§ MR. JOHN WILSON (Falkirk Burghs)
rose in his place, and asked leave to move the Adjournment of the House for the purpose of discussing a definite matter of urgent public importance, namely,the Order of the War Office for the disbandment of the 5th Volunteer Battalion—the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles)—with headquarters at Airdrie, and the refusal of the War Office either to recall that Order or to grant an inquiry into the whole circumstances.
§ MR. SPEAKER
asked whether it was the pleasure of the House that leave be given. [Opposition cries of "Yes" and Ministerial "No."]
§ The pleasure of the House not having been signified,
§ MR. SPEAKER
called on those Members who supported the Motion to rise in their places, and not less than 40 Members having accordingly risen,
§ MR. J. WILSON (Falkirk Burghs)
said that before entering upon the recent events in connection with the very extreme, and what he might call peremptory step of disbanding and thus disgracing a battalion of between 700 and 800 volunteers, he would give a brief review of the history of the Battalion. The Volunteer movement, which in the year 1859 aroused so much enthusiasm throughout this country, was joined in enthusiastically at Airdrie and the district around, and four Companies were formed, and a fifth Company was raised in 1861. These five Companies in 1862 became the 4th Adminstrative Battalion, with Airdrie as its headquarters and Sir William Hozier 770 its first commanding officer. The Battalion continued to increase under that title till 1873, when, with 12 Companies on the strength, the title became the 29th L. R. V. The 12 Companies were reduced to eight in 1877, and at tins number they had continued since the Right Hon. the Earl of Home was appointed Hon. Colonel in 1866. The Battalion had the honour to attend the following:—Royal Review by Her Majesty the Queen in 1860 and in 1881; and sham fights at Polloch in 1861, Capellie in 1864–5–7, and Edinburgh in 1868; all the Brigade drills at Hamilton; regimental camp at Plains, 1888, Brigade Camp at Gailes, 1891 and 1893. The 5th V. B. Scottish Rifles had on these occasions generally the largest per centage on parade of the battalions present, and at the Brigade drills at Hamilton the Inspecting Officer specially noted that the 5th had actually, though one of the smallest battalions, the largest turn out at the Royal Review at Edinburgh in 1881. The Battalion was complimented by H.R.H. the Duke of Cambridge on their dress and physique. The Battalion had always earned and been paid the capitation grants, and as an instance of that he gave the total sum earned and paid during the 12 years ending 1895, and amounting in all to £20,268, or an average of £1,689 per annum. The number of efficients returned in 12 years amounted to 9,258, or an average of 771 per annum; and of proficients 797, or an average of 66 per annum. In fact the Battalion had, throughout that long period of almost 40 years, had a first-rate record, and it was only within the last two years that any friction had taken place or any fault found. This was admitted by the Adjutant-General on January 7th 1895. What was the reason of this astounding charge of front? First there was the question of ammunition. As in the case of almost all Volunteer corps, there was in connection with the 5th Vol. Battn. of the Scottish Rifles an association for rifle practice, composed entirely of members of the regiment, and established solely for the purpose of encouraging rifle shooting. Its office bearers were the officers of the regiment. The practice had been for members to obtain ammunition at a certain fixed rate to enable men to get all the practice they desired, and as many 771 as 20,000 rounds were annually purchased in addition to the amount allowed by the Government for class firing. So long as the class firing ammunition lasted this was given to the men, and the money obtained for that was applied to the purchase of the other ammunition required. This system was not by any means confined to the Battalion, but was well known to exist in very many other battalions where attention was paid to shooting. Up to the advent of Captain Blewitt no complaint had ever been made as to the manner in which the ammunition