HC Deb 02 April 1917 vol 92 cc1018-28

Where a disabled man is accepted for service in pursuance of a notice under this Act, he shall, if when he left the Service he was an officer, or if when he was discharged from the Service he was a warrant officer or non - commissioned officer, be restored to the military rank which he held before he so left the Service or was discharged, unless the Army Council otherwise direct.


I beg to move to leave out the words "unless the Army Council otherwise direct."

Clause 2 in its present form is certainly a Clause which is intended to be very satisfactory to the majority of men who are likely to be called up. I cannot admit, however, that with these particular words it is very satisfactory, for they deprive the Clause of its real value to those officers who have been wounded and discharged. To these men it will be a great cause of worry and anxiety to know that they may be called up again for medical re-examination. That worry and anxiety will be intensified by the fact that possibly when they are again called to the Colours they may not take the rank they held when they were discharged. I cannot believe that anyone desires that except in a very few instances. I realise that the Army Council may say that they must have certain powers to decide whether a man shall go back to exactly the rank he previously occupied. It is quite right that when a man has been in any way unsatisfactory in his position in the Army that he should not have the right to go back. On the other hand, I think other words might be found which would maintain some right of supervision and revision by the Army Council. After all, it is impossible for the Army Council in cases of this description to enter into details of what are the merits of any officer They must naturally be engrossed with matters of far greater importance. Therefore the matter must be delegated probably to the commanding officer of the regiment. He also is possibly engrossed in matters still more important. Therefore I take it that a man should have a prescriptive right to rejoin the rank he left unless some good reason can be shown why he should not do so.

I would like to impress on my hon. Friend that the number of cases in which the Army Council would desire to exercise their right would naturally be small. It was stated on Friday that the total number likely to be called up for re-examination would be something like 500,000, and it is estimated that probably 20 per cent. of those called up for examination would have to rejoin, or, if they had not been in the Army before, had been rejected on medical grounds, would have to join up. If you take 10 per cent. as those who have been discharged from the Army, that would make it 50,000, and, taking the number of officers out of that figure, I think you would find the number of men for whom the Army Council would like to exercise some prerogative is particularly small. The Bill at the present time, I think, is much disliked in the country, and, therefore, I think it would be wise on the part of my hon. Friend, if he cannot see his way clear to accept the Amendment as I have worded it, to put in some words himself, or on Report accept words which I have drafted as an alternative to this Amendment. The words I suggest to him would be, at the end to add, "Provided that no man shall be required to rejoin the Service at a military rank lower than that which he held when he left the Ser- vice or was discharged, unless his case has been adjudicated upon by a tribunal upon which not less than half the members shall be civilians." I hope, however, my hon. Friend will accept my Amendment on the Paper.


I regret that I cannot accept this Amendment. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer pointed out in his speech introducing this Bill, the Army Council think it most necessary in the interests, not only of the officers themselves but of the men whom these officers might be called upon to lead, that it should have what is called a dispensing power. He gave at the same time an assurance that the Army Council would exercise that dispensing power with the very greatest care. It is a well-known fact that at the beginning of the War a great many young men got commissions who did not deserve them, and after some testing, particularly after testing in France, it was found by their superior officers that they were not good enough for the position which, by good fortune, they were allowed to occupy, and the view of the superior authorities in France was that it was a danger to me men under them that they should be allowed to remain in their commands. I think in cases of that sort it is in the best interests of the Army that this dispensing power should be given to the Army Council. You may rely upon it that in any case where a man has been asked to resign his commission, and the Army Council think that he is fit to go back to that commission in his old rank, they will allow him to go back: but, as I have said already—and I do not think I can put it more clearly—it really is in the interests of the men that the Army Council should have power to allow a man to go back to his own rank or not.


