately for a certain bullet but supplied with another bullet. There is nothing that I can imagine which would so materially affect the morale of troops in action than to feel that their rifles were 80 badly sighted that they were not able to hit the object aimed at. I hope the noble Viscount will on a future occasion make clear the position in which we stood last summer, not only with regard to the rifle, but with regard to ammunition.


My Lords, I am loth to take part in this discussion, but I feel that we have gained a great point from the noble Viscount, and after what he has said I hardly think it is worth while continuing a discussion about the old rifle. The noble Viscount has assured us that we are going to have a new rifle and a new bullet, and that our troops will very shortly—I hope he will be able to give us a definite date—be armed with the new rifle. If that is so, and the rifle then will be as good as, or better than, any rifle possessed by a Continental Army, I think we must accept his statement with great gratitude, and I do not think there is anything to be gained by looking back at the past. I quite agree with the criticisms that have been passed on the old rifle, but what I think is far more important is to know that a new and improved rifle is to be issued to our troops. We hope that the experiments to which the noble Viscount referred will shortly be put in hand, and that the bullet and rifle when issued will be of such a calibre as to excel those possessed by any Continental Power. If the noble Viscount could give us any sort of assurance how soon the troops will be armed with the new rifle we should feel still more satisfied.


The new rifle is in a completed form and is at the War Office, where it is to be seen alongside the rifles of other Powers and our present rifle. I do not wish to make public the details of it, but if any of your Lordships would care to go and look at it and compare it with other rifles I shall be only too glad to arrange for an inspection. As regards the question put to me by the noble Earl opposite, there was a mythical rumour, which originated in a sensational evening paper, to the effect that we only had last summer 150 rounds of ammunition for each man of the Expeditionary Force. That was a ludicrous rumour. I do not propose to go into the details of the ammunition we had, but I may say that we had in reserve three times the amount that was shot away in the whole course of the South African War. The ideas of the General Staff about the reserve of ammunition which we should possess have gone up, and we have been accumulating ammunition. Last summer we even brought some from the enormous stores at Malta. We are passing to the new cartridge from the old, and we hope presently, so far as the Regular troops are concerned, that time old ammunition will not be required. We have taken in the Estimates this year a very large sum for the new ammunition. I do not think your Lordships need be at all troubled about the reserve of ammunition at this moment.


Can the noble Viscount give us any assurance as to when the new rifle will be issued?


It is impossible to say. It depend, upon how the relation of the powder to the bullet progresses. We have already determined on provisional cartridges, but how they will stand the experiments on a large scale to which we intend to subject the firing qualities of the rifle remains to be seen. That is why we have thought it necessary to have with the new ammunition the old rifle in a service- able condition. What I should hope for is that in a very few months we shall have determined something at any rate approaching to the idea of charge for the new bullet, and that we shall then be able to begin the manufacture of the new rifle and proceed with the work until the whole of the Army is armed with it.