HC Deb 08 June 1880 vol 252 cc1459-72

rose to call attention to the hardship experienced by those officers who were obliged by the Regulations of the Army to pay certain named sums for the purchase of their commissions, and who, while they are now forced, or liable to be forced into retirement under the Warrant of the 13th August 1877, are not permitted to bequeath to their widow, children, or others, the amount which in strict accordance with the Queen's Regulations they have actually so expended; and to move— That it is expedient that the Secretary of State for War should consider whether the amount of the regulation value of an Officer's Commission might not be paid by the Treasury within six months of his decease, to his executors, or, in case of his dying intestate, to his administrators. The noble Earl apologized to hon. Members who were directly connected with the Army, and who were better qualified to speak on the subject than he, for initiating the discussion; but he felt bound to ventilate this grievance from a strong sense of the necessity for some alteration in the existing state of things. He approached the present Government on the subject with a considerable degree of confidence; because, in addressing themselves to the evil of which he complained, they would not be suspected of favouring a retrogade policy or of desiring to reverse Lord Cardwell's system, which, for his own part, he might say he had always regarded as unfortunate. That system led to hardships such as he had mentioned in the Notice of his Motion, and also to stagnation in promotion, which was a discouragement to officers; and these results had no compensatory advantage, so far as he could ascertain. He disclaimed, however, any intention of bringing forward a general indictment against the abolition of purchase, for that abolition had long been accepted by Parliament as an accomplished fact. What he wished to call attention to was merely a point of detail, the hardship connected with which he did not apprehend anyone would deny. Under the existing Regulations a commissioned officer who had entered the Army under the old purchase system received on his retirement the value of his commission; but if such officer happened to be killed in action, or to succumb to disease while on active service, his widow, children, or other relatives were unable to reap any benefit from his commission at all. In illustration of this hardship, the noble Earl cited three cases which had arisen out of the recent African campaign, in which the wives or mothers of the unfortunate officers were the sufferers. A Return issued this morning, which had been laid on the Table of the House, gave the estimated value of the commissions of officers who had been killed in action in South Africa and Afghanistan, and the sums they would have received from the Army Purchase Commissioners in case they had sold their commissions. If the proposal he was now submitting to the consideration of the House were adopted, the representatives of the first officer whom he had referred to would receive £1,800, those of the second officer £885, and those of the third officer £700. The total amount lost to the country had the Government been willing to return to the relatives of officers killed in these two campaigns would have been £31,587. He could not think that the House would grudge such a sum for the relief of the relatives of deserving officers. He regretted that the question could not be brought forward as it had been last year, by General Shute, who would so well have done it justice, owing to his having no longer a seat in the House. He trusted the Government would accede to the proposal he was about to make; but, in the event of their not doing so, he intended, if the House should give him any support, to take the test of a division. The noble Earl concluded by moving his Resolution.


