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Army And Air Force (Annual) Bill

Volume 463: debated on Tuesday 29 March 1949

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Again considered in Committee.

Question again proposed, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

5.44 p.m.

Before I leave the subject of Regular recruitment I wish to qualify what I have already said by making this observation. It must not be assumed from what I have said about the rate of Regular recruitment that I am satisfied. Far from it. We must build up the Regular Army, first of all, because of our heavy commitments overseas and also because we must maintain a proper balance.

It is suggested by hon. and gallant Members opposite that one of the principle reasons why officers and men have resigned in recent months is because of cross-posting. This matter has been very carefully analysed at the War Office, and I am able to say that it does not have the deleterious effect that some hon. Members suppose. It may well be that some officers, because of their past experience, have expressed their discontent by resignation, but, generally speaking, I would say that it has no adverse effect at all.

What is the case for the War Office? First of all, last year when the Army and Air Force (Annual) Bill was proceeding through Committee, the Clause, or rather the Amendment which provided for the vesting of power in the Army Council to transfer men, was accepted. Secondly, since that Amendment was incorporated in the Army and Air Force (Annual) Act we have not found it necessary to use those powers. Thirdly, there is no hardship on the soldier because of these provisions, owing to the fact that when he voluntarily enlists in the Regular Army he accepts these conditions. The right of the War Office to transfer men from one group to another or, for that matter, from one regiment to another, is part of the contract into which the man enters voluntarily. He knows what he is doing, or at any rate he is expected to know what he is doing. In those circumstances it can hardly be alleged to constitute a hardship on the man if subsequently it is found necessary, in exceptional circumstances, to apply the provision.

A young man coming along to join the Army, probably imbued with the traditions of his forefathers, may wish to join a particular regiment, say the Gordon Highlanders, which was a very popular regiment in Scotland for many years and is, I have no doubt, still popular. Is the Minister telling us that that recruit knows perfectly well that he is not joining the Gordon Highlanders, but that he is joining the Army, and may be sent anywhere? I do not think we can accept that.

I am not suggesting anything of the sort. If the boy has ordinary intelligence he knows he is joining the regiment of his choice. It may be the Gordon Highlanders or some other regiment—the Royal Artillery or the Royal Signals, or R.E.M.E. or the Ordnance. But, having joined the regiment or unit of his choice, he accepts the conditions, as a result of which subsequently, in exceptional circumstances, and only under the direction and supervision of a member of the Army Council—which is a very effective safeguard—he can be transferred to another unit That is the position, and in spite of that condition men have continued to enlist.

The hon. Member for Southern Dorset (Viscount Hinchingbrooke) asked why this provision has not been used since last year. He asked why it was that we had demanded these powers and yet had failed to use them? He added the question, "Is the emergency more grave today than it was last year?" Who says the emergency is more grave? It is the Opposition who have declared that the emergency is more grave, but whether we accept that or not is beside the point. In our judgment, as long as the emergency exists there is the possibility of trouble breaking out.

We must be prepared. In those circumstances we must retain the right, even if we use it sparingly and only under the most careful safeguards, to transfer men from one group to another. Otherwise, sooner or later the Army will be still more unbalanced than it now is, and I must confess that there is some disequilibrium at the moment which we are trying to correct. The Army will become still more unbalanced and we shall be in a worse position than now, and that we are seeking to avoid.

I give an assurance to the Committee. I gave assurances last year that we should be very careful in the use of these powers, and so careful have we been that we have not used them at all. I do not know that I can do better than that. But while I seek to retain these powers—and I am subject to expert advice which I cannot possibly ignore—at the same time I give an assurance to hon. Members in all parts of the Committee that these powers will only be exercised in the most exceptional circumstances and, if possible, we shall not apply them at all.

There is only one further point I wish to make. The hon. Member for North Blackpool (Mr. Low), who speaks so amiably that I find it almost impossible to resist his appeal, spoke about the need for retaining the traditional spirit in British regiments. I entirely agree with him. So far as it is possible to retain that spirit, we shall certainly do so. I give him that assurance. I have no doubt that my successors will do precisely as I have done, whoever they may be and whether they come from that side of the Committee or this, although I have a shrewd suspicion that for a long period of years they will be from this side of the Committee. Be that as it may, there is no politics in this matter. Where the British Army is concerned, we are all anxious to safeguard its traditions and its spirit, and I am satisfied that nothing will go wrong.

Finally, I must reply to the hon. Member who deplored the lack of spirit in the British Army. I reject that sug- gestion emphatically. There is more spirit in the British Army, I believe, than in any other army in the world. That spirit is being manifested today in Malaya in most difficult circumstances. It is also being expressed in other parts of the world. The spirit of the British Army is all right. I hope that no one will traduce that spirit but will seek to fortify it. [interruption.] I wish to say to my hon. Friends that it is all very well to sneer at the British Army. We may require to use it on some occasion.

I am not sneering at the British Army. I was saying that the British Army is all right: it is the brass hats who are all wrong.

Perhaps I can sit down after saying that I have had experience of working with the so-called brass hats for the past 18 months and I had some experience of working with them in 1929. I have also had the experience of working with other people, and I would rather work with the brass hats at the War Office than with some of the brass faces in other spheres of life. [Laughter.] Now that the Committee is completely restored to an amiable frame of mind, I hope that hon. Members opposite will not press this matter.

The interposition of Black Rod and the visit to another place has had the somewhat gratifying effect on the right hon. Gentleman that visits to the Upper House often have upon hon. Members opposite. When they become permanent Members they become very mild.

