HL Deb 23 July 1875 vol 225 cc1877-91

My Lords, I feel persuaded that I do not misrepresent your sentiments when I say that the system of education which qualifies candidates for first appointments—that is, to command your soldiers, especially to lead them in war—is a State interest of vital—the greatest—importance; and I am equally certain that your Lordships will consider entitled to discussion and inquiry the general and serious complaints that the present educational system—of which competition is a principal feature—is based on great anomalies and erroneous principles, which endanger the efficient officering of the Army; because, my Lords, that system is a course of wholly civil and literary instruction—a preparation for civil and literary, not military distinction, or a military career—competition awarding the military prize, an officer's commission, to civil and literary, not to military proficiency. And, in justice to this important question, I should submit to your Lordships' special attention that a considerable portion of this education—poetry and plays—is absurd and demoralizing as instruction, as will be apparent to your Lordships, from the following quotation from the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales:He was a gentil harlot and a kind, A better felaw shulde a man not find, He wolde suffer, for a quart of wine, A good felaw to have his concubine. A twelve month, and excuse him at the full In danger hadde he at his owen gise The younge girles of the diocese. What excuse can be given, my Lords, by the responsible authorities—if there be any responsibility—for giving to boys and youths such low and pernicious study in lieu of books like Napier's Peninsular Campaigns, a model of style and a source of valuable military instruction? And as regards discipline, my Lords, which instruction—Chaucer's looseness, Othello's excesses, or the Duke of Wellington's Art of War—would cause an officer to exhibit a good example to our troops, and exercise a proper control over them, when marching through an enemy's country or when storming a town with the inhabitants at their mercy. A Book of Euclid, history, and geography are taught, but without military adaptation. Candidates are occasionally examined on the operations of war. But as the Examiners are not instructed in war operations, and know nothing about them, the test must be a fallacious one. The greatest anomaly remains to be told. The training of candidates for first appointments in the Army is not of the competency or responsibility of the Commander-in-Chief of the Army—it is taken out of his hands and placed in those of Civil Commissioners. Civil Commissioners select the subjects for examination and conduct the examination, and to Civil Commissioners are entrusted the arbitrary powers of the competitive system, unknown in any other State or Army, except the Chinese, of qualifying or disqualifying candidates for the service of their Sovereign and country—dangerous powers, because secret, as regards the award of marks to answering papers and not controlled or mitigated by any right of appeal or complaint, a right recognized in the most despotic countries—the right of subjects to complain. The rejection of a candidate entails the loss of his career and livelihood. Surely then, my Lords, complaints of unfair rejection should have a hearing?—such as, firstly, refusal to produce candidates' answering papers, which suggests an unfair award of marks; secondly, candidates seated on the back benches at examinations do not hear, on account of the numbers seated in front of them, the questions put by the Examiners, and consequently lose marks; thirdly, that the organic defects of the competitive system make a successful test a matter of chance. It is dependent on the relative proportion of candidates and vacancies. Lastly, my Lords, parents of candidates complain that the literature on which I have commented is opposed to the principles which they have inculcated in them from childhood. Their earnest wish is that their sons should receive a proper education, which would fit them for the Army and all its duties, as well as for educated society. But they complain that the study of sciences, from chemistry to magnetism, added to other subjects, is too great a strain on their mental and physical powers, and deprives them of rest and exercise, and brings on illness. This rigorous and ill-devised education has caused nothing short of unhappiness throughout the country; and it is impossible to go to any gathering without seeing numerous young gentlemen of the best material for the Army—intelligent, with good manners—whose hopes are blighted, and who are thrown on the hands of relatives who have