HL Deb 26 October 1915 vol 20 cc4-18


Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I ask you to give a Second Reading to this Bill. Independently of its principle, which I hope the House will accept, the Bill has three things in its favour. It is very short, it has been drawn by a master hand, and it is perfectly intelligible. It is composed of four clauses. Clause I provides that it shall be lawful for His Majesty to accept, for purposes in connection with the present war, the services of any Volunteer corps which is duly affiliated to the Central Association of Volunteer Training Corps and whose services are offered through that association. Clause 2 empowers the Army Council to make regulations for the purpose of carrying the Bill into effect, and provides in particular that the Army Council may by those regulations make provision, in relation to Volunteer corps whose services are accepted under this Bill, as to their organisation, their duties in case of invasion, and the other duties for which their services may be accepted, and also the appointment and promotion of officers, the enrolment and terms of conditions of service of members, and the maintenance of discipline. Clause 3 provides that an officer or member of a Volunteer corps whose services have been accepted under this Bill shall, when he, or the corps of which he is an officer or member, is attached to or otherwise acting as part of or with any Regular forces or any part of the Territorial Force, and in such other circumstances as may be prescribed by regulations under the Bill, be subject to military law as an officer or soldier respectively. Clause 4 provides that an officer or member of a Volunteer corps whose services have been accepted under this Bill shall not be liable, as such, to serve outside England and Wales unless he voluntarily accepts liability for that purpose.

This morning I was fortunate enough to have a conversation with the secretary of the Scottish Association, which is recognised by the War Office, and that association wishes, if your Lordships please, at a later stage to be included within the scope of the Bill. Lord Rosebery is the president of this association, and I am authorised to state that he and the association are in entire accord with the principle underlying this Bill. Your Lordships will remember that fifteen months ago, at the outbreak of the war, a great flame of patriotism burst out all over the country: young men flocked to the Colours, and everybody, whatever his age or the position he occupied, was anxious to do what is called "his bit." In consequence of that a large number of Volunteer corps, comprising men who had passed military age, were started all over the country, but it was thought at the time—I suppose wisely—by the military authorities that these independent corps might in some way interfere with the recruiting of the new Armies, a million men having been called for to meet the then emergency. These Volunteers were at that time a mass of detached units, and as such would not have been of any great service to the country. It was necessary that something should be done in the matter, and, as always happens in England, the right man came forward exactly at the right moment to do what was wanted, and that man was Lord Desborough. My noble friend worked early and late, and was fortunate enough to secure General Sir O' Moore Creagh, V.C., late Commander-in-Chief in India, as his military adviser; Mr. Percy Harris, of the London County Council, who was one of the initiators of the movement, as his hon. secretary; and Mr. Charles J. Stewart, the Public Trustee, as hon. treasurer. These men set to work and got the disjointed units into one great whole. They started county regiments in almost all the counties in England, and these were helped to a great extent by the various Lords Lieutenant. They showed the men where to get arms, clothing and equipment, and at the present moment they have succeeded in getting together a Force, a quarter of a million strong, of men who, without any expense to the country, are ready to come forward and sacrifice their lives if need be, in the case of raid or invasion, for the protection of their homes, their wives, their children, their King, and their country.

It has now been felt that this great mass of armed men ought not to be allowed to continue without some sort of recognition being afforded to them. Some people may say, What do you mean by recognition? What sort of recognition do you want? I believe I am speaking for all the Force when I say that they do not want any recognition whatever of the silent, patient patriotism which has brought them together and made them attend drills and make themselves, as may of them are, first-rate marksmen. All they want is to be placed under military discipline and military law when their services are required, as shown in this Bill. These men are perfectly prepared for the present to run their own show. They are not asking the Government for money, or for arms, equipment, or transport; still less do they ask for military honours, or distinctions, or smart uniforms. Neither do they wish in any way to be a nuisance to the War Office, or to plague men who are up to their necks in important business. They can manage their own affairs perfectly well themselves. All they want is that recognition to which their patriotic conduct., in my opinion, fully entitles them. All of us who belong to Volunteer corps make an offer to the King, to the Government, and to the country of a Fourth Line. A little over a quarter of a million strong, we offer ourselves freely, without reserve, without restriction, entirely of our own free will, without any solicitation, and, above all, without any compulsion of any sort, description, or kind. We make this offer for what it is worth to His Majesty's Government, and we hope and believe that our offer will not be made in vain.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a—(The Marquess of Lincolnshire.)


