HC Deb 03 March 1864 vol 173 cc1370-6

Perhaps the hon. Member opposite (Mr. H. Baillie) will allow me to appeal to him to postpone the statement of his views upon the reduction of our military establishments. Would it not be more convenient to the House, and equally conducive to the object he has in view, if he were to reserve his remarks and arguments until my noble Friend (the Marquess of Hartington) has moved the first Resolution, with regard to the number of men. I do not say there is any irregularity in the course which the hon. Member proposes, but I think the other course the more convenient.


I regret that I cannot accept the proposal of the noble Lord, because it would confine the discussion within very narrow limits. I feel it necessary to proceed before going into Committee. I regret to find that it is the intention of Her Majesty's Ministers to make a reduction in the army. It is true that the proposed reduction is not on a large scale; but such as it is I object to it under existing circumstances, on two grounds—first of all, because I believe I shall be able to show the House that the army of this country at the present time is not sufficiently large to provide adequately for the duty that is required, and because I think it is both cruel and unjust to sacrifice the health and the lives of British soldiers in order to save the money of the State; and secondly, I object to this reduction of the military force of the country because, under existing circumstances, and in the present state of the foreign relations of the country, I believe the reduction to be ill-timed. As to the first proposition, the House is probably aware that more than two-thirds of the army of this country is at the present time serving in India and in the colonies— in climates for the most part tropical, injurious to health, and fatal to European life. It was under these circumstances that, some years ago, very strong remonstrances were made to Her Majesty's Government, from the highest military authorities in the country, against the practice which at that time prevailed of leaving Her Majesty's regiments for indefinite periods in India. It was stated, that the practice was not only injurious to health and destructive to human life, but fatal to the discipline of the army. At that time, it was the common practice to leave regiments in India for twenty-five years, and hon. Members will easily understand that the officers of those regiments must have become unfit for any other service. It was under these circumstances that Her Majesty's Government took the whole of the circumstances into consideration. I think Mr. Sidney Herbert was Secretary at War at that time, and after full deliberation it was decided that Her Majesty's regiments for the future should not be compelled to serve for a longer period than ten years consecutively either in India or the colonies. Now I think it will be admitted by the House, that ten years consecutive service in a tropical climate is quite long enough, more especially when I state to the House what is the ordinary result of that service. There are few hon. Members in the House who would suppose, or who would be prepared to realize the fact, that when one of Her Majesty's regiments is ordered to India, practically speaking, so far as the private soldiers are concerned, it is a doomed regiment. Now let me explain, Let us suppose that a battalion of 1,000 men is ordered to India; they will be all young men, selected for the purpose, and in perfect health. What would be the condition of that battalion at the expiration of their ten years' service in India? We have lately had presented to us a most valuable Report—the Report of a Royal Commission appointed to inquire into the sanitary state of the army in India. That Commission instituted an inquiry extending from the beginning of the present century down to the present time, and from the Report of that Commission we are enabled to ascertain what is the average rate of mortality of European troops serving in India. It is stated in that Report that the deaths in the European troops of the East India Company for the series of years commencing with the present century and coming down to the year 1857, amounted to 69 per 1,000 per annum, or a fraction less than 7 per cent. Now let us apply that calculation to the battalion to which I have referred, and see what is the result. At the expiration of ten years' service that battalion will have lost, by deaths, 690 men. There will then remain 310 to be accounted for. But a great proportion of these have been invalided and sent home; so that, practically speaking, a battalion would be annihilated in ten years. But the Commissioners give us another calculation, which is, I think, still more unfavourable to the soldier. They tell us that an annuity upon the life of a soldier in India at the age of twenty—and that is the most favourable age for them—is worth twelve years' purchase, or ten years' less than an average annuity on that age at home; so that, according to that calculation, the whole battalion would be extinct in twelve years. The House will of course understand that there are stations in India where the mortality is not so great; but there are others where it is still greater. At Peshawur, for example, where we have a very large garrison, and which I believe to be a regular pest-house, the mortality is far greater. The calculation to which I have referred takes the average—the only way in which such a calculation can be fairly made. Now, under these circumstances, I think the House will admit, that the regulation proposed by the Government, confining the period of service of British soldiers to ten years in those tropical climates, was wise, just, and humane, and ought to be maintained and enforced by Parliament. Well now, Sir, having made that preliminary statement, I will go to the facts of the case. I am prepared to show and to prove beyond the possibility of a doubt, that the army which we have in this country at the present time is not sufficiently large to furnish the ordinary relief to the troops that are serving abroad that is to say, if the period of service is to be confined to ten years, allowing the troops that return home five years to remain at home. That is the shortest period which could be allowed them. Now, this is a proposition very easily proved. We have only to ascertain what is the number of battalions serving abroad with the number serving at home, and the calculation is very easily made. First, then, let us see what is the number of battalions that are serving abroad at the present time. In this calculation I do not mean to include either the cavalry or artillery; for, although the same rule applies to all services, the calculation is more easily made by battalions. Of course, I do not mean to include local battalions, such as the four West India regiments, the Canadian Rifles, the Ceylon Rifles, and the Cape Rifles. Excluding all these, I find that there are serving abroad at the present time—that is, on the 1st of January last— 107 battalions. Now, the question is, what is the amount of force requisite to be maintained at home in order to give relief to those 107 battalions once in ten years, allowing the regiments that come home five years to remain at home. The number required for that purpose would be fifty-three battalions. That is the smallest number with which relief could be regularly made. And now let me tell the House what is the actual amount of force we have in the country in order to perform that duty. It amounts to thirty-three battalions:—so that we have actually twenty battalions less than the force absolutely required in order to carry out the ordinary relief of the service. Now that is a very serious matter, because it involves the lives of the men and the discipline of the army; and I say that it is a very discreditable state of things for the House of Commons. If the House of Commons thinks proper not to vote so great a number of men, if they think that the force we have in India is too great, let that force be reduced. If they think the number of battalions we have in our Colonies too great, let some of them be recalled. If they are of the opinion of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Staffordshire (Mr. Adderley), that the Colonies should defend themselves, well and good — recall those troops from the Colonies that are capable of self-defence. This may be good or bad policy, wise or unwise; at all events, it would be logical. But what I complain of is, that the House of Commons should deliberately permit any Government to sacrifice the health and the lives of British soldiers for the purpose of gaining a little temporary popularity in this House by reducing the army below that standard which the requirements and interest of the public service absolutely demands. This is a very important question, and I trust we shall have a clear explanation of the subject from the Government.

