Parliament And World War One by Dick Barry
Compulsory Military Service
On 28 July 1915, almost a year after Britain entered the War, the House of Commons debated the subject of compulsory military service. The debate was introduced by a Captain Guest, Liberal member for East Dorset. It is unclear whether J. H. (Jimmy) Thomas replied on the behalf of the Labour Party, or spoke simply in a personal capacity, but he boasted that he represented the voice of his members in the National Union of Railwaymen and, indeed, spoke on behalf of the whole of the working class. Their speeches are published below.
Frederick Edward Guest CBE DSO (14 June 1875-28 April 1937). Guest was born in London, the third son of Ivor Guest, 1st Baron Wimborne and Lady Cornelia Spencer-Churchill, daughter of John Churchill, 7th Duke of Marlborough. He was educated at Winchester School and after school entered the military. He was commissioned as Second-Lieutenant in the infantry militia, East Surrey Regiment, and promoted to Lieutenant in 1894. After a short time in the militia, Guest became, in 1897, an officer in the 1st Life Guards. He was sent to Egypt in 1900, was decorated for bravery in the Boer War, and rose to Captain before retiring from active duty in 1906.
In 1906 Guest became private secretary to his cousin and close friend, Winston Churchill a junior minister in Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman’s Liberal Government. In 1904, during the controversy within the Conservative Party over adopting protectionism, Guest and other members of his family had followed Churchill into the Liberal Party in support of free trade. He attempted three times to enter the House of Commons before winning the vote in the East Dorset seat in the January 1910 general election.
When World War 1 began in August 1914, Guest returned to active service as aide-de-camp to Field Marshall Sir John French, commander of the British Expeditionary Force in France. He performed confidential missions for French, liaising with the War Office and with political leaders. In 1916 Guest served in East Africa and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. After being invalided out of the army following serious illness, he resumed his political career. In May 1917 he joined Lloyd George’s Coalition government as joint Patronage Secretary of the Treasury—effectively chief whip for the Coalition Liberals.
James Henry “Jimmy” Thomas (3 October 1974-21 January 1949). Thomas was born in Newport, Monmouthshire, the son of a young unmarried mother. He was raised by his grandmother and began work as an errand boy for a chemist at twelve years of age. At 15 he became an engine cleaner on the Great Western Railway. Three years later he passed his fireman’s exams and began work at a colliery in the Sirhowy Valley. Here he joined the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, becoming a full time official. In 1913 he helped to organise its merger with two smaller trade unions on the railways to form the National Union of Railwaymen, now part of RMT. Thomas was elected NUR General Secretary in 1917, a post he held until 1931.
Thomas began his political career as a Labour Party local councillor for Swindon. He was elected to Parliament in 1910 as the Member for Derby. Although he opposed military conscription he otherwise supported the British war effort. He was appointed Secretary of State for the Colonies in the Labour government of 1924 under Ramsay MacDonald. In the second Labour government of 1929 Thomas was made Lord Privy Seal with special responsibility for employment. He became Secretary of State for the Dominions in 1930 and retained this position in the National Government of 1931-35. As a result of joining the National Government he was expelled from the Labour Party and was obliged to resign from the NUR.
Thomas served as Secretary of State for the Colonies in Baldwin’s government from 1935 until May 1936, when he was forced to resign from politics. He was found guilty by a Tribunal of Inquiry of leaking budget secrets to his stockbroker son Leslie; to Sir Alfred Butt, the Conservative MP for Balham and Tooting; and to Alfred ‘Cosher’ Bates a wealthy businessman. Bates admitted giving Thomas £15,000 but tried to claim it was an advance for a proposed autobiography. Thomas retired to his home, Milbury House, Ferring, near Worthing, where he wrote his autobiography, My Story (1937).
