HC Deb 18 March 1841 vol 57 cc348-59

Mr. Alston moved, that the petition of Captain Laroche R.N., be referred to a Select Committee. He regretted being compelled to occupy the time of the House with this case, but he thought he should be able to show that it was one of severe injustice, and that every endeavour having been made to attain redress without success; there was no alternative but an appeal to Parliament. Captain Laroche during twenty-five years of active service commanded twelve ships of war with great success; and obtained the approbation of Lord Hood and Sir Hyde Parker. At the siege of Toulon he defended a floating battery till it was almost utterly destroyed and himself severely wounded. Subsequently, when chief of the observing squadron off home, he captured two privateers, which had been running throughout the war to the great injury of the merchants, and for this service he received the thanks of Lord Keith. In 1807 when in the command of the Uranie frigate, Captain Laroche was employed to blockade the Port of Cherbourg which service he performed though with very inadequate means. Nevertheless on being relieved from this station, he was brought before a court-martial, for not doing his utmost to bring to action and destroy a frigate and brig, then lying in the harbour of Cherbourg. He (Mr. Alston) had read the evidence adduced before this court, and he must say it appeared to him most vague and contradictory. Notwithstanding this, however, and notwithstanding the remarkable fact that the prosecutor (Lieutenant Morisson) did not join the ship until the 19th of May, four days after the events on which his charges were founded the court decided that those charges were partly proved, and sentenced Captain Laroche to be dismissed from the command of his ship. It Was impossible any one should suppose, than an officer selected by Lord Hood for the command of a floating battery, constantly employed by Sir Hyde Parker in all cases of difficulty, and whose services had obtained the thanks of Lord Keith, could have failed, (if he did fail) from want of courage and zeal. But, it could be shown that he did not fail, that with most inefficient means he did all that man could do; and consequently that the judgment of the court, however conscientiously given, was erroneous. On receiving a sentence so terrible to the feelings of a British sailor, and confident of his innocence, Captain Laroche addressed two letters to Lord Mulgrave, then first Lord of the Admiralty, begging for a revision of his case, and commenting strongly an the injustice of his treatment. The Board of Admiralty considered, however, that these letters were of an intemperate and improper character, and threatened that unless they were withdrawn steps should be taken to prevent Captain Laroche being again employed. Unfortunately, though he offered to apologize on the objectionable passages being pointed out to him, he did not withdraw the letters, and well had die threat been executed; not only had Captain Loroche been suspended for thirty-three years from the active duties of his profession; but in the successive promotions which had taken place his name had been passed over, and he now found himself in his 74th year with this cruel imputation still resting on his name. It was most important to prove that the sentence of the court had not been the cause of this severe treatment; and he (Mr. Alston) would therefore read to the House the correspondence which took place in 1808 The hon. Member here read— (Copy). Admiralty Office, 19th April, 1808. SIR, Lord Mulgrave having laid before my Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty year letter, addressed to his Lordship, of the 13'th inst., I have it in command to acquaint yon, that their Lordships observe With surprise, the very unbecoming reflections, and the many unfounded assertions contained therein, but, unwilling to take such measures as they conceive your conduct to merit, on this occasion, without first affording you an opportunity of reflecting on the impropriety thereof, they are pleased to give you leave to withdraw the said letter with a suitable apology for these highly indecent and groundless reflections on the Board of Admiralty, the Flag-officer commanding at Portsmouth, and the members composing the Court-martial, by whose sentence you were dismissed from the Uranie. Should you, however, not be disposed to avail yourself of this indulgence, their Lordships will proceed without delay, to take such measures as the case may seem to require. I am, Sir, Your humble servant, (Signed) W.W.POLE. To Captain Laroche, No. 13 Princes-street, Cavendish Square. Extract from Captain Laroche's Answer to Mr. Wellesley Pole's First Letter. I beg, in reply, to assure their Lordships, that it was by no means my intention to use language, or to introduce reflections in any way calculated to offend the Board of Admiralty, and if I have intentionally conveyed any expressions offensive to their Lordships, or to the Flag-officer commanding at Portsmouth, from the acuteness of my feelings under the mortifying and distressing circumstances of my case, it gives me sincere concern, and if any such expressions can be pointed out, I shall have real pleasure in apologising to their Lordships, and to that worthy and gallant officer, Admiral Montague, who was neither named, nor intended to be alluded to, far less reflected on by me. Admiralty Office, 17th May, 1808. SIR, I have received and communicated to my Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, your letter of yesterday, requesting to know if you may expect an answer to your letter of the 30th of April, and I am commanded to acquaint you, that their Lordships are of opinion it requires no reply. My Lords have directed me to signify to you, that in consequence of the very indecent reflections