HL Deb 14 May 1906 vol 157 cc123-32

rose to call attention to the promotion of an Infantry captain to a majority in the Royal Dragoons: and to ask the Under-Secretary of State for War whether, if no regimental officers wore available, there were no Cavalry officers on the list for accelerated promotion, or who for other reasons, were eligible to fill the vacancy.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, in putting the Question which stands in my name I should like to assure your Lordships, in the first instance, that I am actuated by no personal motives whatever. I have no interest in this case one way or the other, and I have merely brought it before your Lordship's House in what I consider to be the best interests of the Cavalry. Nor have I any wish to criticise the gallant officer to whom my question refers. On the contrary, I believe he is a most excellent staff officer and has rendered valuable service to his country. He is a Member of the Distinguished Service Order, and has passed through the Staff College; but what I object to, and what every Cavalry officer I have come across during the last fortnight or three weeks resents, is the promotion of an Infantry captain over the heads of highly-trained and efficient cavalry soldiers who have proved their quality by prolonged service in the field.

This is a practice which casts reflection on every officer in the Cavalry and is extremely detrimental to that branch. It gives rise to feelings of insecurity, and drives many good men out of the service. For this alone it is a matter to be deplored. It is of the greatest importance, especially in a voluntary Army, that the officers should be contented and have a feeling that they are being fairly and properly treated. Unless this feeling exists the service is bound to become unpopular, and, taking into consideration the great difficulty we have at this time in getting officers for the Cavalry, it is of the greatest importance that a feeling of security should be encouraged amongst the officers, and a feeling that their interests and. prospects are not the sport of chance, or, worse still, of favouritism. I can conceive nothing worse for the recruiting of the Cavalry than that a feeling of insecurity as to their prospects should exist among the seniors.

As we have just heard from the noble and gallant Earl on the Cross Benches, Lord Dundonald, this question of officers is the greatest problem you have to face in military matters, and it is, therefore, highly important that it should be dealt with wisely. It is essential that no feeling of injustice or even of soreness should be allowed to exist. I am perfectly well aware that the two senior captains in the Royal Dragoons had not passed for their promotion. They had passed in everything but one subject, and the Army Council, I believe, ruled them out of court on that account. But, my Lords, I think there were special circumstances to be considered in this case. The vacancy occurred in the regiment, on February 2nd, and Major Wood was not gazetted to the regiment till March 14th. During this interval, between the vacancy and the gazetting of Major Wood, these two officers had been up (on March 1st) and had passed their examinations, and I think that, considering the services these officers had rendered to the country, some slight period of grace might have been allowed them. Captain the Hon. A. Hamilton Russell served in South Africa in 1899–1902, his service including the relief of Ladysmith, actions at Colenso, Spion Kop, Vaal Kranz, and operations in Natal, Orange River Colony, the Transvaal and Cape Colony. He was shot through the leg and body, was mentioned in despatches, and received the Queen's medal, 3 clasps, and the King's medal, 2 clasps. Captain H. D. McNeill served in South Africa, 1899–1902, his service including the relief of Ladysmith, actions at Colenso, Spion Kop, Vaal Kranz, Tugela Heights and Pieters Hill, and operations in Natal, Orange River Colony, and the Transvaal. He was twice mentioned in despatches and received the Queen's medal, six clasps, and the King's medal, two clasps. I think that such records should have entitled these officers to some latitude, especially as they happened to be eligible before there was time for the gazetting of Major Wood.

But supposing that these two officers are put out of the court, the third captain—CaptainT. M.S. Pitt—who came next to them had passed his examination. Captain Pitt served in South Africa, 1899–1902, his service including the relief of Ladysmith, actions at Spion Kop, Vaal Kranz, Tugela Heights and Pieters Hill, and operations in Natal, Orange River Colony and the Transvaal. He was three times mentioned in despatches and received the Queen's medal, six clasps, and the King's medal, two clasps. Altogether there were nineteen officers in this regiment superseded, all of whom had war service, and several of whom were mentioned in despatches. Major Wood, T may say, also had an honourable record in South Africa. He was present at all the earlier battles up to, I think, Maggersfontein, as an adjutant of mounted Infantry, and he was present at the relief of Kimberley; but I think he was only sixteen months in South Africa altogether. During nine months of that time he was acting as Military Secretary to Sir F. Forestier-Walker at the Cape, so that his service at the front was of six months' duration, whilst the officers who were superseded had solid service of three years at the front.

