HC Deb 10 March 1857 vol 144 cc2126-36

MR. T. DUNCOMBE rose to call the attention of the House to the grievances complained of in the Petitions of the Non-Commissioned Officers and Drivers of the Land Transport Corps who served during the late war in the Crimea, and to move that such petitions be referred to a Select Committee. The hon. Member observed that he was not surprised that complaints of injustice were made by the army, when he remembered that, instead of placing our military forces under the authority of a military man of knowledge and experience in his profession, they were controlled by a civilian who owed his appointment merely to political influence. He thought it would be just as reasonable to expect a tailor to make a chronometer as it was to place a great army like that of this country under the superintendence of a civilian. The petitions to which he had referred stated that the Land Transport Corps was enlisted and sworn to serve for the term of ten years, but it was provided that the men might claim their discharge at the expiration of five years, or at the end of the war. The petitioners stated, however, that they and their comrades had been most arbitrarily dismissed, without receiving legal parchment discharges, to which every soldier was entitled on quitting the service; secondly, that there were arrears of pay still due to them; and, thirdly, that they had not been supplied with proper rations and clothing, in accordance with the terms of their enlistment. He (Mr. Duncombe) was happy to say that he was speaking in the presence of the gallant General (Sir William Codrington) who commanded in the Crimea, and who would be able to correct him if he made any inaccurate statements. The petitioners complained that, in consequence of not having received the regular and legal discharges, they were unable to obtain respectable employment, and as they had appealed in vain for redress to the War Department, they were compelled to submit their grievances to that House. They stated that on their discharge they only received the Queen's bounty of 20s., while the Foreign Legion and the Turkish Contingent had been treated with great liberality; but their principal claim was that they were entitled to parchment discharges, with a statement of character, and payment up to the time of such discharges. When the Department for War was created, the House was told that it would be a boon to the army and an advantage to the public. How, then, had they treated these poor men? The petitioners stated that they had in the first instance represented their grievances to the War Department, who referred the application to Colonel M'Murdo, the Director General of the Transport Corps in the Crimea. Colonel M'Murdo, on behalf of the War Department, sent a most extraordinary and amusing reply, which he (Mr. Duncombe) would read to the House. Colonel M'Murdo said:— Having had before me a letter, which has been forwarded to me for transmission to Lord Panmure, signed by certain non-commissioned officers, recently discharged from the Land Transport Corps, on the part of a body styling themselves the 'Central Committee,' I have given the three points of complaint therein contained my best consideration:— 1. The terms of enlistment into the Land Transport Corns were (as stated in the letter,—'Rations and clothing free.' If any man has been charged for his rations for a single day, let him inform me, and the error shall be instantly rectified; but no such claim has reached me. With regard to clothing, the men have a clear title to compensation, and they shall have it; it has never been denied to them. But will any reflecting man consider the circumstances under which this corps of 8,000 men were raised, organized, served in a war 3,000 miles from home, and were discharged again—all within fifteen months, and tell me whether it was within human possibility to prevent certain claims accruing on account of a want of supply of uniforms to some and arrears of pay to others? It should be recollected that, though the Land Transport Corps was raised in England, it was organized in the Crimea, in the midst of constant work in the presence of the enemy. The men were sent out 'in bulk,' as the merchants say, with one set of accounts for all, and they were no sooner landed than they were not only dispersed to battalions occupying—from Balaklava round by the camp of the 10th battalion to the 3rd division, and from that again to Kamara—about twenty-five square miles, but they were also sent away or detached to Kertch, Eupatoria, Sinope, Baltchick, Samsoon, Trebizond, Scutari, and Ismid; ay, a party of the corps have actually traversed Asia Minor from Samsoon on the Black Sea to Aleppo and Alexandretta on the Levant, which no other portion of a European army has done, I believe, since the days of Xenophon and his 10,000 Greeks. The first thing required was to get England's work done, and the next to re-arrange the accounts of the men thus of necessity dispersed. The non-commissioned officers and men of the Land Transport Corps have done the former right well; and their officers, who have also had their share of the work, are now assembled at Horfield, closely employed upon the last most important duty, and I call attention to the placard I have published on the subject. 2. With regard to the discharge certificates furnished to the non-commissioned officers and men of this corps, I have been informed that the document directed to be used on this occasion is termed a 'protecting certificate,' and is a valid document, and I have given orders that any man who desires to have a character from his former officer may have it recorded upon the back of this certificate. 3. A claim for three months' gratuity has already been made to me, and I forwarded it for the consideration of the Secretary for War, and I was informed in reply that Lord Panmure 'has already had before him the question of granting this indulgence to the Land Transport Artificers, and he decided, and is still of opinion, that no ground existed for so doing;' and I must say that I entirely concur in his Lordship's views of the case, although I did forward the application in behalf of the corps. No people know better than Englishmen the meaning and value of a bargain; and I only desire those men who have preferred this claim to read over the terms of their enlistment, and, if they there find any reference whatever to three months' gratuity on discharge, I will be content to forfeit my commission and become chairman of the 'Central Committee' myself. Men should not forget the parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard; those who have agreed for a penny have no right to seek more because others get it. The Turkish Contingent and the German Legion are irregular corps, and are doubtless made exceptional cases of on that account. But the Land Transport Corps is a part of Her Majesty's regular forces, and as such has to be dealt with by the same rules and regulations as are applied to other soldiers of Her army. Nothing has been done from that time to this. Colonel M'Murdo said these men had got a legal discharge; but what was the document they had received? It was an old recruiting paper, with certain words scratched out and others introduced, and it bore that the person holding it had been discharged at a certain date. Now, what were the Queen's orders and regulations respecting a discharge? No officer ought to be able to plead ignorance on this point, for one of the orders of the service was that every officer should provide himself with a copy of the regulations, and make himself acquainted with them; and before any officer embarked for foreign service he was to be required to produce his copy of those regulations. The rule of the service was that no soldier should be discharged without a court sitting on his case, and seeing that justice was done to him; and that every soldier, on being finally discharged, should be furnished with a parchment certificate according to the prescribed form. These men had not received this discharge, and the consequence was that nobody would employ them. They had tried to obtain admission into the City and Metropolitan Police, but were told they could not be taken upon the establishment, because, as they were without their proper legal discharge, they were liable to be called on for military service at any moment. The Chief Commissioner of the City Police told them the document they had was only waste paper; and they received a similar answer when they applied for employment on the railways. These men were walking our streets with good characters and with medals on their breasts, some of them having claims against the Government of £14 and £15 a-head. In the Crimea their conduct had been worthy of all praise, as the hon. and gallant Member for Greenwich (Sir William Codrington) could testify. He asked the Government if they were not entitled to their legal discharge. It was a disgrace to the country that the engagements entered into with these men had not been fulfilled; and if the House granted him a Select Committee he would prove that every sentence in this petition was correct. The hon. Gentleman then moved that the petition be referred to a Select Committee.


