HC Deb 17 March 1885 vol 295 cc1557-70

Perhaps, Sir, the House will allow me to say a few words in explanation of the Motion which it is my duty to make, and particularly as the circumstances under which I have to make it are somewhat peculiar. The Motion is one for the re-appointment of a Select Committee which was appointed last year to inquire into the Commissariat and Transport Services. The Committee was appointed, I believe, on the Motion of the non. Member for Glasgow (Dr. Cameron), and the appointment was at that time assented to by the Government. That Committee sat during last year, and took a large amount of very valuable evidence, which remains in the form of a very voluminous Blue Book. But we were not able to conclude our inquiry; and it was particularly desirable, before the inquiry was concluded, that the evidence of Lord Wolseley, and of one or two other officers, should be taken in regard to statements which had been made before the Committee. The Committee, therefore, concluded their labours for the year by only reporting the evidence, and not entering into the consideration of a Report; and I, as the official channel of communication between the Committee and the House, had laid upon me by them the duty of asking that in the next Session of Parliament the Committee should be reappointed. Speaking, if the House will allow me, from a personal point of view, I feel that the duty laid upon me by the Committee collectively is one from which I cannot free myself, even though there are the individual expressions of opinion from almost every Member of the Committee that it would be better that the recommendation should not be made. I, therefore, feel myself officially bound to make this Motion; and it must be for the House and for the Government to determine how, under the circumstances, it had better be dealt with. I speak without any bias one way or the other. The Committee was one of great importance, and I hope that even in the time it was sitting it may have produced some good. No doubt, with the assistance of the able Members who formed the Committee, we should have produced a Report which, without being unduly sanguine, I may say might have been of some value; but I am bound to say that if, as I have some reason to believe, the Government are now going to oppose my Motion, I must admit that the circumstances under which we sat last year, and those in which we find ourselves now, are widely dissimilar. Many of the officers whom, for my own part, I should have wished to call to give evidence are now serving in Egypt and elsewhere; and it is obvious that at the present time a very great strain is laid upon those Departments at home, the attendance of whose Representatives we should have had to require before the Committee. I can easily conceive that the noble Marquess the Secretary of State for War (the Marquess of Hartington) may find it his duty to oppose the re-appointment of this Committee; but, at the same time, I think that I am only fulfilling my duty in bringing the Motion before the House, and I am only fulfilling the duty which the Committee laid upon me in asking the House to re-appoint this Committee with the Instructions which are usual in such cases. I hope, Sir, that I have made my explanation of the rather remarkable position in which we are placed as briefly as possible under the circumstances. I must now leave the Motion to be dealt with by the Government and the House. Of course, I shall move the re-appointment of the Committee; and if a division should be taken, I shall certainly, for my own part, divide in favour of the proposition.

Motion made, and Questian proposed, That the Select Committee appointed to inquire into the Commissariat and Transport Services of the British Army in the recent Egyptian Campaign (1882), and to consider what changes, if any, are required to secure increased efficiency in these Services, he reappointed:—That Mr. BRAND, Dr. CAMERON, Colonel MILNE HOME, Mr. CARINGTON, Mr. BROWN, Mr. JACKSON, Sir HENRY FLETCHER, Lord EDWARD CAVENDISH, Colonel NOLAN, Mr. EARP, Mr. HERBERT, Dr. FAKQUHARSON, and Colonel STANLEY he the Members of the said Committee: That the Committee have power to send for persons, papers, and records: That Five he the quorum of the Committee."—(Colonel Stanley.)