I believe it is the opinion at the War Office that these officers had too little service to be promoted, and it is said that the average of service for promotion to cavalry majors is fourteen years. On reference to the Army List I find that there are six majors serving at the present moment who are junior to the two officers to whom I have referred. General Sir John French, I believe, got his majority in nine years and his regiment in fifteen years. Therefore, I think it would be absurd to say that officers who have twelve years experience, including three years in command of a squadron on active service, have too little service to be promoted. What do the War Office do? They say— "Twelve years experience in the Cavalry is not enough to allow us to promote these men. We will promote somebody with no experience at all." It is quite impossible to set a service of three or four months with the mounted Infantry against the three years that these officers served in the field. This practice would not, I think, be so objectionable if it only referred to subalterns or to junior captains. They would have time and opportunity to learn their business before they were put into responsible positions, but a squadron leader is in a very important position. He has to instruct his men in every branch of the service, and it is of the greatest importance that he should have considerable experience of Cavalry work for many years. It can hardly be put forward that a captain of Infantry of seventeen years can have this experience, or that a few months service in the mounted Infantry would give it to him.

Now, what will be the position of this officer when he first joins the Royal Dragoons? The first thing they will do with him will be to put him into the riding school with the recruits— not, I venture to think, a very dignified post for a field officer. Then there is another contention, that Staff College Officers are much wanted in the cavalry. No amount of Staff College education will make a good cavalry leader. I should like to point out, as examples of successful Cavalry leaders during the late war, Sir John French, General Scobel, and General Rimington, who never passed through this course at all. There is another reason why Staff College Officers are not always an advantage to the Cavalry or to any regiment. It is that they very naturally get Staff billets and go away from the regiment altogether. There is a very good example of this in the Royal Dragoons, where the senior Major at the present moment, who, by the way, also came from an Infantry regiment originally, has been on the Staff since 1897, during which time he has been absolutely useless to the regiment.

It is not without considerable reluctance that I have brought this question before your Lordships, I fully appreciate the objection to bringing matters of discipline before Parliament. I admit that under ordinary circumstances these questions are far better dealt with by the military authorities, but I venture to submit that this is not an ordinary question. I think there is a principle involved in it which is vital to the Cavalry. I contend that if it were inadvisable to give the step regimentally, some Cavalry captain of experience could have been found whose appointment would not have given rise to these disadvantages, and a feeling of injustice would have been avoided. The Selection Board ought to be, like Caesar's wife, above suspicion. Their task is admittedly a difficult one, and I think they should study to avoid any action which is likely to give rise to feelings of injustice or favouritism.

It would be idle, however, to conceal from your Lordships that there is in the Army, and in the Cavalry especially, a very strong feeling at the present moment that Major Wood's promotion was not justified by the circumstances. Rightly or wrongly this feeling has got abroad, and I venture to think it is very detrimental to the Service. On his promotion Major Wood passes over four captains in the Devonshire regiment, he passes over thirteen captains in the Cavalry, and 588 captains in the Army. It is not only the senior officers whose promotion is delayed, but the promotion of every officer right through the regiment. The regiment was, I am told, very highly reported on by the Inspector-General of Cavalry in India, and, as your Lordships are aware, this result must be due in a great measure to the exertions of the squadron leaders. How has this been rewarded? The work of the squadron leaders has been rewarded by their promotion being stopped. This is hardly an inducement to further efforts. If officers are so treated no one can be surprised that the service is unpopular.

