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Captain Hartman (Court Martial)

Volume 477: debated on Monday 17 July 1950

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

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

11 p.m.

I am sorry to divert the attention of a Service Minister at this critical time from his general duties, but the matter I raise this evening is one of great personal, and perhaps some public, importance. It concerns Gordon Hartman. His is the story of a man who made good in the Army and then came to grief. He made good through his own efforts, being commissioned from the ranks in a very famous regiment. His coming to grief, in my contention, might have been prevented but for delays and inaction on the part of the military authorities.

Hartman is the son of a retired Army bandmaster of 40 years' service and he enlisted as a trooper when a young man. Subsequently, in time of war, with the rank of sergeant, he took part in the retreat to Dunkirk. During that he was blown up in his tank and from that various consequences have followed as far as he was concerned. Back in England he was commissioned and, in 1941, he went to India. In India he showed increasing signs of neurosis and mental instability and served several spells in hospitals as a result. In the course of that period he got married to an Australian lady who was at that time nursing in India. In 1947 he went to Australia on leave and there had further spells of neurosis so badly that on one occasion he was unable to recognise his own wife.

In the summer of 1948, he was posted back to the United Kingdom, but on the voyage he sustained a serious accident and got head injuries as a result of which he was landed for treatment at Free-mantle Hospital. While Hartman was on his way to the United Kingdom, his wife wrote to the commanding officer of the regiment to which he had been posted drawing his attention to the neurosis and signs of mental instability which had been only too painfully evident during his service in India. It is my contention that the commanding officer of this regiment was therefore notified on this unimpeachable and authoritative source of the unhappy circumstances and that, further, the commanding officer and adjutant should have been able by their own observations to realise the unhappy state of the case.

Nevertheless, no action was taken until October of that year, and that was a very vital month in this story. That was a very vital delay, but it was only the first of a series of material delays in this story. In October, 1948, Hartman was examined by an Army psychiatrist; but in that same month he was involved in a cycling accident while in charge of certain regimental moneys, amounting to £117. The money was lost and Hartman was remanded for trial by general court martial. Whilst he was still awaiting trial, the Army psychiatrist's report was submitted in December, the examination having been carried out in October. That report recommended admission to Shaftesbury Military Hospital for treatment, but no action was taken on that report, nor at any time has action been taken in respect of it.

It was not until April, 1949, that Hartman was actually put on trial by court martial, that is to say, after a delay of no less than five and a half months. He was then tried for fraudulent conversion of the £117 and was, in fact, acquitted. In that court martial one Corporal Binns gave evidence for the defence and it was subsequently alleged that B inns had been bribed by Hartman through the intermediary of his batman to give false evidence; and, because of that, Hartman was charged with perjury and conspiring to pervert the course of justice. He was put on his trial by general court martial on 14th July. He pleaded guilty and was cashiered and sentenced to three years' imprisonment.

That trial was attended by various unusual circumstances. In the first place, it had been Hartman's intention to plead not guilty, but that was changed almost at the last moment. Secondly, on 13th July, the day before the court martial. Hartman's father had an interview with the general officer commanding Catterick district and discovered that the general had never heard of the psychiatrist's report. Thirdly, on that same day the general motored to Durham from Catterick to see the defendant's civilian solicitor. Fourthly, after this interview, Hartman decided to plead guilty.

Hartman's account of that transaction is this, as written in a letter to his father:
"When the solicitor saw me he said that the general had come all the way to his Durham office to see him and that they had a long talk together. He said the general had told him that he had never heard of the medical report before and that I was to leave everything to the solicitor; that the general would see that within 48 hours of the courts martial I would be in hospital."
It is right that I should say that this conversation between the general and the solicitor was confidential as between them, but I think it is also right for me to have regard to it, as it is part of Hartman's case that his decision was influenced by this.

I do not, of course, criticise the general for wanting to get Hartman into hospital within 48 hours. He should have been there long before. What I do criticise is his inability to do so, and the fact that, instead of going to hospital, Hartman went to prison. Nor do I suggest that Hartman would necessarily or even probably have been acquitted at the second court martial if he had pleaded not guilty and it is right that I should read in regard to that what the defending solicitor wrote to me in answer to my letter:
"We may say that having obtained the transcript of the shorthand notes of Captain Hartman's earlier trial, we were of opinion that any plea of not guilty was unlikely to succeed.
"We were at pains to explain the position to Captain Hartman and that the responsibility for the decision to plead guilty must rest on him and not on us, and it was with a full sense of this responsibility that Captain Hartman did, in fact, decide to plead guilty and tendered his own plea to the Court."
There is importance in the fact that he did plead guilty in this particular case. Normally, as the House knows, an unsuccessful plea of not guilty attracts, if anything, a greater sentence than a plea of guilty, for obvious reasons; but this is probably the exception that proves the rule, because, in the circumstances, an unsuccessful plea of not guilty would necessarily have focussed the attention of the court on the unhappy background to this court martial and to the medical aspect of it which had been overlooked by the military authorities.

