HL Deb 19 June 1868 vol 192 cc1810-4

My Lords, I wish to draw attention to a matter which appears to me of serious importance. I apprehend that before we meet again a portion of the troops who have served in Abyssinia will arrive in this country, and I am extremely anxious to know in what manner Her Majesty's Government intends that they should be received. In my opinion they ought to be received with all military honours. If I am asked what precedent there is for this course, my reply is that such a reception will be of the highest benefit to the public service, and that it is the duty of statesmen to make good precedents and not to follow bad ones. Is there any example to be found in modern history of services like those which have been performed by these troops? I know of no mountain campaign comparable with that in Abyssinia since the passage of the Alps by Hannibal. True, there have been campaigns in mountains; but they were mountains in civilized countries and through which passages had been made by roads and bridges. In the mountains of Abyssinia there wore no roads and no bridges. Since the Creation, Nature had been doing everything which could be done to render the country difficult of access, if not impassable, and man had done nothing to supply the means of communication. The success of the General depended not only upon his own prudence and his own ability, nor even upon the ability of the officers by whom he was supported—but it depended upon the endurance, the perseverance, and above all the forbearance of the troops he had under his command. That long line of communication, extending through such mountains for 400 miles, could never have been supported and maintained by a force treble the strength of that under the command of Sir Robert Napier had there been hostility on the part of the people of the country. The good-will of that people, their abstinence from all hostility, and their assistance in providing supplies, could only have been obtained by the most absolute forbearance and good conduct on the part of the troops; and we are told there has not been a single instance of complaint against them. Some centuries ago the highest honour that could be paid to a distinguished soldier in the French army was that of giving him the title of "Knight without fear and without reproach." We have the honour of possessing an army in which every man has proved himself worthy of that title; it is not only without fear but absolutely without reproach. The despatches which give an account of this extraordinary campaign will be the manual to which every military man in Europe will refer to make himself master of the principles of mountain warfare. "We know that throughout Europe the conduct of our troops is to all military men the object of the most entire admiration; and it is not fitting that we should appear to be less sensitive of the great services and merits of our troops, or that we should appear to appreciate their conduct less than it is appreciated by those in foreign countries. It is impossible for us, do what we will, to make the military service popular by means of extraordinary pecuniary rewards; we can only make it popular by attending to every claim that may be made upon us for that honour which is the principle of military service; and I do trust that we shall not be found wanting on this occasion. I have always thought, and I trust now that it will appear to be the feeling of Her Majesty's Government, that the first of all professions is that of a soldier, and that the first of all rewards is military honour.


My Lords, no man in this House can doubt that the noble Earl who has just sat down is a competent judge of military honours. He has himself been included in the highest honours of military success; he has had great experience in the effect of these honours upon a soldier's mind; and I am not surprised that the noble Earl on an occasion like the present, after one of the most glorious successes which the army of the country has achieved, should stand forward as the advocate of honour to the soldier. But I must remind the noble Earl that to a certain degree we are—whether rightly or wrongly—a nation of routine, and that routine is a necessary principle in every part of the service. We must remember that precedents in the army are of the greatest consequence; because if we are not careful how we dispense these honours, however much they may be deserved, and if they are given to the army upon occasions, perhaps analogous to former occasions, on which they have not heretofore been given—they may come to be almost as much a mark of offence to those who have gone before as the omission of them now may be to those who have accomplished such gallant feats. I am far from saying that because there is no precedent for these honours being bestowed upon our armies upon their return from foreign countries, that these honours should never be bestowed. We may, perhaps, have been, though not ungrateful in our hearts, cold in our manner to those who have won these victories. If your Lordships think so, and if the country thinks so, there can be no reason why honours which have not been granted but were deserved before should not now be given when they are deserved; but the noble Earl will pardon me if I ask him to pause before I give him any positive answer, because the question has not been considered by the Government. On this account, and in the presence of the illustrious Duke (the Commander-in-Chief), who is a soldier versed in campaigns, who has seen service, and is the best judge in these matters, it would not be proper in me to give a positive answer to the noble Earl.


I am sure there is no man in the House more anxious than I am to do the fullest honour to the gallant troops engaged in this recent campaign; but I am quite sure, on the other hand, that your Lordships would hardly wish that that which has not been done, I believe, for any other portion of the troops should be done on the present occasion. Its omission will involve no dishonour to the troops; and I cannot help thinking we have no precedent for anything of the sort, even in the earliest times. I shall be very glad to hear from my noble Friend in what way he would wish these honours to be paid. I have no doubt he will refer us to the time when the army in India was received by himself on its return from service; but that army was received in a body, and that was an occasion upon which it was very reasonable and proper, on national grounds, that it should be so received. In this case we do not know when the troops embarked, or when they will arrive, and they certainly will not arrive simultaneously; and therefore, if anything is to be done, considerable arrangements will have to be made. If vessels arrive at intervals of days, the portion of the army returning to this country must be received piecemeal, and I do not know that it will be any gratification to the troops to be received in that way. Still, if it is desirable, no doubt arrangements can be made. It will be understood by the army that it was the desire of your Lordships and the country that all honour should be done to them and their Commander-in-Chief, and, if they are not formally received, it is not from any want or failing on the part of the country to appreciate the distinction they have achieved. I have no doubt the subject will be considered by the Government; but my noble Friend was prudent in not committing himself to a decisive answer.


If there is a will to remove any difficulty, it will be removed very soon. There is not the slightest objection to successive honours being given to detachments of the troops as they arrive; and the circumstance that they will not arrive simultaneously affords a convenient opportunity for any needful preparations.


I cannot allow the conversation toconclude without expressing my regret that the suggestion of a public reception has been made publicly by the noble Earl in his place in Parliament. If he thought it desirable that such honours should be paid to the troops, there could be no objection to his making the suggestion privately to the Government. It appears to me it is a constitutional principle of great importance in this country that all honour should be bestowed by the spontaneous action of the Crown. But this principle is departed from when in either House of Parliament private Members who are under no responsibility bring forward proposals for conferring honours or boons on the troops or individuals who have performed public services. They may thus win an easy popularity for themselves, but they place the Government in a position of great difficulty, by compelling it either to forego its proper function of initiation, or appear to be ungracious by declining to do what is asked. I entertain, on principle, the strongest objection to suggestions of this kind being made in either House of Parliament. Remember if these things are done here they will be done elsewhere; and I ask your Lordships, in the present condition of men's minds, and the desire of persons to put themselves forward in quest of popularity, whether danger may not arise from encouraging practices of this kind? In this instance, I have an additional objection to the suggestion, and it, is that no Notice of it was placed upon the Paper. A Committee of this House has strongly recommended that Questions of this kind shall not be brought forward without Notice, so as to prevent your Lordships being taken by surprise when you are not prepared for discussion; and I think this case furnishes a singular illustration of the inconvenience of departing from the rule laid down by the Committee.


A source of difficulty in this case is that part of the troops return to India, and they have behaved in exactly the same manner as those who return to England; and I cannot see how honours could be given to one detachment and not the other, I have every disposition to do honour to the soldiers; but I think that under the circumstances stated by the noble Earl and the noble Duke it will be impossible to give such a reception to the troops as the noble Earl (the Earl of Ellenborough) desires.