HC Deb 11 May 1915 vol 71 cc1590-602

Where for the purposes of the present war it is necessary in the interests of the efficiency of His Majesty's military forces to do so, a soldier belonging to the Regular Forces may, notwithstanding anything in Section eighty-three of the Army Act, be transferred without his consent to any corps notwithstanding that that corps is not of the same arm or branch of the Service as the corps in which the soldier was previously serving:

Provided that where a soldier is under this Section transferred without his consent to a corps of an arm or branch of the Service other than that in which he is serving, he shall not by reason of such transfer be deprived of any pay or allowances of which he was in receipt at the date of transfer should such pay and allowances be more advantageous to him than the pay and allowances of his rank in the corps to which he is transferred.


I beg to move, in Sub-section (1), after the word "Forces," ["Regular Forces"], to insert the words "other than the Army Medical Services."

I should not rise to move this Amendment at this hour and under these circumstances if I did not feel that I am dealing with a point of substance of very considerable importance. I do not wish to express any dogmatic view, but I want to state in a word or two the case for this Amendment in a way which, I hope, may enable me to carry with me the assent of the Committee and of the Government. In this time of war a great number of citizens have had to decide for themselves—each man for himself—how best he can serve his country, and many men have deliberately chosen to enlist in the Army Medical Service because of their sincere desire to assist in healing the ravages and unavoidable sufferings from war. They have enlisted in a service which exposes them to even more danger probably than if they had enlisted in the ordinary fighting branches of the Army. I think we, as a House, are bound to respect the convictions and feelings that have led so many men to offer their services in this special way. If I understand the Bill correctly, the War Office is now taking power under this Bill to transfer men who have enlisted for this purpose from the medical services to the fighting branches of the Army, and for us to accede to a measure giving that very serious power to the War Office would be repugnant not only to many Members of this Committee, but also to a great number of people outside, and it might even be attended with consequences other than those which the War Office seek to achieve. I wish to appeal to the right hon. Gentleman the Under-Secretary for War to respect the motives—the very highest motives—that have led these men to enter the Medical Service. I do not believe that the War Office intends to use this power, and if that be the case, and if they will say so, they will relieve the anxiety of a considerable number of people. I think they can achieve their end in a far more satisfactory way.

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

I am, of course, sympathetic with the arguments laid before the Committee by my hon. Friend as to the respect which ought to be paid to conscientious motives, but I would remind my hon. Friend that it is not always possible to pay that respect to convictions in the case of men who have joined a special service as part of an Army taking the field. In other words, I would remind him that we are at war. I stated, in answer to a question by the hon. Member for St. Augustine (Mr. Ronald McNeill) in a Debate the other day, that it is the intention of the military authorities to employ some of the men who have enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps in the combatant forces of the Crown. We have done it intentionally, and therefore I do not want my hon. Friend to go away under any misapprehension. I do not say it is going to be done wholesale by any means. Of course, men will be required in the Army Medical Service in large numbers, but where there is a sufficiency of officers and men, and circumstances demand it, I think it is right there should be power in the hands of the General Officer Commanding in the field to make this transfer. My hon. Friend spoke of the placing of this power in the hands of the Government, or of the Commanding Officer, as an act which would be repugnant—to whom I do not quite know, but probably he meant to the men themselves. I do not believe that the great bulk of gallant fellows who have enlisted in this and other corps will find that the power is at all repugnant to them. I am confident they are very anxious to serve their country where they believe the service can be most effective. I may inform the Committee that this morning I had a conversation with the Director-General of the Army Medical Service (Sir Alfred Keogh), who represents them so admirably—any words in his praise would be an impertinence on my part—and he is strongly of opinion that this power should be vested in General Officers Commanding. I hope, therefore, my hon. Friend will not press his Amendment.


