HC Deb 13 April 1920 vol 127 cc1613-8

In Section 79 (2) of the Army Act (which relates to reckoning and forfeiture of service) the words "his service during the period of his absence in the case of desertion, and his service prior to his fraudulent enlistment in the case of fraudulent enlistment," shall be substituted for the words "the whole of his prior service"; and the words "without counting the period so forfeited," shall be substituted for the words, "reckoned from the date of such conviction or such order dispensing with trial, in like manner as if he had been originally attested at that date."—[Colonel Ashley.]

Brought up, and read the first time.

Colonel ASHLEY

I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a second time." I apologise to the Committee that the Clause is not on the Paper, but it is owing to the fact that the Committee Stage has been taken on the day following the Second Heading. The new Clause is an Amendment of an existing Section, that is Section 79 of the Army Act, which deals with the reckoning and forfeiture of service under certain conditions. Section 79 enacts that where a soldier of the regular forces has been guilty of desertion or fraudulent enlistment he shall on conviction by court-martial lose the whole of his prior service. That means to say, that however long his service prior to desertion or fraudulent enlistment, he would lose the whole of it and be held to serve for the whole of his previous attestation period. I want the Section amended so that he shall lose his service only during the period of his absence in the case of desertion, and his service prior to his fraudulent enlistment in the case of fraudulent enlistment. It is rather strange that in the Army this very severe punishment should be dealt out, whereas in the Royal Marines and in the Navy exactly the opposite course is pursued. In the case of the Marines, which is so to speak, the sea army, a man does not forfeit the whole of his previous service, but only the time during which he was absent, and in the case of the Navy I am informed he does not forfeit anything at all. I think the Government ought to justify the fact that the soldier is treated so differently. Nobody can say that discipline in the Navy is slack, or that dis- cipline in the Marines is not of the most efficient sort. If there is any body of men whom we are proud of in His Majesty's Forces, it is the Marines, who have never mutinied and who have always been the first to keep a high standard of discipline. Therefore, if the Marines and the Navy find it unnecessary to insist upon this drastic punishment, which is in addition to any punishment inflicted by a court-martial, I think, at any rate, the War Office might consider whether it is necessary to continue the present state of things in the Army.

It might be asked, Why have the Army authorities in the past insisted upon embodying this Clause it is stands in the Army Act? I do not know why, but I have a shrewd suspicion, and that is that it is in order that they might keep up the numbers in the Army. In the past it was extremely difficult to get enough recruits for the Army, and 35,000 a year was the number which was usually said to be needed; so that when the Army Council in any year was faced with a shortage of men I think they must have tried by such regulations as these to require deserters to serve the whole of their period over again. I think there must be some explanation of that sort, that it was necessary to keep up the numbers in the Army. I submit, however, that those very mean considerations do not exist to-day. We have reached a happier state of affairs, where, on the whole, I think it may be said that the State is offering to the young man who is likely to join the Army a fair day's pay for a fair day's work. They are going out more or less into the open labour market and competing for recruits for the Army just as anybody would go into the labour market and pay the current trade union rate of wages for work for the workshops or fields. Therefore there is no necessity from that point of view for the War Office to continue this forfeiture of service. From the point of view of discipline, the punishment ought to be assessed by the court-martial which trios a man's case. What is the use of having a Board of Officers to try a man unless they can punish him by a week's imprisonment if they think fit, or up to the maximum of five years' penal servitude, if that is thought to be necessary? Therefore I think it is improper to interfere with the contract which the man has made with the State simply because he has broken it for some reason which may be of special moment to him. Let him be punished and then finish his term of service, but do not make him begin the whole period of service over again. When the War broke out there were many men who had enlisted for seven years, and they served all through the War. When the War was over, as far as they could see, the Armistice being signed, and they had had four years of Hell in the trenches, and they saw all their friends who had joined up only for the duration getting away, they deserted. Is it right that such a man as that should not only lose all his pension rights and all his medals, but, in addition, should have to go back and start his seven years' service again? I could say a good deal more, but I think I have said enough to point out that there is a case for investigation. I admit it is hard upon the right hon. Gentleman the Financial Secretary, because this is a question for the Secretary for War and not for him, and also because the new Clause has not been able to be placed on the Paper, but I would ask him if he could see his way favourably to consider the points I have laid before him, and perhaps on the Report stage an Amendment might be put down in some way to modify what I think the Committee will agree is a grave injustice.