I would like to ask the attention of the House for a few minutes to a subject somewhat different to that which has engaged the attention of Members, but a subject which, to my mind, is quite as important at this moment, that is as to whether or not we in this country will not have, sooner or later, to consider the possibility of adopting compulsory military service. To-night is a particularly good occasion on which to raise the subject for consideration, as to-day we have already had two statements which, to my mind, point to the necessity for us turning it over in our minds. This afternoon the Prime Minister told us that we must consider that this War may turn itself into a contest of endurance. We have also heard from the Minister of Munitions that there are difficulties which may have to be faced in other directions. However, I do not raise the subject in an attitude which is at all unfriendly, or with any idea or object of embarrassing the Government. The Government at the present time carries on its shoulders sufficient burdens without anyone going out of their way to add to their cares, unless they feel they must try to put forward something in the shape of a suggestion.
I think possibly those of us who feel the necessity for this innovation may be even of some use to the Government, because we possibly know some of the difficulties they may have to face and overcome if they undertake it. Anyhow, it seems to me that it cannot do any harm to ventilate the matter and discuss it openly. So much harm seems to me to be brought about by working behind the scenes. In any case, the ventilation of the subject, if it had the result of drawing anything in the shape of a statement of intention, or anything of that kind, or even an indication of it being seriously considered, would do a great deal to counteract agitation or to allay the anxiety of anyone who might feel inclined to write or speak in favour of it during the Recess. I think also it may induce the Government, when such time may come, to know that some who before the War were opposed to any form of compulsion are now ready, if necessary, to back them through thick and thin.
I do not myself put forward my change of views on any political grounds whatsoever. I regard the necessity for the close consideration of this matter by the Government purely on the ground of expediency. If I might say one word about the difficulty in which one finds oneself in being both a soldier and a Member of Parliament, it would be simply to say one appreciates the fact that one’s position is difficult; but it seems to me some special use might almost have been made of people who occupy that dual position, instead of being, as it almost appears they are, regarded as a nuisance. If I give my word that I do not in word I say represent any opinion other than my own I may claim the indulgence of the House this evening. Instead of adopting the attitude of embarrassing the Government, if such a thing were possible in so humble an effort, I would turn rather to hon. Members of the party with whom I have served, if I could but persuade them at least to keep their minds open on this subject.
My object also would be to put forward the claims for the urgency of dealing with this matter. One cannot do it, I agree, without running two risks. The first would be, perhaps, in some way embarrassing the Government; the other—perhaps the more serious point of view—is whether or not it would in any way be of advantage to the enemy. I heard this afternoon some remarks about the performances of the Government during nine months of the War, and it seems to me that during that period, judging by the accounts one has read, they enjoyed the completest confidence and the most unquestioned support, and it was not until after they made some shortcomings that the House took upon itself to ask questions. Therefore, it does not seem that any harm can be done by private Members putting suggestions forward.
Further, as to the point of view that it could be of any advantage to the enemy to discuss such an innovation, I must register my opinion that it is not only of no advantage to the enemy, but the mere fact that we are prepared even to consider the taking of so serious a step, in order to make ourselves more fully equipped and organised to carry the War to a conclusion, would be nothing but discouraging in the highest degree. The point of view to be realised, in my humble opinion, is that it would be of incalculable encouragement to our Allies, and I think that they would appreciate the fact even more than we can understand the fact that we are in real earnest. Another argument in favour of urgency seems to me the development at the end of twelve months of war. There is no doubt that many of us had hoped that the positions we occupy in different parts of the world would have been somewhat different from what they are to-day. I believe, without adding anything further, that is to-day one of the gravest reasons why we should consider the urgency of this problem.
