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Training Battalion Officer, Matlock (Complaints)

Volume 387: debated on Wednesday 17 March 1943

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn.—[ Sir J. Edmondson.]

I raised this matter last September, when I made a complaint to the Financial Secretary to the War Office that a certain Lieut.-Colonel Gates, who was then in command of No. 8 Training Battalion at the Drill Hall, Matlock, was ill treating his men, that he had instructed his officers and warrant officers to ignore Army Council Instructions and had instructed them to break King's Regulations which were framed for the purpose of protecting the private soldier from cruel treatment.

It being the hour appointed for the interruption of Business, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. Beechman.]

I received a letter from a constituent of mine who told me that her brother had been cruelly ill treated in this battalion. He was a man of 43. I went over to make an investigation. I found that the men were continually made to do pack drill for various slight offences, that it was quite common to put them on "stiff C.B.," as the commanding-officer himself termed it, and that it was quite common to punish non-commissioned officers in the presence of the men and thereby to make them to some extent ridiculous. The War Office made no attempt to remedy this matter for some weeks. At last the brigadier himself suspended this officer, but when the War Office examined the case they actually promoted this man instead of rebuking or reprimanding him.

It seems that when these men joined the training battalion they were promised seven days' leave after the first four weeks' training. That was a War Office Instruction. Lieut.-Colonel Gates decided that he would "larn 'em" that they were in the Army, and he issued instructions that, no matter how high their standard of training was, at least 15 men had to have their leave stopped. These men had to travel all over the country. Their passes were made out, and they had promised their relations that they would be home; but no, this little Hitler down in Matlock had to put his foot down and to say, "No; at least 15 of you, no matter how high your standard may be, have to stay behind." He was not satisfied with making the men's life a misery. He had to make them ridiculous in the eyes of the whole population, and in Matlock the battalion became known as the "Flanagan and Allen" battalion. The lieut.-colonel actually issued an instruction to all the officers of the battalion that when a squad of men met an officer in the street, no matter what duty they were on, the officer had to spring to attention and say "Hi-de-hi," and the men had to reply, promptly and smartly, "Ho-de-ho." I do not know what the reasons were, and Lieut.-Colonel Gates does not seem to know them himself. His battalion became known by the name I have mentioned, and as they passed along the street the kids used to shout "Hi-de-hi, Ho-de-ho," and the poor soldiers did not know whether they had to spring to attention or not. There was something worse. When Lieut.-Colonel Gates appeared, if men did not spring to attention smartly enough and reply to his "Hi-de-hi," they were punished. They got "stiff C.B." for it. I cannot find anything in British Army Regulations which entitles an officer to treat men in that way.

I would not make these charges against anybody without substantiating them, but I have a circular here. This lieut.-colonel is a psychologist. He has the notion that he can sit in an office and run a battalion from there by issuing circulars, and he always puts into the circular something about psychology. I have read two or three of them. This is one of them:
"The starting point is to set a high standard and allow no man to fall short from the very first minute that man enters the wing, and to close the mind to feelings of pity or excuse."
"With a lazy disinterested squad or individual man, as a last resort and when all other methods as set out in Notes of Administration of Discipline, 1941, have been tried and failed the 'big stick' must be used."
Do not forget that this circular was issued to warrant officers. What glorious opportunities it gives to a brutal warrant officer. It says this:
"With such types the following are some of the methods which are useful:
  • (1) Extra parade with article to be better cleaned. Recruits parading outside Sergeants' Mess so that squad N.C.O. has least possible trouble.
  • (2) Really stiff C.B.
  • (3) Extra guards.
  • (4) Pack parades as in (1).
  • These are only a few of many ways of making a man's life a misery until he toes the line and does what is required of him properly."
    I have had a comment on that from a lady, who says:
    "The abominable treatment of the soldiers"—
    at the Matlock Drill Hall—
    "makes my blood boil at times. So much so that I have to close my doors to try to avoid seeing and hearing what is going on."
    An old soldier who knows what pack drill is says that he is nauseated almost daily
    ".…at the torture meted out to men on pack drill. These exhibitions are having a demoralising effect on the whole vicinity. Mothers with sons in the Army are wondering if their lads are suffering a like fate."
    This officer then went on to give another instruction. He said that it was to be considered whether in some cases, despite original squadding by age—and do not forget that these men were 35 to 43 years of age—it would not be advisable to weed out the dull, the idle and bloody-minded and put them under an instructor known to be a "killer." Mr. Deputy-Speaker, this man was suspended by his brigadier for misconduct in the treatment of his men. While he was under suspension, he stayed in Matlock. He went about boasting that nobody could touch him because he had "pull," influence, at the War Office. On 12th November I wrote the Under-Secretary of State for War and told him that this man was boasting in Matlock that he was going to be promoted for this ill-treatment of the men, not reprimanded, and that he would be given a job in the supply and transport or a staff appointment which was selective promotion. This was denied by the War Office, but five months after I made the original complaint he was given the precise appointment that he boasted that he would get, despite the complaints made against him. It seems to me that this man has pull at the War Office. They wrote and told me he had been promoted and that the punishment, and the ill-treatment of the men, was merely the failing of a zealous officer who wanted to bring his men up to a high standard. I want to ask one or two questions. Who suspended this man, and on what evidence? If it was the brigadier who suspended him, was the evidence on which he suspended him before the Army Council when they promoted him? Had the Army Council the brigadier's report and this circular before them when they promoted him? I suggest to the Financial Secretary that the proper course is to remove this man from this appointment. He ought to be reprimanded and rebuked for his cruelty and for the breaking of King's Regulations and the ignoring of Army Council Instructions. I want it made clear to the mothers and wives of these men, in Matlock and elsewhere, that cruelty to the private soldier is not the high road to promotion in the British Army.

