HL Deb 10 July 1868 vol 193 cc988-98

on rising to put a Question to the Under Secretary for War on the subject of certain occurrences in connection with the recent Review at Windsor, said the subject was one of great importance to the Volunteers, more especially just now, because it was expected that another Volunteer Review would be held in the course of two or three weeks. The circumstances of the case which formed the subject of his Question were as follows. Her Majesty had recently held a Review of Volunteers at Windsor, At that Review there was, he believed, a larger attendance of Volunteers from all parts of the country than there had been on any previous occasion of a similar character. The Volunteers marched past before Her Majesty, and afterwards went through some manœuvres with which the illustrious Duke at the head of the army had found himself able to express his satisfaction. But that satisfaction, so gratifying to all Volunteers, had been very much clouded, in consequence of some circumstances which were reported to have occurred after the Review. It was in reference to those circumstances he wished to say a few words. There were two routes by which it had been arranged that the Volunteers were to return from the Review—one the Great Western line, from Windsor; the other the South Western, from Datchet. He believed he was right in saying that no difficulty had been experienced on the part of those who returned by the former route. By eleven o'clock, he believed, there was not a Volunteer about the Windsor Station of the Great Western line; but he was sorry to say that a very different state of things had been experienced at the Datchet Station of the other line. A noble Friend of his (Lord Elcho) had stated in "another place" that he and his Volunteers were from ten o'clock on Saturday evening till two o'clock on Sunday morning obliged to remain by the banks of the Thames before they could be sent away. He regretted to think that the circumstance stated by his noble Friend showed what might be regarded as almost a breakdown in the railway arrangements between Datchet and London. No doubt, on the occasion in question there were causes of confusion. He should refer to these; but he hardly thought they were sufficient to account for the delay which actually occurred in the conveyance of the Volunteers on their return to town. He therefore wished to ask his noble Friend the Under Secretary of State for War in what manner that delay was really to be accounted for? He did not know whether there had been anything wrong in the arrangements between the War Office and the Volunteers; but certainly no such occurrence had happened on the occasion of any previous Review of Volunteers. He now came to another subject. At Datchet the greatest possible confusion existed; a large number of stragglers from different corps were wandering about without officers and naturally in a slate of complete disorder. He was sorry to say that still graver charges were brought against them—they were accused of insulting the Inspector General and his Staff, and committing other acts of insubordination. He had done all he could to ascertain the facts with accuracy, and he believed, as far as his information went, it was correct. It would seem that the disorder commenced immediately after the Review. It was very natural that on such a hot day the Volunteers should fall out of the ranks with a view of getting some refreshment, which they very much needed; but having done so, they ought to have returned to their ranks, and this, he feared, they had failed to do. But further, he believed, some regiments left the ground without any order whatever. Now, on this point the regulations issued by the War Office were very distinct. Brigadiers commanding upon such occasions were directed not to leave their command till they had seen the various regiments of which it was composed, so to speak, embarked in the railway train. But if a regiment left the ground without any order to do so, it was clear that this injunction could not be carried out. Under any circumstances, he was assured it would have been very difficult for some brigadiers to carry the order into effect, for the regiments under their command were so ar- ranged that they had to go, perhaps, to three or four different places. He hoped his noble Friend would be prepared to state that in future arrangements would be made which would obviate any such inconvenience in returning by the trains, and at the same time would be prepared to state whether in those brigades which kept together there were any corps which left the ranks in opposition to the orders given. He was told that, among those who returned by way of Datchet several corps almost raced to the river in order to get first to the pontoon-bridge, and some of those corps, he was informed, in doing so, were left almost without any officers. Under such circumstances, it was no wonder that disorder should have been occasioned. He asked, in the name of the Volunteers, that this matter should be fully investigated. The Volunteers of this country were proud, not only of performing their manœuvres creditably, but of being efficient and soldierlike in their bearing whenever they were under arms. And he fully believed that upon this occasion the great majority of the regiments did behave in a soldierlike manner. Although the circumstances to which they were exposed were very trying, and although their patience was much exhausted by the delay, they remained steadily under arms, endeavouring to assist their officers, as far as possible, to stop the stragglers, and it was only due to them that their services should be pointed out and recognized. He was aware that inquiry had been made to some extent into the circumstances; and therefore he was anxious to ascertain from his noble Friend the nature of that inquiry. He hoped the Government would go into the matter fully and thoroughly; and speaking for the Volunteers and the country, he was sure that whatever might be the decision of the authorities, they would be supported in carrying it into effect firmly, and even sharply, if necessary. The Question he had to ask the Under Secretary of State for War was, Whether any inquiry had been made into the causes of the confusion reported to have taken place at Datchet on the return of the Volunteers from, the Review held by Her Majesty at Windsor; and, if so, whether any steps had been taken to prevent the recurrence of such disorder at future Reviews?