I desire to support the appeal which has been made by the hon. and gallant Member opposite in regard to some reform in the Army Regulations that govern the cases which he has recited to the Committee. I have before me a case which, I think, will vividly illustrate the great injustice which is perpetrated on soldiers, when, for some offence they may commit which brings them to a court-martial, the sentence carries with it forfeiture of all previous service and all emoluments that may attach thereto. The case is that of a young soldier, who was a member of the Territorial Force, who was sent out to the Dardenelles, and took part in the landing at Suvla Bay, which, I think, is judged to have been one of the most severe tests any men of the Army had to undergo in the whole of the War. Upon being released from there, on his way home, the ship on which he was travelling was torpedoed and sunk, and then coming home as a time-expired man, he had to rejoin under the Military Service Act. During his furlough his health was very bad as a result of his service at Suvla Bay, and his experience in being torpedoed, and he overstayed his leave by three days. He was court martialled and sentenced to 112 days' detention, and all his previous service forfeited. I maintain that is most harsh and unjust.

I drew the right hon. Gentleman's attention to this case, and his reply to me states that nothing can be done in the matter. I believe there is a certain amount of discretionary power held by officers, so that a man in the regular Army, who is able to go back and serve a further period, can by good conduct, on the recommendation of his commanding officer, have restored to him all his past service which he forfeited as a result of the court-martial. In this case, under circumstances such as we have passed through, when men do not go back to the Army, the full effect of the sentence has to take place, and this young man, who was a volunteer when war broke out, has had to sacrifice all the pay due to him on his previous service and his gratuity as a Territorial, on top of the sentence of detention. I think the Committee will agree that is most unfair, most harsh and most unjust, and I would add my appeal to that of the hon. and gallant Gentleman and ask the Financial Secretary to the War Office to give consideration to the suggested Amendment to the Army Act so that, in the case of unjust sentences, or what appear to be unjust, in so far as they extend to the back service, taking everything from the man on top of the imprisonment he has, to undergo, something could be done whereby these things could not occur in the future. This case seems the more harsh and unjust in regard to a man who served in the War, and did not go back to the Army, as there is no opportunity for a commanding officer exercising his discretionary power and restoring the rights to the man, as is done in some cases.


I think the Committee have great sympathy with the case that has been put forward by my hon. and gallant Friend. At the same time, I must begin by directing attention to the fact that we must not regard desertion in a light way. It is suggested that the severity of the Act as it stands has been maintained with the intention of keeping up the numbers of the Army. I think I can venture to assure the hon. and gallant Member that that was not in the minds of the heads of the War Office. My hon. and gallant Friend stated that a man's reason for desertion may be of special moment to him. I think it would be rather dangerous to take as light a view of desertion as that. Desertion must undoubtedly receive a severe, but not too severe, punishment. Having said that, I should like to say to the Committee that, following upon Mr. Justice Darling's Report, the Secretary of State has already appointed a Committee which has commenced its work, which is charged with a general revision of the whole code, which includes punishments such as this. But if the hon. and gallant Member will withdraw his Amendment to-night, I will undertake that the special direction of that Committee shall be drawn to his Amendment, and that it shall receive its very careful consideration.

Colonel ASHLEY

After the very reasonable way in which the Government has met me, of course I shall be pleased to withdraw the Amendment, on the understanding which the right hon. Gentleman has given, that this particular point shall be brought to the notice of the Committee, and no doubt, if it is agreed to, it will be embodied in next year's Army (Annual) Bill.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.