HC Deb 28 June 1900 vol 84 cc1313-9
MR. JAMES LOWTHER (Kent, Thanet)

I beg to give notice that on an early day I will call attention to the military hospital arrangements in South Africa and move a resolution. I also give notice that I will call attention on, I hope, an earlier day to the inconvenient operation of Standing Order 17, and move to add at the end of the clause—"No notice of motion or order of the day shall prevent any such motion from being proceeded with." I shall further ask the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Hawse whether, having regard to the fact—


Order, order! I must point out to the right hon. Gentleman that he has given notice of a motion which he is precluded from moving. He has already on the Notice Paper a motion which raises practically the same question as that raised by the second motion of which he has now given notice. Notice of a question must be given in the usual way.


I will do that, Sir.

MR. DILLON (Mayo, E.)

I beg to ask the Under Secretary of State for War whether his attention has been drawn to the letter of the honourable Member for Westminster, from Cape Town, dated 29th May, on our wars and our wounded; whether the previous letters, written from Bloemfontein early in April, but not published, were communicated by the same hon. Member or any other person to the War Office on their receipt; and, if so, what steps were taken by the War Office to inquire into the condition of the hospitals and the sick in Bloemfontein and other hospital centres; and whether the Government are now in a position to make any satisfactory statement as to the condition of the hospitals and the treatment of the sick in Bloemfontein in the months of April and May last, and generally in South Africa.

The following questions on the same subject also appeared on the Paper—:

MR. PAULTON (Durham, Bishop Auckland)

To ask the Under Secretary of State for War whether his attention has been drawn to the allegations concerning the hospital arrangements and equipment in South Africa; what steps are being or will be taken to inquire into and report upon the subject; and who is the official of the War Office directly responsible to the Secretary of State for the sufficiency and efficiency of the provision made for the treatment of sick and wounded on active service.


To ask the Under Secretary of State for War if, in consequence of the public statement made by a Member of this House yesterday with regard to the treatment of the sick and wounded in South Africa, he will cause an immediate inquiry into the allegations made.

CAPTAIN NORTON (Newington, W.)

To ask the Under Secretary for War whether, in view of the charges brought against the medical arrangements for the troops in South Africa, he is prepared to make any statement upon this matter.


I have read the letter of the hon. Member for Westminster. No previous communication has, so far as I know, reached the War Office beyond the short telegram sent to the Commander-in-Chief from Cape Town on June 1st. There are six questions on the Paper arising out of the statements made by the hon. Member, and I understand that my right hon. friend the First Lord of the Treasury will be prepared to deal with them in reply to a question which stands last on the Paper in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.


Arising out of that answer, perhaps I may be permitted to ask the hon. Gentleman to reply to the paragraph in my question which asks whether the letters of the hon. Member for Westminster previous to 29th May came to the knowledge of the War Office through any channel?


I have answered that we had no previous communication from the hon. Member at the War Office beyond the telegram of 1st June.


The reason that I ask the question is that the answer of the hon. Member to my question just now was not an answer. My question was perfectly distinct. It was whether the communication I have alluded to and what may be described as the suppressed letters of the hon. Member for Westminster—["No!"]—suppressed, I mean, by The Times newspaper, not by the Government—whether these letters did come to the knowledge of the War Office through any channel. The hon. Gentleman's answer was that he had had no communication from the hon. Member for Westminster.


I know nothing of the letters which The Times newspaper declined to publish.


I beg to ask the First Lord of the Treasury whether his attention has been called to a letter from Cape Town dated 29th May last, signed by the hon. Member for Westminster, in which grave defects are described as having existed in the treatment of the sick in South Africa; whether Her Majesty's Government are aware of the facts as described; who is responsible for the state of things alleged; and whether prompt steps have been taken to remedy it.