spent, sometimes, all they possess on an unsuccessful education. The powers of the competitive system afford a scope to bias, that innate imperfection characteristic of our fallibility. There is the bias in favour of the War Office, who appointed the Civil Commissioners, and of their educational system. Secondly, there is the bias of literary men for the literary test; and for friends of relatives who come up for examination. Thirdly, there is the bias of the advocates of the policy of the change of the present class of officer, which is the necessary consequence of a wholly literary test. Justice in this country acknowledges bias as innate by the precautions which it has taken against its influence in the administration of the law, without imputing blame to those who entertain it—and I make this observation entirely in the same sense—such as challenges of jurors, mixed juries for foreigners. And in the Army a commanding officer cannot sit as President of a court-martial on one of his men, and an officer of the regiment of a candidate cannot be a member of a board examining him for promotion. As regards the desire to change the present class of officer, as it is called, the proofs of their intentions are unmistakable. A high functionary, in the company of a colleague, stated the intention, some time after the abolition of purchase, to do away with this class; and, about the same time, some not very prudent observations were made in official speeches in Parliament reflecting on these misnamed purchase officers which elicited comments from Members of your Lordships' House, of whom I was one. Recently a very painful sensation was created in your Lordships' House by speeches from two noble Lords on a point which affected most deeply, as understood by the House, the military feeling of numerous officers of two distinguished regiments. Dates and facts disprove one imputation, and an apology was made; and the other statement, which derived importance from being attributed to a Commander-in-Chief, dwindled into nothing when it transpired that the writer was an anonymous writer in a newspaper. Still, my Lords, these sentiments show the current of feeling against this class, particularly when coupled with two ominous omissions in recent educational regulations. The first is the omission of the Commander-in-Chiefs authority over the system; the second is the omission of the word "gentleman" as a qualification for candidates, although it still has a place in the Articles of War as a condition which, if forfeited, subjects an officer to cashiering. I venture to think that I have said enough to show that the present civil test for military candidates, whilst most objection-able in some essentials, does not impart to him any knowledge of his profession, and that it is, besides, unfavourable to discipline. It usurps the time and the powers of the mind which would teach the rudiments of the art of war, so simple and yet so important that the neglect of them has lost within the last few years Empires. How much greater would not be the disadvantage were regiments ordered abroad on a sudden emergency? Our system is not the Prussian system. They have their preparatory schools; they have no Shakspeares or Chaucers, but they combine instruction for the Army with that which is necessary for educated society. We should do well to follow their example in making athletic exercises, especially equitation and running, tests for officers' examinations. To such an extent do they carry this out in Prussia, that a Cavalry officer is not allowed to join his regiment till he has received a certificate from a master of hounds that he can go across country. The combination of a military training with the instruction for educated society during the four or five years of youth the best suited to study, which I have mentioned, is easily accomplished. What public opinion complains of is, that the eccentric and degraded literature on which I have commented takes the place of the very valuable first principles of war, such as judicious skirmishing, the system of outposts and vedettes, ambuscades, knowledge of ground, the first step towards geographical strategy, turning a flank and defending it, and other simple movements, with a strategical object. And I think, my Lords, when you have heard that extract from Othello, as given to candidates as a test of entrance for the Army at this present July examination, you will agree that the substitution of this important but easy military instruction for the really abominable literature I shall quote would be a desirable change. The back shelves of any library would be too good for it—it sins against all good government, civilization, and morality:—

