MR, Duff Cooper's Statement.

Part of Orders of the Day — Supply. – in the House of Commons on 12th March 1936.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Duff Cooper Mr Duff Cooper , Westminster St George's

I beg to move, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair."

It will be within the recollection of the House that it fell to my lot only two years ago to introduce the Army Estimates. I then prefaced my remarks by attempting to give some account of what, in my opinion, are the purposes for which the British Army exists. A good deal has happened in the intervening two years, in the realm of politics and in the realm of science, but I think that the reasons which I then gave for the existence of the British Army remain unchanged. I then said that it existed for four purposes—to protect our naval bases, to police our Empire, to defend our shores and to provide a force which in an emergency may be called upon to fight somewhere outside our Imperial boundaries.

I said at the time, and I have been criticised for saying it, that all these functions were of equal importance, but surely where all functions are essential to existence there can be no question as to which is the more important. I am inclined to think that my critics have fallen into the error of confusing the meaning of the word "importance" and the word "urgency" It is just as important that a man's heart should continue to beat as it is that he should keep his head upon his shoulders. The urgency of one necessity, however, may considerably outweigh the urgency of another. A man on his way to execution would be foolish if he were to worry seriously about the state of his heart, whereas a man afflicted by heart disease would be equally foolish if he were to take elaborate precautions against having his head cut off. It is perfectly true that some of these purposes present a more urgent complexion at the present day than do others, but they are all vital to the continuance of our State.

The invention of flying, which has worked a tremendous change in every form of human activity and especially in all questions of defence, has not, I think, affected the purposes for which our small British army exists so much as many people believe. One of those purposes is home defence. As the House is aware, not only do the coast defences represent one of the responsibilities falling upon the British Army, but also the land defence against air attacks has now been imposed upon the land forces of the Crown. In that respect the responsibilities of the British Army at home have been increased rather than diminished by the invention of flying.

There is, however, a school of thought, or a school of doubt, which holds that owing to this new invention it should be no longer necessary for us to maintain in this country a force for service abroad. I believe that in the eighteenth century it was rather one of the tenets of the Tory party to restrict all our interference in European conflicts to naval aid or to subsidies. Some people are inclined to return to that theory to-day, and to say that we should restrict any part that we may ever take—which God forbid we should ever have to take—in a great war again to the naval and air arms, and should maintain an army solely for police, Imperial and home defence purposes. This is a question so important that if it were decided in a different way from that which now guides the policy of His Majesty's Government, it would entail a complete alteration of all our military preparations from top to bottom. It is a question so important that I think it only right that we should consider it before proceeding further with our Army Estimates. It was raised in the debate on defence by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham (Sir E. Grigg) who put the case very clearly. He expressed the doubts which exist, and although he did not himself go so far as to answer the question, he put those doubts in a manner which, I think, demanded a full reply. Those doubts have been raised in other quarters.

In the first place, it must be obvious, from our recent experience in the past year, that there must be some forces at our disposal which we can send out of the country in case of emergency. During the last six months, as the House is aware, we have been obliged, in support of collective security, to send out to the Mediterranean an armed force. The money which that force cost the country was voted practically without dissent in this House, and the policy has Certainly met with general approval. I have not been pressed, and I do not expect I shall be pressed, to give any details as to the size or allocation of that force, but need make no secret of the fact that even the provision of such a force, for a danger that was not extremely imminent or extremely grave, has severely taxed our military resources. We must work on the assumption that it would be perfectly possible for two such emergencies to occur simultaneously in our wide Empire. Another difficulty of the same sort might very well have arisen in some other quarter of the world and we might have been called upon at the same time to send overseas another important armed force which, in our present condition, I will not conceal from the House, would tax our resources to breaking point. Therefore, that consideration alone—the possibility of two emergencies occurring simultaneously not only in different parts of the Empire but in different parts of the world—would be sufficient to justify the imperative necessity of maintaining at home a force that can be sent abroad.

I do not want to avoid the doubts which my hon. and gallant Friend and others have expressed. They are whether, if we are again involved in a Continental war, it would be wise for us to limit our contribution to the Naval and Air Forces. I can assure the House that if we could so limit our contribution, that decision would come as a great relief to the Army Council and to those who are responsible for equipping our Army. But there are no two opinions among those on whom these responsibilities rest, that we could never proceed on the assumption that in no future conflict on the Continent we might not be called on by the Government of the day, whatever that Government might be, to send at very short notice a well-equipped force to take part in modern warfare against forces equally well equipped.

