HC Deb 18 May 1857 vol 145 cc412-4

Reports of election speeches in the newspapers ought perhaps, Sir, to be passed over as likely to be frequently incorrect, and, as the hon. Member has denied the charge that he ever said anything calculated to engender ill-feeling between the officers and men of our army, of course we are bound to believe in the honesty and truth of that statement. The superior officers of that army can, in my opinion, stand upon their own merits, and need, I think, no defence in this House from any individual. I wish, however, to take advantage of this opportunity to refer to a very serious report of an anonymous nature contained in a letter to the same paper, purporting to come from a "Staff Officer" and tending to affect most materially the character of a gallant general who was a short time since sent out to China with a high command—I allude to General Ashburnham. I hope that among the qualifications for the position of a staff officer discretion will for the future occupy a prominent place, because not only from one, but from many publications which I have seen lately it is easy to perceive that this quality even of the most moderate order, has not always been exhibited. Now, the report to which I refer, has evidently emanated from a staff officer on full pay who was engaged in the operations at the Sutlej, and bears the stamp of authenticity from the number of facts which it states. It, of course, was published throughout England—I may say, throughout the world. And thus General Ashburnham, who had started upon his expedition, is, a week after he has left this country, made the subject of, and when he reaches his destination will find himself followed by, remarks affecting not only his public conduct as a general, but his private character as a courageous officer. I shall, however, take the liberty of reading to the House a letter which was written by an eye-witness—which the author of the report was not—of that which occurred upon the morning of the night which the "staff officer" describes. The writer of the letter was an officer of the 62nd Regiment, which was employed in assaulting the lines of Sobraon upon the morning to which I allude. The name of the officer I shall mention, if any hon. Member wishes to know it. His letter is as follows:— Winchester, May 4. You have seen the attack on General Ashburnham. Well, with a soldier that part of it about taking the outpost is easily disposed of. General Ashburnham had received his orders from the Commander in Chief, and obeyed them in preference to the suggestions of two junior officers, who must have had no small share of impudence to go to him with their opinion after being told he had received his orders and intended to obey them. Now, I will state on my honour what I saw of General Ashburnham on the day of Sobraon. He commanded the Queen's 9th and 62nd as also a native corps. After the flank companies of the 62nd had got into the outpost, which they were ordered to take, the remainder of the regiment was ordered to remain about 200 yards in rear for the protection of some artillery, General Ashburnham then left the regiment, and went to the 9th Regiment and the native corps—48th Bengal, I believe—some 300 yards in our left rear. The 62nd were in a nullah, which ran nearly perpendicular to the batteries, but it afforded some cover, and it was taken advantage of. There the regiment remained nearly two hours, losing some fourteen men from round shot. General Asburnham was with the largest part of his brigade. We received an order to join him, which we did as quickly as we could, and found him forming line. When all were in line—three regiments and a company of native rifles—the brigade advanced, and as we approached the batteries, which were being well served and blew up one of our tumbrils, General Ashburnham rode out in front about thirty paces with his sword pointing upwards at arm's length, and could be, and was, seen by all the brigade. In this way he led us to the battery, on arriving at which he tried to leap his horse through one of the embrasures, but the horse failed. He then turned his head, tried again, and went in. We found him between us and the enemy, and he continued to keep in front, nearly looking into the muzzles of the enemy's muskets. How he escaped being hit is a marvel to me to this day. He was, I believe, at least he was the only mounted officer of his brigade who rode into the intrenchments, all this time under a most destructive fire. A more gallant deed or one showing more determination or coolness I never saw; and this was seen by both officers and men of the 62nd Regiment, and was the admiration of all, from the late Lieutenant-Colonel Shortt, who commanded the regiment that day, down to the private. One soldier rushed to the front to the brigadier and kept at his stirrup all the time. When General Ashburnham was forming his brigade a staff officer did ride up and tell him to advance; indeed, the brigade was advancing at the time. General Ashburnham could never find out who the man was or who had sent him, although he tried to do so. I enclose a rough copy of a conversation that took place after the battle. I was present and heard it, as was the writer. Now, Sir, that is the statement of an officer who, as well as the rest of his regiment, was an eye-witness of all that took place on the occasion in question. I shall also take the liberty of reading to the House another letter, containing the substance of some remarks which the writer had heard fall from Lieutenant Colonel W. T. Shortt in the course of a conversation in the camp of the 62nd Regiment on the night of the day of Sobraon. I, with some other officers, heard the late Lieutenant Colonel W. T. Shortt, 62nd Regiment, thus, word for word, express himself:—'I always had the highest opinion of Ashburnham; but, if it be possible, my admiration of him is much increased by what I saw him do to-day. He rode in front of the brigade in the advance up to the enemy's battery, and in the teeth of a most destructive fire, and endeavoured to jump his horse through one of the embrasures. Finding, however, owing to its steepness, that he was unable to effect his object, he coolly turned his horse's head and rode parallel to the battery for a considerable distance, until, finding an embrasure more suited to his purpose, he spurred his horse, and in an instant was among the enemy on the opposite side, followed by us. A more gallant deed, and one exhibiting more coolness, I never witnessed. I have to apologise to the House for having trespassed so long upon its time, but I thought it right to offer to it this defence of a brother officer who has been attacked—but let it be remembered attacked only anonymously—in a newspaper.

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