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Vote A Number Of Land Forces

Volume 463: debated on Monday 21 March 1949

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Resolution reported:

"That a number of Land Forces, not exceeding 550,000, all ranks, be maintained for the safety of the United Kingdom and the defence of the possessions of His Majesty's Crown, during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1950."

Resolution read a Second time.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House doth agree with the Committee in the said Resolution."

On a point of Order. Will these Votes be taken separately? If I am fortunate enough to catch your eye, I wish to say something on Vote B. When would be the proper time to do that?

When the Vote is put before the House. The first Vote is Vote A. As the Debate earlier in the month was very wide we are very restricted. The hon. and gallant Member can raise his point when the second Vote is put from the Chair, if he is lucky enough to catch the eye of whoever is in the Chair.

8.25 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Air said in his concluding remarks that the Army were marching in. I feel sure that the Debate on food is marching close in on the Army; we know that an army marches on its stomach, and I feel that the food column presses on very close.

Tonight I shall keep very close to the Resolution and confine my remarks largely to numbers. I saw the Secretary of State for War here a minute ago, and I am sorry that he should now have left us, because we must congratulate him on the fact that he controls one of the most numerous peace-time Armies this country has ever seen. The question is whether it is the most effective, and purely on numbers I am sure the Under-Secretary will appreciate it when I say that I, somewhat like Pope, lisp in numbers, not because the numbers come but because they alarm me quite exceedingly. We have this enormous Army of something like 400,000 soldiers: considerable force indeed, which somehow strikes one rather like the army of Monte Carlo in reverse, for that has a very small number of soldiers and a considerable number of formations while we have very few formations and an enormous number of soldiers. That is what alarms us.

Doubtless the Under-Secretary read today the very interesting article in the "Daily Telegraph" by their important foreign military correspondent, a lieutenant-General, who was referring to the Balkan armies—the Bulgarian Army has 140,000 men under arms—which can boast of 10 Balkan divisions. We have 400,000 men under arms, and it is very questionable how many divisions we can boast of. If one takes the figures from the "New Statesmen and Nation"—which after all is a Government paper in some senses and is in some ways inspired—they talk about two divisions and one or two brigade groups. Certainly having seen the chaos lately caused by sending out one brigade group to Malaya, with leave being stopped in certain areas, and so on, one wonders whether there is not something wrong, and whether, despite the enormous mass of men, there is sufficient flexibility in the Army.

One thing is quite certain, and that is, looking across the water to France—which, after all, has a very long experience of conscription—and looking at this enormous outpouring of men and money one thing is entirely lacking, and that is what the French call unité de couverture—which is nothing to do with blankets or bed but means the force which the French Armies always hold of certain divisions completely free of the duty of training conscripts, and completely free to stand between any invader and France while mobilisation takes place.

There is a great deal of talk about mobilisation in 90 days. The other day General Eisenhower said that unless there is action or reaction in 60 days the cause is lost. There is one outstanding thing from what has been said in the last four days of debate on defence and the Army, and that is the absence of this force in Western Europe which would help to stem any immediate action—

The hon. Gentleman is now going too wide. He must confine himself to numbers.

We are alarmed by the absence of organised numbers in formations in Western Europe. We have seen these difficulties, and we are concerned. It is all very well for the seafaring Secretary of State for War and the Minister of Defence to dance their sailor's hornpipes, shanties and ritual dances, which do not so much as break their extravagant silences about what the formations are. We have never had more startling silence than about what these formations are, and about the numbers which are coordinated into groups of defenders or divisions. The Government really should do something to assuage these fears of the landlocked public. The period of transition has gone on long enough, and the time has come when we should have some reassurances that there is some sort of cover for mobilisation.

We are alerted by four salient factors. The first is that the Regular content of the Army is not increasing fast enough. With the ending of the bounty scheme the men who joined up in 1945 will be coming out in 1950, and the danger is that there will be even a diminution in the regular content of the Army when that time comes. The second factor is that with the Atlantic Pact and with the necessity to have the necessary trained men for Western Europe—

It is out of Order to discuss either Western Union or the Atlantic Pact. The hon. Member must confine himself to the numbers of British troops.

We have that background even though it may be a bit out of Order; indeed, we have that disordered background. We find that the Colonial troops have rapidly diminished from 151,000 to 92,000, which means more British troops outside Europe, and thirdly we are further alarmed by the fact that in two years there has been a steady decline in the Regular Reserves from 71,000 to 50,000. Finally, we are alerted by the fact that the average period of conscript service will fall from 27 months to 18, between now and July, 1950. In fact, the intake of conscripts does not seem to be tailored to the needs of the Army but rather that the size of the Army is distorted to absorb the intake of the conscripts. We might say that the Government are giving way to political or legalistic arguments, but we believe that this situation is due more to the Government's long-term aim to create a large Army by 1954.