My Lords, I rise to support the Bill the Second Reading of which has just been moved by the noble Marquess. Although this Bill has not been introduced by the Central Association of Volunteer Training Corps it is certainly one for which they bespeak the kind consideration of His Majesty's Government. In the first place I should like to say that it has been the one aim and object of the Central Association of Volunteer Training Corps, as it is of every patriotic man at the present moment, not to add anything to the great burdens which now rest upon the over-worked War Office. In fact, the object of recognising the Central Association of Volunteer Training Corps was to relieve the War Office of the enormous correspondence which arose from the remarkable outburst of patriotism to which the noble Marquess alluded. When war broke out there rose up in almost every hamlet throughout the country men who were longing to employ their spare time at any rate in preparing themselves to the best of their ability for the duty which might fall upon them of defending their country. This involved upon the War Office an enormous amount of work, and seeing that the association with which I am connected had already received from almost every part of the country the free and spontaneous offer of these different corps to affiliate with us, the War Office, by a Letter dated November 19, 1914, appointed us as the association which should have the power of affiliating corps, and decreed that these corps, if they did affiliate, should be recognised and given the power to fight for their country. Since that recognition there was a Letter—Letter E—issued by the Home Office to certain Lords Lieutenant, in which it was plainly stated that it was the duty of every man at this crisis in his country's history, if he was of military age and not otherwise debarred, to enlist in the Army, but that if he was not of military age or otherwise debarred it was his duty to join the nearest Volunteer corps which was affiliated to the Central Association. If he did that, he would be allowed to take up arms in case of invasion for the defence of his country; but if he did not do it, such arms as he might have in his possession would be taken away from him and he would be set to perform such menial tasks as might be allotted to him.

The War Office Letter of November 19 was loyally accepted throughout the country, and we proceeded to organise these corps. The Volunteers in the different hamlets were formed into platoons, the platoons into companies, and the companies into battalions; and finally, when appealed to, the Lords Lieutenant of no less than thirty-eight counties came forward and consented to start what were practically county Volunteer corps. In most of the counties of England and Wales there is now a large body of Volunteers officered and drilled without any aid from public funds. Whatever merits we may have, the only article 'we have received from the Government up to the present time is a small piece of ornamental red flannel with the letters "G.R." upon it; but seeing that every man who wears it has the right to bear arms for his country the mark is, I venture to say, one of distinction. Having got so far in the organisation, there came to the Central Association from all over the country, from those who were entrusted with the defence of the various military districts, requests for the services of these men. Both in Scotland and in England there are a large number of places where Volunteers, having been asked to do so, are carrying out important duties, in some cases guarding railways, in others protecting aeroplanes and places where munitions are stored.

There are now in the defences North and South of London no fewer than 5,000 Volunteers digging trenches and performing at no cost to the country other work of an important military character. These men, under the instructions of the General Officer Commanding the Defences of London, have already become very competent in the execution of their duties; some of them are already in control of working parties, and others have performed important duties in assisting in the carrying out of these defences. They are gradually qualifying themselves, should there be an attack upon London, not only to man the trenches but to act as guides to the Regular troops who would be employed in the defence of those trenches. This organisation of 5,000 Volunteers could be carried a good deal further, many of the men being competent engineers. The work that they have already performed has elicited the encomiums of commanding officers. These duties of a voluntary character are going to be largely extended, so that when the time conies the men may in certain sections be able to assist the large body of civilian or even of military labour which it may be necessary to employ upon these defences. This work, as I have already pointed out, has been carried out at no expense to the country; and the fact that the Volunteers have been asked to perform these duties shows that to a large extent they have already fitted themselves to carry them out.