Our problem is to win and win quickly. We have special reasons why we took our share in the great conflict. Perhaps I am right in saying that ours was, perhaps, more of a matter of principle than it was of self-preservation. I think that the order of those two things is gradually becoming somewhat reversed. Our duty and the burden which we accepted of not sheathing the sword, as the Prime Minister said, until we had got back for Belgium more than she had lost, will take, it seems to me, a great deal of doing. It seems to me it will require all the men, all the money, and all the organisation that we can possibly put into working order so as to bear the strain sufficiently long to bring that about successfully. It is for those reasons, perhaps as much as any other, that I recommend to the consideration of those Members with whom I worked for so many years to keep their minds open on the necessity of compulsory service. If I may say so, on land the burden—anyhow as we see it every day in the papers—in mileage has been undoubtedly borne up to now by our gallant Allies. It seems to me that an opinion worth considering and bearing in mind in this connection is the opinion of the soldier. I think if one realises that the soldier of to-day is the elector of a year ago, and will perhaps be the elector of tomorrow, we may eliminate from our consideration the influence of the professional soldiers, because, after all, they undertook to serve before the War—they do not complain; they merely do their work—but when we have an Army of the size that we possess to-day., knowing it to be composed of men who only undertook the job purely from the point of view of self-sacrifice, I think perhaps we have a right to consider what their opinions on this subject might be. (my emphasis)
The moral effect upon the troops, as I would imagine, both fighting and in training, would be very great, and very beneficial indeed. Anyhow, speaking from the point of view of what one hears out there, the cry is often heard, “When are those at home who have not come forward going to bear their fair share?” Whether the same opinion is held by those in training I am not in a position to say. Another consideration should be the effect of such an innovation upon our great Western Allies. If I may say so, it is a land which has produced a race of men every one of whom has proved himself to be a hero. They have surprised Europe by showing qualities of which perhaps they were not suspected, qualities of stoicism and tenacity. Her Army is splendid. A prolonged war may bring in its train in that country difficulties, political or otherwise, but I am sure if we could give to France the encouragement which the adoption of this system would bring it would enable that country much more easily to ignore any such influences.
If we took the final plunge I believe its effect in that direction would be very great indeed. I would like to ask hon. Members whether they are really satisfied, after reviewing the situation for the last twelve months, with the comparative efforts of the two countries. Take France, with a much smaller population than our own. It has produced a proportion of troops which those who know the numbers will agree is enormously in excess of our own proportion, and I imagine at an expenditure of probably half our own, and I should think, judging from the public debates, they have produced munitions many, many times in excess of those which we have been able to turn out. There you find men and women and boys have cultivated every square inch of their rich country, and one cannot help looking back over that period and wonder whether we can rest satisfied with the efforts we have made in the comparisons I have put forward.
If I may be allowed to deal with a very practical point it would be this. I think the system of enlistment in operation today in England is probably responsible for a great deal of our difficulties in many directions. We have the dual system. We have the Territorial Associations enlisting on one side of the street and the recruiting sergeant on the other side, and it seems to me that this system is open to the charge of being indiscriminate and extravagant. I know a case which I imagine is merely typical of thousands of others. A wise Territorial Association on one side of the street refused to take a man because he happened to be a skilled worker, and he was told that the best way to serve his country was to work at the bench. The man is determined to have another try, and he goes across the street to the recruiting sergeant and pleads that he is a casual labourer, and in that way he gets sent to the front, and, as the Minister of Munitions has told us, it is very difficult after he has gone to get him back again.
If one looks a little more closely into this indiscriminate enlistment one is brought up against the fact that we have in the last twelve months accepted the voluntary service of a great many people who would have been far more economically employed if they had been left behind. You find all through the Army men in the position of landlords who might use their influence amongst recruits to separate the useful from the useless, and they would have been doing greater service at home. There are numbers of employers who have given up businesses in order to take their part in the War. We find numbers of foremen who have left businesses which have run into a condition of chaos. I think also you will find, if you look into the matter, that men have gone below the level of the manager and the foreman, whom I should call the workshop “ganger,” who at election times control the dinner hour meeting. Those are men whom it is difficult to replace, and if there had been an organised system instead of all this indiscrimination, we might have been saved a great many of the labour troubles which have occurred during the last twelve months. From what we have heard tonight from the Minister of Munitions it is possible that we may recover a great many of these men. I admit that I am not quite satisfied myself, and I should be greatly reassured if we could have a somewhat stronger assurance than we have had from the Minister of Munitions that this fact is admitted by the Government, and that they intend to pay close attention to it with a view to remedying it before the matter goes too far.