"OTHELLO.—Act I., Scene I. Iago. Zounds, sir, you are robb'd; for shame, put on your gown; Your heart is burst, you have lost half your soul; Even now, very now, an old black ram Is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise; Awake the snorting citizens with the bell, Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you. Arise, I say. Iago. Zounds, sir, you are one of those, that will not serve God, if the Devil bid you. Because we come to do you service, you think we are ruffians: You'll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse; you'll have your nephews neigh to you; you'll have coursers for cousins and gennets for germans. Brab. What profane wretch art thou? Iago. I am one, sir, that comes to tell you, your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs. Moved to resolve, That in the opinion of this House an inquiry ought to be instituted into the working and efficiency of the existing system under which candidates for first commissions in the Army are selected and appointed, with the view of ascertaining whether that system is calculated to insure the admission to the Army of those best qualified for the discharge of military duties.—(The lord Strathnairn.)


said, that although it was contended that the present examinations were not military examinations, yet he felt it was good that officers should be instructed in subjects which did not bear directly on their profession. Referring to the examination in Experimental and Natural Science up to May, 1873, the number of marks awarded for them was in fair proportion to the possible maximum, and many candidates chose to be examined in them; but in May, 1873, the Examiners seemed to have come down in one fell swoop upon the Science papers, and out of 93 candidates taking them up 72 got no marks at all, while 18 scored only 1,356 among them, or less than any one might have obtained. From that time the number of marks awarded continued proportionately low, and the candidates in Science sensibly diminished. He would not trouble the House with figures, but they went to prove that no candidates were allowed to obtain any appreciable number of marks, and that the Science examination was really almost annihilated. To show that it was not from any falling-off in the proficiency of the scholars, he would mention that in 1872 one gentleman obtained nearly 500 out of a maximum of 1,000, while the same candidate, in May, 1873, obtained only 60 out of a maximum of 2,000, although he had been reading diligently in the interval, and really knew far more than before. Apart from the obvious advantage and interest which attached to such subjects as electricity, magnetism, chemistry, physical geography and geology, they were subjects which were important both for Sandhurst and Woolwich after these examinations were over, and it was to be regretted that by the system pursued with regard to them, candidates were now almost entirely prevented from taking them up. He was told that whereas in other subjects certain test-books were generally accepted, the whole range of literature and science was open to the scientific Examiners, and the result was scarcely fair to the candidates; indeed, questions were asked in the papers on electricity, for instance, about terms of which the exact meaning had never been precisely defined, and on which the highest authorities differed. He did not know what might have been done in the examinations for direct commissions just concluded, but as the same electricity paper had been set which was set for the much more severe examination of candidates for Woolwich, it was evident that there was a disposition on the part of the Examiners to prevent a reasonable and fair approach to the maximum of marks apportioned to these papers. He would be very glad to hear any assurance from the Government that fair proficiency in these scientific subjects would be more generously and liberally dealt with than it had been since May, 1873. If not, he could not see the use of retaining them on the examination list with the attractive maximum of 2,000 marks.


was understood to concur in much that had been said as to the desirability of abstaining, as far as possible, from insisting on students acquiring proficiency in useless subjects. In his opinion, much of the examination at present enforced was unnecessary, and in some respects it was simply a farce.


said, the noble and gallant Lord who asked for an inquiry into the existing system of competitive examinations (Lord Strathnairn) had to some extent negatived his Motion by his speech—for he had so far prejudged the question as to render any inquiry wholly unnecessary. If he understood his speech aright, the noble and gallant Lord objected altogether to the present system of competitive examinations, and appeared also to wish that the education to be required of candidates for direct commissions should be of a more technical character. Reference had been already made to the Report of the Commission appointed by the noble Lord behind him (Lord Hampton) to inquire into the training of candidates for admission into the Army. The Commissioners in their Report, published in August, 1869, recommended that the examinations at Sandhurst and Woolwich, as well as those for direct commissions—all of them on non-professional subjects—should be transferred to the Civil Service Commission. They also made recommendations as to the general character of the education to be required of candidates for admission into the Army. This brought him to the competitive examinations for first appointments, established in 1871. He thought he was entitled to say that the establishment of those examinations was a direct consequence of the abolition of the system of Purchase. The examinations were never intended as tests of military acquirements, and their general design could not be better described than it was in the Report just referred to. Personally he had no objection to saying he had no great predilection in favour of competitive examination for the Army. He thought many of the arguments used by the opponents of the system were, if not unanswerable, at least plausible. It appeared to be at least probable that a man whose youth had been spent in deep study, and who had earned for himself the name of "bookworm," would not necessarily be the best man to lead a forlorn hope or quell an Indian Mutiny. Many who might have proved valuable officers had been excluded from the Service by the system of competitive examinations. There was in these examinations a great element of luck. Sir John Burgoyne said that it was possible for a man to fail in an examination with one set of candidates and to come first with another. He could not agree, however, with some of the arguments that were adduced by the opponents of competitive examinations. With respect to the allegation that they encouraged cramming, he was much struck by the argument of a noble Friend of his opposite (the Earl of Camperdown), who, in in- troducing the subject of examinations for the Navy the other evening, dealt with this subject. He agreed entirely with his noble Friend, that if we were to establish a uniform test examination for candidates, cramming would be much more facilitated than it was by the present system. With regard to the question of health and want of physique, he did not think it necessary that the examinations as at present constituted should cause injury to the health of any successful candidate. Even if a candidate for a commission did suffer in health from the excess of his labour, all candidates would be inspected by a medical man, and no officer would be allowed to proceed to examination unless he were certified by the Board to be free from bodily defects and ailments, and in all respects as to height and physical qualities fit for Her Majesty's service. He was sorry to find the noble and gallant Lord (Lord Strathnairn) was of opinion that the training of candidates for direct commissions should be technical. In that opinion the noble and gallant Lord was opposed by many persons quite as well qualified to form a correct judgment on the subject. If the noble and gallant Lord's arguments were carried to their legitimate conclusion, all examinations except simple test examinations must be abolished, and we should then be face to face with that bugbear of modern politics—patronage. The tendency of legislation of late years had been to diminish, if not to abolish, all patronage, whether public or private, and he could not help thinking that any Government would take a somewhat bold course which endeavoured to re-establish the system of patronage as an introduction to the Army unless it could be protected and guided by some safeguards which he confessed were at present unknown to him. He trusted he had said enough to justify Her Majesty's Government in arriving at the conclusion to resist the noble and gallant Lord's Motion for an inquiry.


