HL Deb 15 January 1913 vol 13 cc279-92

*THE EARL OF PORTSMOUTH rose to call attention to a speech delivered by the Lord Chancellor at a dinner of the Eighty Club, and to a speech delivered by the Secretary of State for War at a meeting of the London Scottish; and to ask the Lord Chancellor, as the principal member in this House of the Committee of Imperial Defence, whether it is still the opinion of the Committee of Imperial Defence, as stated by the Prime Minister, that it is the business of the War Office to see that under all circumstances we have a properly organised and equipped force capable of dealing effectively with a possible invasion by 70,000 men; and to move for Papers.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I rise to call attention to speeches recently delivered by the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack and by the Secretary of State for War, and I shall conclude by asking the noble and learned Viscount the Question which stands in my name, to which I hope he will be able to give me a plain and direct answer. The speech of the Lord Chancellor to which I refer was delivered at a dinner of the Eighty Club a few weeks ago, and that portion of it to which I intend to call attention is as follows:— The expert in defence, be it naval or military—and you cannot separate one from the other or either from statesmanship—the expert was the man who looked at the state of things, not from the point of view of the mere soldier, or sailor, or statesman, but as a person who has set his mind to study all things as men in the Committee of Defence study them. That is why I am bound to speak out on one thing strongly. Nobody has a greater veneration for Lord Roberts than I have. He has done great things for his country; he is one of the most distinguished leaders of troops in the field that we possess. It is one thing to lead troops in the field, it is another thing to be a strategist; and unless you are a strategist you cannot carry out plans for the organisation of the defence of the country. That statement, I think, may not unreasonably be said to mean two things. It means, by inference certainly, if not directly, that Lord Roberts is not a strategist, and it also means that the Committee of Imperial Defence is a more important body to form an opinion than our greatest living soldier who has spent almost the whole of his life facing the actualities and realities of war.

As to the point of Lord Roberts not being a strategist I am not going to attempt this afternoon, in the brief speech which I intend to make, to trouble your Lordships by any long detailed reference to Lord Roberts's career; but there are certain notable facts in the career of the noble and gallant Field-Marshal which seem to me have proved him to be no mere leader of troops in the field, but a strategist. Now, are we to understand that Lord Roberts's march from Kabul to Kandahar at a most critical juncture and the defeat of Ayoub Khan involved no knowledge of strategy? Or are we to understand, again, that Lord Roberts's handling of the question of the defence of the North-West Frontier, including communications and dispositions of troops as Commander-in-Chief in India involved no question of strategy? Or are we to understand that Lord Roberts's grasp of the Burmese question both from a political and military point of view, that resulted in the pacification of that Province, involved no strategy? Or, finally, are we to understand that when Lord Roberts was appointed to the supreme command in South Africa, when the Army had, so to speak, been constituted the official receiver of the bad debts of diplomacy and when the military position seemed hopelessly mortgaged, with Ladysmith and Kimberley besieged, there was no strategy involved in his plan of campaign? I do not think it can be said with any degree of truth or justice that Lord Roberts is not a strategist.

Now I deal with the second point which follows from the words of the noble and learned Viscount—namely, that the Committee of Imperial Defence is a more competent body to judge of questions of defence than is Lord Roberts. If I may be allowed to do so, I should like, in the first place, to express my entire agreement with the Lord Chancellor if his words are intended to convey the underlying truth—a very profound truth, but one which is not always sufficiently realized—that war is undoubtedly an instrument of policy; that the political element, if it does not sink deep into the details of war, is great in the formation of a plan for a whole war; that the art of war in its highest sense and from its highest point of view is a policy which fights battles instead of writing notes; and, lastly, that none of the principal plans required for a war can be made without knowledge and without insight into political relations. With all that I entirely agree. But granted that war is an instrument of policy, it is all the more essential that policy should thoroughly know and thoroughly understand the efficiency of its instrument. Our South African disasters were largely due to the fact that policy ignored the advice of the responsible soldiers at that time.