    I did not know that this matter was going to be raised to-day. Personally I deplore the idea that serving officers' names, whether they are right or whether they are wrong—and I do not propose to argue on that point—should be dragged out in public like this.

    I actually wrote to the War Office and said that I would not give this man's name because I did not want to injure his innocent relatives, or even friends who are financially linked up with him, but the War Office said to me in a letter that I should give his name, otherwise the preceding and succeeding commanding officers would get the backwash. I did not want innocent men to suffer for a guilty man.

    I accept the hon. Member's explanation, but I feel that had he persisted with the War Office they would not have been slow in taking action on the case. This Colonel Gates is, in peace-time, a colleague of mine in industry. He was a Regular officer, and served with considerable distinction at the end of the last war. He resigned his commission, and was called up at the beginning of this war, being on the Reserve of Officers. I understand that he served with considerable success and distinction at Dunkirk. He was commended for his action, he was mentioned in despatches, and in many ways he was considered to be a really good officer. I do hot want to go into the merits of this case, but, as I have said, I think it is very unfortunate if we are to bandy the names of officers, or of other individuals, about in this House, when they have no right of reply. If there is a complaint against an officer in the Army, the Navy or the Air Force, it is, I suggest, the duty of an hon. Member to persist with the Department concerned and see that the complaint is investigated behind the scenes, and that such an unfortunate accusation as this is not made. Personally, I had never before heard of any "Hi-de-hi's" or "Ho-de-ho's" but I heard hon. Members discussing the question——

    I have not yet learnt what they are, but I am told that the phrases, whatever they mean, are mentioned in a book called "They Died With Their Boots Clean." I have not read the book, but I am told that, according to the book, it is the practice in certain regiments to have this call sound, or whatever term you would use to describe it. It seems an absurd and ridiculous thing. We have a very special duty to perform. We have great privileges in discussing matters in this House, when we do not give individuals a right to reply.

    There is a proper way of dealing with this which would give the officer in question his right of reply and of making an explanation and a statement. He would not be either hounded out of the Army or hounded into it. I hope that hon. Members will pay particular attention to this aspect and, before raising a matter of this nature, will investigate their facts very fully and take every possible alternative in raising it with the powers-that-be in the War Office before they raise it in this House.

    I make no complaint against my hon. Friend in connection with this case, because he came to me early in October and brought the facts of the case to my attention. I thereupon asked for a report, and I propose to give to the House the salient features of the report or reports received in connection with this particular officer. My hon. Friend is incorrect, however, in suggesting to the House that nothing was done in relation to this case until it had been brought to my attention by him. I find that early in September the brigadier who was over this officer warned Colonel Gates, expressing his dissatisfaction with the methods of training which were in operation in this particular training centre. Following that, on 8th October, a special report was forwarded to the War Office by this brigadier, and on 28th October Colonel Gates was suspended. So that whatever dissatisfaction my hon. Friend may feel as to the ultimate outcome of this case, I can assure him that the incidents that were taking place and the situation that had arisen at this particular training centre, had come to the knowledge of his superior officers some time before he himself was made acquainted with them.

