HL Deb 04 July 1881 vol 262 cc1921-5

said, he rose to call attention to a statement reported in the public journals to have been made by the Secretary of State for War on the 24th of June, that "desertion in the Army has already been greatly reduced within the last ten years;" and to ask Her Majesty's Government How that statement, made by a Cabinet Minister, could be reconciled with the figures given in the War Office Returns, showing an average increase of over 60 per cent during the years referred to over previous years?


said, that before the noble Earl put his Question he wished to call attention to the manner in which it had been framed. It had always been held that their Lordships' House should not take notice of what had occurred in the other House of Parliament, as reported in the public journals. He would suggest that his noble Friend should leave out the words referring to a Cabinet Minister, and simply call attention to the statements made in a paper issued by authority. It was better that the strict Rules of.the House should be observed.


said, he would have been much obliged to his noble Friend if he had brought the subject to his notice two days ago. He would be only too happy to put the Question in the manner suggested by his noble Friend. It was, however, only on Friday last, that the noble Duke (the Duke of Argyll) had pointed out that both the First Commissioner of Works and the President of the Board of Trade had laid themselves open to a charge which practically amounted to a perversion of facts; the noble Marquess (the Marquess of Waterford) who followed the noble Duke in debate, had also shown that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster came under the same category; and he (the Earl of Galloway) now regretted that he felt it to be his painful duty to add a fourth Minister of the Crown to the same list—namely, the Secretary of State for War. A fortnight ago, he (the Earl of Galloway) had brought before the House the subject of waste in the Army, which he had attributed in a great degree to de- sertion. He had then stated that whereas from 1864 to 1871 the average number of desertions annually was 3,153, the number in the eight following years averaged 5,161. He gave these figures on the authority of the Report of General Lord Airey's Committee. The illustrious Duke the Commander-in-Chief had said that the number of deserters had practically not varied for the last 20 years, if the number of deserters were compared with the total number of soldiers in the Army. He was much surprised when, four days later, he saw in the public journals a statement made by the Secretary of State for War, in "another place," that, by the greater popularity of the new scheme in the country, desertion, which had already been greatly reduced, would be still further diminished. What were the facts? The General Annual Return of the British Army, which had been prepared at the instance of the Commander-in-Chief (the Duke of Cambridge) for the information of the Secretary of State for War, showed that there had been a great increase in the amount. It showed that during the 10 years from 1861–70 inclusive, the number was 33,578, whereas from 1871 to 1879 inclusive, it was 45,485; and, if he added to those figures those which he found in another document which had been laid on the Table of the House—namely, the Annual Return of the Inspector General of Recruiting, and which showed a great increase last year, the figures being 4,881—they would find that the total for the latter 10 years amounted to no less than 50,366. He had thought it right to bring the matter forward again; and he wanted to know whether they were to accept the statement of the illustrious Duke, or that of the Secretary of State for War, or take the figures from these Returns?


said, that he could not but admire the pertinacity with which the noble and gallant Earl opposite returned to this subject, not-, withstanding the explanation which he gave the other night, and which the noble and gallant Earl had totally ignored. What he was doing, when he gave the figures to which the noble and gallant Earl referred, was comparing the waste of the Army under the long and short-service system, and deducting the number of those who rejoined from the number of those who deserted. The noble and gallant Earl had referred to 1870; but when the Army was in a transition state it was impossible to judge what the effect of the new organization was. He called the attention of the noble and gallant Earl to Table 25 of the Returns, in which the figures were given. In all the years included in that Table—namely, 1861 to 1879—whether under longer short service, there had been fluctuations in the rate of desertions, and these fluctuations were not affected by the length of the service. Desertions were affected by the state of trade, the rapid augmentation of the Army, the chances of employment, and various other causes with which he was reluctant to trouble the House. He would, for the purpose of comparison, take the five years of long service ending in 1869, and the five years of short service ending in 1879. He found, as the noble and gallant Earl said, there was a certain increase in the total number of desertions in the last five years as compared with, the five years ended in 1869. He never disputed that. What he did say was that the number of men who rejoined the Army was in the first five years smaller than in the second five years; and the average of the net loss per annum in the years 1875–9, after deducting those men who rejoined, was only 217 more than the average net loss per annum for the years 1865–9. But the main point was to compare the figures with the average strength of the Army and the number of recruits who annually joined the Army. It was admitted, on all hands, that desertions took place more at home than abroad, and more among young recruits than old soldiers. In the last five years, from 1875 to 1879, the strength of the Army at home was, on the average, excluding officers, about 12,000 more than in 1865–9; and yet the percentage of net loss on the Home Army was almost exactly the same. [The Earl of GALLOWAY dissented.] The noble and gallant Earl shook his head, but let him show where the error was. In 1861 there were 10,000 recruits, and the percentage of deserters was 41. Taking all the years from 1861 to 1879, the percentage of deserters to recruits was 22. In the last year of long service—1869—the percentage of desertions to recruits was 27. There had been a gradual and marked decrease in the desertion of recruits. In 1875, the percentage was 24; in 1877, it was 17; in 1878, it was 19; and in 1879, it was 16. He thought these figures completely refuted the argument of the noble and gallant Earl. Taking into consideration the total waste, he repeated that, although the number of desertions, considered by themselves, were larger, yet, taking net results into consideration, the waste of the Army under the short-service system had, practically, not increased; and, if further, they took the other causes of waste, such as death and invaliding, into account, the waste had actually diminished.


said, he had not offered one observation on the question of long or short service. He quoted certain figures, and they had not been disputed, and the noble Lord representing the Government had only tried, by beating about the bush, to prove that black was white; but he adhered to the figures. What he wanted to know was whether or not desertions had increased? The noble Earl, in his answer the other day, certainly led the House to suppose that, on the whole, they were decreasing, and his statement was confirmed by his Leader in the other House; whereas, when the Returns were published, it was found that instead of their being any decrease they had increased at least 60 per cent during the last 10 years. Were they to accept the figures in the Return as correct or not?


said, this was another illustration of the saying that they could make figures prove anything. For his own part, he considered the answer of the noble Earl an unsatisfactory one. All officers speaking on this subject, whether they came from India, from Malta, or from Aldershot, were unanimous in complaining of the increasing number of desertions. He thought the explanation of the apparent contradiction was to be found in the fact that certain men deserted several times. He heard of one man who had joined 18 different regiments. They would never stop this until they adopted a system of marking. Humanitarians talked of the pain, but men often marked themselves from fancy.


said, that the Question which was asked by his noble and gallant Friend was not about the waste of the Army, but whether during the last 10 years desertions had not been increasing, and the effect of the answer given by the noble Earl that night appeared to be that, taking the net results and making allowance for those who returned from a state of desertion, the number remained about the same. When a soldier was brought back to his regiment as a deserter, the fact of his return did not cancel his previous act of desertion, and thus diminish the total number of desertions, as the noble Earl seemed to maintain. The important fact was that in the last 10 years there had been a large increase in the number of desertions as compared with the previous 10 years. What the reason for that increase was it was not for him to say. The question, however, was not one as to the gross or the net loss of the Force.