HL Deb 21 July 1845 vol 82 cc717-29
The Duke of Richmond

said, in accordance with the Notice which he had given on Friday last, he begged leave to present a petition from the undecorated officers who had served in the Peninsular war, on the subject of decorations conferred on the army engaged in the late war; and praying that this House will interpose in behalf of the said officers, and bring their case to the notice of Her Most Gracious Majesty. The petition was drawn up in so proper and respectful a manner, that he felt the best course he could adopt would be to read a portion of it in the House. The noble Duke then read an extract from the petition, stating that the petitioners did not deem it necessary to trouble their Lordships' House with any details of the services in which they had been engaged, because the Thanks of Parliament had been repeatedly offered for these duties, and because self-adulation would ill become the character of British soldiers: That they threw themselves on the recommendation of their Lordships, with an earnest hope that the House would interpose in their behalf by drawing the favourable notice of the Sovereign to their case. He thought it was scarcely necessary for him to detain their Lordships at any length on the subject of that petition. He felt, however, that he ought to remind the House of the great importance which the operations in the Peninsular war were to the ultimate pacification of the world. There were many of their Lordships who might remember that period of the history of the country, when alarms prevailed throughout the greater part of the nation—when the walls of Parliament, night after night, re-echoed with melancholy forebodings that the British army would, before long, have to fall back on their ships for refuge, and be forced, probably at no distant day, to return to their native land defeated and disgraced. But, thanks to the transcendent talents and skill of his noble Friend (the Duke of Wellington), and the bravery and heroism of the troops who acted under him, the glory of the British arms was not only maintained, but the flag of England was planted on the soil of France. Every one would admit that the British soldiers did their duty during that period—not in one short campaign alone, but during a struggle, the duration of which extended for several years. Nor should it be forgotten that, throughout all that time, they were opposed by the veteran legions of Napoleon—by men who had been reared in the midst of war, and who were as intelligent as they were intrepid. He would not urge, in support of the claims of the petitioners, any fear that the English army would not hereafter do its duty. On the contrary, he believed their brave armies would ever be found ready to maintain the honour of their Sovereign and their country. He believed that the natural bravery of the soldier—the enthusiastic esprit du corps which he possessed—the feeling that, on his own personal exertions, as it were, might depend the fate of the day, would ever lead the British soldier to do his duty. He would not, therefore, put the case of the petitioners on this ground, but he asked what they required as a simple act of justice; for he could regard a debt of gratitude only as an act of justice, and in this light he was sure the country at large would also view it. He did not wish to impute blame to any individual in the country, still less to his noble Friend the noble Duke, for whom he ever did and ever would entertain the strongest feelings of attachment and regard. He sought not to attach blame to those who gave medals to the men who fought and conquered at Waterloo, and to those who conferred the honours that were bestowed on the soldiers who fought their battles in India and China; but this he would say, why should they not place those whom they saw covered with wounds received in the Peninsular campaigns, on the same footing with their brethren in arms? He felt that, in presenting this petition, he was but doing his duty to their Lordships in offering these remarks. He would not detain the House longer, because he felt it was unnecessary for him to recapitulate the heroic achievements of the great army to which he had been referring. He felt it to be a personal compliment to himself to have this petition entrusted to him for presentation, by gentlemen with whom he had become acquainted in early life, and for whom he necessarily felt a deep admiration, on account of their heroic deeds. In conclusion, he begged to present this petition from the veterans of the Peninsular war.

