HL Deb 29 July 1913 vol 14 cc1492-502

LORD WYNFORD rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether the reorganisation of the batteries of Royal Field Artillery proposed in Army Order No. 220 of 1913 cannot be postponed to enable the matter to be further considered?

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I do not intend to occupy more than a few moments in asking the Question which is in my name on the Paper. I should like to express regret at the continued absence of Lord Herschell and at. the reasons therefor, and I am also sorry that Lord Lucas, who dealt with similar Questions that I asked about three weeks ago, is also unable to be in his place this afternoon. There is, perhaps, an apology due from me for the short notice which I have given of this Question, and I would not have adopted this procedure but for the urgency of the matter. Your Lordships will readily understand that as these proposed changes are to take place on the 1st of August and to-day is the 29th of July the matter is an urgent one. There is little time available for His Majesty's Government to carry out the suggestion —which I hope they will do—that the operation of the Order should be postponed until the matter has received further consideration.

I do not think that His Majesty's Government have fully realised the deep feeling which the proposed changes have aroused, not only amongst officers who are serving in the batteries concerned but amongst retired officers who still have at heart the interests of these batteries. It is perfectly true, as Lord Lucas stated on the last occasion, that the Royal Field Artillery has to be treated as a whole and will always so be treated. But it is true, also, that batteries have always been ordered to keep their own individual records, and in this respect a battery has always been treated, as I sincerely hope it will continue to be treated, as a unit. It would be interesting to know whether any representations have been made on this matter by the batteries concerned. In reply to a Question in another place, it was stated that this decision had been arrived at by a Committee of distinguished Artillery officers. I cannot conceive that any committee of Artillery officers would have agreed to the changes contemplated in this Order if they had had a perfectly free hand and had all the facts before them. It is the ease, I believe, that the noble and gallant. Field-Marshal the Colonel of the Royal Regiment of Artillery was never consulted before the Army Order was issued.

Were there any urgent necessity for these changes to be carried out as contemplated I do not think anything could be said, but to my mind no argument has been advanced in their favour. Where is the difficulty in carrying out such a transfer as I suggested on the last occasion when I raised this question—such a procedure as transferring a percentage, say, of the officers of the battery staff and some of the older soldiers sufficient to maintain the continuity of these batteries. It is really absurd to say that there will be any but a very trifling and temporary loss of efficiency by carrying out such a transfer as I have indicated, because these transfers take place every year when batteries go out to India and when they return home on leave. No battery goes out complete; only a nucleus of the battery goes out and only a nucleus comes home, and these transfers take place without any serious detriment to the batteries themselves. It is only five weeks ago that this Army Order first saw the light, and I think I am right in saying that these batteries only realised the proposed changes when the Army Order was published in the newspapers. In those circumstances postponement of the operation of the Order does not seem unreasonable, more particularly as some of these batteries have, I believe, not completed their annual training, and others are still in camp The annual reliefs are not, as a rule, carried out until later in the autumn, and consequently it is difficult to understand the undue haste with which these changes are being made. I hope, therefore, that. His Majesty's Government will be inclined to postpone the operation of this Army Order for the present.


My Lords, may I, from my experience as a Royal Field Artillery officer, add a word to the protest which has fallen from my noble friend to-night and also on the previous occasion about three weeks ago. I am certain that what he said is perfectly true, and that His Majesty's Government or the War Office can have a very small idea of the strong feeling which exists in the Royal Field Artillery at the present moment with regard to these contemplated changes. It may be said that it is only a matter of sentiment, but, after all, sentiment plays a very great part in the prestige of the British Artily and in maintaining that esprit de corps which is one of the great features of the Army, whether it exists in regiments or in batteries. Lord Lucas, when he answered for the War Office the other day, gave utterance to the expression which has been alluded to by my noble friend. Lord Lucas said that the Royal Regiment of Artillery had to be treated as a whole. A remark of that sort can only come from one who knows nothing about the Royal Regiment of Artillery or the spirit which animates it or the various batteries in it, or he would not have spoken so lightly of or absolutely ignored the undoubted esprit de corps which does exist in these batteries and which is a great feature to be encouraged. Why should you not treat a battery in the same way as you treat a regiment— as an entity? A nice row there would be if you told the Gordon Highlanders, for example, to exchange records with the 42nd and to call themselves the Black Watch and vice versa. Just because a battery is a smaller entity and is merged into a larger one some people seem to think that all questions of sentiment and esprit de corps can be absolutely ignored. There are many distinguished batteries whose records are most carefully preserved and whose names are historical. I venture to assert that that feeling ought to be encouraged, instead of which a practice seems to have arisen of recent years of constant juggling with the batteries of Artillery whenever a little money is to be saved or the taxpayer led to believe that the Army is made stronger by the abolition of certain units of the Army. A state of unrest is created thereby which is most discouraging to persons commanding batteries, and practically to all officers of the Royal Artillery; and I am sure it would do some of the authorities good if they were to hear the remarks made by regimental officers as to the manner in which the feelings of batteries are systematically ignored, as is the case on the present occasion. I cannot protest too strongly against the procedure which is about to be taken.


