HL Deb 04 March 1879 vol 244 cc118-25

, in calling the attention of the House to the Report of the Inspector General of Recruiting for 1878, asked the Under Secretary of State for War, Whether it is the intention of Her Majesty's Government to bring forward any measure to check desertion from the Army? The noble Lord said, he desired to express at the outset his opinion that the linking of battalions together prevented the action of amalgamation which, under the new system, was now so desirable. With one hand they seemed to keep up the regimental system, and with the other they tried to destroy it. In his opinion, the time had arrived when the number of battalions or regiments in the Service should correspond with the depôt centres. There were two points which were satisfactory in the Report of the Inspector General. One was the splendid manner in which the Reserve had come forward when called upon; the other, that recruits were coming forward in more than sufficient numbers, and of a superior quality. Indeed, the supply of recruits was so far in advance of the requirements of the Service that the Inspector General had been able to increase the standard. He congratulated the noble Viscount opposite (Viscount Cardwell) upon the two cardinal points of the new system—namely, that of short service and the Reserves—which had so far worked satisfactorily. It was now proved that under the system of short service they could get a sufficient number of recruits, and the condition of the Reserves showed that they could at any time bring forward large numbers of old soldiers in the best state of efficiency. But there was a want felt, and it seemed to him that the Government should take power to call out a portion of the Reserves, not merely in times of great danger, but whenever their services would be required for small local wars. This might be done in one of two ways. They might either call out that portion of the Reserves attached to the depôt centre or sub-district to which the regiment was attached, or the men last passed into the Reserves. If either plan were I adopted, they would then send out well- drilled, experienced soldiers, and they would fill up a gap which was still observed in the system. He noticed that in the Army Discipline Bill the Secretary of State proposed to take power to call out volunteers from the Reserves. So far well; but the Government should have positive power to call out a portion of the Reserves for service when required. As to the Report itself, he hoped it would be given annually. Now he came to the point raised in the Question of which he had given Notice—Desertion in the Army. He would repeat the opinion he expressed last year, that the true way to check desertion was by marking the whole Army, say, with a simple "V.R." of the size of a three penny-piece. This would enable them to get rid of the whole system of fraudulent enlistment. But if this were objected to, why should not the men who entered the Army be re-vaccinated in such a manner and. in such a place as to render the mark easily recognizable by Army surgeons? There would be no disgrace attaching to such a mark. If any doubt existed in the minds of the authorities as to the feeling of the men on the point, it could easily be obtained by sending a Circular round to the various centres—such as Aldershot, Shorncliffe, Colchester, and others, and invite an expression of opinion upon it. If the result should be that the plan was found distasteful to the men, why let them fall back on the marking of deserters, which he did not see any objection to. It was said that public opinion was against it; but he thought if it were clearly shown that all that was done was to put some distinguishing mark on the deserter, the public would not pronounce in any strong terms against it.


asked what was the cause of the desertions in the Army? The cause, in his opinion, was the amount of harass and the enormous number of minor punishments to which the men were subjected for the most trivial offences. There had been no less than 282,687 punishments in the course of one year in the British Army, and in the same period there had been over 16,000—near 17,000—courts martial. He should not presume to say what the requirements of the British Army were; but these punishments must, to an intolerable extent, harass the men—the result being desertion.