I am not able to assent, as I should under ordinary circumstances have done, to this Motion, as a matter of form; and perhaps the House will think it right, after the observations just made by the right hon. and gallant Gentleman, that I should state why it will be my duty not to assent to it. I will give the House some reasons why I think this Committee should not be re-appointed. The inquiry which was undertaken by the Committee last year was one which had to deal not only with the present state of facts and details connected with the Expedition to Egypt in 1882, but also with the much larger question of the organization of the Supply and Transport Service of the Army, and also of the Transport branch of the Admiralty. Well, Sir, at the present moment the energies of all these Departments are taxed to a very considerable extent by the operations now in progress in connection with the Expedition to the Nile and the Expedition to Suakin, and to a minor but still to a great and sufficient extent by the operations going on in Bechuanaland. Under these circumstances, it is quite impossible for the officials connected with these Department to devote all the care and attention which they ought to do to the general business of the Departments, and, at the same time, to give as much time and attention as they would desire to the inquiry which it is sought to renew before the Committee. Either they would have to devote less time than at present to the duties of the Departments, or else they would have to give less time to this inquiry, which not only involves matters of great public importance, but also, to a certain extent, their own conduct. In addition to all this, there is another consideration which has been mentioned by the right hon. and gallant Gentleman—the consideration that at this moment some of the most essential witnesses whom the Committee would have to examine in order to conclude their inquiry and make their Report are not in the country. Lord Wolseley is the principal of these, and I think the House will agree That, he having been principally concerned in the operations into which the Committee have been inquiring, it would be impossible for them to finish their inquiry and agree to their Report without his evidence. Not only is that the case, but of other officers are also absent at the present time, and many of those whom file Committee would wish to examine could not be examined at all. Well, Sir, if this inquiry had developed any very great defects of administration, or if it had brought to light any serious breakdown on the part of any of the Departments, the re-appointment of this Committee would not be opposed by the Government, even although the inquiry had been, as I have said, in some degree inconvenient under the circumstances. But I do not think that, in the opinion of the majority at all events of the Committee, that is the case. The evidence of the various witnesses who have already been examined has clearly established the fact that there was nothing in the campaign or in the arrangements made by the Supply or Transport Departments which led to anything in the nature of a breakdown. Sir John Adye, as Chief of the Staff, was examined, and he gave evidence to show that the officers and men of all ranks did their duty remarkably well, and that there was no breakdown of any kind. Commissary General Watt, who was one of the witnesses on whose evidence the hon. Member for Glasgow (Dr. Cameron) chiefly relied, stated the same thing—that there was no breakdown and no great failure, except in one matter. The chief Medical Officer of the Expedition stated that the supplies were excellent and abundant, and that they never suffered from the want of anything except during the first week, when there was some defect; but that vanished very speedily. Lord Wolseley has not been examined; but his opinion also is that there was nothing in the Commissariat and Transport arrangements which amounted to a breakdown, and he thinks that such difficulties as arose were not attributable to defective organization, but arose from military exigencies of an exceptional character. A great deal of evidence has been given before the Committee as to what the present system really is. There has been great diversity of opinion, and it has been fully inquired into. The system and organization which have been in existence since 1880 have been more dearly defined; and I do not think there will be in future any falling off in their efficiency. In addition to these considerations I may mention that since the Committee closed their inquiry last Session three Expeditions have been sent out. There has been an Expedition to the Nile, an Expedition to Bechuanaland, and an Expedition to Suakin; and a great deal of attention has necessarily been directed to the working of the Supply and Transport Services, and I am able to say that the arrangements made by them have worked with perfect smoothness up to the present. The organization has been the same as that of 1882, and it seems to me that, considering that there has been no hitch and no complaint, anything wanting in the arrangements made in 1882 was due not to defective organization, but rather to those subsidiary matters which always will occur under exceptional circumstances, and which no system of organization could possibly alter or amend, and that we may be reasonably satisfied with the result. Before the Committee was appointed Lord Wolseley had himself tested some of the arrangements in the Supply and Transport Departments, and especially the regulations for the governance of the lines of communications. A Committee had already been appointed, under the Presidency of Lord Morley, consisting of several officers and War Department officials—officers of military knowledge and very great experience—who were directed to inquire into these matters. That inquiry was suspended; but I would humbly suggest that an inquiry by that Committee would be quite as efficient as an inquiry by this House. Looking at the inconvenience which would be sustained by the Public Service if the heads of these Departments were to be taken off from their present duties to attend upon an inquiry—a controversial inquiry—like that now proposed; looking also to the fact that no case of any deficiency or breakdown has been established by the evidence already laid before the Committee, and looking to the absence of many important witnesses, I am inclined to think that the House will agree with me that there could be no advantage, but rather a disadvantage, to the Public Service if this Committee were re-appointed. I trust that, under these circumstances, the House will not agree to the Motion.


