HC Deb 29 March 1911 vol 23 cc1464-70

Motion made and Question proposed, "That the House do now adjourn."—[Master of Elibank.]


I wish to raise a question of some emergency affecting commissioned officers in the regular Army and in the Territorial Force. It may be in the recollection of the House that some ten days ago—I believe it was on the 20th March—an Army order was issued which was a command that commissioned officers in the Infantry—both the Regular Army and the Territorials—should buy for themselves a crimson and gold sash to be worn on review occasions. The cost of this sash, as I have discovered from various tailors' bills sent to me ranges from £5 to £7. I have accounts in which the items are £5 15s., £6, and £6 10s. I do not want to comment on the order itself, but I desire to point out that that involves great expense to subalterns and others whom the Secretary of State, not very long ago, described as being very inadequately paid, I wish to appeal to the Government on the point of cost. I am afraid if I deferred doing so till a later day it is quite possible that many of these sashes, however unwillingly, will have been bought and possibly paid for. Suppose the expense of these sashes should fall on the nation it would require about a quarter of a million sterling for the Regular Army alone, and to extend the supply to the Territorial officers would mean another £30,000 at least, or close upon £300,000 in all. I am perfectly certain that no Government, however strong, would dare in the estimates to place that burden on the taxpayers. Why should they not treat individual officers with the same consideration, and relieve them of what is really an extravagant charge I Surely the money could be very much better spent than on articles of useless personal adornment.

It is the third piece of personal adornment of the kind which has been put upon commissioned officers of the Army within the last ten years, and I think the time has come when everything goes to show that this kind of adornment is going out of fashion both in the Cavalry and in the Infantry, and this is one of the few surviving misfortunes upon which the British soldier has to spend his money. I want, therefore, to ask in no spirit of party, because friends of mine on all sides of the House have received information the same as I have done, whether the Govern- ment cannot see their way to relieve these officers of a charge which I do not think should be put upon them.


I wish to join my hon. Friends in making this appeal. I have been in command of a battalion, and one of the chief difficulties is the everlasting changes of uniform. I have served in the Militia and the Special Reserve, and during that time I have had to buy no less than four different sashes of different patterns. Not one of them was ever worn out. I had to buy a new one last year and I do protest against this needless expenditure. I do not know whether hon. Members below the Gangway think this is a laughing matter, but I can assure them that it is very difficult to get officers to serve in the Territorial Force and Special Reserve, and this expenditure to them is a very serious matter. I do appeal to the hon. Member on the Front Bench opposite to give an assurance that this matter will be dealt with. We are ready to stand any reasonable expense, but we do protest against this unreasonable expenditure which prevents us from getting officers.


I should like to identify myself with the request which has been make in regard to the officers' expenditure. It is a very difficult problem to solve to get a good supply of officers, and anything which is done to increase the expenditure which officers have to bear adds to the difficulty of the problem which the Government have to solve, I ask His Majesty's Government therefore to reconsider this matter.


I want to identify myself with the Members of this House who have spoken already on this point. The other day right hon. Gentlemen opposite expressed their sympathy, and the Secretary of State for War suggested that the expenditure should be cut down, and said he would do what he could to do so. The very first thing that happens is that officers are ordered to have new sashes. I do not agree with the hon. Member for Croydon that officers do not care to be too well dressed, but what they want is that they should have one decent uniform and stick to it, as these perpetual changes cost a great deal. £6 is three weeks' pay of a second lieutenant, and if within a short time a second sash is ordered he is charged six weeks' pay in order to follow the fashion. If we are going to bring fashions into the Army you never know where you are going to stop. Perhaps you will have the harem skirt for Highland regiments. It will not be enough to say that it shall be optional for officers in the Army, because what will happen will be that some of the senior officers will not get it and the junior officers will have to get it. The adjutant will probably wish them all to be the same, and will say to the last joined subaltern, "Of course, it is optional, but you are different from all the rest." It must be absolutely decided that the new sash is not required and the present one is sufficiently good.


I wish to associate myself with hon. Gentlemen who have spoken on the matter. I am against this sash on a point of principle. I do not think any soldier ought to be asked to pay for any part of his kit. This is a ceremonial sash. All these contraptions should be cut out absolutely. To ask the subalterns to pay £5 or £6 for a sash is asking too much, and I trust the right hon Gentleman who represents the War Office will agree to the appeal that has been made.


I entirely agree with everything that has fallen from the hon. Member (Mr. Malcolm). These changes are not unusual. When the Army is at a low ebb they generally invent a new button. On this occasion it is a sash. I think after what has passed lately in regard to the expenses especially of young officers in comparison with their pay, anything of this description is unnecessary, vexatious, and expensive.


I should like to associate myself with other hon. Members who have spoken on the subject. A short time ago it was proposed to introduce a new shako into the Army. It was given up simply because of the expense which would fall on the ratepayers. The cost of the shako would have been about £300,000, which is the sum this sash costs officers in the Army.