The Duke of Wellington

My Lords, the petitioners do me but justice in stating that I have never mentioned or referred to the war in the Peninsula excepting in terms of praise of their conduct. But, my Lords, it gives me the greatest concern to feel myself under the necessity of submitting to your Lordships, that your Lordships cannot regularly, and according to your usual practice, interfere in a question of this description. Some years have elapsed since these same petitioners made an application to me—if I recollect rightly in the year 1840—on the same subject which they have now brought under your Lordships' consideration. I then stated to them the relation in which I had stood both to- wards them and towards the Government during a considerable number of years. I stated to them that it had been my duty for several years to report their conduct, whether as an army, or as divisions of that army, in brigades or regiments, or as individuals belonging to the army, to the Government of the Crown, and to bring it thus under the knowledge of the Sovereign: but, my Lords, I stated that as to the rewards to the army, these were matters to which I could otherwise make no reference—that they were acts which were confined to the Sovereign, and to the advisers of the Sovereign—and that in this light I had never presumed to interfere in any manner, excepting when called upon to give my opinion, or to carry into execution the orders of the Sovereign to recommend persons for honourable marks of distinction. My Lords, I then recommended those Gentlemen to make their representation to the Sovereign through the proper channel. Since I received notice from my noble Friend of his intention to present this petition, I have inquired whether any such application has been since made; and I can not only find no trace of such application, but I cannot find any account of such an application having been ever made. I have heard, indeed, that a similar petition to that which my noble Friend has brought before your Lordships was presented by an hon. Gentleman in another place; and the present petition is addressed to your Lordships. But, I beg leave to submit to your Lordships, that the proper course for these petitioners to adopt is, to present their petition to the Sovereign, and not to come to the Houses of Parliament in order to require the interference of the Legislature in a matter which is strictly and exclusively the prerogative of the Sovereign. My Lords, I invariably, and I believe, in a satisfactory manner—at least I never heard a complaint on the subject—reported the services of the army, or of the individuals composing it, to the attention of the Sovereign. I have frequently received the order of the Sovereign to recommend officers of distinction for reward and promotion; and not only have I received such directions from the Sovereign of this country, but in repeated instances from the Allies of the Sovereign of this country; and I have submitted the names of officers to those Sovereigns, I hope in a manner satisfactory to those who were selected. The Sovereign of this country has been pleased to give his approbation and consent to the acceptance by those officers of the honours to which I have recommended them. But in no case whatever would I ever have interfered until I was called upon to give my judgment or recommendation and opinion on the subject. It is perfectly true, as the noble Duke on the cross benches (the Duke of Richmond) has stated, that marks of honour of a particular description have been conferred upon other armies, which have not been conferred on the armies serving in the Peninsula, however meritorious their services may have been. But, my Lords, have no marks of honour been conferred upon the armies of the Peninsula? Have no rewards been bestowed on those officers? What my noble Friend has stated is perfectly true, that the service in the Peninsula was not an expedition, but a war carried on for several years—for six consecutive campaigns, and some winter campaigns. Nearly the whole of the British army served in that war. Out of one hundred and odd battalions, of which the British military force consisted, there were about sixty which served in that army. My Lords, this and the other House of Parliament returned to that army their Thanks not less than sixteen different times, for as many different engagements; and new modes were discovered and adopted of distinguishing and rewarding the officers of that army. Medals were struck in commemoration of actions of gallantry and distinguished actions in the Peninsula upon no less than nineteen occasions; and these medals were distributed upon the rules and regulations laid down on the occasion to about 1,300 officers of the army. And will it be said that 1,300 officers is not a considerable number in any army to receive such marks of distinction, and this on nineteen different occasions? Then a new mode of promotion was adopted, for the first time, in the Peninsular army—I mean the issue of special brevets for extraordinary services; and a vast number of officers were promoted by these special brevets in this very army, whose services are now said to be unacknowledged. Subsequent to the war, upon various occasions, arrangements were made for the benefit of the whole army, cavalry, infantry, and artillery, recommended, not by me, nor have I the credit of them, but by the Duke of York, who commanded the army in chief up to the period of his death in 1826, and also by Lord Hill, who succeeded in command up to the year 1828. First of all, various allowances were made to all the different officers. In 1826, the officers holding brevet rank on full pay had the advantage of retiring upon the advanced half pay of the next rank above. Lieutenants serving on full pay whose commissions were dated prior to 1811, had the option of retiring upon the unattached rank of captain on half pay. By an Order in 1834, in every three vacancies upon the retired full and half pay, one promotion was granted in the ranks of captain, major, and lieutenant-colonel—all these arrangements being in favour of these officers. In 1835 a further arrangement was made in favour of captains promoted under the General Order of December 1826; and 20 lieutenant-colonels, 20 majors, and 115 captains received full pay instead of retired half pay. These were solid boons conferred upon those individuals by the public. Then I would beg your Lordships to remember that among your Lordships there are not less than seven officers who have been promoted to the peerage on account of their own services, or those of their fathers or grandfathers, in this very army. Not less than 400 of the different classes of the Order of the Bath were conferred on the officers who served in the Peninsular army. My Lords, it is perfectly true that the late Sovereign was pleased to confer a medal on the army that fought at the battle of Waterloo—upon every individual who was present on that occasion. This was an honour which had never before been conferred on anybody of troops, and certainly not on the army that served in the Peninsula, although they had fought several great battles, and most undoubtedly their service was of a most important description during the six years that they were in the Peninsula. But, my Lords, I beg you to recollect that the battle of Waterloo was an occurrence of an extraordinary nature. A general peace had been made, after a war of a quarter of a century, in the year 1814. Circumstances occurred which rendered imminent the probability that the war would be