I quite understand, and I am sure the Committee will quite understand, what the hon. Member means by saying that it is in the interests of the. men that certain officers or non-commissioned officers should. on returning to the Army, not go back to the rank in which they failed in leadership and in the duties required of an officer, and that it would be unfair to men under them to put them back. The real way of dealing with such cases is not to have them back in the Army at all, and for this reason: Such cases must be, I believe, comparatively few—probably very few indeed. On the other hand, there must be a very considerable number of cases of men who have left the Army through some sort of friction, or through some lack of touch and confidence between them and their commanding officers. I know personally one or two such cases; they were probably quite frequent before the War. I have known several cases in the course of my life. Just this sort of men, who might be very good officers, are in danger of being degraded, and, instead of having confidence in themselves and returning to the Army in the positions in which they were, and therefore getting the confidence of their men, they will go back in inferior positions. And what is the position of a man who, having once been an officer, is sent back with the stigma upon him that he is not worthy of the position he had before? It is an intolerable position, and it is not good for the discipline of the Army, I am sure. The real solution of this question is to accept the Amendment, and, if there are cases in which you have any doubt about sending a man—either a commissioned officer or a noncommissioned officer—back to the same rank he was in before, do not take him back into the Army at all. I do not believe you would lose 400 to 500 men, whereas by the other course you would destroy a lot of confidence. I have bad quite a number of letters. I took up this point before, when we had a previous Military Service Bill under discussion. I spoke upon it then, and had an Amendment, and several officers wrote to me expressing sympathy. On this occasion I have had letters from two gentlemen in the Army who have had experience which leads them to see that it is much better that the Army Council should give up their dispensing power. I have great confidence in thinking that 'on reconsideration the representatives of the War Office, who, after all, are sensible men, and men who want to make the best they can of a very difficult and distasteful Bill, will do something.


Would my hon. friend the Under-Secretary tell us about how many officers there are who have been invalided out of the Army since the beginning of the War, and who will be reexamined under this process, and what percentage of that number he expects will become liable under this Bill to military service? I do not myself believe that the total number is a very large one, and I believe that the percentage of those who will be found eligible will be a small one. Therefore, the number of officers with whom we are dealing appears to be very small, and I should think that a far smaller proportion of those who would be fit for service would be unfit to receive their commission. So that really we have three successive stages of reduction. The original number is not a large one. The number who will be fit to serve is a still much smaller one. The number fit to serve, but not fit for a commission, is smaller still. I do not know how the figures run. Perhaps the Under-Secretary will be able to give us some information on that point, but I should have questioned whether, when you had got down to the third stage—that of a man fit to serve and not fit to get his commission back—the numbers exceeded a few score at the outset, and whether they were large enough to make it necessary for you to subject anyone to what is a great and exceptional hardship. It seems to me that, unless the numbers are substantial—and I think they must be wholly insignificant—it is not worth while persisting in this.

Brigadier-General HICKMAN

I hope my hon. Friend will stick to his point and not give this away, because I do think the Secretary of State and the Army Council, or perhaps rather the Military Secretary and the War Office, should have a discretion in a case like this. As a matter of fact, this sort of thing is happening every day at the present time. Officers, to my certain knowledge, have been in France: and have been either wounded or invalided and have come back home. After recovery they are then brought back again to work at the depots, where these particular officers, having been in command of battalions at the front, are now acting as majors and captains. I cannot see any difference. If you are going to differentiate in regard to the men who are to be brought back by this Bill, you are going to put at a disadvantage those officers I have described, who, after becoming well, have gone back to service at the depots. I hope, therefore, my hon. Friend will stick to the point.


This is in almost all respects a Bill which, it is generally recognised, is likely to inflict a very great hardship, but I think in this particular the hardship is more obvious than in any other case. I was rather impressed by what the hon. Gentleman opposite said. He said you could not take back some of these officers because they would endanger the lives of soldiers under their command. From that we must infer that previously they were endangering the lives of their men. Surely that was the time when they should have been called upon to resign their commission, but it seems that it is only when the officer has been wounded in action, perhaps, that you are ready to discover he is not fit to lead men. Surely there is a way out of that difficulty. If there are cases of such men who are not fit to lead in the field, surely it is possible to allow this small number to retain their commissions and put them to other work that will not lead to the endangering of the lives of men. I do think the hon. Gentleman might find some way to meet the difficulty which he has in his mind, and at the same time not inflict a very grave hardship.