My Lords, the noble Earl who has just sat down spoke of the strong feeling entertained by Army officers against the proposed change. It is no new experience that there should be strong feelings entertained by people who do not understand the reasons which have prompted proposed changes of various kinds, and this is not the first time that His Majesty's Government have encountered such feelings. The batteries of the Royal Regiment of Artillery have been referred to, and it has been said that we should extend the same consideration to batteries as to regiments of the Line and of the Guards. Such a proposition is an extraordinary one. There is one Royal Regiment of Artillery, a unit with distinguished service and traditions, and I may observe that it is not proposed to interfere with a single one of those units which has this distinguished service and these traditions. But even if it were proposed to do so, the Royal Regiment of Artillery stands in a totally different position from that of regiments of the Line. It is itself the unit, and is composed of batteries the officers of which are constantly changing. Officers and men alike pass from battery to battery in a very different way from what has been the case in respect of regiments. The continuity is not the same because the organisation is a different organisation. What I have said is only by way of preface. Even if the reasons for the sentiment which has been spoken of were much more real than they are, I still would not for a moment admit that such considerations should be allowed to stand in the way of this most necessary change. The noble Lord who put the Question has been for a long time now away from actual experience of Artillery service, and I am afraid he does not appreciate the changes which have taken place as time has gone on and which render it necessary to carry out the proposed reorganisation in order to make the batteries efficient.

I will tell your Lordships why the changes are essential. First of all, the main consideration in modern Artillery organisation in this country is to supply the Expeditionary Force with such an Artillery organisation as may raise it to the highest point of perfection to which we can get it. That is vitally important, and dominates every other consideration. To the Expeditionary Force there are now added seventy-two batteries, which contain among them eighteen howitzer batteries and which form the Artillery organisation of the Expeditionary Force. Sir John French and the General Staff came to the conclusion that, although the number of batteries is sufficient and the guns are as efficient and their numbers as high in proportion as those of most other Powers, still the Artillery organisation ought to be still further perfected by increasing the number of men on the war establishment. In order to bring about that increase the Artillery are divided, under the new Army Order, into three sections. There are, first, the seventy-two batteries of which I have spoken; secondly, there will be fifteen unallotted which will be available for various purposes in war; and, thirdly, there will be what are called the reserve batteries, with which the question we are now considering is intimately connected. The reserve batteries are what are called the training batteries. Some time ago we found that it was absolutely necessary to provide for the systematic training of the recruits for the Artillery, and that it was necessary to train recruits of two kinds—Regular recruits and Special Reserve recruits. Special Reserve recruits were brought in because modern ammunition and quick-firing guns had largely increased the amount of ammunition which had to be taken into action, and the consequence was that larger ammunition trains were necessary. There has recently come a considerable change in regard to transport. Mechanical transport of ammunition has largely taken the place of horse transport, and the result is that although you have to carry more ammunition than you had to do before you are able to manage your mechanical transport with fewer men, but it is necessary that those men should be highly trained, and the General Staff have come, quite rightly, to the conclusion that for the purposes of Artillery the ammunition column should be manned by Regulars and the whole of the Artillery should consist of Regulars. We do not require the enormous number of men that used to be required in the days of horse transport, and that opens up a possibility of reducing the numbers of the training brigades.

