2015 11 – Parliament And World War One

Parliament And World War One

by Dick Barry

Progress of War (Part 2)

In the last issue we published Churchill’s speech of 22 August 1916 on the Progress Of War. Below we set out the response by Labour’s Philip Snowden. His speech picks up on Churchill’s comments on prices and draws attention to the recruitment of men with a serious invalidity.

Mr SNOWDEN The right hon. Gentleman in the earlier part of his speech was rather severe in his criticism of the Government for their inactivity on this question, but he must take some share, at any rate, of the responsibility they must have in this matter. I was interested in the right hon. Gentleman’s observations, because this is not a new question to some of us. Ever since the War began, and for long years before the War broke out, we on these benches were urging the importance of this question. Prices had been rising for fifteen years before the outbreak of the War. There has been an aggravation of tendencies which were previously at work during the last few years. I wonder what is the explanation of the right hon. Gentleman’s attitude upon this question. We, by our propaganda in the House and in the country, have made this a popular question, and it has now become so popular that it pays politicians to begin to take an interest in it. Repeatedly during the first twelve months of the War we from these benches urged the Government to do something. We met with no response. Repeatedly, with a great deal more knowledge than the right hon. Gentleman has manifested this afternoon, we have put forward those demands which he has now stated. In the early days of the War we asked that the Government should take over the shipping of the country, and we were met with precisely the same objections that the right hon. Gentleman was in the habit of throwing at Socialist proposals. I wonder if he knows that the proposal he made this afternoon is a plank in the Socialist platform.

For years the Liberal Publication Department was circulating a speech of the right hon. Gentleman, “An attack upon Socialism,” showing the impossibility and impracticability of Socialism, proving how unwise it was to trust the State with anything, and talking about the incompetence of the State. The War has, indeed, made many changes, but surely it has wrought no greater miracle than to convert, the antagonists of Socialism into the protagonists of Socialism. But there are two sorts of Socialism, The “Times” had a remarkable leaderette a week or two ago, which stated that we must have a great deal of Socialism after the war. It; said, for instance, that it was inconceivable that the railways should ever pass again under private control. But the kind of Socialism we are to have, it went on to say, was a Socialism which must come from the top and not from the bottom. That is to say, it is a Socialism which is to be imposed upon the; people and not brought about by the people themselves. It is a Socialism which is to be an aid to capitalism and not a Socialism for the benefit of the people. And that is the kind of Socialism to which the right hon. Gentleman has become a convert.

I turn from the right hon. Gentleman’s speech to deal with the topic which was the purpose of my rising. I want to call attention to a very grave and urgent matter, namely, the passing into the Army of men who are physically quite unfit. This is not the first occasion upon which this question has been raised. Other Members, as well as myself, have repeatedly, both by question and in Debate called the attention of the War Office to this serious matter and we have not been alone in directing attention to it. For months past the scandal has been so grave that even tribunals throughout the country have been compelled to protest against the practice. The Deputy-Chairman of this House, who presides over one of the military service tribunals upstairs, has more than once denounced the way in which the Medical board and the military doctors are passing men into the Army who are physically totally unfit. Speaking in March last of men who had provided themselves with evidence of unfitness, he said: They have submitted themselves to medical examination again and have been passed—for general service some of them—some with the remark that they may be of use as non-combatants— I presume that means clerical work at a military office. Mr. Maclean went on to point out what a wasteful policy this was and that it was not using the man-power of the State, to use the phrase of the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Churchill), in the most economical way. Each soldier, he went on, cost something like £300 a year. We do not desire for one moment to be associated with the ignorant outcry which is directed against the War Office in many respects. We realise fully what a tremendous undertaking is theirs, with millions of men flung at them and with a limited and depleted medical service at their disposal, but we do think that, with the evidence put before us, this matter should, in the interests of the State, be promptly and effectively grappled with. Mr. Maclean’s protest had no effect, and he had occasion to call attention to the matter a month later in even stronger terms. He had before him a retired Civil servant who was actually in receipt of a pension because of his physical disability. This man was claimed by the military authorities. He had been passed by the medical military authorities as physically fit, and the chairman of the tribunal said: This is another example of the way the Army medical examinations are conducted. In the interests of public economy we say this man should not be subjected to further medical examination. We shall forthwith exempt him.