In reply to what has been said may I point out that many of these officers have been asked to resign and others have been asked to relinquish their commission on the ground of ill-health. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Dundee (Mr. Churchill) knows very well that last categorising of resignation in the Army is not really permissible, and it has been reduced in order to enable us to be relieved of an officer who for example lost his nerve at the beginning of an attack.


What is the formula which the hon. Member refers to as "relinquishing his commission through ill-health?"


That has been introduced since the beginning of this War, and it is meant to soften hard cases. A young officer may find himself suddenly in a very difficult position, and while he may be most anxious to prove himself as courageous as possible, his nerves may give way at the last moment, and in such a case, instead of being called upon to resign and being treated seemingly as a coward. he is called upon to relinquish his position on the ground of ill-health. I regret that I cannot give the number of officers asked for by my right hon. Friend, but these cases are fairly numerous, and I do not think his method of deduction by means of those three stages compels me to alter the opinion I have stated, namely, that it would be in the best interests of the Army, be the number large or small, to leave a dispensing power in the hands of the Army Council. The hon. and gallant Gentleman (Brigadier - General Hickman) who spoke last brought forward a strong case for the existing officers. It is a hard thing for an officer who has very likely been one and a half years in France, and has borne the brunt of many bard engagements, to find a man whom he-has supplanted eighteen months before, and who has been home doing nothing, should come forward and have the same rank. I can imagine a very large amount of disappointment amongst the officers who have been undergoing these hardships when this man is suddenly called back after enjoying himself at home. I think the House would be ill-advised to accept the Amendment which has just been moved by my hon. Friend behind me, and I hope, if a Division is to be taken, we shall divide now.


I think the Under-Secretary for War is altogether misinformed as to the meaning of the phrase "relinquishing a commission through ill-health." I think it is extremely important, in justice to a considerable number of officers who have left the Army under the most gallant and meritorious circumstances, that the definition which he has. given on the spur of the moment should not go forward in the way the hon. Member has described, because the exact contrary is the case. When an officer has left the Army, having been discharged from hospital, hopelessly incapacitated by his wounds, the phrase has been "relinquishing his commission through ill-health." Great exception has been taken to that extremely ambiguous phrase in public, and I understood that the War Office were going to make some alteration in the use of that phrase in order to show that there was not the slightest question of an officer relinquishing his commission, but of being forced to give it up by his state of health. If it was to go forward that officers are really being allowed to resign in order to escape a court-martial for an attack of nerves in face of the enemy it would be most injurious, and I hope the Under-Secretary will take an opportunity of correcting that view.

I am aware that the number of officers invalided out is a considerable one amongst the officer class who hold commisssions, but the number of officers who have been invalided out as unfit to serve is a small proportion, and it is a very rare thing that an officer is invalided out who is likely to be fit for service again. Still more rare is the case of a man who has been invalided out and who is not fit to receive a commission, and I do not believe you will find a dozen such cases. I am all for the War Office having a dispensing power not to give a man a commission if they do not think he is fit for it, but is it worth while persisting in recalling officers bond fide invalided out of the Service, and forcing them to serve as privates. That is a great hardship to which, I believe, they will hardly ever agree, and I think the Government could safeguard themselves without losing their position under the Bill or reducing the number of men they require. What I say about officers also applies to the warrant officers. I agree if you bring an officer back you should bring him back in a junior position if necessary, and he should not step over the heads of others. If, for example, you bring a lieutenant back, he should go in at the bottom of the list, having been invalided out, but it does seem a very serious hardship to inflict upon a man who has committed no fault, who through ill-health has broken down, and he is not fit for a commission, that having once held a commission he should be recalled and forced to serve as a private soldier.


