HL Deb 15 March 1878 vol 238 cc1384-8

asked the Under Secretary of State for War, Whether the fraudulent re-enlistment of men belonging to the Army Reserve mentioned in the Report of the Inspector General of Recruiting prevails to any considerable extent?


My Lords, with the permission of the noble Duke (the Duke of Bedford) I venture to interpose for a few minutes before the noble Lord the Under Secretary of State for War replies to the Question just put, for the convenience of the House and the noble Lord representing that Department here, to submit to your Lordships that the class of desertions to which I would refer are those of the severer type— namely, those accompanied by double enlistment. I cannot disguise from your Lordships that the changes lately introduced have not tended to lessen desertions. Enlistments for the Army at large have not tended to lessen the growing evil complained of in any respect. I would further submit to your Lordships that strictness of discipline does not tend to desertion, but on the contrary. It is, therefore, a misapprehension to suppose that occupation of any kind, compatible with discipline, tends to it; but occupation and amusement are preventatives of this crime—weighing as an incubus upon the efficiency of the Army. The constant change of medical officers has a pernicious effect, as also anything that tends to make the regiment less of a home than formerly. What would the feelings of your Lordships be if, when recovering consciousness when suffering from fever, you beheld a stranger at the bedside, or suffering from wounds? The more recent changes, making such a state of things possible, does not tend to make soldiers remain with the colours, even when not resorting to the commission of the crime of desertion, accompanied by the additional offence of a double or fraudulent enlistment. There is great inconsistency on the part of the Legislature in marking indelibly, in the case of vaccination, tender infants; but refraining from marking deserters from Her Majesty's Service, who have twice, and sometimes thrice, taken the public money by fraudulent enlistment. The two questions—namely, enlistment and desertion, are more intimately connected than appears to be the case at first sight. That the discontinuance of that immediate local connection in recruiting tends to desertion is a well-known fact to those having an intimate knowledge of all appertaining to it, and it would occupy too much of your Lordships' time to enter minutely into particulars so as to make these matters sufficiently plain to the uninitiated. It is not sufficient, I submit, to not discourage recruiting in the localities where the regiments were raised; but it should be actively promoted in this manner—namely, by sending parties from the particular regiments for which they recruit, personally acquainted with the localities in question, to raise recruits to serve with those in the particular regiment where their friends and relatives are already serving. It has been done, and could be done again, as was the case in the regiment I had the honour to command, and other regiments also, at the period referred to by me. But, my Lords, when this connection has been lost, it cannot be at once actively renewed. As there will be other occasions, my Lords, of alluding to this subject, I will refrain from making further observations at the present time, concluding with moving the Questions which stand in my name on the Notice Paper—namely, To ask the Under Secretary of State for War the number of desertions from the Forces generally, and more particularly those of the Reserve; and if Her Majesty's Government are prepared to incur the necessary expense of a really crucial test in order to ascertain with greater accuracy the desertions from all branches of Her Majesty's Forces, by a simultaneous roll-call, thereby testing with greater accuracy the extent of desertion from Her Majesty's Embodied Forces, as also from the Militia and Reserves?


in answer to the Question of the noble Duke, was glad to say that fraudulent re-enlistment of men belonging to the Army Reserve into the Army did not prevail to a very great extent. Since the 16th of August, 1877, about 50 cases of Army Reserve men fraudulently re-entering the Army, or enlisting for the Militia, had been brought to the notice of this branch of the Service. As a rule, the men who had fraudulently re-entered the Army had been tried by court martial and held to the Army, and struck off the strength of the Army Reserve. The men who had enlisted for the Militia were held to the Army Reserve, and their Militia engagement cancelled as null and void under the Militia Act of 1875, section 77. It was not probable—and indeed hardly possible —for men who had fraudulently returned to the Army to present themselves for quarterly payments as Army Reserve men. They would have to obtain leave from their regiments, and present themselves in civilian clothing. The strength of the first-class Army Reserve on the 1st of January was 11,328, and of these 324 men were absent from the quarterly payments in January; but of these only 50 were cases of re-enlistment in the Army. In 1877 the number of desertions from the Regular Army was 5,058, which was a percentage of 2.7 to the average strength. In the same year there rejoined from desertion 2,437, which was an average of 1. to the average strength, leaving a net number lost by desertion, 2,621. In regard to the crucial test suggested by the noble Lord, in order to ascertain with greater accuracy desertions from all branches of Her Majesty's Forces, there were 70 sub-districts, each of which was under the care of a staff officer; and in each sub-district the average number of places at which the officers had to pay their men was about 20. As the men had to be paid at those places on consecutive days, it would be impossible to carry out the view of the noble Lord—namely, of having a simultaneous pay-day.


