HC Deb 15 March 1819 vol 39 cc988-91

On the order of the day for the third reading of this bill,

Mr. Gurney

said, he could not let this opportunity pass without objecting to that part of the bill which sanctioned enlistments for life. It was a practice productive, on all sides, of unmixed evil. It went necessarily to render the soldier discontented with his situation, it prevented the recruiting of the army, it was in itself a monstrous injustice, and one which was never heard of, or tolerated in this country, previously to the accession of George the first. The late Mr. Wind-ham, he said, had substituted enlistment for a term of years; which the noble lord opposite had got rid of, by holding out a fallacious option, and under this, a boy of sixteen or seventeen years of age, probably intoxicated, when he could not by law make a title to the smallest amount of transferable property, was allowed to sell himself for life for ten pounds! He should therefore move, that the schedule B. be left out of the bill, which contained the form of the oath for Life Enlistments.

Lord Palmerston

said, that this subject had been well and frequently considered in the House, and the ground on which this part of the system stood was evidently the fairest and best. The recruit might choose limited or unlimited service. The difference in the bounty was only 16s.. If a man wished to enlist for unlimited service, it could scarcely be imagined that he was induced to do so for the paltry allowance of 16s. It must be a matter of determined choice, uninfluenced by gain.

The motion was put and negatived.

Sir Robert Wilson

said;—Not having recollected that the Mutiny bill was passed before the 24th instant, I omitted to ask for returns which I wished to be laid upon the table of this House, before the bill came under consideration. Having, however, in much earlier life expressed a strong opinion upon a particular part of our military code, and having, indeed, been the first officer who, by a written treatise, directed the serious attention of the government and the country to the subject, I feel called upon to express my present opinions, notwithstanding I am so much exhausted. I know that since the time to which I alluded, the duke of York has effected what may be called a revolution in our military system of discipline I know that by his regulations admoni- tions, and expression of earnest wishes he has contracted, to a great degree, that excess of punishment which afflicted and disgraced the army when I first entered into it; but this very success encourages me with a hope that parliament will not lose sight of the subject, until this degrading and demoralizing species of punishment, this punishment so much the subject of national reproach, and so antinational shall be abolished from our military code, except as an ultimum supplicium or commutation for the punishment of death. It was truly said, when the penal laws were under discussion, that cruel laws frequently executed, created, but did not check crime; and I appeal with confidence to every military man who hears me, if, in a regiment where the commanding officer is severe, offences do not multiply in the ratios of that severity; so that punishment is the cause and not the effect of pre-existing depravity and misconduct. On the other hand, whether, where that commanding officer is succeeded by one of a milder character, offences do not diminish in the same proportion, so that the same corps which was notorious for harsh discipline and misconduct, becomes as remarkable for tranquil discipline and good order. It is invidious to cite even individualism such cases for praise; but where a distinguished personage has rendered a service to the army, community, and humanity, it is my duty to mention his name with honour. With those feelings, and not from any servile or interested considerations, I think of the duke of Gloucester as having afforded the first practical example in support of the wishes impressed by the duke of York, and of a system very unpalatable to officers who had received a different education. In a corps exposed to all the temptations of a London life, and which temptations the cat 0'nine tails could never resist. After some previous arrangements, corporal punishment was relinquished, and the corps became from its conduct a pattern to the whole army. The example followed by the brigade of guards, obtained the same results, and on the merits and services of this part of our army, it is not necessary for me to dwell, as they are so well known to the country. It is not ray intention to present a picture of a different description. I do not wish to inflame the public wind, nor shall I ever advert to the details, without I see danger of relapsing into a system which I never flunk upon without more loathing ÇÇ and horror than ever I felt when witnessing the many horrible scenes I have witnessed in the course of my life. The time of peace is the time to introduce this improvement; and let it be recollected, that this is the only country in the world, where this ignoble and this unmanly species of punishment is still continued. Let it be recollected also, that this is not a British punishment, for it is not to be traced back beyond the introduction of the Dutch guards in the year 1688. I wish those gentlemen who have expressed such just gratitude to our army in Europe—who have just voted the thanks of this House to our meritorious army in India-would consider whether the most honorable memorial, the proudest monument, they could confer and erect, would not be the abolition of this punishment—whether this would not be the most just as well as the most valuable commemoration of national gratitude. I shall, Sir, take the first opportunity of moving for the returns of all courts martial of the last year; specifying the sentences ordered, and what part of the sentences and in what way they were inflicted.

Mr. Beckett

[judge advocate general] said, that when returns had been laid before the House of the number of courts-martial, not for one or two years, but for a century and a half past, and when it had still continued to sanction corporal punishment, he thought the matter should; be considered as res judicata; he was therefore, surprised at hearing such opinions as those which had fallen from the hon. and gallant officer. The hon. and gallant officer was, however, consistent in his opinions; for, sixteen years ago, he had given to the public his opinions at length upon the same subject. The glorious triumphs of our armies on the continent were, in a great degree, owing to the excellence of their discipline, and a part of that discipline was the system of corporal punishment. Would it, then, be said, that this system should be altogether abolished? But it might be urged, that the same strictness in this respect, which would be necessary in time of war, could not be required in time of peace. In answer, to this, it might not be un useful to the House to look back to the progress of punishments for the years 1817 and 1818. In those two years though the capital punishments bad decreased, yet the substituted punishments had increased consider ably, which showed an increase of crime.

Sir J. Newport

was astonished to hear the hon. gentleman assert, that this country owed the victory of Waterloo, and other glorious achievements to the system of corporal punishment. This was an assertion which he never could give credit to. He could not believe, that the victories of this country were to be attributed to so base an engine. The infliction of corporal punishment would, he believed militate against the accomplishment of mighty deeds; He should not rejoice in the noble spirit and enthusiastic gallantry of a British army, if they could be traced to such a source as that which the hon. gentleman had panegyrised.

Sir Lowry Cole

was unwilling to obtrude himself on the House, but having been for many years connected with the army; he might be supposed to have formed an opinion oh this subject. That opinion was not a popular one, but still he was bound to state it. He must then say, that, however objectionable and injurious the system formerly was, yet he did not think the British army could be kept in its present state of discipline, if it were wholly removed.

Sir Isaac Coffin

said, that the army, with respect to courts-martial was in an unhappy state indeed; since the sentences were given privately, and transmitted to the commander in chief, instead of being, as in the navy, openly promulged.

The bill was read the third time and passed.