said, that every Member of the Committee must be greatly obliged to the noble Marquess for the Report with which he had supplemented their labours. The only drawback to that eulogistic and whitewashing Report was, that the noble Marquess was not a Member of the Committee, and did not hear the evidence. He (Dr. Cameron) could quote any amount of evidence to prove that there was the very greatest breakdown; but, before he dealt with that point, he would advert to the remarks of the noble Marquess on the injury to the Public Service which would result if this Committee were re-appointed. They had been a long time discovering that injury. At the conclusion of the labours of the Committee last year, it was unanimously agreed that they should ask for re-appointment this Session; and it was an unprecedented thing that the Government should now come forward and oppose the re-appointment of a Committee which had gone through an immense amount of work, and which had unanimously recommended its re-appointment. It was understood that the re-appointment of the Committee would be moved for in the Autumn Session; but representations were made to him, asking him to postpone the matter while war preparations were proceeding, and he did so until the commencement of the present Session. He was then asked to wait a fortnight, when the stress of work on the Department would be passed, and the reappointment of the Committee might be moved for. He did that; he had no wish to do anything unreasonable. But then, when the Notice was put down with the assent of all Parties, a docile adherent of the Government put down a blocking Notice; then, upon his (Dr. Cameron's) representation that he would take every opportunity of bringing the matter forward unless the blocking Notice was removed, without anything being said by him (Dr. Cameron) to the hon. Member who had put down the block, that Notice was removed, and now they had the Government unmasking itself and opposing the re-appointment of the Committee. The noble Marquess had told the House that everything was working well. Thanks to the labours and exposures brought about by the Committee, immense improvements had been effected, numerous reforms had been carried out, which were declared by witnesses before the Committee to be impracticable or perfectly impossible, and these had been adopted in relation to the present Expeditions with the best results. But everything was not all right; as much reform as could be got with the present system of administration had been effected, he admitted; but the system made perfect arrangements impossible. Was the noble Marquess aware that a large portion of equipments for troops going out to Bechuanaland, owing to want of combination between Departments, were not available until five weeks after the troops arrived? Was tie noble Marquess aware that quantities of stores sent up with the Nile Expedition were destroyed, simply because of want of co-operation between Departments? That a quantity of biscuits went bad, because the tins were not soldered? The noble Marquess told him that they were inspected by the Commissariat at Woolwich. Why, the heads of the Commissariat Department had no control there; the practical control lay in a different Office altogether. Twenty-five per cent of groceries were destroyed by wet; that was undisputed; and the reason was because of the divided responsibility and want of co-operation in furnishing supplies. Was the noble Marquess aware that a large proportion of the Members of the Committee were military men, who knew the difficulties and exigencies of active warfare as well as anyone? Such a Committee might be very well trusted not to do anything which would militate against the good of the Public Service. The noble Marquess said they had not the evidence of Lord Wolseley. Lord Wolseley was available last year; but it was a remarkable fact that, after one of the official War Office witnesses had declared that Lord Wolseley was blameworthy for the bad organization of the regimental transport, the eagerness of the Government to get Lord Wolseley's evidence before the Committee visibly cooled. Lord Wolseley might have been examined. Why was he not? Was it because, in protecting himself against the charges which the Assistant Director of Supplies and Transport had brought against him, he might have exposed some of the weaknesses of the Department? He could not help thinking, under the circumstances, that a desire to "burke" further disclosures had a good deal to do with the refusal of the Government to re-appoint the Committee. The noble Marquess said nothing about the supply of flour that, when taken out of the bags, stood up like pillars of Plaster of Paris. He did not say anything about a large quantity of hay purchased and sent out to all Departments of the Service by a contractor, and declared by numberless witnesses to be of the most execrable quality. That contractor was actually complimented by the Director of Contracts on the way in which he had performed his work. When, thanks to the labours of the Committee, the affair had been exposed, they had been told that it was the intention of the Department to postpone proceedings against him until they saw what the Committee reported. That contractor had reason to congratulate himself upon the action of the Government. He (Dr. Cameron) could go over a list of failures in the Campaign of 1882, which would totally overturn what had been said by the noble Marquess. He wished the House to understand that nobody appreciated more fully than he did the military success of the Expedition; and that military success reflected all the greater credit upon Lord Wolseley because it was achieved in spite of the maladministration at home—in spite of the action of officials who did their best to render success impossible. There was another element in the matter. If the Committee were certain to report as the noble Marquess had reported, he (Dr. Cameron) did not believe there would have been any difficulty in obtaining their re-appointment; but he (Dr. Cameron) was by no means certain that the Committee would agree to a "Report" such as that of which the noble Marquess had submitted a draft to the House. He (Dr. Cameron) had reason to believe that the majority of the Committee were in favour of reform, and thought a case for it had been abundantly established. If the Committee adopted that view, they would have made recommendations of reform which would be unpalatable to some of the parties concerned. If the Government could stave off inquiry this Session, they would not only get rid of further disclosures—and such he could, if more were necessary to persuade them, bring before the Committee—but they could reconstitute a Committee in which they would have a chance of securing a Report more in accordance with their way of thinking. He could not help suspecting that was the object of the Government, not only from their conduct that night, but from their action all through—their excuses for postponing, postponing, and postponing, on pretence of inconvenience to the Departments, their action in suppressing evidence last year, on pretence that it would be more convenient at a later stage of the inquiry, and in giving the Committee Correspondence so edited as to leave out the most compromising parts. It would have redounded more to the credit of a reforming Government, anxious to provide for the welfare of the State, if they had agreed to the re-appointment of the Committee, even had they done so with the foregone determination to disregard its recommendations, as the recommendations of similar Committees were so often disregarded in case of their proving unpalatable to the official who controlled the War Office.


