HL Deb 25 August 1914 vol 17 cc501-4

My Lords, as this is the first time that I have had the honour of addressing your Lordships, I must ask for the indulgence of the House. In the first place, I desire to make a personal statement. Noble Lords on both sides of the House doubtless know that while associating myself in the fullest degree for the prosecution of the war with my colleagues in His Majesty's Government, my position on this Bench does not in any way imply that I belong to any political Party, for, as a soldier, I have no politics. Another point is that my occupation of the post of Secretary of State for War is a temporary one. The terms of my service are the same as those under which some of the finest portions of our manhood, now so willingly stepping forward to join the Colours, are engaging—that is to say, for the war, or, if it lasts longer than three years, then for three years. It has been asked why the latter limit has been fixed. It is because should this disastrous war be prolonged—and no one can foretell with any certainty its duration—then after three years' war there will be others fresh and fully prepared to take our places and see this matter through.

The very serious conflict in which we are now engaged on the Continent has been none of our seeking. It will undoubtedly strain the resources of our Empire and entail considerable sacrifices on our people. These will be willingly borne for our honour and for the preservation of our position in the world and they will be shared by our Dominions beyond the seas, now sending contingents and assistance of every kind to help the Mother Country in this struggle. If I am unable, owing to military consideration for the best interests of the Allied Armies in the field, to speak with much detail on the present situation of our Army on the Continent, I am sure your Lordships will pardon me for the necessary restraint which is imposed upon me. The Expeditionary Force has taken the field on the French North-West frontier, and advanced to the neighbourhood of Mons in Belgium. Our troops hove already been for thirty-six hours in contact with a superior force of German invaders. During that time they have maintained the traditions of British soldiers, and have behaved with the utmost gallantry. The movements which they have been called upon to execute have been those which demand the greatest steadiness in the soldiers and skill in their commanders. Sir John French telegraphed to me at midnight as follows— In spite or hard marching and fighting, the British Force is in the best of spirits. I replied— Congratulate troops on their splendid work. We are all proud of them. As your Lordships are aware, European fighting causes greater casualties than occur in the campaigns in which we are generally engaged in other parts of the world. The nation will, I am sure, be fully prepared to meet whatever losses and sacrifices we may have to make in this war. Sir John French, without having been able to verify the numbers, estimates the loss, since the commencement of active operations, at rather more than 2,000 men hors de combat.

As to the work of the last few weeks, I have to remark that when war was declared mobilisation took place without any hitch whatever, and our Expeditionary Force proved itself wholly efficient, well equipped, and immediately ready to take the field. The Press and the public have, in their respective spheres, lent invaluable aid to the Government in preserving the discreet silence which the exigencies of the situation obviously demanded, and I gladly take this opportunity of bearing testimony to the value of their co-operation. The hands of the military authorities were also strengthened by the readiness with which the civilian community faced and accepted the novel situation created by the issue of requisitions for horses, transport, supplies, and billets. The railway companies in the all-important matter of the transport facilities have more than justified the complete confidence reposed in them by the War Office, all grades of railway services having laboured with untiring energy and patience. And it is well to repeat that the conveyance of our troops across the Channel was accomplished, thanks to the cordial co-operation of the Admiralty, with perfect smoothness and without any untoward incident whatever.

We know how deeply the French people appreciate the value of the prompt assistance we have been able to afford them at the very outset of the war, and it is obvious that not only the moral but the material support which our troops are now rendering must prove to be a factor of high military significance in restricting the sphere and determining the duration of hostilities. Had the conditions of strategy permitted, every one in this country would have rejoiced to see us ranged alongside the gallant Belgian Army in that superb struggle against desperate odds which has just been witnessed. But although this privilege was perforce denied to us, Belgium knows of our sympathy with her in her sufferings, of our indignation at the blows which have been inflicted upon her, and also of our resolution to make sure that in the end her sacrifices will not have been unavailing.

While other countries engaged in this war have, under a system of compulsory service, brought their full resources of men into the field, we, under our national system, have not clone so, and can there fore still point to a vast reserve drawn from the resources both of the Mother Country and of the British Dominions across the seas. The response which has already been made by the great Dominions abundantly proves that we did not look in vain to these sources of military strength, and While India, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand are a11 sending us powerful contingents, in this country the Territorials are replying with loyalty to the stern call of duty, which has come to them with such exceptional force. Over seventy battalions have, with fine patriotism, already volunteered for service abroad, and when trained and organised in the larger formations will be able to take their places in the line. The 100,000 recruits for which, in the first place, it has been thought necessary to call have been already practically secured. This force will be trained and organised in divisions similar to those which are now serving on the Continent. Behind these we have our Reserves. The Special Reserve and the National Reserve have each their own part to play in the organisation of our national defence.

The Empires with whom we are at war have called to the Colours almost their entire male population. The principle which we on our part shall observe is this—that while their maximum force undergoes a constant diminution, the reinforcements we prepare shall steadily and increasingly flow out until we have an Army in the field which, in numbers not less than in quality, will not be unworthy of the power and responsibilities of the British Empire. I cannot at this stage say what will be the limits of the forces required, or what measures may eventually become necessary to supply and maintain them. The scale of the Field Army which we are now calling into being is large and may rise in the course of the next six or seven months to a total of thirty divisions continually maintained in the field. But if the war should be protracted, and if its fortunes should be varied or adverse, exertions and sacrifices beyond any which have been demanded will be required from the whole nation and Empire, and where they are required we are sure they will not be denied to the extreme needs of the State by Parliament or the people.