HL Deb 13 May 1915 vol 18 cc997-1006


Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, the powers which it is proposed by this Bill to confer upon the Army Council are powers which I hope your Lordships will realise would pat have been asked for had it not been urgently necessary that the Army Council should possess them at the present time. By this Bill it is proposed to give the Army Council power to transfer a man from any arm of the Service to any other arm of the Service; but it is not intended that this power should apply to Territorials. It is chiefly required for the transfer of men from one fighting arm to another—such, for instance, as transfer from the Cavalry to the Infantry. The conditions of the present war have made the normal proportions of the fighting arms unsuitable, and we have a surplus of men in some arms who would be of far greater use in other arms. In cases of that kind it is proposed to transfer them.

During the passage of this Bill through the House of Commons certain exceptions were taken to it. It was pointed out that the Bill would cause undue hardship to men who had enlisted in a particular corps recruited in a particular part of the United Kingdom and raised very largely by arousing a spirit of nationality. I might instance, in that respect what has been done in the way of recruiting in Wales by means of the Welsh corps. It was pointed out, quite fairly I think, that it would be a hardship to a man who had been induced to recruit because he was a Welshman and had joined a Welsh corps if he found himself transferred to an English or to a Scottish battalion. There have also been units which have been popularly known as Pals' Battalions. That has been a most effective method of recruiting. Not only has it brought a large number of men to the Colours, but, in the opinion of the military authorities, these Pals' Battalions have trained more rapidly and have acquired efficiency quicker than battalions recruited under ordinary conditions. Men who had enlisted in these battalions on the understanding quit they would serve with their friends would undoubtedly have a grievance if they found themselves transferred to other units. Then there is another case where, again, it is possible that hardship may be inflicted on the individual—namely, where a man is transferred from a non-combatant arm, such as the Army Medical Corps, to a combatant arm such as the Infantry.

I can only say with regard to all those points that the Army Council realise very clearly that hardship may be inflicted on the individual, and that if the powers are used in a way that would create a great grievance it might have a serious effect upon recruiting. I can assure the House that the Army Council fully appreciate what the drawbacks are to conferring these powers. At the same time it must be recognised that we are in a state of war and that if, in the view of the Army Council, it is necessary that such transferences should take place, they will have to he made in spite of the possible drawbacks. But I am prepared to give a most explicit undertaking on the part of the Army Council that, fully realising as they do the possible drawbacks, they will use these powers in a way that will create as little hardship as possible to any individual who has been recruited under any of the conditions which I have described. It is going to be the object of the military authorities, starting with the officer commanding the battalion and working up through the various steps of the military command, to see that the incidence of these powers shall not affect individuals adversely if it can possibly be helped. The only occasions under which this will he done will be cases of grave military necessity. It is on the understanding that the possession of these powers is in the present conditions of the greatest importance to the War Office, coupled with the undertaking which I have given—that the powers we are proposing to confer will be exercised in a way that will create the least possible hardship to individuals—that I ask your Lordships to give the Bill a Second Reading.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Lucas.)


My Lords, I gathered from the observations of the noble Lord in introducing this Bill that he feels that in normal times it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to pass the Bill; and I do not think it is right that it should become law without your Lordships realising the extraordinarily drastic nature of the proposal. In years gone by the security has been absolute that no soldier could be removed from the branch of the Service to which he belonged, and that security has been cherished to such a degree that transfers even between regiments have been made on the rarest possible occasions. I remember when the reorganisation of the Cavalry took place under General Luck and the Cavalry was divided into four sections—the Household Cavalry, the Dragoons, the Hussars, and the Lancers—the greatest difficulty was found in inducing men to agree to be transferred from one regiment of Lancers to another, even though they could not be taken out of that branch of the Service. The proposal now before us is one which in time of peace I do not think would have been listened to for a moment. But as it is now made on the authority of the Secretary of State for War as being necessary for service in the field, I need hardly tell your Lordships that we on this side of the House will put no impediment whatever in the way of the Bill becoming law.

Having said so much, perhaps I may be permitted to make one or two observations to emphasise a little what has fallen from the noble Lord in charge of the Bill. This Bill is a complete change in the whole relation between the Crown and the soldier. It takes it out of the soldier's power any longer to rely on the contract of service made between himself and the Crown when he joined. I am not averse to that being done for military exigences, but it is a new and a startling departure. We are relying entirely on the voluntary system to carry us through a war through which our Allies and our opponents are being carried on a different system, and it must be obvious that voluntary methods have had to meet with a very strange upset in the course of this attempt. I particularly ask the noble Lord to consider again whether the transfer of men from a noncombatant to a combatant arm is a really necessary part of the Bill. The noble Lord has assured us—and we cannot doubt it—that these powers will be used in a considerate way by the military authorities. It was said in the House of Commons that we have too many Cavalry. But let us remember that the time may come in the course of the war when Cavalry will be much more needed than they are at the present time, and that it is not every horse soldier who makes a good addition to an Infantry regiment. But to transfer men summarily from the Army Medical Corps into the fighting ranks is at variance with the whole idea of a voluntary Army.