said, that no doubt the formation of the Land Transport Corps took place under circumstances of great difficulty. It was suddenly requisite to embody a large number of men for that peculiar service; and no doubt the men were regularly enlisted in England for a period of ten years. Many of them no doubt were good men, and many of them, on their arrival in the Crimea, were found to be very ignorant of their duties, and therefore some time was occupied with their organization and discipline. Still, as he understood it, there could be no doubt they were regularly enlisted for ten years, and were therefore entitled to a proper parchment discharge. Undoubtedly, also, as far as the amount of their pay was concerned, injustice had been done the men, unless some arrears had been kept back merely through a delay in making up the accounts. To many of the statements in Colonel M'Murdo's letter he fully subscribed. He did not think, for example, that the men were entitled to any gratuity on their discharge; nothing, at least, in the Mutiny Act justified it. But at the same time, the men having been sent out to the Crimea, and formed there in the midst of such difficulties, having become very efficient in their duties and regularly employed, he thought on their return to England they were entitled to arrears of pay and their discharge; and not only that, but also to fair consideration from the country on their reduction. He hoped, therefore, at all events, that means would be taken to ensure their prompt discharge, even if anything should stand in the way of a gratuity being granted them.


said, the Motion and speech of the hon. Member for Finsbury illustrated the difficulty in which Government was often placed in being called upon, on the one hand, to consult the feelings and expectations of men who had enlisted in a time of great emergency and who were afterwards disappointed because they had not realized all the hopes they entertained and all the advantages they expected from joining the service; and on the other hand not to pass by those considerations of economy which, when the emergency was over, were pressed on the Government, but to relieve themselves from those for whom they could no longer find employment. It was not true, as the hon. Member had stated, that the Land Transport Corps had, upon the average, claims against the Government amounting to £14 or £15 per man. Very few indeed had any claims at all against the Government.


I did not say one word about the average. What I said was, that many men were walking the streets with claims against the Government amounting, in some cases, to £14 or £15.