in seconding the Motion, said, the grievance they had to complain of was a remnant of the old system of purchase, and one of the side issues which arose out of its abolition. They had a special claim on the present Government in this matter because they were the Government who abolished Army purchase. Although the question was in some respects a very small one, yet its effects on the feelings of those concerned, and through them on the sympathies of a large section of the community, would be very considerable. The stereotyped answer always given to those who urged the case of the officers which was brought forward in the last Parliament by General Shute was that the late Government had nothing to do with the matter, as it was a legacy bequeathed to them by their Predecessors. As, however, a change in the administration of affairs had recently occurred, there would be an appropriateness in the present Government dealing with the subject in the way indicated by the noble Earl opposite. He could not go the full length of the Motion, because he did not think it right to allow the representatives of a deceased officer to get the full regulation price of his commission in every case. He would restrict the claim, as he believed General Shute proposed to do, to cases where an officer had lost his life in the field, or through sickness arising out of exposure in the field. It had always been urged that a purchase officer had no real grievance, because his present position was, in all respects, the same as it was before the abolition of purchase. In one sense this statement might be true; but, at the same time, it contained a grievous fallacy. The abolition of purchase was, in his opinion, wisely decreed for purposes connected with the benefit of the State; but it could not be said that the surviving officers of the old system now occupied, either actually or relatively, the position they held before the abolition of purchase. In the days when officers, by the investment of large sums of money, reached the higher ranks of the Army more rapidly than their poorer comrades, there was no hardship in their losing, by their death in the field, the whole of the money they had so invested; but the case was now altered, inasmuch as they had to serve side by side with non-purchase officers, who were free from the disabilities occasioned by the old regulations. A Return issued only that morning illustrated most fully the hardship that officers suffered under. That document referred to the campaigns in Afghanistan and Zululand, and they found that the 10 officers who were slain in Afghanistan forfeited by their deaths £7,475 to the State, and the 19 officers who fell in Zululand, after displaying instances of gallantry and devotion to their Queen and country which had not been surpassed in the military history of Great Britain, had been fined in the persons of their representatives £24,000. He was sure that if the facts of the case were put into the possession of the Members of this House the Resolution of his noble Friend opposite would be carried by their almost unanimous vote. It had been said that no foreign nation would have believed it possible that such an anomaly could have existed as our system of purchase; but, at any rate, no one connected with a Continental Army could fail to be surprised to learn that this rich country still remained in the invidious position of being a gainer by the deaths of its officers in the field. It was an unworthy and degrading position for a rich and powerful country to be in. He looked forward with satisfaction to the reforms to be initiated by the new Secretary of State for War; and hoped that, amongst those the right hon. Gentleman might make, he would concede the boon for which the noble Earl had asked.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That it is expedient that the Secretary of State for War should consider whether the amount of the regulation value of an Officer's Commission might not be paid by the Treasury with in six months of his decease, to his executors, or, in case of his dying intestate, to his administrators."—(Earl Percy.)


compared the recent Warrant overriding pensions with that in force before the abolition of purchase, and remarked that, on the whole, the pensions now given were greater than was the case formerly. In old days an ordinary widow's pension was £50 a-year, and the widow of an officer killed in action received £70; but now the latter pension had been increased by £ 10, and was receivable by the widows not only of officers actually killed in action, but also of those who died of their wounds within six months; while the widows of those who contracted a fatal illness in the field received £65 annually. Then there was an allowance to officers' children, and that still remained the same. Therefore it would be seen that there was a slight improvement. There was a form which every widow was required to fill up, showing her means, in order to enable the Commander-in-Chief to determine whether he could recommend her to the Queen as a fit object to receive a pension. It seemed that a General's widow could not claim if she had over £700 a-year, nor a Lieutenant's if she had over £300 a-year. However, although officers were treated more liberally in the matter of pensions, it was clear that their general position had become less satisfactory since the abolition of purchase. He hoped the question would not be looked at from a purely financial point of view, but rather from the point of view as to whether it was within or beneath the dignity of a country like England to have an interest in the blood of her gallant officers. The time had now come when the Secretary of State for War would be able to recommend that the money value of the officers' commissions should be returned to their widows, their mothers, their sisters, or their children.


observed, that, though the abolition of purchase had undoubtedly proved beneficial, the mode in which effect had been given to the measure seemed most unjust. It came to this—that half the officers of the Army, instead of receiving the full price for their commissions, were allowed to serve longer than others without any equivalent for their outlay. Some officers who went into action had paid £6,000 for their commissions, and others had paid nothing. It was unfair that the first class of officers should feel that if they fell the whole of the money would be lost to their families.


maintained that the purchase officer ought to have more consideration than the non-purchase officer, because he had money invested in his profession. It was very hard on a family who might have scraped together a considerable sum for a young scion of their house to find that in a short time, perhaps when he was under 40 years of age, he was forced to retire because he had not had the luck to obtain higher rank in the Service. In such a case the Government ought to return the money to his family. He could recall the time of the Crimean War, when more consideration was paid to the families of officers. It was true pensions were given on a limited scale; but there was not the slightest allowance made for the money that had been sunk in the profession, and he believed it was the feeling of the House that such allowance ought to be made. When purchase was abolished all the officers in the Army ought relatively to have been put on an equal footing; but the Government of that day had proceeded in a hasty manner, owing to their hurry to abolish the purchase system. He should support the Motion of the noble Earl.