Is the Committee of Imperial Defence, constituted as it is, a body which secures to the public the honest opinion of the experts in defence? I am perfectly well alive to the fact that the Committee of Imperial. Defence does perform a great many useful functions. Among others, there is the admirable way in which it brings naval and military experts together. But I do not believe that it is calculated to secure to the public the honest opinion of the experts in defence, and for that reason I believe it to be somewhat of a fraud on the public. At the present, moment we have no Commander-in-Chief competent and able to speak for the Army as a whole. It is quite true that we have military and naval officers of high standing, of considerable experience, and no doubt of great ability. But the Committee of Imperial Defence is essentially a political committee. The Prime Minister is the President of it, and has the power to summon to the Committee any one whom he pleases. I do not object to that. What I do think is objectionable is this, that the experts in defence, the military and naval experts, are not independent of the politician. Until the men at the top of their profession, whether in the Navy or the Army, who serve on the Committee of Imperial Defence, who are, as a rule, of very limited private means, are placed in such a position as to feel that where they think the case is sufficiently urgent they are able to back their opinion by resignation without incurring the complete loss of their income, I do not think you can say that you will ever get a really honest opinion from the Committee of Imperial Defence. Human nature and human conditions being what they are, it is really too large a strain to place upon these professional men that if they differ on matters of great importance they should, as it were, walk out into the wilderness. We do not, of course, want reckless and careless resignations; and I do not believe any man would desire to give up a position of responsibility and eminence except for very sound and what appeared to him to be very grave reasons.

Now I wish to say a word on the speech of the Secretary of State for War. The right hon. gentleman said, at a prize giving in connection with the London Scottish in December last— I feel bound to add this, that after most searching inquiry, and taking the position at its worst fur us at every stage of the investigation, the Committee of Imperial Defence have it as their considered opinion that with our military and naval forces as they stand the danger of invasion may now be faced without fear, and this, too, while leaving a great Expeditionary Force free to safeguard our vital interests oversea. I think it is rather the language of exaggeration to describe 160,000 men as a great Expeditionary Force. It is not a large force at all if you compare it with the forces with which probably it would have to act in co-operation on the Continent. The whole point of the Expeditionary Force being of any value at all, of any efficiency, lies in the fact of your being able to send it off at once. What I should like to ask is this. Am I to infer, from this statement by the. Secretary of State for War, that it is the opinion of the Committee of Imperial Defence that where on military grounds it is desirable to employ the whole of the Expeditionary Force in a foreign theatre of war, the War Office will be in a position to despatch the whole of it to the scene of action at once? If that is the opinion of the Committee of Imperial Defence—and I take it I may infer that that is their opinion, having regard to this statement by the Secretary of State for War—what I wish to ask is this. How can the War Office be in a position, when they have done that, to fulfil the duty imposed upon them by the Prime Minister in 1909, when he said that it was their business and duty to see that we have under all circumstances a properly organised and properly equipped force capable of dealing effectively with an invasion of 70,000 men? If the Expeditionary Force goes abroad, what military force have we to rely upon for home defence? We have nothing but the Territorial Army.

I am not going in detail into this question of the Territorial Army. Lord Midleton is, I am glad to see, going to raise this question on February 10 next, and I greatly regret that I shall not be able to be here on that date, because it is the day of the quarterly meeting of my county council. As I say, I am not going to trouble your Lordships on this occasion with any great detail in regard to the Territorial Army, or deal with those remarkable but deplorable figures which Lord Herschel gave me in reply to my Questions the other day. After all, I do not myself attach very much importance, as it now exists, to what we are going to do with the Territorial Army, because I cannot help being faced with this fact, that you can only give a voluntary Army just so much training as Volunteers are able and willing to take. Let me give your Lordships one figure. What is the result of our voluntary effort during the last five years? During that period we have been nursing the Territorial Force under every species of inducement and device. We have had one of the ablest men in the country, in the person of the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack, speaking for it and assisting it in every possible way. But what is the kernel of all those figures which Lord Herschel gave me a few weeks ago? It is this, that after five years of continuous effort we can only put into the field 143,500 men who have clone eleven days actual training in camp in the year and passed in the most elementary standard of musketry. I say only eleven days because, of course, you must allow for the Sundays and for the days coming and going. We have only got in that Force with any vestige of efficiency 143,000 odd men, and that is the result of an annual expenditure of £3,200,000.