said, he thought the Volunteers must feel greatly indebted to the noble Earl (Earl Spencer) for the Question which he had put to Her Majesty's Government, and for the temperate manner in which the matter had been dealt with. It was quite possible that under a feeling of irritation some hasty action might have been taken, for the offence given to the Inspector General of the Reserve Forces was one which had rendered the whole Volunteer force justly indignant. It must, however, be evident that in organizing such a force as was hastily got together at Windsor, great difficulties necessarily arose. The War Office possibly was to blame, in some respects, for the want of arrangement which was observable; but it should be remembered that the Inspector General was comparatively new to the duties of his position, and had a great deal to learn in connection with the Volunteer force, although during the period which he had held office he had displayed an urbanity, kindness, and ability calculated to exercise the very best effects upon the organization and efficiency of the force. There had been an error, he thought, in not dividing more equally the force which was to proceed from cither railway station; and their Lordships also might possibly entertain the opinion that where so large a body of country and metropolitan Volunteers were brought together it would have been advisable to keep them in check by a larger number of officers of the regular service. As regarded one suggestion which had been made by the noble Earl, he was in a position to give practical information upon the subject. The men in the brigade which he had the honour of commanding had been under arms from four or five in the morning, and he heard many of them say that they had hardly broken their fast during the day. What happened was this—After the Review was over these corps, having provided themselves with tents and commissariat in different parts of the ground, asked to be broken off for a period of not less than an hour in order to recruit themselves. The difficulty of keeping brigades together was shown by the fact that the brigade which he commanded was composed of corps coming from four counties, and therefore being unable to accompany them all to their respective stations, he was obliged to break up the brigade upon the ground. It was obvious that the difficulties which were experienced could not be attributed wholly, or even mainly, to any neglect on the part of the authorities, but was the natural consequence of assembling Volun- teers in such numbers as 20,000 or 30,000 men, thereby putting a great strain upon the railway service. The present, however, was not the time for discussing that question; but he hoped that if Volunteers were again brought together in such large numbers it would not be without the valuable assistance of a sufficient number of officers belonging to the regular army.


said, that the case mentioned by the noble Earl was one in which the War Office would have been fully justified in acting with some severity. An inquiry had been directed with regard to the conduct of three corps in which irregularities had been specially brought to the notice of the authorities. It was possible that more than three corps might have been properly the subjects of inquiry; but the Secretary of State thought that the case would be sufficiently met by a circular addressed to the Volunteers generally, and by come stringent rules to be observed upon the occasion of their assembling in large bodies hereafter. In the case of the Windsor Review the regulations were quite adequate for the purpose, had they been attended to. The noble Earl opposite had mentioned some of them, relating to the order of distribution and the order of march upon the railway stations; these regulations were such as had proved successful in keeping order upon former occasions; and it was very much to be regretted that the conduct of a portion of the Volunteer force had tended upon this occasion to bring discredit upon the body at large. The noble Earl asked what had been the cause of all this confusion. He himself had mentioned the cause—a frequent source of military disorder—when he used the word "straggling." In the old wars this had been a frequent source of military disaster. During the Peninsular War many soldiers had been hanged by the Provost Marshal for crimes which had originated in "straggling." In fact, when once a soldier left his place in the ranks without permission he seemed to forget all laws, human and divine, and gave himself over to the Devil and all his works. The same cause to which the executions in the Peninsula were traceable was the beginning of the disorder at Windsor. The noble Earl had correctly described many of the irregularities; but even before the Review commenced there were many men who left the ranks and mixed with the spectators, while during the Review there were many more who quitted their places, some without orders, and some expressly contrary to orders. He had been further informed that there were many men who left the ranks upon the march from the Review ground, in their impatience to reach the bridge; and thus a large body of stragglers was collected in the vicinity of the river, blocking up the approaches to the bridge, and preventing those corps from crossing which had retained their formation. The blame must be laid in the first place upon every individual Volunteer who left the ranks without permission; next, upon those officers who did not keep them in their places; and likewise, according to reports which cannot be doubted, upon those officers who did not remain with their regiments. There were defects in the railway management which of course contributed to the delay; though it is obvious that if all had remained in the ranks the delay and consequent disorder would not have been anything like the discreditable scene which actually occurred. Hitherto the control of the Volunteer force had been left in a great degree—and very properly—to the Volunteers themselves. But he might suggest that if, instead of the usual complimentary notice of the Review an Order were issued regimentally stating that Private A, B, and C had left the ranks, and for that breach of discipline were discharged summarily from the service, under the section applicable in that case, the measure would have a better effect than any official answer which might be given by the Secretary of State. It was supposed that the War Office could prevent the recurrence of such disorderly scenes. Undoubtedly, if there was reason to suppose that such disorders would be repeated hereafter, it might be the duty of the Secretary of State to consider the propriety of advising Her Majesty to dissolve the corps; but he was not disposed to take so extreme a course on account of one defect. This occurrence would show to all ranks the necessity of maintaining exact discipline under all circumstances, and how a small neglect might become a great disorder. And the Secretary of State hoped—and ill that hope he entirely concurred—that the same spirit which had produced and maintained the Volunteer force would induce them to cultivate and observe the military virtues of steadiness and silence in the ranks, and of patient obedience to orders, without which the Volunteer force would be an incumbrance rather than a support to the military power of the country.


