Harry Quelch 1905

Socialism and Militarism


Source: The Social Democrat, Vol. IX No. 7, July, 1905, pp. 395-401;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.


Admitting the importance of the subject which is attracting so much attention among our French comrades, and which was dealt with at some length in the June number of the SOCIAL-DEMOCRAT – that of the position of Social-Democrats on the question of patriotism and international disputes; it is necessary to consider, further, the national application of the conclusions arrived at. Assuming that it is both the right and the duty of Socialists to oppose aggression, it follows that it is also their duty to be prepared to offer such resistance. It is idle to declare that we should fight against aggression if we are incapable of fighting at all. To be prepared, therefore, to carry out what we admit to be our obligations in this connection involves preparedness to fight. We are thus committed to the principle of national military efficiency; and we, as Socialists, have to consider how this can best be attained with the least infringement of individual liberty, with the smallest possible interference with civil rights and duties and with the least danger to popular freedom. We find that these ends can best be achieved by the democratisation of military organisation; by the abolition of the standing army, the suppression of the military caste, and the universal military training and arming of all citizens. From the point of view of civil liberty of the right and duty of national defence against aggression; of citizenship against militarism, Socialists stand for the armed nation, with no professional standing army, and for the referendum on all questions of peace or war.

In considering the practical application of that principle in this country, we have first to take into account the present situation. We Socialists are a practical people, and know that in pursuing our ideal we have always to pay due regard to the actual. We have, therefore, in considering our proposals in reference to military organisation, to look at the matter from other points of view as well as from our own. Now, from no point of view can it be pretended that the military organisation of this country is what it ought to be. Army reform is a fruitful topic of discussion among politicians of all shades of opinion, and at the head of the War Office we now have an army reformer, attempting to put into practice the latest of a whole series of reform schemes, each of which has left the confusion with which it proposed to deal worse confounded.

At the present time our military establishment costs in round figures some forty millions a year. It is not easy to get at the exact amount; but the cost of the army in the financial year 1903-4 was stated to be 46,430,488, as against 21,568,892 in 1893-4; an increase in ten years of 25,000,000 on the army alone. For this we have a force of 200,000 to 300,000 men, apart from the auxiliary forces, which number 380,000, but which, of course, are very imperfectly trained. Forty millions a year for two hundred thousand men works out at two hundred per year per man. But, of course, there is other expenditure besides that on the personnel of the army to be taken into account, According to Mr. Brodrick, the average cost of, a private soldier is: Infantry of the line, .57 6s. 1d.; cavalry, 65 16s. 6d.; militia (infantry), 18 12s. 6d.; Imperial yeomanry, 19 13s. 6d.; volunteers, 6 and Major-General Sir Alfred E. Turner, K.C.B., in an address on “Army Reform,” at the National Liberal Club, stated that “the private soldier costs 94 19s. 1d. per year.” Whatever may be the cost of the individual private soldier, this appears to be clear, that for an expenditure of 40,000,000 a year we have an effective force of little more than 200,000 men. We have, beyond all question, the most costly and the least efficient military organisation in Europe. While our expenditure on the army alone amounts to about one pound per annum per head of the population, we have no army worth the name in comparison with other European countries, and it is found increasingly difficult to attract suitable men to the service.

In these circumstances it is not surprising that the subject of army reform should be attracting so much attention, and that men of all parties should be asking what is to be done.

In response to this inquiry there are those who argue that we have no need for any army at all in this country; that the navy is not only our first but our only line of defence; and that if the navy should be beaten not even the most perfect military organisation on land could, under any circumstances, save us from defeat. If that is so, then the sooner the army – what there is of it – is disbanded, and the forty millions now wasted upon it is saved to the nation, the better. But not even the most rabid adherent of the blue-water theory would approve of such a step, and so the question, What is to be done? still remains. Many of our Liberal friends talk at large about the burden of armaments, the curse of militarism, the advantages of peace, of international arbitration; of universal disarmament; and of the need for great retrenchment in military expenditure. But is the Liberal Party prepared to go to the country with national disarmament inscribed on its programme? I rather think not; and unless it is, all this tall talk about peace and retrenchment of military expenditure is mere fudge. Army reform, in the sense of providing a more efficient fighting machine – except on democratic lines – means greater and not less expenditure; and even the establishment of international courts of arbitration involves the maintenance of armaments to enforce their decrees. The view of the Liberals with regard to army reform appears to resolve itself into a surrender of the short service system, and the establishment of a comparatively small, long-service, permanent army of professional soldiers. This, they contend, would fulfil all our military requirements, as we have no need for an army at home, and it can only be required for services overseas. Accepting the theory of the blue-water school, this proposal may be sound from a military standpoint; but there are very grave objections to it from any other point of view, and it is not easy to see how any retrenchment is to be effected by this means. It is already difficult to get a sufficient number of men to fill the ranks under existing circumstances, and it is scarcely likely that that difficulty will be reduced by an extension of the term of service unless very much greater inducements are held out than at present. But to offer greater inducements necessarily means greater expenditure. No considerable reduction in numbers could be looked for, as at least half the regular troops are stationed abroad under normal conditions. As many soldiers would therefore have to be maintained, and, although as the period of service was lengthened the number of recruits required would fall in proportion, the total strength would have to be kept at practically its present figure, and the cost would not be materially diminished even if the pay remained as at present. With lengthened service, however, it is scarcely to be anticipated that a sufficient number of men would offer themselves unless the pay were enhanced. And there is quality as well as quantity to be taken into account. At present it is not only difficult to obtain a sufficient number of recruits, but the quality of those enlisting is far from satisfactory. The physique of the army and the standard for recruits has been constantly reduced in recent years, The minimum height for infantry in 1845 was 5 ft. 6 in.; in 1905 it is 5 ft. 2 in. The physical standard for regular soldiers of 18 is 21/2 in. below the height, and 15 lbs. below the weight of the average boy of 17, and in 1900 a considerable number of recruits were enlisted weighing only 7 st. 2 lb. That, with such a low standard, the rejections for physical unfitness had increased last year to 34.9 per cent., while, including those rejected previous to medical examination, 45,000 of those who offered themselves as recruits were found to be unfit, has been regarded as striking evidence of physical deterioration throughout the nation. The Committee on Physical Deterioration, however, strongly deprecate that view. They say: “The examination of the official representatives of the recruiting system left upon the minds of the Committee the conviction, confirmed as it was by the evidence of other witnesses, that it would be as reasonable to argue from criminal statistics to the morals of the great mass of the people, as it would be to argue to their physical conditions from the feeble specimens that come under the notice of recruiting officers.”

