HL Deb 26 July 1915 vol 19 cc698-704

LORD ORANMORE AND BROWNE rose to ask the representative of the War Office whether his attention has been called to the waste of Army property, for receiving which various persons were fined by the magistrates at Guildford on July 16; whether it is a fact that on the removal of the 11th Division from Witley Camp, 500 loaves were thrown away, and a quantity of meat, which was subsequently removed by various persons; whether the stores given away included 28 pairs of new boots, over 200 pairs of secondhand boots, a large number of khaki trousers, cord riding breeches, horse rugs, and other articles to the value of over £100; whether a large number of blankets, shirts, etc., were also given away; also whether it is a fact that a civilian was found guilty at Devonport on the 19th of July of having stolen 36 lbs. of bacon, besides other articles, and a private in the 6th Worcestershire Regiment was bound over in £10 to keep the peace in connection with the same case; and whether arrangements which will secure the public against the recurrence of similar waste will be made by the Secretary for War.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the Question which stands in my name on the Paper is, I fear, a lengthy one, and it deals with an aspect of a subject which has occupied your Lordships in different forms very much during the last few weeks—namely, that of economy. I placed it on the Paper last Wednesday for the following day, but my noble friend Lord Newton, who replies on behalf of the War Office, asked me to postpone it on the ground that nothing was known on the subject at that Office. I think if justification were needed for my Question that reply would have furnished it, for surely the facts should have come to the knowledge of the War Office within a week of the time the persons were convicted in a Court of Justice. I do not mean to say that all these matters should come to the notice of the noble and gallant Field-Marshal who has so many important matters with which to deal, but I think there should be some department of the War Office which should be made acquainted with facts such as these.

The facts are very simple, and are not in dispute. The first one I want to take is that of the persons who were convicted before the Guildford magistrates on July 16. The facts are recorded in the Surrey Times of July 17, under the heading "Great Haul of Army Property—Charges of Receiving Camp Stores." That the stores received were both many and various may be gathered from the fact, also recorded in this newspaper, that a military transport wagon was requisitioned to remove the stores from Godalming to Guildford for the trial. I am not going through all the cases seriatim, as it would occupy too much time, but I should like to mention one or two. In the first place there was a woman who was charged with having in her pos- session 19 lbs. of beef, three tins of mustard, and a large quantity of currants. When stopped and asked whether she had anything in her possession she denied it, but the beef was discovered under her baby in the perambulator, while the other things were concealed in two boxes which she was carrying in her hand. She was fined £2. I will take another case where a member of the Godalming Corporation was charged with having at Witley received a large quantity of new and secondhand boots, many pairs of riding breeches, and divers other articles to the value of over £55. The prisoner pleaded "guilty," and stated that he had received them from a quartermaster-sergeant to whom he had given £12 for them. I should like to call attention to the fact that this is not the only case where it has been stated that quartermaster-sergeants had received sums of money for things which they had sold. This person was convicted and fined £15, and I think he well deserved the fine.

I will not deal with any more of the cases that were tried before this Court, but I should like to say a word about the evidence which was given by an officer in the Army with regard to one case. I am not mentioning the names in any of the cases because I think it is fairer to individuals not to do so. This gentleman was an officer commanding the detail. He stated that he wished to give evidence, and he caused sonic surprise by declaring that the woman had done no harm. When the camp broke up there were, he said, large quantities of provisions left on the ground; something like 400 to 500 loaves were thrown away, and a lot of meat which was putrid and covered with flies was also thrown away. Then the Chairman said that did not justify its being in the possession of the woman, and that she would have to be dealt with according to law. The witness said they could not be bothered with Acts of Parliament, and the stuff had to be cleared. I will now deal with the Devonport case which is somewhat different, where a soldier was charged with stealing 38 lbs. of bacon, 11 lbs. of tea, 10½ lbs. of sugar, 2 lbs. of butter, and two tins of preserved herrings. At first he said he knew nothing about it, but afterwards confessed that he had given these to a workman at the camp, and his excuse was that the man had a large family, and he knew how difficult it was to rear a large family. The presiding magistrate stated that the sergeant in evidence had sworn that more than this was thrown away every day.

In both these cases, particularly in the case of the Guildford offences, it was stated that the meat was bad. I do not think that is any excuse, because it shows that there is a want of care and supervision if more meat is purchased than is required and it is allowed to go bad, and if such large quantities of bread as from 400 to 500 loaves are thrown away. We have all known that from the beginning of the war there have been accusations of waste of provisions. Stories of large quantities of meat and loaves being thrown away were current last autumn, but I think most people were of opinion then that it would be very unfair to criticise the War Office at a time when they were engaged in recruiting, equipping, feeding, and arming men on a scale never before attempted in this country. It was felt that time must be given to the War Office to get into its stride. But I think the case is different now after nearly a year of war, and when these facts are no longer rumoured but substantiated by convictions in the Courts of Justice. In asking this Question, I do not think I can be accused of wanting in patriotism or in confidence in the noble and gallant Field-Marshal, the Secretary of State for War, whose services to the country are so well recognised by every one.

