HC Deb 19 June 1855 vol 138 cc2260-74

said, the proposal he was about to make was a very simple one, and would not require any lengthened statement on his part. He was about to ask the House to do an act of justice to a class of men who, even in ordinary times, were entitled to the favourable consideration of the House, but who, from the dangers to which they were now exposed, and the fortitude and gallantry they had recently displayed in defence of the honour of their country, had special claims upon its attention. This Motion, however, did not require to be enforced by an appeal to the generosity of the House, its adoption should be conceded on grounds of simple justice. By the regulations at present in operation in the army, if a regimental officer died in the performance of his duty, the money which he had paid for his original commission, as well as for every subsequent step of promotion, was wholly forfeited and lost to his family. The effect of this system was, that when an officer of rank died, the country, so far from having remunerated him for his services, must, in almost every instance, be considered as being absolutely his pecuniary debtor. A lieutenant colonel in the line, for example, had to pay 4,500l. for his commission; and unless, therefore, he had been a lengthened period in the army, the aggregate amount of the salary he received literally would not recompense him for the purchase money he had been required to give for his professional position. Then, again, an ensign had to pay a sum of 450l. on entering the line; and if he fell in battle, on the very day after he obtained his commission, his representatives had no claim to be reimbursed a single shilling of this 450l. The principle was precisely the same through all the other commissioned grades of the army. Thus a lieutenant colonel not only jeopardised his life in the cause of his country, but he had also to risk the sum of 4,500l., and if he were to insure his life for that amount of money he would actually have to pay in the shape of premium more than the sum which he received in pay. Setting aside, therefore, the danger to his life which an officer incurred, it could not be said that he ever derived, as the reward for his invaluable services, a bare pecuniary equivalent for the money he had invested in buying his commission; and whether he lived or died, his country, looking at the matter in a pecuniary point of view, were indebted to him. No sophistry as to the strict rules of the service could justify such a system as this. Take another example of the practical working of the present system. An officer was tried by court-martial in the Crimea the other day, and, being found guilty of conduct unworthy of his position, was sentenced to dismissal from the service; but this decision being referred home to the authorities in this country, and some extenuating circumstances pleaded, he was allowed to sell out, and was thus enabled to recover the regulation value of his commission. If, however, this officer had never been charged with ungentlemanly conduct, but had fallen heroically in the trenches like Colonel Egerton, the Government would have pounced upon the price of his commission, and his family would have been deprived of the whole sum that he had invested. The hardship of this rule was not so much felt in time of peace, because an officer could sell out whenever he pleased; but during the prevalence of war, when public opinion did not admit of his quitting his post in the hour of danger, the least that the country could do for him was to give him a security for the return of the money that had been exacted from him on entering the service. He was not now going into the general system of the purchase of commissions in the army; this Motion was quite distinct from that question; but the adoption of this Resolution would afford great facilities for effecting such a change. The Resolution he proposed consisted of two propositions—one that upon an officer dying in active service his representatives should receive back the value of his commission, the other that the country should make up this sum. The first of these propositions might be adopted without the other. The consequence of this would be, that when an officer died in service his representatives would receive the value of his commission, and this sum would be paid in the same manner as when an officer sold out. There would then be no death vacancy, no promotion without purchase, upon the death of an officer in the field. He (Mr. Headlam) did not propose this. He thought that the country ought to pay the representatives of the deceased officer, and that there then should be the same promotion without purchase in the regiment as at present. But if the House would not adopt this plan, he then said that an officer dying in active service should be treated as an officer selling out, and that as between the representatives of the deceased officer on the one hand, and the surviving officers of the regiment on the other, it was more fair and just that the former should receive the value of the commission than that the latter should have a step without purchase. The fact was, that promotions without purchase were for the benefit of the country. They are the means by which we stimulate our officers by the hope of promotion to deeds of daring. As the country benefits by this stimulus to the army, it was right that the country should pay for it; and it was not just, it was not right that the country should sacrifice the pecuniary interests of those who have died in its service for the sake of promoting its own interests by stimulating the exertions of the surviving officers. He was aware that his proposal would cost the country a certain sum, but they would have the satisfaction of feeling that the pecuniary boon to the army would be far larger than the sum paid by the country, for the following reason:—at present officers are obliged, in consequence of the risk to which they are exposed, to pay heavy sums for the insurance of their lives upon the sums paid by them for their commissions. If, however, this boon were granted, officers would know that, in the event of their being killed in the service, the money which they had expended in the purchase of their commissions would be returned to their families, and they would not be obliged to insure. A pecuniary benefit would thus be given to many officers by freeing them from the necessity of paying these heavy premiums upon their lives, and this would be a relief and a saving to officers who survived the war, and in respect of whom, therefore, the country would not be put to any additional expense by the adoption of the Resolution. He was justified, therefore, in saying that the benefit conferred upon the army would be far greater than the burden imposed upon the country. The question is not, however, simply a pecuniary one. The bravest men are the most tender-hearted, and there are many officers who for themselves would willingly seek "the bubble reputation in the cannon's mouth," but the same men would feel bitterly the necessity of leaving their relatives in poverty. By the adoption of the Resolution we should carry comfort to the hearts of many brave men, and make them feel that if they died in their country's service their country would repay to their families the money they had paid for entering into the service.