I imagine that we must still have in this country hundreds of thousands of men who are still under training. It may be difficult to apply this suggestion to those abroad, but if it could be applied rigorously to all those who are in this country the evil might be overcome and a great deal of good might be done. We have often heard the argument of the economic mistake of taking married men so freely, but that argument is one which I think it is quite unnecessary for me to go into this evening. It has been most elaborately explained and accepted on all sides by the public generally. I must, however, put forward one more argument against the present system. The papers last night gave us the figures of the total casualties, and I imagine those men will mostly be unable to take much further part in the War. I imagine that those 330,000 men are probably the best, and those casualties are the result of holding the line, which is not very long.
As time goes on, if that line is increased, and the casualties amount to anything like reasonable proportions, I think before we have been another year in this War we may have lost such a number of our best and most valuable men that the loss will be very great indeed. Surely it is not carrying the argument too far when I say that the Armies that come later, whatever their numbers are, as you get further and draw deeper from the pool, so it seems to me you will draw from a less good quality and leave a less good quality behind. (HON. MEMBERS: NO!) I have heard, in answer to these suggestions which have been put forward, that it is too late to make a change, but I submit that that depends on one thing, and on one thing alone, and that is in your calculation as to the duration of the War. If one were satisfied that it were drawing to a close, I would be the very last to suggest such a great alteration, but I do not see how anybody can possibly maintain that opinion in the face of the events that have happened during the last few months.
The only other point I would like to ask the House to consider would be the effect it would have, first of all, upon our opponents. As I have already said, I think it would be most discouraging to them. The effect that would have upon neutrals would be of a steadying character, and I think it would satisfy them that we were prepared to go to any limits to win the War. Upon our Allies I firmly maintain that it would have an effect of instantaneous encouragement to even greater efforts still. I believe it would be, perhaps, even unnecessary to put the machinery in action. The effect of the mere fact that you told the country that you thought it was sufficiently serious to even consider shortly, under certain conditions bringing forward such a measure would be, I think, really to make them realise the altered conditions and the more significant considerations of the War. I think that as far as we are concerned here it would enable us to establish ourselves, both as the trusted servant and the respected leader of the nation.
Mr J. H. Thomas:
I do not think anyone would complain of the manner in which the right hon. Gentleman has introduced the subject. We are satisfied both from his actions in the past and the services he has rendered to the Army, that he is actuated by the highest and best of motives. I think I am equally entitled to say that we have now reached a stage, in discussing this question, when those of us who may take the opposite view can also take it without being accused of in any way doing anything to hamper or hinder the good work of our gallant men. It is hardly necessary for me to say that those of us who sit on these Benches, as responsible Labour men and Labour leaders, have shown throughout the whole of this War that we are not unmindful of our duties, responsibilities, and, if I may say so, our patriotism to the country in her hour of need, and in saying that I immediately join issue with those who assume that, simply because a speech is made in the House of Commons, or even a measure passed, it settles the question. I am a responsible leader of the largest trade union in the world, and, if I may say so without egotism, I think I can claim to at least say that my men follow me, and equally that I am not afraid to tell the men when I think they are wrong. It is, however, useless giving my assent or support, as a leader, to any proposition unless I am satisfied absolutely that I can carry my men with me. That is the all-important point to consider in discussing the question.