congratulated the House on the temperate manner in which the debate had been conducted, and would endeavour to follow the example which hon. Members had set in that respect. The Motion was to the effect that it was expedient he should consider whether in certain cases the value of their commissions might be paid to the executors or administrators of certain deceased officers. Now, when Notices of this Motion was given he had had the the honour of holding the seals of the Secretary of State for War for only a few days; and his first duty had been to ascertain what questions were pending in the War Office to which, in the words of this Motion, it was expedient that he should devote his attention. Well, speaking very much within the mark, and referring only to questions of some importance, he found there were between 80 and 100—say, 90 pending questions of importance to the organization or welfare of the Army which had been subjects of discussion either in that House or out of the House, and to which it was his bounden duty to give the best attention he could during the next few months, and upon many of which it would also be his duty to make some statements to the House next Session. Therefore, when the noble Lord asked him to consider this question he only asked him to do a very small amount indeed of the very heavy duties which he found imposed upon him, not through any fault of his Predecessor, but as the result of the last few years' controversies about military questions. If, therefore, the noble Lord and the House would be satisfied with his assurance that he would give his best attention to this as well as many other subjects, he should have no fault to find because the question had been brought forward so soon after he had taken Office. If, however, the House insisted upon the principle of making these payments to the widows of some deceased officers—and the Mover and Seconder of the Motion did not agree as to what classes should have this boon, and whether it should go to the widows only, or to the estate of the officers generally—if it was proposed to commit the House to such a Resolution, he must deprecate that decision, and ask the House to give those who were responsible a reasonable and sufficient time to go properly into these matters. He thought he would be confirmed by all persons conversant with the questions arising out of the abolition of purchase that nearly all hung upon one another; and if the House were to decide on dealing in a particular way with one of these nothing but difficulty would occur. Practically, nearly all must be dealt with together. Therefore, he would suggest to the noble Lord not to press his Motion to a division, because it was quite impossible for him, after a few days charge of the War Department, to advise the House conclusively what would be the consequences of such a decision; and, on the other hand, if it were negatived, his resolution would only do harm to those in whose favour the noble Lord acted. As to the question itself, he said distinctly he did not wish to dogmatize. The case of the widows of officers, one part of which had been dealt with at some length by the hon. and gallant Gentleman opposite (Colonel Burnaby), while other parts had been entirely passed by, might be said to be this: Under the old purchase system, the pensions of widows of officers dying under ordinary circumstances were according to a scale which was somewhat less than the scale of the widows of officers dying either in action or as the result of the wounds or injuries sustained in war. That scale still continued up to the present time with a very slight modification, as referred to by the hon. and gallant Gentleman opposite. Again, the widow of an officer who died as the result of wounds was, under the former system, just as under the present, entitled under certain circumstances to receive the regulation value of the officer's commission in lieu of pension and compassionate allowances. In that respect there had been virtually no change. But the widows of officers dying under ordinary circumstances under the former system were not entitled to receive the value of their husbands' commissions. The widows of officers so dying since the abolition of the purchase system were in precisely the same position; they were not entitled to receive the value of their husbands' commissions. If, therefore, the Motion meant what the speech of the noble Lord indicated it, the result would be to place the widow of an officer dying under ordinary circumstances, not as the result of wounds, in a very much better position than she would have been had the purchase, system not been abolished. It had been suggested that retired officers were, since the Warrant of 1877, in a worse position than before, when they were not compelled to retire upon a pension. That consideration had been imported into the Motion because its preamble said—"who, while they are now forced or liable to be forced into retirement," &c. But this had really no relation to the Motion. Officers who were compelled to retire were, of course, out of the Army, and at their deaths their widows could claim nothing, whether pension or value of commission. The Motion referred solely to the pensions of widows of officers who did not retire, and to their claim in lieu of pension a lump sum down. Therefore, the only question was whether the widow of an officer dying in the Service, not as the result of wounds, who was not previously entitled to the value of her husband's commission, should now, after the abolition of purchase, be entitled to that value? The question had been treated as one of feeling as well as of finance. No doubt all were, to a considerable extent, actuated by feeling; but he did not think that financial considerations should be altogether excluded. The House would see the bearing of that subject on the abolition of purchase. When it was proposed to abolish purchase, the estimate of the gross cost of all the commissions of officers in the Army was taken at £8,000,000. From that had to be deducted the value of the commissions of officers who might be expected to die in the Service. That value was estimated at £1,100,000, so that the net cost of the abolition of purchase was taken to be £6,900,000. He would ask what would be the financial result if the proposal were adopted which underlay the Resolution before the House. Of course it would be urged that if the value of the commissions were given to the widows of officers who should die in future, it should also be given to the widows of officers who had died since the abolition of purchase. The total value of the commissions of those who might be expected to die in the Service he had stated at £1,100,000. From that sum had to be deducted the capitalized value of the pensions and compassionate allowances granted to their widows and children which would have to be surrendered if the widows received the value of the commission. This amount was taken at £350,000. The result, therefore, would be, if that proposal were carried out, that a sum of £750,000 would have to be added to the charge for the abolition of purchase. But that was not all. Several hon. and gallant Members had spoken of the feelings of officers going on active service, who were risking the value of their commissions, while the minds of their brother officers who came in under the present system were not so burdened; and the House was asked, as a matter of charity, not of regret, to relieve officers from these anxious feelings. But charity might compel them to do more. If the purchase officer was in future to feel that this boon, for which he had not bargained when he entered the Army, was at his death to be granted his family, and that purely as a matter of charity, would not the non-purchase officer ask for the same charity? There would be no regret in either case; there would be the same claim for kind and charitable treatment. He would ask the House to consider, if the one charity cost £750,000, how much the other would cost. He would further say that that inequality as between two officers, one of whom went into action risking a large sum of money, and the other not, had always existed. There were departments of the Army in which purchase had never existed—the Artillery and the Engineers. He pointed out these matters, not as being conclusive on this or any other branch of the subject, but merely as showing what difficulties he had to contend against in dealing with the question, and, as he had already said, it would be impossible to deal with it without considering other similar questions which had arisen out of the abolition of purchase. He approached the subject with perfect impartiality. He had not committed himself to any conclusion whether and what further adjustments would have to be made in consequence of the abolition of purchase. He would ask the House not to fetter him by the present Motion, but to accept his assurances that he would study this and similar questions without unnecessary delay, so that any further provisions required by the abolition of purchase might be dealt with as a whole and after mature inquiries.