It was said in the leading article of the "Times" this morning: For more centuries than need be counted the destiny of Northern France and of the Low Countries has been held vital to the security of Britain. That situation has not been changed by modern inventions. It was Napoleon who said that Antwerp in the possession of a hostile nation was like a pistol held at the head of Great Britain. The result of new inventions is that that menace is greater than it was before, because to-day it is a double-barrelled pistol. It is not only a base for shipping and submarines, but is also a taking-off ground for aeroplanes. The invention of flying, so far from rendering us more immune, has robbed us of a great part of our immunity. The sea, as Shakespeare said— The silver sea, which serves it in the office of a wall. serves no longer in that office. More than ever we are part of the Continent of Europe; less than ever can we rely upon any special advantage from our insular position.

My hon. Friend pressed the point the other evening as to whether the question of speed had not materially altered the strategical considerations to which I have been referring, and whether it would be possible or not to transfer an Army to the Continent in time to be of any service. There are two answers to that question. The first is more practical and the second more speculative. The first is that if any Allies whom we might have secured were aware that such a force were coming, it would materially alter the whole of their action in the early days of the conflict and they would then be prepared to take a stronger and a bolder line, and to hold positions which they knew were shortly to be reinforced. The second consideration, as I have said, is more speculative. It is that these modern inventions—mechanisation, flying and the rest of them—have not so far produced a situation, and do not appear to be going to do so, in which land forces are put at a great disadvantage by their immobility. On the contrary, the mobility of the infantry is being increased all the time.

In the manoeuvres of the Russian Army last summer, a very interesting experiment was tried. A large body of troops with full equipment was transferred from one scene of the mimic war to another by aeroplane. A very interesting cinematograph picture was produced, and one could see 1,200 men descending simultaneously by parachute, and such heavy weapons as tanks, not to mention machine guns, being conveyed simul- taneously with the men to the scene of battle. I do not pretend that we are as up-to-date as that; but I would suggest to the House that the tendency is to show that we have not yet come to the end of developments of this nature and that the result in the long run may prove that, so far from our being handicapped in any way by our position in the mobility of infantry, the mobility of infantry will be so enormously increased that the need for it and the efficacy of it will be just as great in the future as it has been in the past. That I would say is the strategic reason why we cannot give up the possibility of, and abandon preparations for, sending a field force abroad.

Then there are political and psychological reasons. So far as we can see into the future, if ever we are involved in a war again on the Continent, under whatever Government it may be, it will be a war according to the policy which now has the support of the vast majority of our people, a war on behalf of and in support of the principles of collective security, that is to say, it will be a war fought with Allies, and I hope many Allies. Certainly if it were known that our contribution towards such a war was to be limited solely to naval and air action, it would immediately spread a considerable feeling of despondency among any potential Allies. It would lessen the strength of that principle of which we are trying so hard to increase the strength, the principle of collective security. It would diminish to a considerable extent the authority of the League of Nations. That is a psychological effect.

One of the great horrors of modern warfare is that warfare to-day is no longer an affair of small professional armies, as it was in the 18th century. It is warfare of whole peoples, and it will always be impossible for this country and for any democratic country to enter into a war unless it has the whole of the people behind it. When the whole of the people approve of the principle of a war —most of us can remember when they did so—they will not be content, the manhood of the nation will not be content to stand idly by and watch other countries fighting with the whole of their manhood for a cause in which we equally believe. For the large majority of our young men, able-bodied and of military age, there would be no place in our Navy, and sufficient aeroplanes could not be manu- factured or sufficient instructors found to fit them to serve in the Air Force; but I do not believe that they would accept the role of walking idly about the streets reading the news of how other countries were shedding their life's blood and throwing away the whole of their manpower in support of a cause which was ours as much as theirs.

I have attempted to convince the House that we must continue on the assumption that troops may be needed again to take part in a great war, if such a great war should ever occur, wherever it may be fought. The development of modern military affairs tends steadily in one direction. No serious student of warfare can have any doubt that in the future machinery will play a continual and ever-increasing part in military affairs. To many that is an unpleasant thought, but it is more than a thought; it is a fact, and a fact that nobody can get away from. The next war will be a war of machines, and men, save in so far as they serve to operate those machines, will be useless targets for the enemy. The great problem of mechanisation, to adopt modern machines for this fearful purpose, is the problem or, rather, the dilemma of being neither too soon nor too late in your decision. A new invention is produced which is going to have a tremendous effect. If you immediately seize upon it, develop it, invest in it before any of your competitors, you are incurring the risk that in a very short time, as usually happens, something better will turn up, some improvement upon it will be invented which will render what you have bought extraordinarily soon utterly out of date. That is one danger. The other danger is that if you wait too long everybody else may be equipped with this machinery before you have any of it at all. Therefore, the problem is to decide at the right moment. There is no problem, whatever the matter in hand may be, that is more difficult to decide than the question when to strike.