said, he should have been glad if some suggestions had been offered for the prevention of desertion. There could be no doubt that a method could be discovered, and to the military mind that method was simple. What we really ought to do was to revert to the old practice of marking men for desertion. It would prevent the crime of re-enlistment. He did not think there would be any objection on the part of the officers to being marked as well as the men. So far as he was concerned, he had no objection to it. He had the honour to wear Her Majesty's decoration on his breast, and he should have no objection to carry her name on his shoulder. The perpetual courts martial that were being held tended to degrade and lower the Service—some men deserted eight or 10 times. He would suggest that a provision might be introduced into the Mutiny Act making desertion and other military crimes punishable by extended service and sending the men on foreign service. Why not have battalions formed of deserters, and those battalions sent to India?


said, he did not see any necessity for altering the Mutiny Act in regard to this question of desertion. He certainly did not like the idea of "a condemned corps," or of a degrading punishment for what was not an offence against the civil law. He would rather scatter men who had deserted among various regiments and send them where the services of those regiments were required—for he believed that if they were to distribute these men among the various regiments who were engaged on active service, there was a fair chance of their turning out good soldiers. He desired to point out to their Lordships that the statistics of desertion, when unexplained, were calculated to give a false and exaggerated idea of the number of actual deserters. This arose from the fact that one man sometimes deserted over and over again, and re-entered the Service as often, now entering one regiment and at another time joining another; so that when, say, 200 desertions were put down in the statistics, the reader might imagine that the reference was to 200 different deserters; whereas an analysis would show that, perhaps, eight or nine of those deser- tions had been by one individual. As to marking, he never could understand the severity of that punishment—it was unfortunate that the term "branding" had ever been applied to that process—it was an unfortunate word to use, and had a very disagreeable and deterring sound. He thought that instead of reverting to what was known as "branding," there might be light tattooing. Many of their friends got themselves tattood through fancy; and his noble Friend (Lord Abinger) said that the officers would not object to a mark. All that was wanted was some indication for the medical man examining recruits by which he might know that fact when inspecting a man who had been in the Service, so that the latter might at once be called to account for again presenting himself. In that way much of the constant desertion and re-enlistment that had been going on would be prevented. The noble Lord (Lord Ellenborough) appeared to be under an erroneous impression as to the present system of enlistment. The object of that system had been to promote and not destroy local connection; but enlistment could not he completely local for this reason—that in some parts of the country young men did not enlist and in others they did in considerable numbers, and our recruiting sergeants could not be debarred from taking men where they could get them. Again, the military authorities did not prevent a man from enlisting in any corps he liked. The only difficulty in the way of selection in that respect was when the regiment which the recruit liked to join was already full.


said, that after the satisfactory explanation of the illustrious Duke, he would only make two remarks—one, that branding was done away with on the recommendation of a Royal Commission appointed when his Predecessor filled the office of Secretary for War—a Commission presided over by one of their Lordships, whom he had the pleasure now of seeing in the House; and the other, that after what had been said by the noble Lord (Lord Abinger) of the willingness of the officers to submit to their being marked as well as the men it might be well to refer the subject to the Select Committee of the other House, which would sit this Session to consider proposed changes in the Mutiny Act.