But the difficulty that now arises is the authority which the Volunteer has to carry out these duties of guarding railway lines and bridges. Although he has the right to fight, through having been recognised by the War Office Letter of November 19, he has no status entitling him to carry out the duties of guarding bridges and so on. In fact, only last week we received a letter stating that men of the Norfolk corps who were out guarding railways had become frightened and were unwilling to continue this work unless they were given a status. In the first place they were told that they would invalidate their insurance policies. Whether there is any truth in that I do not know. Secondly, they were told that if anything untoward happened, if they injured themselves or anybody else, they would have no protection whatever from the law. Therefore I hope that His Majesty's Government will look with favour upon this Bill. As the noble Marquess in charge of it explained, we do not ask for money. But we do ask that Volunteers who are called upon to perform military duties should at all events have the protection of the law and be given a status. In the second place, although they are quite willing to provide their own arms and equipment they should not have to incur extra outlay in the way of travelling expenses and so on.

I should like to add that a more statement by the Government, that they thought that in the near future the services of these men would be required for the performance of these various duties would be of enormous assistance to the Volunteer movement. There has been spread among these men a fear that their services may not be required. The letter from the Secretary of State which appeared a few weeks ago did a great deal to allay that apprehension. In that letter the men were thanked for the great services they had rendered to the country, both in providing officers and men from their own ranks to the Regular Army and in enormously assisting recruiting throughout the country. Still the time has come when, without in any way wishing to rush the Government, it is absolutely necessary for the success of this movement that the men should be informed that if they me called upon to perform these duties they will be given some protection under the law. Only the other day I was informed that, owing to the large number of munition works springing up all over the country, there would be great calls upon this Volunteer force. The Police are to a large extent getting depleted through enlistments in the Army, and otherwise. The services of special constables are manifold, but are not adequate to the duty of guarding such vulnerable points as munition works and places of that character. Therefore I venture to think that if the Government could hold out some hope to Volunteers that their services would be likely to be required for the carrying out of this work, and that, if they were so required, the men would he given every protection, it would prevent, a great many men who are thinking of doing so from resigning after having drilled for a year and some months, and it would call back to the movement a great many men who have qualified themselves and would be willing to serve again.

The noble Marquess alluded to Scotland. All I will say on that matter is that it has been the one idea of the English and the Scottish associations to work together and to carry on the movement with unanimity and absolutely on the same lines. Therefore we should welcome the inclusion of Scotland in this Bill, so as to enable the two associations to continue to work together in the future. One other point. Suppose a very large number of men join the Colours in the near future or are called upon to do so. These Volunteer corps are equipped in many eases with drill-halls; the members are quite qualified as elementary drill officers, and could be usefully employed in drilling and bringing to a certain state of efficiency men earmarked for service but who could not for the moment join the Colours. I think that with a little encouragement the Volunteers at their various depots might, under military supervision, perform very useful service in this direction. The days are getting shorter. It was much easier to drill in the summer with open fields, but drilling now in all these centres, with so many men to handle, will not be easy when winter comes on. Therefore the drill-halls will be very valuable. I am sure that if these Volunteers think that they are wasting their time and that their services are not likely to be wanted, and that if they are wanted they will not be protected in the pert formance of their duties, our numbers will fall off—as, indeed, they are falling off—and the whole movement will be very much discouraged. Therefore it is with much pleasure that I support the Second Reading of this Bill.


