HC Deb 17 February 1860 vol 156 cc1263-6

said, he rose, pursuant to notice, to call the attention of the House to the use which soldiers off duty are in the habit of making of their belts and buckles, which has been found by experience to be injurious to the safety of the public; and to ask the Secretary of State for War, Whether it is essential to any Military duty that soldiers off duty should wear equipments which are only necessary to support side-arms, the wearing of which has been long dispensed with on such occasions; and whether, therefore, the consideration of the public safety may not, in the absence of any military necessity, reasonably induce the military authorities to discontinue the practice of allowing soldiers to wear such belts and buckles when off duty; and to move an Address for Copy of any Correspondence or Return that may have occurred between the Police and the Military authorities on the use which soldiers off duty are in the habit of making of their belts and buckles? He wished to express a hope that this matter would receive the attention of the Government. Soldiers were pre-eminently the creatures of impulse, and the slightest relaxation of the rules of the service was injurious at all times. They ought in that respect to be treated as children, and be prevented from doing harm. One of the chief difficulties which the great Duke experienced was to restrain his troops from plundering, marauding, and excesses of that character. Like too many others of their countrymen, their predominent idea of recreation was getting drunk in low public-houses, and when intoxicated they were often led into acts of violence towards that community whom it was their special business to protect. The way in which they sometimes used their belts upon unoffending civilians had called forth the animadversion of the metropolitan police magistrates. It had been said, indeed, in answer to such complaints, that accidents would happen even in the best-regulated families, and that there was no reason why soldiers when off duty should not be allowed to wear these ornaments. If, however, they were to be indulged in such amusements with their heavy buckles and belts—in the use of which, by the way, practice was making them far too perfect—the same logic would require the authorities to restore them their side-arms, which had been taken from them on account of the dangerous nature of the diversions in which they had been employed. Indeed, the tunic belt was fast becoming a formidable substitute for the side-arm; and a severe blow could easily be dealt with that weapon by an expert hand which it would be extremely difficult to parry. It had from this reason the effect of intimidating the police, and thus was a serious injury to the public peace. In a case recently tried at Westminster Sessions, Mr. Bodkin, the assistant Judge, had remarked that soldiers' belts were weapons of a very dangerous description, and sentenced the offenders to a long term of imprisonment. In the neighbourhood of the Tower these outrages were less frequent, and the reason appeared to be that the soldiers, when they got leave from the Tower Barracks, betook themselves to the West-end, to the purlieus of St. Giles's or Westminster. It was remarkable that the soldiers of the Life Guards or the Blues were never found amongst those offenders —they were entirely confined to the Foot Guards. A writer in the newspapers, who signed himself "Old Practical," recommended that every man guilty of such an offence should be handed over to the tender mercies of his comrades, and made to run the gauntlet of their buckles. But why had the military authorities themselves hitherto shown no disposition to put down the practice? Recently, a sergeant had told a magistrate that a man who had been guilty of an outrage of this kind would be deprived of his belt for a year. Very well; but did not that show that the man would be just as well, when off duty, without his belt? If this matter were to be left entirely to the discretion of the officers, why not exempt the soldiers from responsibility to the civil law in every other respect, and allow them to conduct themselves in the streets as they thought proper. He imputed no blame to the military authorities, but brought forward the subject in the hope that effective measures might be taken for the prevention of an evil which prevailed to a considerable extent.


said, he could not but express regret at the number of cases which had occurred of soldiers assaulting people with their belts. It was a great distress and disgrace, however, to a well-conducted soldier to be deprived of his belt; and he thought that the remarks of the public press upon this subject, coupled with the efforts of the officers would have the effect of preventing the recurrence of the outrages complained of. When they considered the number of the Guards quartered in the metropolis, and the small number of the offences charged, he thought it would be a hard thing to punish the many by discontinuing the permission to wear their belts and buckles off duty. He felt sure that if the matter was left in the hands of the Commander-in-Chief and the officers of the Guards, there would be very little occasion for the repetition of severe remarks.


observed, that in his opinion these offences were by no means more numerous among the Guards than among the men of other regiments. The reason why so much was said about the misdeeds of the Guards was that in the metropolis when one of them went out at night, got drunk, and did any mischief, he was brought up before the magistrates the next morning, and the whole story appeared in The Times. People read it and talked about it, and so the Guards got a bad name, whereas in a garrison town similar escapades might happen and never be heard anything of. It was hardly fair to represent the Guards as the black sheep of the service, for the truth was these assaults happened just as often in provincial towns as in the metropolis. He thought it would be going too far to take away the belts of the whole army because a few soldiers had misconducted themselves; and, besides, if that were done, a commanding officer would lose that means of punishing a man. At present if a man misconducted himself his belt was taken away, which was a marked punishment, and he should like to hear what better punishment could be substituted. There were more than 6,000 of the Guards, and the number of offences which had been complained of among them during the last two years had not reached thirty. The highest number in any battalion being sixteen only in a year, while in the others the numbers were as low as five, six, four, and three per annum, and in one none at all.