Mr. Maclean has not been alone among chairmen of tribunals in calling attention to this grave public scandal. We have another Member of this House who is a chairman of an important Appeal Tribunal: I mean the hon. Member (Mr. Nield). He has repeatedly called attention to this scandal in the chair of the tribunal. Repeatedly he has threatened to report cases to the War Office. The most notorious of all the depots in the country for the examination of recruits is Mill Hill. Only a day or two ago a case was reported in the newspapers where a man had tried to enlist ten times. He had been rejected ten times, and finally he was told if he went to Mill Hill he would be passed. He went to Mill Hill and was passed. Only two nights ago a man called at my house. He had appealed to the local tribunal on grounds of physical incapacity. He was a poor, miserable, physical wreck to look at, his hand was crippled, and his fingers were drawn. He was thirty-seven years of age and weighed 7 St. 5½ 1b. He had been sent to the military depot at Mill Hill. He was never asked to strip. The doctor examined his finger and said, “You have had a bad thing there some time,” and with that examination he was passed for garrison duty abroad. Sir Frederick Milner has repeatedly called attention to this scandal, and has given some very glaring cases which have come under his own observation. I recently had a letter from a man in the Army who is attached to the Somersets, and this is what he said: They are still sending Somersets here. Hundreds came in during the week. It is a crying shame. The men they are sending now ought never to have donned the uniform. One fellow they brought in yesterday they had to carry from the station. He could not walk. There are heaps of consumptives here, fellows with a tile loose, men with short legs, men with weak backs, and men with other various complaints. Most of these men will be fit for nothing, and it is only an expense for the country keeping them here. This sort of thing is not confined to one part of the country only. I could produce evidence, if time permitted, from all over the country showing that the examining medical officers of the Army are passing unfit men everywhere.

I have here three cases from Lancaster and in every case, if necessary, I could give the name and address of the person concerned. A certain man who lives in Victoria Avenue, Lancaster, was passed for the Welsh Fusiliers. He had a deformed foot. He was discharged within three weeks. Another man was informed that he had a strained heart and would most likely never be required. He was called up in the Welsh Fusiliers. A third man also had a diseased heart, and within a fortnight of being called up he was in a hospital suffering from pneumonia. There was a case in Accrington, which is close to my Constituency, of a man who was very well known in the town. For nine years he had not worked, except very occasionally. He had to winter at Torquay. He had only been out of doors five times in six months when he received a notice calling him up for military service. His friends went to the recruiting officer, who knew the man, but they were told he must report. He was unable to go to Preston, which was the examining centre of the district, by train and had to be taken in a taxi-cab all the way. He was passed for Home service. Like other Members of the House, I receive letters almost every day from men who have been passed for active service, and men who are on active service, suffering from hernia or from double hernia, who have to wear trusses. I have here two extremely painful cases. This happened in my own Constituency at Whalley, in Lancashire. This man could never work. He was consumptive—born in a consumptive family. He was passed at Liverpool Barracks for the King’s Liverpool Regiment. In three weeks he was dead. I have a case here from Hull of a man who was passed last April for general service, although the Medical board was aware that he suffered from hernia and eczema in the feet, and he was then under treatment for stomach complaint. He was called up again two months later and reexamined at his own request and bullied for having dared to ask for a re-examination, and was passed again although he brought this certificate from his private medical man. The bearer of this note has been under my care for about fourteen days, suffering from gastritis, and under Dr. Morgan previous to this for about six months. He lost two stone in weight, during the last six months. Occasionally he has vomited streaks of blood. His diet at present consists wholly of Benger’s Food. I may add that his father died of cancer in the stomach in April, 1915, at fifty. I am seriously concerned about this man’s condition, and have advised him to take some special professional advice. Although he is young, I feel that his symptoms are grave, especially considering his family history.