was used. Then, however, the Sergeant Instructor, acting under his advice, refused to give out ammunition except for class firing. The result of this action was that correspondence took place between the commanding officer and the War Office authorities, ending in Captain Blewitt being withdrawn and returning to his regiment. It was thought that matters would now go on more smoothly, but intimation was sent by the War Office that Colonel Forrest, the commanding officer, should send in his resignation. He did resign, although he had been an officer universally respected, who had served from 1878 to 1887, and 1893 to 1896. The officers being asked to nominate another commanding officer made the mistake of nominating Colonel Forrest again. That, however, he thought was a pardonable mistake, because Colonel Forrest had been a much esteemed officer, and it might well have been overlooked by the War Office. The War Office insisted upon the appointment being immediately filled up. The officer next in command did his best to get a man not only of capability but of means, but failed. The reason was the sympathy that all the officers in the district had in Colonel Forrest. Major Black was nominated on the 19th October 1896, unanimously, but up to the present time that nomination had not been confirmed by the War Office, although he understood no fault had been found with Major Black, and he had even been told that in the event of the Volunteer corps being reorganised Major Black would be again appointed. The Adjutant General, he understood, founded his reasons for not appointing Major Black more especially on a letter which was written by him on the 15th February last, in which the latter said that he could not in the meantime 772 nominate anyone who could adequately fill the position rendered vacant by the resignation of Colonel Forrest. It had been said by the Under Secretary to the War Office that there were other circumstances which had come to light, ranging over two years, which pointed to a lack of discipline and efficiency in the corps. The War Office unfortunately did not allow its Reports to be made public, but he had seen some of them, and he had not seen anything in those Reports warranting such an extreme step as the disbandment of a battalion of seven or eight hundred men. The War Office said that the Battalion was in a bad state of discipline, badly turned out, and unsteady on parade, that the majority of the officers took little or no interest in their duties, and were unfit for their position. That was a very remarkable change in two years—all since that Adjutant came into the field. It would appear that the inspecting officer, Colonel Lynch, said one thing to the officers and another thing to the War Office. In his Report of the last inspection on the 20th June 1896, he said that "summing up, he would be very glad to report favourably on this inspection," and yet he reported to the War Office that the Battalion was unsteady, and the officers ignorant of drill and duty. The hon. Member then quoted passages from the Inspecting Officer's speech at the inspection. Was there any reason, he asked, why such a slur and disgrace should be perpetrated on 700 or 800 respectable working men in this the 60th year of Her Majesty's reign. He assured the House great indignation had been aroused throughout Lanarkshire by this affair. A great meeting was held at Airdrie the other night, and the Provost, the magistrates, and Town Council, and over 1,000 people were present, when there was universal sympathy expressed with the officers and men of the Battalion. The War Office, no doubt, was paramount in matters of discipline, but what he asked was whether Parliament was going to homologate the action of the War Office in issuing a peremptory order for the disbandment of this regiment without reason given. The fatal step was to come into force upon the 1st of April—[laughter]—a very appropriate day for such a foolish step on the part of the Government. He would ask the Under Secretary for War whether it was too late 773 to withdraw the Order, or, if it was, whether he would not see that an inquiry should be held into the whole circumstances of the case. He begged to move the Motion.
§ MR. J. COLVILLE (Lanark, N.E.)
