HC Deb 06 February 1838 vol 40 cc823-31
Captain Boldero

wished to call the attention of the House, and of the noble Lord the Secretary at War, to a subject which had made a considerable impression on the public mind—he meant the desertion of numbers of her Majesty's troops who were stationed in the Canadas. The inducements that offered themselves to the soldiers to desert, such as the cheapness of land and the price of labour, were certainly very great. He thought that another system of discipline ought to be followed up. Discipline was at present too much kept up by coercion. But if a little more kindness were shown, he was convinced that desertion would be lessened. At present, what inducement had the soldier to behave well? He received 6d. a-day, and his period of service was twenty-five or thirty years. The temptation to desert in the Canadas was, therefore, very great; but we might check it by a more extended system of rewards during the period of service, and at the expiration of it, by giving the soldier a greater bounty than he now obtained. As one mode of effecting the alteration which he proposed, a change in the present system of reliefs in our colonies would be desirable. Desertion took place in all our colonies, and the question was how to check it. According to the present system of reliefs, a regiment was ten years abroad before it came home; that was the average. At the expiration of two or three years after its return from abroad, having in the mean time recruited its ranks with young men, those men were sent out direct to North America, where there was not a sufficient inducement to young men, often of bad character, to remain in the service, and accordingly they deserted. Now, instead of this plan he would recommend the system of sending this young regiment to the Mediterranean for three years, then say to Corfu for three years, and again to Gibraltar for three years more. The time of their transit to North America might occupy another year, so that by the time they arrived there the public would have got ten years service out of these young men. Desertion then would not be so great an injury as if it had taken place before. At present, however, as we were sending out more troops, some immediate inducement would be required in order to check desertion among them, and this might be done at a very trifling expense. An active war was going on, which, however, he hoped was nearly concluded, and he would suggest that upon sending out more men, the Government should offer them as an inducement to remain in the service at the expiration of the war, either a grant of land to those who were disposed to take it, or a premium, which should be a little more than the expense of bringing them home again. The expense of conveying the troops home would be about 5l. per man, and the expense of keeping them before they could be disbanded would be about 5l. more. He would recommend, therefore, that a premium of fifty dollars should be offered to each man, or ten acres of ground at his option. We knew very well that the land in Canada was better than in the United States; we knew that the price of it was lower from 7s. to 10s. per acre, and that taxes were lighter. Besides interposing a check to desertion at this juncture, we should gain another point by settling our soldiers there. They would form a little balance to the French Canadians, and it would be admitted that 200 soldiers settling there every year were likely to check materially the influence of the French party in the colony. These were objects which might be accomplished at a small expense. It should be recollected that we must keep 5,000 men at least in that colony, and he thought that some measure of this kind should be offered to those men as a premium, in order to check desertion. He had often been astonished that the noble Lord at the head of the War Department had not given his attention to this subject. At this moment there were many regiments recruiting, and as the vacancies in the ranks were principally filled up from the sister kingdom, many young men might enlist who were anxious to emigrate and join their fathers and brothers who had settled in Canada, and it was certain, that very many young men had enlisted, he did not say for the express purpose of desertion, but under circumstances that were open to suspicion. Some such plan, then, as he had suggested was in his opinion necessary to retain them in the service. A change in the system of relief could not be brought to operate in this case of emergency. He therefore hoped the noble Lord, the Secretary at War, would take this subject into his consideration, and devise some check, if possible, for the desertion which prevailed. He would conclude by moving for a return of the number of deserters from her Majesty's troops stationed in the Canadas, between the years 1830 and 1837.