said, that it would have been more agreeable to him personally not to have joined in the debate; but he did not think it right that he should be in the House and hold any different language from that which he had expressed on former occasions when he sat on the other side of the House. He quite agreed with the Secretary of State for War that the House ought not to be ruled entirely by sentiment, though, at the same time, it was natural that sentimental considerations should be present to their minds. But sentiment ought not to interfere with a matter of business. He must say, in the first place, that he had listened to the greater part of the remarks of the hon. and gallant Member for Leicestershire (Colonel Burnaby); but, still, he thought there was a distinction between the question of retirement and the amount which could be bequeathed or left to officers' widows. He had always been obliged to tell the House that he did not think it right to assent to abstract propositions, if hon. Gentlemen had no clear proposals to place before him. He would not then go into the general question of the abolition of purchase, except to say that it was understood that the State was to come into the position of the purchasing officers, so that the officer was not to be entitled to anything from the State to which he would not have been entitled if the purchase system had continued. Some hon. Members who had spoken had clearly pointed out that the question was not only one of the future, but retrospective. It was a question involving an enormous of money, and it was hardly practicable for the House to come to a hasty decision upon it. They had had the advantage of hearing the statement of his noble Friend, who stated his views in the Motion before the House. His noble Friend had brought the question before the House in that temperate and considerate manner in which such questions ought alone to be brought before the House. Cases of great hardship had been referred to, and his hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Berkshire (Colonel Loyd Lindsay) had gone carefully into them, and brought the question before the House. In the case of the officers of the 24th Regiment who fell at Isandula, certain cases of what were considered hardship were brought under his notice, and he looked into the matter with the view of ascertaining if there were any proposals he could lay before the House; but in the end he was forced frankly to confess that there was no proposition to be made that would be at once logical and satisfactory. The difficulties of the question, he found, were considerably interwoven with other questions, and if they had touched them at all it would have to have been in a much wider character. He hoped his noble Friend would be satisfied with the assurance he had received, and would leave the right hon. Gentleman opposite to deal with the question. Another point involved had reference to the class of officers who in time of war would be called to the Colours; and this also tended to show the difficulty which a Government would have to encounter when dealing with the matter if its hands were fettered by an abstract Resolution of the House. In conclusion, he might say that if the question were viewed sympathetically there could be only one answer to it. If the right hon. Gentleman opposite managed to work the question out satisfactorily, thereby adding one more success to the list of his financial successes, he would give the greatest satisfaction to the officers, and be acting in accordance with the sympathies of a large majority of the people. He hoped his noble Friend who had brought forward the Motion would abstain from pressing it to a division.