Since I put this Question on the Paper I have been inundated with communications on the subject from people telling me of waste of every kind and description. I have been told that tins of beef have been used for mending roads in Flanders, and that biscuits are commonly utilised at the Front for lighting fires. We admire the way in which the work has been done with regard to providing our soldiers with food. There is one universal chorus of praise both for the food they have obtained and the manner in which that food has been got to the proper place in time. There is not one of us who would not rather there was a little too much food sent out to France and Flanders than that any of our gallant soldiers should find themselves short of provisions. But this is hardly a reason why the great waste that there seems to be here should not be inquired into. Last week the noble Marquess, Lord Lansdowne, in speaking of the Committee that was being set up to inquire into civil expenditure, stated that a similar inquiry would be impossible with regard to expenditure in the Army and Navy. I was sorry to hear that, although I recognise the weighty reasons he put forward. But he told us at the same time that a Departmental Committee of the War Office was to be set up, and I cannot help thinking that matters such as I have ventured to bring before the House will be considered by that body. I beg to ask the Questions standing in my name.


My Lords, my experience of the War Office has only been a short one, but the congested state which prevails there inclines me to the belief that there is little prospect of my noble friend's aspirations being gratified. This particular Question appeared on the Paper last Thursday, and it was only this morning that the War Office were able to obtain a report on the matter. Therefore my noble friend will recognise that it has not been possible so far to go judicially into the various points raised. The statements made by the noble Lord are, so far as I can gather, substantially correct, but the property which he enumerated was not given away but was purchased by civilians from non-commissioned officers. This property has now been recovered and taken into store. It appears that the statement made by the captain who gave evidence—the gentleman who professed so profound a contempt for Acts of Parliament—was marked with gross exaggeration. The camp quartermaster-sergeant who went round the camps after the departure of the troops states that the amount of bread left was very small, and it is a peculiar circumstance that the captain in question was the officer responsible for the food not being wasted. As regards the general question, most stringent orders have continually been given to the units as to returning surplus stores before they proceed overseas and against waste of food, but owing to the fact that there are naturally a certain number of comparatively inexperienced commanding officers, adjutants, and quartermasters, and also that frequently very short notice of moving is obtained, these orders are unfortunately not invariably carried out.

One reason for the failure or inability to carry out these orders is that certain articles have to be retained for absentees and men on leave when sudden orders arrive. These articles cannot be returned. and at the last moment- some of them turn out to be superfluous and have to be left. In these circumstances it will be appreciated that dishonest non-commissioned officers have opportunities of peculation with regard to articles which should be -returned to store. This is a thing which would not occur under less strenuous pressure of work. So far as is known there is no preventable waste in the Aldershot Command, but on their departure abroad so many men are hospitably treated by their friends that they are not able to consume all their rations; and if the troops leave before mid-day they do not draw rations, and it has been found even with experienced firms of contractors that a great deal of waste does occasionally take place. On the whole, therefore, I may say that every step has been taken to prevent such occurrences as have come to the notice of my noble friend. Strict orders have been issued with regard to the return of all superfluous equipment to store and against waste of food, and officers have been sent down to explain these orders and to assist officers commanding units in carrying them out. I am afraid I have not been able to give a detailed answer to my noble friend. As regards the Devonport part of the Question, I regret I am unable to answer that at all. My noble friend only gave me notice of that late on Friday afternoon; therefore it is naturally impossible for me to reply upon that particular point. But if my noble friend desires to return to the subject I shall be most happy to supply him with all the information wit bin my power.


Every one knows the difficulty experienced by commanding officers of units in keeping control over these matters at this time, especially as they have not experienced officers under them. But would it not be wise, as whole divisions are leaving together now, that commanding officers should hand over the camp to one another? That is where the difficulty is. All the officers are marched off, and no one is left in authority who can deal with the camp.


I gather from what my noble friend said that a considerable quantity of these stores had been sold by non-commissioned officers but have been subsequently recovered. Surely the non-commissioned officers must have stolen them, and I presume they have been punished?


I suppose these men will be proceeded against in the ordinary course; but, as I explained, I have not been able to obtain any information up to now. With regard to the question put to me by the noble Viscount, I will see that it is brought before the proper authorities.