Orders of the Day — Home Guard.

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 18th December 1941.

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Photo of Mr Henry Charleton Mr Henry Charleton , Leeds South

The reception of this Memorandum by my hon. Friends here has been somewhat mixed. There are those on this side of the House who are members of the Home Guard who have thought that some compulsion should be applied to make citizens join and take their corner in the defence of the country. Some men left the Home Guard owing to the conditions under which the Home Guard laboured for the first 18 months or so. Looking back, one must admire that ragged Army which first formed the Local Defence Volunteers, going up to the hills and plains and on to high buildings in their own clothes in wet weather, anticipating the Prime Minister's remark a week ago when he said that we would if necessary defend our towns with sticks and pikes. That is how they went out, and they were submitted to some ridicule because they fashioned for themselves dummy wooden rifles in order to drill better. One must say that they did not get much help from the War Office in those days. Paragraph 2 of the Memorandum deals with those who may be excused on grounds of hardship or other grounds. I should like the right hon. Gentleman to consider men who have been exempted from fire-watching on medical grounds, and to suggest that the same certificate of exemption might release them from liability to serve in the Home Guard without the necessity of any further examination. I should like him to let us know also whether the punishment for military offences will extend to when a man is going to and from a parade in uniform, or whether it only applies to the time when he is actually on parade.

I was at first suspicious of the paragraph which says that the duties of the Home Guard will be defined in instructions issued by the Army Council. Everybody, I suppose, is suspicious of the Army Council. I remember when I was one of the governors of Roehampton Hospital that those high-minded and patriotic ladies who laid the foundations of that hospital in the early part of the last war went in a deputation to the War Office. I presume that they saw the Army Council. They were assured that the cases of amputation of limbs would be negligible. We know better to-day. Then an officer who, I believe, is high up in the Army Council, assured us at the beginning of the war that we should be all right because the Germans had no officers who served in the last war. Perhaps it is a good job for the Germans that they had not, or they might still have been sitting round the Maginot Line. As it is, they made other arrangements for carrying on the war, with disastrous effects to us. The Minister said he thought there would be little difficulty in the present members of the Home Guard making up their minds whether to re-enlist or not. I would point out in passing that the problem for many of us who will be called upon to make a decision is very different from what it was when one was in the Yeomanry 20 years age

I was glad to hear that the War Office do not propose to act too strictly in regard to the number of hours' attendance. There will be men liable to service who will be working on a shift system and they would, perhaps, actually have to lose their rest in order to attend parades. Everybody will be glad to know that the War Office are to use the Home Guard on anti-aircraft guns and searchlights, and also on coastal batteries. That seems to be an easy thing to do where there are in the locality towns from which men can be drawn. I have in mind mainly the rural areas, from which still more young men are to be called-up for military service, and there will not be so many left. That position does appear to create difficulties, but I will return to that point later.

One thing about which I feel concern is whether the introduction of conscription for the Home Guard will destroy the spirit of that body. I have enjoyed immensely my membership of the Home Guard. Here in the House it has brought Members of all parties very much closer together. We know each other much more intimately than before, and I believe we shall know each other to the end of our days. No doubt there will be "old guards'" dinners in days to come. But I am a little suspicious, and I am sure there will be more than one Member of the same mind as myself, about what I may call, although I do not mean this offensively, "the Prussian-minded officer." We all know that there are such officers, those who are so keen on "spit-and-polish" and all that sort of thing. There comes to my mind the experience of a nephew of mine who was a sergeant in the Artillery in the last war. His officer would have all the brass parts of the guns polished; in the other batteries they did not. My nephew remonstrated with the officer about it. One day an enemy reconnaissance plane came over, and within half an hour—luckily my nephew was away from the guns at the moment—the whole lot of them were wiped out. He said the sun was glinting on their sights and trunnions and they were easily visible from the air. That officer, with his silly, nonsensical ideas about polishing the guns, had, no doubt, cost that battery their lives.

I should like to ask, also, whether the Minister has considered the advisability of putting the conscripts in the Home Guard into separate companies, especially in the countryside. If you force into a company a man who has so far remained outside he may not fit in with the rest very well. After all, the speed of a convoy is the speed of its slowest ship, just as the strength of a chain is the strength of its weakest link, and the introduction of conscripts may cause endless difficulties. I do not know what the Minister may be prepared to do, but I think the point is worthy of consideration. It is always an unhappy thing to have a misfit among a small group of men, and it should be remembered that the men of the Home Guard do not work shoulder to shoulder like the men in a Guards' battalion. They will be working under very similar conditions to those which prevailed when I was in the old Rifle Volunteers over 50 years ago, before the days of aeroplanes and telephones. When we were reconnoitring or skirmishing we had to work on our own. Then I should like to know what is to be done about us grandpas who are now over the upper age-limit for the Home Guard. Of course, we cannot engage in gymnastic contortions round hedges and ditches and walls, and up ladders and trees and houses, like the younger men, but some of us can shoot, and if we were put in a blockhouse at a bridge-end or behind a wall we could stick on to the end.

I suppose that at the moment the War Office has no idea how many members of the Home Guard are over 65 years of age, but I believe the number is very considerable, and unless our position is considered it may be that the whole lot will have to go, because I take it that the Home Guard could not accept those over 65 as conscripts. I assume that the upper age-limit for conscripts will be 65, and many of us would still like to go on if we could.