If the Government find it necessary to go so far as that, I trust they will remember that a few months ago we invited them from this side of the House to enter upon the whole consideration of our future needs during this war from a much broader standpoint, and to consider whether, instead of nibbling at one point or another as they are forced to do to-day, they ought not to make some provision which would enable us, when the great mass of men who have come forward have been absorbed into the ranks, to make certain that our supply will continue to the full extent that the Secretary of State at home and the Field-Marshal commanding in the field require, however long the war should last. This is a subject to which we shall be bound to return before many weeks are over. We believe that the country requires to be assured that there is a scheme and that there is further organisation which will enable us to bring up, if necessary, a sufficient number of the very best of our population to fill the ranks; and I hope that the noble Lord will not feel that I have strayed beyond the proper limits of this Bill in pointing out that the great change now proposed is one which shows that we ought not to shut our eyes to possible further and far-reaching changes, even though they should involve a departure from the voluntary system.


My Lords, I should like to ask the noble Lord in charge of this Bill whether it is not possible to give to men in the position alluded to by Lord Midletor some form of appeal by which it could be quickly decided whether or not there was a really strong argument to be used against the proposed transfer. I have studied some of the cases of the Army Medical Corps and am familiar with the position of those in the Army Service Corps, and I think that many cases may arise in which a transfer such as is proposed would be extremely injudicious and improper. Therefore I should like to ask whether there is not in existence some machinery by which there could be a rapidly-decided appeal in such a case.


My Lords, before the Bill is read a second time I should like to ask the noble Lord a question with regard to the proposed power of transfer. I take it that it will be the Army Council which will decide the transfer, but I understood the noble Lord to say that it would not be made until after there had been some communication with the regimental officer. If that is the case, that would give the opportunity for the appeal to which Lord Channing referred.


My Lords, I think the point should be emphasised that this is purely an administrative arrangement for the course of the war. There is at the end of Clause 1 of this Bill a proviso to the effect that so soon as convenient after the conclusion of the present war any soldier transferred under the provisions of this Bill shall, if he so desire, be re-transferred to the corps in which he was serving at the time of the transfer. Therefore there is no breaking of the contract with the Crown. Personally I think there would be considerable objection to an appeal. The person who decides is the officer in the field who is in command. He is the person who will say whether the transfer is necessary. Do not let us establish a system of soldiers being allowed to appeal in such cases. They must do whatever they are ordered to do. I should like to ask my noble friend in charge of the Bill why the Territorials are not included. We have in all the counties a great number of Territorial regiments, and it might be convenient in certain cases that men should be transferred if a particular corps required filling up. I suppose there are reasons of which I am not aware why the Territorials are not included. The proposed arrangement is, in my view, an excellent administrative one, and, as I have said, I think it ought to be emphasised that it is simply limited to the time of the war and that the man's right to rejoin his old regiment is strictly preserved.


My Lords, no doubt, as the noble Lord has said, at the end of the war the man would have the right to be retransferred to the corps in which he was enlisted—if he were still alive. But as the soldier stands a considerable chance of being killed after he has been transferred, surely the noble Lord cannot argue that the man's contract with the Crown has not been broken—broken, I think, quite rightly. I entirely support what Lord Lucas said; but I do not see how, in the face of the experiences of this war, the noble Lord who has just spoken can contend that a transfer of this kind is a purely temporary arrangement. I wish to emphasise the point which my noble friend Lord Midleton made. It certainly seems to me that to transfer a man from, we will say, the Royal Army Medical Gorps to the Artillery or to the Infantry is quite as strong a step as to take a civilian in this national emergency and tell him that he has to serve in the Army. I do not myself see any difference in principle between the two cases, and my own personal opinion is that this war will not be ended without telling every man in the country what he has to do—whether he has to fight or undertake some other work. And although I do not wish to make anything in the nature of a Party point I am glad of this Bill, not only on its own merits, but because I think it does assert the principle to which the nation is beginning now to assent as a necessary step to finishing the war.


My Lords, it is most legitimate that the considerations which have been raised in the course of this debate should be brought to public notice. What the noble Earl who has just sat down has said and what the noble Viscount said earlier is perfectly true. We are fighting, perhaps, the most tremendous war in history—we are fighting for our lives. Even though we may think that in ordinary conditions in time of peace the voluntary system is one from which it would be most difficult for us to depart, yet we may find that we have to reconsider the situation in the light of the tremendous necessity with which the nation is faced. As I have said before in this House, we are fighting for our lives in the most tremendous struggle that has occurred in the world's history. We are fighting for a cause which it becomes more and more clear is a cause for which we ought to lay down individually everything we possess in the world. That being so, there can be no objection in principle raised against the larger considerations of which the noble Viscount spoke. I am in agreement with him in what he said; but we are not face to face with that problem at present. As I say it may come; but at present we have our hands full with the material we possess—and magnificent material it is. It must be remembered that our voluntary system has given us an Army which for quality compares with anything which any of the Powers have put into the field. The quality being as I have said, one hesitates before one approaches the consideration in a practical way of the question whether the voluntary system has failed from the point of view of quantity. I say that for the purpose of isolating what is the real purport of this Bill.

