HC Deb 17 September 1914 vol 66 cc1003-8

I gave notice to the Under-Secretary for War, who unfortunately is not in his place, that I would ask him to-day to relieve public anxiety with regard to the treatment of recruits now coming in by making a statement as to the measures taken by the War Office to relieve the causes of complaint. The points upon which these complaints rest chiefly may be summarised thus: First, there is no proper feeding and no accommodation, and consequently there is overcrowding, there is insufficient sanitary arrangements, no means of washing, no clothing, and no other necessaries. Then, to complete this, there is no pay, so that there is no means for a man to provide these things for himself. I have heard from every part of the Kingdom complaints of the same kind, coming from sources of such authority that they are no ordinary complaints put forward by men suffering from slight inconvenience. Therefore I think it behoves the representative of the War Office in this House to make a clear and definite statement of what those measures are which have been, as I understand, taken by the War Office to amend this state of affairs, in order to allay the very natural anxiety existing throughout the country, not only in the case of men who may become recruits hereafter, but of the friends and relatives of all those who have already given up their time and are prepared to give up their lives to His Majesty's service. I must express some surprise that in response to the notice which I gave yesterday there is nobody here on behalf of what is now the public Department most in the public eye. I was present a short time ago in another place when the Secretary of State for War himself made a statement. There was nothing in that statement to meet the complaints which had been made, and justly made. It was a valuable statement, but it is not for me to discuss that here. It is here in this House, which represents those men who are now coming forward in thousands to serve in the ranks of His Majesty's Army, that I consider a statement should be made to satisfy the country that due and proper preparation is made to deal with the influx of recruits. Under the circumstances I will not pursue the subject further, as it is idle for me to continue.


In the first place, I should like to associate myself with the statements made by my hon. and gallant Friend who has just spoken. To-day I received a couple of letters which bear out every word of the charge he has preferred. One of the letters I received was most amusing, because the writer says that when they were first taken to Alder-shot they were paraded and lectured by the colonel about the first point they should observe, and that was to keep themselves clean. This soldier writes to a friend of mine to ask how it is possible to carry out the injunction of the colonel if they are there, as they have been, for several days without soap, without towels, without brushes, without combs, in fact without any of those things absolutely essential to carry out the injunctions that have been given. They have been there ten days without any change of underclothing. He said he was quite prepared to rough it a bit, but the thing that touched him most was this, that the arrangements were so incomplete that his wife and children who had been left at home had not been able to draw a single halfpenny, and for no other reason that he could get than because the man's wife had not got his regimental number, and was informed that until she had the number it was absolutely impossible for any pay to be given. It seems to me that making the fullest allowance—and I think every Member of this House, no matter what side he sits on, will recognise that there has fallen to the War Office an exceptional amount of work during the last few weeks—but making the fullest allowance the organisation might be such that great groups of men should not be placed down at Aldershot and exposed to all the inconvenience and annoyance, not only to themselves, but also to the pain of having to carry in their memories the sufferings imposed upon those they left at home.

The other point I want to mention has reference to another Department. I introduced, on behalf of the organised workers of this country, a deputation to the Prime Minister on the 27th of August. Yesterday I submitted a question which was answered by the President of the Board of Trade in reference to a deputation. The deputation in question concerned the position of the trade unions of this country. Unemployment has risen, according to the statistics published by the Board of Trade itself, from 2.8 in the earlier Report to 7.1 in the most recent Report they have issued. That is within a month; but what it will be in another month no one can tell. I want to know whether the Under-Secretary could appeal to the President before the House prorogues to-morrow to make a statement on this subject. The whole of the trade unions of this country are really waiting in response to our appeal for their case to be considered. I wish to know whether the Patronage Secretary can say when the House prorogues to-morrow whether we are going to prorogue for a long or short period. I hope it will be for an exceedingly short period because I think it is only right that this House should have opportunities for raising those vital and important questions in which those they represent are so keenly interested. I hope the Patronage Secretary will have something to say on this point.

The UNDER-SECRETARY of STATE for WAR (Mr. Tennant)

I am sure my hon. and gallant Friend will acquit me of any want of courtesy in the fact that I was unable to be present earlier. I have been engaged in very important business, and I understood that the matter to be raised by the hon. Member for Brentford (Mr. Joynson-Hicks) was likely to occupy some time. I understand my hon. and gallant Friend wishes me to make a statement as to the steps which have been taken to relieve the congestion and remedy the defects of the arrangements made by the War Office to deal with the great rush of recruits which have been sent to various centres. In the first place, I may inform the House that the War Office have opened ten large new camps at the following places: Salisbury, Codford St. Mary, Tring, Shoreham, Shorncliffe, Lulworth, Wool, Wareham, Bulford, and Grantham. All these new camps are equipped with tents, and blankets are served out to each of the recruits. Of course, it is the desire of the War Office that each recruit should have two blankets. At present we have not been able to give every soldier two, but every soldier has one, and we hope to give him two, and in the winter it may be desirable that they should have three. I think the ten camps I have alluded to will accommodate approximately 100,000 men. We have 100,000 at Aldershot. Most of the tents are now supplied with boards below, and where there are no tent-boards there are waterproof sheets. Another step taken by the War Office in order to partially stop the tremendous inflow of recruits is the raising of the height by three inches. This was designed to improve the standard of the physique of the Army, and has had the additional effect of diminishing the number of men qualified to join the Colours. I think the House is aware that while we were receiving 33,000 recruits a day as the maximum, we are now getting 8,000 or 9,000. [An HON. MEMBER: "What about the food?"] There is no difficulty about the food. [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes there is!"] I understand that the complaints which have reached my Noble Friend are that there is insufficient food, but I may say that there is a plentiful supply of the best food.


If they can get at it!


It is true that there have been difficulties in supplying food. I should like to be allowed to read the following letter which I have received from a Member of Parliament:— Nothing of the sort has occurred where I have been soldiering for over a month. We had an average of Over 2,000 men in barracks at Hilsea, where there was accommodation for about 500. I was in command of a battery there, and never had one single complaint about the accommodation or food or cleanliness from a single man. I went round dinners myself on several occasions and the men seemed more than pleased, and certainly there was no case-of dirt or vermin that I heard of. Naturally they had to rough it, but there was no complaint of that. You are welcome to read this in the House of Commons. Don't let any man in the House of Commons imagine for a moment that we are dissatisfied in any way with Lord Kitchener's regime. It being half an hour after the conclusion of Government Business, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Order of the House of 17th July.

Adjourned at Twenty-four minutes before Six o'clock till to-morrow (Friday), at Twelve noon.