We hear a great deal of the extravagance of the critics of our voluntary system, but I should like to draw some comparison between the cost of our Territorial under the voluntary system and the cost of the Bulgarian soldier. Our Territorial Force Estimate is £3,200,000. The Estimate for the Bulgarian Army was £1,620,000. Therefore, roughly speaking, our Territorial Force costs annually just twice as much as the Bulgarian Army. As I have stated, for our expenditure of £3,200,000 we are only able to produce 143,000 men who can in any sense of the word be considered at all efficient to be put into the field. The Bulgarian Army, for an expenditure of £1,620,000, have put into the field during the last two mouths—I give the approximate numbers—340,000 men, men of at least one year's training, and every one of whom had reached twenty years of age. Making a little arithmetical sum of it, you will see that the Bulgarian soldier costs about —5, whereas our Territorial soldier costs —20. Colonel Seely stated that the Territorial Army is more efficient than were the Volunteers. I do not think that any one would deny that. But it costs about —1,000,000 a year more. Be that as it may, it is not a question of whether or not the Territorial Army is better than the old Volunteers. It is not whether it is relatively efficient or relatively inefficient. The real point is that it is obviously inefficient for the purpose of resisting invasion.

We are asked from time to time to pay great respect to the views and opinions of the Committee of Imperial Defence, but that Committee periodically speaks in different voices and generally in absolutely contradictory voices. In 1905 Mr. Balfour, who was then Prime Minister and President of the Committee of Imperial Defence, told us that a serious invasion is not an eventuality we need seriously consider. In 1909 Mr. Asquith, speaking on behalf of the Committee of Imperial Defence, tells us it is. The point I wish to put to your Lordships is this. If Mr. Asquith's opinion still holds good we must and ought to have some better provision than the Territorial Army. If, on the other hand, Mr. Balfour's statement is now the opinion of the Committee of Imperial Defence—namely, that it is not possible to land 70,000 men on these shores—then I want to ask what is the function of the Territorial Army, and what is the justification for an annual expenditure of £3,200,000? That is why I think it is reasonable to ask the Question which stands on the Paper in my name, and to move for any Papers on the subject that there may be, because at the present moment the situation is wholly unintelligible, and I think it is only reasonable that the public should be enlightened upon it, especially having regard to the fact that, however unintelligible the situation is, it is a situation that vitally affects our national security, and therefore is one of both vital and pressing importance.

Moved, That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty for Papers relating to Imperial Defence.—(The Earl of Portsmouth.)


My Lords, the noble Earl has raised somewhat comprehensive questions. He has raised the whole question of the functions of the Committee of Imperial Defence, of the sufficiency of the Territorial Force, of the character of the invading forces which we may have to meet, and of whether such defences as are left in this country if the Expeditionary Force should be abroad are sufficient. I understand that by general desire there is to be a full debate on this question early next month, when the noble and gallant Field-Marshal whose name has figured so prominently in connection with the discussions on this subject will be present. In these circumstances your Lordships will hardly desire me to debate a matter which will have to be debated over again. I am sure your Lordships will share my regret if the noble Earl finds that the business of the Hampshire County Council is such as to make it impossible for him to give us the benefit of his views on the important questions which will be raised in the course of that discussion.

I propose to-day to confine myself to a very brief answer to the noble Earl's questions. Papers, of course, we cannot undertake to lay on the Table because the only Papers that could be so laid which would throw any light on the subject would be the confidential Papers of the Committee of Imperial Defence, and these are Papers which we never publish. As regards the other points mentioned, there are two or three things of which I wish to disabuse the noble Earl's mind. I certainly never intended to convey, and I think the words which he quoted showed that I did not convey, that Lord Roberts, one of the most distinguished, perhaps the most distinguished, of living soldiers in any country, is devoid of strategy. On the contrary, no man who has carried out great campaigns and has fought successful battles as Lord Roberts has done, can do these things successfully without possessing strategical gifts of a very high order. But the strategy which wins battles is one thing; the strategy which in cold blood and through a series of years devises the organisation for armies is a different kind of strategy; and it is obvious from the speech which the noble Earl quoted that it was the strategy which pertains to organisation of which I was speaking. The proposition I then enunciated was that for that kind of strategy, when the questions involved are of the very highest order, involving not merely local questions of defence, but the organisation of the defence of the whole Empire—the proportions in which your Fleet should stand to your Army, the objectives on which they should concentrate, the character of the dangers which you are most likely to encounter—that all these things are matters properly to be considered, not by soldiers, however eminent, alone; nor by sailors, however eminent, alone; nor by politicians, however eminent, alone; but by soldiers, sailors, and statesmen in common conclave. Without the presence of those whose knowledge of the political affairs of the world is comprehensive it is impossible to define the problem with which you have to deal, and without combining such knowledge you cannot say whether the problem of the defence of the distant parts of the Empire is a problem which requires you to concentrate your military forces for its solution to such an extent that you have to rely to a large degree on sea power for the solution of problems which lie nearer home. All these things have obviously to be considered by the Committee of Imperial Defence; and the Statesmen, particularly the Statesmen who are acquainted with Colonial and Foreign affairs, are no less essential than soldiers and sailors. Then you cannot leave out of account your resources. If you fritter your resources away you will soon be in a position in which your naval and military defence will suffer because of want of money. A more alarming proposition than that which the noble Earl appeared to submit, that the military and naval experts should hold their offices on a tenure which enabled then either to do what they liked or retire on their full salaries—


I did not mean on their full salaries, but on some reasonable retiring pension.