The fact is that while this transitional period goes on there is no organisation in the Army such as the French Army have long learned to be essential for European mobilisation. The most immediate trouble seems to be that the Government are putting the cart before the horse by having too few regulars to train too many conscripts. It is difficult to criticise without having the full facts, but we believe that something can be done to meet the situation. The trouble is that there has been a barrage of silence on the part of the Minister of Defence and the Ministers of the three Services, a silence which has exceeded even that of the silent Service to which both the right hon. seafaring naval Gentlemen seem to have oversubscribed.

We believe that something might be done to make what is already a selective service even more selective. Instead of the present system, higher tests of intelligence and health should be instituted. Only the best would be accepted. There is no question that that would lead to a stimulation of morale of the Forces. There would be advantage, I suggest, in raising the character and calibre of those conscripted. Instead of absorbing 120,000 absorb, say, 80,000. It seems to me obvious that there would be less overburdening of training cadres and it would allow 40,000 troops to go into regular field formations, something which the French believe in as cover for divisions prepared for war.

The more serious political question, however, is selective service itself. The service is in any case selective, but instead of making it selective as a result of death, disease or emigration, why not make it a service which is controlled by the intention of the Government? Why not see that the Army gets what it wants, instead of the Army having to fit in the men which Parliament decides it should have? Taking the figures for the whole of the Forces, in 1931 there were born 371,000 males who will be called up this year, 1949. The proportion who will enter the Army is, I think, 11–16ths.

Of these, at the end of 1949 the number actually selected into the Forces will be about 145,000. By the end of 1949, of these 371,000, 300,000 have survived; death, disease and emigration have taken their toll. The number deferred is 110,000 so, finally, when sickness has stepped in, there are 145,000 of the 300,000 available—purely by chance. I have worked out that the chance of a baby being called up is in fact 5 to 2 against. The chance of a grown and healthy youth being deferred is 6 to 4 against and the chance of any youth, whether sick or not, being deferred is 11 to 10 on, or of joining the Army 11 to 10 against. The whole thing is selective, and I plead that instead of selection being purely fortuitous, so-called democratic, there should be purposeful selection by those who are now trying to run our military affairs. If this could be done I believe that we should see, throughout the Army, a wide increase in morale and efficiency.

8.39 p.m.

Early in the Debate the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) said that the Estimates before the House today were largely obsolete because of the Atlantic Pact—


The hon. and learned Member was speaking in the Debate on the Navy Estimates, when there was a wider discussion than can be the case now. This is a narrower Debate, on Vote A, than the Debate on the other two Services.

This Debate, I understand, has to deal with the number of men we are voting for the Army this year—over half a million. If I had been in Order I would have followed the argument of the hon. and learned Member, but in view of what you have just said, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, I will not pursue it. This is a very large number of men and we are not justified in approving this Vote tonight, because the Government do not know what to do with the men.

Whether the number of men be large or small is not relevant or in Order in this Debate.

There has been such an aura of secrecy about this Vote that hon. Members have found it difficult to make up their minds whether these demands are justified. I want to complain about this secrecy. In one Debate in this House we were told by the Government, with a great air of self-righteousness, that there are no secret agreements about the—

If the hon. Member persists in discussing anything except the number of men I must ask him to resume his seat.

I want to refer to the steps that are being taken to recruit these men, and particularly to the failure to get the required number of men. A large amount of public money is being asked for to raise the numbers, and to continue this recruiting campaign in the forthcoming year on the lines that it has been conducted during the past year is, in my opinion, unjustified. We ought not to vote sums of money in order to get the requisite number of men.

A number of men I presume are to be recruited, and my criticism is of the recruiting campaign methods employed to get the numbers. I leave the question of money out of it.

