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Chapter XLII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9


English Opinion on the Subject of Army Reform - Mr. Trevelyan's Agitation - Speech of Sir W. Mansfield - Meeting of Parliament - Mr. Cardwell's Bill - The History of Purchase - Tactics of the Opposition - The Bill in the Lords - Mr. Gladstone's coup d'état - The Lords pass a Vote of Censure - Attitude of the Liberals in the Commons. - The Budget - The proposed Match-Tax. - Changes at the Admiralty. - The Epping Forest Bill - Motion for the Disestablishment of the Church of England. - Abolition of Tests Bill.
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At the opening of the year 1871 the German armies were still surrounding Paris, and the raw levies and beaten veterans of France were attempting a hopeless resistance in the departments of the North, the East, and the West. In England every one saw that the end of the struggle was approaching; and the public mind began uneasily to ask the question, what next? It has often been said that the feeling of England with regard to her own condition alternates between irrational self-confidence and irrational fear. It was now the turn of the latter feeling. The deadly certainty of the German successes, the exhaustion of France, drove the minds of Englishmen to consider what would be our state of preparation in the face of Moltke's tactics, supposing we had to face them on English soil. By some, indeed, the supposition of war with Germany was not held to be altogether unlikely; for, during the later months of 1870, there had been growing in some quarters a feeling of sympathy with France so intense as to give rise to a cry for war in her behalf. But this feeling, although those who entertained it were people who could make themselves heard, never spread widely enough to make the question of an armed alliance a serious one. Still, it was natural and inevitable that a demand for army reform should be loudly made on all sides, and it became apparent that army reform was to be the question of the session. Moreover, the direction which the reform would take was unmistakable. The speeches which were made throughout the country before the meeting of Parliament and in the early months of the year - notably the speeches of Mr. George Otto Trevelyan, a young Cambridge man who had lately entered public life as member for the Border Boroughs - all struck one note; the note of the abolition of purchase. Up till the year 1871, as is well known, the British Army was officered by men who, with few exceptions, paid for their commissions. The effect of this was that the officers were mostly sons of rich men - for the pay of an officer was never remunerative enough to make poor men pay the price of the commission as an investment - and that the style of living was artificially raised so as to make it eminently undesirable for a poor man to enter the army as an officer, even if he were able to raise money enough to buy his commission. A second effect of the purchase system was that men were admitted to be officers without any special evidence of fitness for the service; if they could pay the price and pass an almost nominal examination, they were admitted without further question. This, then, was the state of things which many Liberals, such as Mr. Trevelyan, wished to alter. They wished to throw open all commissions in the army to competition; let the best-trained man, they said, be made an officer, without any consideration of the length of his purse. As will be seen, this demand prevailed in the end, but not without great difficulty. It was not the only point on which the army reformers touched; for it was not only the officering of the English Army, but its organisation, that began to be severely criticised. Many speakers and writers thought that in the face of the enormous armies of the Continent, the principle of voluntary enlistment must be at length given up in favour of that of compulsory service. Many - less thorough-going than these - began to cry out for a more capable militia, and for more Government encouragement to the volunteers. And all agreed that the want of union between the different branches of the service was a fatal hindrance to the efficiency of any of them.

A speech addressed early in the year to some volunteers by Sir William Mansfield, perhaps the most eminent living soldier of those whom India has trained, gave a fair account of some of the weak points of the English Army, and of one of the ways in which it was proposed to strengthen them. " Some years ago," he said, " I saw, and called the attention of others to the fact, that there were in this country numerous bodies of a military character, but that they all seemed pulling different ways, instead of co-operating in one grand harmonious whole for the good of the nation. The militia had one set of interests, and the volunteers another set of interests, while what is called the line, or the regular army, had interests also of its own, differing in degree, or in kind, from those of the regular army.... What is it that causes this conflict of interests? It arises from the fact that every one of these bodies relies for its existence merely upon the voluntary principle." With regard to the volunteers and the line, Sir William Mansfield did not think that any one would propose in England to change that principle; for the volunteers were ipso facto " persons who were willing to give up to the state such time as they could spare from the vocations pressing upon them," and " the regular army is called on to serve in all parts of the world, and frequently in tropical climates. I consider it, therefore," he said, "to be absolutely necessary that the line should continue to be raised on the voluntary principle. But there is a third body, as to which the circumstances are different, and this is the body that competes with the line for recruits as matters at present stand. The conflicting interests of the militia and the line can only, in my opinion, be reconciled by causing the militia to be raised 011 the ancient principle of obligation, which always belonged to the constitution of this country, which has always been recognised as the first duty of every member of the population, but which recently, for a certain number of years, has been in suspension. I believe it to be absolutely necessary that we should revert to that principle of obligation - that to say, that every man, without respect to his rank or his position in the world, shall be liable to serve, in his own person, in the ranks of the militia."