seconded the motion. What the regiment desired was, that Parliament should see that, ere they were so ignominiously dismissed, after having maintained an honourable career as a regiment for so many years, they should have that meed of justice accorded to them that the humblest private in the Army had a right to claim. They asked a public inquiry into the charges brought against them; and, as they were prepared to refute those charges, he could not conceive that the House would deal unfairly with a Volunteer regiment of forty years' honourable standing. He did not approach the question in any Party spirit, but it seemed to him that the Government could not take any step more damaging to their popularity in Lanarkshire than that of permitting a regiment of 700 or 800 men to be arbitrarily dismissed without a full and complete inquiry into the charges brought against them. It ought to be remembered that, up till two years ago, this regiment had repeatedly excellent reports; but immediately on the occurrence of a private dispute between the then colonel of the regiment, Colonel Forrest—who for more than 30 years had done honour to the Volunteer service and was an enthusiastic supporter of the present Government—and the Adjutant, Colonel Forrest was called upon to resign; but so slight were the grounds upon which the War Office conceived it their duty to call upon him to resign, that he was allowed to retain his uniform. Colonel Forrest also seemed to have incurred the wrath of the inspecting officer, Colonel Lynch, and so he had not only to suffer himself, but the regiment had been called upon to share in the affront. The other senior officer who ought to have been called upon to fill the place of Colonel Forrest was a man of excellent character, of good social position, in every respect an officer and a gentleman who would do credit to any Volunteer battalion; but his appoint- 774 ment was refused by the War Office, and thus a further affront was, as we believe, done to the regiment as a whole. He was not there to say that the regiment was free from imperfections, or deserving of a character for excellent discipline, but as citizen soldiery they would compare favourably with any other Volunteer battalion, not only in Lanarkshire, but in Scotland. The question for the House was, whether Her Majesty's Government was so completely in the hands of one of the Departments of State that, notwithstanding the enormous majority they enjoyed in this House, they were powerless to resist the red tape and the permanent officialism of the War Office, who could condemn, without public trial, 800 men, and so put a lasting stigma upon those men and upon the district from which they came. The four parishes from which the regiment was recruited formed a very considerable portion of what might be called the black country of Scotland, and they did not feel that they were the least important of the industrial centres of the Empire. If they were to be so dealt with, there was no guarantee for any other part of the country; and in that way a great blow might be dealt at Volunteering in Scotland, and also south of the Border. He hoped the House, with its usual desire for fair play, would give to this regiment what the War Office could not refuse to the youngest drummer-boy in the Army—that was, a full inquiry, by which the men and officers would stand or fall.
§ THE UNDER SECRETARY OF STATE FOR WAR (Mr. BRODRICK,) Surrey, Guildford
said he could not help feeling some regret that his hon. Friend had thought it necessary to bring this matter before the House. Any man speaking from that Bench must be reluctant to refer to any Volunteer corps in terms other than those of praise. It had been his good fortune to express on several occasions in this House the high opinion which the Military authorities entertained of the Volunteer forces of the country. ["Hear, hear!"] But this case was one which, in the opinion of the Department, was a crushing case for the disbandment of the Volunteer corps concerned; and if it became his duty to use expressions reflecting on that corps the blame must rest, not on the War Office, who were undesirous to say anything reflecting on individuals, but on his hon. 775 Friend who thought it necessary to bring the matter before the House. ["Hear, hear!"] On the other hand, although he was most reluctant to go into the subject, he should confess he was not sorry to have the opportunity of brushing away some misapprehensions and some misstatements which had accompanied the disbandment of this corps. His hon. Friend had circulated privately amongst some Members of the House a statement on behalf of the corps, which was full of such mistakes. The hon. Member's general case was, that here was a corps which had been in existence for nearly 40 years, which had been carried on with satisfaction to all concerned up to the last inspection, as to which the capitation grant had been fully earned, and which, the hon. Gentleman insinuated, was now the victim of a sort of conspiracy between the inspecting officer, Colonel Lynch, and the War Office. With regard to Colonel Lynch, he should say at the outset that the whole of the somewhat amusing speech which the hon. Member had read to the House and attributed to that officer was repudiated in every respect by Colonel Lynch himself, and was in variance with every account Colonel Lynch had laid before the War Office. Colonel Lynch's account of the matter was this—that, having the unpleasant task of informing this Battalion that it was inefficient and quite unfit to take its position on parade, he did not wish to censure the officers before the men, and so he called them aside to a corner of the parade ground, where he believed there was not a single reporter present, and there informed them of his opinion of the battalion. His hon. Friend read a