We entered this War as a voluntary nation with a voluntary Army and with all the environment and traditions of voluntaryism. I do not think that the hon. and gallant Member would claim that our enemy, whether it be Germany or any other nation, whatever their system may be, has produced soldiers of more courage, valour, heroism, or sacrifice than our voluntary soldier has shown up to now. Have we, as a House of Commons, had any evidence yet submitted by any responsible Minister that any call that has ever been made upon the nation has not been responded to? Let us examine the facts. The very first call that was made for men was so magnificently responded to that Lord Kitchener himself, in order to check it, had to alter the height standard. It is true to say that in itself not only caused confusion, but also had the effect absolutely of retarding recruiting. Notwithstanding those difficulties, it is true to say that up to the last appeal that has ever been made on behalf of the War Office we have been assured on the highest possible authority that every response that was expected has been made. We are therefore justified in saying that until the responsible Minister comes down and himself says that the nation has failed to give him the material he requires there is no case made out whatever for the change.
I want to approach the question from another standpoint. Have we as a nation made or are making a fair contribution to the War waged on behalf of the Allies? It will not only be generally agreed that our Navy is doing all that was expected from it, doing it silently under great difficulties, and doing it well, but it must be admitted that the real value of the contribution of our Navy to themselves cannot be calculated even by the Allies. It is probably true to say that the contribution of our Navy is one of the largest contributions of any of the nations engaged. It is equally true to say that we have raised, on our voluntary system, the largest Army that was ever contemplated by those who advocated military service. I have never yet read any speech or heard anyone say but what the contribution of our own voluntary Army sent to the front and raised in this country has been larger than was ever anticipated. Mark you, this has been so in spite of all the sinister efforts of the conscriptionists, because we have got to face this fact, that voluntaryism has not had a fair trial.
We find one of the largest organs of the Press refusing point blank to accept advertisements, and we have seen the voluntary system decried from day to day. We have seen the sacrifice of the married man ridiculed, and when we talk about the cost of the married man it is no use saying that he is too expensive unless you admit that you are paying too much for his sacrifice. I put it to you that no amount of money can pay the married or the single man for the services he is rendering us to-day. Therefore, I submit that these arguments are important, and most important of all is this, in my opinion, that the financing of this great War is probably the greatest and best contribution that this country could make. If we are to finance the War, and if the silver bullet is to win in the end, then to be producers is all essential, and the more people you make consumers and not producers, to that extent you prevent us being the financial stability we ought to be.
I want to examine it from another standpoint, and I am going to take the four most important industries in this country. To commence with I will take coal. What is the position with regard to that trade today? The Government appointed a Committee representative of employers of labour, of representatives of coal owners, and of the chief inspectors of mines to examine the effect of voluntary recruiting on the coal industry. The Committee presented a Report nearly two months ago, and this is one of the paragraphs:–”The evidence before is conclusive that if labour is further withdrawn from the collieries the output will be so reduced as to seriously affect the industrial position of the country, and the time appears to the Committee to have arrived when very full consideration should be given to the question as to whether further recruiting amongst the miners should be encouraged.” And that is to be used as an argument for compulsory military service! I want to try and examine the question fairly as it appears to me, an ordinary working man. Here it is agreed that not only has the miners’ contribution been a magnificent contribution, but one of the staple industries of the country would be seriously affected if you recruit any more men from the coal-fields.
Next we come to the railways. Out of 650,000 railway men at the commencement of the War 86,000 odd have voluntarily enlisted, and the position had become so acute in March of this year that the railway companies had to say to the War Office, “If you take one more man from the railway service we refuse to be responsible for the carrying of your troops.” They actually did say that. It is no use the hon. Baronet opposite shaking his head. I know it is so, and, moreover, it was given in evidence before us as a Select Committee. The result is that no railway man to-day can be accepted unless he has a letter from his railway employer. That means that, so far as coal and railways are concerned, you have exhausted the men there.