seconded the Motion.

Motion made, and Question proposed— That this House do, To-morrow, resolve itself into a Committee, to consider of an humble Address to Her Majesty, praying that she will be graciously pleased to direct alterations to be made in the rules of the Military Service to the effect that the Regulation value of the Commissions of Officers in the Army dying or having died in active service during the present war, may be paid to their representatives and deemed part of their personal estate, and to assure Her Majesty that this House will make good the same.


said, the Motion originally placed upon the paper by the hon. Gentleman was that, whenever an officer died, the value of his commission should be included in the property distributed among those of his relations who were entitled to it. That Motion raised a general principle upon which he should have felt disposed to take issue; but the hon. Gentleman had since materially altered the form of his Motion, leaving the simple declaration, that officers dying in the course of the war should be allowed to bequeath the value of their commissions to their relatives. Now, if the principle of the Resolution were a sound one, he could not understand why it should be limited to certain cases, and not extended to others. He understood the Motion to relate entirely to persons who might die in active service against Russia [Mr. Headlam assented]; but if it were adopted it would hardly be possible to resist claims that might be preferred in other quarters. The other day an officer lost his life in endeavouring to quell an insurrection of the diggers in the colony of Victoria, and if the privilege advocated by the hon. Gentleman were to be conferred in the cases of officers who lost their lives in the Crimea, he could not understand why it ought not also to be extended to the case of an officer who lost his life in active service in the colony of Victoria. Still further, if the Motion were agreed to, he could not see why claims of a similar character preferred by the relatives of officers killed in the Kafir war should not be allowed. No distinction could in justice be drawn between the case of one officer and another, and, provided only that he fell in active service against the enemy, it was of no consequence whether that enemy was Russia, or the savages of South Africa. He might be told that the privations endured in the Crimea were of a very peculiar character, and that they ought to be taken into consideration, but, on the other hand, it ought to be borne in mind that, if the privations were severe, the opportunities of gaining distinction, and of acquiring renown, were also considerable. If an officer lost his life, it mattered little whether he lost it in the Crimea or in active service against a more savage enemy, like the Kafirs; and it would be no consolation to his relatives, after he was killed, to tell them that he ran less risk of losing his life in South Africa than in the Crimea. Certainly, if the House were disposed to recognise the justice of the principle recommended by the hon. Gentleman, they ought not to limit its application to the particular case contemplated by the hon. Gentleman. He apprehended that the object of the hon. Gentleman was to secure some provision for the widows and families of officers killed in action. It was often said that the army was almost wholly officered from the ranks of the aristocracy. Now, he had ample evidence in his possession to show that that was not the case, and, indeed, the House was repeatedly told that the widows and families of officers would be left almost entirely destitute were it not for the provision made for them in the way of pensions. It would be well, however, for the House to consider whether there was not sufficient provision made for the widows and families of officers by the pension-warrant. The pension granted was intended as a compensation to the relatives of officers who were not in affluent circumstances. He did not see how it would be possible to resist the demand for pensions to the widows of private soldiers if the hon. Gentleman's proposition were adopted, for the ground upon which that demand had hitherto been resisted would be entirely destroyed. It would also be impossible to continue to grant pensions to the families of officers if the prices of the commissions held