said, it must, he thought, be generally admitted that the Report of the Inspector General of Recruiting was a very favourable one in most respects. The Army had been recruited up to its full strength, and the Inspector General found no difficulty in getting recruits who were superior to the recruits of recent years and of a better physique. On that point, therefore, they might congratulate themselves. His noble Friend (Lord Abinger) turned from that point to deal with a question which was somewhat akin to it. His noble Friend seemed to object to the system of linked battalions, which he pronounced to be an anachronism in the present day, and added that things went on much better under the old system. He (Viscount Bury) was not about to express an opinion upon that point. His noble Friend was a laudator temporis acti; but Parliament had, with the full consent of all parties, adopted a new system, which, so far from breaking down, had proved itself, under the circumstances, as elastic and convenient as could reasonably be expected; and though his noble Friend had mentioned one or two points in which amendment might be possible, he did not raise any solid objection to the system itself. It should not be forgotten that at the present moment England had on her hands two wars, with the Army on a peace footing, and that she had been able to furnish all the troops required by the exigencies of the Public Service in two separate and distant quarters of the globe. It had been commented on somewhat strongly that two regiments recently sent to the Cape as reinforcements had themselves to be reinforced before they went out by volunteers from other regiments. That was quite true; but it must be remembered—to take one instance—that the 91st Regiment had been denuded of its men in order to supply deficiencies in the 72nd Regiment, which was its linked regiment, in India; but there was no difficulty in bringing the 91st, under the brigade depôt system, to its war strength when it became necessary so to do. The same remark applied to other regiments which had been sent out—as soon as the necessity arose, the men came forward. It was not pretended for the system that it was one of cast iron, which could not be remedied or perhaps remodelled here- after, but it was one not to be hastily cast aside. Passing on to the subject of desertions, he (Viscount Bury) must admit, with regret, that they were numerous. Without doubt, the old plan of marking deserters was the simplest that could be adopted for preventing men who had been guilty of the offence from rejoining the Colours. He, for one, would be the last to hesitate on the ground of a mere mawkish sentimentality from marking a man who had deceived his country and probably committed a fraud of the grossest and most cowardly description, coupled with the robbery of his clothes and other necessaries, in order to prevent him from repeating his offence. But the system of marking had been abandoned after full consideration, and it was not the intention of Her Majesty's Government to recommend a recurrence to it. As to the alternatives suggested by his noble Friend, he could not hold out any hope that the opinion of the Army generally would be taken by Her Majesty's Government as to the advisability of adopting a universal system of marking officers and privates alike. The vaccination plan would be practicable, but it had been determined not to adopt it, for the present, at all events, in the hope that the provisions of the Bill recently introduced in the other House of Parliament would be of such a nature as materially to diminish the number of desertions. Until it was seen how that proposal worked, it was not the intention of Her Majesty's Government to propose any departure from the existing system.


