HL Deb 11 February 1856 vol 140 cc504-8

My Lords, seeing the Secretary of State for the War Department in his place, I wish to address a few words to your Lordships, and I trust I may not be irregular in so doing; at all events, I will not trespass more than one minute on your time. When the character and conduct of a Peer of your Lordships' House is publicly reflected upon, I believe it is in his place here that he ought to defend himself. I am not going to enter into any defence of my conduct or character; but I beg to give notice to the noble Lord the Secretary of State for the War Department that, having been reflected on in, as I consider, a very unfair way in the Report of the Commission appointed by Her Majesty's Government to inquire into the conduct of the war in the Crimea, I shall feel it to be my duty to-morrow to transmit to the noble Lord a full explanation of my conduct as reflected upon in that Report. And, my Lords, I feel confident that I can refute any charge which has been brought against me, and that I shall be able to prove that up to the very last day of my command of the Light Brigade I paid every attention to the welfare and comfort of the men and horses under my charge. I will only add that it is my sincere hope and wish that, after I have sent that statement to the noble Lord, he will give to it every possible publicity in every shape which Her Majesty's Government or the noble Secretary at War may have power, and that they will lay it on the table of your Lordships' House.


My Lords, I cannot allow this opportunity to pass without saying a few words. In this Report there is a reflection upon my professional character. Immediately upon reading that Report, I, as the noble Lord the Secretary of State knows, addressed a letter to him, refuting and contradicting in the most positive manner every part of the Report; not only that part which reflects on me personally, but also that which reflects upon my character. The noble Lord knows that upon the evening when I put that letter into his hands I requested his permission that that letter should be given to the public at once. The noble Lord, I dare say, can give good reasons why he declined to accede to my request. That letter was written as far back as Thursday, and it has not yet appeared; therefore, I do not think it is unreasonable to ask him again to be good enough to print that letter, and to lay it on the table of the House. I think sufficient time has elapsed for the noble Lord to do one of two things —either himself to give that letter publicity, or to allow me to do so.


My Lords, I received a notice from the noble Earl who first addressed your Lordships, of his intention to address a letter to me on the subject of the Report of the Commissioners who were sent out, not to inquire into the state of the war in the Crimea, but into the state of the supplies for the army there. Those Commissioners have given a very full and intelligent Report, and in some cases they have expressed their opinions freely as to the causes of the great distress to which the British army was reduced in the winter and spring of 1854–55. I am quite sure that there was no intention whatever on the part of the Commissioners to attack, in any way, the character of the noble Earl who first addressed your Lordships. They only express their opinion on the facts brought to their knowledge; but as to the attacking the characters of the noble Lords as Peers of Parliament, the subject never once occurred to them. In reference to what has fallen from the noble Earl who has last addressed your Lordships, I have to state that I have received a letter addressed to me officially. That letter I referred to the Commissioners of whose Report the noble Earl complains. One of these Commissioners is now in London—the other is in Edinburgh, and from him I have not yet received any communication. The Commissioner who is in London states that that portion of the Report which the noble Earl calls in question he can support by reference to the returns obtained upon the spot, which are printed with the Report of the Commissioners, and he has promised to give me an answer to the statement of the noble Earl in the course of a day or two. When I have the reply of the Commissioners, I will lay it on the table of the House, with the letter of the noble Earl.


The question, my Lords, appears to me not so much one affecting the character of any two noble Lords, as what is the course which Her Majesty's Government intend to take with regard to the cases which must arise from the publication of this Report. The noble Lord will lay upon the table the Report of the Commissioners, and various persons will naturally feel themselves highly aggrieved at the charges either directly made or implied against them in that Report. My two noble Friends will have the opportunity of making their statements in this House—although I do not myself think that this is the fittest place for discussing such statements. Yet undoubtedly one of two things ought to be open to every noble Lord. I understand my noble Friend (the Earl of Lucan) has written a letter to the noble Lord the Secretary of War, and has asked permission of the noble Lord to make that letter public; but that the noble Lord has not as yet shown a willingness to comply with that request. I wish to know whether the same advantages of making replies which are enjoyed by the two noble Lords will be conceded to others who have been reflected upon in that Report; and what is the course which will be taken with respect to those officers who have not a place in Parliament, but who feel themselves aggrieved by statements which have been made reflecting upon their military character? Are they to have an opportunity afforded to them for making a public defence? I am anxious to know what course the Government intend to pursue with regard to any answer which may be made by any officer whose conduct has been seriously impugned by charges contained in this Report; or whether it is the intention of Her Majesty's Government to prejudge the case of any of those officers who have had rewards conferred upon them for services rendered in the field, by imposing any penal consequences in respect of those matters of which accusations have been made in this Report? In short, I ask whether that Report is to stand as it does at present, either for reward or punishment, or whether it is open to any answer which any officer may be disposed to make whose conduct is spoken of either in laudatory terms or otherwise?


With respect to the proceedings which the Government have taken upon that Report, all that they have done is to take steps to prevent, so far as they can, a recurrence of the evils which the Report so painfully sets forth. With regard to the application of the noble Earl (the Earl of Lucan), it is true he asked my permission to publish in the newspapers the letter he addressed to me. My answer to the noble Earl was this, that I would give no person any official authority to publish in the newspapers any official letter winch I might receive as Secretary of State. The noble Earl opposite says, and I agree with him, that it would be but justice were an equal opportunity given to all persons concerned, and that any parties who may feel themselves aggrieved by any reflections which may appear—I will not say in this Report, but in any Report which may be laid on the table of either House of Parliament—if they choose to address to me, or to any other Member of the Government any representations which may place their own conduct in the matter reported on in a different light from that in which it appears in the Report, I conceive it would be but just, and I am quite prepared to yield to that opinion, that I should lay on the table such communications, either from Members of this House or of the other House of Parliament, or of officers in Her Majesty's service.


It appears to me that the Government have very much increased the weight of their responsibility in this matter by the course they have taken in honouring these officers by very distinct marks of their Sovereign's approval, by means of promotion and other marks of favour bestowed upon them. My Lords, I do declare for myself, as a British officer, that, if I had first of all been honoured with decorations as these officers have been, and had afterwards been reflected upon as this Report reflects upon them, I would tear those decorations from my breast and return them to my Sovereign.


I assure your Lordships that what I advised my Sovereign to do I did with the very best feeling. Those decorations were conferred for gallant acts in the face of the enemy, where life was exposed and honours gained in actual conflict. Nothing in the Report can detract from any honours so gained. They have been fairly earned, and those two gallant Officers will retain the decorations that have been bestowed on them for their gallantry in the field.


I am extremely happy that I have elicited the speech just delivered by the noble Lord. It is precisely the speech I wished to hear,—that, whatever reflection might be cast by the Report upon those gallant officers, it does not touch their honour as soldiers, and that they have received their decorations for their conduct in battle and for their eminent services in the field.

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