Now I have stated my first objection to a reduction in the army, and the House will observe that I have based it solely on what I believe to be the interest of the British soldier. I will now proceed to advert to what I believe to be the interest of the public. I think, Sir, the House cannot have failed to perceive—indeed, I am sure many hon. Members are painfully conscious—that the influence and control of this country over the affairs of the world have of late years sensibly diminished. It is true that England still occupies a position as one of the five great Powers of Europe; but the voice of England no longer exercises that power and that control over events which she formerly exercised. To what is this to be attributed? I regret to say that a very general opinion, a very general feeling prevails in every country in Europe, and also in America, that the people of this country, having by their trade and commerce acquired great wealth, are now much more anxious and careful to preserve their money than to maintain the honour of their country. This is an opinion which prevails in every country in Europe. We are spoken of in the most degrading terms even in those countries which are naturally the most friendly to us. Austria is, perhaps, one of those countries most friendly to England, and is the natural ally of England, and this is the opinion we find expressed in the public papers there on the policy and conduct of England. These papers say the foreign policy of England is ambiguous, faithless, pitiful, abominable, and unspeakably cowardly. Now we shall not find the French papers more complaisant; but the Americans are, of course, the worst of all. Now I will not stop to inquire whether these opinions are well or ill-founded. All I maintain is that they exist; and it is to this cause that we must attribute the humiliation of our Foreign Minister—his failure in all his diplomatic negotiations with foreign Powers. we have seen Earl Russell humiliated by being compelled to withdraw a despatch which he had addressed to a great Power, and which he had communicated to all the other Powers of Europe, because he was told by the Prussian Minister that it would lead to war. We have seen Lord Russell fail in his negotiations with Russia on behalf of the Poles, because he declared that under no circumstances would England go to war. We have seen Lord Russell fail in his negotiations with the German Powers on behalf of Denmark—and it was only natural that he should fail, because at the very time Lord Russell was using high language and reminding the German Powers that England was bound to maintain the integrity of Denmark, those Powers knew very well that the Ministry had decided that under no circumstances would they go to war. Now this is a mode of diplomacy which must inevitably fail. I do not say that England ought to go to war, but I say that if England interferes she ought to be prepared for that event. I believe Her Majesty's Government call this "exercising the moral influence of England." Why, the moral influence of England is a myth. I should call it attempting to trade on the past reputation of the country; but forgetting that from their hands that reputation had passed. Now, Sir, we see a different mode of diplomacy prevailing on the other side of the Atlantic. There we find that when Mr. Seward has an important demand to make on our Foreign Office he invariably backs that demand with the intimation that the people of America have grown warlike —that they are ready and willing, and even anxious to go to war with England—that he has a great difficulty in restraining them; and it is wonderful to see the "moral influence" that diplomacy produces at our Foreign Office, and the humility with which it is received. Now, Sir, such being the state of our foreign relations, men are naturally curious to know why the Government should have seized this opportunity to make reductions in the army. I am aware that by the forms of this House we are enabled to reduce, but that we cannot increase the Estimates submitted by Ministers. We are therefore, to a certain extent, at the mercy of the Government, and we must submit to any humiliation which their policy may entail. But we are not altogether without light upon the motive power which influences the Government, because by the revelations, or rather, I should say, that ingenuous confession made by the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade to his constituents, we learn that there is scarcely one great public question upon which the present Cabinet are united in opinion. It is then, with such a Cabinet, and backed by a bare majority of this House, that the noble Lord the First Minister of the Crown has to deal. We cannot be surprised, under these circumstances, that he should be compelled to yield—to make concessions even to the smallest sections of his political supporters. That is, I believe, the real solution both of the foreign policy of the Government and of this reduction in the military force of the country. It is, no doubt, a great misfortune, which I sincerely trust the noble and confiding people of England may not hereafter have just reason to complain of. Sir, I felt it my duty to make these observations, in order to raise my protest against the Estimates that are about to be submitted to the House.