My Lords, it is evident from the reception of the two speeches which we have just heard that the sentiments expressed are in accordance with the general feeling of the House, and there is every reason to suppose that they are in accord with the general feeling in the country. Everybody, I take it, is in agreement as to the potential and actual value of this Force, and Lord Kitchener himself has publicly testified to its value and to his appreciation of the whole movement. I think I might add that everybody, without exception, recognises the patriotic spirit which has animated the members of this Force, and it is important not to forget that this patriotic feeling has not been encouraged by any artificial stimulus of any kind whatsoever. It certainly appears to me that not the least of the services which this Force has rendered has been that of example. The spectacle of these men performing their allotted task, many of them men of considerable age, and prepared, as the noble Marquess said, to die in the defence of their children, or, more correctly perhaps in the case of many of them, in the defence of their grandchildren or great-grandchildren, has in all probability exercised a much more beneficial effect upon recruiting than those pictorial inducements which confront us on every public building and hoarding and in every public vehicle, and which represent, so far as I am aware, a very considerable amount of expenditure. The noble Marquess informed us that this Bill had been drawn by a master hand. It is, at all events, one of an extremely modest and reasonable character. The noble Marquess did not ask for money or for arms, or even for decorations. He merely asked for recognition, and I am happy to be able to assure him that the War Office willingly assents to the Second Reading of this Bill. At the same time it should be understood that it may be necessary to introduce certain Amendments in Committee; and, further than that, it should be understood that the War Office is not called upon to put it into force immediately. That is all I think it is necessary for me to say on the subject. I will conclude by expressing the hope that if the noble Marquess behind me succeeds in passing his Bill through this House, he may be more fortunate in another place than I have been when I have found myself in a similar position.


My Lords, as one connected with a Volunteer corps of this nature I desire to say a word or two in support of this Bill. When I was first asked to join in organising in Northamptonshire the corps to which I belong, I had, first, to consider what the military value of the corps would be, and, secondly, whether it might not be filled or partially filled by those who wished to avoid their proper duties in the service of the Crown. As time went on, and as I watched the organisation, I felt myself able to join and to do my best to promote the efficiency of the corps. The corps in Northamptonshire consists very largely, in the first place, of men over military age who wish to serve their country, and, in the second place, of men working in the boot factories whom, although of military age, it was impossible to urge to join the Army as they were engaged in the carrying out of very important Government contracts; at the same time it was considered an advantage that they should be educating themselves for the military service of the Crown. As time went on the corps increased in numbers and in efficiency, and the War Office proviso, which is accepted by the men, prevents any one of military age evading service in the Army by joining the corps. These men are already doing military duty in the county of Northamptonshire, and I consider it will be to the general advantage if this Bill becomes law.


My Lords, to those of us who have had a good deal to do with the raising and organisation of this Force it is very satisfactory to hear that the War Office, subject to certain Amendments which they may presently introduce, take no exception to the passage of this Bill. But the noble Lord the Paymaster-General added a warning which, whether intentional or not, may convey rather a disappointing effect. He said that it must be understood that the War Office do not undertake to put the Bill into force at once. What these Volunteer corps naturally aim at before anything else is that they should be recognised as part of His Majesty's Army. That, I take it, is what my noble friend Lord Desborough meant when he harped upon status. At present these men are combatants when they have on the brassard; that is all. They wear a dress which is uniform in many cases, and when they have the brassard added they hope they will be recognised as combatants in the event of then being involved in battle or meeting with an enemy force. But with the brassard off—indeed, with the brassard on—I do not think the War Office would admit that they are at present a part of His Majesty's Army. In the case of my own county I have insisted on every man making a promise that lie would obey the orders of his superior officers in the spirit of the system of discipline maintained in His Majesty's Army, and to that extent, and to that extent only, the officers have control over them. The officers themselves have not His Majesty's commission. They have an appointment. I think in some cases it has been given by the Lord Lieutenant, but I am doubtful whether the Lord Lieutenant, being His Majesty's representative, was authorised to give an appointment of that kind. In my own case I have been careful in the wording of the appointment to avoid any reference to myself as Acting Lord Lieutenant. I have simply done it as commandant of the corps. These men have no claim, as I conceive, at present to regard themselves as part of His Majesty's Army, and I have warned them that they must realise that. If the first clause of this Bill becomes law, then in the case of any man or corps being accepted by His Majesty I take it we may hope that that man or that corps will become part of His Majesty's Army. That is certainly the aim of the noble Marquess who introduced this Bill. I think it is the desire of my noble friend Lord Desborough. I am perfectly certain it is the hope of many of the officers and men who belong to this Force. But the warning of the noble Lord opposite might mean that although this Bill became law—


I had in mind chiefly the difficulty of arming these men.


