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Volunteer Ranges

Volume 79: debated on Monday 19 February 1900

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My Lords, I rise to ask the Secretary of State for War how the sum of £40,000, which was in last year's Estimates appropriated to Volunteer ranges, has been applied, and what portion has been allocated to the North-Western District. This is, of course, only a small portion of a very much larger question, but anything which has to do with the shooting of our Volunteers at the present time is of importance. It will be in your Lordships recollection that considerable inconvenience was caused to many Volunteer corps soon after the issue of the Lee-Metford rifles by the compulsory closing of their ranges. I ventured to call attention to the subject last year, and the reply I then received from my noble friend the Secretary of State for War was a sympathetic one, and, so far as it went, very satisfactory. A sum of £40,000 ! was, I understand, voted last year to i assist those Volunteers corps whose ranges I had been compulsorily closed to obtain: others. At the old range on which the battalion to which I belong used to fire an accident occurred, and as the result of an inquiry the range was condemned, and rightly condemned. The colonel of the battalion at once set about looking for another range, and with some difficulty obtained one. It was found that it would I cost £1,200 to. put the range into a thoroughly efficient state, and an application was made to the War Office for a grant, out of the £40,000 that had been voted, of £250 towards the cost. That application was refused, and I cannot make out on what ground it was refused. I am informed, but I can hardly believe it, that in cases where other ranges have been obtained, or where steps have been taken to obtain other ranges, no assistance will be given. It would appear to me, my Lords, that the officers who are energetic enough to do their utmost to obtain other ranges to supply the deficiency should be the first to obtain assistance. As no assistance was given by the Goverment in the case to which I have referred, and as the officers of the regiment could not bear the burden—it must be remembered that Volunteer officers are many of them not rich men—they had to fall back on the public. I think it will be generally admitted that during the present war the conduct of the public has been admirable. They have born e our reverses with a patience and a courage which are beyond praise, and in whatever direction their assistance has been asked, whether for the Soldiers and Sailors' Families Association, for the widows and orphans, for the sick and wounded, or for the equipment of the Imperial Yeomanry Volunteers, their assistance has been readily given. But I humbly submit that we ought not to ask too much of public spirit and public enterprise. Only the other day, in discussing the question of the extension of the time of training for Volunteers from one week to four weeks, the Under Secretary of State for War said, "We trust to the patriotism of employers." It seems to me, my Lords, that we cannot run our national defences on charity, and, while public spirit is perfectly ready to do its share, I do not think we should ask too much of it. We all realise the importance of accurate rifle shooting among our Volunteers, and we also thoroughly realise the difficulties in the way of providing ranges. I understand there is a proposal to re-open some of the ranges that were closed. With adequate protection that might be done, but it seems to mo that if those ranges are not unsafe they ought never to have been closed, and if they are unsafe (they ought never to be reopened, But the case to which I have referred is one where a range had been obtained and where a little assistance from the Government would have been of the greatest value. I have ventured to deal with this more or less personal question, because, in my opinion, is it part of one whole force, and I should be much obliged if the noble Marquess, in answering mo, would explain the principle which has guided the authorities in making the distribution of this fund.

My Lords, before my noble friend the Secretary of State for War answers the question which has been put to him by the noble Earl, I should like to make a suggestion. I apprehend that the two most important matters with which the War Office have to deal in the present juncture of military affairs are. first, the organisation of the Militia, and, secondly, the encouragement of shooting all over the country. The question raised by my noble friend is connected with providing ranges for the use of Volunteers. That subject is of great importance, and I hope that, pending the provision of ranges in one way or another, some alteration will be made in the War Office regulations so that the expenses incurred by Volunteers in travelling from their residences to the places where the targets are situated shall be paid for by the Government, as well as the cost of the ammunition which they expend. The other day my noble friend behind me, Lord Tweednaouth, made what I consider a most valuable suggestion on this subject. He said it was quite possible that rifle shooting might, to a very considerable, extent, be taught at short ranges. There is no man in your Lordships' House who is more competent to express an opinion on this subject than my noble friend, who is accustomed to rifle shooting and is himself an excellent shot. I think we all ought to assist the Government in every way in our power, and the suggestion I wish to offer to the Secretary of State is this. At the present time, under the Military Lands Act, the county councils have the power, on a requisition from one or two Volunteer Corps, to acquire land by voluntary arrangement for Volunteer purposes, and that power-includes the provision of ride ranges. I wish to ask my noble friend whether, if the county councils were prepared to do the work, he would have any objection to extending the voluntary power which they now have and making it a compulsory power, at any rate for the purpose of obtaining moderately short ranges, which would be useful, not only for the Volunteers, but for the education of the population of the country in rifle shooting. At the present moment count v councils have the power of acquiring land compulsorily for allotments, and I do not think any of your Lordships would say that the provision of rifle ranges is a less important matter than the provision of allotments. The compulsory provision in respect of allotment; has worked admirably throughout the country. When complaints have been made to county councils they have appointed committees of three members to inquire into them on the spot. These, committees have met, and upon their reports the county councils have acted. In my own county, although we have had a good many complaints of the want of allotments, yet after the inquiries have been made, and the parties concerned communicated with, we have come to amicable arrangements and have not been obliged to use our compulsory powers. I believe that, if a similar provision was introduced with respect, at any rate, to the hire of land for rifle ranges such as have been suggested by my noble friend Lord Tweedmouth, it could be worked without any friction, that there would be little or no difficulty in coming to a conclusion, and that the compulsory powers would only rarely be exercised. I know cases in my own county where difficulties have been put in the way of using ranges by proprietors, and the same thing has happened in other counties. Winchester is an important depot centre. It is the depot of the Hampshire regiments, and when the barracks which are now being built are completed, it will become the depot of two other very important regiments, the King's Royal Rifles and the Rifle Brigade. Winchester is surrounded by downs, and vet there is no convenient range near. There can be no difficulty with proper arrangements in the way of a sufficient range being acquired. It is most important that our recruits should be taught to shoot; but if you cannot find ranges where they can practise, how can you possibly make them good shots? My suggestion is that the Secretary of State for War should accept the assistance of county councils in the matter, and if he gives me any encouragement I shall be happy to introduce a Bill in this House giving compulsory powers to county councils in respect of rifle ranges.