12.0 M.

The UNDER-SECRETARY for WAR (Colonel Seely)

I need hardly say the responsible authorities are entirely in accord with what has fallen from hon. Members on all sides of the House, as to the undesirability of constant changes of uniform and of any kind of extravagant improvement. They associate themselves entirely with the view that severe simplicity in dress should be maintained if possible. With regard to this sash it was thought that the officers of the Army as a whole would welcome its introduction. I know nothing of it at first hand, but I had an opportunity of seeing my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War this afternoon. [An HON. MEMBER: "In a sash."] No, not in a sash. He said at once that if it was the sense of the House of Commons that this was an unreasonable change to force upon officers of the Army, and if it were found that, though it was thought originally they would welcome the introduction of the new sash as a useful article instead of something only for ceremonial purposes, it was the sense of the House that this extra cost should not be put upon officers, he would, in deference to the wish of the House, reconsider the decision which has been come to. I stated in reply to a question to-day that no officer would be compelled to adopt this sash. I appreciate the point which was made by the Noble Lord the Member for the Western Division of Perthshire (Marquess of Tullibardine) that if this is allowed to remain optional it would in point of fact become compulsory. Of course that is a point that may fairly be made, but the Secretary of State is prepared to consider the whole matter. In the meantime I can assure the House that there will be no compulsion on any officer to buy this sash. I trust that what I have said will satisfy the House.


I cannot say that my friends and that I as an old soldier are satisfied with the explanation of the right hon. Gentleman. I fancy I know a great deal more about sashes than he does. May I remind the House what the origin of the sash was? It was originally a net worn across the shoulders of officers in which wounded men were carried to the field hospital. That was a very honourable origin. Nowadays it is a gold band worn round the waist, or it is not worn at all if the unfortunate officer cannot afford it. Well, I say that is wrong. We have heard a great deal during the past month about the pay of the officers. I say that to ask him to pay for this crimson or scarlet and gold sash is to put an unfair burden upon him. When I joined the Army I had to buy a sash which was worn on ceremonial occasions only. I still have that sash. I wore it in the year 1875, and it is as good now as it was at first. That is because it was only worn on ceremonial occasions. If you are going to use the sash for ordinary wear, which I understand is to be the case in future, the result will be that the first day the officer is out in a storm the sash will be made worthless. Everyone who has worn a red coat knows that the sash would become stained with the colour from the coat. You would not only penalise the officer by making him pay for a costly article, but for an article which when he was exposed to rain would be destroyed. What I object to is the idea that this sash is going to be optional. We had a very good Debate about giving the private soldier a chance to get the rank of officer. What is going to handicap him? First of all the crimson and gold sash. He cannot afford to buy it and when he has bought it it will ruin his clothes. Speaking as an old soldier who was in the Army for many years, and was adjutant for between five and six years, a more unreasonable thing than to insist upon having as part of the uniform things that one officer can afford and that another cannot afford, and that owing to a very proper pride they were compelled, at a personal sacrifice, to wear, no Secretary for War ever thought of.


I entirely agree with what my right hon. Friend opposite says. If you make a sash optional you make it compulsory. If the War Office had to bear the expenses of these constant changes we should very soon hear the last of this intolerable infliction on officers. Since I joined the Army I have known of changes in badges, sashes, the way you wear your sash—over your shoulder or round your middle—in caps, and everything else, and when my right hon. Friend joined the Army our corps was better dressed than at the present time. I really think that it is time to insist that these vexatious and expensive changes should cease. If the War Office are going to make this sash optional, which is, in other words, compulsory, they ought to bear the cost.


It is commonly believed that the War Office are at present considering the advisability of making us get a new head-dress. If the right hon. Gentleman can tell us that this is not so it will reassure a great many people, as this change would be a still more serious source of expense than that which has been already referred to.

Colonel SEELY

There is no possibility of any change of the head-dress of the Army for some time to come.


In all branches?

Colonel SEELY



In view of the announcement on behalf of the War Office that these sashes will not be compulsory what will happen to those officers who since the order was promulgated on the 9th of March have provided themselves with these sashes? The right hon. Gentleman knows, I suppose, that the total pay of a subaltern comes to about £90 a year, and there is the cost to his parents of about £2,000. Out of the £90 a year the subaltern has to provide himself with a uniform, and I understand that an order of the 9th March made it necessary for him to spend £7 on a sash. Now that attention has been directed to it the unanimous feeling of the House is against such an innovation. If it is said by the House of Commons that such an innovation should not be sanctioned, surely some consideration is due to the tradesmen who have laid in a stock of sashes of this kind. A stronger point is that many have already provided themselves with sashes under this order, and if, as a result of this discussion, the order should be revoked, I would suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that those who had already done so should not be allowed to suffer pecuniary loss. To permit the sash to be worn optionally would be absolutely useless, for no young man of spirit, if this accoutrement is thought to be necessary, would care to be without it. I hope that it is not the intention of the Government to leave optional the wearing of the sash, and that it will discharge the elementary obligation of justice by reimbursing those who have already provided themselves with sashes through an error which was not theirs but that of the War Office.

The SECRETARY of STATE for the HOME DEPARTMENT (Mr. Churchill)

I think the House has expressed a very fair opinion on this matter. I do not think it will be necessary to continue the discussion very much longer. The hon. Gentleman who has just spoken has with great shrewdness and accuracy pointed out the difficulties of the matter. I think my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary for War has very fairly met the House, having said that the whole subject is to be reconsidered in view of the opinion which has been expressed by the House of Commons. Under the circumstances I hope the House will rest satisfied with the discussion which has taken place.


We want a promise. Consideration is of no good at all. The Government have done wrong, and we want a promise that they are going to put things right. I hope my hon. Friend will go to a Division.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at a quarter past Twelve o'clock.