Then I understand the noble Lord to mean that if this Bill becomes law the putting into effect of Clause 1 will not be refused by the War Office—officers and men will be recognised under Clause 1—but that the War Office must not be expected forthwith' to proceed, under the subsequent clauses of the Bill, to make regulations on the basis of the old Volunteer Acts. I speak with sonic experience and authority on this matter. I had for four years, when I was at the War Office, the primary responsibility for the administration of all the Auxiliary Forces, so that I have a great deal of sympathy with the Regulars at the War Office. I know perfectly well the pressure that is brought to bear by outside influence for money to be supplied for Volunteer forces, and the very great difficulty that the Regular officers at the War Office have in refusing money under that pressure. I have that in my mind, and can quite understand the hesitation that has marked Lord Kitchener and his advisers in this matter. I sympathise with them through it all, and I fully realise the difficulties in connection with arming and equipping these men. But the primary object of the noble Marquess who introduced this Bill, and of Lord Desborough, and I am sure of the officers and men of this Force, is that they should be recognised as part of His Majesty's Army, and I hope we may construe the speech of the noble Lord the Paymaster-General and his explanatory interruption as meaning that if the Bill becomes law there will be nothing to prevent Clause 1 being put into operation as soon as officers and men are ready to accept it, and that under it they may expect to be recognised as part of His Majesty's Army.


My Lords, the ground has been so completely covered by previous speakers that very little has been left for me to say, but I should like, in a few words, to extend my support to this Bill. The Bill will remove a grievance under which Volunteer corps have suffered ever since their inception—namely, want of proper acknowledgment from the authorities. This movement is the most extraordinary that I have known throughout my life. The popularity of it and the growth in numbers and in strength' of these corps have been unprecedented. At one moment the strength of the corps was something like 350,000 strong. Since then there has been a certain amount of depletion, caused by dissatisfaction with the way in which things were going and uncertainty as to whether or not the corps were to be allowed to exist. I am glad to hear from the noble Lord the Paymaster-General that His Majesty's Government look upon this Bill with a favourable eye and consent to its Second Reading. This is one of the most useful Forces that we could possibly have, not only in regard to the present but in regard also to the future. In case of invasion, which we all hope will not take place, this Force would be of great use, not only in helping the Police but in assisting the military in guarding bridges, munition works, and vulnerable spots that are at present guarded either by special constables or Regular soldiers. The Volunteer training corps could undertake a great deal of this work. The noble Marquess who introduced the Bill said that we do not ask for arms. Nor do we at the present moment. But I must say that if it comes to a case of invasion—I know that I am here treading on somewhat dangerous ground, because, as a friend told me the other day, it is as much as your life is worth to mention the word "arms" at the War Office—it will be, in my opinion, absolutely necessary to arm these men so as to enable them adequately to guard the places placed under their protection. But that is not a question for the present. I simply mention it in the hope that, if we do get the recognition for which we ask, the issue of arms will follow as a natural sequence. I give my cordial support to the Second Reading of this Bill.


My Lords, this Bill is of a modest character; it is, perhaps, the most modest Bill ever brought into your Lordships' House. But it is mainly, practically I may say, an enabling Bill, and our experience of enabling Bills frequently is that they prove futile in operation. I hope from what has fallen from the noble Lord the Paymaster-General that that will not be the fate of this Bill, but that under its operation the War Office will give real encouragement to this most patriotic and useful body of men. I was under the impression that the Volunteer Act of 1863 was still in force. If it is, it does seem to me that the War Office already possess very large powers for dealing with the questions now before us. The Volunteers of last year have proved their value in a large number of different ways. In addition to the services which Lord Desborough has described, I should like to add that they have, besides acting as most useful recruiting agents, formed training bodies for non-commissioned officers and for officers, and the Admiralty has used some of their members for service on the coast. In the Isle of Man, where Home Rule prevails in such matters, they are styled the Loyal Manx Volunteer Corps, and they actually perform guard duty at the Douglas Detention Camp for prisoners and when so employed receive uniform at the public expense and a shilling a day.