recommenced, and great preparations were made on all sides. The greatest anxiety was felt, not only in this country, but throughout Europe, upon the breaking out of that war. That battle was fought, and its decision certainly gave, at the moment, every reason to believe that there was an end to all the operations of the war; and not a shot has been tired in Europe from that time to this, upon any occasion referable to the operations of that war. It was natural that the Government of this country should be desirous of testifying their approbation of the conduct of the army on that occasion; and it is true that the late Sovereign and his Government did order that medals should be struck to commemorate that great battle, which should be distributed to every officer and soldier, and should be worn under His Majesty's directions. My Lords, until lately this distinction was confined exclusively to that one affair, and was not conferred on any other army. Until events occurred recently in the East, this honour was not extended to any other army. I am not at all desirous of adverting particularly to the events which, a short time ago, happened in that quarter of the globe; but undoubtedly it is an historical fact that the greatest disaster which has happened in that part of the world for more than sixty years, occurred a few years ago in the north-eastern part of India. It was of the utmost importance to our tenure of the possessions which we had acquired—nay, to the very existence of the British name—in India, as well as to the maintenance of the spirit of the army, that their reputation should be revived by success; and my noble Friend, the noble Earl who was Governor General of India, and under whose auspices the operations were carried on in all directions, which restored to the army the credit, reputation, and honour in which it was always held up to that moment, and which tended so much to the advantage and honour of the country—the noble Earl thought it proper to follow the example of the case of the battle of Waterloo, and ordered medals to be struck, and distributed to every individual of the army that fought in the north-east of India. The noble Lord judged most correctly that it was important to give some mark of the approbation of the Government at the conduct of the army; to take a step promptly to make the men sensible of the estimation in which their conduct was held; and that it should do so promptly, to revive the spirit which had existed before, and that confidence in their own exertions which was so important to re-establish discipline, subordination, and good order. The noble Lord had the power of carrying into execution this measure within the territories under his own government; but it required the assent of Her Majesty in order that those who received this mark of honour from the noble Lord the Governor General of India should be enabled to wear this decoration in this country; and Her Majesty was pleased to express her approbation of the measure which had been adopted by the noble Earl. This is the history of this medal. There is no doubt that the army retrieved the misfortune which had previously occurred, and the good conduct of the troops regained the character of the army, and restored confidence to the public, and peace to India. There was afterwards another instance with regard to such medals, with respect to which, I think, from what I shall state, it will be exceedingly clear that they were given on such distinct and exclusive grounds that they will form an exception to the general rule, and I think that I shall, in a few words, show your Lordships a full justification for the distinction that was made—I mean the medals given in the case of China. I have before had occasion to draw your Lordships' attention to the extraordinary operations performed in that war. My Lords, we had fleets and armies there carrying on joint operations on a hostile coast, carrying on operations against fortified harbours and rivers, against fortresses and fortified coasts, and manœuvring against the enemy exactly as if they had been a body of troops with their cannon in the field, and carrying everything before them. My Lords, you must all recollect the anxiety with which those of us who knew anything of the nature of warlike operations, regarded the risks and dangers of that war in China. My Lords, the British troops overcame all their difficulties; and I must add that there was this peculiar circumstance attending these operations, namely, that they were carried on by the native troops, who, as was known to all Governors of India, had notorious prejudices against embarkation, and whom it was difficult to prevail on to embark. They did, however, give their services in aid of Her Majesty's troops, enduring all the hardships, and not being backward in their services, or in their efforts to get the better of the enemy. My Lords, after an extraordinary short period of time, the operations of that war were eminently successful; they were successful at every point; and they terminated in a peace satisfactory to all parties, and which I hope, will be the permanent bond of peace between this country and that great empire. Her Majesty's Government thought proper to reward the services rendered by the army and the fleet concerned in those great operations, and ordered that medals should be struck, to be given to each individual who had been concerned in carrying on those operations; and this, I say, is another singular case, which forms an exception to all general rule, and which cannot be quoted as a precedent for any other case. My Lords, I have already stated to your Lordships, that the army which served in the Peninsula is by no means an army that was not favoured; I have stated that it has been highly distinguished and rewarded; and hose services are considered on every occasion in which it is possible to regard them, with a view to promotion. But I would beg your Lordships to recollect that this is not the only successful army which has served this country; your Lordships must not forget the army of Egypt, you must not forget the army that fought in Calabria. And when you recollect these services, I would beg your Lordships also not to forget the fleets. Did anybody ever hear of a general medal for a fleet? And yet there have been great naval victories acquired, such as the battle of the 1st of June, the battle of Cape St. Vincent, and the battle of the Nile. Did anybody ever hear of a general medal worn by everybody for those services? Surely, if the Peninsular army is to have a grant of this description, and an address is presented by your Lordships for that object, it is impossible that your Lordships should not notice these other occasions. Then there is another circumstance which I beg you to recollect in favour of the navy: I mean those long winter campaigns, if I may so venture to call them, in the blockade of the coast of France, and in the Bay of Biscay. Month after month, week after week, and night after night, that blockade was persevered in through the skill of the officers and seamen in the ships of war of the Sovereign of this country. Are these services not to be rewarded equally with continued campaigns on shore for six years in winter and summer? Certainly they must be. If you take the step now proposed, you must take others; and it would be impossible that you should not carry the measure to the full extent of giving a general brevet, in fact, to every- body who ever served during the whole war, as well of the French Revolution as in the Peninsula.