said, that this was not the first occasion on which complaints had been made with reference to these examinations; but it appeared from the arguments of noble Lords that evening, that it was not the particular authors selected to whom objection was felt, but that the attacks were directed against the system under which the examinations were conducted. But the system depended upon the Report of the Royal Commission, which was signed by the noble Earl who now presided over the Dominion of Canada (the Earl of Dufferin), a noble Lord holding a high office in the present Government, the present Governor General of India (Lord Northbrook), and five distinguished military Officers. The Commission examined the Field Marshal Commanding-in-Chief, 15 General Officers, and four Members of the Council of Military Education; and with such evidence before them they came almost unanimously to the decision which had been quoted. There were three cardinal points in the Report of the Commissioners of 1860 with regard to candidates for admission into the Army. One was that it was unreasonable to expect of a lad of 16 or 17 any wide professional attainments, but that it was reasonable to expect of him such a general degree of culture as an English gentleman ought to possess. The second point was that the best form of general culture was found in the education given at the great public schools; and the third was that the examination being nonprofessional, it might conveniently be committed to non-professional men. That position seemed to be almost unassailable. He understood open competition to mean this, that, the Army still being popular, for every commission Her Majesty was able to dispose of, two or three candidates were forthcoming, and the Civil Service Commissioners selected for such commission that candidate who they believed was most likely to serve with credit to his country, and submitted his name to the Commander-in-Chief. This was not a state of things, it might be supposed, of which friends of the Army could complain. Their Lordships had been told that open competition led to cramming; but cramming existed before these examinations, and was indeed an inevitable incident of every system of examination. As to "crammers," he might observe that there had been a long struggle between them and the Examiners, and he was happy to say that of late the crammers had had the worst of it. It was difficult to obtain exact information on the subject, but he had reason to believe that out of every 100 candidates who, during the last three years, had gone to Woolwich from seven of our public schools, over 60 went direct from the schools themselves, and a minority only passed through the hands of crammers. Those figures had been supplied to him from a private source, but he believed they represented with a fair degree of accuracy the existing state of things. Their Lordships had been told that competitive examination not only failed to furnish the best men to the Service, but actually tended to the selection of those who were the least qualified. That heresy was quoted by his noble Friend on the front bench opposite. He (the Marquess of Lansdowne) believed that that was a most mischievous fallacy. He feared that young lads hearing such theories as had been propounded by men in the position of the noble Lords who had spoken that evening they would be disposed to say—" Let us throw our books on one side, and go in exclusively for cricket and rowing. "On a matter of this kind a very little experience was worth a very great deal of theory, and he hoped the illustrious Duke on the cross-benches would not fail to say whether the candidates who had come into the Army under the system of open competition were worse in any respect than those who had been admitted under the system which preceded it.


said, he could have supported the Motion of his noble and gallant Friend with more satisfaction if it had been simply directed against the system of competitive examinations for first commissions in the Army, instead of being drawn in the modified form in which it appeared upon the Paper. He did not think much would be gained by an inquiry into the subject, because the Report would be that some good and some indifferent officers had been appointed under the system. As to those who were reputed good, nothing would be gained by the discovery, and as to the indifferent it would be invidious that some should be reported inferior to others. Competitive examinations were all very well in the case of Civil servants requiring special qualifications or of officers in the scientific branches of the Army or Navy, but they were not suited to the selection of officers to serve in the Infantry and Cavalry of the Line. The qualifications required for such officers were not such as were likely to be either created or tested by a competitive examination sys- tem. The qualifications to which he referred were, in the first place, courage; in the second, physical health and strength, together with a passion for athletic exercises. These qualifications might be in part ascertained under a competitive system of examination; but they had never been adopted into that system. Moreover, officers should be possessed of the authority and respect which belonged to family connection and position, for there was nothing more respected in the Army than name and family position—they were the elements of solidity and order. In the fourth place officers of the British Army should be in the possession of private means, without which an officer could not maintain himself under the existing conditions of service in the Army—no one could keep his son in a decent and honourable position in the Army without allowing him about twice as much as he received from the State. These qualifications were not to be, as he had before remarked, either fostered or tested by means of a system of purely intellectual examination; and if it were necessary to strengthen speculative argument by experience, it might be mentioned that no such system of examination prevailed in any of what could be called the military nations of Europe. It was with regret that he felt himself bound to differ from many noble Lords who sat on his side of the House, and especially from the noble Viscount (Viscount Card-well), who had taken a very conspicuous part in the military alterations of recent years. No one recognized the great service of the noble Viscount to the Army more than he did. By the abolition of purchase, the establishment of depôt centres, and the introduction of practical and strategical exercises on a large scale the noble Lord had rendered great services to the country, the value of which would be recognized more and more as time rolled on. But he ventured to doubt whether he had taken the wisest course with reference to the system of examination. It was urged in favour of the present system that it obviated the obligations and responsibilities of patronage, but he believed that in all respects patronage was destined to be extinguished; and as for the contention that the system of nomination was objectionable, inasmuch as it put those who were anxious to obtain ap- pointments for their eons into the painful position of soliciting favours, he thought the inconvenience, such as it was, ought to be suffered for the general good. He believed, however, that no great inconvenience would be experienced by applicants so long as the patronage was vested in the present Commander-in-Chief, who belonged to the Royal Family, and who was thus placed far above the obligations of family connection. Under these circumstances, he hoped the Government would not lose sight of the question, and that at some future time they would see their way to the introduction of such changes in the system of competition as would give a more prominent place to physical and social qualities than was now the case.


