HL Deb 20 April 1815 vol 30 cc704-8
The Earl of Egremont

rose, pursuant to a notice which he had given, to move for the production of the minutes of the Courts Martial held upon capt. Philip Browne, of the Hermes Mr. Lazarus Roberts, of the Hamadryad and colonel Quentin, of the 10th Hussars. He began by lamenting that the subject had not fallen into abler hands, and disclaiming all personal motives, his only object being to rescue a brave and meritorious class of individuals from a situation in which they ought not to be placed He then alluded to the case of captain Browne, who was tried in April 1814, upon seven charges totally separate and distinct from each other. One of these charges was for drawing bills upon the commissioners of the navy under fictitious names, another for offering to fight the captain of a merchantman on the quarter deck of his own (captain Browne's) ship, and another for tyranny and oppression. These were the principal charges, the remaining four being of minor important and it was impossible, the noble lord contended, for the mind of man to suggest seven charges more distinct and separate; yet the sentence of the court was, that having maturely and deliberately considered the whole of the evidence, they Were of opinion the charges were partly proved, and did therefore adjudge the prisoner to be dismissed from his Majesty's service. It appeared, however, from the minutes of the court-martial, that the charge respecting the fraudulent bills upon the commissioners of the navy was decided by the judge advocate general to be inadequate supported, as the forged documents were not produced in court; besides which it was urged that the practice complained of was not unusual in the naval service, and was by no means employed by captain Browne with any fraudulent intent. The evidence upon the charge accusing him of offering to fight the captain of the merchant vessel, proved that he received the grossest and most outrageous insults from that individual, and that his consequent conduct, however reprehensible it might be, was the result of passion excited by that conduct: while upon the other charge of tyranny and oppression, no evidence at all was offered in support of it. Under these circumstances it was surely a great injury inflicted upon captain Browne by the sort of sentence which the court passed, by stating that the charges were in part proved, without specifying how much of them, or of what charges. The opinion of the law officers was afterwards taken upon that sentence, and we understood his lordship to say that they had pronounced it to be unjust, illegal, and informal. The noble lord then adverted to the court-martial upon Mr. Lazarus Roberts, a midshipman of the Hamadryad, who was in like manner tried upon several distinct and separate charges, and had a Similar sentence pronounced by the court, viz. that they were of opinion the charges were in part proved, and adjudged him to be dismissed the service and imprisoned. He did not mean to cast the slightest imputation upon the members composing either of those courts, or to insinuate that they acted from any partial motives or undue influence; it was to the defective principles of the military law to which he rather wished to draw their lordships attention; and it was with a view to the removal of these defects that he intended his present motion as a preliminary measure. The noble lord next adverted to the court-martial on colonel Quentin, dis cussing minutely all the details of the evidence, and animadverting upon the sentence, as removing the punishment from the guilty, and throwing it upon those who had received the highest praise from the Duke of Wellington and their superior officers. His ulterior object he stated to be to introduce improvement and reform into the legislative part of the military service, by providing a measure which should define accurately the nature of charges, which should fix the highest degree of punishment to each crime, determine the form of words to be employed in the sentence, and establish some mode of reference from courts of inquiry to other tribunals. With a view to lay the grounds for such ulterior object, he should now move, "That an humble Address be presented to the Prince Regent, praying that he would be graciously pleased to order that copies of the several courts-martial above mentioned, together with the opinions of the law officers upon the two first, the orders issued by the Board of Admiralty, &c."

The Duke of York

rose, and made several observations in consequence of what had fallen from the noble earl, on the case of colonel Quentin, and the consequent decision thereon. His royal highness vindicated the proceedings that had taken place on the occasion. He described the important duties of the judge advocate upon the occasion, and highly panegyrized the professional merits of that deserving officer. The advice which he himself gave to the illustrious personage representing his Majesty respecting the subsequent decision, was, he could assure the House, dictated by his views of the real honour and advantage of his Majesty's service. Referring to the proceedings on the court-martial, on which he differed in opinion from his noble friend, he described the different lines of proceeding that might be adopted, and added, that the greatest caution was used in the selection of the officers who composed the court, lest any suspicion of bias might obtain; and adverted to certain parts of the conduct of the officers which might in their tendency be highly injurious to the discipline of the army.

Lord Combermere

took the opportunity to say a few words. He animadverted on the letter which had been sent round by the officers of the 10th hussars, which he characterized as a 'round robin.' He bore the highest testimony to the con- duct of those officers, while on service, though he could not support their subsequent conduct. If commanding officers were not supported against such combinations, he conceived there would be an end of discipline.

Viscount Melville

followed, and in the course of some detailed observations, argued that the noble earl had by no means laid a sufficient ground for the motion he had called upon the House to adopt.

The Earl of Caernarvon

said, that there certainly did exist a necessity for re-considering the laws by which courts-martial were regulated; and in particular he wished the House to consider the state of the army with respect to duelling. By the laws of war the practice was condemned; and yet the case to which his noble relative had alluded (ensign Cowell, of the guards) exhibited the strange contradiction of a punishment inflicted for not fighting a duel. Without entering into ail the particulars of that case, he was anxious to state that ensign Cowell was a young officer of rising hopes, and of most distinguished though short service; and he had been broken by the sentence of a court-martial, for not having fought a duel upon a most trifling and paltry occasion. In that court-martial not one of the rules of evidence was adhered to. One fact which ensign Cowell wished to prove, to do away the imputation of having acted from motives of cowardice, was the following:—In an action which took place in the South of France, not above a fortnight before the foolish affair at the theatre of Bordeaux occurred, which occasioned his being tried, ensign Cowell had gallantly led on his men to the charge, being the only officer to command them at that moment. The affair lasted nearly three hours, during which he animated the soldiers by his heroic example. Seven men fell by his side, and not less than nineteen were wounded around him. Yet he was not permitted to establish that fact so honourable to him, because non-commissioned officers and privates, according to the regulation of courts-martial, could not be called as evidence to character. But in that case there was no officer present who could be called, and by rejecting the next best evidence, and, indeed, the only evidence which was attainable, that youthful and inexperienced, but gallant officer, was at once deprived of all chance of justice before his judges, and of mercy from his sovereign. He certainly could not help considering the sentence, under such circumstances, as peculiarly hard.

Earl Grey

said, he was happy to find that all the disgraceful charges with respect to captain Browne had been explained away. He was not personally known to that officer; but when he was at the head of naval affairs he had promoted him, from the strong recommendation which he received of his merits. With respect, to the conduct of courts-martial, there recently appeared to have been a good deal of irregularity, which might render it, in some points of view, proper to revise them; and with respect to the case of colonel Quentin, he doubled he legality of his holding the command of a native regiment, he not being a natural-born subject of this country.

The Earl of Rosslyn

was of opinion, that the courts in question in some points of view required revision, though he doubted the practicability of a law to regulate positively what should or should not be evidence.

Earl Stanhope

thought that the courts in question required revision, and that decisions should be rendered more consonant to the principles of justice. He thought the noble earl had acted meritoriously in bringing the subject forward.

The question was then put, and the motion was negatived without a division.