HL Deb 25 July 1916 vol 22 cc911-6

VISCOUNT MIDLETON had the following Question on the Paper—

To ask the Under-Secretary of State for India whether he can give any further information as to the loss of life caused by the restricted accommodation and want of preparation in a troop train recently despatched from Karachi, and whether any official has been made responsible for the neglect of duty which resulted in this disaster.

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, the incident referred to in my Question has been the subject of statements in the Press, and has aroused a certain amount of public indignation. I should hardly have ventured to put down the Question but for the fact that I have heard personal corroboration from an officer who was present when this particular train started. As your Lordships know, the sending of young soldiers about India at this time of the year—especially from Karachi, one of the hottest parts of India—is an operation which is always attended with some risk. I do not gather, as no doubt is the ease on active service, that there was here any special reason why better precautions could not have been taken. If the account given is correct, it does seem inconceivable that a body of young soldiers should have been sent for a three days' and three nights' journey at the worst moment of the summer in a train which was insufficient in accommodation, which was unsuitable for European troops, which had on board practically very little ice (though I was informed that a large amount of ice was got at the last moment and put on board by somebody), and no medical comforts. And on top of all that, the train was so insufficiently equipped with engines that the pace was slower than that of the ordinary slowest train used for natives. If these facts are correct, I am sure the India Office will feel as much as anybody that somebody has blundered. These questions are not brought forward in the slightest degree with the intention of trying to prove that the India Government makes a mess of what it undertakes. But to whatever this is due—whether to the fact that India has been too much stripped of responsible officials, or to anything else—it is incumbent on the India Office and the India Government to see that mistakes of this kind are dealt with in a manner which will prevent their recurrence. And that can only be by discovering what officer is in fault, and, if necessary, removing him. I see sitting by my noble friend two ex-Viceroys and an ex-Secretary of State for India, and I am certain that if the facts as stated are correct I shall have from all of them full sympathy in the course which I have ventured to suggest.


My Lords, may I say a few words in strong support of what has fallen from the noble Viscount? It must sometimes happen that a too-rigid adherence to regulations with insufficient intelligence and discrimination may lead to trouble, but this case was quite different. The disaster occurred from a breach of well understood routine based upon long experience of climatic conditions in India. In peace time, as we all know, drafts are never sent out so as to arrive in June, nor is it usual to move British troops about the plains of India by railway until the monsoon has completely established itself. To meet military emergency, as the noble Viscount has said, one must take risks with the lives of men, but, so far as I know, there was no emergency which called for those men to be sent up by that route and at that time. Assuming it was necessary that a ship with drafts should arrive in India at that time—in June—surely it should have been sent at once to Bombay instead of Karachi. When the ship arrived the monsoon had broken in the Bombay Deccan, and the drafts might safely have been sent there. At Deolali, Poona, Belgaum, or Ahmednagar, the climate, when once the monsoon has broken, is, as everybody knows who has been there, quite pleasant; and besides, there was ample barrack accommodation in those places which had been left by the troops who are now at the Front. It is amazing to think that that step was not thought of by somebody. When the drafts arrived at Karachi surely there ought to have been somebody in authority there with a knowledge of the conditions of Sind at that time and able to say, "This train shall not proceed." Again, when the train arrived at Rohri and discharged some of its stricken freight, surely there ought to have been some doctor to say, "These men must be taken out; they cannot go further in the state they are in." I know what the plains of India are like before the monsoon has broken. It is trying to travel even with a great block of ice at one's side and every appliance of science to keep one cool. But what must have been the condition of these men packed close in their third-class carriages, without any sufficiency of ice, and subject to the scorching heat and suffocating dust of the Indian plains? I am sure my noble friend the Under-Secretary will say that a most searching inquiry will be made into these matters. It is not safe to leave those whose neglect has brought about this terrible tragedy with any responsibility for the lives and welfare of our soldiers.