I have been often asked in the House questions by hon. Members who are, naturally and rightly, anxious about the adoption of an anti-tank gun, and I have been obliged in the past to put off these questions with the assurance that our experts are doing their best by research and inquiry to find out what was the best gun that could be produced. To-day, I am glad to be able to assure the House that those researches have, terminated and that a decision has been taken. The length of the research has been very largely due to the fact that an effort was made to find a gun which could combine the two most desirable features, mobility and efficacy—a light gun, and at the same time a powerful one. The decision has eventually been reached that such an ideal gun does not exist and that therefore it is better to have two weapons, an anti-tank rifle and a small anti-tank gun, the gun not so extremely heavy that it cannot, be easily moved, and the rifle one which can be carried by one man. That is the decision that has been made and that invention has now been completed. We are satisfied that the gun which has been decided upon is probably the best in the world, and the issue of it to the troops will take place with the least possible delay.

It has already been announced that eight cavalry regiments are to be mechanised in the coming years. That is in addition to the two which have already undergone the process. Here I should like to pay a tribute to the spirit in which this decision has been accepted by the cavalry regiments concerned. There is no country where the love of the horse is more profound and more widespread than this country, and there is no army in which tradition and sentiment count for so much as in our small regular Army, composed of old regiments, with old traditions. Both these influences act together in the mind of the cavalry man when he is asked to give up his horse, because all the traditions of the regiment are bound up with their horses. It is like asking a great musical performer to throw away his violin and to devote himself in future to a gramophone. It is a great sacrifice for the cavalry men, but it has been accepted in the very best spirit, practically without. protest, by all the regiments concerned. I heard the other day of an officer who was particularly devoted to horses and had expressed in the past his greatest contempt for every form of machine. He was a fine authority on horses, and was much consulted about horses. Within a year of his regiment being mechanised he has become an equally expert authority on motor cars, so that he is now consulted by the same friends upon the internal difficulties of their cars. That is an illustration of the spirit—the right spirit —in which these reforms have been accepted.

The House will also be aware that an announcement was made before Christmas that it has been decided to reorganise the Infantry Brigade, so that in future instead of these being four mixed battalions there will be three rifle battalions and one machine gun battalion. The rifle battalions will be armed with rifles and with the new Bren machine gun which is shortly to be constructed in this country, because we consider it to be the best light machine gun available. They will also be armed with mortars and with the new anti-tank rifle. The machine gun battalion will be fully mechanised, that is to say all the men will be carried, and it will be equipped with the new anti-tank gun and with heavy machine guns, carried in armoured carriers. Each battalion will include a reconnaissance company, which will be equipped with a new type of scout car.

Further, it has been decided to combine the present Tank Brigade with two mechanised Cavalry Brigades into a mobile division. The Tank Brigade itself will be refitted gradually during the present year with the latest Mark V and Mark VI type of tank, while the older form of tanks will be got rid of. In addition three new tank battalions are to be created, apart from the mobile division. One separate tank battalion exists already, so that each cavalry division of the Field Force may have a tank battalion of its own. So much for the mechanical side of the Army.

I will now turn to the more important side, the human side, because the best machine in the world is of no use unless it is manned, and manned with the right sort of man behind it. I will deal first with the recruiting position, which I do not disguise from the House is very bad indeed. At the end of the coming financial year, according to calculations, we shall be 10,000 below strength. That is a very serious matter. Some of the causes of it are fairly obvious. The first is one which none of us should regret, and that is, the increase in employment. When men can find a better job they are less likely to be inclined to join the Army. The second cause is also one which is not altogether a matter for regret, and that is that during the last, 50 years there has been a steady improve- ment in the standard of living of the people, in the standard of housing and many other things, and it has not been possible, owing to the very strict economic, supervision under which we have been proceeding, for the Army to keep up to the general improvement in the standard of living. The housing of the troops, for instance, as I have said many times in the House, is still terribly behind what it. ought to be. We are including in the Estimates this year £500,000 in order to improve that standard, and in the White Paper which we have been debating a very much larger sum has been promised for the same purpose. That will do something.