The right hon. Gentleman has reminded us that we are at war. I am glad that the War Office are realising that, because his arguments favour something of which I am strongly in favour, namely, a mobilisation on a compulsory basis on a very much larger scale than anything the War Office has done at the present time—a mobilisation which in time may come, not necessarily with regard to fighting in the field, but for making preparations for fighting in the field and which will probably be required from the Government. Although I am strongly in favour of the principle of the Bill, probably the worst form of applying it is to apply it simply to the people who, on a certain definite condition, have entered a particular branch of the Service and, contrary to their consent, to remove them to another Service. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that a very large number of the men of the Royal Army Medical Corps are willing to join the combatant forces the moment they are asked to do so. In their case it is not necessary to ask them to volunteer to remove to a particular branch. But if there are people who hive joined the Army Medical Corps because they know they will not be brought into the firing line but will be kept doing hospital and similar work, the Bill practically amounts to a breach of faith with them, and it is somewhat hard upon them to compel them to join any other particular branch of the Service. I am afraid my speech is contradictory to a certain extent. I am in favour of a much wider form of compulsion; but I think this Bill is a mistake in one direction. Probably the right hon. Gentleman knows that some of the men who have gone out at the present moment have not received the slightest military training. That is a very extraordinary thing. Men who have been in the Service since October or November have never had a rifle in their hands or been trained for combatant work at all. I speak with knowledge of particular cases. They have been trained for the duties of hospital work to a certain extent, and are waiting embarkation at the present moment. If these men are called to go into the fighting line they are absolutely without training for it of any sort or kind. Unless they are willing to undertake the duty it would be very hard on them if they are suddenly called upon, contrary to their wishes, to leave the work for which they have been trained during the last six months and be drafted to some other branch. Of course, if the Government insist upon the Bill, they must have it, but I hope that if they do take the Bill they will adopt a much wider scheme of mobilisation which will be more effective than this Bill, and which will be free from any taint that it is breaking a contract with a man who has engaged to do particular work.


The Under-secretary for War has told us quite frankly that the War Office intend to operate this Bill in connection with the Royal Army Medical Corps. For the War Office to single out for compulsion members—


We do not single out.


Perhaps I may be allowed to finish my sentence. For the War Office to single out for compulsion members of the Royal Army Medical Corps and to put on one side every member of the Territorial Force appears to be distinctly unfair. In the first Bill introduced in this House the Territorial Force was included, but in view of the opposition raised in this House, or, perhaps, for other reasons, the War Office cut out the Territorial Force from the operation of that Bill. This Amendment seeks to cut out members of the Royal Army Medical Corps from the Bill. Generally speaking, the men who joined the Royal Army Medical Corps have some particular knowledge of that service and, in their wisdom, decided to help their country at this time by offering their services for a particular work. For the War Office to force these men to transfer their services from one branch of the Army to another is unfair and unjust to the men who have offered their services in this manner. I hope the Under-Secretary will reconsider the decision he has announced to the Committee.


My opposition to the Amendment is based on practically the same grounds as those stated by my hon. and learned Friend (Mr. Rawlinson). The mover of the Amendment laid down a principle which he appeared to think was almost an axiom, and that would be accepted by all of us. He said that a great many persons had recently been called upon to decide for themselves how best they could serve their country. As a general principle in a time such as that we are passing through, that is the exact opposite of what ought to be. No man ought to be allowed to decide for himself at a time of this sort how best he can serve his country. If we were a properly organised country, with a competent Government to guide it—I hope we have both—it ought to be the function of the Government at a time like this, through their organisation, to decide for each man what work he could best do for the country. It is because we have never adopted that principle, which is being and always has been, adopted by our enemies, that we are at the present time less strong—


The hon. Member is new going into a subject which is outside this Bill. The Bill deals with men who are already rendering service in the military forces, but it has nothing whatever to do with those who have not yet joined the Army.


I will not pursue that further. I am in favour of the Bill as it stands, because I hold the principle that the men having offered to serve their country it is for the authorities to decide in what particular branch their service might be most usefully employed. I entirely agree with the Bill as it stands, and I hope the right hon. Gentleman will not give way to the mover of the Amendment.