They always have a retiring pension. Unless they could retire on something like their full salaries I do not see how the proposition of the noble Earl to give them some modified compensation, which he has not defined, would do much good. But whatever the nature of the proposition, I can conceive nothing worse. The Committee of Imperial Defence is an advising body; it consists of Ministers, of sailors, of soldiers, and other experts who are called into council. They are there to advise and to give their opinion, and their opinion is the determining factor in shaping the policy of the country. Of course, it cannot be discussed; it cannot be debated; and still more clear is it that you cannot put the decisions of this great body on questions of policy at the disposition of any one set of experts, however eminent they may be. So much for that.

Then the noble Earl asked one or two questions. He spoke of the Committee of Imperial Defence, and asked whether in the opinion of that Committee the Expeditionary Force could be sent entirely abroad. The Committee of Imperial Defence would be a very foolish body if it published any opinion on the subject. So far as I am aware it never has, and I do not think it is ever likely to do so. The Committee of Imperial Defence is a strategical body and has to consider situations as and when they arise, and I should be very sorry to say, in advance, either that we would never send the Expeditionary Force abroad, or that we would always send the Expeditionary Force abroad. That is obviously a question which must be considered on its merits when the time arrives. Then the noble Earl spoke of the cost of the Bulgarian soldier, and said how much more the Bulgarian Government got from their soldiers than we get from our organisation and for the money we spend. I wonder whether the noble Earl really proposes that we should pay our soldiers at the rate at which the Bulgarian Government pay their soldiers, or that we should subject our soldiers to the conditions to which the Bulgarian Army are necessarily subject. When you are dealing with a country which organises its only arm, its only weapon—for Bulgaria has practically no fleet—by compulsion, which has land frontiers, which has, therefore, to put the whole force of the State to work in preparing for its defence, and has to call, as other countries have in such circumstances, for the compulsory assistance of its subjects, no doubt you can do many things; but you cannot do those things in a country which is an island, which has none of these necessities, and has a very much higher standard of living than is the case with Bulgaria. The suggestion of the noble Earl would produce a revolution in this country. I am almost terrified, when I listen to the proposition of the noble Earl, at the spectacle which it would bring about—the total disappearance of all enthusiasm for military policy, and the disappearance before very long of anything like an Army, until a revolution against the opinions of the noble Earl took place and we had been restored to the more sane and sober and more humdrum status quo which we now know.

The noble Earl said that the Territorial Force could put into the field only 143,000 men. I am not going to discuss that question now. We shall have to discuss it later. But it may be of interest to the noble Earl if I give him the latest figures, which have just been furnished to me, as regards the Territorial Force. On January 1 the number of officers, noncommissioned officers, and men was 263,313. There has been this year a considerable increase in recruiting—there has been recruiting to the extent of 3,000 more than last year. There have been 57,000 recruits taken this year. But there is also—and this is what is producing the whole disturbance—the first instalment of the very formidable exodus which is inevitable in the case of a new Force the members of which were recruited in bulk at the beginning for a period of four years. There has been what is called a slump on a large scale this year, and undoubtedly there will be a slump on a still larger scale next year—I mean the next military year, that is the present year. We have to look forward to a very large exodus from the Territorial Force this year, and, were it not that recruiting promises well, and that a very large number of those who have gone out have hitherto re-engaged, I should anticipate a very great depletion of the Territorial Force. As it is it may be that it will fall, and fall substantially, in the coming year. But if we can pass the coming year we shall have got into a period in which troops will be coming in gradually to replace those who have gone out, in which we shall not be seeing the disappearance of au immense body of troops who came in in a boom year four years ago, and in which we may hope to see the Force steadying itself.