I think it is perhaps for the convenience of the House that I should endeavour to answer in one reply the numerous questions on what most naturally and properly is felt by the House to be a subject of national importance. I do not understand that anything has come to our notice which suggests that any sufferings of the sick and wounded in South Africa are due to an insufficient supply of medical appliances and comforts sent from this country. The question is rather one of organisation and distribu- tion in South Africa. A certain amount of correspondence, which I hold in my hand, has passed between Lord Roberts and the Secretary of State on the subject, and I propose to lay this correspondence before the House. I hope it will be in the hands of Members in a very few hours—probably before dinner-time this evening. But as the House is feeling so keenly on the subject, perhaps hon. Members will like me to read some material extracts from this correspondence, even if those extracts somewhat exceed in length an ordinary answer to a question in this House. As my hon. friend the Under Secretary for War has stated, the first intimation reached us in a telegram to the Commander-in-Chief from the hon. Member for Westminster on the 4th of June. On the 5th of June the Secretary of State telegraphed to Lord Roberts, and on the 6th of June Lord Roberts sent the reply, which will soon be in the hands of Members, and from which the following extracts are taken— The very existence of my force depended upon the supplies coming up by train along a line of railway nearly 900 miles long, every bridge of which for the last 128 miles had been destroyed by the enemy. Notwithstanding this, I ordered that the requirements of the sick were to be first taken in hand as soon as the rail had been repaired and a few trains of supplies had been got through. The principal medical officer proceeded with the first train to Kroonstad with surgeons and nurses. The field hospital could not be utilised, as we were about to move on again, but No. 3 general and. Scotch hospital had been held in readiness at Bloemfontein to be sent to Kroonstad directly the line was open; this was done, and the former received 180 patients within twenty-four hours of its arrival. I repeatedly visited the hospitals during the short time I was at Kroonstad, and I impressed upon the principal medical officer and Lord Methuen, who was on his way to Kroonstad, to do all that was possible to remedy matters. A few days after my departure I received a report from the principal medical officer that the medical arrangements there were in all respects in good order, while Lord Methuen has since informed me that everything is thoroughly satisfactory. I was deeply distressed at being unable to make suitable arrangements for the sick on our first arrival at Kroonstad; but it is obvious that a certain amount of suffering is inseparable from the rapid advance of a large army in the enemy's country, when railway communication has been destroyed; and such suffering would have been enormously increased had it not been for the prompt manner in which the medical authorities made the best of the very scanty accommodation available at a place little larger than an ordinary English village. Subsequent to that reply of Lord Roberts a further communication was addressed on the same subject by the Secretary for War to the Commander-in-Chief in South Africa on 20th June. On 25th June a reply was sent by Lord Roberts, of which I propose to read this extract— As regards hospitals at the base, before leaving Cape Town I personally assured myself that the arrangements were working satisfactorily, and I have not heard since any complaints about them. When we arrived at Bloemfontein we had an abnormal number of sick, due no doubt not only to the peculiarly exhausting nature of the march, but also to the terrible insanitary conditions of our camp at Paardeberg, where the only water available for drinking purposes Bowed down from the Boer camp a mile and a-half higher up the river, which was crowded with dead animals in a state of decomposition. We also had a considerable number of wounded after the tight on the 10th of March. To hastily improvise accommodation at Bloemfontein for such a large number, which gradually increased up to 2,000 before I left that town, was no easy task. Owing to the rapidity of our march from the Modder no tents could be carried with the force, and none were available until our railway communication with Cape Colony had been restored. As soon as I could arrange for such supplies being placed at Bloemfontein as were necessary for the very existence of the force, I ordered up tents and all necessary appliances for the sick, nurses, more doctors, and more hospitals. Bloemfontein is not a large town, but all suitable public buildings, schools, etc., were made into hospitals. I constantly visited these, and after a very short time they were, I considered, in good order and not overcrowded. … I can quite understand that people who have no practical experience in such matters are much concerned to hear the hardships which sick and wounded soldiers have to undergo in time of war, especially when they are not aware of the many difficulties that have to be contended with in order to alleviate suffering on active service. Such difficulties are sufficiently great in countries in which there are large towns and villages, and easy communication by road and rail from the base of operations, but they have been immeasurably increased in South Africa by the local conditions to which I have already referred. I have no wish to shirk responsibility in the matter or to screen any shortcomings which might be proved against the Royal Army Medical Corps. You state you have been told that the reports of MacCormac and Treves are optimistic, and the conditions have probably changed for the worse since their visit. It is true that neither of these gentlemen took part in any long or difficult march, but two consulting surgeons who are now en route to England—Mr. Watson Cheyne and Mr. Lenthal-Cheatle—have been with this force from the Modder River to Pretoria. I would ask that their opinions on the subject might be ascertained, and I would further suggest that a small committee, consisting of one or two medical men of recognised ability in whom the public have full confidence, together with some men of sound common sense, should be deputed to proceed to South Africa in order to inquire into and furnish a full report on the working of the medical arrangements throughout the war. I will guarantee that they shall have the fullest assistance to enable them to make a searching inquiry into the matter. If their visit should result in ameliorating the conditions of our sick and wounded soldiers during time of war, no one would be more grateful and pleased than myself. The Government are of opinion that some such independent inquiry should, at Lord Roberta's request, be placed at his disposal. I think the House has as full information as can be given until hon. Members have the Papers in their hands. The subject, I am aware, is one on which a great deal of public feeling is properly excited, and, in my opinion, where such a state of public feeling exists, it is most desirable that this House should have an opportunity of discussing the question if it so desires. I do not think that a motion for the adjournment of the House would be a convenient method, because the Papers would not be in the hands of Members. In any case, my right hon. friend the Member for the Isle of Thanet has put down what is called a blocking notice, which would prevent the adjournment of the House from being moved [HON. MEMBERS: No, no!] I am so informed; but, however that may be, I think that a far more orderly procedure would be for the House to discuss this question on the Estimates. I propose tomorrow, therefore, that we should depart from the announced order of business, and place an Estimate first on the Paper before the Scotch Votes, to enable the question to be raised. I had originally intended to place on the Paper the Vote for the salary of the Secretary of State, but I have reason to believe that under our rules it would not be possible to discuss the Medical Department on that Vote, because there is a separate Vote for it. I propose, therefore, to place a purely nominal Supplementary Estimate of £5 for the Army Medical Department, to stand first on the Order Paper, in order to give the House the opportunity of discussing this question. I hope the House will feel that I have given all the information I can with a view to publicity.

*MR. BURDETT-COUTTS (Westminster)

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman a question arising out of his answer—whether in Lord Roberts's statement there is any account of the field hospitals about Bloemfontein—any account other than that which he has read of the town hospitals within Bloemfontein, which contained 700 patients out of 2,200? I did not hear them referred to.


I venture to think that we had better not attempt to anticipate the debate of to-morrow by question and answer across the floor of the House. It is a legitimate question, but it can be dealt with adequately tomorrow.