by such officers at the time of their death were to be repaid. The hon. Gentleman suggested that the families might have the option of which they would receive. But the plan of the hon. Gentleman would only benefit certain classes of survivors. It would, for instance, be an advantage to a young widow to receive the full value of her deceased husband's commission rather than an annuity, which would cease if she remarried; but the present arrangement was the most advantageous to widows advanced in years, who would have a difficulty in investing any large sum of money. He had before him a warrant issued within the last few days, under which, if the value of an officer's commission were worth 1800l., the maximum amount of pension that his widow would receive was 150l. He doubted whether any average investment of 1800l. would secure for life a larger sum. [Colonel NORTH said he should be glad to know under what circumstances that maximum would be granted?] It would be granted under favourable circumstances, in the case of an officer who had seen active service; and the number of children he might leave, and other matters, would be taken into consideration. The hon. Gentleman (Mr. Headlam) said that the first part of his proposition might be adopted, and the last part rejected; but if the value of the officers' commissions were to be repaid to their families, he asked whether the House ought not to make good the sums required for that purpose? Why were not the prices of commissions now paid to the representatives of officers who died in the service? Because the Government took advantage of the vacancies so created to confer commissions, without purchase, upon such persons as non-commissioned officers, sons of distinguished officers, and young men who had passed creditable examinations at the military colleges. This plan gave facilities for obviating one inconvenience of the purchase system; and, if it were altered, the House ought to provide Government with the means of still bestowing commissions upon the parties to whom he had referred. Government did not derive the slightest advantage from the sums that passed between officers for the interchange and purchase of commissions. His chief objection to the Motion was upon principle; he did not think it would be advisable to recognise the idea of property as connected with a commission. He looked upon a commission as a personal thing, which could not last beyond the existence of the person upon whom it conferred a special duty. A commission could not even be regarded as a life interest, for it might at any time be revoked, and to lay down the principle that an officer had a property in his commission, would, he thought, interfere with the discipline of the army. If they recognised a pecuniary interest in commissions, how could a number of officers be reduced to half-pay at the conclusion of the war? He would recommend the hon. Gentlemen to examine the warrant lately issued, under which an increased rate of pension had been granted to the widows and children of officers. He would take into consideration the proposition submitted by the hon. Gentleman, and, if he could satisfy himself that it would be just and right to carry it into effect, he would not scruple to act upon that opinion; but he could not at present, for the reasons he had stated, give his assent to the Motion.


said the hon. Gentleman, the Under Secretary for War, seemed rather puzzled by the case as put by the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Headlam). The fact was, that after greatly underpaying officers in the army, when they were killed in action you could not give them the money they had paid for their commissions. So large a number had been recently killed or died, that no one dared ask the House for the sum required to pay for their commissions. The hon. Gentleman (Mr. Peel) said some time ago that the Government had sold a number of vacant commissions, and had realised a large sum, and he (Colonel Dunne) thought that under those circumstances that money should go to the families of officers who had been killed or died on service. He thought the proposition of the hon. Member for Neweastle-on-Tyne a reasonable one, because it would not draw largely on the resources of the country. Something ought to be done in the direction which was indicated by the hon. Gentleman.