With regard to munitions, need I argue that every skilled engineer, everyone who can make shot or shell, is essential at this moment? The Minister of Munitions has already indicated that they have had to bring men back from the front, and therefore you have got to apply compulsory military service to one industry again that has already supplied too many. Let me take the next case. Your arguments would be all right if you are going to say, “You take too many from one and not enough from the other.” I am going to ask, Where are you going to get your men from? I have already given the cases of coal, railways, and munitions. Now we come to agriculture which is all-important. So serious had the position become that the Board of Agriculture had to arrange with the War Office for a supply of soldiers to help bring in the hay harvest, and they are now making arrangements for large numbers of soldiers for the corn harvest. In the opinion of the Board of Agriculture itself not another man can be recruited from that industry. I put it to this House that here you have four important industries, employing millions of men, which all go to show that so far as these industries are concerned no more men can be spared.
Let us take the unemployed returns. Can you point to any industry that shows a surplus of labour? Is not the difficulty to-day not only in the four industries I have mentioned, but in every other industry an absolute shortage of labour? Is it not true to say that every effort is being made to get women into these particular works? Therefore I submit, examine it from that particular standpoint, where do you get? You absolutely get to the position that, so far as military service is concerned, you are getting all the men that you require, and when responsible Ministers say they want more then will be the time for you to recognise your methods and see if you can get them in a different way. But up till now there has been no evidence to justify that. I want to go further and apply the practical side of it.
The one evil of the change, above all others, would be a break in the unity of our people. I believe it is necessary to wage this War to a successful end, and I believe also the thing important above all others, is to have all parties, all creeds, rich and poor, absolutely united to that end. I am absolutely sure that at this stage—when the people have responded so magnificently, when, if any mistakes have been made, they have not been mistakes at the bottom but mistakes at the top, when if there have been any differences they have not been differences among the workers but differences which have been shown at the other end—the workers of this country will want more evidence than has yet been produced before they will agree to a system of that kind.
Remember, we are a free people. Our institutions are free, and we have fought for freedom in the past, I put this question: Who is going to choose? Try to apply the practical side of the matter. Let me assume that you have this system in operation. Apply it to the railways. Who is going to say whether this man or that one shall go? If the military authority is going to decide, then those responsible for the running of the railways will say: “You will have to take the responsibility for running the railways.” On the other hand, if you are going to throw the responsibility upon the railway manager, he is going to be accused of picking and choosing and of victimising men, and you are going to have internal strife, strikes, and everything else. I therefore beg of you to realise the difficulties of the situation. You talk about compelling the workers of this country. What better illustration of the failure of that could you have than in what happened last week? You passed a Munitions Act. You put in operation the Proclamation, and in twenty-four hours the Act was an entire failure. Why? Because the men themselves resented it. (HON. MEMBERS: NO!) I am not going into the merits. I hold very strong views on the merits, because I frankly say I would never abdicate Government responsibility, and I would never give way to any section of the people. I hold that strong view and have said so. But that does not alter the fact that your Munitions Act, with all its penalties, failed utterly and absolutely the first time it was put into operation.
What is going to become of any Act in which you talk about compulsion? Therefore I say, let us continue our voluntary system. Let us realise that the spirit which animates our gallant soldiers and sailors is the feeling that they are free men. They have entered into this War, they are making sacrifices and risking their lives, because they believe they are fighting for freedom and liberty and against militarism and all that it means. No words of mine could express my feelings of admiration for those gallant men. No words of mine could express what I felt about our women who are to-day mourning for the loss of many gallant people. But I am satisfied that if we were to attempt to depart from that system to-day it would be fatal to the best interests of this nation. I believe the overwhelming mass of the people of this country feel it. I believe you would be making a fatal step. I believe we will continue, under the voluntary system, to wage this War to a successful issue and not have to say we broke down the German military system to establish an English military system in this country. That is my feeling. I hope we shall go on with the Debate free from personalities and passion, but I sincerely submit to the House that the views that I have expressed in all sincerity are the views of the overwhelming mass of the working men of this country.