Viscount Howick

was afraid that it would not be easy for the Government to comply with the motion of the hon. and gallant Officer. He did not, however, see, even if the returns which the hon. and gallant Member called for could be laid before the House, in what manner the production of them could promote the object which the hon. and gallant Officer had in view, or assist the House in determining what kind of a preventive system should be adopted. He thought that a knowledge of the precise extent to which desertion had gone in former years could afford no certain data on which to ground measures for its repression, and he apprehended that very considerable inconvenience must result to the public service, if it became publicly known how many persons had deserted from her Majesty's troops in a given period. He, therefore, hoped that the House would concur with the Government in refusing to comply with the call which the hon. and gallant Officer had made for the production of these returns. At the same time, he could assure the hon. and gallant Member that the subject to which the hon. Member had called his attention had not escaped the notice either of himself or of those who had preceded him in the War-office. A very long correspondence had taken place between the War-office and the military authorities in Canada, as to the discovery of means for checking the crime of desertion, which had prevailed there to a considerable extent. He was happy, however, to inform the hon. Member— and, considering the source from which he derived his intelligence, he could speak with some confidence on the subject—that since the commencement of the late unhappy disturbances, and from the time when the troops knew that their services were really wanted, there had not taken place actually one desertion. But, as he had said before, various measures had been proposed, and various plans were at this moment in operation, with a view to check the crime of desertion. It was now upwards of eighteen months, in fact nearly two years, since he had had the satisfaction, in bringing forward the army estimates of stating in that House that it had been determined by the Government to effect reliefs in our colonies in the manner suggested by the hon. and gallant Officer opposite. He could assure the hon. and gallant Member, and the House, that the subject would not be neglected by the Government or the authorities at the Horse-Guards.

Captain Wood

said, that the refusal of the noble Lord gave him some surprise. If the returns gave any inconvenience to her Majesty's Government, or could have in the slightest degree the effect of militating against her Majesty's service, he would be the last man in the House to wish them; but he confessed he could not himself clearly see how it was possible they should have that effect. He (Captain Wood) was anxious, not alone that they should have been granted, but also that the date of the enlistment of each deserter should be added to them; because he considered that it was the duty of the House to direct the Government how to provide proper soldiers for the respective services in which they should be required to act. In his opinion the main cause of desertion might be attributed to the inadequacy of the pension given to the soldier on the expiration of his servitude. Sixpence a day, which the last warrant granted, was quite insufficient as a remuneration for past services; and the soldier who had wasted his life and strength in dangers and distant climates often found himself obliged to have recourse to the workhouse when he was discharged and returned to his own country. Without pledging himself to any of the hon. and gallant Member's particular views who had moved for their return, he (Captain Wood) thought that they should be either granted or a sufficient reason assigned for their refusal.

Mr. Leader

hoped the gallant Officer would persevere with his motion. It seemed to him most strange that the noble Lord should refuse this return. That refusal might have the effect of inducing the public to suspect that desertion from the army in Canada was more prevalent than it actually was. The noble Lord perhaps imagined that a statement of the number of desertions might act as a sort of bad example to the troops now going out to Canada. But surely it would be much better to let the fact be known, than to leave the country to form an exaggerated estimate of the number of desertions. He was rather surprised that the noble Lord did not make some remark upon one observation which fell from the gallant Officer opposite, who had said that many young soldiers from Ireland were volunteering for the Canadian service, and that the circumstance afforded ground of suspicion that numbers of those young men were enlisting for the very purpose of deserting when they arrived in Canada, in order to join their friends who might be settled there. Now he remembered, a short time ago, when he happened to say in that House that there were very great inducements to the English soldiers to desert from the troops in America (and in that view of the subject he had now been sustained by the gallant Officer), a noble Lord not then in his place immediately taunted him with having held out to the troops an inducement to desert. It seemed, therefore, that one man might say a thing safely which another must not even hint at. Nay, he had even been charged with treasonable motives because he held the very language which the hon. and gallant Officer had himself to-night made use of without any reproof whatever. He was delighted that the gallant Officer had made that statement. It corroborated what he had before asserted, that the soldiers were ill-treated and ill-rewarded, and that when they went to America every inducement was held out to them to desert. After what had fallen from the gallant Officer, he hoped he should not hear any thing more about his own treasonable intentions for having said precisely the same thing.

Mr. Hume

regretted that it was not the intention of the hon. and gallant Officer to press his motion. Great expense was now experienced by the country in consequence of the extent to which the army required to be recruited owing to the desertions that took place in Canada. A better system of paying and rewarding the soldiers might prevent this. He would submit to the noble Lord that, for the good of the service, he ought to furnish the return applied for. Not only ought such a return to be made with respect to Canada, but with respect to the troops in all the British colonies. It was extremely desirable to know in what country and from what regiments, too, desertions were most frequent; because it might be discovered to what circumstances those desertions were attributable, and thus a remedy might be more readily devised.