If the view of the Committee is a correct one, we are forced to the conclusion that the present conditions of army service offer no inducements to any but the most physically unfit of our population. In one sense, this fact, if it is a fact, is matter for congratulation. It is satisfactory to find that the flower of the working class are by no means eager to enlist for the protection of their masters’ property, or to increase its value by marauding expeditions abroad. On the other hand, looked at from the standpoint of army reform, it shows that if the period of army service is to be lengthened, if a better class of men are to be attracted to the service, and the physique and morale of the army are to be correspondingly improved, greater inducements will certainly have to be offered recruits. The Government will have to go into the labour market and offer rates of pay and conditions of service which will make the army compare with other spheres of employment, and it is clear, if that is done, that a long-service voluntary army of professional soldiers large enough to be effective for home defence and for service abroad is likely to be much more expensive than the present system. It is not easy to see, therefore, how any reform in this direction would result in retrenchment in military expenditure.

But the question of expenditure is by no means the most serious in this connection. Whatever reform in our military establishment may be made it is important that it should be in the direction of civicism and away from militarism. The effect of creating an army of long-service professional soldiers, comparatively well paid, with the army as their career and divorced for life practically from all civil relations, would be to create a body of janissaries, absolutely at the disposal of the master-class, trained, armed, drilled and educated, as an effective weapon to be used at any time against the unarmed civil population with whom they would be entirely out of sympathy. Not only so, but such a force would be equally useful to the dominant class for aggression abroad, and would be a powerful provocative of jingoism, seeing that it would be always available, and the civil population which had nothing to do but pay for its professional force would be tempted to shout for war with the idea of getting some fun for its money.

The only possible alternative, in the direction of military reform, to this proposal of a standing army of long-service professional soldiers is that put forward by Social-Democrats – universal military training, the armed nation – and no standing army at all. This would take the military power out of the hands of the master class and place it in those of the people; it would make the suppression of popular rights and liberties by force by a dominant class impossible; it would discourage jingoism, as the responsibilities and the consequences of war would brought home to every household; it would ensure the most efficient national defence against aggression, either from without or within; and is the only military organisation which should be accepted by a free people.

It is objected to this proposal that it is the same thing as conscription. Those who say so display either their dishonesty or their ignorance. In every country Socialists condemn conscription, but Socialists everywhere support the principle of the armed nation. In Switzerland, where this system obtains, all parties are in favour of its maintenance. The British Trades Union Congress rightly declared against conscription, but it is for the organised workers of this country to go further than that and not only oppose conscription but support the armed nation. Then, again, it is objected that this system would be too costly, and would, moreover, increase the numbers available for national defence beyond all possible needs As to the first of these objections it is difficult, indeed, to understand how such a conclusion is arrived at, as one of the recommendations of the Swiss system is its cheapness. While our army costs us a pound per head of population, and not more than a sixteenth of our adult male population is available in any circumstances to take the field, the Swiss do not spend more than a third of that amount per head and have practically every man between 20 and 45 who is physically fit, available for service. In other words, we, with a population of forty-two millions, spend over forty millions on our military service, and have an army, with the reserve, of nearly three hundred thousand men. The Swiss, with a twelfth of the population – between three and four millions – spend a little over a million on their military service, and have an available force, as a first line of defence, of some hundred and fifty thousand men, trained, armed, and equipped. That is to say, half the force at a fortieth part of the cost. Even from the point of view of cost, therefore, the argument is all in favour of the Swiss system. But the cost, as already pointed out, is by no means the most important consideration; and from the standpoint of democracy, of anti-imperialism and anti-jingoism we should oppose all schemes of army reform which do not go in the direction of the armed nation, and the disestablishment of the military caste.

H. Quelch.