HL Deb 28 March 1878 vol 239 cc105-11

asked the Under Secretary of State for War, Whether Her Majesty's Government contemplate, without delay, altering the Articles of War, in view of reverting to the practice of marking deserters with the letter "D," or soldiers otherwise, on enlistment; also, if it is intended to revert to the practice of gazetting medical officers to regiments in lieu of the more recent practice of gazetting to the Medical Staff of the Army at large only, in view of obtaining a larger number of candidates for examination as surgeons? He took this opportunity of correcting an often-repeated misapprehension of terms in reference to "marking" soldiers with the letter "D," or otherwise, for civil and military offences, the term "branding" being a purely civilian expression, to denote what was properly termed by the Articles of War "marking"—the word "branding" never being used by an officer, as not being justified, as a reference to the Articles of War would have shown, and even a civilian, if a lawyer, or possessed of sufficient information in reference to such matters, since they would make reference to the Articles of War before employing an inappropriate term first made use of, for purely electioneering purposes, by a Gentleman who wished to obtain the votes of a very considerable section of a constituency composed as it was in a great degree of discharged soldiers; and the phrase was adopted by those who took up the cry for political purposes, without having any punishment as a substitute for the offence of desertion, who, nevertheless, advocated the abolition of the practice of marking with the letter "D" for this military crime. Dealing with the same constituency, this Gentleman, also, for the purpose of catching votes, advocated the abolition of the punishment of flogging, for which no substitute could be found likely to meet with favour from those acquainted with all that bore upon this subject; but when it was stated that the constituency in question was that of Chatham, noble Lords would not be greatly surprised to learn that for the moment the electioneering move alluded to was attended with success, although the same Gentleman subsequently was not again returned for the borough of Chatham. Although advocating the re-imposition of the punishment of marking deserters clearly proved to have committed the offence of desertion, not confusing it with the technical offence of absence without leave for a short time—although, technically, constituting the offence—leaving to the court martial to judge in the matter according to the circumstances of the case, he could not adopt the suggestion of a noble and gallant Lord (Lord Abinger), on a late occasion, that soldiers should be marked in some manner on entering the Service, since such a course would only add to the duties of the already overworked commanding officers of regiments. For, as previously in so many instances, where the War Office authorities were at fault, they would apply to the commanding officers of regiments for assistance in reference to discharged soldiers, who alleged they were such, as was instanced in a notable case some years since, when the regiment under his command, in common with other regiments of Cavalry and Infantry of the Line, were enabled to furnish on application all the Returns necessary to enable the War Department to state the amount of loss for the information of the House of Commons, in a manner that enabled a proper audit of the accounts in question to be made—namely, those connected with the defalcations that took place at Weedon in the Storekeeper's accounts at that War Office Depôt. Therefore, he (Lord Ellenborough) was unwilling to do anything to impair the usefulness of such portions of the regimental system as were yet not interfered with, for where additional work was imposed upon the commanding officer of a regiment by new changes, the War Department, while careful to place before "another place," or the other Branch of the Legislature, information as to the additions necessary in the shape of the increase of clerks at the War Department, lost sight of the fact that the work already imposed on the orderly room of a commanding officer, who had only one paid clerk, might fairly be considered in any new arrangements, when made from time to time, or now in contemplation. Holding respectfully the opinion of the late illustrious Duke of Wellington, that the pay of the private soldier should not be increased, he advocated, nevertheless, as no contravention of that well-founded opinion—strenuously advocated—that the pay of the non-commissioned officers should be increased; the more so, in view of the Army being added to, so as to bring regiments in numbers something approximate to their strength previously, and to put those enlisted on a more equal footing with artizans, since those to be enlisted would very shortly, by steadiness and attention to duty, cease to receive the lower rate of pay of a private soldier on promotion to the rank of non-commissioned officer; and, by a restoration of pensions, which alone would be justified by longer Service, the pension being made proportionate to the length of Service—all being made entitled to pensions for a longer or shorter period, who might serve actively in the field. With regard to the medical officers, great dissatisfaction was felt by the surgeons at the abolition wholly of the regimental system in respect of them. He thought that a return to the practice of gazetting them to regiments wholly, or in part, at least, instead of only to the Army at large, would be more advisable,. and felt confident that such a course would occasion a greater number of candidates to present themselves for the Medical Service of the Army; and the daily papers and Press generally furnished letters in corroboration of this view—submitted by him for the consideration of Her Majesty's Government. He trusted that if the Mutiny Act was to be referred to a Parliamentary Committee, it might be to a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament; but would prefer a Royal Commission, as the latter would not have the appearance of, either practically or even theoretically, trenching upon the Prerogatives of the Crown.


was against all marking of men entering upon voluntary service, and the man who was branded with the letter "D" ought to be expelled from the Army. He thought, as to deserters, it would be well to restore the powers confided to courts martial before the year 1870—namely, that under extenuating circumstances courts martial should be allowed to recommend that marking with the letter "D" should not be inflicted; that in all cases of first desertions, such consideration would probably be found advantageous, and have the effect of restoring such offenders to the ranks by voluntary surrender. He thought that the Army should desire to possess within itself men of mark, rather than marked men.