The Marquess of Londonderry

, after the speech of the noble Duke, in which he fully concurred, thought it superfluous to add anything; but he must say a few words on the one point mentioned by the noble Duke on the cross benches, when he alluded to the services of those distinguished officers in the Peninsula who were not so fortunate as to obtain decorative honours. He would not yield to the noble Duke in his high value of those officers engaged in those services; but he regretted that the noble Duke had come forward to present this petition, and that the language of British officers should be such as to seek a decoration or a reward by a petition to Parliament; it was unworthy of British officers to demand any decorations or rewards for any services they might be called upon to perform. The right of giving rewards was vested exclusively in the Sovereign, and it could not be exercised with impartiality if the subject could be referred to that or the other House of Parliament. The noble Duke might have taken warning by what had taken place in the other House of Parliament, when Colonel Hay presented a similar petition. That Gentleman was answered by the then Secretary at War, who was now Governor General of India; and so incapable was the case of counter argument, that the petition was rejected unanimously, and, he believed, without a division. And they had the other day the opinion of another individual, who had also filled the office of Secretary at War, and he was a civilian, who deprecated the interference of Parliament with the rewards conferred. What did these petitioners say? They set out by saying that the language of supplication would ill become British soldiers, and yet they proceeded to ask a boon which they said they would have received voluntarily from the justice of the country; and they concluded by calling upon their Lordships to interfere in their behalf. Besides this, the lapse of time had been so great that he defied the noble Duke to point out any mode by which the just claims of these officers could be established; the only thing that could be done would be by giving a general measure, and his noble Friend the noble Duke had given substantial reasons why this should not be done, and why, instead of an honourable distinc- tion, it would, owing to the misapplication, be entirely valueless. A soldier could look upon a decoration as valuable only when it came from the direct recommendation of the commander under whom he served, or by the order of the Sovereign of his country. It was said, that the officers serving in India and in China had received medals, and therefore, that the Peninsular officers ought to have them; but supposing the officers in India and China had not been decorated, did they suppose that the Indian and Chinese army would have come to their Lordships' House, and have asked for a boon, like those officers who had petitioned for this boon for their services? He was surprised that the noble Duke should have been the person to countenance a petition which was totally unworthy of British officers, because the supplication for compensation and reward was the last thing which they should make to that or the other House of Parliament. That House had not the power to grant the prayer, and it would be unconstitutional if it did; and he was certain that afterwards, when sitting by their own firesides, these very officers would think a medal so obtained totally without value.

