HL Deb 28 July 1890 vol 347 cc1005-9

My Lords, in asking for the Return which I have placed on the Notice Paper of your Lordships' House, I do not wish to occupy many minutes of your time in explaining the desirability of that Return being granted. First of all, the information I seek is not in the preliminary Annual Returns for the British Army; and I think it is desirable to know the age and services of the non-commissioned officers who are brought into direct contact with the men, excluding those noncommissioned officers who are generally of mature age and of longer service, and who are specially employed in staff appointments in their various regiments. I think, if this Return is granted, it will be seen that the non-commissioned officers are, as a rule, of such a youthful age, and of such short service, that they cannot exercise that authority over the men, nor imbue the men with the respect which is, as a rule, accorded by young men to those older than themselves, and which is so necessary in the interests and the well-being of the Army. Roughly speaking, the conditions of service of the non-commissioned officers are as follows: the non-commissioned officer after a year's probation can engage on for 12 years, and after 9 years he can re-engage for 21 and a pension. These conditions are subject to certain restrictions affecting various corps, or, roughly speaking, the conditions affecting the non-commissioned officers of the corps. So that, practically speaking, any man who has good health and a good character as a non-commissioned officer, can serve for 21 years. But the point is that non-commissioned officers do not serve for 21 years, as a rule. Now, why-is this? The causes are various. First of all I should put the question of the deferred pay among the principal reasons which induce the non-commissioned officers to leave the Service. They find coming to them at the expiration of a certain number of years' service a considerable sum of money, and they are desirous of obtaining this sum of money into their possession; but, as a rule, unfortunately no sooner do they obtain this money than they spend it, the result being that the country loses the services of good non-commissioned officers, and the non-commissioned officers lose their money, so that neither the country nor the non-commissioned officers., are in the end benefited. Then, again, we must remember that the conditions in civil life of the class from whom these non-commissioned officers are drawn, have very much improved of late-years. They receive, as a rule, greater pay, and they work shorter hours; they have far more leisure, and are in possession of greater advantages than they had in former years. This, also, is an attraction to non-commissioned officers to leave the Service and join their brothers in civil life. Of course, there are many other causes which induce non-commissioned officers to leave the Service. I will not go into them, but the fact is, that non-commissioned officers do leave the Service, and they leave it too young for the good of the Army, more especially now since the introduction of short service, when there are so very few older soldiers in the ranks to imbue the younger soldiers with ideas of discipline, and to teach them what is, perhaps, more important than anything else, reverence for the traditions of the regiment in which they serve. I should like to quote to your Lordships a few statistics as to these young soldiers. There were serving at home with the colours in 1889, 99,647 men, of whom 36,977 were under 21 years of, age, and 70,380 were under 25 years of age. The question may now he asked, in view of what I have said, how does this extreme youth of so many men in the Army affect discipline. Again, I will quote a few figures. I find that Courts Martial have decreased from 16,523 in 1881 to 12,188 in 1888; but the cases of violence and disobedience to superiors tried by Courts Martial have increased from 1,650 cases in 1881 to 2,198 cases in 1888, and cases of minor insubordination, neglect of orders, have increased from 1,472 cases in 1881 to 2,106 cases in the year 1888. So that it will be seen though Court Martial cases have largely decreased in bulk, offences in relation to discipline have considerably increased. There is also another point in connection with the discipline of the Army and non-commissioned officers which is, perhaps, of importance, to mention, and that is in regard to the territorial system. Now, the territorial system is taken more advantage of than it used to be by private soldiers. There are more soldiers now enlisting from any one district or village than there used to be. The consequence is that a non-commissioned officer promoted in any of these territorial regiments has a considerable number of men serving under him in the ranks who will leave the regiment probably about the same time as himself, and it is not in human nature that in those circumstances a non-commissioned officer will not think rather of the good opinion of those whom he will be with at home in the village so long in civil life than of the discipline of the Army. When at home in the Reserve there would, of course, be many chances for the private to repay any grudge he might owe his former non-commissioned officer. Of course, there are exceptional cases, and there are numbers of good non-commissioned officers who would be a credit to any Army in the world: but still, taking them in the bulk, they are liable to be influenced by those considerations. Now, undoubtedly, a non-commissioned officer should be of mature age, tact, and experience, and should be able to imbue the men under him with respect, and to administer discipline without partiality or favour. I would like to quote to your Lordships some statistics as to the conduct of non-commissioned officers. I find by the Preliminary Annual Return for the British Army for 1890 that, during the year 1889, in the Home Army only, there were 673 non-commissioned officers sentenced by Court Martial to be reduced to a lower grade or to the ranks; and, in addition, 55 more suffered imprisonment as well as reduction. Those figures indicate a percentage of offences among the non-commissioned officers which is certainly far more than is desirable. I think a considerable step towards improving the position of noncommissioned officers in the Army might be taken by eliminating from the ranks all those men who are of really bad character, and by those means inducing a better class of men to enlist, as many men of good character will not enlist to serve along with men of bad character. I will not weary your Lordships with any words or ideas of mine as to the pay or advantages' which should be offered to non-commissioned officers, to induce a really good body of non-commissioned officers to serve in the Army. Any such ideas from far more experienced heads than my own would be at the disposal of any statesman who chose to grapple with this question; but I would say that when this country pays an immense sum for procuring men to fight for it, and when it arms those men with the most improved and deadly weapons of modern science, it should not grudge the money necessary to place those men who compose its Army on a sound footing. Now, stability may be obtained by making it to the self-interest of a body of men to serve the country, and to give the best years of their life in the Service; but if the country will not pay those men enough to induce them to give the best years of their life to the Service, then I see nothing for it but that we must have some modified form of conscription, and by those means—by the introduction to the ranks of all classes of the community—we shall obtain that stability which is obtained in foreign armies. We have in our Army a short service system, with only one class of men in the Service, while in foreign armies it is a short service system for all classes. I cannot help quoting to your Lordships a saying which has been attributed to the Duke of Wellington: he said that, "The noncommissioned officers of the Army are the backbone of the Service." If this was true in the days when the Duke of Wellington said it, at a time when there were many old soldiers in the ranks, how much more true must it be now, when we have the short service system of obtaining men for the Service from a single class of the community. I hope Her Majesty's Government will grant the Return I ask for, and I trust it may be found useful.

Moved, "That there be laid before this House, Return of the average age and service of privates in the regular army at the time of their promotion to be non-commissioned officers during the year 1889; and for a Return of the average age and service of the non-commissioned officers of each rank at present serving with the colours, excluding those who are specially employed and not doing ordinary duty with their respective batteries, troops, or companies."—(The Earl of Dundonald.)


My Lords, there is no objection whatever to granting the Return asked for by the noble Lord opposite. I would, however, point out to him that it will involve some delay to give the particulars required with regard to every unit of the British Army serving both at home and abroad.

Agreed to.