I should like to make clear exactly what I did mean by the phrase "relinquishing his commission on the ground of ill-health." I was dealing with a specific case raised by the hon. Member for Hanley (Mr. Outhwaite). The term of resignation in the "Gazette" was as I stated, but in the vast majority of cases where the "Gazette" notice appears in that form, the notice is a true statement of the facts and it means that the officer has resigned on account of ill-health. When an officer has been gazetted out on account of ill-health, there should be no doubt that the facts are as stated, and I hope I have made that point clear. I hope we shall now proceed to a Division.


I am glad the Under-Secretary has made that explanation. After what he has said here, I think it will be necessary for him to be very careful in considering the way in which "Gazettes" are issued, so that there will be no danger of anything of this sort happening, in order that there will be nothing reflecting on ony of our gallant soldiers. I hope the hon. Gentleman will look into that matter, because it will spread the utmost dismay in many homes in this country in the case of men who have given most gallant service to their country. I think some such words as the hon. Baronet proposes to leave out are necessary, because the Army Council are not likely to look up in the Debates the assurance which the hon. Gentleman has given, and something ought to be done to prevent a General Order being issued under which these men will all go back to the ranks. I think it is our duty to put in some such words. Of course, the Army Council must be the deciding authority, but we ought to limit the words so that they cannot pass a general Order saying that Clause 2 of this Bill will not operate, because that is what these words mean. There is no question about it. If this Bill becomes an Act of Parliament the Army Council can issue a general order and say Clause 2 of this Bill passed by the House of Commons has no effect. I would ask the Under-Secretary if he cannot insert the words "unless the Army Council in special and individual cases otherwise direct." Otherwise we are passing an Act of Parliament giving the Army Council power to do what I have described.


I will accept that suggestion, and on the Report stage I will see if we can agree to some form of appropriate words.


I think the Under-Secretary has just made a concession which is open to very grave suspicion. I should be very sorry by inserting any words in an Act of Parliament to limit the discretion of the Army Council in regard to these officers, for we might compel them to give a commission to a man who has been found by experience to be quite unfit for it.


I said "unless the Army Council otherwise direct."


I was not referring to what the hon. and gallant Gentleman said, but to other remarks made in this discussion, and I am extremely anxious that we should not limit the power of the Army Council to deal with these commissions.


The governing word in this Clause is "disabled." In another part of the Bill there is a definition of a disabled man which provides that, A man (in this Act referred to as a disabled man) is a man who has relinquished his commission in consequence of disablement or ill-health. It is clear that the word "disabled" in this Clause will bring in all men who have been severely wounded as well as men who have retired on the ground of ill-health. This Amendment is to limit the proposal to ill-health and leave out the case of the men who have retired. I think the word "disabled" covers both cases.

7.0 P.M.


I should like to have it made clear whether the concession which has been made by the Under-Secretary includes the sergeants and other noncommissioned officers. We have been talking almost entirely about officers, but I do not think the hardship which would be inflicted upon non-commissioned officers is any less than what would be inflicted upon officers. The probability is that the smaller the allowances which they would receive as privates than they would receive in the higher ranks would be much more important to their families. I suppose these Amendments will some time appear on the Paper. [HON. MEMBERS: "NO!"] Are we, then, to receive these concessions without knowing what they are? That is rather unsatisfactory. I hope we shall not be expected to rush them through in a minute, but that we shall have as much opportunity as possible of considering them.


We are all agreed that this dispensing power of the Army Council is not to be generally applied, and I think the suggested words, "unless in any individual case the Army Council otherwise direct," would meet the point.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Further Amendment made: "After the word "unless," insert the words "in any individual case."—[Mr. Forster.]

Clause, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 3 ("Short Title") ordered to stand part of the Bill.


I think the new Clause ("Right to Appeal to Tribunals"), standing in the name of the hon. Member for Somerset (Mr. King), has been covered by what we have already done. With regard to the new Clause ("Saving""), standing in the name of the hon. Member for Wolverhampton (Mr. G. Thorne), there was some discussion yesterday, when an Amendment was moved by the hon. Member for Sheffield, but I am not quite sure whether it covered the same point.