What had been stated by the hon. and gallant Member for Greenwich (Sir William Codrington) with regard to the difficulties under which the corps was raised was perfectly correct. The corps was raised at a time when every one attributed the miscarriages in the Crimea to the want of an organized transport service for the army. It was determined, therefore, to raise a special corps for that purpose. The men were hurriedly engaged, perhaps without that strictness. of scrutiny which would otherwise have been proper in regard to their fitness for the service, and as fast as they were raised they were sent to the Crimea. Upon the termination of the war they were brought home and reduced, as all the other portions of the army raised for special services were. He did not think, therefore, that the hon. Member, founding himself upon proceedings taken under such peculiar circumstances, was justified in making a general attack upon the War Department, and especially upon that able officer, Colonel M'Murdo, to whom the army in the Crimea was so much indebted for his exertions in bringing the Land Transport Corps into order. He was quite confident that whatever advice Colonel M'Murdo gave to the War Department was given by him with a single eye to the public service. Again, the hon. Member had stated that the men complained that they were harshly treated upon the termination of the war. It was undoubtedly true that their services were dispensed with as soon as the war terminated; but the same was the case with regard to many other portions of the army. If the Government were to study economy they could not keep men in their pay when they were unable to find employment for them, and that it was impossible to employ the Land Transport Corps in a time of peace was obvious from the fact that the corps which had succeeded the Land Transport was not one-eighth of its strength. The hon. Member had also referred to the mode in which the men were discharged, stating that they received protecting, instead of parchment certificates. The ordinary practice, when a soldier who had served for any length of time was discharged, was for a board of officers to inquire into and record his services, and thereupon to grant him a parchment certificate; but he contended it was perfectly competent to the Secretary of State to furnish a person who was discharged, and particularly when, as in the present case, his services had been of short duration, and a parchment certificate was not necessary for the receipt of a pension, a certificate of discharge in any form he might think proper. If what the hon. Member had stated was true, that some of the men in consequence of being granted protecting certificates only had been unable to obtain employment, all he could say was that they ought to have applied to the authorities at the Horse Guards or to the War Department to ascertain whether the quality of their certificates arose from any imputation upon their characters. Had they adopted that very obvious course he was sure that every difficulty would have been removed by a statement from the authorities that protecting certificates were in all respects equivalent to ordinary parchment certificates. What, however, was the fact? He had been informed by the Horse Guards that when an objection to protecting certificates was stated to exist they offered to grant to every man who chose to make application a parchment certificate. Their offer was accepted in some instances, but in others parchment certificates were refused, unless accompanied by a continuation of payment from the time when the protecting certificates were granted to the period when parchment certificates were substituted for them. Of course that demand could not be listened to; but he repeated there was no objection to the men receiving parchment in lieu of protecting certificates. The hon. Member had also stated that the men were dissatisfied because they were not granted a gratuity, and he had cited the Foreign Legion and Turkish Contingent as instances in which gratuities were given. But the hon. Member had overlooked the great difference which existed between these foreign levies and the Land Transport Corps. The latter body was part of the regular army, and was governed by the same regulations; whereas the Foreign Legion and Turkish Contingent were exceptional corps, raised for a special service, and it was competent to the Crown to enter into a special arrangement with them in regard to the advantages which they might receive upon their reduction. If the Government were to give gratuities to the Land Transport Corps upon their reduction, they ought in justice to grant a gratuity to every man connected with the army who had been discharged. The case of the Land Transport Corps, in respect to gratuities, was really the case of the army at large, and he entirely agreed with what the hon. and gallant Member for Greenwich had said upon this point. The hon. Member for Finsbury had stated, that he would press for the appointment of a Committee unless it could be shown that the claims of the men for arrears of pay for certain compensation due to them for clothing not issued, had been satisfactorily adjusted. It was quite true, owing to the hurried manner in which the corps was raised, that the men were not furnished with clothing at the moment of their enlistment, and undoubtedly, according to the usual practice, they were entitled to compensation. A great number of such claims did exist; but he had been assured by Colone M'Murdo that, with the exception of a very few cases, which were daily being adjusted, the whole of these claims had been settled. Although he thought that, considering the circumstances in which the House was placed, it would be inexpedient to appoint a Committee, yet he would offer no objection to the Motion of the hon. Member for Finsbury.