My Lords, although individually I had no sort of concern in the arrangements for the Review, yet I cannot help thinking that the matter is one of great importance in a military point of view. I think that everyone here and elsewhere must have regretted that anything such as we have heard described to-night should have occurred in Windsor Park. But I must candidly say that I had not the least idea that it was a growing habit on the part of the Volunteers to fall out of the ranks without permission. There can, however, be no doubt that on this occasion a number of isolated men were straggling about with arms in their hands, which showed that they must have gone down with their corps to this Review. The very first characteristic of a Volunteer force is to be ready and willing to obey orders, and stick to their ranks as long as their regiment is under arms. They enter freely, they come of their own accord, their names are registered at their own request, and there is no sort of compulsion. But if they agree to appear they are bound to be orderly, and from the moment they enter the ranks of their corps to the moment when they are either dismissed or have permission from their commanding officer to leave the ranks, they are bound to remain exactly in the same way as any soldier in the army. If that rule is strictly I obeyed, as it ought to be, no sort of irregularity such as that complained of can possibly happen. I was not present, but, I believe the whole arose from that laxity of discipline in leaving the ranks which is so serious a drawback to the efficiency of the Volunteer force that I cannot point out too strongly that such laxity should not be tolerated for a moment. All Volunteer officers ought to agree that if any Volunteer leaves the ranks without permission, or without some good reason, he should be struck off the rolls of the regiment. If that were carried out in all cases straggling I would be put an end to. I have been told, but I cannot vouch for the fact, that it is the custom for many officers to leave the ranks the moment a review is over. If there is a moment when it is important that the officers should remain in the ranks it is after a review is over. It is far more important that they should remain in the ranks after the review than before it, for it is much easier to get the men to the review than to get them away. There are always a number of strangers and sightseers who mix with the troops, and it is just then that the officers are wanted. It should be laid down as a rule that no officer should leave the ranks unless with the sanction of the commanding officer; but this permission should be extremely rare, and should not be given without some good and sufficient reason. I sincerely concur in the opinion that the Staff of the army ought to be called upon to assist on these occasions more than it has hitherto done. I do not think this is necessary on ordinary occasions; but when you have 25,000 men under review the case is very different. It is desirable that the Staff should go with the Volunteers to the place of debarkation on the railroad, where their services are far more necessary even than on the field. I understand, with respect to the railway arrangements, that the trains were not to be filled by the Volunteers as they arrived, but that each corps was to be carried on separately by its own train. The result would naturally be that the troops belonging to that train would possibly be the last regiment on the line of march, and would have to pass along narrow lanes through the other troops while the train was waiting their arrival, and stopped the way. Of all the extraordinary arrangements I have ever heard of that is the strangest. Each train ought to have taken the first body of men that came; but to say that one particular train was to be kept waiting till a particular regiment arrived, which might, perhaps, be at a distance of about a mile and a half, was so preposterous that I hope we shall never hear of such a thing again. I regret that such an event should have occurred, but I am not sorry that your Lordships' attention has been called to it, and to the important subject of the movement of troops. I think the railways ought to adapt themselves to the requirements of the military service, and what has occurred ought to be a good lesson to them as well as to us to consider how large bodies of troops can be easily and rapidly moved from one place to another. I am glad that there is to be an inquiry but I feel that great excuses may be made for the Volunteers, and I trust the result will be to prove that they are ready to correct little errors, and that the railway authorities will assist the War Office in making such arrangements for the future as to prevent the recurrence of such deplorable irregularities.