But the only charter from the War Office possessed by this Force at present is the letter of November 19, 1914. That charter merely recognises the Central Association, and it promulgates rules largely prohibitory and, as it seems to me, distinctly of a discouraging character. One of those rules was found after a short time—as, indeed, it seemed on the face of it—to be ultra vires, and was soon afterwards withdrawn. The result of this treatment has been that there has been a diminution in the Force, and there is real danger that this most valuable body of men may be still further reduced in numbers. In the ranks of this Force there are many men of real value, capable of rendering any kind of service, provided it does not involve violent physical exercise —a body like that could set Regulars and others free from many duties for more important work. I therefore hope that the Government will take this question up in earnest. The main question is that of the status of these men. It is absolutely necessary, as Lord Desborough said, that they should have some legalised and understood status, and that they should not be, as they are now and have been for some time, really at the mercy of caprice. Unless their position is regularised it is not possible for them to do what they wish—namely, serve their King and country to the best of their ability.


My Lords, I do not wish this discussion to close without giving a word of welcome to this measure and of congratulation to my noble friend opposite (Lord Desborough), to whom more than to any other living man the country owes it that these Volunteer training corps have been called into existence. The noble Marquess behind me recommended his Bill on the ground that it was a short and intelligible Bill. He might have added that it was not only short and intelligible, but also a Bill conceived in an extremely moderate and reasonable spirit. These corps have, as we all know, for a long time greatly desired that some measure of official recognition should be extended to them, and I am very glad that the time has come when they are to receive it. It is impossible to give them too much credit for the way in which, without any recognition up to the present time, they have come forward and played their part, They have undertaken, from motives of the purest patriotism, a good deal of very onerous work, sometimes very rough and arduous work, They have done that, as your Lordships have been told, without any pay, without any allowances, without any recompense of any kind.

It was suggested just now that in the earlier days of the movement it was looked upon rather askance by the War Office authorities. I think that is quite possible, because in the earlier days of the war the War Office authorities were naturally occupied almost entirely with the idea of raising recruits for the Regular Army. But if there ever was any misgiving of that kind in the mind of the military authorities I think it has entirely passed away. Indeed, I think that my noble friend on the Cross Benches (Lord Sydenham) was amply justified when he told the House that not only had these Volunteer training corps not stood in the way of recruiting, but that they have actually rendered valuable service in promoting recruiting, notably in such a matter as that of the formation of schools which could be attended by young officers. This Bill is a permissive Bill, and it will rest with the War Office to decide when and how it shall be put into operation. My noble friend Lord Harris took some exception to what was said by the Paymaster-General when he informed the House that the Secretary of State for War could not give an undertaking that the Bill would be put into operation at once. But I think any noble friend (Lord Newton) was justified in putting in a reservation of that kind, because it is quite obvious that not only will the Bill itself— some of the provisions of which we think will need amendment—require a good deal of attention, but the regulations to be issued under the Bill will necessitate very careful consideration indeed.


Clause 1 has nothing whatever to do with the regulations.


At any rate I feel sure that, although the War Office may alert be able to undertake that this Bill should be made use of at once, there is no idea of relegating it to a dim and distant future. The whole question will be considered by the Government in a spirit of entire good will towards these corps which have rendered so important a service to the country.


Before the noble Marquess in charge of the Bill replies, I should like to ask whether there is any reason why the proposed operation of the Bill is confined to England and Wales. I understand that there are some thousands of this body enrolled in Scotland and that some of them, at any rate, are being actually employed by one Government Department. It seems to me, if I am correct in that belief, that it is rather extraordinary that the Bill should be confined to England and Wales.


My Lords, I should like to say a word of respectful thanks to His Majesty's Government for the way in which they have received this Bill. I also desire to express the gratitude that we feel to the noble Marquess (Lord Lansdowne) who is leading the House this evening for the sympathetic and generous words which he used regarding the Volunteer Force. It is impossible to say how much good those words will do, and we are under a deep obligation to him for having uttered them. I feel certain that the reception which the Bill has met with on all sides of the House will be a great inducement to some hundreds of thousands of brave men to persevere in their patriotic endeavours.

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

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