said, he quite agreed with the hon. Gentleman who had just sat down, that there were great and extraordinary difficulties in the way of a Government who wished to do justice to all parties, when surrounded by those circumstances referred to by the hon. Undersecretary for War. He knew an instance in his own neighbourhood in which those difficulties were made apparent when the Colchester huts were ordered to be erected for the soldiers. The Estimates for placing those huts in a complete state of efficiency amounted to £14,000. But from the pressure of the peace-at-any-price party and other extreme economists in that House, those Estimates were reduced from £14,000 to £2,000. The result of this reduction was, that only a small number of soldiers could be housed. Some of them who wore medals and clasps upon their breasts for distinguished services in the Crimea were punished in a shameful manner for the most trifling offences. They were to be seen marched through the streets of Colchester as felons, without their muskets, with two men before and two behind them guarding them. The accused soldiers were then placed in gaol, with their faces turned to the wall, and treated precisely like common felons. He had witnessed himself those disgraceful proceedings. He hoped after the next general election the noble Lord at the head of the Government would not find himself so impeded in his efforts to do justice to such corps as that in the Land Transport service, or to the other important departments of the country. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for the University of Oxford was making great efforts to assimilate the present Budget to that of 1853, although the circumstances of the country were as different as it was possible. The right hon. Gentleman might as well take the Budget of 1792 as his model. He trusted that the House would scout such miserable economy. He, perhaps, might be addressing the House that night for the last time; but before he sat down he must express his belief that the late Government had addressed a letter to Lord Raglan in the Crimea, telling him of the pressing necessity of his observance of the strictest economy. He knew of many miserable examples of that system of economy being pushed to a most disgraceful extent. For example, when our army was at Varna there were some excellent coffee-mills offered for the use of the service. Although they could have been purchased for a small amount of money, our Commissariat declined them. The French, however, immediately bought them up, and our soldiers were obliged to content themselves with green coffee and black bread. He hoped that the Government would never consent to cut down the military establishments.


said, that the hon. Under Secretary for War had in, the first place denied the existence of the grievances alleged by the hon. Member for Finsbury, and in the next place he denied the remedy that was proposed. He (Sir J. Fergusson) concluded that no man who entered the service during the war for the benefit of his country ought to be allowed to suffer on the return of peace. It now appeared that there were a number of men who had rendered good service in the Land Transport Corps walking the streets without that discharge which they had a right to receive. They had suffered much from the injustice of the Government; their grievances should be redressed by the House. A comparison had been made between the treatment experienced by this corps and the Foreign Legions. He thought it very likely that a different means must be adopted to get rid of the latter men when the war ceased, and the hon. Under Secretary for War had given reasons why it was necessary that the German and Turkish levies were entitled to more favourable terms on being disbanded than were the Land Transport Corps. He, however, submitted that the treatment given to the foreign soldiers should not be such as to contrast more favourably with that given to the regular army. When the Government granted tracts of land in our colonies to the German Legion, and granted them a free passage out, our own soldiers should not be sent begging about the streets. The hon. Under Secretary had never given any satisfactory answer to the inquiries respecting the intentions of the Government towards the officers of the Land Transport service. He insisted that those officers were entitled to the same treatment as the officers of our regular army. Good faith had not been kept with them. The gallant General opposite paid a high compliment to them. Those officers had a most difficult duty to fulfil, and they had discharged that duty most creditably to themselves as well as to their country. It was stated at the establishment of the corps that it was to be permanent, and in consequence many gentlemen who held commissions in the regular army were induced to join it. Now, however, because they had served in it a few months less than the three years which gave title to a pension, they were informed they had no right to full half-pay. He would certainly support the Motion of the hon. Gentleman, and when the Committee was appointed he would do his best to urge upon them the claims of those men.


in reply, said, that he would accept the offer of the hon. Under Secretary; but he would altogether eschew his law as to the discharging of those men. Now, he did not think that the Secretary of State at his discretion could alter the Articles of War, as the hon. Gentleman seemed to think. He never said that the claims of those men upon the Government averaged £14 a man. What he had said was, that there were several men begging about the streets who had claims of £13 or £14 against the Government, who had frequently applied to the Horse Guards in respect of them, but who could obtain no redress. Neither had he stated that those men were entitled to gratuities; but he had stated that the men complained that they had not been treated with the same consideration as the German Legion, the men of which, when the corps was disbanded, each received £22 and an acre of ground at the Cape of Good Hope, together with a free passage. Now, why should our own soldiers be driven to beggary while those foreigners were so well treated by the Government? These Foreign Legions had never served in the Crimea at all, while the Land Transport Corps had seen hard service. Out of 2,100 of the first levy for the Land Transport service, only about 600 and odd men returned home from the Crimea. About 1,400 never left that soil, being buried beneath it, and the survivors were turned by the Government penniless and homeless into our streets.

Motion agreed to.

Petitions referred to a Select Committee.