HL Deb 18 February 1870 vol 199 cc499-503

rose to call the attention of Her Majesty's Government to the great outbreak of sickness which occurred in Her Majesty's Royal North British Fusiliers soon after their arrival at Kurrachee in March last; and to ask, whether arrangements might not be made for so carrying out the reliefs in India as would enable the troops to arrive in that country between the 1st of November and the following February? He was aware that it was not customary to introduce in this House matters relating to military administration in its ordinary and usual course, because those questions were in general so mixed up with financial details that they were more usually and constitutionally discussed in "another place." But he had not brought forward this question unduly or inappropriately, because, though it had its financial side, it had for its central and prominent element a due and proper care for the lives and health of Her Majesty's troops. He had also a personal reason to justify the course he had taken. He felt a deep and abiding interest in the regiment which was the subject of his question, for he had served in it for many years, and commanded it during the most trying period of the siege of Sebastopol. He would confine himself as closely as possible to the facts of the case, without hazarding any positive assertion that these facts were the cause of the calamitous results which had ensued; but if they established a reasonable presumption that the efficiency of a gallant regiment had been impaired and the health of the men broken down by their arrival in India at an unpropitious and unfavourable season of the year, he hoped the Under Secretary for War would give him an assurance that measures should be taken to accomplish the relief service for India within such a period as a due regard for the health and lives of the troops would seem to prescribe. He had ascertained from the noble Lord the Under Secretary for War that the responsibility for the sanitary arrangements in India and for the movements of troops rested with the noble Duke the Secretary of State for India (the Duke of Argyll); but there were other Departments of the Government concerned in the relief of troops in India, including the Department presided over by the Royal Duke the Commander-in-Chief, the Office of Secretary for War, and the Admiralty Office, as represented in the Transport branch at Somerset House. It was, therefore, rather diffi- cult to steer one's way through, such a labyrinth of Departments in order to reach the fountain head of authority and responsibility; which, however, as he had said, he had ascertained to be the Secretary of State. The facts of the case were these—The 21st Fusiliers left this country in February last, and arrived in India about the latter end of March. Soon after their arrival fever broke out among them, cholera supervened, and the regiment was soon reduced to a condition which had been graphically described in a local paper. According to that account, sickness and death had been the portion of the regiment ever since their arrival at Kurrachee. The entire strength of the regiment was something like 800 of all ranks, but not above 280 men of all ranks represented the regiment on parade—a great proportion even of these being unfit for the performance of duty, as they had hardly recovered from the effects of sickness. Many of them were in the ranks on one day, and in the hospital laid up with fever on the next. The regiment was, in fact, to all intents and purposes hors de combat. They all knew that disease and death always hovered too closely over the cities of India; but if it could be shown that pestilence was more rife at one season of the year than at another, and that it was more deadly at that season in its attacks upon those who were exposed to it for the first time, it was contrary to humanity and to common sense to send out our troops at that time, and to discover too late that we had sent them out only to die. But their Lordships would be surprised to hear that, in spite of the warning which the fate of the 21st Fusiliers ought to have given, there was another regiment now at Gibraltar which was ordered to leave there in March, in order to arrive in India in April, at a time when a burning, deadly, and consuming heat prevailed. It was melancholy to reflect on what would be the destiny of that unhappy corps; but he hoped the noble Lord (Lord Northbrook) would be able to assure their Lordships that the order for the despatch of that regiment had been countermanded, and that arrangements would be made for so carrying out the reliefs that the troops would arrive in India between the beginning of November and the following February. If it was only a question of providing more steam transport by the Red Sea route, or of sending some of the troops round by the Cape, he was sure the British public would never allow paltry considerations of expense to stand in the way when the health and lives of British soldiers were at stake.


said, that certainly the noble and gallant Earl, having been one of the most distinguished officers of the 21st Fusiliers, had no need to apologize for bringing forward this matter; but he was happy to assure him that the statement in the Indian newspaper, which the noble and gallant Earl had quoted, gave an exaggerated account of the state of the regiment. The regiment arrived at Kurrachee at the end of March, and the medical statistics for the following six months showed that it suffered no excessive rate of sickness or mortality as compared with the general rate in the Bombay Presidency at that time. There was no such connection as the noble Earl appeared to assume between the date of the arrival of the regiment at Kurrachee and the epidemic which subsequently broke out in the ranks of the regiment. The Government had not received precise statistics for the time that had elapsed after the first six months; but he held in his hand two reports from the principal Medical Officer at Bombay, giving full particulars of the epidemic which broke out about December last, and at the date of the last return was very prevalent. The strength of the regiment was then 682, and there were in hospital 195 fever and twenty other cases, making a total of 215. The degree of sickness in the regiment had, undoubtedly, been very great, but that of mortality small; for between November and the 15th of January there were only two deaths, making thirteen since the arrival of the regiment in India. The noble Earl would see that this was by no means an excessive rate for a regiment serving in India. In consequence of a recommendation of the Medical Officer at Bombay the military authorities of India had removed the regiment from Kurrachee to Beypore, which it was hoped would tend to improve its health. The past year had been a very unhealthy one, excessive heat being followed by an excessive downfall of rain in Scinde, the result being an outbreak and prevalence not of cholera, but of a malarious fever. The India Office was responsible for the transport arrangements; but in the un-avoidable absence of the noble Duke (the Duke of Argyll) he might state that they were made in 1865, in concert with the different Departments interested, and with the approval of the highest medical authorities, the 15th of September to the 20th March being fixed as the period during which the reliefs should be made; but on the recommendation of the Army medical authorities the dates were altered to the 29th of September and the 1st of April. It was thought bettor for the troops to arrive in March than to start early in the autumn. It would, no doubt, be advantageous if it could be so arranged that the troops should only arrive in the winter months; and it was hoped that next year there would be fewer regiments to relieve, so that the reliefs could be more quickly accomplished. With regard to the 83rd Regiment, it was impossible, as the ship would start to-morrow, to make any alteration in the transport of that regiment to India; and he hoped their Lordships were not convinced that any such alteration was required, because he believed he had shewn that the epidemic in the case of the 21st Fusiliers was not a consequence of the date of their arrival. His Royal Highness the Field Marshal Commanding-in-Chief had communicated with the Indian authorities with the view of selecting for the 83rd a healthy station in the immediate neighbourhood of Bombay. The health of the army in India was not primarily under the responsibility of the Secretary of State for War, but Mr. Cardwell took a deep interest in it, and in the course of last year, in consequence of serious outbreaks of cholera at Peshawur and other stations, he wrote to the India Office, requesting that the attention of the Governor General should be directed to the question of removing troops as far as possible from stations subject to such epidemics. Both the noble Duke (the Duke of Argyll) and the Government in India were very anxious as to the sanitary condition of the troops, and during the last five or six years large sums had been spent in the improvement of barracks and other ways connected with the health of the troops, which it was believed would result in a diminution of the rate of mortality.