said, as he took a somewhat prominent part in the debate which preceded the appointment of the Committee he thought it right to say a few words, more especially as he had attended most of the meetings of the Committee over which his right hon. and gallant Friend (Colonel Stanley) presided. All that the House of Commons was cognizant of was the fact that the Committee reported they were only in a position to present their voluminous evidence to the House, and to ask leave to sit again. There could be only, to his mind, one conclusion for not re-appointing the Committee, and that would be that there was nothing more to inquire into. The scheme of the Committee divided their inquiry into two portions—one part being an inquiry into matters of fact as to what did or did not happen in the Campaign of 1882, and the other part was whether it was or was not desirable to change anything in the organization of the Commissariat Department. As was well known, the Committee took voluminous evidence upon matters of fact; but, as the noble Marquess just now stated, that evidence was not complete. Lord Wolseley's evidence was anxiously looked for, but it never came. But the noble Marquess the Secretary of State for War would like to have that evidence before the Committee. Well, it was not for him (Colonel Milne-Home) or for anyone to say what would transpire in Egypt during the next few months; but he knew from the newspapers that the troops were going into summer quarters, and would remain inactive for some time; and surely it would be possible to find a General to relieve Lord Wolseley for a time; meanwhile the latter could come home and give the Committee the desired evidence. As to the second portion of the inquiry, whether there should be any alteration in the Commissariat Department, it was the almost unanimous opinion of witnesses before the Committee that, whether they were agreed there was a breakdown in the Egyptian Campaign or not, there were many alterations that should be made in the organization of the Commissariat establishments. He knew himself of many officers in the Service who would be extremely glad to see some alterations carried out, and who would be happy at a future time to give evidence in that direction. There was, then, every reason for the re-appointment of the Committee, not only to finish the evidence on matters of fact, but also to go on with the second portion of the inquiry. He was sure he could speak for every Member of the Committee in saying that if it appeared that officials at the War Office had dearly not time to attend the inquiry—and he could well imagine that at the moment of the organization of a new Expedition there was a great deal to do at the Office—he was sure that would be taken into ample consideration, and time would naturally be given for the pressing work to be finished. After all the troops were settled in Egypt the pressure on the Department would be relaxed. But, at all events, there were many officers in this country who had seen much service, both in the combatant ranks and in the Commissariat, who would come forward and express their opinions as to what should be done in the way of making alterations. On all grounds, he thought the House would do well to re-appoint the Committee; he thought it would be wrong indeed not to do so, and, though with considerable diffidence after the strong opinion expressed by the noble Marquess, he thought it right to support the Motion.