In the view of a large number of Service men who are competent to speak on these matters, this recruiting campaign has been a flop. The methods used should be dropped because they have not succeeded in attracting the necessary numbers. That has been abundantly demonstrated by the secrecy which has surrounded this matter during the last week. Had the numbers of recruits been obtained by this method, that information would by now be available to this House. We in this House should be informed of the results of the campaign. We should be told whether the oratorical efforts of the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Leader of the Opposition and the other speakers who participated in the campaign have been successful. Is it not time that we knew exactly what has been the exact result of this particular activity? If it has not been a successful activity, I suggest it should be dropped, and the manpower devoted to this effort more suitably used in some other respects. Take, for example, the Secretary of State for War. I do not know whether he has been made aware of his unfortunate visit—

The hon. Gentleman made a speech on this point on the Committee stage. The reason why this Debate is so narrow tonight is because of the width of the Debate then. The hon. Member cannot say now what he said on that occasion, because it is out of Order.

I was not going to refer to anything I said in the Committee stage. I was going to say that if this campaign is to be treated with any respect at all it should not be the subject of humorous comment on the Welsh wireless. I have been told that the signature tune of the Secretary of State for War has ceased to be "Onward Christian Soldiers" and has become "Aberystwyth."

The recruiting campaign has been ridiculous. The Under-Secretary of State for War came along and said that my constituency was one of the districts where there had been the biggest response. I feel that I should make a correction. I have consulted my colleague the hon. and gallant Member for Ayr Burghs (Sir T. Moore), who takes an entirely different view of this matter from myself. He has taken an active part in organising the recruiting campaign. Nevertheless, he agrees that, in the county of Ayr the campaign has been an absolute flop. The Secretary of State for War uses certain percentages, and he referred to a certain map. I would like the War Office to place this map in the Library. It shows how the recruiting campaign is progressing in the different parts of the country. The Secretary of State told us that on this map Ayrshire is coloured red. I believe he has got hold, not of the recruiting figures but of a map from Transport House of the result in South Ayrshire after the next General Election. That is not to be confused with the recruiting figures. After the searchlight of criticism that has been thrown on the recruiting campaign from all sides of the House the time has now come when the campaign should be abandoned. I do not know what the War Office is coming along for next. I do not think there is any end to the huge increase in the manpower demands. I can see that next year—

The hon. Gentleman will see that the Estimate is for this year and not the next year.

All that I hope is that next year there will be a far greater attempt made to convince us that this is a reasonable demand, and that these 500,000 men who are being taken away from industry and put into the Army are being used in the best possible way for the service of the country.

8.47 p.m.

I want to raise only one point very quickly indeed on this matter of numbers. I hope that we shall receive from the Parliamentary Secretary some statement on the subject of the Royal Armoured Corps and on the numbers which have been enlisted for it. How many men have been enlisted for the Royal Scots Greys? We did not get the figure last time. I hope we shall get it this time.

On the subject of Infantry I see that Vote A says, under a heading "Foot Guards":
"The Guardsman is no longer enlisted into a particular regiment, but into the Brigade as a whole, though he may choose the regiment with which he wishes to serve."
He may choose. That is excellent. Why should not a Guardsman choose where he is going? Why should a Scotsman or a Welshman be drafted into an English Guards regiment? As infantry of the line, we are on quite a different footing. It says in this Vote:
"During the war, as an emergency measure, in order to obtain the flexibility necessary to maintain an even flow of reinforcements, this limitation had to be suspended."
In other words, a man could not have his previous right of being transferred from one regiment to another. In wartime that must be so. The pargraph goes on:
"In order to retain this greater flexibility for the future, infantry regiments have been organised into 14 groups of Territorial or traditional affinity, including the Brigade of Guards. Each regiment retains its identity within its group, but the soldier may be posted to any regiment in the group."
While we are on the subject of numbers and in view of the fact that we want to see the numbers fully recruited, may I assure the Minister that we shall never get the numbers where we want them unless we return to the system whereby a man might enlist for the part of the country to which he belongs and to which his father and grandfather belonged, whether it is in England, Ireland, Scotland or Wales? You must have that system in peace-time as well as in wartime. Everybody will agree that in wartime we must make exceptions but I hope that we shall get some assurance from the Parliamentary Secretary that in stepping up the numbers which we want and the country needs, he will revert to the principle whereby the county or the area is the basis of recruitment and the man enlists for a particular regiment and will serve with that regiment.

We are all agreed that the Women's Royal Army Corps, which is dealt with in Page 14, Vote A, is a new departure in peace-time to which the country has not been accustomed. Although perhaps some of the more old-fashioned of us do not quite like the idea of women soldiers in peace-time we hope that as the Corps has been established its members will be the finest that can be produced from the womanhood of our country. I hope that there will be nothing more of the type of thing which we see in the evening papers tonight of members of the Women's Royal Army Corps taking the oath of allegiance en masse, standing at ease and looking as though they were singing a hymn on church parade. That is not the way to increase the numbers of the Women's Royal Army Corps. They must be treated as soldiers if they wish to be in the Army. So far as I know soldiers do not take the oath in a heap or standing at ease. The soldier stands to attention then, even if he never does so during the rest of his service. I hope that the women will do the same.