Mr. Shaw

was of opinion that the reasons stated by the noble Lord were sufficient to show the inexpediency of making such a return as was moved for at the present moment. He, therefore, hoped his hon. and gallant Friend would not press his motion.

Mr. Borthwick

expressed a similar hope, and observed that there was no similarity in the statement made a few evenings ago by the hon. Member for Westminster and that made to-night by the hon. and gallant Member near him (Captain Boldero). The statement of the hon. Member for Westminster had followed the invocation by the hon. Member for Leeds of the curse of heaven on the heads of the Ministry. He was aware that he was out of order in alluding to a past debate, but he was glad to find the motives of the hon. Member for Westminster were different from that which he had at the time supposed them to be.

The Speaker

begged to call the hon. Member's attention to the fact, that it was not usual to go back to particular expressions and words used by any hon. Member in a past debate, though it was open to the hon. Member to make a general allusion to that which had passed on a former occasion.

Mr. Borthwick

had no wish to be out of order—he merely desired to justify his own condemnatory observations upon the speech of the hon. Member for Westminster on the occasion to which he had referred.

Viscount Howick

had not gone into a statement of the reasons which induced him to oppose the present motion because he understood from the opening speech of the hon. and gallant Member that he did not mean to press it to a division, and he should therefore have been uselessly taking up the time of the House. But his reason was, that he could not help fearing that if the number of deserters in Canada were printed and circulated by the authority of the House, it might possibly have the effect of suggesting the crime to the soldiers in that colony. No benefit had been pointed out which would result from printing the return; it was not such a return as the hon. Member for Middlesex desired, for it would simply state the number of desertions, and have no reference to the date of the first enlistment, and it would give the House no materials for the preparation of any measures which ought to be adopted to remedy the evil. Seeing no good, therefore, in the production, and fearing that some inconvenience might, by possibility, arise from printing a return of so unusual a kind, he had thought it his duty, in accordance with the wishes of the military authorities, to oppose the motion of the hon. and gallant Member. The subject of the retiring pensions of the soldiers was a subject of too large and important a nature to be incidentally discussed; but he had heard with great regret the statement made by a military man, that the retiring pensions were only sixpence a-day. It was not true that by the existing warrant sixpence a-day only was allowed, whatever might be the amount of services. Sixpence a-day was the smallest sum which, under any circumstances, the common soldier could obtain, but a larger amount was allowed by the existing warrant for long and painful services; the sum was not fixed, but it varied according to the value of the services and the period during which they were given. When hon. Members looked carefully at the changes which had been introduced into the warrant by his right hon. Friend now president of the India Board, and the alterations which had been since adopted on his own recommendation, he thought that they would be found to have worked well for the publics service, to have done good to the soldier, and to have prevented improper charges on the public funds. It had not increased desertion, for he found that the actual desertion in Canada was greater in the year before the adoption of the amended warrant than it had been since; and looking at the whole subject of desertions in the various periods of service, it was undoubtedly true that the soldiers deserted most after short periods of service, when they had made small progress towards their claim for a pension; and certainly also the arithmetical result of the whole number of desertions showed that fewer had taken place among the soldiers who had enlisted after the adoption of the amended warrant than of those who entered the service at an earlier date. He begged pardon of the House for having trespassed on their indulgence, but after what had been said by several hon. Members he had thought it necessary to give that explanation.

Captain Boldero

had not moved for the return with the view of raking up past errors, but he had hoped that it would have been granted in order to check a crime which he regretted was so great in extent; still, however, as it had been stated that the whole subject was undergoing the consideration of the noble Lord and of the commander-in-chief, he would not press his motion. He hoped that every attention would be paid to the comforts of the men who were going out to Canada; if comforts were given to the soldier the country would be amply repaid, and every proper comfort which was withheld only rendered him discontented and unhappy. With reference to what had fallen from the hon. Member for Westminster, he must say, that he hoped no hon. Member would expect that he (Captain Boldero) would be guilty of high treason, nor did he mean to make any reflection on the hon. Member, when he said that there was a marked distinction between the two expressions which had been made use of; for the hon. Member had merely said, that temptations for desertion existed, whilst he (Captain Boldero) had specifically pointed them out.

Motion withdrawn.