Another small but very important reform is this. There is no better recruiting officer and no recruiting officer perhaps so useful as the contented soldier, what I should prefer to call the happy warrior. Hitherto our men when they have been on leave in their own homes have been granted what has been termed a subsistence allowance. They have been allowed, according to the strict rules of mathematics, exactly the sum which it costs the Army to keep them when they are in barracks. The House will readily imagine that the sum which you spend when you are keeping 2,000 or 3,000 men in barracks does not go very far when it is divided up among the men and each is given his share. It works out at 9¾d. a day for each man. The result has been that many men have come back from leave before their leave was finished because they found that they could not keep themselves on their subsistence allowance. I am glad to say that we are increasing that this year to ls. 11d., which is a substantial increase of more than one-half. There may be many other ways, and I am prepared to consider any other way that can be suggested, for improving the conditions and rendering more pleasant and more cheerful the life of the soldier. I read only a few days ago an extremely interesting article in the "Royal Engineers' Journal" for this month, in which some very revolutionary proposals were made. Hon. Members opposite may perhaps be surprised to learn that I am never afraid of revolutionary proposals. I often think that their adoption may prevent a revolution. It is said that modern man dislikes living in barracks at all, and it is even suggested that it might be possible for soldiers, like other workers, to return to their own homes after their day's work, but I can foresee difficulties in putting into force such a proposal. Indeed, like many other modern proposals it is really reactionary, because in the past, long before there were any barracks, soldiers lived in lodgings and were summoned together by the bugle each morning. That was the real original purpose of drums and bugles. But even such revolutionary proposals are worth considering, and some good may be drawn from them, and I shall be grateful if during the Debate any hon. Member can make any interesting suggestions or constructive proposals for the improvement of recruiting.

There is another cause which, I am sure, has had a great deal to do with the badness of recruiting at the present time. There is an opinion held by some people that because war is a bad thing and peace a good thing, a man who is a soldier and who makes himself ready to take part in war is doing a bad act. I shall not weary the House by showing how many fallacies lie between that premise and that conclusion. To say that because war is bad, therefore the soldier is bad, is like saying that because crime is had therefore the lawyer is a bad man. I am sure that the majority of hon. Members do not lend themselves to that opinion, but there are extreme pacificists, and I see in his place the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bow and Bromley (Mr. Lansbury), who definitely takes the view that it is wrong in any conditions to fight. With all due respect to the right hon. Gentleman, his opinions are not widely held in the country. I do not think they are the opinions held by the official leaders and Members of the Labour party or by the Members of the Liberal party. When hon. Members opposite were in office they supported the armed forces of the Crown as they would support and maintain those forces to-day if they were in office again. Their opinions on this question do not differ from ours. They deplore and hate the idea of war as much as we do, but they recognise the sad necessity of maintaining our forces in a state of readiness to take part in that fearful emergency should it arise. I would appeal to them to use their influence to combat this idea, which is the result of muddled thinking on the part of a number of people, that because war is bad, it is therefore bad to be a soldier.

To-day when there are still numbers of young active men unemployed and living on the dole, what better advice could be given to them than that they should join the Army? There they would find the opportunity of a healthy, open-air life. They would be well cared for and well nourished, and, in addition, they would have facilities for education. I do not know whether hon. Members have studied our educational figures. They show that the number of soldiers holding first-class and special certificates is increasing every year. Soldiers, after they have spent the active years of their life in the Army—a healthy occupation and also one that is helpful to the country—are more likely than others to find good employment. Our vocational training centres are doing a wonderful work. During the past year 3,065 men passed through them as compared with 2,536 in the previous year.

I should like to see these figures further increased. I should like, if it were possible, to take steps to increase the vocational training centres and to see more men passing through them. It is particularly satisfactory to find that, of the men who come out of the vocational training centres, over 76 per cent., according to our latest figures, find immediate employment. It does not follow that the other 24 per cent. do not find employment also. The 76 per cent. are those who find employment immediately and as to the others it is not always possible to keep in touch with them or to know what becomes of them. I suggest to hon. Members opposite and also to my own colleagues on this side that, in addressing meetings in their constituencies, they ought to do everything possible to encourage recruiting for the Army, on the ground that there is no better way in which young men can spend the active years of life and no way in which a young man is more likely to improve himself physically and mentally for the future.