This is a Bill to enable the Secretary of State for War to know what he has in the way of a banker's balance—by that I mean his drafts. Those noble Lords who have had to do with the War Office know that what is vital is for the Secretary of State, the Adjutant-General, and the Army Council generally to know what drafts they have at their disposal—what they can do. They need to know not merely what they may be able to get, but what they can put their hands on at the moment. After heavy fighting that may be a most vital question, and it is one for which the Government ought to be prepared. This Bill is brought in not because it will necessarily be put into operation to anything like the extent which appears upon the face of it. It may hardly be wanted at all. But it is introduced in order that the Secretary of State may be delivered from an uncertainty which ought not to be allowed to hamper him any longer, and in order that he may feel that he can respond to the requisitions sent to him by the Field-Marshal Commanding-in-Chief at the Front.

It is true that this is a strong Bill. In many respects it is an approach to the principle of applying compulsion. It is carrying men beyond their contracts. But in this matter you must balance against the difficulties in making this departure the enormous advantage which you gain by giving security to what I have called the bank balance of the Minister for War. After all, every man who enlists in the Army, although he may belong to non-combatant arms, goes into danger. Nobody knows that better than the noble Viscount, who did so much to build up the Army Medical Corps. The members of that Corps are amongst the most courageous men in the Army; they face risks and perform acts similar to those which distinguish the very flower of the other arms, and I am sure they will not regard it as any hardship if they are called upon to do combatant duty, although I agree that it is taking them beyond their contract. That being so, I do not think there is any difficulty in this Bill which outweighs the enormous advantage of putting the drafts on a proper footing.


My Lords, I very much regret that I was not in the House when the noble Lord moved the Second Reading of this Bill. I quite agree with the Lord Chancellor that in this war we are fighting for our lives. In those circumstances a power of this sort should be given to the War Office, even though it be against the contract which was originally made with the soldier. In old days this proposal would have caused much feeling and great difficulty, but now I think the men themselves see the necessity of various changes; and I believe that this power of transfer, which I am sure will be exercised only under dire necessity, will be a great advantage to the Secretary of State and also to the Field-Marshal Commanding-in-Chief at the Front.


My Lords, the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack has shown to the House that a Bill of this kind is required at the present time. He used an appropriate simile. He said it was necessary that the Secretary of State should know what balance he had at his banker's, and it is quite clear that it is desirable that that balance should be, as far as possible, in liquid money. It would not be in liquid money if the Secretary of State's hands are too closely tied in these matters. Therefore I certainly do not raise any objection to the principle of this Bill.

But the history of the Bill has been rather a singular one. The noble and learned Viscount remembers that when these proposals were first put forward they concerned the Territorial Force and the Territorial Force only. There was a discussion in the House of Commons and the supporters of the Bill had a very bad debate, with the result that the Territorial proposals have been dropped altogether and this proposal which has reference to the Regular Array has been substituted. I am bound to say that, so far as the principle is concerned, I do not see any very clear line of demarcation between the case of the Territorial Army and that of the Regular Army. A man joins, say, a battalion of the Wiltshire regiment. He may join a Territorial battalion or what is known as a Kitchener battalion, but in either case he believes that he is joining a Wiltshire regiment, and violence will be done to his feelings if he is transferred against his will to some other regiment or some other arm of the Service.

These things, however, have to happen in the days through which we are passing, and all that I would beg the noble Lord in charge of the Bill to consider is whether it would not be possible to make some exception in the two cases which have been mentioned in this short discussion—first, the case of transferring a man from a noncombatant branch to a combatant branch of the Army; the other, the case where it is proposed to transfer a man who is engaged in one of these special battalions—Pals' Battalions, I believe they are called—which have been raised locally and financed out of local funds, and where clearly the man had come in believing that he was going to be one of a corps of soldiers with whom he was intimately and closely connected. I do not press the point, but I think it might be considered before the Committee stage. I know that Lord Derby, who has been indefatigable in raising troops in his own district, feels very strongly on this point, and he will probably mention it when we come to the Committee stage.

I will only add that we heard with great satisfaction the momentous announcement made by the noble and learned Viscount to the effect that he and his colleagues were prepared to reconsider the whole situation in regard to recruiting in view of the tremendous necessities which confront us. We have many of us felt for a long time that an announcement of this kind ought to be made, and we hope that the announcement as made by the noble and learned Viscount may be taken as an indication that this very grave problem is engaging the attention of himself and his colleagues.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House on Monday next.