8.51 p.m.

The hon. Member for Stone (Mr. H. Fraser) has not remained for an answer. If he had done so on a previous occasion, when we were considering these Estimates in Committee, he would not have required to raise a number of points which he has raised this evening. He asked a question which has been asked so often—what is the connection between these numbers and formations and divisions? Hon. Members will recollect that that matter was fully discussed. My right hon. Friend, at the conclusion of his speech in presenting the Army Estimates to the House in Committee, asked the House on that occasion what they wanted him to do. Was the Army to abandon its overseas commitments to bring every man home for the purpose of creating formations? I would ask hon. Members to remember that the Army is at present carrying out, all over the world, a number of difficult commitments, which are expensive in manpower.

I must remind the hon. Gentleman that he is bound by the same Rules of Order as are other hon. Members, and as other hon. Members cannot go into that matter he cannot do so.

With great respect, I am merely answering points which were made by the hon. Member for Stone. I assumed that as he was able to raise the question I should be entitled to reply.

The hon. Member will recollect that I stopped the hon. Member for Stone as soon as I realised that he was going outside the scope of the Debate.

Then I will certainly not pursue that point.

In reply to my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes), I might perhaps comment on the fact that we are at the moment dealing with a Vote for men for the Regular Army. Many of the hon. Gentleman's remarks referred to recruiting for the Territorial Army—not that I wish to encourage him to make them again when we are dealing with the Vote for the Territorial Army. It is surprising and deplorable that my hon.

Friend and his colleague the hon. and gallant Member for Ayr Burghs (Sir T. Moore), my hon. Friend apparently through dislike of Army Estimates and the hon. and gallant Member for Ayr Burghs presumably through dislike of this Government, have managed to reach a conclusion about recruiting in the County of Ayrshire which is at variance with the facts. For the credit of the County of Ayrshire I should like to say that Ayrshire's recruiting compares very favourably—

I do not wish to say anything about myself but in justice to the hon. and gallant Member for Ayr Burghs I feel that I should say that he has done everything possible for the recruiting campaign, and has not allowed any opposition he may have to the Government to interfere with his activities in that respect.

I am well aware of that but if the hon. and gallant Member for Ayr Burghs imagines that his efforts in that county have not resulted in success he is mistaken. I am glad to say that that county has done very well.

I turn to the point raised by the hon. and gallant Member for Perth (Colonel Gomme-Duncan). I wonder what he wants us to do over this question of the infantry. Does he wish us to abolish the infantry group system entirely? If so, I will put this to him. The nature of modern warfare is such that the proportion which the infantry bear to the whole of the Armed Forces is necessarily smaller than it used to be. One must therefore maintain very much larger Armed Forces, which would be a burden beyond what it is reasonable to place on the economy of this country, or, on the other hand, the number of infantrymen must be less.

That being so, it was not possible to maintain in existence regiments which we previously had, and, at the same time, to have the Cardwell system. We were therefore faced with the prospect of reducing the number of battalions in a regiment or disbanding a certain number of regiments in order to keep the remaining number on the Cardwell basis. That would be a possible alternative to the group system. There are certain drawbacks to the group system, but our evidence is that it is not as unpopular as was suggested by the hon. and gallant Gentleman. I think that most soldiers in the Army today realise that the only alternatives are the ones that I have mentioned, and that there would probably be some system more distasteful than the one in force at present.

It is true that many men joining the Army have in mind a connection with a particular part of the country from which they and their forbears come, but, strong as that feeling is in the minds of many men, there are also a considerable number who are attracted into the Army functionally as well as territorially; that is to say, they are interested in doing a particular kind of useful job in the Army, and are more concerned with the opportunities to do that job, for which they feel themselves to be specially skilled and equipped, than with any territorial connection. Today, we are building up an Army which appeals both to the territorial loyalty and to that kind of craft and professional loyalty, and there is scope for both. When we weigh up all the facts I have mentioned—the need for flexibility, the fact that the infantry does not and cannot bulk so large in the total of Armed Forces as previously—I think we shall all come to the conclusion that what we have got is the fairest balance.