My Lords, the deplorable episode which forms the subject of the noble Viscount's Question has been under long and continuous correspondence between the Secretary of State and the Viceroy of India since this occurrence on June 15. My right hon. friend the Secretary of State for India was asked a Question last week in another place, and in reply he read out the telegrams that had been received up to then from the Government of India. I do not know that it is necessary for me to read all of them, but perhaps it might be of interest to noble Lords who did not follow the answer given in another place if I give one or two of the most important.

The first telegram from the Viceroy on June 15, in which he informed the Secretary of State of this unfortunate episode, was as follows— We regret to report fifty cases with twelve deaths from heat strokes occurred amongst drafts ex hired transport ' Ballarat ' on the railway journey between Karachi and Lahore. Troop train left Karachi 5th June with thirteen officers and 1,013 men. On reaching Rohri thirty-two men were removed to Civil Hospital, Sukkur, suffering from heat stroke, of whom twelve died, and eighteen more eases occurred before train reached Lahore. Train carried three medical officers, had two second class carriages fitted up as hospitals with fans and was provided with coffee shop and good supply of ice; no overcrowding, thirty men in four-wheelers and sixty in bogies— I would explain that 30 men in a four wheeler would mean that there would be five men in a compartment, three on one side and two on the other. There would thus be one man in the centre on one side who would not be near the window and it would prevent the men on his side from lying down. normal carrying capacity for troops is thirty-six, and seventy-two respectively. Arrangements have been made to send to hill depôts all men who have been suffering from the rail journey. Orders have been issued stopping all further movement of troops by rail from Karachi to Northern India. A complete report of the occurrence will be furnished at an early date. Then a further telegram, on June 19, gave the total number of deaths as 15, and those suffering from heat stroke as 136, and all sick were reported as doing well. Then on July 20, the day on which my right hon. friend made his reply in another place, he received this telegram— With reference to the inquiries in your telegram dated 14th July, the case is being investigated by a Senior Officer from Army Headquarters and a specially selected medical officer. They left for Karachi on the 7th instant with instructions to visit all stations along the line where fatalities occurred, collecting evidence and submitting a full report as soon as possible after their return to Simla about the 28th instant. That was in reply to a telegram from the Secretary of State instructing the Government of India to prosecute a most drastic inquiry into the whole conditions surrounding this catastrophe.

Since then further telegrams have been sent. A telegram was despatched asking for replies to and explanations of the various allegations that have been made outside—allegations such as that the officer in command had no Indian experience, that the ice supply was limited to 1 lb. per man. and that men were placed in the commonest form of third-class carriage with corrugated iron roof; all those kind of questions and others have been put for categorical answers. In addition, a telegram has been sent by the Secretary of State asking why the "Ballarat" could not have gone direct to Bombay, the draffs being detained in Deccan stations until the monsoon broke in Northern India, and whether there was any urgent necessity for going to Karachi at this season of the year, when it is well known that a journey across the Sind desert is fraught with the gravest possible danger, especially in the case of new troops unseasoned to Indian conditions. We are awaiting a reply to all these questions. We hope, that in the next few days the two officers who have been sent to report on the route will have formulated their Report, and that in addition there will be answers to the questions that have been subsequently put by the Secretary of State which I have outlined.

I may say, in conclusion, that I desire to express the deepest sympathy—a sympathy which I am sure is shared by all noble Lords in this House—for the families who have suffered this sad loss, through what, on the information that is available to us at present, would seem to be a lamentable instance of the most culpable negligence and utter want of consideration. I will only add that the Secretary of State for India—and he has asked me to impress this on the House—takes the most serious view of this matter, and is determined to probe it in every quarter and with complete thoroughness. He desires me also to repeat here what he said in another place—that when the responsibility has been assigned to the officer or officers concerned, he will hold them, or see that the Government of India at any rate holds them, to strict account.


I am obliged to the noble Lord for his statement. Perhaps he will confer with me, and I will put another question on the Paper when he is in a position to give a full reply.



House adjourned at twenty-five minutes past Six o'clock, till to-morrow, a quarter past Four o'clock.