I hope the Government will not insist upon their opposition to this Amendment. It is a very serious thing when a man has volunteered for service in the Royal Army Medical Corps that he should be transferred to the fighting part of the Service. It is well known that many men have conscientious objections to taking part in fighting in the ordinary sense. I do not share those myself, but I respect them. Many of these men have felt that, nevertheless, they desired in this great crisis to serve their country to the utmost of their power, and they have joined the Royal Army Medical Corps, and it is a very undesirable thing from every point of view that the Government should now take the power to compel these men to fight in the military part of the Army. It is contrary to the spirit of our institutions altogether. If a man is transferred from one regiment of fighting men into another, or even from Artillery to Engineers, or anything of that sort, it is more or less a detail, but to transfer a man from a part which is saving life to a part which is doing the fighting is a much more serious thing, and it ought not to be done in defiance of men who conscientiously object to it. It may be that there would not be a great many who would object—I should not object in the least myself. I would take part if I were of military age in any part of the Service, but we ought to respect the consciences of those men who feel that they can risk their lives in the Royal Army Medical Corps for the good of their country, but cannot conscientiously fire upon their fellow men. We have been told that our enemies do this. Our enemies do a great many things that I hope we shall never do, and I hope that even in time of war we shall adhere in the spirit and the letter to that great voluntary principle which has given us such splendid results hitherto in this War.


It seems to be an extraordinarily strong order that as long as you have your Army based upon the voluntary system, when a man joins the medical branch of that Army against his will you should convert him into a fighting soldier. It seems to me to be quite a different thing to transfer a man from one branch of the fighting Army to another. For instance, you might take a man, if the necessity really occurs, from the reserve battalion of one regiment to the reserve battalion of another. He has enlisted as a fighting man. But, on the other hand, a member of the medical branch of the Service has not enlisted as a fighting man. He has enlisted because he has special knowledge. He has been trained for a considerable number of years, and has become a valuable asset, and is willing to give the advantage of his experience and knowledge to his fellow countrymen. It appears to me, as long as you have your Army on a voluntary basis, and insist on keeping it on a voluntary basis, to be an extraordinary thing that you should treat this branch of the Army in this way. You must remember that the members of this profession are about as fine a lot of men as you would find in the whole world. They are noble men. They regard their calling as a sacred trust put into their hands.


The hon. Member is referring to the officers—to the qualified medical men.


I am aware that this does not apply to officers, but to the men in that particular branch of the Service, who rank as soldiers. They have not gone in as fighting men. They have gone in as people who are particularly fitted for this branch of the Service. In all probability they have given up a considerable part of their lives towards fitting themselves for it.


it is perfectly well known that the ordinary orderly has not given up part of his life to do anything at all. He comes from the same condition of men as the common soldier.


I dare say there are some of them who have no special knowledge, but, on the other hand, there are some who have special knowledge. They cannot all get commissions, and there are many of them who are really in the same position as those who are holding commissions. For these reasons it is certainly a strong order to take these men out of a branch which is not a fighting branch and put them into a different branch altogether. The Government would do very well to consider this question again. I do not believe it is going to affect the efficiency of the Service at all. If the right hon. Gentleman says it is absolutely necessary, there is nothing to be done except to reject the Amendment, because we are not behind the scenes and do not know all the facts. Unless he can tell us that it is absolutely necessary in the interests of the efficiency of the Army that this should be passed, I shall be very glad indeed if the Government can see their way to reconsider it.


I desire to associate myself with the hon. and learned Gentleman who last spoke, and to express my astonishment at the hon. and learned Gentleman (Mr. Rawlinson). I have so often heard him in the past talk of the sanctity of contracts that one is amazed that he should try to put contracts aside in this instance. I know great numbers of men who have joined the Royal Army Medical Corps. They have done so in some instances because they have had certain training in ambulance work. I know of other instances of men who have joined because they have conscientious objections against fighting, but they do not object to succour others who have been wounded, and those who have taken any interest in the War at all know the gallantry that these men have displayed in facing the firing line. Is it that they have too many men for the Army Medical Corps? Is that the reason why they seek for these powers? If it be so, why cannot they ask for volunteers? I am perfectly satisfied that if these men were appealed to that their services were more required for the fighting line than in the corps that they have been serving in, they would only be too willing to listen to the appeal of their commanding officer. When the Territorials were appealed to to go upon foreign service, we all know how readily they responded, and I think the Government would be well advised to accept the Amendment. I do not think we should accept every proposal of this kind that the Government makes. It is a case of shut your eyes, open your mouth, and swallow whatever they give us, and I hope my hon. Friend will press this even to a Division, because of the doctrine that we have so often heard preached in this House of the sanctity of contracts.