So far, I have confined myself to the Regular Army, and I now wish to say something about the Territorial Army. Recruitment for the Territorial Army is an even more urgent and serious problem than recruitment for the Regular Army. We are 40,000 under strength at the present time and, here again, I do not think the causes. are far to seek. Frankly, we have not encouraged the Territorial Army. In fact, I am afraid we have done a great deal to discourage it. After the War, when the Territorial Army was reconstituted, a bounty was given of £5 a year to all trained men and £4 to recruits who did their full military duty. In 1922 when there was a wild demand for economy that £5 was reduced to £3 and in 1927 the £3 was reduced to 30s. That could not be called encouraging.

Then with regard to the Territorial camps—and the, camp is to the Territorial the chief object of his existence as a Territorial—it will be remembered that in 1931 a decision was taken in the height of the economic crisis to abolish the camps for 1932. I do not apologise for that policy, because I was a humble Member of the Government at the time, hut we thought that the urgency and danger of the economic situation was such that it mattered even more than the future of the Territorials. It was natural that there should have grown up in the minds of the Territorials themselves a feeling that they were not wanted, that they were only being tolerated and that they were not regarded as a vital and integral part of our defensive scheme. But they are indeed an integral part of that scheme, and when I say that, I mean that they are so much a part of the whole that if they were withdrawn the whole would fall to pieces and we would not have a defence scheme at all. I am glad to be able to do a little this year towards improving the lot of the Territorials. In the first place, I am glad to announce that the full £5 bounty will he restored, which means that the trained man will receive £3 proficiency grant, 10s. for weapon training allowance, and 30s. for extra drills. A recruit will earn £3 10s. in all, and the concession made last year to instructors and specialists will be continued. A Territorial Army instructor who is also a specialist will be able to earn in all £6 10s. a year, in addition to the usual pay and allowances to which he is entitled when in camp, or attending courses. Further, the arrangement made last year whereby, in the case of a certain number of drills, travelling expenses were paid, will be extended so that Territorials will receive for all their 50 drills full travelling expenses under the conditions already laid down.

There is another matter which has long been a source of discontent among the Territorials, and that is the question of the marriage allowance. In the Regular Army it is our policy to grant the marriage allowance to no soldier under 26. That will continue to be our policy and it is, I believe, a sound policy. We do not wish to encourage young soldiers serving in the Regular Army to incur the responsibilities of matrimony before that age. But the Territorial soldier is in a different position. We are in no way responsible for whatever responsibilities he may wish to incur. We are in no way responsible for his private life. He is his own master. All we know of him is that he is a man who is good enough to devote some of his leisure to serving his country. When such a young, man marries he, unlike the Regular soldier, is obliged to set up a home and that home has to be carried on while he is in camp. Therefore, I am glad to say that it has been decided that all Territorial soldiers who marry over the age of 21 will receive the full marriage allowance.

These concessions concern only the private soldiers and the non-commissioned ranks, but I felt that the picture would be incomplete unless we could do something also for the officers. I do not think that the majority of hon. Members have any idea of how great are the sacrifices which the young Territorial officer makes on behalf of the cause in which he believes. These young officers are not rich men. They are poor and, generally, they are just beginning arduous careers which make great demands upon them. They have small salaries and short holidays and service in the Territorial Army means for most of them giving up the whole of their holidays. What that sacrifice is especially to some of the young men who are married can easily be imagined. The pay which they receive goes a very short way towards paying their expenses. All that many of them ever hear of their pay is a letter from the Inland Revenue demanding the Income Tax which is due upon it. In addition the majority of young officers have to put their hands into their own pockets before the end of the year to meet their expenses.

I have sought for some way of assisting them and the way which I have discovered is this. At present the sum of £1per head is allowed for officers while in camp for a fortnight. I am glad to say we are going to increase that to £5. It is not a great sum and nobody will get rich upon it, but I hope it will just make such a difference, in a large number of cases, that at the end of the year the young officer will not have to pay for the privilege of serving his country. Another discouraging factor which the Territorial Army has had to face is the fact that they are so ill-equipped with the necessary weapons which, in real warfare, they would have to use. There is nothing more disheartening to a man who is taking part in a field clay than to know that a white flag represents a machine gun and a green flag represents a tank and something else represents an antitank gun and so on. In those circumstances men have the uncomfortable feeling always hovering over them that they are only playing at being soldiers. I am glad to say, although there is no large provision in these Estimates, that it has been decided, in connection with the White Paper, to make a very considerable annual advance for the explicit purpose of re-equipment. It is intended, as well as re-equipping the Regular Army to improve the present inadequate equipment of the Territorials, so that they shall not lack the weapons necessary to make their manoeuvres and their exercises more of a reality.