Then, my Lords, the sense of injustice in this particular case has been intensified by a statement of the Secretary of State for War in which he told us that efficiency should always be rewarded. The efficiency in this case, as I said just now, has been rewarded by the stoppage of promotion. The fact is that since; the abolition of the Inspector-General of Cavalry there is nobody at headquarters; of sufficient weight to look after the interests of the Cavalry properly. If General Keith Fraser or General Sir George Luck had been at the War Office in their old positions and with their old authority, I venture to think they would have entered a very vigorous protest against this promotion and it never would have taken place. The only real way of rectifying this injustice which has been perpetrated on the cavalry would be to cancel the appointment, but perhaps this is more than I can hope for. The War Office, as I contend, has made a bad mistake and perpetrated an injustice, but I conclude they will stick to their guns. I confess I do not expect to get very much satisfaction out of the question, I but I have a faint hope that the practice may be discontinued in the future. I should like also to say that this practice is unknown in any Continental Army. My noble friend, Lord Basing, who commanded the Royal Dragoons throughout the whole of the war, will state to your Lordships the feeling that exists in the regiment.


My Lords, before the noble Earl the Under-Secretary of State for War replies to the Question which has been put co him, I trust he will excuse me if I make a few remarks on a subject which very closely concerns me, as I commanded the Royal Dragoons right up to the date of this promotion. No doubt outside promotion is in many cases both desirable and necessary, but I think you will agree that in every case the special circumstances should be most closely considered, and more especially the state of efficiency of the regiment at the time. Nothing is so disheartening as for good work to be ignored, and this is especially the case in the higher ranks. Speaking from my experience as a Cavalry officer, I utterly fail to see how the promotion of an infantry officer to be squadron major can be other than detrimental to the efficiency of the cavalry.

What would be said if a selected infantry Staff College officer were put to command a battery of artillery? Yet this is a precisely similar appointment. The position of Cavalry squadron leader requires just as much technical knowledge and skill as that of a battery commander. I venture to think that had the Selection Board considered the humiliating position in which the officers of this regiment would be placed, or had they considered the record and the claims of the officers who wore passed over, the appointment would never have been made. The rule is made, and it becomes the law of the Modes and Persians. Because a senior captain is three weeks late in passing his examination, a great hardship and injustice is done to all the junior ranks. Captain McNeill, the second senior captain, has had a most distinguished record. He was not only five years squadron leader and several times recommended for promotion for gallantry in the field, but, more than that, he has been several times recommended since the war for accelerated promotion. Yet his claims are set aside.

I have heard it said that the War Office finds some difficulty in obtaining a supply of Cavalry officers. Can it be wondered at? What encouragement do they get? I can assure your Lordships that nothing damps ardour and zeal so much as merit unrecognised, and I venture to say that if this state of things is to improve the Selection Board must deal with Cavalry officers with more tact and consideration.


My Lords, I am sorry that any noble Lord should suppose that any injustice has been done. I must decline to discuss the merits or demerits of certain Cavalry officers, and I rather regret that the noble Lord has brought forward the question in this way. This is a matter the responsibility for which rests with the Selection Board. Major Wood was appointed on the recommendation of the Selection Board, and, of course, your Lordships will understand, if you have promotion by selection, that someone must be passed over. I regret very much that the noble Earl used the word favouritism, which I think was very ill-advised. When I tell your Lordships who compose the Selection Board, I think you will agree that unless a very strong case is made out the matter should not be brought before Parliament. The Board consists of Field Marshal the Duke of Connaught——


Ho was not there.


He was not in the country.


But he is not the only Member of the Board. There are other officers upon it who, I venture to say, are quite as much above suspicion of favouritism as the noble Duke, the Duke of Connaught himself. There are on the Board all the general officers in the great commands, and there is the Military Secretary to the Secretary of State. I am sure it is not desirable for us to discuss the qualifications of those distinguished men. Unless we have a clear and positive case of something having been done contrary to justice or in a spirit of favouritism, I think we ought to accept, as we have promotion by selection the recommendations of the Selection Board. I should like to mention that the officer selected, Major Wool, has passed the Staff College, has had sixteen and a half years experience, aid was adjutant and staff officer of mounted infantry in South Africa.


