HC Deb 15 June 1900 vol 84 cc143-8

I beg to ask the Under Secretary of State for War whether the deaths and suffering of the troops at Aldershot during the recent review were caused by unsuitable headgear and want of proper food; and, if so, whether he can state who is responsible, and what steps it is intended to take by the War Office in the matter.


I beg to ask the Under Secretary of State for War whether the attention of the Secretary of State has been called to the verdict of the jury regarding the field day arrangements at Aldershot on Monday last, to the effect that the cause of the deaths of four men and 400 reported (besides unreported) cases of sickness was want of proper food before starting for the field day, want of adequate refreshment whilst actually engaged in the operations, and unsuitability of headdress worn; if so, can he inform the House who is responsible for the defects in the arrangements and what measures are to be adopted to avoid similar occurrences in the future.


I beg to ask the Under Secretary of State for War whether he will consider the possibility of issuing a forage cap which will protect more than a third of a man's head, and an emergency ration for home service; and if the War Office will discourage the drill and manœuvre of troops when the temperature is of abnormal severity.

MR. CHANNING (Northamptonshire, E.)

I beg to ask the Under Secretary of State for War what are the results of the inquiry into the fatalities and casualties among the troops in the operations near Aldershot on Monday, and whether such risk will be obviated by amended regulations in future.


I beg to ask the Under Secretary of State for War if he can state how many soldiers suffered from the effects of sunstroke on Monday last at Aldershot, and how many died; whether the head-covering worn by the troops on that occasion was the same as that worn at the Salisbury manœuvres in 1898, when sixty-one cases of sunstroke occurred; and whether any, and what, steps have been taken since 1898 with a view of supplying the troops with some head-covering suitable to protect them from the effects of the sun.


There are five questions on the Paper arising out of the deplorable and, I believe, unprecedented casualties which occurred at Aldershot on. Monday, the 11th, in the names of hon. Members for East Clare, South-cast Essex Sunderland, East Northamptonshire, and North Islington. If those hon. Members will allow me, I will endeavour to cover all the points raised with which I am at present in a position to deal. The Commander-in-Chief directed by telegram on the 12th that an inquiry should be hold, and a reply was received on the same day to the effect that action had already been taken. Reports have been received from the General Officer commanding, Aldershot, and the Surgeon-General. I have-also had the advantage of speaking to the Adjutant-General, who returned from Aldershot this morning, but further particulars will be forthcoming from officers commanding the various regiments. The facts were as follows:—On Monday, the 11th of June, a field day was ordered at Aldershot, and a total of 18,002 men came on parade. The general order in. force on all such occasions is that the men are to get their breakfast before starting, and that they are to be provided with light refreshments at some time during the day. The method of carrying out that order is left to the regimental authorities. The breakfast consists of bread and tea; and there is no reason to believe that any regiment failed to get breakfast before starting. The light refreshment may consist of sandwiches, but the most popular thing with the men is bread and cheese. The men dine on their return to camp, and very much prefer these arrangements to carrying an emergency ration, which would not be palatable unless a prolonged halt were made for cooking it. The light refreshment of sandwiches, or bread and cheese, may either be served out to the men before they start, for them to carry in their haversacks, or it may be arranged that a canteen cart shall meet the regiment at some specified point. That is a matter entirely for regimental arrangement, and one upon which it would be injudicious to lay down uniform regulations. On Monday morning when the troops started there was, the General commanding states, no exceptional heat; on the contrary he expected rain. But about 10 o'clock great heat began to be felt, and as it continued the "halt" was sounded at 10.30 and the "cease fire" at 11.15. It was then directed that the men should be inarched back as easily as possible and with such periods of rest as their officers might think desirable. There is general testimony to the suddenness with which the heat wave came on; and, in particular, Major-General Hemming, commanding the division in which was the Highland Light Infantry, testified from personal observation that not a man of that battalion fell out before the march back was begun. On the previous day the General Officer commanding had personally instructed brigadiers and divisional commanders that their men, should they show any signs of fatigue, were to be halted, and, if necessary, to take no further part in the operations. But during the march back the severe heat was very much felt; a large number of men fell out; twenty-eight cases were received in hospital suffering severely from effects of the sun, of whom four have died, and twenty-nine suffering slightly. With the exception of those four men the other patients have made rapid recoveries. The whole distance covered by the troops was at the outside about fourteen miles, and in many cases less. On the question of the head-dress. In most regiments the head-dress worn was the field cap, of which I have placed a specimen in the Tea-room. This cap was designed to afford greater protection than the Glengarry, which it has superseded in the great majority of our regiments. The problem of designing an ideal field cap is not an easy one. The cap must be sufficiently light and compact to be carried conveniently in the breast or haversack of the soldier when wearing his helmet, and it is also impossible to ignore altogether the soldier's view of what constitutes a smart head-dress. Before this melancholy occurrence the Adjutant-General was at work on a sunshade to be attached to the field cap. But the best course is undoubtedly that all men in possession of helmets should wear them in summer time, whatever the forecast of the weather; and that men, principally in the Royal Reserves, who are still, owing to the exigencies of the: war, unprovided with helmets, should not, be allowed to undergo severe exertion at a distance from their barracks. The Colonel in command has notified to the General Officer commanding, Alder-shot, his regret that this course was not adopted, and has directed that it shall be followed in future. Amid much that is regrettable I am glad to know that fourteen doctors and an ambulance were in attendance to mitigate the sufferings to which the troops were exposed by a sudden and unforeseen rise of temperature. I cannot conclude without expressing my regret at the attempt which has been made in some quarters to fix blame on particular individuals who. are in no way responsible.