That was ignored by the War Office and the man was passed. Here is a case from Norwich, and I certainly must insist that the War Office will pay attention to the awful scandal that is brought to light in this document. This is of recent date. This man, on 13th July, was passed at Britannia Barracks, he is aged thirty-five. He is married and is consumptive. He had been under treatment for one year and three months. He had come out of a sanatorium, where he had been for thirteen weeks, discharged as incurable. He was unable to work. He received notice. He went to his private doctor, who said, “I suppose you will have to respond to the call, but of course it will be merely a formal matter and you will be discharged at once.” He went. He was passed for Home service and sent to the 5th Middlesex Regiment. May I be allowed to read a line or two from a letter which this man has written from his regiment. He says: I was examined by two more doctors this morning, who asked me a lot of questions. They wanted to know if I had been medically examined at Norwich, and how long the doctor was doing it. One said, ‘I suppose he put the stethoscope on your chest and took it off again.’ They were very nice to me, and said it was a disgrace for me to be passed into the Army, and they carried on and even swore about the doctor at Norwich, and I should not be surprised if he did not hear further about this. I should be very much surprised if the doctor did hear further about it. I want to trouble the House with only one further case.

Mr Lloyd George:

Have any of these cases been brought to the attention of the War Office? This is the first time I have heard of them.

Mr Snowden:

I will answer the right hon. Gentleman by giving him the next case.

Mr Lloyd George:

That is not an answer.

Mr Snowden:

I think when he has heard the case he will agree that it is a sufficient answer, because it is a case which I submitted to the War Office. It relates to Horace Pile, of Chichester. He was well known in the district as a consumptive, but to the surprise of everybody he was passed. In just over three weeks from the date he was passed he was dead. I raised the case by question in this House. The late Under-Secretary for War promised to make inquiry and he did so. Some time later I received the following reply, signed by H. J. Tennant. I may say that it took him five weeks to make the inquiries. You will recollect asking a question in the House on the 2nd of last month with reference to the case of the late Private H. Pile, of the 4th Battalion, Bedfordshire Regiment. I have had inquiries made, and I find that there seems little doubt that the medical officer who examined this man overlooked signs of old-standing phthisis. It is, however, within the bounds of possibility that the old lesions had healed when the man was examined at Chichester, and that the attack from which he died was a recrudescence or tubercle of the lungs of the acute pneumonic form, which undoubtedly might show all the signs of a frank, acute lobar pneumonia. I need hardly say how much I regret that this man should have been passed for service. I am told by people who knew this man well that it did not require a doctor to see that he was suffering from consumption. Any man must know that the moment he set eyes upon the man. The letter of the War Office admits a good deal, and in that respect it is quite an exception among communications from the War Office replying to complaints. It admits that the medical officer was quite incompetent, in that he had passed for the Army as fit for service a man in a state like that, but the letter does not go on to say what action the War Office has taken. It is extremely probable that that medical officer is still sending men to their death. I want to know what action was taken.

Mr Lloyd George:

I want to get at the facts. This case does not really answer the question which I put. Two or three cases which on the face of them are very bad cases have been quoted by the hon. Member, and I ask him whether the attention of the War Office has been called to them. His answer is to draw attention to a third case, in which the man has died. In other cases the men are still alive.

Mr Snowden:

Not all of them.

Mr Lloyd George:

Some cases were referred to in which the men are alive. I understood that the man with gastritis and the man who has got tuberculosis and who went into the Middlesex Regiment are alive. Has the attention of the War Office been called to these cases?

Mr Snowden:

The attention of the War Office has been called to some of the cases I have mentioned.

Mr Lloyd George:

I want the facts of each case, and the names of the persons concerned. There is nothing here to give me the slightest clue as to who the persons are. If the facts are given to me, of course I shall inquire into them.

Mr Snowden:

I gave a name to the right hon. Gentleman just now. I told him that I have the names and addresses of all these persons and am perfectly willing to give them to him.

Mr Lloyd George:

Very well, then.