said, that some time since he had placed a similar notice on the paper, but his Motion only went as far as the widows and orphans of officers who fell in action. As long as the State recognised the principle of purchase in the army, he conceived it was only just that the widows and orphans of officers should receive the price of their commissions. At present one officer, upon being ordered for foreign service, might sell his commission and realise a large sum; while another officer, who felt bound in honour to follow his regiment, might fall in battle, and the value of his commission be lost to his family. Surely, the widows and orphans of an officer killed in action or by pestilence, when on foreign service, if not other relatives, should receive the full benefit of his commission. He had prepared a statement which clearly showed that the pay of officers, in relation to the cost of commissions, was inadequate. The regulation price of the commission of a lieutenant colonel in the Life Guards was 7,250l. The pay per annum was 532l. Deducting income tax 31l., forage 51l., and band subscription 17l. 10s., the pay was really only 426l. 10s. per annum. He believed it was only in the English service that deduction was made for forage. In the Austrian army he knew cavalry officers received forage free. The regulation price of the commission of a lieutenant colonel of cavalry was 6,175l., and the pay 419l. The deductions for income tax, forage, mess, and band brought it to 320l., and he had to buy his chargers, while in most other services chargers were given to officers up to the rank of captain. The price of a captain's commission in a cavalry regiment was 3,225l., the gross pay 266l.; but, making the same deductions, it was only 197l. The price of a commission of an ensign in the line was 450l., the gross pay 95l. 16s. 3d.; but after making the deductions it was only 84l. 19s. 6d. Upon that sum an ensign had to keep up his uniform, and pay his mess and other expenses. He had to live as a gentleman upon 5s. 3d. per day, when there was not a common shipwright in the port of London who did not earn his 10s. a day. How could officers, then, provide for their families in case they should be killed in action? He had made a calculation of the amount of annuities which might be purchased with the price of commissions, taking the ages of lieutenant colonels at forty-five, and of captains at thirty, and the outfit for cavalry officers at 400l., including horses, and for infantry officers at 200l. The nett pay was reckoned, after deducting the items of forage, and mess and band expenses to the cavalry, and mess and band expenses in the infantry, but not deducting income tax, because annuities were subject to it. In the Life Guards a lieutenant colonel's commission and outfit cost 7,650l., which would purchase an annuity of 495l. for his life, at the Government rate. His pay was 463l. 1s. 8d. nett. A captain's commission and outfit cost 3,900l., which would purchase an annuity of 209l.; his pay was 227l. 8s. 10d. In other cavalry regiments a lieutenant colonel's commission and outfit cost 6,575., which would purchase an annuity of 430l.; his pay was 345l. 0s. 10d. And a captain's commission and outfit cost 3,625l., which would purchase an annuity of 195l.; his pay was 212l. 15s. 8d. In the Foot Guards, a lieutenant colonel's commission and outfit cost 9,200l., which would purchase an annuity of 606l. His pay was 488l. 3s. 9d. A captain's commission and outfit cost 5,000l., which would purchase an annuity of 269l. His pay was 282l. 17s. 6d. In the infantry of the line a lieutenant colonel's commission and outfit cost 4,700l., which would purchase an annuity of 308l. His pay was 293l. 5s. A captain's commission and outfit cost 2,000l., which would purchase an annuity of 108l. His pay was 199l. 16s. 3d. So that, taking eight officers of different ranks and ages from the Household Brigade and the line, cavalry and infantry, it was apparent that the sum total of the annuities which might be purchased with the amount which their commissions and outfit cost was 2,620l., the sum total of their pay being only 2,512l. 9s. 6d. Each officer might have purchased, on the average, an annuity of 327l.; while the average pay was only 314l. Certainly there were pensions, but the widow of a lieutenant colonel of cavalry only received 80l. a year; a captain's widow, 70l.; a cornet's widow, 36l. a year. In the infantry the pensions were in the same ratio. The pensioning officers' widows was a perfect farce. There was the case of Major Halkett, killed at Balaklava. He left a widow and three children, and the widow's pension was 70l. a year. There was the still stronger case of Colonel Moore, who was his late father's aide-de-camp. He knew him well, and a more kindhearted or better man could not exist. Colonel Moore was offered 15,000l. for his commission, and refused. He was drowned; and, but for Her Majesty's bounty, his widow would only have received 70l. a year. They could do nothing for those who had already fallen, but they might do something for those who were yet fighting their country's battles. He was sure the noble Lord at the head of the Government would take the matter into consideration, and devise some means of providing for the widows and orphans, if not for the relations, of those officers who fell in the service.