on your superior officers and the unfounded assertions contained in your letter to Lord Mulgrave, of the 13th of April, which letter you have thought proper (notwithstanding their Lordships' indulgence) to decline withdrawing, their Lordships have ordered a minute to be made on the records of the Admiralty, with a view to prevent your being again employed in his Majesty's naval service. And I am further directed to desire, that you will desist from addressing the Board on the subject of your Court martial. "I am, Sir," Your very humble Servant, (Signed) W. W. POLE. To Captain Christopher Laroche. Surely the House would be of opinion that the punishment had been more than commensurate with the offence. Yet all his applications for redress had been refused. He had seen officers who had actually been struck off the list, not only reinstated, but promoted to their respective flags; and it was only when he saw the whole body of retired officers removed to the active list,—and when in answer to his renewed application, reasons had been assigned for its refusal utterly different from those given in 1808—that he had been advised to appeal to this House for that protection and redress which every man who had served his country was entitled to expect at their hands. In proof of the discrepancy in the reasons assigned by the Admiralty, the hon. Member here read,— Admiralty 24th Feb., 1841. SIR. Having laid before my Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty your letter of the 19th inst. requesting to be informed on what grounds or under what regulation, you were passed over by the then Board of Admiralty in the general promotion, I am commanded by their Lordships to acquaint you that they have no doubt that the reason you were passed over in the promotion you allude to, was from the circumstance of your having been dismissed from the command of the Uranie by sentence of Court-martial; the power of doing so being vested in the Board of Admiralty by the Order in Council then in force. I am Sir, Your very humble Servant. (Signed) I. BARROW, Captain Christopher Laroche. And, to shew the estimation in which Captain Laroche was held by his brother officers— 76 Grovesnor Street. 18th March, 1841. MY DEAR LAROCHE. It will afford me much satisfaction if any testimonial of mine can be of service to you in obtaining the object of your memorial now about to be brought before the House of Commons; it is however a long time since we served together and then not for a very long period; but I have a most distinct recollection of the character you bore as an officer, seaman, and gentleman in the estimation of your Commander-in-chief, the late Sir Hyde Parker as well as the captains of the squadron generally serving, under his command on the West-India station, and of my own knowledge, I can in justice declare, that I never saw or heard of any part of your conduct as unbecoming an officer and a gentleman. "Wishing you every success, Believe me with great regard, Your ever truly, BLADEN CAPELL. West End, Southampton, 25th Feb. 1841. MY DEAR LAROCHE, I have been absent from home; but immediately on my return I sit down to answer your letter of the 18th inst., 'requesting me to send you a few lines conveying my opinion of your professional character.' This I can Jo easily and satisfactorily to your feelings. My opinion of you was formed at an early period of our naval career, when we served together for severals years, as lieutenants of the St. George and Britannia. Some part of this time I was the forecastle-lieutenant of your watch, we were almost constantly at sea, and I had good opportunities of having my own observations confirmed by the frequent remarks of the seamen amongst themselves on the forecastle, 'that you were a good officer, a good seamen, and that there was no fear of anything ever going wrong whilst it was your watch on deck, and the ship was in your charge.' I often noticed at such times how much confidence the Admiral used to place in you. This is fresh in my memory, although upwards of forty-five years ago, together with circumstances of no importance in themselves, but enough to have then made a favourable impression on my mind. These are bye-gone days, and there are few left to remember them; but if my reminiscence of them will be any consolation to you at this late period of our lives, most readily do I give it, with a further recollection, that according to my judgment at that time you were particularly zealous in your duties, and appeared to me always to have the good of the service at heart. Ever yours faithfully, WENTWORTU LORING. To Captain Laroche, R. N. This then was the case of a gallant but ill-used officer who now entreated the interposition of the House; he did not ask for favour, but for justice. He courted the fullest and most searching inquiry, well satisfied he should be able to show how utterly unfounded were any imputations on his character. He (Mr. Alston) was aware that applications like the present were generally resisted on the ground that this House was not the proper tribunal of appeal, and that the admiralty was the only fitting judge; but with every respect for that board, he was not disposed to recognize it, as in all respects purely infallible. He did think that in the case of Captain Laroche, that board had acted erroneously, and he thought that this House, as the representatives of the people, were bound, as one of their first and highest duties, to give protection to all servants of their country, who it can be proved have not disgraced that service. He trusted that the House would so decide on this question as would give to a gallant old officer the opportunity of disproving all imputations upon his good name, and thus of soothing his few re- maining years with the certainty of leaving behind him an honoured and untarnished name.