said, it was very desirable that what had occurred at the Windsor Review should be fully discussed and inquired into, and that the Government should show every disposition to bring the facts to light. The practice of straggling among the Volunteers was very objectionable, and likely to lead to the greatest confusion. The law had provided very effectual means for repressing disorders that might occur in the field; because, although there was no military discipline capable of being exercised with regard to the Volunteers in time of peace, yet the law provided that the commanding officer should have the power of placing under arrest any officers or men who might misconduct themselves. He did not know whether this regulation had ever been put in force; but it afforded an effectual means of striking at such irregularities. He trusted that when the Government had investigated the matter they would not hesitate to take such steps as might appear necessary to prevent the recurrence of evils of this description. There was no want of power if they chose to exercise it. With regard to errors committed by officers in charge of brigades, there was the simple method of not intrusting brigades again to any officer who had proved himself unfit. In case of more serious delinquency, the Secretary of State could advise Her Majesty to deprive the officer misbehaving of his commission, and in still more serious cases there was the power, which it was once his painful duty to exercise, of disbanding a corps. He could conceive nothing more unjust than to blame the whole of the force for what occurred on this occasion; but with respect to any individuals or corps that were to blame, he hoped there would be no hesitation in exercising the authority possessed by the Government. He was bound to say that the Volunteers were placed in a trying position, for he believed there was no doubt that while the Great Western Railway did its duty well the South Western performed its duty very ill, and that no disorders had been spoken of in respect to troops taken away by the former line. The blame must be fairly shared between the Volunteers and the railway; and it must be admitted that when men who had left London, or a more distant place, at a very early hour, with defective commissariat arrangements, were kept waiting many hours after a long and fatiguing day by the misconduct of the railway company, it was very irritating and would try the temper of any body of men. He would suggest that in future the War Office should so arrange the brigades as to put together those which were to arrive and return by the same route, and so that the orders to brigadiers to remain with their brigades until they returned might be capable of being strictly carried out. When such arrangements were made the War Office could insist on the orders being strictly obeyed. He believed great good would result from this discussion, and he hoped the public, bearing in mind that the number of corps affected was not really very large, would not hastily and unjustly conclude that more than a temporary slur had been cast upon the Volunteer force.


said, he thought the officers should be made responsible for the good conduct of their men. It must be remembered that they had the power of dismissing men on the spot, and he once saw that power exercised. He was in command of his regiment at a county review, and some men in a particular corps refused to be told off for the purpose of having their files equalized. The captain of the company at once struck oft the roll every man who had so refused, and their rifles were taken away, and the result was that at the close of the review they said they were very much ashamed of the disgrace they had brought on their corps, and begged to be re-attested. Now, if Volunteer officers gave strict warning to their battalions that stragglers would be thus summarily dealt with, the evil, he believed, would be checked. Volunteer officers did not sufficiently understand the powers vested in them; but if those powers were explained, and if an appeal were made to the public spirit of the men, there would be no recurrence of the scenes so much complained of. He was glad to learn that the straggling and want of discipline were confined to four or five regiments. The whole force ought not to be blamed for the misconduct of a small portion of it.


remarked that the evil of straggling, whether on the part of officers or men, was obvious even to a civilian; but if it were true that some of the Volunteers had started at 4 a.m., and had been kept twelve or fifteen hours without food, the temptation to straggle in such a locality as Windsor must have been enormous. Some regulations, it appeared to him, should be made to prevent the men from suffering from starvation.


said, that the hissing and hooting to which General Lindsay was exposed on his placing men to guard the pontoon bridge and prevent confusion was most unjustifiable. The mismanagement of the railway company was no justification for such conduct towards a distinguished officer. There was a regular and military way in which complaints against the railway should have been represented. It had been stated that the officers did not pay sufficient attention to their duties, and he feared they were the weakest part of the force. If there was some regulation by which they underwent an examination, or otherwise proved their efficiency, irregularities of this kind would not occur. He would suggest that the Secretary for War should issue an order pointing out what the consequences would be if such scenes ever occurred again.


said, there was no disposition on the part of the War Office to limit the inquiry to three corps if a more comprehensive investigation was required; but in the confusion which occurred only three had been brought under the notice of the Secretary of State.

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