Will the noble Earl say how long he was adjutant?


I cannot give that information; I have not got it. The average service at which Cavalry captains are now obtaining the rank of major is fourteen years and three months. Major Wood, therefore, had two and a half years' service more. There are only, I am informed, eight captains who have passed for promotion in the Cavalry who are recommended for accelerated promotion, and their average service is just over eleven years. Only one officer has above the average service at which the rank is now being reached, and he has not passed the Staff College. In giving these figures to the House I do not wish for one moment to imply that I think it is befitting that we should go-behind the decision of the Selection Board.


My Lords, I had no intention when I came down to the House of taking part in this discussion to-night, but remarks have been made by the noble Earl opposite regarding the Selection Board which I have not the slightest intention to let pass in silence. Fortunately for myself, I was absent from that Board on leave, and, therefore, like the Duke of Connaught, I have had nothing whatever to do with this promotion; but it is most unfair to say that we on the Selection Board have anything whatever to do with favouritism. It so happens that Sir John French is a member of that Board, and I do not suppose that there is any one who holds the confidence of the Cavalry more than Sir John French, and he at any rate is responsible, with the other members who were present, for the appointment. The noble Earl says that we are now in want of the advice of the Director-General of Cavalry. On the contrary, we have before us in connection with every promotion in the Cavalry the Director of Cavalry, General Baden-Powell, and he has the confidence of the Army and the Cavalry.


I said there was no Inspector-General. General Baden-Powell is not Inspector-General, and consequently has not the weight and authority that the officer had who used to hold that position.


I traverse that statement entirely. General Baden-Powell has our confidence, and we always listen to what he says. Whenever we make a promotion the head of the Department concerned attends, and we listen to him before giving the appointment. As regards the promotion in question, we never make any difference with regard to an officer who is not qualified at the time to take the step, and that must be thoroughly well known to Lord Basing. If we once made an exception and allowed an officer to get his step who had not passed for promotion at the time that step was vacant, we should never hear the end of it. I think that a thoroughly fair rule, and the officers of the Royal Dragoons have simply themselves to blame for not being ready with a senior officer to take the step that was vacant. Let me most strongly protest, in the interests of discipline, that this question should come up, either before the House of Lords or in another place. I do not believe that I go to the Selection Board at any time without losing a friend, and all I can tell you is that if your Lordships are to bring forward questions in Parliament you only render our position ten times more difficult. I can assure you that we carry out our work to the best of our ability in the interests of the Army and quite free from all favouritism.


My Lords, I am not going to enter into the merits of this case, but I wish to add a few words to the protest of the noble and gallant Lord who has just sat down. I feel strongly that unless there is some case of gross misconduct, corruption, or favouritism to be brought before Parliament, it is most inadvisable that the proceedings of the Selection Board should be questioned in this House or in the other House of Parliament. I do not say that it is contrary to order, but I do think it is calculated to break down the system of selection; and while I can quite understand the feelings of the two noble and gallant Lords opposite on a case which may affect themselves or their friends, I do enter my serious' protest against proceedings of this kind tending to criticise the conduct of a Board which I believe to be entirely above criticisms of that kind.


My Lords, some noble Lords seem to think that my noble friend in raising this Question suggested that this was a case of favouritism. I did not hear him say that, and I think I shall be within the recollection of many noble Lords when I say that he did not raise it on that ground. The noble Earl the Under-Secretary gave us absolutely no reason for the appointment which the Selection Board have made, but enumerated the admitted qualifications of Major Wood for promotion saying nothing as to his qualifications for being promoted over the heads of others who were qualified. I venture to think that the noble Earl, who has had plenty of notice of this Question, might have given more information to the House than he has done. I do not think the noble Lord who raised this Question did so in any partisan spirit or in any other spirit than a desire for information, but I venture to think that no explanation has been given, and the matter still remains, so far as I am concerned, a mystery.