Sir Thomas Cochrane

I rise to give a direct negative to the motion of the hon. Member for Hertford. In doing so I beg to be understood as offering no opinion and passing no judgment upon the merits of the petition he advocates; my opposition is upon general grounds, and the full persuasion that the carrying such a motion is extremely injurious to the best interests of the naval and military service. Sir, long before I had the honour of a seat in this House, I observed with great regret the frequent attempts made to wrest from the Government of the day the executive power, and transfer it to this branch of the Legislature. Sir, such appeals, if successful, from officers or men of the army and navy, inflict a severe blow upon the discipline and efficiency of both services; they encourage those who ought to look up to the heads of their respective departments with trust and confidence in the idea that they are deficient either in skill or integrity, and that their complaints are not likely to receive a patient, an intelligent, or honest hearing anywhere but before a committee of this House. Sir, what reason is there to doubt that the Board of Admiralty would not do full justice to petitions, or what object could they have in withholding from him that redress to which he might be entitled? Sir I have no particular predilection for the present Board of Admiralty; I am opposed both to their principles and measures; but Sir, I will not do them the injustice, and I should ill acquit myself as a Member of Parliament, or as one belonging to the naval profession, if I did so, of allowing it to be supposed they could be guilty of preventing the course of justice between any individual under them and themselves. Then, Sir, under what pretence can the hon. Member for Hertford be induced to bring forward a motion for the purpose of submitting to a committee of this House a petition referring to matters that have gone by above thirty years? The petitioner was tried by the proper military tribunal, and if he had any fault to find with the sentence passed, upon him, surely that was the period to bring it forward, and not at this distance of time. Will the hon. Member allow me to ask, what course would he propose to himself in the event of obtaining his committee? for let me tell him, he must not he satisfied with the simple production of the minutes of the court-martial (in itself a very strong measure); for, be it observed, Captain Laroche not only complains of his sentence, but of the combination against him among the witnesses. So this committee must call before them every living witness, and in fact hold a fresh court-martial upon Captain Laroche. Is he, then, (will the hon. Member allow me to ask) ready, as president of this committee's court-martial, to enter upon the investigation of Captain Laroche's conduct—is he ready to rip up the whole of the nautical transactions to which it must refer—is he prepared to investigate into, and decide upon, all the evolutions and nautical proceedings in which the petitioner's conduct is implicated; for if he is not prepared to do so, he does nothing. Why really, Sir, this proposed proceeding cannot but appear to any hon. Member but as extremely absurd, and at once show how improper and unsuitable it is to bring such questions before this House. Sir, I repeat, that the entertaining of such motions by this House is extremely detrimental to both services of the country, and are not to be listened to unless in such an extreme case as it is difficult to anticipate; they tend to insubordination, to unhinge men's minds, to cause dissent, and to lead both officers and men to rely upon others than those who are placed over them. It is with great pain I thus oppose any motion which an old brother officer thinks might be serviceable to himself, and who I think has been ill-advised in bringing forward this question. Nothing would give me more satisfaction than to have had it in my power to assent to any measure which might be the means of imparting consolation or gratification to him; but a strong sense of duty impels me to the present course, and while I repeat that I most carefully abstain from passing any opinion upon the merits of the case, I must give the motion my decided opposition.