thought that, after the statement which had been made by the Secretary of State for War, it would be to the interest of the Army if the question were left in the hands of Her Majesty's Government.


said, that no question commanded more sympathy than the one before the House, and he felt sure the right hon. Gentleman would give it every consideration, and would deal with it in a sense of justice to the purchase officers. Were the purchase officers of the Army, he asked, in the same position as that which they enjoyed before the abolition of purchase? No one would pretend for one moment that they were. The Warrant of August 13, 1877, had taken from them privileges which they possessed up to that date, and another Warrant just issued effected another very material change in the position of officers commanding regiments. The' proper way of dealing with the grievance of purchase officers was that pointed out by the senior Member for Birmingham, who recommended that the regulation money should be returned to them. Had that course been adopted, the present difficulty would never have been heard of. The money wanted for removing the difficulty might amount to a large sum; but if justice required its payment it ought to be paid, especially when the men whom it would benefit were serving their country and doing their best to maintain its dignity and honour.


remarked that it certainly seemed a hardship and an injustice that the State should profit, in a pecuniary point of view, by the death of those who had been serving their country. The solution of the difficulty mentioned by the last speaker would have been a simple one—namely, that of returning to purchase officers the money invested by them in the purchase of their commissions. Between that solution, however, and a state of absolute quiescence there was a via media which might be followed. It was contended at the time of the abolition of purchase that officers who had bought their commissions should not have their money returned to them, because its expenditure had gained for them certain advantages of priority. But there was a class to whom this argument could not apply—namely, those who had purchased their first commission only. They had obtained no priority; and surely, therefore, it was just that they should not forfeit their money to the State when they fell in the discharge of their duty. He thought, however, that the declaration of the Secretary of State for War was all that could reasonably be expected from him at the commencement of his tenure of Office; and, therefore, he hoped the noble Lord opposite would not press the subject further.


said, that as the right hon. Gentleman had promised to consider the question in all its bearings, he should take it for granted that the noble Lord (Earl Percy) would withdraw his Motion. He would remind the right hon. Gentleman, however, that the whole question which had been raised by this new Warrant of 1877, against which there was so much objection in the Army, was accepted by the House as a temporary measure. It was brought forward for the consideration of the House on the 8th of August, 1877; and the noble Marquess who then led the Opposition (the Marquess of Hartington) protested against such an important measure being brought before the House at that period of the Session. His words were— That he should vote against the Amendment of the hon. Member for the Border Burghs (Mr. Trevelyan), as a protest against the manner in which Parliament was being treated on the subject, And he added— That he hoped the Government would consider the whole scheme as a temporary expedient. He trusted, then, that the right hon. Gentleman, when he considered the question, would feel that it was open to him to deal with the subject in any way he pleased, and that it had not at all been settled by the Warrant in question. In the other House of Parliament the same language had been used, and Lord Lansdowne had said he Thought the Government would do well to consider carefully before drawing the scabbard off so extreme a weapon as compulsory retirement. Other noble Lords in the same House held the same language as to compulsory retirement, which, in their view, ought only to be resorted to when actually necessary. He was sorry to say that since then it had been resorted to on many occasions, to the great disadvantage and injustice of many officers. He therefore hoped on this question that the subject would receive the careful attention of the right hon. Gentleman, and he might remind him that compulsory retirement was a system absolutely unknown in any other Army in Europe. No country had adopted such a scheme, which appeared to him so fatal to good service, and getting efficient officers when they were wanted, because it sent a man out of his profession when he was in the very prime of life. It worked badly with those regiments which were in good order and contented. Where the officers worked well together the officers had slow promotion, and it was in those regiments that the officers were compulsorily retired; whereas as in regiments that were bad the officers left them early, and then the other officers got promotion rapidly.


thought it impossible to refuse compliance with the appeals that had been made to him not to divide the House. He thought the right hon. Gentleman had met the question very fairly.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

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