report which appeared to have been furnished from notes taken at the time, but which were amplified afterwards according to the writer's own desires. It contained such statements as that the rifles, with the exception of one, were found clean. If Colonel Lynch were examined he would say that his remarks had been more in the direction of stating that, with one exception, the rifles were not clean. [Laughter.] Then, as to the salutes, it was said that Colonel Lynch had described how salutes should be done, and that he had stated it was a simple matter that required practice. Colonel Lynch reported that he could not remember his exact words, but he told the 776 officers that if they only went before a looking-glass and saw the antics they performed in saluting they would never attempt to salute again. [Renewed laughter.] The following was the statement furnished by Colonel Lynch in reference to the report of his speech given in the Airdrie paper:—Naval and Military Club, March 8, 1897.Sir,—I have the honour to report for your information that my opinion of the 5th Volunteer Battalion Scottish Rifles, on parade at my inspection on June 20, 1896, was, that the Battalion was unsteady, and the men's accoutrements and arms were dirty, and the officers ignorant of drill and duty.I fell out the officers at a distance from the men in order that the men should not hear the censure I felt bound to express.The report of my remarks, as published in the papers, is very incorrect, as it conveys the impression that I was satisfied with the Battalion, when my remarks were exactly in the opposite sense. I took steps to avoid the attendance of any reporters, and to the best of my belief none were present. I stated that there was an improvement in one or two companies, but as regards the whole Battalion my remarks conveyed censure and not praise.I have the honour to be, Sir, your obedient servant,Alfred Lynch, Colonel, 26–71 Regimental District.To the Inspector General of Auxiliary Forces, War Office.He did not deny for a moment that the early history of the corps was very favourable. When it was commanded by the father of his hon. Friend the Member for South Lanark it had a very high reputation. But this was one of the cases in which the character of the residents of a district had a great deal changed. It was now a mining centre, and the men had changed.
§ MR. JOHN WILSON (Falkirk Burghs)
I beg your pardon; it is less a mining centre than it used to be.
§ MR. BRODRICK
said that, at all events, the class of men, and the class also from whom officers could be drawn, had greatly changed. The men were, to a large extent, miners. Their physique was good; but they had neither the time nor the discipline, nor apparently the desire, for Volunteering. This was shown to some extent from the Adjutant's inspection. For the purposes of that inspection the Adjutant went round to the companies to see how they were drilled. Two successive Adjutants found great difficulty in that respect in regard to the 777 present corps. The Adjutant informed the War Office that he gave 14 days' notice of his intention to inspect on parade, and yet it frequently happened that no officer was present, and that of the men only enough were brought together to form a squad, not a company, and that squad had to stand for company drill. It was hard to penalise those who attended because of those who did not come, but these small drills were insufficient to enable the men to learn their full drill, although they counted towards efficiency. The consequence was, that when the battalion came to inspection it was found unfit for battalion movement. In 1895 the inspection report of Colonel Lynch was:—The men of this Battalion are of good physique. They were very badly turned out on parade, dirty, unsteady, and wanting in discipline; their accoutrements were badly put on, and very dirty. Last year I reported the commanding officer as very good; since last inspection various matters have come under my notice causing me to change my opinion. I consider him quite unfit to command a battalion. The arms of this Battalion I do not consider to be in good order.In 1896 Colonel Lynch reported:—The men of this Battalion are of good physique but very badly turned out on parade, dirty and unsteady; the majority of company officers take little or no interest in their companies. The arms of the Battalion are not in good order, being very dirty. I called upon the adjutant for a report on the different companies, which I enclose.That report of the Adjutant showed that throughout the whole year the sole object aimed at was to get a sufficient number of men to attend the minimum number of drills necessary to earn the capitation grant. The difficulty of the War Office was this—that the men of the Battalion did not know their drill, and did not care to learn it; and to maintain a battalion in that condition would only be possible, with a hope of amendment, if there were good officers. Unfortunately the officers were the weakest part of the whole business. There was no colonel at present, and there had not been for 15 months. The last colonel was, unfortunately, connected with serious irregularities in regard to ammunition. Ammunition was issued free by the War Office on condition that it was not sold by the corps. 778 It turned out that in the year in which the irregularity was discovered by the Adjutant the late colonel had sold on behalf of the corps 18,000 rounds to a rifle club. The club, no doubt, contained some of the richer members of the battalion, to the exclusion of the poorer, who ought to have shared equally in the distribution of the ammunition. [Cheers.] But what was worse, after doing this for two years, the colonel had no hesitation in signing the ordinary War Office form stating that none of the free ammunition had been sold. [Laughter.]