said, the hon. Gentleman the Under Secretary at War had forgotten the disadvantage which officers on active service laboured under when seeking to insure their lives. An officer going out to Quebec or the Ionian Islands could get his life readily insured; but if going out to the Crimea, he could not get an office to open a policy, or if it did, it would be at an immense premium. He certainly thought that something ought to be done to meet the case of an officer who went to take part in a campaign, and who was, in consequence, deprived of the opportunity of insuring his life on anything like moderate terms.


said, he thought the strong feeling entertained by the country against the purchase system in the army would be much mitigated by the adoption of some such plan as that proposed by the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Headlam). He must, however, protest against the argument of the Under Secretary for War, that a purchased commission was a personal trust, and believed it to be an investment—a very bad one indeed, but one which an officer ought to have the power of bequeathing to his widow for sale on his death.


Sir, the Motion of my hon. Friend is only one part of a large and difficult question, because it is obvious it connects itself directly with the question which has been much discussed in this House and elsewhere, whether the system of purchase and sale of commissions is one which ought to be continued in our service. As to that, every one must see that it is a question beset with difficulties; and even if the Legislature determined to abolish that system, it is impossible to decide in the way in which many persons wish it to be decided, and it would be impossible to carry it out at once to any practical result. But my hon. Friend, as it appears to me, during the whole of his speech laboured under an entire misconception of what the system is, because he urged over and over again that the public were debtors to our officers for the amounts paid for their commissions; and that if an officer dies without having sold his commission, the State is in possession of the money which he has paid for it. That opinion of my hon. Friend is an entire mistake. No money is paid by any officer to the State for his commission. When an officer purchases a commission, he pays the money to some other officer who sells it. The State is not the holder of the money, nor is it the gainer when an officer dies and his commission is disposed of without purchase. An officer who gets his commission without purchase is so far a gainer, that he gets a rank without payment which, under other circumstances, he would have had to purchase; but it is a fallacy to say, that the State is a pecuniary debtor to the officer for the value of the commission he may have bought. Then, the Motion of my hon. Friend is, that during the present war, and only during that time, and I presume, too, at the seat of war alone as regards any officer who may die, the State should advance money to pay the value of the commissions he may have bought, but I am quite at a loss to see how my hon. Friend can disconnect the first portion of his Resolution from the second, because, unless the House agrees to make good the sums, I cannot understand from what fund the Government could repay to the relatives of deceased officers the value of their commissions. The money the officers paid for those commissions does not, as I have just stated, go to the Government, and could only be repaid out of the revenues of the State. I think there is a good deal in some of the considerations which have be enurged by my hon. Friend; but, at the same time, I think his Resolution proposes to go much beyond the point to which the feeling of the House will accompany him. I think, however, it would be an arrangement to which the country would not object, and which the House, I apprehend, would not object to carry out, that officers might be allowed to make a choice whether, in the event of their being killed in action, their families should receive the pensions and national allowances now given by the regulations, or whether, in lieu, their representatives should receive from the public funds the value of the commissions held by those officers at the time of their death. There are many cases in which it would be more advantageous to the family to receive the value of the commission, but there might be other cases in which it would be more advantageous to receive the increased amount of pension and allowances granted by the regulations. I think, whatever additional expense might be entailed on the public by such an arrangement, the public would incur that burden cheerfully, and that this House would have no hesitation in sanctioning such an arrangement; but, if you go beyond that—not for the present war alone, for I cannot admit the distinction—you create a new difficulty. Our troops now engaged in the East have deserved all this country can give in the way of honour or reward, but I cannot admit that there is anything so peculiar in the nature of that service, or in the scene of operations, to make their case different from that of troops engaged in other parts of the world, by the orders of their Sovereign, in the defence of the honour and the interests of the country. Whatever regulations are made must be general regulations, applicable to all officers in all parts of the world, who, under any circumstances, may fall in action in the performance of their duties. But then comes the case of those who die not in action. I wish the House to consider what would be the effect of extending the regulation to cases of this sort. You can easily frame a law for the cases of officers falling in action; but if you include the cases of officers dying from other causes on foreign service, what distinction is there between war and peace? What distinction between foreign service and home service? What distinction between any circumstance, any disease, which may terminate the life of an officer in one part of the world, and any similar disease which may terminate the life of another officer in a different part of the world? If we include any officer who dies in the Crimea from fever, then come the cases of those who may die from fever in the West Indies, at the Cape, or in North America; and why ought we not also to include the cases of officers dying at home from diseases which may be referred to the performance of their military duties? So that you would come to apply the rule without limit, and in the case of every officer dying on full pay, unless it can be shown that his death was the consequence of some malady constitutional, and quite independent of the performance of his military duties. I think there would be great difficulty in extending any regulation to such cases as that. As to the first point, I say I think the Government is perfectly willing to adopt a regulation such as I have mentioned, that in cases of officers killed in action there should be a choice allowed between the pensions and allowances established by the present regulations and the value of the commission which the deceased officer had bought or would have been entitled to sell before his death. I cannot quite admit all the grounds upon which this Motion has been supported. The hon. Gentleman (Mr. Headlam) and the noble and gallant Member for Lichfield (Lord A. Paget) have urged the principle of a commercial speculation, as if they compared the annuity which might have been bought with the amount paid for the commission, with the pay received on account of the commission. But even upon that ground the noble Lord has shown us the difference is only that between 327l. and 314l.—some 13l.; and he does not take any notice of the pensions and allowances to the widows, a very important point, and which should not be forgotten. But I altogether deny that we ought to look on the motives that induce a man to enter into the army or the navy, as the same by which a man is guided when he makes an investment in railway shares, in three per cent consols, or upon mortgage, or upon any other security by which he may seek to obtain interest for his money. The motives that induce an officer to enter the service are the desire of distinction, the desire of an honourable condition in life, and of that reputation and consideration which belong to the military service; and therefore the ground to which I have referred is certainly not one on which this question can be properly argued. I hope, after the statement I have just made, that the hon. Member will leave the question in the hands of the Government, with a view to their carrying out the arrangement I have mentioned, and which I hope will meet the concurrence and prove in accordance with the feelings of the House.