SIR JOHN BRUNNER (Cheshire, Northwich)

I hope the hon. Gentleman, will be able to tell us, if not now at a later date, what actually happened with regard to the supply of food to the men. He has. not told us at what hour the men started, whether the men were supplied with food before they started out, and whether food reached them when out or not.


I did state that the men were supplied with food before-starting. I do not know whether food in all cases reached the men, because that is a matter as to which I must get the reports of the officers commanding the individual regiments. With the exception of the Army Service Corps and the Army Medical Corps, no troops started before six o'clock, and some not until eight o'clock or twenty minutes past eight.


Do I understand that the head-dress worn on Monday was the same as that worn during the manœuvres in 1898, when there were sixty-one cases of sunstroke?


In the majority of cases the field cap was in use in 1898.


But did not considerable discussion take place at the time, and was not some promise held out in 1898 that there would be a reform in the headdress?


There has been some discussion, and attempts have been made to improve the head-dress. I still hold that the better solution is to wear the proper head-dress—the helmet—and not attempt to use the field cap for purposes for which it was not intended.

SIR HOWARD VINCENT (Sheffield, Central)

Is not the adoption of the slouch cap which has given so much satisfaction in South Africa under consideration?


I hope that some day the forces of the Empire may wear the head-dresses which have become dear to many of us owing to recent operations.

MR. JAMES O'CONNOR (Wicklow, W.)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the difference between the temperature of Sunday and Monday was only five degrees?


The heat came on suddenly on Monday morning, but it was because the temperature had been excessive on Sunday that the General Officer commanding gave personal instructions to the brigadiers and divisional commanders.

In reply to a question by MR. GIBSON BOWLES (Lynn Regis),


There were no signs of distress up to the time of the operations coming to a close. All the cases arose during the march back. Whether the men should be halted is a matter entirely in the hands, and it was left on this occasion exclusively in the hands, of the commanding officer of each particular unit.


But were the men halted in accordance with the orders of the General? Will you ascertain that?


When I get all the evidence I will see what steps were taken. I have evidence that some of the regiments showed a great disposition to march on and were not checked by their officers.

SIR J. KENNAWAY (Devonshire, Honiton)

Have I understood aright that the helmet is in future to be universally worn during manœuvres?


The Commander-in-Chief has issued instructions that in summer, whatever the weather, the helmet is to be worn, and that troops unprovided with helmets are not to take part in exhausting operations.