HL Deb 15 March 1915 vol 18 cc719-24



My Lords, for many weeks only trench fighting has been possible owing to the climatic conditions and waterlogged state of the ground. During this period of apparent inaction, it must not be forgotten that our troops have had to exercise the utmost individual vigilance and resource, and owing to the proximity of the enemy's lines a great strain has been imposed upon them. Prolonged warfare of this sort might be expected to affect the morale of an Army, but the traditional qualities of patience, good temper, and determination have maintained our men, though highly tried, in a condition ready to act with all the initiative and courage required when the moment for an advance arrived. The recently published accounts of the fighting in France have enabled us to appreciate how successfully our troops have taken the offensive. The German troops, notwithstanding their carefully prepared and strongly entrenched positions, have been driven back for a considerable distance, and the villages of Neuve Chapelle and L'Epinette have been captured and held by our Army, with heavy losses to the enemy.

In these operations our Indian troops took a prominent part and displayed fine fighting qualities. I will in this connection read a telegram I have received from Sir John French— Please transmit following message to Viceroy of India: I am glad to be able to inform your Excellency that the Indian troops under General Sir James Willcocks fought with great gallantry and marked success in the capture of Neuve Chapelle and subsequent fighting which took place on the tenth, eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth of this month. The fighting was very severe and the losses heavy, but nothing daunted them. Their tenacity, courage, and endurance were admirable and worthy of the best traditions of the soldiers of India. I should like also to mention that the Canadian Division showed their mettle, and have received the warm commendation of Sir John French for the high spirit and bravery with which they have performed their part. Our casualties during the three days' fighting, though probably severe, are not nearly so heavy as those suffered by the enemy, from whom a large number of prisoners have been taken.

Since I last spoke in this House substantial reinforcements have been sent to France. They include the Canadian Division, the North Midland Division, and the 2nd London Division, besides other units. These are the first complete Divisions of the Territorial Force to go to France, where I am sure they will do credit to themselves and sustain the high reputation which the Territorials have already won for themselves there. The health of the troops has been remarkably good, and their freedom from enteric fever and from the usual diseases incidental to field operations is a striking testimony to the value of inoculation and to the advice and skill of the Royal Army Medical Corps and its auxiliary organisations. The French Army, except for a slight withdrawal near Soissons, owing to their reinforcements being cut off by the swollen state of the Aisne River, have made further important progress at various points on the long line they hold, especially in Champagne. Association with both our Allies in the Western theatre has only deepened our admiration of their resolute tenacity and fighting qualities.

In the Eastern theatre the violent German attacks on Warsaw have failed in their purpose, and considerable concentrations of German troops to attack the Russian positions in East Prussia, after causing a retirement, are now either well held or are being driven back. In the Caucasus fresh defeats have been inflicted by the Russians on the Turks, and the latter have also been repulsed by our forces in Egypt when they attempted to attack the Suez Canal. The operations now proceeding against the Dardanelles show the great power of the Allied Fleets, and although at the present stage I can say no more than what is given in the public Press on the subject, your Lordships may rest assured that the matter is well in hand.

The work of supplying and equipping new Armies depends largely on our ability to obtain the war material required. Our demands on the industries concerned with the manufacture of munitions of war in this country have naturally been very great, and have necessitated that they and other ancillary trades should work at the highest possible pressure. The armament firms have promptly responded to our appeal, and have undertaken orders of vast magnitude. The great majority also of the employees have loyally risen to the occasion and have worked, and are working, overtime and on night shifts in all the various workshops and factories in the country. Notwithstanding these efforts to meet our requirements, we have unfortunately found that the output is not only not equal to our necessities but does not fulfil our expectations, for a very large number of our orders have not been completed by the dates on which they were promised.

The progress in equipping our new Armies and also in supplying the necessary war material for our forces in the field has been seriously hampered by the failure to obtain sufficient labour and by delays in the production of the necessary plant, largely due to the enormous demands not only of ourselves but of our Allies. While the workmen generally, as I have said, have worked loyally and well there have, I regret to say, been instances where absence, irregular time-keeping, and slack work have led to a marked diminution in the output of our factories. In some cases the temptations of drink account for this failure to work up to the high standard expected. It has been brought to my notice on more than one occasion that the restrictions of trade unions have undoubtedly added to our difficulties, not so much in obtaining sufficient labour as in making the best use of that labour. I am confident, however, that the seriousness of the position as regards our supplies has only to be mentioned and all concerned will agree to waive for the period of the war any of those restrictions which prevent in the very slightest degree our utilising all the labour available to the fullest extent that is possible.

I cannot too earnestly point out that unless the whole nation works with us and for us, not only in supplying the manhood of the country to serve in our ranks but also in supplying the necessary arms, ammunition, and equipment, successful operations in the various parts of the world in which we are engaged will be very serioulsy hampered and delayed. I have heard rumours that the workmen in some factories have an idea that the war is going so well that there is no necessity for them to work their hardest. I can only say that the supply of war material at the present moment and for the next two or three months is causing me very serious anxiety, and I wish all those engaged in the manufacture and supply of these stores to realise that it is absolutely essential, not only that the arrears in the deliveries of our munitions of war should be wiped off, but that the output of every round of ammunition is of the utmost importance and has a large influence on our operations in the field.

The Bill which my noble friend the Leader of the House is about to place before your Lordships as an amendment to the Defence of the Realm Act is calculated to rectify this state of things as far as is possible, and in my opinion it is imperatively necessary. In such a large manufacturing country as our own the enormous output of what we require to place our troops in the field thoroughly equipped and found with ammunition is undoubtedly possible; but, my Lords, this output can only be obtained by a careful and deliberate organisation for developing the resources of the country so as to enable each competent workman to utilise in the most useful manner possible all his ability and energy in the common object which we all have in view, which is the successful prosecution and victorious termination of this war. I feel sure that there is no business or manufacturing firm in this country that will object for one moment to any delay or loss caused in the produce of their particular industry when they feel that they and their men are taking part with us in maintaining the soldiers in the field with those necessaries without which they cannot fight.

As I have said, the regular armament firms have taken on enormous contracts vastly in excess of their ordinary engagements in normal times of peace. We have also spread orders both in the form of direct contracts and sub-contracts over a large number of subsidiary firms not accustomed in peace time to this class of manufacture. It will, I am sure, be readily understood that when new plant is available for the production of war material those firms that are not now so engaged should release from their own work the labour necessary to keep the machinery fully occupied on the production for which it is being laid down as well as to supply sufficient labour to keep working at full power the whole of the machinery which we now have. I hope, my Lords, that this result will be attained under the provisions of the Bill now about to be placed before you.

Labour may very rightly ask that their patriotic work should not be used to inflate the profits of the directors and shareholders of the various great industrial and armament firms, and we are therefore arranging a system under which the important armament firms will come under Government control, and we hope that workmen who work regularly by keeping good time shall reap some of the benefits which the war automatically confers on these great companies. I feel strongly, my Lords, that the men working long hours in the shops by day and by night, week in and week out, are doing their duty for their King and country in a like manner with those who have joined the Army for active service in the field. They are thus taking their part in the war and displaying the patriotism that has been so manifestly shown by the nation in all ranks, and I am glad to be able to state that His Majesty has approved that where service in this great work of supplying the munitions of war has been thoroughly, loyally, and continuously rendered, the award of a medal will be granted on the successful termination of the war.