said, he objected to the Motion of the hon. Gentleman, that it was not large enough—being confined to the officers engaged in actual warfare in the Crimea. He thought the misery of a man being banished to an unhealthy and distant climate, whilst others were engaged in war, deserved consideration, and that a man who perished under those circumstances was as much entitled to the privileges spoken of, as he who died on the field of battle. It was difficult, he would confess, to draw the line. Some officers perished on their passage to the Crimea; others died of sickness on the eve of battle. He did not believe there existed any such privilege as had been mentioned of an officer being allowed to sell out when he was ordered for active service.


said, that after the discussion which had passed, he thought he ought not to press his Motion. He understood the proposal of the noble Lord at the head of the Government to be this, that every officer henceforth should have the option of declaring whether he would take the benefit to be given to his family, in case of his death, under the new warrant, or whether he would have for his family the regulation annuity. After such a great concession on the part of the Government, if he understood it rightly, he would not persist in his Motion.


said, he did not press for a division, but he wished to have a clear understanding on the subject. He did not so clearly apprehend what had been said by the noble Lord (Viscount Palmerston). Had the noble Lord in any way conceded the principle of the Motion, and would he allow greater advantages to the widows and orphans or representatives of officers who fell in action than they at present enjoyed?


said, that what he meant to have said was this: that he thought it would be right for a regulation to be made by which, as it was rightly stated by his hon. Friend (Mr. Headlam), it should be optional with the officer to determine in his lifetime whether, in the event of his falling in action, the family should receive the allowances or pensions, whatever they were, now given by the regulation; or whether, in lieu of that, they should receive the value of his Commission—that was, the regulation value of course, not the sum he might have actually invested in it.

Motion by leave withdrawn.

The House adjourned at half after Ten o'clock.