was understood to restate his objections to the adoption of Chaucer's works as a subject of examination. It was in no way in accordance with the recommendations of the Royal Commissioners. They recommended that in the preliminary examination such subjects were to be submitted to examination as came in the ordinary course of good public schools. Now, however attractive any public school might wish to show itself to English literature, he had never heard that anyone had introduced Chaucer into its course; and, if so, its introduction was at variance with the recommendations of the Royal Commissioners, and was forcing on the young men intending to enter military service a study totally useless to their future or any ordinary career. He had no objection to the study of Chaucer in itself.


said, that if Shakespeare and other old English authors were to be tabooed because they sometimes appeared indelicate and coarse when judged by the modern standard, there would be very little of our best literature left. Under such a rule, the classics, such as Horace, Juvenal, &c, would, of course, go; and, indeed, he did not know how far the rule would not carry them, even to the highest of all literature.


remarked that he himself and a good many noble Lords on his side of the House disapproved of the system of open competition, and he wished to know why they were called upon to vote against the Motion? He wanted to know why there had been such an ominous silence on the part of the Government? This was a question on which he thought the Government ought to offer some explanation to the House whether the system of competition was to be maintained, or whether those were right who considered it objectionable. Was the system one that ought to be maintained, and would the Government state, if they were not now disposed to condemn it, whether they were making inquiries for the purpose of testing the soundness of their previous opinion on the subject?


denied that he had ever said or thought of saying, as attributed to him by his noble Friend (Earl Cadogan), that technical education ought to be the only education of officers; on the contrary, his opinion was that military training was not perfect unless it went hand in hand with the education of enlightened society; and precisely because he was opposed to an isolated education he disapproved so much of the wholly civil education as a test for officers of the Army. He had been equally misrepresented—he had no doubt involuntarily—as to what he said about equitation:—what he said was that the Prussian Army attached the greatest importance to good education for all classes of officers—for the Staff especially, and equally so for the Cavalry—and to such an extent that no officer was allowed to pass for the Cavalry unless furnished with a certificate by the two officers who kept packs of hounds at the Government expense for the express purpose of training officers that they could go across a country. The noble Lord who represented the War Office (Earl Cadogan) had spoken in terms of high eulogy of the sanatory state of the candidates at the July examinations; but he (Lord Strathnairn) had heard a very different account from good authority, that so many of the candidates had exhibited such symptoms of overwork and illness that the medical officer, of whose competency it was, had inspected them, and had found it necessary to direct them to leave off their studies. His noble Friend (the Marquess of Bath) had completely represented the state of feeling on his side of the House, and he agreed with him that if he (Lord Strathnairn) had brought forward his Motion two years ago he would have been supported by a large majority. However, he (Lord Strathnairn) derived much satisfaction from the manner in which the representative of the War Office in their Lordships' House had spoken of the competitive system. He had said that he himself was not well disposed towards it; and as his opinions indicated the desire to make changes in the system, and as the feeling of some noble Lords was not to press the question to a division, he would conform to that opinion.

Motion (by leave of the House) withdrawn.

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