May I say as a matter of personal explanation, that the hon. Member misunderstood my remarks as to contracts. My remarks were in favour of his point of view. The Bill as it stands, without this Amendment, upsets a distinct contract made with men who have enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps.


I hope my right hon. Friend will stick to his guns. I look at this proposal in this way. We want to get this War finished, and we want to concen- trate all our energies as a nation on getting it speedily completed. The more speedily it is completed, the better for all of us, and the more the nation will be saved. The Bill gives the Government power of elasticity in dealing with the forces at their command. Somebody comes along and puts down an Amendment—


The question before the Committee is whether members of the Army Medical Corps should be exempted?


Yes, Sir, that is what I am addressing myself to. This Bill gives the Government elasticity, and somebody comes along and says we should have deprived them of some of that elasticity by excluding a particular unit. We might all put that kind of Amendment down in respect of any body of men we are interested in, and say "except so-and-so." But we do not want to except anybody; we want everybody to turn his ability to the best and quickest use in order to get rid of the German Emperor and the German nation. Anything that will give the Government that power is what we ought to give them straight away. The hon. Member on the Front Bench below me (Mr. Hodge), who has a name somewhat similar to my own, says this is a case of opening our mouths and swallowing whatever the Government send us. But if you are going to oppose the Government, do not oppose them with a niggling little Amendment; oppose them on general policy. To attempt to interfere with the efficiency of our forces in the field by discussing tin-pot Amendments is really playing with business, while we have got the most serious thing on hand that we have ever had as a nation.

9.0 P.M.


I know men who wish to serve their country, but do not want to fight. They have a serious objection to taking life. You have many men, excellent men, who are willing to risk their lives in the service of their country but who cannot take up any weapon of war. I know of many of them in my own district who have joined the Army Medical Corps. They are excellent men on whose help the doctors are glad to rely in the field. They have no objection to go to the front and take all the risks of war, but they have serious objection to act as fighting men. If the Government allow these men to enlist in the Army under the conviction that they will not be called upon to fight. I do not think the Government is justified in afterwards using them as fighting men, for to do so would be to deceive them. I would not object to the Bill if it proposed general conscription, but I do object to using conscription in the case of the man who is doing something, and not using it in the case of the man who stops behind and does nothing. No single Member can be in favour of this kind of conscription towards men who are doing great service to the State, many of them in the fighting line or the hospital. Wherever they are, they are necessary. Instead of making conscription operative against these men, let the right hon. Gentleman bring in a broad scheme of conscription in order that the war might be speedily terminated. I certainly object to the use of this partial conscription in the case of men in the Army Medical Corps, just because there is a necessity to change men from horse regiments to foot regiments, or from one corps to another. I do not object to the Bill as a whole, but if the Government insist upon it in its present form and do not introduce some Amendment such as would meet the conscientious objection of these men to take up weapons of war, then I must oppose it.

Question put, "That the words 'other than the Army Medical Services' be there inserted."

The Committee proceeded to a Division. Mr. Hodge was appointed a Teller for the Ayes, but no Member being willing to act as the Second Teller, the Chairman declared the Noes had it.

The following Amendment stood on the Paper in the names of Mr. Joynson-Hicks and Sir F. Banbury: At the end of the Clause to add the words "Provided also that so soon as convenient after the conclusion of the present War any soldier transferred under the provisions of this Act shall, if he so desire, be re-transferred to the corps in which he originally enlisted."


I think that I may save the time of the Committee by saying that we are willing to accept this Amendment with one slight alteration.


I would suggest that the Amendment should be altered so that instead of the words "in which he originally enlisted" there should be the words "in which he was serving at the time of the transfer."

Amendment made: At the end of the Clause add the words "Provided also that so soon as convenient after the conclusion of the present War any soldier transferred under the provisions of this Act shall, if he so desire, be re-transferred to the corps in which he was serving at the time of the transfer."


I am very much obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for the manner in which he has met us in this matter. I am perfectly certain that it will remove a great deal of heart-burning outside.