thought that the marking with the letter "D" should be left discretionally with the court who tried a man for absence. Where there was evidence that the intention had been to desert, marking with "D" might be resorted to; but, at the same time, men who had been so marked had afterwards done good and faithful service to Her Majesty. In his own regiment, a man who had come back after two years' imprisonment was marked with the "D;" but he remained in the regiment, and so good had been his conduct that before long he would be a serjeant-major.


observed, that, when on a former evening he suggested that all persons, whether officers or men, on entering the Army might be marked, he did so as an alternative in case opinion should be against the "D" being marked on deserters. He repeated his opinion that neither officers nor men would object to a mark which would show that they had been soldiers.


thought it would be generally conceded that the Queen's "bad bargains," as they were called—those who cheated and defrauded their country by frequent desertions and re-enlistments—had no right to expect much indulgence and consideration at the hands of their country. It was not the intention of the Secretary for War to make any immediate recommendation upon this subject; but as a Committee of the other House was about to be appointed on the Mutiny Bill, this was one of the subjects which might be very fairly referred to that Committee, and which might properly be dealt with by their Report. With regard to branding, he believed it was abolished from no motives of pseudo-humanity or from any notion that a man was hurt by the operation—it was abolished at the same time that branding of civil prisoners was done away with, and it was thought that its retention for military prisoners would have had a bad effect in the then state of public feeling on the question of branding. Under the new circumstances now obtaining, the matter might very reasonably be referred to the Committee, whether that punishment might not be returned to in order to check what had arisen under the short-service system—namely, men making a regular trade of desertion and re-enlistment. With regard to the Medical Staff, it had been unduly depreciated. It was not the fact, as had been stated, that it was in an extremely unsatisfactory state, or that it was very hard to find suitable candidates to fill up the vacancies as they arose. At the present moment the Medical Establishment of the Army was somewhat over 900 medical officers, and there were only eight vacancies. Equally with the civil branch of the Medical Profession, the Army was suffering from a scarcity of students. His right hon. Friend the Secretary for War had conducted a large correspondence with medical men throughout the country; but he believed they had never yet formulated the grievances of which medical officers complained. With regard to the proposed return to the regimental system—that system, be it good or bad, had passed away, and was beyond recall. The new system of a unified Medical Staff for the whole Army had been found to work reasonably well in practice; but it was yet on its trial, and it would be unwise to dismiss it as unsuccessful until it had been fairly tried. Those, however, most competent to judge, considered that in a short time, with the alterations that were now being introduced, it would become popular and efficient, and it was a matter for congratulation that under the present system the health of the Army was extremely good. Under the circumstances, and having regard to the fact that the whole question of the Medical Service had been referred to a small Committee, at the head of which was Sir William Jenner, he thought their Lordships would not require him to enter further into the matter at present.


, having served on the Committee which recommended that branding should be given up, said, that among the reasons which influenced the Committee in making that recommendation was the feeling that, as branding had been discontinued in the civil prisons, it ought not to be continued in the Army.


My Lords, I have heard a great many men's opinions in the Army on almost every subject connected with it, but I never heard the slightest difference of opinion on the subject of desertion having largely increased in consequence of the abolition of "marking"—the whole difficulty, in fact, consisted in the use of the objectionable word "branding." I am in favour of some system of marking deserters and bad characters, in order that it may be known that a man, when he offers himself for enlistment, has previously deserted, or been discharged for misconduct. He would have an opportunity of stating why he left the Service, and it could be discovered if his statement was true. If he could not give an account of himself, and he was marked, it would be a clear proof that he was a worthless character. I have seen a great many men called recruits who, I was satisfied, had been previously in. the Army; but, of course, on being questioned, they denied it, and there were no means of testing the truth of the statement. The number of men whom it is shrewdly suspected have been previously in the Army is very great, but there is, at present, no means of knowing whether they have been turned out for misconduct or have left of their own accord. If a bad character were marked, it would be at once discovered if he were to attempt to re-enlist. We are glad to take back men who have left the Army without disgrace—that is the sole ground for having a man marked. Let the mark be as slight as you like; but I think it is essential you should have some security that a man who has been turned out of the Army for misconduct should not find it possible to re-enlist. I do not agree with the opinion that a man who has once deserted should not be allowed to serve again. I have known many men who have deserted afterwards turn out excellent soldiers. Certainly, I am not in favour of "branding" a man; but I think he might be marked in some unostentatious way, if I may so express myself.


explained that the term "branding" did not originate with the Committee with whom he acted in reference to this matter; but "branding" was universally used formerly, as applicable to both civil and military matters.


was understood to ask the noble Lord the Under Secretary for War, whether it had been correctly stated that the next Mutiny Bill or the present would be referred to a Select Committee?


said, a new Bill had been drafted by the Law Officers of the Crown, which it was the intention of the Government to submit to a Select Committee; but the present Mutiny Bill must be passed before the 25th April. After Easter the Select Committee would be appointed. Several noble Lords had asked whether the Committee would be a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament or of the House of Commons only? and he had inquired of his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War whether there would be any objection to appointing a Joint Committee? His right hon. Friend's answer was that so many Gentlemen of the House of Commons were anxious to serve on the Committee, that if an equal number of Members of their Lordships' House were added, it would make the Committee entirely unwieldy; and, therefore, it was intended that the Committee should be altgether composed of Members of the House of Commons.

House adjourned at Six o'clock, till To-morrow, half past Ten o'clock.