desired to say a few words. In the first place, he must express his astonishment at some of the observations of the noble Lord (Lord Truro), who was under the erroneous impression that there was either an undue amount of crime or of punishment in Her Majesty's Service, and that the annoyance to which the men were exposed by petty punishments was the explanation of the number of desertions from the Army. No doubt, the Returns of offences made up a large aggregate, which those not acquainted with the minor details of the Army system might think serious; but those offences did not represent any proportionately large amount of crime, for the reason that they were chiefly inflicted for very minor offences. Some increase in the number of offences against discipline might be found in the large number of young non-commissioned officers they now had. The class of non-commissioned officers they formerly had were men of stability as well as respectability, with discretion and command of their tempers, which gave weight to any rebuke they might feel it their unpleasant duty to administer. Now, unfortunately, they had to deal with a number of young men and young non-commissioned officers, who, instead of listening to the rebuke of their superiors, were too apt to be what was commonly called "cheeky." Looking through the Report carefully, he did not find that there was more serious crime than formerly. Desertion was altogether another question. Desertion, he would not deny, had increased very largely; but that he accounted for in the same way as he accounted for the greater number of minor offences shown by the Returns-—namely, by the circumstances arising under the new system of enlistment. They uniformly found that when they had, as was the case under the short-service system, a very large number of recruits, a great number of desertions followed, for the simple reason that many men went into the Army with the intention to desert. This was not an experience of to-day merely. They would find, if they looked back, that there had been invariably a large amount of desertions when they recruited to a heavy amount. Recruiting and desertion had always increased in about equal ratio. As far as the marking of deserters was concerned, he thought it was sufficiently understood that marking was no part of the punishment for desertion; but was simply adopted in order to prevent the public being cheated over and over again by re-enlistments on the part of men who had previously run away from the service of their country. He did not deny that it was necessary to do something; but he objected in toto to one of the alterations suggested—to mark every man—officer as well as private—on entering the Army. As to the officers, he strongly deprecated its application. As regarded the officers, they never deserted; and as regarded the privates, the very fact that a young man on entering the Army would be liable to be marked would be an indignity to which he would not willingly submit, and it would be of itself sufficient to prevent his enlisting. As far as the vaccine mark was concerned, the case was different. It would not in itself be an indignity, inasmuch as all men entering the Army had to be vaccinated, and it could not matter as to the way in which the punctures were made; while, at the same time, it would afford a means of identifying men upon whom the operation had been performed. He had been somewhat astonished to hear his noble Friend (Lord Abinger) go into the general question of the organization of the Army, which was not raised by his Notice. Not having expected such a departure from the subject-matter of the Notice, he was not prepared to enter upon a debate which might otherwise have been very appropriate; but he wished to remark that it was all very well to talk just now about doing away with linked battalions. There was a great deal of sentiment in these matters; but he desired to point out, as regarded linked battalions, that the men were interchangeable as the exigencies of the Public Service required. There was not the slightest difference in that respect between linked battalions and double battalions. The same inconveniences that existed in the case of the one existed in that of the other also. If they had double battalions—the one at home, the other abroad—and deficiencies arose in the latter, how could they be made up without volunteering? The truth was that the outcry as to volunteering resolved itself into a question of money. If they had money, they could get the men and could do without volunteering; if they had not, they could not get on without it. It was impossible, without a sufficient number of men, to carry out the duties required. They were asked why they did not keep the regiments which were high on the list for foreign service up to their full complement? Well, they did so. But it happened that men dropped off; that others were entitled to their discharge; that others were required for depôt duty. Moreover, when a regiment was suddenly ordered abroad for service in a tropical climate, it could not take with it the men under a certain age, or those within a few months of their discharge; so that he would venture to say that there was not a regiment in the Service from which it would not be necessary to knock off at least 200 men when ordered abroad. They had not got the Establishment that would enable them to keep sufficient depôts to dispense with volunteering from other regiments. Unless, as he had said, they had a sufficient number of men, it was clearly impossible to avoid volunteering. He admitted that the system of volunteering was objectionable—that he felt as strongly as any of their Lordships could do—but volunteering was not inherent in the new system only. When he was in the Crimea, in command of a division which included the Highland Brigade, one regiment of that brigade, on going out, took out volunteers from the two other regiments that remained at home; when the second went out and joined the brigade, it took volunteers from the third; and at last the third regiment, on joining the brigade, was composed almost entirely of volunteers. There was nothing new, therefore, in that system; although as a soldier he would, of course, much rather it was not necessary to resort to it. But, he repeated, it was a question of money. If they did not wish to have volunteering, they must put their hands into their pocket. If they did not, they must be satisfied that whatever Government was in power would do the best they could under the circumstances in which they were placed. He trusted that their Lordships and the country would admit that those who worked under him, as also the Secretary of State, had done the best they could, and that it was wonderful that in so short a time the battalions had been made up, and that under very difficult circumstances. It was a proof of the good spirit and good feeling that prevailed in the Army that they could have had many hundred more soldiers who were anxious to join any regiment under orders for foreign service. There was no doubt that third or depôt battalions could have been formed, if the circumstances had been considered so serious as to render such a step necessary; but it was one which could not be taken unless the country was prepared to pay for it.


said, he quite concurred in what had been said by his noble and gallant Friend opposite (Lord Abinger) on the subject of the linked battalions. They knew, however, from what had occurred last night in "another place," that it had been the intention of Her Majesty's Government up to a late moment to reduce the number of the rank and file to be voted for the year. As the illustrious Duke had said, if it were intended to create third battalions, they must be prepared to incur the necessary expense. If they were not, then whatever other means might be at their disposal, they would fail in their object. They would not, indeed, ever again be placed in the position in which Lord Raglan found himself in the Crimea, or have to fill up regiments in the way he was called upon to do; because they had trained Reserves whom they could call out for a national emergency, such as that of last year, or they could have recourse to a certain amount of volunteering. It was said fey his noble Friend that it would be desirable to have compulsory power to call out a certain portion of the Reserve Force for a temporary purpose, if they wished to meet an ordinary war like the present by battalions, not exclusively composed of young recruits, but in some part assisted by men volunteering to join them from the Reserve; but he thought it a wiser determination on the part of the Secretary of State not to seek such a power, but, except in the case of great national emergency, to be satisfied with the readiness of those who might be invited to volunteer.


reminded their Lordships that the step taken last year in the calling out of the Reserves had been only half a success. It was true that the men had come out with alacrity when called upon; but the military establishments were not ready to receive them. Those establishments had been so starved that the men were unable to find their clothing or their equipment, to enable them to take at once their places in the ranks. The essential condition of the Reserve system, with short service, was that all these preparations should be made beforehand. The Departments ought to be organized and maintained in a state of entire efficiency, if they desired to see the system work successfully.