Mr Snowden:

If the right hon. Gentleman had the time to look through the questions put in this House during the last six months he would see that I have brought many cases forward. Two of the cases I have already mentioned in Debate, but no action appears to have been taken. It would be quite impossible for me, having to do all my own work myself, to bring to the attention of the War Office every case that is brought to my notice. I have not the time to do it. I should require a number of secretaries to do it. The Financial Secretary to the War Office knows quite well how many letters he gets from myself and other private Members. Our hands are full. In mentioning these cases, I want to point out that this sort of thing is going on all over the country. The “Daily News” for some days now has been calling attention to these matters, and publishing instances of men who have been passed into the Army totally unfit. I will give the right hon. Gentleman another case. I had a lad in my own Constituency whose eyesight was so bad that if he put his glasses down on the table he could not find them again except by groping. I had a long correspondence with the late Under-Secretary of State for War about this case, and finally it was decided in this way: The Under-Secretary told me that he had had a special examination of the lad by Army oculists, and that they had come to the conclusion that if he had three pairs of glasses he would be fit for active service. As such letters usually are, the letter was typed, but the late Under-Secretary had evidently read the letter and had come to the conclusion that it was capable of a very foolish interpretation, and he wrote in his own handwriting at the bottom these words: “I do not mean that he is to wear three pairs of glasses at the same time.” That lad is now in France. With any pair of glasses his condition is such that if the glasses get dim he cannot see. The reason why he has been provided with three pairs of glasses is that he may change them occasionally—that is to say, that when a German is about to attack him he must ask the German to kindly wait until he has changed his glasses. Only this morning I had a letter from my own native place from a man who writes to tell me of a friend of his who this week has been passed for service. He is totally blind in one eye, and his vision on the other eye is three-sixteenths abnormal. With glasses that man cannot distinguish an object three yards away.

Colonel Sir H Greenwood:

Is he in the Infantry?

Mr Snowden:

Many of these men are passed for Home service; many of them are passed for sedentary work. It is most important that our National Reserves should be utilised in the most economical way. I will tell the House what the War Office are doing. They are taking university men, and men occupying important business positions, who are really doing useful work, and although these men are not fit for general service—at the very best they are only fit for garrison duty at home—they are taking them away from useful work, and the State is maintaining them in that practically useless position. What is the reason for this? I think I have the explanation. I put a question to the Secretary of State for War yesterday, which he answered, asking if he would give the figures of the number of men who had been recruited under the two Military Service Acts? He refused to do that. He said it was not desirable that this information should be conveyed to the enemy. I could have understood that if there had been no precedent for such a thing, but when the Government wanted a reason, or, at any rate, an excuse, for imposing compulsory military service, they did not hesitate to publish figures then of the number of recruits which had been secured during the preceding few months. They gave those figures to the world, and it was upon the strength of those figures that they secured their two Military Service Acts. The simple fact of the matter is that the Military Service Acts were obtained by fraud and deceit. The shirkers, married and single, were never there. The last six months have proved that to be the case, and all the recruiting officers throughout the country are now being instructed to rake in every possible man in order to get as large a number as possible. It was stated in the newspapers yesterday that instructions had been sent to the various recruiting officers to get every possible man, and the tribunals have been told the same. There is the one-man-business man whose case was promised sympathetic consideration when the last Bill was before the House. Thousands of men have been ruined throughout the length and breadth of the land, and I have had numerable letters from men who have had to leave their businesses for garrison duty at home simply for the purpose of getting numbers and not to add to the efficiency of the Army.

I see the representative of the board of Agriculture on the Front Bench. He knows quite well that men are being taken from farm work who ought to be left at farm work. I submitted to him last week the case of a man who had been taken from a farm in Cornwall. The cows were left un-milked and the hay waiting to be got in, and nobody to do it, and yet at the same time the War Office are offering 27,000 soldiers to go to do farm work. They are offering the help of untrained, unskilled soldiers to do farm work, and at the same time they are taking away trained and qualified men from the farms. Is that national economy? Is that adding to national efficiency? I assure the Secretary of State for War that the matter I have brought to his attention this afternoon is causing a great deal of concern in the country. From one point of view it is perhaps not to be regretted, because the administration of the Military Service Act is causing so much dissatisfaction in the country that those who want to see this institution made permanent after the War will, I think, find considerable difficulty in doing so. The right hon. Gentleman has already intimated that he will be prepared to consider particular cases that may be submitted to him. He ought to realise that it is an utter impossibility for a Member of Parliament to submit every case. What we want is some general plan by the War Office which will prevent any of these cases arising. One thing I would suggest is that in such a case as the case I cited of the consumptive who was passed and who died in three weeks’ time, an example should be made of the medical officer who was guilty of such a dereliction of duty. If there were a few examples like that they would have very salutary effects.