HL Deb 24 March 1898 vol 55 cc721-6

My Lords, I beg to ask Her Majesty's Government when the red serge patrol jacket for officers of Royal Engineers and Infantry was last introduced; how often the sealed pattern has since been changed; what is the object of these constant and expensive changes of uniform; and who is the official responsible? Before putting these questions I should like to say a few words to your Lordships, by which I think I can show that the matter is much more important than appears at first sight. My Lords, ever since I entered the Army, nearly 23 years ago, the uniforms have been often changed, but in the last few years the changes have been so frequent and so universal that it has become a most serious tax on officers. In these questions, my Lords, I took the red serge patrol jacket, because it was the one article of comparatively recent introduction, and of which the history is very simple, and I hope your Lordships will bear with me in speaking of it in a personal way, as I cannot quote other officers' tailors' bills, and I can quote my own. As far as my regiment is concerned, the red serge patrol jacket was introduced in the year 1895, and in May of that year I purchased, as ordered, a red serge patrol jacket, for £6 8s. 6d., and, as with that jacket a belt had to be worn outside, I had to buy a new belt. In 1897 I was ordered to wear my belt inside my patrol jacket. A considerable amount of alteration had to be made to my patrol jacket, and the belt, which I had purchased at a great expense two years before, had become absolutely useless. I had to pay 13s. 6d. for the alterations to the jacket, and any officer who had got wet in his red patrol jacket, or gone through manœuvres, or got warm in it, and thereby marked it, was obliged to buy an entirely new one. In January of this year, my Lords, I received the following order, which I venture to read to your Lordships, as I do not pretend to understand it myself— It is notified for your information that the following alterations to the red serge frock have been approved: Blue cloth shoulder straps instead of red cloth, butt seams instead of welted seams, patched breast pockets instead of pleated. I asked my tailor how much these alterations would cost, and he told me they would cost a guinea and a half. This is not a large amount, but this order affects some 8,000 officers, in round figures, and, if every one of these officers has to spend a guinea and a half, it will amount to something between 12,000 and 15,000 guineas for the pleasure of wearing butt seams instead of welted seams. My Lords, it is not only a question of the red patrol jacket. During the last three or four years there is scarcely any officer's uniform in the Service which has not been altered. Our swords, our scabbards, our spurs, our horse furniture, our caps, and pretty nearly everything we own, have been altered, and altered frequently. In the matter of my scabbard, I might mention that when I was promoted Major in 1894 I bought a brass scabbard. In 1897 I had to revert to a steel scaboard, and this year I have to purchase an entirely new sword. There are, we know, a large number of applicants for every vacancy in Her Majesty's Army, but it is otherwise in the Militia and Volunteers. In those services there is a serious deficiency of officers, and the constant additions to the expense necessitated by these changes must exercise a serious deterrant effect on their ranks. There are many of your Lordships who know more about Volunteers than I do. I will, therefore, merely say that ii seems to me a mockery to offer an officer a sum of money to purchase his uniform, and then issue edicts which make that uniform obsolete in twelve months. I will refer now to the Militia, to which I belong. The Militia is most seriously short of officers. In another place the Under Secretary of State for War said the deficiency in the commissioned ranks of the Militia was no less than 712 officers. That is a very serious question, because, it is from the Militia that you would expect to get your additional officers for the Army in case of war. In asking a young gentleman to join the Militia we ought to be able to tell him what his expenses will be, what his regimental subscriptions will be, and the cost of his uniform, which we cannot do under the present system of changes. Again, my Lords, an officer who is hesitating as to whether he will leave the Militia or not may be influenced to leave in consequence of these changes. He will probably say, "If I have got to spend severed pounds on altering my uniform, I shall leave." I do not say an officer is going to leave because he has to spend a guinea and a half in altering his uniform, nor do I say that it will prevent any young gentleman taking a commission, but what I do say is that these constant additions to the expense, the trouble they cause, as well as their cost, exercise a serious deterrant effect on possible candidates, and tend to drive officers out of the force. In the present state of affairs, and having regard to the lamentable con dition of the commissioned ranks of the Militia, I think anything which tends to drive one officer out of the force, or to discourage one officer from joining, is a grievous mistake.


My Lords, I have some difficulty in reconciling one or two of the detailed statements of fact made by the noble Lord with the information which I have endeavoured to collect in the War Office.


I shall be happy to show the noble Marquess my tailor's bill.


I am, however, able to give the noble Lord an explicit answer with regard to the particular garment to which his Questions refer. The latest sealed pattern of the red serge patrol jacket, or frock, was approved for officers of Infantry in 1896, and was adopted by the Royal Engineers at their own instance in 1897. It had been discovered that frocks of a variety of patterns were being worn without authority, most of them being departures from the then existing sealed pattern. It was, however, found that the sealed pattern itself was far from perfect, and accordingly it was decided that instead of requiring officers to conform to the sealed pattern, the sealed pattern itself should be altered and made to approximate as closely as possible to those patterns which seemed best adapted for the wants of the service. All officers were allowed to wear out the frocks already in their possession before conforming to the new pattern. No change in the pattern has been made since 1896. I have great sympathy with the noble Lord's feelings in regard to frequent or apparently vexatious changes in officers' uniforms, but I cannot help thinking that, in this instance at all events, he has founded his charge upon a very slender foundation. I can assure him that our desire is, on the one hand, to avoid involving officers in unnecessary expense, and to get rid of needless complications in the uniform of the different arms of the service, and, on the other hand, to make no changes which might be repugnant to regimental feeling or tradition. Applications from commanding officers for permission to alter or add to the uniforms of their officers are frequently received, and the policy of the War Office has been to discourage such changes, unless they are connected with regimental traditions, or tend to render the uniform more serviceable in the field. Whether every change which has been made in recent years in officers' uniforms has been judicious I am not prepared to say, but I believe that the military authorities have succeeded in getting rid of many useless and unsuitable patterns, and in substituting for them garments more serviceable and less expensive. In some Cavalry regiments, for instance, officers were required to be in possession of no less than seven coats of different design for wear in the United Kingdom alone; and abroad it was found that almost every foreign station had its special pattern of foreign service uniform. I need not dwell on the expense and trouble occasioned to officers when moving from station to station. I am able to say that during the last three years no changes have been introduced without first ascertaining the views of the officers concerned. Many of the changes made have been introduced at the request of the units themselves, made through the General Officers commanding the Districts. In every case where a change has been thought desirable at headquarters it has been submitted to General Officers in order that they might obtain the opinions of the Commanding Officers. And in all cases, as in that to which the noble Lord has referred, time has been given to enable officers to wear out garments about to become obsolete before adopting a new design. I can assure the noble Lord that the opinion which he has expressed in regard to needless alterations in the design of uniforms is not lost sight of at the War Office, but I strongly suspect that a good many of the variations of design of which he complains so much have been due, not to the intervention of the military authorities, but to the action of Commanding Officers, who have, it is well known, in some cases, been a little too anxious to introduce what seemed to them improvements of their own invention in the uniform of their regiments. The military tailor is also, I am told, to some extent answerable. The civilian tailor is, as we all know, an insidious person; the military tailor appears to be as plausible as his civilian confrère, and more audacious in his procedure. With regard to the question of official responsibility for changes of uniform, I need scarcely inform the noble Lord that in all these matters the Secretary of State, and the Secretary of State alone, is responsible to Parliament.

House adjourned at 5.15 till to-morrow at 4.15.