Sir Charles Adam

felt great pain in being obliged to speak at all on the present occasion, and regretted much that the hon. Member had thought proper to bring forward the case. He lamented the position of an old officer who had, no doubt, done great service to his country, and he regretted to be obliged to enter into the details of the court-martial, in order to show that the Board of Admiralty at the time could not have done otherwise than it did. Captain Laroche had been commander of the Uranie, off Cherbourg, in May and June, 1807, and for not taking proper steps to bring a French frigate to action at that period, he was charged by the first lieutenant of the vessel, who had only joined on the 19th of May previous, and who then found that the officers complained generally of the captain's conduct. After much consideration, the first lieutenant determined to prefer the charges against the captain. A court-martial was decreed, and after sitting three days, it sentenced captain Laroche to be dismissed from the command of the Uranie, stating that the charge was in part proved. The hon. Gentleman said that the charge should have been entirely proved; but the charges were distinct and separate, for not bringing the enemy's frigate into action, fox not having his ship in readiness, and for acting against the 10th, 12th, and 13th articles of war. After this court-martial, six months elapsed before captain Laroche made any representation to the Admiralty. When he did, there was every reason to: believe that the minutes of the court-martial had been examined, and he was then told that the Admiralty did not think it necessary to take any steps in the matter. Captain Laroche then wrote a most in- temperate letter to Lord Mulgrave, which the Admiralty gave him leave afterwards to withdraw, but which he refused to do. But in a letter which he afterwards wrote, he, in some measure, expressed, his regret, but concluded by repeating the very same offence. The consequence of this was, that the Admiralty made a minute that he should be no further employed in the King's service. There could not have been a fairer or more efficient set of officers than those who composed the court-martial that sat on Captain Laroche; amongst whom were Captain Irving, Captain the Hon. Courtenay Boyle, Sir George Stopford, and others of the highest reputation. Having received the answer of the Admiralty, Captain Laroche seemed to have allowed the matter to remain there. For many years he took no steps. After the general promotion, at which he, as being one of the senior captains, would have been advanced to be a flag officer, had he an unblemished character, Captain Laroche applied to the Board of Admiralty. The Order in Council specially limited the promotion to officers of unblemished reputation. He would ask, could any Board of Admiralty, when they were satisfied of the justice of the sentence of the court-martial, have promoted Captain Laroche? No further representation was made until 1840, when a memorial was again sent into the Admiralty, recapitulating what had taken place at the court-martial, impugning the conduct of the officers, and again requesting to be promoted. Reference was again made to the records of the court-martial, and the present Board of Admiralty being of opinion that the sentence was just according to the evidence, they did, and could do, no otherwise than refuse the request of promotion, at the same time they stated the reasons which obliged them to obey that disagree., able necessity. This was the state of Captain Laroche's case, and though he much regretted to be obliged to state so much, he felt bound to oppose the motion of the hon. Member. He admitted that the House of Commons should be open to the complaints of every subject of the Queen; but he must at the same time say, that: when an appeal of this kind was made, it should be made out clearly before they interfered, and especially where a general court-martial had pronounced sentence.