    My hon. Friend has quoted from a training circular that was issued by Colonel Gates to his officers and his warrant officers. I would not for one moment attempt to defend some of the contents of that circular. It contained many objectionable phrases, and I think it is a document which is likely to give a dangerous lead to the officers and warrant officers to whom it was addressed. Far be it from me to attempt to justify its issue. My hon. Friend also drew my attention to the fact that pack-drill had been ordered in the case of those who were defaulters. Pack-drill was abolished years ago throughout the British Army, and I frankly say that it was most improper for this officer to award pack-drill in relation to defaulters. In case there are hon. Members who do not know what pack-drill is, it means that a soldier parades in full marching order with his loaded pack and when he has to do drill in that condition it is called pack-drill. It is wrong for any officer to order pack-drill.

    Pack-drill which was in operation some years ago was awarded only to defaulters, and defaulters were usually confined to privates and excluded officers and non-commissioned officers. But pack-drill, as such, is not permissible in the Army to-day.

    Pack-drill, as such, is forbidden throughout the British Army, which would include soldiers who are in detention barracks. The hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Eastbourne (Captain Taylor) has explained the phrases "Hi-de-hi" and "Ho-de-ho," which were phrases used in the novel "They Died With Their Boots Clean." I have not been able to ascertain how they originated but apparently they were phrases used by an instructor in the Guards to his recruits as some means of keeping them on their toes.

    It has been reported that leave was stopped, as alleged by my hon. Friend, in the case of 15 of the most backward men. They were kept back from leave at every passing-out parade and, of course, that was quite contrary to the regulations. In the light of the reports that were made it was decided that this officer was unsuitable to command men. On 27th October he was suspended from his command. At the same time, my information is not quite on all fours with my hon. Friend's information. I am informed—and my informants were not officers connected with the War Office but officers who knew the unit in question—that the unit we are talking about was considered to be a smart unit, and that a good standard of training and discipline characterised the unit as a whole. Be that as it may, the War Office authorities endorsed the suspension of this commanding officer and eventually he was appointed to the staff at the same rank. He was not promoted. [An HON. MEMBER: "I would put him back into the ranks."] That is another matter but I will put the facts before the House so that hon. Members can judge for themselves. It is a matter of great argument whether an officer, who was in command of a unit and who has been taken away and appointed to a position on the staff at the same rank has been promoted. Those of us who have had a little experience of the Army know perfectly well that the average Regular officer of the rank of lieut.-colonel much prefers to be in command of a unit than to have an appointment on the staff——

    Then the mere fact that he loses his regimental appointment means that he would revert to war substantive rank, which would probably be that of major, so that when he took a staff appointment and resumed the rank of lieut.-colonel he was, in fact, promoted.

    That is not quite what happened. He was suspended, and not dismissed, from his post. He was suspended pending the investigation, and as a result of the investigation he was not reinstated in his position as commander of the training unit, because the view was taken—and I think hon. Members will agree rightly taken—that he was not a suitable person to be in command of men. On the other hand, undoubtedly he is an efficient officer, he is extremely experienced, and as my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Eastbourne has said, he has had some considerable war experience.

    Does he now get an extra 5s. a day over and above what he had before?

    No. He now gets 5s. staff pay, but when commanding a unit he would get command pay which would probably be greater than the 5s. a day staff pay; so that he is worse off financially than he was. The point I am making is that, however strongly one feels about the way in which Colonel Gates conducted the unit when in command of this training centre, it is right to say that most military officers would take the view that he has been punished, strange as it may seem, because he has been deprived of what the average lieutenant-colonel would much prefer to do, and that is command a unit rather than occupy a position on the staff.

    Has the War Office now laid it down as a principle that the staff is to be recruited from officers unfit to command units?

    I do not know whether my hon. Friend is familiar with these problems, but I, like other hon. Members, have had the honour of serving both in a unit and on the staff, and I think every military person would agree that it is quite conceivable that an officer might be unsuitable to be in command of men and yet make a first-class staff officer, and vice versa. Therefore, I think my hon. Friend is not scoring a bull's eye. I have endeavoured to put the facts clearly and objectively before the House, without in any way seeking to extenuate or justify the conduct of this particular officer at the time he commanded this unit. On the other hand, I hope the House will realise that it is asking a good deal to suggest that this officer should have been court-martialled and dismissed from the Army. He has rendered good service in the past and I hope he will do so in the future, and that he will have learned a lesson as a result of the way his case has been dealt with in relation to the complaints of my hon. Friend.

    May I explain to the hon. and learned Gentleman, since he seems to be unaware of the fact, that the terms "Hi-de-hi" and "Ho-de-ho" are part of the ordinary jargon of swing music?

    Question, "That this House do now adjourn," put, and agreed to.