§ MR. JOHN WILSON (Falkirk)
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that that is quite a common practice? [Laughter.]
§ MR. BRODRICK
said that he certainly knew nothing of the sort. [Cheers.] A variety of very intemperate letters were written by Colonel Forrest, and especially in connection with the inspection of 1895, when he wrote to a Member of the House of Commons asking him to put questions about the inspection. Yet, in the circular which had been sent round, there was the statement that a private letter had been made known to the War Office. They were asked why the second in command, Major Black, had not been appointed Colonel. It took Major Black a good many months to decide that he would take over the regiment if he were asked. He knew perfectly well, what was notorious to every one in the district, that a very strong officer was required to make anything of the regiment, and Major Black, however otherwise meritorious, was not pronounced to be equal to the post. As to the other officers, some of them did their duty; but the majority of them had no conception of their duty. Three of these officers—two being in command of companies—were publicans, who had public houses in the very towns or villages where the companies were raised.
§ MR. BRODRICK
said that his hon. Friend seemed to think that a man who kept an hotel at which a large number of the privates in his company were habitual customers was a proper person to command that company on parade. These officers were not only publicans, but they took turns to supply liquors on the ranges 779 when shooting was going on. [Laughter.] Moreover, their reputations on parade were unfortunately not equal to their reputations as successful hotel-keepers. [Laughter.] They were very indifferent in drill. One of them failed to pass a very moderate examination for his present position; and having been given a second opportunity of passing, this officer telegraphed at the last moment before the last inspection to say that he was detained by urgent private affairs. [Laughter.] That accounted for three of the officers. The next who commanded a company was a plumber, who did work on payment in connection with the range, and his bills were paid by the corps. He had been noticed by the Adjutant because of his familiarity with the men on parade. He called non-commissioned officers by their Christian names. [Laughter.] The next officer was an architect, whose name appeared in the accounts of the corps in connection with the payment for a pavilion which he designed for the range. [Laughter.] This officer was not good at drill. The captain of the next company was most indifferent to drill. His company was reported to be one of the worst. The commanding officer was asked to get rid of him, but declined on the ground that he provided entertainments for the men. [Laughter.] That officer was detained by urgent private affairs from the last inspection. [Laughter.] The next company was without a captain, and the lieutenant was pronounced incompetent for the duty. The next company was commanded by a captain of three years' service. When the Adjutant inspected this company at various times during the year the captain never found it convenient to be present. The company was wretchedly turned out. When the captain was called out to drill, the inspecting officer said to him, "There is the battalion. Manuvre them any way you please. Give any word of command you like." The captain replied, "I cannot do it, Sir, for I know no words of command." [Laughter.] The lieutenant of the company was not able to rescue his captain on that occasion, because he had taken leave for the whole year. [Laughter.] The position, then, was this. The regiment had no colonel, and could not get one. The War Office had done its best, but no one would take the corps 780 Neither the men nor the officers knew their drill. The great majority of the officers avoided the Adjutant's inspection. When they could, they got leave. When the Colonel took the officers round the ranks at the last inspection, he pointed out the dirt and rust on the accoutrements, and asked the officers whether they saw anything amiss. They said that they did not. [Laughter.] The Colonel stopped at one man who had come to parade with slippers on. [Laughter.] He asked the officer in command whether he saw anything remarkable about that man. The officer said that he saw nothing remarkable. [Laughter.] In some cases the officers called the men by their Christian names on parade, and in other cases the men called the officers by their Christian names on parade. [Laughter.] At the 1895 inspection, when the men marched off, presumably under the control of their officers, they amused themselves, according to a newspaper report, by firing blank cartridges as they went through the streets at the passers-by. [Laughter.] When they got into the train they signalised their arrival at each station by similar discharges. [Laughter.] With all these facts before the War Office—[cheers]—every chance of reinstating