Captain Pechell

expressed his surprise at the manner in which the gallant Officer, the Member for Ipswich, had met this question by volunteering the old official practice of the Lords of the Admiralty of the year 1837. He (Captain Pechell), could not conceive a more disagreeable or painful duty than that of being compelled to censure a brother officer; and he concluded, that nothing but a stern and rigid sense of duty could have tempted the; hon. Member to exercise his privilege in so summary a manner, without even giving the official authorities in the House an opportunity of explaining the course which they intended to pursue on this occasion. The hon. Member was one of those, who, in the late debate on naval affairs, complained of the insufficient manner in which our ships were manned, and of the inferiority of the weight of metal with which they were furnished, as compared to those in the navy of France; but be was unwilling in the case of Captain Laroche, to take into consideration the; circumstances under which that officer was placed when in command of the Uranie during the blockade of the port of Cherbourg, and this was a most important feature in the case as the enemy's ships were far superior in force to those which confined them within the limits of the port. In those days, hon. Members did not take into calculation the number of guns or men which the frigates of the enemy might carry, they expected whenever a British frigate was brought into hostile collision with an enemy, that she would be able to give a good account of the business. He (Captain Pechell) therefore called upon the House to bear in mind, that Captain Laroche was employed on a most dangerous and difficult service in blockading a large French frigate and corvette in the port of Cherbourg, and that the ship he commanded was of vastly inferior force to that of the enemy, as was the little vessel which assisted him on this duty. It had been the practice of the French frigate and the corvette to make frequent demonstrations within the limits of the port, with the view of drawing and tempting Captain Laroche under the formidable batteries with which the coast is furnished, and it was on one of these occasions when the French frigate had ventured out a little further than usual, the Captain Laroche was blamed for not doing his utmost to bring the enemy to action, though it was well known that very great prudence was necessary not to risk the loss of his Majesty's ship, or her being crippled by the batteries, and then enabling the enemy to leave the port unmolested. Whatever might have been the opinion of those officers of the Uranie who gave evidence against their Captain; it was clear that the lieutenant in command of the brig (the consort of the Uranie) gave the most valuable testimony in favour of the exertions of the Uranie to close with the French frigate, so long as it was compatible with the safety of his Majesty's ship. Captain Laroche with his twelve pounders was opposed to the La Manche with eighteen pounders, and with a crew of nearly twice the number to those on board the Uranie; and it is a well known fact, that there is no record of an English frigate with twelve pounders having captured a French frigate with eighteen; but it is on record that a French frigate of eighteen pounders had triumphed over one of his Majesty's ships with twelve pounders, in the case of the Ville de Milan and the Cleopatra. The gallant Admiral (Adam) complained that the hon. Gentleman who introduced this motion had carefully kept back all that related to the engagement with the French frigate; now he (Captain Pechell) considered that the gallant Admiral had kept back the very important fact of Captain Laroche having maintained an effectual blockade of an enemy's port with a far inferior force, and that during that pe- riod no vessel was permitted either to escape from, or to enter that port. These were circumstances which ought to be taken into consideration, when the character of an old and deserving officer was at stake. Undoubtedly, in those days, much more was expected from our ships than in justice should have been required, and it was such daring deeds as those of Lord Cochrane in Basque Roads, which led people to expect that similar risks might be always run without prejudice to the service. And it was very probable that if the French frigate off Cherbourg had been similarly situated to the enemy's ship in the Roads of L'Isle D'Aix, Captain Laroche might have earned those laurels which were so well bestowed upon the relative of the hon. Member for Ipswich, he (Captain Laroche) was placed on a dangerous shore without the benefit of anchorage, and, therefore, he would have engaged the enemy under every possible disadvantage. The gallant Admiral had also remarked, that Captain Laroche had neglected to prefer his claim for promotion for thirty-two years; but lie (Captain Pechell) considered the officer to have exercised a sound discretion by refraining to make an appeal to those authorities who had sanctioned his removal from the Uranie; but when a liberal Government, and as was supposed, a liberal Board of Admiralty, came into power, Captain Laroche considered that the time had arrived when justice would be rendered to his long services, and he was the more induced to prefer his claim at this time, when the favourable occasion of her Majesty's marriage and the birth of the Princess Royal, might afford a fair opportunity of placing an old and gallant Officer in that rank and station to which he was now fairly and justly entitled.

Mr. Alston,

in reply, observed, that several officers had been dismised the service for offences of a very serious character, and yet were restored after a much shorter interval than had elapsed since the trial of Captain Laroche.

Motion withdrawn.