Although Parliament and the country did not in the end consent to any such sweeping change as this, every one was prepared to see military reorganisation take precedence of all the other legislation of the year. The Queen's Speech gave a long paragraph to it, as follows: -

" The time appears appropriate for turning such lessons (as those of the present war) to account by efforts more decisive than heretofore at practical improvement. In attempting this, you will not fail to bear in mind the special features in the position of this country, so favourable to the freedom and security of the people; and if the changes from a less to a more effective and elastic system of defensive military preparations shall be found to involve, at least for a time, an increase of various charges, your prudence and patriotism will not grudge the cost, as long as you are satisfied that the end is important, and the means judicious. No time will be lost in laying before you a bill for the better regulation of the army and the auxiliary land forces of the Crown, and I hardly need commend it to your anxious and impartial consideration."

The promised bill was introduced by Mr. Cardwell, the Secretary for War, very early in the session; and it was seen that the increased outlay to which the Queen's Speech had referred was to be a reality. The total amount asked for in the estimates was £15,851,700, an increase of £2,886,700 over the vote of 1870; although Mr. Cardwell explained that a million of this would not be wanted in ordinary times. The gross addition to the numerical strength of the regular army was to be 19,980 men, of whom 5,000 were, artillery, with a proportionate increase in the number of guns. Mr. Disraeli had on the opening night of the session made mockery of the " attenuated armaments " to which, he said, the Liberal Government had reduced the forces of the country. But Mr. Card- well pointed to his proposed figures, which showed a total of 497,000 men under arms: 135,000 regular troops, 139,000 Militia, 14,000 Yeomanry, 9,000 First Army Reserve, 30,000 Second Army Reserve, and 170,000 Volunteers; and guns appropriate to a force of 150,000 men. These forces, Mr. Cardwell said, it was his object to combine into one whole; and the question was, how to achieve that object. As far as men went, were they to be raised by compulsion or voluntarily? As far as officers went, were they to remain under a system of purchase or not? As far as the reserve forces went, were they to be still under the control of the Lords Lieutenant of counties or not? To the first question, Mr. Cardwell answered that he was not prepared, as yet, to resort to " anything so distasteful as compulsory service/' To the second and third he said that the Government had made up its mind that purchase must be abolished, and that the control of the militia and other auxiliary forces must be taken away from the Lords Lieutenant and given to the Queen. In fact, the abolition of purchase and the increase of the efficiency of the reserve - together with certain provisions for giving a "local connection" to every regiment - were at once seen to be the principal views of the bill. It is to the way in which these subjects were dealt with by Parliament and the Prime Minister that we may now turn.

The history of purchase in the army is the history of a practice of various degrees of illegality, and of innumerable Royal Commissions designed to solve the contradiction between practice and law. The beginning of it dates from the reign of James II., who in 1683 issued a warrant, "ordering the payment of one shilling in the pound on the surrender of a commission to the person surrendering, and by him to whom the surrender is made." William III. made strenuous efforts to stop any traffic in commissions, and his successor forbade it, except with the royal approbation. But as early as 1702 the law courts had begun to declare the lawfulness of purchase, and the Court of Chancery enforced the payment of £600 from a lieutenant to his predecessor in a company. Twenty years later we find the distinction, so familiar in the present century, between " regulation prices " and "over-regulation prices" clearly marked; and in the middle of the eighteenth century we come to a commission definitely fixing the rate of payment to which officers should be subject - deciding that an ensigncy should cost £400, and a colonelcy £3,500. Royal Commissions continued to be issued at intervals, right up to 1856, and one and all seem to have reported in favour of purchase: partly and ostensibly on the ground that the system helped to quicken promotion and retirement; and partly, of course, that it secured that officers of the army should be persons of " social position." It is hardly too much to say that from the time of the Peace to the time of his death, the purchase system in the English Army was kept up by the influence of the Duke of Wellington, and notably by his celebrated memorandum of the year 1833. In 1856, at the end of the Russian War, when the Duke had been four years dead, and the overpowering weight of his name had a little decreased, the first note of a new policy was heard in the report of that year's commission, which had examined as a witness Sir Charles Trevelyan, the father of the " young army reformer " of the present year. This report advised that no commissions should be sold above the rank of lieutenant-colonel. About six more Royal Commissions were issued between 1856 and 1871 on army subjects; until finally the war in France brought matters to a point, and taught our statesmen that the reform of the army was no longer to be trifled with.

