HC Deb 17 March 1884 vol 286 cc68-72

, who had a Notice upon the Paper of his intention to move— That, in the opinion of this House, the present system of examination of Officers for promotion in the Army is unjust to Officers of long service and is an inadequate test of their efficiency, while in many instances it seriously interferes with the discharge of their professional duties, said, he rose to call attention to the system of examination of officers in the Army for promotion. He was sorry that he could not yield to the appeal of the Government that Members having Motions on the Paper for that evening should postpone them. The fact was that the opportunities for discussing; matters of public interest upon going into Committee of Supply had been reduced to so small a number that hon. Members were bound to avail them selves of such as presented themselves to the fullest extent. The question he had to bring under the notice of the House was of some considerable importance as affecting the well being and efficiency of the Army. The system of examination of officers in the Army was established for the first time when purchase was abolished, and he contended that that system had in no way increased the efficiency of the Army. In the way in which it was carried out it was unjust to officers of long service, and it certainly interfered with the proper discharge of their professional duties. In the course of his remarks he should confine his attention to the examination necessary to attain the rank of major. This examination was especially hard upon men of long service, who had had no reason to anticipate that they would be called upon to pass any other examination than the one they had to undergo at the commencement of their career. When these examinations were first instituted, they were only intended for the sub-lieutenants who desired to attain the rank of lieutenants, and even then there were many exceptions. There were many instances under the present system of officers being absolutely precluded from passing in consequence of their being employed on active service; and, therefore, the very officers who had proved themselves to be the most useful practically were just those who were placed at the greatest disadvantage. It was not until 1880 that these examinations were made compulsory. At that time it was felt that it would be so unjust and so unfair to require all officers to pass that an exception was made in favour of a number of them who had been captains for five years. So manifest had been the injustice of subjecting all officers to an examination at that date that a paragraph was put in the General Order to the effect that it would he clearly understood that the only object of inviting officers to pass these examinations was to encourage them in their military reading. But how could an officer better improve himself in military knowledge than in the practice of his profession in time of war? Yet he should be able to show the House that the very officers who had been the most active in the practice of their profession were just those who were unable to pass their examinations. In 1881 matters be came still worse, because in that year a large number of majors wore added to each battalion, and these were required to pass an examination in tactics alone. [The noble Lord then referred to the cases of different captains, who had been on active service between 13 and 14 years, and who had been unable to pass the examination.] In his opinion these officers, who had purchased their commissions, ought to be allowed to be promoted without examination, or else they should have to pass one of a less severe character. A great many of these officers, who were alleged to be utterly unfit for promotion, were, nevertheless, deemed fit to be adjutants of Militia regiments; and the consequence of the present sys tem was that they- had to absent themselves for long periods from their regiments in order to prepare themselves for the examinations. He trusted the noble Lord would be able to give the House some assurance that something was about to be done in order to remove the hardship which was now inflicted on a great number of very deserving men.


said, that if the country thought that by the present system of examination they would get the best talent for the Army they were greatly mistaken. There were many officers who had done good regimental duty, who had acted gallantly in the field, and who had capacity enough to pass the examinations, but who did not think it necessary to shirk their regimental duties in order to join the Staff College. Very frequently the men who showed the greatest amount of mental and intellectual capacity did not make the best Staff officers, for he had known men of that sort who were oven unable to ride a horse. Still, he was of opinion that there must be some test for promotion. Under the existing system there were great inequalities. He would impress upon the noble Lord that, for the good of the Service, an inquiry should be instituted into the question. He hoped that some of those officers whose promotion had been interfered with might have another chance, and that the country should not lose the services of those among them who had already distinguished themselves in the field.


said, that there was considerable feeling in the Service on the subject of the noble Lord's Motion. He had before him a syllabus of the subjects of examination for officers who desired to be promoted, he by no means wished that educational tests should be abolished in the Army; but he could not but think that the authorities had gone too far. To those parts of the syllabus which related to regimental duties and drill he had no objection, as the more proficient an officer was in those subjects the better, he thought, too, that some acquaintance with military law, which formed another division, was very desirable. An officer ought, e. g., know something of the Army Discipline Acts and the law of enlistment. But it was rather too much to expect a knowledge of the history of the Military Code of England, which bad varied so greatly from time to time. Then there were subjects which wore popularly supposed to be the province of Senior Wranglers only. A young subaltern could hardly be expected to know much about the use of a theodolite or a sextant, or about so abstruse a science as spherical astronomy. What was an instrumental parallax, with which the unfortunate candidate was supposed to be familiar? He knew of one officer who had successfully passed the Staff College who was plucked for his promotion examination. He objected also to the present system on the ground that it encouraged cram rather than real study and he should be glad if the Secretary of State for War would knock "cram" on the head. The promotion examinations were much the same as the earlier ones, and it was found that officers had really to get up the same subjects as they had learnt before, and in the interval it was found that they had forgotten all they had before acquired. It was a great evil also that officers were so much taken away from their regimental duties by having to undergo the extra labour of preparing for those examinations.


said, he thought that with regard to the class of older officers who had not passed into the Army through Sandhurst or the Militia, some modification of the examination might be made. Either it should he almost entirely one in military subjects, or in some other way it should be so designed as not to press too heavily upon the class of officers to whom he referred.


said, he desired to speak on behalf of officers who were now in the Army. He knew of one officer who was serving in India when he was promoted from the rank of captain to that of major. Having travelled from a distant part of India to Malta, his battalion was ordered to Egypt, so that he had but few opportunities of reading up for the examination which he would have to pass at a future period. After the operations in Egypt he arrived with his regiment at Cairo, and in a short time he was called upon to pass the examination for the rank of major. He failed in one slight particular, and was, in consequence, put back to the rank of captain. That was a hard case. The officer had been in the Service for 18 or 19 years, and it could not be expected that he would be so well up in all the matters connected with the examination as a younger man who had been in the Service but a short time. So disgusted was he at the treatment he had received that when he was put back to the rank of captain he immediately retired from the Service. In another case an officer who stood fifteenth on the list was promoted over the heads of two senior officers shortly before the latter went up for examination. It would, he thought, have been to the benefit of the Service if the authorities had allowed the appointment to stand over until the result of the examination had been made known. As the matter stood, the two officers in question would probably never have an opportunity of commanding the regiment in which they served. The examinations were, no doubt, necessary under the existing Warrants; but he submitted that some limit ought to be fixed in such cases as those to which he had referred. Many good and true officers would be lost to the Service if the present excessive examinations were continued.