the regiment was tried. First the Adjutant was changed, because the Colonel could not get on with him. But the new Adjutant found that he could do nothing with the regiment. For 15 months there was no colonel; and in the last resort the War Office tried to get some of the neighbouring battalions to take over some of the companies. But none of them would have anything to do with the companies. [Laughter.] The War Office was now asked for an inquiry in this case, which had been gone into by the Colonel commanding the regimental district—a man of proved honour, absolute integrity, and implicitly to be trusted in his military Report. It had also been inquired into by the General Officer commanding in Scotland, whose Report was,I consider it absolutely necessary, in the interests of the Volunteer Forces in Scotland, that this battalion should be disbanded.It was also gone into by the Inspector General of Auxiliary Forces, Sir Francis Grenfell, who visited the headquarters; and it had been carefully considered by the Adjutant General and the Com- 781 mander-in-Chief; and Lord Lansdowne was now asked to start an inquiry as to whether all these officers, in the discharge of their responsibilities, were fit to decide on this question. The War Office, through the Government, had not hesitated to come to Parliament to ask for large additional sums for the Volunteers. They had done so in confidence that they would be voted cheerfully; but there had been one sentiment in the whole House of Commons on this matter, and that was that in giving larger sums to place the Volunteers on a better footing in regard to mobilisation, they should ask rather for more than for less efficiency. [Cheers.] It was a grave responsibility to come before the House to ask for a capitation grant or other payments for a corps which all their military advisers declared to be inefficient. But there was a point far graver than that, and that was to ask the War Office to keep on its legs, and, therefore, to keep ready for mobilisation, and to mobilise with excellent Volunteer battalions, which were to be found in that part of the country, a battalion which did not know its drill and whose officers could not give the word of command, and which, therefore, could not fulfil its functions in line with other battalions. [Cheers.] From that point of view he should like to reverse the Motion submitted by his hon. Friend, and to ask the House to declare that in disbanding this Volunteer corps it would be taking care that an injury and an injustice were not done to the whole Volunteer force in Scotland. [Cheers.]
§ MR. JOHN G. HOLBURN (Lanarkshire, N.W.)
wished to say a word for the men of this corps apart from the officers. The Under Secretary had read reports of the conduct of the corps during the inspection of 1895. On that occasion the men stood two hours in a perfect downpour of rain. They had their overcoats strapped on their backs, and were not allowed to put them on—[laughter]—and they naturally asked, "Why are overcoats sent out at all." It was true some blank cartridge was fired at a few wayside stations, but it was because of the state of feeling which had been aroused among the men. ["Oh!"] It had been said that an Englishman would turn if trampled on, and so would a Scotchman. And, with regard to the officers he would 782 point out that some of them had been officers in the regiment for 20 years, one of them, he believed, for even a longer period. If they were so very regardless of order and discipline, why had they been allowed to continue so long? ["Hear, hear!"] Why had the question never come up till now—till friction arose between the adjutant and the commanding officer, and then between the inspecting officer and the commanding officer? An allegation had been made against one of the officers, a plumber, for running up an account against the regiment. Now this officer erected the targets at the request of all the rest of his brother officers, because it was cheaper for the corps. The officer in question simply charged his men's working time, whereas other employers required something more. He had no hesitation in saying that so far as that particular officer was concerned there could be no stigma cast upon his integrity. Among the men of the corps a very strong feeling had been aroused because there was no fault alleged against them. The question, however, after all was not the petty squabble between Colonel Lynch and Colonel Forrest, but what was now to be done with this fine body of 800 men? [Laughter.] Yes, a fine body of 800 men. They could not be surpassed in any Volunteer regiment in Great Britain. He submitted that the House could not be too cautious about taking any steps which might discourage men from joining the Volunteer movement, and, in any case, if there was any fault calling for such a drastic measur as was threatened by the War Office, it should be preceded by some form of inquiry in which the public would have confidence.
§ Question, "That this House do now adjourn," put, and negatived.