HC Deb 12 March 1857 vol 144 cc2246-9

SIR JAMES FERGUSSON rose, to call the attention of the House to the position of the non-commissioned officers who had received commissions in the army during the late war. But as the Session was so near its conclusion, he should not go into this question so fully as he had intended to do. He would only state the facts, and he trusted that before Parliament met again some steps would be taken to remedy the grievances to which he was about to call attention. Some time ago a Resolution had been adopted that considerations of merit should influence promotions more than had hitherto been the case. But, when promotions were given to non-commissioned officers, their position was widely different from that of officers who had purchased their commissions. When, therefore, during the late war, commissions were first offered to noncommissioned officers of regiments serving at the seat of war, great difficulty was experienced in finding men who would accept them, and in the battalion with which he (Sir J. Fergusson) served, one commission was offered to and refused by eight noncommissioned officers. As the war went on, and many of the men who had received commissions rose in their regiments and obtained adjutancies and quartermaster-ships, this difficulty diminished, and many non-commissioned officers accepted commissions in different regiments; the temptation being, that in the case of death on service, the widows of commissioned officers received pensions, which the widows of non-commissioned officers did not; and moreover, the larger allowances during war enabled the promoted men to provide better for their families. The greatest benefit had accrued to the service by non-commissioned officers accepting commissions, because, where a regiment had lost a large number of its officers and men, and had to be filled up by recruits, it was important to have experienced men to lead it in the field. But when peace was restored, these men were left in a worse position than the one they had occupied as non-commissioned officers, for they then lost their field allowances, and the officers returned to their more expensive style of living in barracks on home service. Thus, men who had been accustomed to frugal habits, and to have their rations supplied them at a very moderate rate by the Government, found themselves obliged to live on the same scale as officers who entered the service with large private fortunes. Moreover, the soldiers who had been promoted from the ranks had often families to support, which was seldom the case with the junior officers having private means; and the consequence was, that the former had to struggle with poverty to maintain themselves as gentlemen. Promotion from the ranks had hitherto been so rare that no provision had been made for the contingency which had arisen of so many officers being in this situation. There was a great difference between the pay of non-commissioned officers and that of the junior officers to whom he had referred. A sergeant's clothing was given to him, and the whole cost of a non-commissioned officer's rations was 6s. 6d. per week, while his pay was 14s. 7d.; consequently, he had more than 8s. left to spend upon his family, or to place in the savings' bank; and the accounts of the regimental savings' banks showed how largely the non-commissioned officers availed themselves of the facilities thus afforded them for saving. On the other hand, an ensign's pay at 5s. a day was £1 15s. per week, from which had to be deducted, at the lowest computation, 4s. a day for mess expenses, leaving him only 7s. with which to provide himself with clothing, pay a servant, and defray every subscription which he was compelled to make to his regiment. A further heavy expense to which these officers, if married, were put, was the cost of removing their wives and families when their regiments were ordered to the colonies, or only from one home station to another. How, then, was it possible for a non-commissioned officer who had received promotion, even with the savings he had accumulated while in the ranks, to lay by any money, or even to maintain his family in decency, with his present rate of pay? Nobody had shown a greater interest in this class of officers than the distinguished individual now at the head of the Horse Guards, and who had rescued deserving officers from want by procuring them the means of support as adjutants or quartermasters of militia regiments. In one case a sergeant-major, who gained golden opinions while in the ranks, was promoted to an adjutancy in a regiment which was greatly reduced by the war, and afterwards filled up by recruits from home, and which he disciplined and brought to as high a state of efficiency as it originally displayed. This officer, however, from the difficulties just pointed out, being unable to remove his family to our Eastern empire, whither his regiment had been ordered, was obliged to quit the service and sacrifice all his prospects of further distinction. Luckily this man was provided for by his Royal Highness in the way above described; but the country, after inducing a man to accept a commission, and benefiting by his services, ought not to leave him in want. The remedy he would suggest was, that nobody should be promoted from the ranks except those whom long and meritorious services had entitled to high reward. Commissions ought to have attached to them the means of maintaining the position they conferred; and being given in exceptional cases, and not for mere distinguished service and gallantry—which might be the act of a moment—care should be taken that those obtaining them were not losers by their promotion. The rule should be adopted which applied to other services, where men raised from the ranks received good-service pensions; and it was astonishing how little would be sufficient—say £50 a year—to enable a man to sustain his higher rank without suffering materially by it. Promotion from the ranks of the army at present entirely failed in its object. Those who had gained it were allowed at the close of the war to sell their commissions. To an ensign, however, this only produced £450, which would not place the recipient in as good a position as a non-commissioned officer retiring after twenty-one years' service. The latter was entitled to 2s. 6d. a day pension, with 1s. more, by regimental regulation, if he was in the Guards; whereas, all that the price of an ensign's commission would yield if invested was only £18 per annum. Having himself served several years in the army, and known many officers to be promoted from the ranks who were excellent and useful men in their regiments, and men deserving of all the rewards that had been bestowed upon them, he could not help bringing this subject forward before the present Parliament expired, feeling strongly that, however desirable it might be to reduce the expense of the army in time of peace, the very last way in which they should practise economy was by cutting down the hardly-earned recompense of those who had struggled through a long period of meritorious service to the envied position of a commission in Her Majesty's service.