HC Deb 01 March 1881 vol 258 cc1953-7

asked the Secretary of State for War, Whether he could give the House any information as to the defeat in the Transvaal subsequent to that given yesterday; and whether he could, without detriment to the public service, state what steps had been taken in consequence of that unfortunate disaster.


In reply to my right hon. and gallant Friend I have to say that we have received two telegrams to-day. The first is as follows:— I hope that the loss was exaggerated in the first news from the front. The road is open to Newcastle. Fraser, of the Royal Engineers, walked into the camp at Mount Prospect at 4 a.m. The second runs thus— The officer in command at Mount Prospect reports that Fraser arrived there this morning unwounded. Cornish, Landon, and Chard have come in. No news yet of Lieut.-Colonel Stewart. As to the last statement, I am happy to say that Colonel Stewart has arrived in camp, or, at any rate, that he is not killed, as at first reported. [Sir STAFFORD NORTHCOTE: From whom are these telegrams?] The first is from Sir Evelyn Wood, and the second from the officer in command lower down. As I have just alluded to news of Colonel Stewart received in an unofficial despatch, I will venture to say a few words to the House, and through the House to others, upon a subject which, I am sure, will justify me in calling attention to it at the present time. I wish to say, in the first place, that we owe a great debt of gratitude to the Press, both in London and in other parts of the country, for the exceedingly valuable news that they have furnished to the country in connection with the operations in this war—news which, I ought to say, in many instances they have sent to us even before it went to the public. I think our best thanks are due to the Press for the exertions that have been made in placing at the seat of war such excellent telegraphic correspondents. I wish also to make an appeal that I am certain will not be misunderstood, and it is this—although very little as yet has been contained in any of those telegraphic despatches to which the least exception can be taken, there have been passages in some of them, the purport of which, if it became known to the Boers, would certainly tend to give them information of some importance. I would, therefore, while thanking the Press for the great assistance given, ask that, before the telegrams are published, the question may be considered whether they do not contain hints of intended movements which, however much they may be welcomed by the curiosity of the public, cannot but be injurious to the public interests. My right hon. and gallant Friend asks, in the second part of his Question, whether I can supplement my statement of yesterday by any further information. I may say that a very short time after he asked the Question yesterday evening I should have been in a position to state to the House that Her Majesty's Government had decided to appoint Sir Frederick Roberts to be Commander-in-Chief of our Armies in Natal. We do not appoint him from the smallest want of confidence in Sir Evelyn Wood, who is a most distinguished officer, but because, considering the large force which is and will be employed in these operations, we thought it desirable to send there in supreme command an officer of the position of Sir Frederick Roberts; and I think and believe that the House and the country will approve the course we have taken. Secondly, with respect to what we are doing still further to strengthen the force in South Africa, I may say this—in the first place, we decided yesterday to send three additional Infantry regiments to Durban, and all the necessary orders were given with that object. I am not sure that some part of those orders has not already been communicated to the public through the newspapers. The 85th Regiment from Bombay, and six companies of the 102nd from Ceylon, will proceed to Durban in the Euphrates, which is now at Bombay, and will arrive on the 23rd of this month. The Orontes, which ought to be at Bermuda to-day on the service of transporting the 99th Regiment from Bermuda to the West Indies, will proceed to Durban with the 99th, and will arrive about the 30th of this month. In addition to these three regiments, we decided to-day, after consultation with Sir Frederick Roberts, to carry out what we thought yesterday would probably be necessary, and for which preliminary arrangements have been made—I mean the despatch of three more regiments of Infantry to Durban. They will be conveyed without loss of time by ships that will carry them from Gibraltar and Malta. I am not quite sure about the day on which they will arrive; but, at any rate, I believe it will not be much, if at all, later than the three first regiments to which I have referred. We have also telegraphed to Sir Evelyn Wood to inquire whether he requires any more transport, and especially whether he will have mules for that purpose; and if his answer is in the affirmative—and we expect it tonight—we shall at once make arrangements, and have already made preliminary arrangements, to send the mules across from Buenos Ayres. We have also asked him whether he thinks it desirable to have more Cavalry and another battery of Artillery. This has been done after consultation with Sir Frederick Roberts; and although I have some doubt about the Cavalry, I think an additional battery of Artillery will be sent. In addition, we are sending out, besides the i,500 drafts I mentioned some days ago, still further drafts to the regiments at the Cape, which will, in part, consist of men of the Army Deserve. We invited, under stringent limitations, men to volunteer from the Reserve, and they have come up well. We are now inviting more men, under less stringent conditions, and I do not doubt that the result will be satisfactory. I have stated now to the House all that was decided yesterday afternoon and this morning, and I have reason to believe that all these arrangements are likely to be carried out promptly.


I wish to ask whether there is any intention on the part of the Naval Authorities to land men from the fleet now at Simon's Bay, with a view of increasing the strength of the Naval Brigade at the seat of war?


Sir, the Earl of Clanwilliam, who is in command of the Detached Squadron, being within reach of the telegraph, will not land a Naval Brigade without orders from the Admiralty, and those orders will only be given after application from the Military or Colonial Authorities. No such application has yet been made. I may be allowed to read a passage from the instructions to the Earl of Clanwilliam, as they express the policy of the Admiralty with regard to Naval Brigades— You will not land any officers or men to take part in active operations on shore without the sanction of their Lordships obtained by telegraph or letter; but you will afford every assistance in your power afloat and on the seaboard in co-operation with the naval and military forces engaged in suppressing the revolt in the Transvaal. In the event of circumstances, which it is hoped will not arise, necessitating the landing of a Naval Contingent, with their Lordships' sanction, care is to be taken to provide for the safety of the ships, and such contingent is to he re-embarked at the earliest time which may be practicable, in order that the squadron under your command should be ready for any service that may be required of it. These instructions were sent off six weeks ago, and have, of coarse, been long in Lord Clanwilliam's hands. By a very recent order the Detached Squadron has been directed not to leave the Cape until further orders from the Admiralty.


I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman whether any telegram has been received stating whether the wounded have been recovered from the scene of action or any wounded brought to the camp?


Before the right hon. Gentleman answers the Question I would like to ask if the report in this evening's Standard purporting to give a list of the wounded is correct?


Sir, I have road to the House all the telegrams bearing on questions of the kind which we have received to-day and, therefore, I cannot verify the list of the killed and wounded which I read in the very admirable telegrams published in the morning papers. But while my right hon. and gallant Friend was asking the Question two more telegrams were put into my hand, and they are such, I believe, as I may read to the House. The first, dated 20 minutes to I this afternoon, is from the officer commanding at Mount Prospect. It is as follows:— The number of troops engaged in the action of the 27th—30 officers, 693 men. Casualties—3 officers killed, 9 wounded, 7 prisoners, I missing. Non-commissioned officers and men killed 82"(very much fewer than was thought),"wounded 122, prisoners 50, missing, but believed to be wounded, not yet brought to camp, 12. The second telegram is dated 2 o'clock this afternoon. It is as follows:— Lieutenant Colonel Stewart is a prisoner, not wounded. Surgeon Major Cornish died this day.


What is the strength of the effective forces in the field?


I would rather not answer that Question.