I regret as much as the noble Earl does that the Territorial Force has not filled up more than it has. When I introduced the plan for the Force in the other House in February, 1907, I anticipated then—and I stated to the House of Commons that I anticipated—that we should never have the full establishment during times of peace, but that I hoped to see 250,000. Well, we have had hitherto over 250,000 I said at the time that we should take steps to make sure that, in the event of war threatening, we would be able to fill the Force up. I thought at that time that the Territorial Reserve would be the way in which the matter could be accomplished. The Territorial Reserve has not been a success. It is very small indeed, but it is increasing, though very slowly. But we have a new asset in the National Reserve, which now numbers 170,000, including, no doubt, a large number of people over fighting age, but which will furnish us with a valuable asset. But whatever reliance is to be placed on these things, our plain course is to make the most of what we have got. I do not myself see any sign of the revolutionary proposals of the noble Earl being suddenly carried into effect, and unless they are suddenly carried into effect we had better husband the resources we have and do our best to carry ourselves over the difficult year just before us, to make the most of the good symptom that recruiting is on the increase, to remember that the figures which are given as regards musketry are very misleading, because of the 197,000 men who do musketry 173,000 have qualified, which is a substantial proportion out of those who ought to qualify; and to do our best with such materials as we have. Considerations of home defence are never easy in a country such as ours, where we have so many responsibilities abroad and so many duties to discharge. Whether our plans are sufficient or not, whether we could improve them, whether there are considerations which we have not fully taken into account—these are matters which I do not profess to enter into now, because they will come up for full discussion under more favourable circumstances early next month, when I still venture to hope the noble Earl will succeed in disembarrassing himself of his local engagements and be present to enlighten us on the topic which we shall then be examining in considerable detail.


My Lords, if it had not been for the remarks made by the noble and learned Viscount at the beginning of his statement I think there are some points in regard to what he has just said on which some of us on this Bench might have wished to comment, but I am quite sure that your Lordships will feel that it is for the convenience of all concerned that we should have a direct debate on the great question of the preparedness of the Territorial Force and its adequacy for the discharge of the very important functions which are left to it. Therefore we propose to defer what we have to say in answer to the Lord Chancellor to February 10.


I understood the noble and learned Viscount to say that the deficiency in regard to musketry was not so very serious, inasmuch as only 197,000 men had to go through the musketry course and 173,000 had performed the course. Is it the fact that there are over 50,000 men—gunners, Engineers, and Army Service men—who are not required to do musketry?


Here are the figures which have been furnished to me. The total establishment of the Force is 313,288. The total establishment of troops doing musketry, which includes Infantry, Yeomanry, and Royal Engineers, is 234,933. The total strength of the Force at the present time is 263,313. The total strength of those doing musketry under the heads which I have just enumerated is 197,273; the total qualifying in musketry is—test, 143,408; otherwise, 30,248; in all, over 173,000.


There is a point upon which my noble friend touched the elucidation of which by the Lord Chancellor, now or later, will materially help the debate on February 10, and that is, What is the position of the Committee of Imperial Defence in this matter? I should not have asked that question had not the Prime Minister himself based his assurances to Parliament on that opinion. Although I had not the advantage of hearing all that the Lord Chancellor said to-day, I think he omitted any reference to that point.


In the debate in 1909 the Prime Minister stated his views, based, as he said, on the advice of the Committee of Imperial Defence. In other words, they had carried out the principles of policy which were laid down by the previous Government and elaborated since then, and the Prime Minister stated conclusions based on them which were not materially different in some features from the earlier conclusions; but the Prime Minister did not, I think, go into any details beyond laying down certain general principles on which defence was based, and these principles still remain. The Committee of Imperial Defence is, of course, always considering and advising, but I have no reason to suggest that the broad principle which the Prime Minister announced holds any less truth to-day than it did then.


I understand from the Lord Chancellor that it is still the opinion of the Committee of Imperial Defence that it is the business of the War Office to have a properly organised Force sufficient to resist an invasion by 70,000 men?


The Committee of Imperial Defence does not issue commands to any other Department. The Committee of Imperial Defence lays down principles.


As to my Motion for Papers, I did not anticipate that there would be any forthcoming. I only made the Motion so that I might have an opportunity of reply if I desired to avail myself of it. I asked whether the Committee of Imperial Defence considered that we were in a position to send the Expeditionary Force away at once. I did not give it entirely as my own opinion. I only quoted it, deriving the statement quite directly and clearly from the language of the Secretary of State himself. I beg to withdraw my Motion for Papers.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.