HL Deb 28 February 1901 vol 90 cc14-8

My Lords, I beg to ask the Under Secretary of State † See correction, 1st March. for War whether, in view of the time which must elapse before any conclusions can be arrived at upon the larger questions raised by the suggestions in Part IV. of the Report of the Royal Commission upon the care and treatment of the sick and wounded in the South African campaign, he can give the House an assurance that such matters as improvement in ambulance wagons and hospital tents referred to therein have already received the attention of the War Office. As your Lordships are aware, Part IV. of the Report concerns itself with suggestions with a view of remedying defects, and recommends the appointment at some early convenient time of a Departmental or other Committee of experts to inquire into and report upon the steps necessary to be taken. The two points in the list of suggested reforms to which my question refers are the improvement of the existing ambulance wagons and the selection and employment of the form of hospital tents best suited for the reception of sick and wounded in a campaign.

I hope that in putting this question I shall not interfere in any way with the process of digestion and assimilation which we were told the other night was needed before the Secretary of State could take any step of the kind recommended by the Commission. We must all recognise, if what I have called the larger questions raised by the suggestions in Part IV. of the Report—which I take to be from No. 1 to No. 5 on page 69 —are to be the basis of the reference to the Committee or Commission which is likely to be appointed, that that would involve a considerable reconstruction of the whole of our Army medical system, both in time of peace and of war. That, I admit, is a very large order, though I think everyone who has read the evidence given before the Hospital Commission and their Report must admit that such reconstruction is very desirable. However, I am perfectly willing to rest content with the promise which was given in another place that on the major points there will be a thorough investigation. But although I quite agree that, grammatically, the two points in my question are governed by the first paragraph of Part IV., and so are included in the subject-matter which the Commissioners suggest an expert Committee should inquire into and report upon, I think that so much ground has been cleared upon those two points by the evidence given before the Hospital Commission, and by the actual experience of the Commission, that the Government might do something to effect an improvement so far as ambulance wagons and hospital tents are concerned without further delay. The Commissioners reported— With regard to the bearer companies, we are not satisfied with the ambulance wagons which are now being supplied to them. We have tried these wagons. We found them very heavy, requiring a large number of mules to draw them, and very jolty and uncomfortable. The type of wagon used appears not to have been materially changed or improved upon for many years. We cannot help thinking that this type of ambulance could be and should be improved. With regard to tents, the Commissioners say— We saw, during our journeys in South Africa, some other tents which appeared to us to be superior to the ordinary marquee-tents. For instance, we think that the tortoise-tent, a well-known type, is better for a war like the present, though not suited to places like India. The Commissioners then commend the E. P. Indian tent, and go on to say— Another tent which we also observed used to good purpose, especially for enteric fever patients, was the ordinary Ordnance Store tent. The early part of the year—a dangerous time for enteric fever—has arrived; and it would be satisfactory to know that in regard to these matters at least something has already been done by the War Office.


My Lords, I am glad to be able to assure the noble Lord that the two points which he mentioned have already received, and will continue to receive, the closest attention of the War Office. Changes are in contemplation in the pattern both of the ambulances and of the hospital tents, and experiments are now being made. But it is extremely difficult to find the ideal tent or the ideal wagon; and at present it is undesirable to put a stop to inquiry and experiment. Otherwise we might order a large number of wagons and tents in haste and repent at leisure, for we might find ourselves saddled with articles not only undesirable in themselves, but which, from their numbers and cost, might prevent more efficient appliances being supplied.

The War Office is most anxious to benefit by the experience of officers who have been in South Africa, some of whom are not yet home; but I may inform the noble Lord that up to the present the following steps have been taken:—In July last a new pattern ambulance was built to the specification of the Royal Army Medical Corps and was sent down to Aldershot for experiment and report. This wagon is 1 cwt. Lighter than the old pattern, and it carries more men. The old pattern carried twelve men seated, or four seated and two on stretchers. The new pattern carries fourteen seated, or six seated and four en stretchers. We have obtained as much imformation as possible about the ambulances in use in foreign armies, especially about the Austrian ambulance, of which many favourable reports have been received. This type has been sent to Aldershot for report, and will then be sent to Woolwich, whore the officials will confer with officers of the Royal Army Medical Corps and of the transport department who have recently returned from South Africa. The question of tents, as the noble Lord knows, is much complicated by the question of climate. The tortoise tents were at first reported on very favourably from South Africa; but recent reports have not been quite so good. It is not the ideal tent in bad weather; and another, more satisfactory, seems to have been found. Trials of many kinds of touts were made last summer and autumn. Although there is unusual pressure at the War Office, no time will be lost in remedying any defects which can be dealt with immediately.


My Lords, I think we all agree that there is no fault to find with regard to the good intentions expressed on behalf of the War Office. But I think we have a right to know whether anything has already been done to supplement the present old-fashioned ambulance wagons in use in South Africa. Have any wagons of a better type, such as those used by the voluntary hospitals, been sent out? Such steps would not only be for the comfort of the wounded, but would be extremely valuable from the point of view of the experiments which are being conducted, and which could be better carried out in South Africa than at Aldershot. As to tents, the Commissioners say— We think that the tortoise-tent, a well-known type, is better for a war like the present, though not suited to places like India. A better tent still for many purposes is the 'E.P.' Indian tent which we saw at Stander-ton and Charlestown, although it is somewhat heavy. Another tent which we also observed used to good purpose, especially for enteric fever patients, was the ordinary Ordnance Store tent. Have steps been taken to have a large supply of the different kinds of tents, mentioned by the Commissioners in their Report, for the present purposes of the war? It is natural that it should be thought desirable, if it is necessary to supplement the number of tents already in South Africa, that the Government should supplement them by the provision of a large number of tents of the kind indicated by the Commission appointed by the Government.


So far as I gather from their Report, the Commissioners do not say that a large number of supplementary tents are required in South Africa, but they recommend that a Committee should be appointed to choose a pattern of tent for the future.


My question is, Has a further quantity of tents been sent out or not, and have steps been taken to send to South Africa supplementary ambulance wagons likely to be more comfortable than those at present in use?


Experiments are being made as to the best sort of tent. I am not aware that supplementary tents are required, but I will inquire.

House adjourned at half-past Five of the clock, till To-morrow, half-past Ten of the clock.