said, he wished to say a few words as a Member of the Committee. The hon. and gallant Member who had just spoken (Colonel Milne-Home) thought it expedient to have Lord Wolseley's evidence; and would he recall him from Korti for the purpose of attending the Committee? Surely that was altogether out of the question. He was sure the House would wish Lord Wolseley to remain in his present position. As an illustration of the way in which the work of the "War Department was increased by the inquiry, he could not do better than point to the Blue Book itself, fully half of which, some 300 pages, consisted of Reports and Statements prepared by the Department, apart from the mass of other evidence submitted to the Committee. It was obvious these must have cost the heads of Departments much time and exhaustive labour, many of the Papers having been procured in Egypt to be submitted to the Committee for consideration. Considering the difficulties they had to contend with in connection with the Expedition now in progress, it was utterly unreasonable to take the heads of the Departments from their proper work to give information before the Committee. The Members of the Committee would, he was quite sure, demand still more Papers, and another big Blue Book would be produced. The evidence of Lord Wolseley had been referred to as important to the question whether the losses of stores and omissions of transport were really due to military exigencies or not. It was, in his opinion, absolutely necessary. Sir John Adye said, in his evidence, that certain orders were given, because there were conditions of military operations to comply with, a sudden advance had to be made; and as a result it followed that the transports were not in the Canal, and stores not landed; therefore they were late, and could not supply the troops in front of Ismailia. But the military reason which led to this was the necessity of obtaining possession of the Sweet Water Canal, and therefore the troops had to go without proper stores; but all this came back to the question of military necessity, and upon this point the evidence of Lord Wolseley was all-important, and to leave out the evidence of the principal witness would be to reduce the Report of the Committee to little value. That being so, he thought it was not necessary or wise to proceed with the inquiry at the present time, though he hoped the Committee would sit again at some other time.


said, that as one of the Members of the Committee, and as deeply interested in military affairs, he hoped the House would allow the re-appointment of the Committee. He attended almost every Sitting of the Committee, and had studied the whole of the evidence in relation to the Commissariat and Transport. The country was now embarked in another war in Egypt, where the Transport Service signally failed in 1882; and from the reports in the newspapers, and from official accounts, it seemed the Service was not sufficient for the Soudan Forces. Something like 7,000 camels had been purchased for the Expedition, and, through the failure of the animals to do the work expected, the troops had many miles of weary desert marching. He had also heard of other matters in which the Commissariat had been unsuccessful in connection with the whalers' boats in the Nile Expedition. Notwithstanding what had fallen from the noble Marquess the Secretary of State for War, he thought the country would require that thorough inquiry should be made, and, if necessary, a reorganization should take place in the Commissariat and Transport Departments. He should certainly support the proposal that the Committee should sit again.


said, he would only intervene for the purpose of asking a question—whether the noble Marquess the Secretary of State for War would object to the re-appointment of the Committee after Easter, when, if we had no further complications with Russia, and if our troops in the Soudan went into summer quarters at Suakin and elsewhere, the War Office officials might with a very little pressure assist at the inquiry?


said, he would also ask the question if the Department would be satisfied if the inquiry were resumed after Easter, when the hurry of preparation would have passed, and the Department would have sufficient time for the evidence required? He did not see how the Department could be better worked than by supplying information to the public, clearing up the doubts and difficulties that had arisen in connection with the various expeditions undertaken. A good deal had been said about the evidence of Lord Wolseley; and, no doubt, it was important, though he should not have thought it of extreme importance, for the Committee had already had the evidence of Sir John Adye, the Chief of the Staff during the late campaign in Egypt, who would know a great deal more about the matters to be inquired into than Lord Wolseley—as, indeed, had been admitted by Lord Wolseley himself; and that witness certainly, so far as he could, laid the whitewash upon everything to please the Government. The labours of the Committee would be thwarted if they were not allowed to report. Without a Report the Blue Book would have no real authority. It must be remembered that the case of the Committee was very much prejudiced by the statement—probably inspired—which appeared in The Times some time ago. That might be regarded as the Government Report, and it was followed by a Supplementary Report from the hon. Member for Glasgow (Dr. Cameron); but what the House wanted was the Report of the Committee holding the judicial balance between these—the summing up of the long inquiry. The contention had been put forward that the breakdown, if breakdown there was, was due to the exigencies of military operations, and he was not disposed to deny that much might be said upon that view; but they must also consider whether somewhat was not also due to faults in the system which had been indicated by military officers. As had been pointed out, there were two sections of inquiry—the facts in regard to the present system, and the question of organization. The second part of the inquiry did not depend on the success of the first; the second inquiry followed the first as a mere matter of sequence. It would be much better if the Committee were allowed to meet again to consider their Report on the first part of the inquiry, and then to discuss whether it was necessary to go on with the subject of organization or not. The Committee had been almost unanimous in their desire for re-appointment; and he hoped the Government, on consideration, would see fit to grant the request.

Question put.

The House divided:—Ayes 49; Noes 68: Majority 19.—(Div. List, No. 63.)


gave Notice that, in consequence of the Vote just taken, he would call attention to the matter again on the Motion to go into Committee on the Army Estimates.