However, the right hon. Gentleman in the earlier part of his speech made some observations which caused us on this side of the Committee a good deal of anxiety. I had intended to intervene for the purpose of explaining why I thought that it would be my duty to advise my hon. and right hon. Friends to carry this matter to a Division. I feel it necessary to say something about the expressions which the Minister allowed himself to make. The latter part of his speech was much more in line with what we hoped he would say, and the assurance he has given is one which I hope my hon. and right hon. Friends will take into full account in reaching their decision. He has told us that these powers which were absolutely vital to restore the balance of an unbalanced Army were not in fact used last year. It is doubtful whether they will be used this year. Perhaps they may never be used. Why they should be so necessary in that event, we are still left a little bit to wonder.

I should like to revert to what he said at the beginning of his speech. I am sure that he said it in a friendly and facetious mood, but I think that what he said about the tradition of our infantry regiments, when it goes abroad, may do considerable harm if uncorrected. He appeared to throw a good deal of amusement and even contempt upon the Territorial tradition of British regiments.

No. I am sorry if the right hon. Gentleman has thus misconstrued my observations. If that was the impression he gained, I want to assure him that it was not my intention.

The right hon. Gentleman pointed out, with a certain truth, that Scottish regiments are full of Cockneys and the Durham Light Infantry are now largely not recruited from Durham. All these things if true are very lamentable. They are very great errors. My hon. Friends placed this new Clause upon the Paper to reinforce once more our view that in the corps of infantry—in any infantry regiment, in particular in the corps whose contribution to warfare is of a very special kind—the regimental tradition is an absolutely vital element to success in battle.

It is perfectly true, and the right hon. Gentleman was right to point it out, that the regimental tradition is not necessarily founded solely upon a territorial basis. It is based partly upon territorial tradition and partly upon regimental tradition. Let us take the Brigade of Guards which is a very good example. Two regiments have no territorial affiliation and three regiments have a great territorial affiliation. Then there is a functional regimental system like the green jackets or light infantry; finally there is the old county regiment which has a wholly territorial basis. Both of these streams enter into the long tradition of the British regimental system. My hon. Friends did not oppose the system of grouping because we have now had to accept it. Personally, I regret that it has been necessary, but it is apparently essential. Nevertheless, since we cannot keep the old regiments, let us at least keep the groups intact. That is vital.

The purpose of maintaining an Army, as the right hon. Gentleman rightly said, is not merely in order to have something in peace. It is also to make it available, if necessary, to defend the nation in war. What has worried me and my hon. Friends who have observed what has happened in two wars is a certain tendency of elements in the Army and in the High Command which, I believe, has for a long time been adverse to our regimental system. Adjutants-General who have not been infantry officers have sometimes held this opinion very strongly. We have suspected that they would like to abolish the regimental system and set up an infantry corps in which all infantrymen would be members of a single unit without a regimental association. I believe that to be absolutely fatal in war.

6.0 p.m.

If I may be allowed a personal reminiscence, one of the major reasons for the success of Field-Marshal Alexander as a commander was that he was one of the great commanders who served through the whole of the first war as a regimental officer, starting as an ensign and ending as a battalion commander. He never served in any other capacity, and, when he came to hold his high command, which he held with absolutely unbroken success throughout the war, even when faced with the most terrible situations—Dunkirk, Burma and the position of Egypt—the final triumph of his arms was due very largely to the fact that he knew the life and character of the ordinary soldier in war better than any other living officer. I remember, during the Italian campaign, under the pressure of war, these emergency powers, which are necessary in order to make transfers at such a time, enabled transfers to be made by the command in an absolutely unjustifiable way. Because they had the power, they posted anybody anywhere they liked, without the slightest regard to the regimental system.

I make these observations because I knew the Field-Marshal very well then, and he devoted himself, during the periods between his operations, to getting the Army sorted out again according to where the men belonged. He took infinite trouble to undo the harm that had been done by the Adjutant-General's Department, and that was one of the major reasons why that very small number of British divisions—and it was a very small number in that campaign—was able to fight the long and continuous battles, under terrible pressure with heavy casualties and under bad conditions, which are equal in their splendour to the greatest feats of arms of the British Army in history.

When we consider what the infantry had to do during the critical moment of great battles, anyone with experience of war knows that a man is placed in a position in which he can either do his full duty absolutely to the limit—he may do it more or less, or, perhaps without observation, he can shirk it. Anybody who has been in a war knows that. What is it that makes men do that extra bit in courage and tenacity to hold on to ground, to hold a position which is untenable and sell their lives—and we have known of cases in which every man did it? It is the fact that they have been with their own friends, either from the same village or township or from the place where they worked together, and that they have followed the regiment from the first day on which they joined it and have been taught that it had a regimental tradition that it was never expected to give way. It is that tradition which has enabled men to hold on in terrible conditions and to do even more than their duty, and everyone in this House who has had any experience of war knows it to be the case.

This has been a useful Debate, and we accept the assurance which the right hon. Gentleman has given, and I ask my hon. Friends not to divide on this issue. I should like this to be a universal appeal from this House to ask the right hon. Gentleman and those in high command not to be too quick to take the purely easy way and think of men as mere numbers to be moved about. If they are infantry men, it should be remembered that they have this special function and a particular task to do in the event of war, which in no other part of the Army is quite the same. Let us remember this regimental system, encouraging loyalty between comrades and this sense of duty which holds a man to fulfil his highest duty even at terrible times. If this message could go from this House today, I should prefer it, so that we may, in the same spirit as that which has prevailed throughout the Debate, offer it for the consideration of the right hon. Gentleman and his professional advisers.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Preamble agreed to.

Bill reported without Amendment, read the Third time, and passed.