The Duke of Richmond

replied. The noble Marquess had taken upon himself to give him a lecture because he had thought it his duty to present a petition which he thought respectfully and properly worded, and the noble Marquess had wondered that he had not taken warning by what had occurred in the other House. Now, he was not in the habit of giving up his opinions in consequence of anything that took place in the other House; and he conceived that he was doing his duty to those who had fought and bled in their country's cause, and who, as he thought, had been neglected by their country. The noble Marquess said it was unconstitutional, forsooth, that this House should give rewards to the army and navy. Did he not think that it was a reward for the army and navy to receive the thanks of of Parliament? The army and navy had ever been proud to receive the Thanks of either House of Parliament, and there was no reason why such a petition as he had received should not be presented to their Lordships. All that these undecorated officers asked was some memorial to show that they were the individuals to whom for these sixteen actions the House had given its thanks. The noble Marquess defied him to show any mode by which these rights should be ascertained; but the roll-call of every regiment that served in the Peninsula was preserved in the Secretary's Office. What he complained of was, that the general officers, the commanding officers, and those on the staff who had not brevet rank, did receive rewards; and he asked, why the captains, the lieutenants, the subalterns, the non-commissioned officers, and the soldiers, were not allowed to wear some mark of distinction, to show that they had served? And the noble Marquess asked whether the officers of the army lowered themselves by coming here and asking for a boon? He (the Duke of Richmond) thought not at all. It was very well for those who were covered with decorations to say, "Don't give medals to captains and subaltern officers, and non-commissioned officers and privates." He should like to know whether, without these officers and men, they would have got their honours themselves. With regard to the Waterloo honours, it was very well known that one corps which received them did not know of the action till some days after it was fought. Yet the officers who had gone through all the hard service of the Peninsular war, were allowed no testimonial. All must admit, that it was a laudable ambition in these officers to be able to transmit to their posterity some memorial of their own merits—of their country's gratitude. He was sure that not one of the petitioners would object to similar rewards being conferred on the troops who had served bravely in Egypt or elsewhere. They were willing to share the honour with all who deserved it; but they had a right to expect (at least he thought so) that they should have something to show that they had gone through the campaign in the Peninsula, and had done their duty. Peninsular officers, who had gone to reside with their families upon the Continent, if they went to a review, going themselves without decorations, found officers there with decorations who had never been in action. His noble Friend (the Duke of Wellington) said he approved of medals being given in India, because it was necessary to revive the spirit of the troops, which had had the shadow of a shade cast upon their reputation. He (the Duke of Richmond) did not think it was very expedient to tell the army, "Only suffer a disaster; then rally and distinguish yourselves again, and you will receive decorations to revive your spirits." His case was this—that when the thanks of Parliament were given to the army, the commissioned and non-commissioned officers and private soldiers should have some record that they had been in the engagement and done their duty there.

Petition read, and ordered to lie on the Table.

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