HL Deb 15 February 1900 vol 79 cc9-12

My Lords, I beg to call the attention of the House to the inconvenience caused by the rejection of Volunteers for service in South Africa by the army medical officers after the men have got their clothing and equipment; and to ask whether some means cannot be found to remove the cause of complaint. There has been some correspondence lately in the newspapers upon this subject, but this correspondence has dealt chiefly with criticisms of the cause of rejection. This is not the point which I wish to bring before the House. I think it would be foolish, I may even say cruel, to send men out to the front who were physically unfit for the duties which they would be called upon to perform, and I cannot see that the War Office would be justified in trusting anyone else with the examination except their own medical officers. I do not complain of the rejection of Volunteers on the ground of physical unfitness, but I complain of the procedure. The procedure is this. The War Office have called upon Volunteer battalions to provide a company to join the territorial battalion in South Africa. With the greatest patriotism and ardour, in most cases a very much larger number of men than were required have come forward and volunteered for service. They are weeded out by the commanding officer, who makes a selection of picked men from their number. Then the commanding officer and adjutant work their very hardest to get these men properly and efficiently equipped for the front. When they are thoroughly equipped the next thing to follow is the attestation, but just before the attestation, when the men have probably arrived at the headquarters of the regimental district, the army medical officer steps in and rejects a certain number of them. What is the result? These unfortunate men who are rejected crawl home to their native towns under a deep sense of humiliation and disgust. It must be remembered that they have, within the previous few days, probably thrown up situations in which they were employed, and made arrangements for their businesses to be carried on during their absence; they have taken a final leave of their friends and families; they have probably had a good "send off," as it is called, from their native place they have left the station amidst the cheering of the whole population and the handshaking of their friends, with the band playing "Auld Lang Syne" on the platform. But in a few days some of these unfortunate, men return home feeling that they are marked men—rejected Volunteers. Is this wise or necessary? I cannot see why these poor men should be subjected to such humiliation, or why the War Office should bring down on itself so much censure and dissatisfaction. Though the cause may be slight, the evil is very far reaching, and, as far as I can see, the whole matter might be settled simply by a stroke of the pen. I would venture to suggest that the first thing that should be done after the men have been selected is that they should be medically examined by the army doctor, and after that the attestation might follow immediately, and the men should then be given leave and allowed to remain in their homes until their clothing and equipment are ready. There is another very simple plan—namely, to carry out the medical examination, let the men go home, get their clothing and equipment, and then let them be attested when they are ready. I perfectly understand that in the Army it is desirable to examine a man and attest him immediately; but Volunteers are not men who will give you the slip between taking the shilling and the attestation. They are only too anxious to get to the front, and therefore they might with perfect safety be allowed to remain in their homes between the medical examination and the attestations. I venture to make those two suggestions, but it is possible some third course may suggest itself to the noble Marquess the Secretary of State for War. I sincerely trust that some means may be found to remedy what I consider a very real and reasonable grievance.


My noble friend called my attention to this matter a few days ago, and I at once made inquiries into the procedure which has been followed. I agree with him that the procedure can be improved in the direction which he suggests. Up to the present these men have been attested and medically inspected simultaneously, and I have no doubt that the reason for the course adopted was that it is the course which is followed in the case of recruits of the Line. But the case of the Volunteers is not the same as that of a Line recruit, and I think some attempt should be made to remedy what appears to my noble friend and me to be a grievance. I propose, therefore, that for the future the procedure shall be that which is described in a regulation which we have already drafted to meet the case— When a Volunteer commanding officer receives an application from any Volunteer he will at once nave him medically inspected. When he has received sufficient applications from Volunteers, who have been passed medically lit, to form not less than a section, he will so inform the officer commanding the regimental depot to which his battalion is affiliated, who will then, if they are to form part of the Service Company, have them attested. Medical inspections may be carried out by any medical officer holding a commission in any portion of Her Majesty's service. I think that change in the regulations will put an end to the hardship which has arisen. I am afraid it is the case that most of these Volunteer companies have already been formed and have joined their line battalions; but, of course, it is conceivable that a similar case may arise hereafter, and we shall therefore make the change in the regulations which I have indicated to your Lordships.


It is, of course, satisfactory to hear that this grievance which the noble Lord opposite has placed before the House will be remedied, as I had no doubt it would be when it came to the ears of the noble Marquess the Secretary of State for War. But I am sorry to say that what has-happened in regard to the medical inspection of the Volunteers seems to give the public outside a very poor idea of the mode in which the administration at the War Office is carried on. There must be some one at the War Office, I suppose, capable of exercising some small portion of common sense, and of preventing the putting into force of a regulation which is obviously inapplicable, vexatious, and absurd. I only trust this is not an example of what occurs in larger matters, but these small matters certainly do give the impression to the public that there is something materially wrong in the administration of the War Office.


I think the noble Lord is perhaps a little hard on the War Office. Those arrangements under which companies of selected. Volunteers have been allowed to join their Line battalions were introduced, I will not say hurriedly, but at very short notice. The office was working under great pressure, and I think this slip, if it was a slip, was a venial one under the circumstances.


I am extremely glad to hear from the noble Marquess that there is to be a change in the regulations. Although he said that most of the Volunteer companies had been already formed, I will remind him that commanding officers have been called upon to prepare reserve companies, if required; so very likely the case will come up again.