The training brigades will have the same number of guns, but they will consist of two batteries instead of three to a brigade. The result will be that these batteries will train their men systematically, and it is desirable that they should form a permanent part of the organisation. At present the system is indiscriminate. These training brigades are necessarily reduced in size because of the smaller number of men now required, and they will, as I have said, consist of two batteries instead of three. It has been possible for it to happen that the oldest and most efficient battery in the service has been sent for a term to do the duty of a training brigade. That is not thought desirable. The conclusion of the General staff has been this, that we should set apart 72 batteries for the Expeditionary Force, and that the batteries which are to form training brigades should be batteries which are always engaged in training. I think it is a dozen batteries which are to be taken for that purpose. In considering what batteries should go to the Expeditionary Force, what is the obvious consideration? The first is that you should take the best batteries in the Army. The consequence is we are taking 72 batteries and including those with the largest war service and the greatest traditions.

When you come to the training brigades it is necessary to allocate particular batteries to do that work permanently. What is the obvious consideration which comes to mind with regard to the training brigades? It is that you should take the junior batteries which have the least war tradition. For that purpose you take, under this Army Order, 12 batteries which have come into existence since the war, batteries which have seen no war service, which have never been out of the country, and they will form in future these training brigades. If that is so, there will be no hardship on either the officers or the men. The officers and non-commissioned officers in these batteries will do the same sort of term as they do at the present time. No officer or non-commissioned officer remains with the training brigade for more than two years, and the men will circulate too. They will he moved about, and the only difference will be that instead of a battery which is at the height of war training being suddenly sent mechanically to take its place in the training brigades, the work of the training brigades will be done by batteries permanently allocated to the purpose—junior batteries with no war service or traditions or any of the things of which we have heard so much. At the present time there are certain batteries in the training brigades which are to be allocated to the Expeditionary Force because they are batteries with great traditions. Certain other batteries are to take their place, and what is being done is really in substance a change of units. There is nothing in the change of numbers. There is no change in personnel; it is simply the transfer of certain numbers and recruits and batteries.

The whole controversy really comes to this, What constitutes the identity of a battery? I do not know what the identity will consist of, particularly if it has no traditions. The two noble Lords who have spoken and who; I think, have not come much in contact with the experience of Artillery officers of modern days, have said nothing about the desire there is among our best Artillerymen to be allocated to the Expeditionary Force. That is the sentiment that has been all powerful. Those officers who have had most to do with war in the past and whose batteries have the greatest tradition claim, and claim with good reason, that their batteries should be attached to the Expeditionary Force. It is in order to bring that about and to secure to the Force the best batteries, the training being assigned to the junior batteries, that the step we propose is about to be taken. One of the noble Lords who spoke referred to the noble and gallant Field-Marshal who takes so much interest in the Artillery. I can tell the noble Lord that the noble and gallant Field-Marshal is quite cognisant of what is going on and has been taking part in discussions with regard to it. I do not know whether he agrees or disagrees with the proposal, but I think the fact of his not being here to-day, although he has been in consultation recently on the subject, shows that he is conscious of the impossibility of carrying out this necessary reform in an efficent manner except by the plan which the Adjutant-General, acting with the General Staff, has approved and adopted. I have had the advantage of seeing the Adjutant-General and some of the officers of the General Staff within the last few hours and of going closely into this matter, and I am satisfied that the way proposed is the only way in which the change can be carried out. It is not a question of saving money or of reducing men. There is no reduction. Any reductions that are to take place are for the purpose of getting more men for the establishment. The step we are taking is a step forward in the direction of furnishing the Expeditionary Force with the most perfect Artillery equipment that can be given to it, and it would be a very unfortunate thing if your Lordships were to oppose this change in the interests of a venerable tradition which has no application or relation to the modern problems with which we are faced.