My Lords, the apparently limited question put on the Paper by my noble friend, which had reference to a matter of strictly local interest, has led to two very interesting speeches, which I have listened to with great attention, and which, I am bound to say, seem to me to be instructive and helpful. With regard to the sum taken under the Act of 1899 for local ranges, I have to say that we placed ourselves in communication with the general officers of the districts and called upon them to make to us recommendations as to the most advantageous manner in which this comparatively small sum might be spent. The sum was, as my noble friend has told the House, intended as a means of giving grants or subventions to Volunteer corps, or groups of corps, who might be endeavouring to provide themselves with range accommodation, and who could not command sufficient funds for the purpose. We have only just received the last of the answers to these interrogatories, and I am able to tell my noble friend that no allotment has yet been made of the £40,000. I therefore cannot tell him how much the district in which he is interested is likely to obtain. I need riot point out to the House that this sum was taken as an experiment, and I am bound to say that if that experiment succeeds, and I hope it will, it seem to me that we ought to do more in the same direction. With regard to what fell from Lord Northbrook, I am quite prepared to say that, whatever is done this year with regard to the special training of Volunteer corps, we shall certainly arrange that a proper amount of musketry instruction shall form part of that training; and if that is so, I think it is only fair to say that travelling allowances will be arranged in such a manner as to enable; Volunteers to have access to ranges without, at any rate, having to put their hands into their own pockets. For that purpose the noble Earl made a very reasonable suggestion. He suggested, as I understood, that we should not merely, as we had intended, co-operate with Volunteer corps or groups of corps, but that we should co-operate with the local authorities, the county councils, in order; to obtain ranges in parts of the country where difficulty is experienced in obtaining them; and that for that purpose county councils should be given compulsory powers. The matter is one which I should like to consider. I think some means of that kind is necessary, because experience has shown us that the difficulty in many parts of the United Kingdom in, obtaining ranges is really sometimes insuperable. I am very familiar with the case the noble Earl referred to, that of Winchester, and I must say that I was never more disappointed than when, after an interminable negotiation, we found it was impossible for us to obtain a suitable site for a range. I shall be very glad to consider the noble Earl's suggestion, and I hope we may be able to devise some-means of using the agency of the county council for the purpose of assisting the Volunteers in this respect. If we do use that agency I do not see why, just as we are prepared to give grants to Volunteer corps, we might not in some cases place-public money at the disposal of the local authority for the purpose.

My Lords, I am very glad to hear that the Secretary of State for War looks upon this question of ranges in so sympathetic a manner. I hope he will bring all his influence to bear, both with the local authorities and with the various Departments of the Government, including the Treasury, to secure some distinct steps being taken in the direction of providing better and more numerous ranges. In this connection I am tempted to give the House a singular piece of evidence which I came across-yesterday as to the advantages to be gained from shooting at the shorter ranges. I was reading that excellent book on the life of Stonewall Jackson, by Colonel Henderson, who is now on the Staff' in South Africa, and is well fitted to speak on any military matter. In that hook the author gives a table of the comparative ranges and effective fire of different rifles. Colonel Henderson gives the effective range of the Martini-Henry rifle sighted at 2,150 yards, as 400 yards, and that of the modern magazine rifle, sighted at 5,200 yards, as 450 yards. Surely, if an authority of weight such as Colonel Henderson puts down the really effective range of the modern magazine rifle at 450 yards, it stands to reason that 'what we should endeavour to do is to make Volunteers first-rate shots at 450 yards to commence with. When they are capable of shooting at the shorter ranges they might be trained at longer ranges where they could practise with perfect safety. After all, the danger of a range is to be measured largely by the distance at which you shoot the target. The danger does not arise when firing at short ranges, because, even if a man does drop the muzzle of his rifle, the bullet hits the ground comparatively near to the target and is caught either by the target itself or on the butt. I am sure the subject is one worthy of your Lordships' attention.

My Lords, there is one point in connection with the answer which has been given by my noble friend the Secretary of State for War on which I think the House might receive a little more definite information. I understood from him that no money has been spent, and that the grant given last year is going to lapse. It would be very satisfactory if he could tell us that the grant will be renewed. This matter has excited a great deal of attention amongst Volunteers. In my own district, which is a poor one, there has been considerable difficulty in providing range accommodation, and the money necessary for putting the range in proper order has been borrowed on the personal responsibility of a few officers. I do not think that is a position in which these officers ought to be placed, and I hope the noble Marquess will be able to satisfy us that, at all events, if the grant is not to be renewed, another grant will be made of the same amount as last year.

I am under the impression that the sum in question was provided under the Military Works Loans Act, and there would therefore be no question of the money lapsing.