What the hon. Gentleman says justifies what we have been saying—that the infantry is the most important arm of the Service and that all the others are the servants of the infantry, because the infantryman is the one who has to get there first and hold the ground. Is it not better to have infantrymen who have joined up because they love the regiments with which they have always been associated, and thereby obtain more of them, or is it the view that we do not need to have an efficient infantry?

I do not think the hon. and gallant Gentleman has been listening to what I have been saying.

If the total number of the Armed Forces is limited, as it is, by what the economy of the country can afford, and if the proportion of infantry to the total of the Armed Forces is determined, as it is, by the nature of modern war, that gives us a certain number of infantry. In order to retain flexibility, we cannot have the number of regiments which we now have and work the Cardwell system. I am bound to say that the situation is more fully understood by many people in the Army than it is by the hon. and gallant Gentleman.

If the hon. Gentleman had enough infantrymen, or if he did not want as many battalions as there are counties, there would be something in his argument, but is either of those circumstances true?

The hon. Gentleman's first suggestion was that we were not getting enough infantry. Am I correct in assuming that that was his suggestion?

Does the hon. Gentleman want more battalions than there are counties, or less?

The hon. Gentleman is not following the point at all. The point is that in view of the total number of infantry which it is reasonable in present circumstances to have, we must either have what we have at present, a certain number of regiments working on a one battalion basis, and then, in order to get sufficient flexibility, an infantry group system, or we might conceivably disband a large number of the regiments and return to what is known as the Cardwell system, or, again, we might make the whole of the infantry of the line into a single corps. Faced with those alternatives, we have chosen what I think is the correct one.

Will the hon. Gentleman agree that we are not getting the figures under this system? What we are trying to suggest is a system by which we should get the men. Whether they be flexible or inflexible, we have not got them, and we want to get them.

I am not sure whether the hon. and gallant Gentleman means that we simply want infantry or a certain size Regular Army. A certain size Regular Army would limit the number of infantry required. If we compare the infantry with the other arms, we find that its recruiting difficulty is not so serious. As has been pointed out on more than one occasion in this House, one of the reasons why our recruiting propaganda takes the form it does, is because we have very considerable difficulty in recruiting for the technical arms.

Reference was also made by the hon. and gallant Gentleman to the Royal Scots Greys. It is our endeavour, as far as possible, to link men with the regiments with which they have a territorial, local or family connection. But it is not always possible to do that. We may get an influx of men from a certain locality or from certain parts of Scotland which, at a particular time, is more than the regiments to which they would like to go can take. When that happens it is necessary to send some of them elsewhere. At a later period we may get a reverse situation. That is the situation with which we are faced at the present time. I know that this problem of linking men as far as possible with the regiments for which they have an affection and tradition is of considerable importance, and if we can find any way of reducing the amount of discontent that arises from this matter, we shall certainly avail ourselves of it.

I am sorry to get up so often, but, on the point of the Royal Scots Greys, will the hon. Gentleman assure the House—I am sure his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland is going to back me up—that English, Irish or Welsh recruits to the Royal Armoured Corps will not be sent to the Royal Scots Greys so long as there are any Scottish recruits waiting to go there? Will he give that assurance?

No, I am afraid I cannot give such an assurance. I see I shall not convince the hon. and gallant Gentleman.

What I am saying is that if we can find a way of maintaining the Army as an efficient force, at the same time bearing in mind this point of view, we shall do so. The hon. and gallant Member also mentioned the Women's Royal Army Corps. I have not seen the evening paper in which, if it is correct, this unfortunate episode was reported. When I see certain reports in the papers I am in the habit of first checking up on their accuracy and then commenting on them afterwards. [An HON. MEMBER: "There is a photograph."] I do not think that the House will wish me to comment on that question further, but I would assure the hon. and gallant Member that we are very much aware of the value of the Women's Royal Army Corps to the Force as a whole.

Reference was made by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Air to the many ways, both direct and indirect, in which a women's force is of value in the Armed Forces, and everything that he has said about that in connection with the Royal Air Force applies with equal or even greater force to the Army. If hon. Members are concerned about the point raised by the hon. Member for Stone, so far as I may refer to it without getting out of order, I would counsel them to look at the concluding passages of my right hon. Friend's speech when he was introducing the Army Estimates in Committee. He will there find that we are aware of the points which he has raised, and that the steps which will meet the very natural alarm which he has expressed are in train.

Question, "That this House doth agree with the Committee in the said Resolution," put, and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in upon the said Resolutions by Mr. Shinwell, Mr. Arthur Henderson, Mr. John Dug-dale, Mr. Michael Stewart and Mr. Geoffrey de Freitas.