Colonel YATE

In thanking the right hon. Gentleman, may I on behalf of the Army express an earnest wish that this Bill may be applied most considerately, as it has never been the custom in the Service to transfer officers or men against their will. Take the case of officers. There are many officers in the regiments in which their fathers and grandfathers were before them and, if their security of tenure is taken from them, it will be a great disappointment to them. Nothing makes these men so proud as to serve in the regiments in which their fathers served. This Bill is brought in, I believe, to turn Cavalry into Infantry, and I hope that it will receive very careful consideration in reference to the question of transferring large numbers of men. I speak as representing a great hunting county. All those hunting men as we know are at the front at present, and are the finest Cavalry leaders in the world, and their servants and grooms have also all enlisted. A stud groom who has enlisted told me the other day that he never knew what real joy was until he joined a Cavalry regiment. That man has been all his life among horses, and if he is transferred against his will to an Infantry regiment he will not be able to give his best services. It may do harm if you turn Dragoons and Lancers into Infantry against their will. Ask them to volunteer, and they will all go. Treat them as you treat the Territorials. Do not transfer them by thousands into Infantry regiments and call them the 13th battalion of something else. Do not say "I am in favour of voluntary service, and one volunteer is better than ten pressed men." We have all heard that saying. All these men transferred against their will will be pressed men. I only ask that the greatest consideration will be given to these Cavalry men, and that the Bill will be applied most carefully.

Question, "That the Clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill," put, and agreed to.

Clause 2 added to the Bill.

Bill reported, with an Amendment.


I would ask the House to allow me to take the Report stage now, as there was only one Amendment moved from the other side, and that has been agreed to.

As amended, considered.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the third time."


Personally, I am not so familiar with our forces as my hon. and gallant Friend behind me (Colonel Yate). I would ask the right hon. Gentleman—who will be responsible for the transfer of the soldiers from one branch of the Service to another? I think that there is a great deal of doubt about that in the country. I was asked to-day by an influential person who would be responsible in future for seeing that these transfers were carried out in the way which the hon. and gallant Gentleman has represented so forcibly. I would also ask the right hon. Gentleman to consider carefully whether the desire of those who now wish to transfer their services will be carefully and jealously considered? I have many instances, and I think that I have written to the right hon. Gentleman about one or two of them, in which a man brought up as a motor fitter and expert driver finds himself in an Infantry regiment, and feels that he is not doing his best for his country, and that in all probability he would be doing far more good for his country if he was engaged in the transport branch of the Army Service Corps. I know that there are some cases of that kind, and that men who are anxious to transfer do not get the transfer which they desire. They desire it, not because they want to shirk, but because they want to do their level best for the country. If the right hon. Gentleman can give us an assurance that those questions will be considered carefully it will be a great satisfaction, not only to the House, but also to the country.


I desire to say a word in reply to the hon. and gallant Gentleman opposite, and to the hon. Member who has just sat down. I have already given an assurance that there is no intention of using this Bill, which I recognise is somewhat of a revolutionary nature, in anything like a wholesale manner, nor in anything like a ruthless manner. The in- tention is to use it as sparingly as possible. As I have told the House, it is a power which we think ought to rest in the hands of the authorities. That is the whole point. I am sure that the hon. and gallant Gentleman and the hon. and learned Gentleman may take that assurance from me. Of course, the Secretary of State for War is responsible to the country, and, as his representative in this House, I am responsible in this House. But if he wants to know who will be the officers upon whom will devolve the responsibility of selecting the persons to be transferred, I say at once, in the first instance, the commanding officers of the particular soldiers or officers, and, of course, the Divisional General, and the Commander-in-Chief—the regular military hierarchy. But naturally the Secretary of State is the person ultimately responsible to the country. There is no intention of doing anything violent, for it is not necessary. I would remind the House once more that we are at war. In spite of the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Cambridge saying, most unfairly, that the War Office have only just arrived at that conclusion, I say that we have always been alive to that fact.


Why did you not mobilise the country?


The country might disagree with us on a political question.


It is not a political question.


I am sorry that that spirit has been dragged in. I regret having alluded to it, but the hon. and learned Member brought it up. Having given the assurance which I have given, I trust that the House will now agree to the Third Reading of the Bill.

Bill read the third time, and passed.