When a Government once seriously took up the purchase system and pronounced for its abolition, it was felt that purchase must go. Yet no Government measure within the memory of man has received such treatment as this did from the hands of a varied and irritated opposition. Every argument that self-interest could suggest or class-feeling prompt was urged with incredible pertinacity by the military members of the House of Commons. It was insisted in vain that these military members did not fairly represent the army, but that by the very fact of their being in the House they showed themselves to be rich men, able to afford to resign active service and to contest elections; " the colonels " still carried on their opposition to every point of the bill during four weary months. So temperate a Liberal as Sir Roundell Palmer said of the conduct of the military members, that " a course had been taken the like of which he never remembered. Other great measures affecting great interests had been opposed without the minority attempting to baffle the majority by mere consumption of time. The minority who resisted the Irish Church Bill and the Irish Land Bill had recognised the duty of respecting the principle of parliamentary government, that the decision of the majority shall be binding. Conduct like that was neither in the interest of the country, of the army, nor of Conservative principle." Yet the colonels did their work. They drove Mr. Card- well to cut down the bill to the two divisions of the abolition of purchase and the transfer of the powers of Lords Lieutenant over the militia and volunteer forces to the Crown. In this form the bill passed the third reading, and went up to the Lords.

In the Lords it met with opposition at once more dignified and more effective. Nearly every eminent Conservative peer who had ever had anything to do with the army said something in favour of purchase: one supported it because it provided a cheap way of retirement, one because the officers liked it, one because abolition would cost so much by way of compensation, one because the old system had prevented the British officer from becoming a " professional man with professional politics." Lord Salisbury, whose tongue on this occasion was as rasping as usual, suggested a new name for the new method: "If purchase had been described as a system of seniority tempered by selection, the more correct formula for the new system was stagnation tempered by jobbery." Lord Derby, alone of the Tory peers, joined with the advocates of the Government in supporting the bill. As to expense, he said, " the expense of abolishing purchase would be as oppressive years hence as now, and might be even increased. As to delay, is it dignified to delay an inevitable reform - inevitable because no institution is tenable in England unless it admits of defence by arguments intelligible to the partially- educated constituencies? " In the end the Duke of Richmond's motion, " that the House of Lords declined to read the bill a second time, until it had before it a comprehensive plan," was carried by 150 to 125 - a result not quite the same as the rejection of the bill, but still a grave blow to the Ministry. The way in which Mr. Gladstone met it was original, and caused a throb of excitement unusual in the calm realm of English politics. With that suddenness for which his proceedings have at times been fatally famous, he abolished purchase by a coup d'etat. It was known beforehand that purchase was only legal so far as the Queen's Regulations allowed it; and clearly, therefore, all that was technically required for its abolition was that the regulations should be altered so as to forbid it. But no one supposed that, after months of debate and after a hostile vote in the House of Lords, any minister would have ventured to advise such a stretch of prerogative. Mr. Gladstone, however, was equal to the situation. Two days after the division in the Lords, he announced to the astonished House of Commons that purchase was already abolished; Her Majesty having been advised to cancel the old warrant which allowed it, and to issue a new warrant which forbade it. "Therefore," he said, " after the first of next November, purchase will cease to exist." His defence of this step was that it was necessary to put an end to a state of uncertainty which endangered the discipline of the army; and that, having secured the expression of the opinion of the Commons against purchase, he held himself justified in advising the Queen to exert her statutory right (An Act for the prevention of the sale and brokerage of offices/ all officers in our forces are prohibited from selling or bargaining for the sale of any commission in our forces, and from taking or receiving any money for the exchange of any such commission, under the penalty of forfeiture of their commissions and of being cashiered, and of divers other penalties, but the last-mentioned Act exempts from the penalties of the said Acts, purchases or sales, or exchanges of any commissions in our forces, for such prices as may be regulated and fixed by any regulation made or to be made by us in that behalf.

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Pictures for Chapter XLII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9

Manchester exhibition
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