HL Deb 28 February 1896 vol 37 cc1357-61

LORD MONKSWELL rose to call attention to the practice of sending band-boys to India at the age of 15; and to move:— That an humble address be presented for a return of the number of persons enlisted in the army as boys, who have been sent to India under the age of 20 during the last five years, giving the names, ages, and medical records of such of them as have died or been discharged invalided from the service, and the pensions granted to the latter. He said, that the class on whose behalf he proposed to address a few words to their Lordships, was not a large or influential one, but he thought their case was worthy of attention. His attention was first called to the matter in the course of his duties as a Commissioner of Chelsea Hospital. The Commissioners met once a week to go through the list of soldiers discharged invalided from the army, with a view to deciding whether or not they were entitled to pensions. In going through these lists, he observed cases of lads of 17 or 18 discharged invalided after service in India. He thought that a very shocking state of things, and at his request another Commissioner, a general officer, promised to look into the matter and report. He met his gallant Friend on several subsequent occasions, and he always said he had the matter under consideration. The late Government went out in rather a hurry and his gallant Friend did not report to him, but as he implored him not to drop the matter, he had thought that he would have reported to the noble Marquess opposite. Some months ago he had a conversation with the noble Marquess on the subject. The noble Marquess met him in a very sympathetic and friendly spirit, and said he was obliged to him for bringing the matter to his attention and promised to inquire into it. He heard no more, and a few days ago he wrote to ask what had been done. The noble Marquess very candidly replied that the matter had entirely escaped his memory, and went on to say that the War Office had determined to make no alteration. In office and out of office he had tried to press the matter forward, but had miserably failed. His only course, therefore, was to bring the matter before their Lordships' House. It might be that the noble Marquess would tell him that these boys when they arrived in India were sent to hill stations. He was aware that that was the theory, but he was assured on high military authority that the practice did not conform with the theory. The colonel of the regiment did not like to break up his band, and was under great temptations to encourage these boys to remain in the plains. He would sometimes go round and say: "You are quite well, my lad, are you not? It will not do you any harm to remain here;" and the boy being pleased by the notice taken of him by his commanding officer, made no objection, and in many cases he remained, and, in the words of a distinguished officer, "the poor boy blows and blows till he can blow no longer." He ventured to put forward a general proposition which he was sure would have the unanimous assent of their Lordships and of the Secretary of State for War. It was this, that except in cases of necessity it was wrong for them to inflict on the children of other people dangers to health to which they would not on any account subject their own children. The noble Marquess could make out no case of necessity for sending these boys to India, and he hoped the Secretary of State would at least promise him to look most carefully into this matter. He ventured even to express the hope that he would go a little further, and would be able to tell the House that he had come to the conclusion that some considerable alteration ought to be made as to the age at which boys were liable to be sent to India. He begged to move the Motion which stood in his name.


I must begin by pleading guilty to the act of forgetfulness the noble Lord imputes to me. If I did lose sight of the wish he expressed, that wish was conveyed to me at a time when both of us were somewhat hurried, and it is only natural that his words should not have fixed themselves as firmly as they might have done on my attention. As regards the attitude of the War Office, I think the noble Lord will not complain if, considering the enormous attempts he seems to have made to obtain a change of policy in regard to this question, during the short time I have been connected with the department, I should not have taken the question up. I find it to be the case that these band boys have for a very long time past been sent to India at the age of 15. The question seems to have been under consideration more than once, but those in authority have never been satisfied that there was any sufficient cause for making a change. On one occasion, indeed, a proposal was put forward to reduce the age limit and to send out these boys at the age of 14, but that proposal was not accepted. I should have said at first that there are about 600 of these boys altogether in India at the present time, who went out to India at 15 years of age. It may be argued that as we avoid sending soldiers to India until they are past the age of 20, a fortiori it is a very wrong thing to send lads of 15 to that country. That is a view of the case which at first commended itself very strongly to me, but I am assured, on what I know to be good authority, that the facts do not entirely support these arguments. I am told by those who have a right to form an opinion, that growing lads of 15 are less liable to take harm from the effects of the Indian climate, and particularly from those diseases which are prevalent in that country, than men five or six years older; and the only statistics which I have been able to obtain since the noble Lord put his question on the Paper, certainly bear out that view, because I find that, taking the 10 years ending 1894, there were 9.55 deaths per thousand amongst boys under 20, whereas there were no less than 17.28 deaths per thousand among men between 20 and 25; and taking invaliding, the rate per thousand for boys under 20 was 10.55 and for men between 20 and 25, 26.57. These figures certainly at first sight seem to bear out the view I have expressed just now, and I think it will be obvious to the noble Lord, that there are certain reasons for which we might expect that these lads would probably suffer less from the climate than youths of a greater age; because those band boys are certainly very much less exposed to extreme fatigue and great heat than the regular soldiers. For instance, they escape altogether, I believe, duty as sentries—a very trying duty, as we all know, in hot climates. The noble Lord has moved for a return showing the number of persons enlisted as boys, their names, ages and medical records. I have no wish whatever to keep back anything from the noble Lord, but I am told such a return would take considerable time to prepare, that we should have to refer to every battalion, the records of each would have to be searched, and the information would be very far from easy to obtain. I hope, therefore, the noble Lord will not press his Motion for a return, but will be content with the assurance I give him that I will have the matter very carefully looked into—particularly if he will assist me by communicating to me privately the authorities upon whom he relies for his statement—and let him know the result as soon as I have anything to communicate.


I should like to ask the noble Marquess whether the statistics he has given include combatants?


As no soldiers are allowed to go to India until they are past 20, it is obvious that the greater number of men returned below 20 must be these band boys.


Do the figures include those killed in action?




thought that the view taken by the noble Marquess was a little startling, because they all knew that it was dangerous to their health to send young men under 20 to India. The noble Marquess said that about 9½ per thousand of those under 20 died. That was a large percentage, but it was impossible to say, unless the noble Marquess produced statistics a little more in detail, how it came to pass that the enormous number of 17½ per thousand died between the ages of 20 and 25. There might be other reasons for that, which he would not go into now, besides the fact that some others were probably killed in action. The noble Marquess knew that in England it was a very rare thing for a boy between 15 and 20 to die. He understood that at Eton the death-rate was one in 2,000, and in industrial schools with which he was connected the death-rate was certainly not more than two in a thousand. A death-rate, therefore, of 9½ in the 1,000 was very high. The statistics of the noble Marquess really proved too much, because if he was right the moment a young recruit was enlisted they ought to send him out to India.


hoped the Secretary of State for War would also give his attention to the question of the service of immature boys in the army. Was it right or desirable that they should have served in the army and be reckoned as efficient soldier-boys under 20 years of age? He did not think that youths of 17, 18 and 19 ought to be borne on the army Estimates or reckoned as efficient soldiers.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.