I hope noble Lords have been able to follow the nebulous statement of the noble and learned Viscount, but I think it would be difficult for anybody to piece together the beginning and the end of his speech. He told us at the end that the noble and gallant Field-Marshal was cognisant of what was taking place, and, I understood him to say, was satisfied that no other solution was possible. The noble and learned Viscount gave that fact away at the very beginning of his speech, for he said these changes were made because the 72 batteries of the Expeditionary Force required to be brought up to a higher establishment and that it was necessary to break up some of the lower batteries in order to give them that establishment. That gives the whole case away. The noble and learned Viscount placed a number of these batteries on the lower establishment as training units. My noble friends and the noble and gallant Field-Marshal protested against that policy, and at the time we adumbrated what has since taken place, that it was only a step to the breaking up of those batteries and the reducing of them. The only thing we did not expect was that they would have broken up older batteries which had records and preserved younger batteries which have not records. That is a clear statement of what has taken place. It cannot be challenged that what the noble and learned Viscount begs us to believe to be inevitable is the result of having refused to bring up to establishment by recruiting those batteries which require to be brought up to establishment. The whole of the rest of the statement of the noble and learned Viscount falls to the ground. The real fact remains that you want some hundreds of men more for the Artillery, and you have got them by reducing, not the youngest batteries, but the batteries which have some of the oldest traditions. I quite admit that these old batteries are not watertight compartments like regiments of Infantry or Cavalry, but at the same time, as both Lord Wynford and Lord Denbigh have shown, they have cherished traditions which are very much touched by what I think is the altogether unnecessary action of His Majesty's Government.


The noble Viscount has totally misunderstood what I endeavoured to convey. The numbers to be added are not got by the reduction of these batteries, but by the reduction of the three Horse Artillery batteries. The reductions that I spoke of in the organisation of the training brigades depend entirely on this, that you have not got to train as many recruits now, owing to mechanical transport, as you had to do in the days of horse transport.


That is still worse. I undertake to predict that within five years the General Staff will come again, through the Secretary of State, to the House of Commons and ask for the replacement of these batteries.


My Lords, the noble and learned Viscount has said that the Artillery are one unit. That is perfectly true, but there are traditions which attach to each separate battery and brigade. Those traditions have been spoken of as venerable, but they really are not so very venerable. I joined the Artillery 55 years ago—I think before my noble and learned friend was born—and they were all battalions and companies then. I remember, when it was proposed to change them into batteries and brigades, all the officers were saying, "What do we know about batteries and brigades? We belong, for instance, to the old 6th company, third battalion"; and there was great, opposition to the change. I remember being consulted some years afterwards about the change back again to the old battalions and companies. Then it was said, "Why do we want battalions and companies? We belong to the old batteries and brigades." Of course, it is a very important thing, this esprit de corps, but the illustration I have given I think shows how very rapidly a new esprit de corps is created. Therefore I do not think that the mere question of esprit de corps is sufficient to condemn this proposal. I do not know anything about the merits of the question, but I think that the esprit de corps argument alone is not sufficient to condemn the proposal.


I only rise to correct an impression that the noble Earl has conveyed to your Lordships. There is no doubt that batteries have been changed from companies, but in no single instance has there been such a sweeping change as is contemplated in the present proposal. On former occasions the battery has always remained, although the name has been changed. The nucleus of the battery has always remained and carried on the records of the old battery, but in this case the records have been sent away from the battery, and, the officers and men who are left have to take over new records which they have no interest in I should like also to refer to what fell from the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack. With all due respect, I hope I may claim to have kept myself in touch with the regiment with which I did sixteen years' service, and I have also kept myself in touch with all the reorganisation that has been going on. The noble and learned Viscount spoke of the anxiety of the battery commander to form part of the Expeditionary Force. I should like to ask him, Are these batteries to be allocated as reserve batteries? I maintain that they have a prior claim to these newly-formed batteries.


It would be fatal to have a three-battery organisation on the eve of going to war.


I am coming to that. I suggest that these transfers should take place when you are carrying out this organisation. I never intended that there should be a general change round year after year. All I ask is that sonic nucleus of these batteries should be transferred on this Occasion and on this occasion only, with the records with which they have been brought up; and I can only hope from the concluding words of the noble and learned Viscount that the matter is still receiving consideration, and that, although the time is short, we may hope that some solution may be arrived at.


My Lords, I have no desire to intervene in this discussion, but I feel bound in the interests of the order of the House to draw attention to the fact that there is no Motion on the Paper, and that the whole of the recent observations of the noble Lord have been altogether out of order. The practice, I am afraid, is becoming somewhat common of putting down Questions which are in order, and of making speeches upon them which are altogether out of order. I feel sure that my noble and learned friend will agree that this discussion ought now to close.


I am afraid that I am not without reproach in this matter. I should like, however, to say a word in reply to the noble Lord, who asked me a question as to whether the transfer of a nucleus was receiving consideration. I may tell him that what the nucleus will be, and whether it will do any good, is a question which is puzzling the authorities more than any other question, and I can only say to him that it is one which is still under consideration.