I should also say in this case of Hartman that even if he was guilty of suborning witnesses, it does not follow that he was therefore guilty of misappropriating regimental moneys in October, 1948. Of course, it is quite clear that, in an ordinary case, there would be a presumption that only a guilty man would suborn evidence. But this is not an ordinary case; Hartman was not an ordinary man; and these are not ordinary circumstances. Hartman, no doubt, in the unstable state of his mind, was panic-stricken by the apparent blackness of the case against him because he had lost the money. In his first court martial he had no professional representation and certain witnesses who had given statements to the civil police were not called. I have only time to refer to the statement of one witness, Provost Sergeant Johnson:
"Just before I got to Hipswell gymnasium, I saw an officer of"—
there follows the name of the regiment—
"coming round the corner towards me on an Army cycle. I noticed that the side of his nose nearest to me had blood on it. I would be within four feet of him as he passed. I saluted. He acknowledged my salute in what seemed to me a rather curious way. I thought at the time that he might have got hurt in some ragging in the officers' mess. I stopped and turned round to watch him. He was pedalling quite steadily…I later made a statement to the S.I.B. At the court of inquiry I was asked if I could recognise the officer in question, and I then stated I could not because of the blood on his face."
In my submission, the evidence of these witnesses, if called, would have established the fact of the accident, and therefore the likelihood of loss rather than misappropriation as being the reason for the episode of October, 1948.

The results of the two trials in varying circumstances must be a matter of speculation. I want to turn from hypotheses to matters of ascertainable and incontrovertible fact. First, when Hartman joined his regiment in the United Kingdom, in the summer of 1948, he was in a mentally unbalanced state as a consequence of having been blown up at Dunkirk. Secondly. his commanding officer was notified of this fact, on authoritative and unimpeachable evidence. Thirdly, in spite of this, no action was taken until October—that is, the same month as the accident which set all this unhappy train of events in motion. It follows that if action had been taken at the proper time, none of this could have happened, because Hartman would have been in hospital instead of bicycling around with regimental money.

There follow a series of further delays—the delay of two months in producing the Army psychiatrist's report; the five and a half months' delay in bringing him to trial, four of these months being months in which the psychiatrist's report recommending treatment in hospital was in the hands of the Army authorities. There was the further delay of four months between the two trials, and still no action on the report. Hartman was put on trial when he should have been under treatment if the regimental authorities had behaved with reasonable prudence and vigilance. He was put on trial four months after even the dilatory procedure followed in this case had reached the inevitable conclusion that he should be sent to hospital.

The offence for which he was tried and found guilty by the second court martial was committed at the first court martial. and he was finally tried no less than seven months after the recommendation that he should go to hospital. There was the further circumstance that the general officer commanding had no knowledge of the report, and therefore took the extreme, and perhaps unprecedented, course of motoring all the way to Durham to see the defending solicitor in his own office. I submit that is a very unsatisfactory state of affairs. and I am asking the Under-Secretary of State to set it right. I would further add that in my view for a first offence the sentence is unduly harsh.

In all these circumstances I ask the Under-Secretary to order the immediate release from prison of Hartman and the recision of his sentence of cashiering. I ask him instead to have him transferred to hospital in accordance with the needs of the case and the report made so long ago by the Army's own medical officers. Thirdly, I ask for the restoration of Captain Hartman's gratuity rights, naturally forfeited as the result of his conviction; and fourthly, I ask that there be an inquiry to see whether payment of compensation is not called for in this case.

I want to make it clear that I am making no general attack on Army administration. I have a great regard for it and even a little experience of it. This is an individual and exceptional case, but it is the virtue of our democratic methods that such cases can be raised in a way that strengthens Army discipline and administration as a whole. I ask the Under-Secretary of State to take this course.

Before the hon. Member sits down, does he know of any common factor between the two accidents?

I do not myself know of any medical common factor. It well may be there was a common factor in the light-headedness that would go with mental instability.

11.17 p.m.

I want to say only a few words in support of the case that has been made so ably by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford (Mr. Walker-Smith). I should like first to emphasise that Gordon Hartman was a Regular soldier. He joined up in the ranks at the age of 16 and he had served for nine years with considerable merit before he went to Dunkirk and sustained this accident, which undoubtedly affected his future very much. He was given a commission after Dunkirk as a reward for his gallant service and he had served altogether for 18 years when this court-martial took place. As a result of the sentence he was given, he was cashiered, he got three years' imprisonment, and was discharged from the Army with no pension and with no gratuity.

I submit to the Under-Secretary of State that in the circumstances that is a very severe sentence. It is the equivalent of at least five to six years imprisonment for a civilian. Not only has he undergone the disgrace of being cast out of the Army, but he has lost the only profession that he ever had. Now he has two more years' imprisonment to serve, at the end of which time he will be a man of 37 with no career and no future. I submit that there are considerable doubts in this case, as my hon. Friend has explained, and I would ask the Under-Secretary to re-examine the whole case, and try to review it with a great deal more leniency, sympathy and imagination than has been shown up to the present time.

11.19 p.m.

The hon. Member for Hertford (Mr. Walker-Smith) set out chronologically the events from the beginning of Captain Hartman's military career, and with that chronology I am not in disagreement at all; but I must express the opinion that the hon. Gentleman has exaggerated the extent of the mental and emotional instability in the earlier stages of Captain Hartman's career. We have, up to the time of his coming back to this country for the last time in his military career, no substantial medical evidence that he was seriously disordered, mentally or emotionally. It is worth while noticing, as both hon. Gentlemen have pointed out, that up to that time he had had a fairly successful military career. He had been strongly recommended for the Regular commission granted to him. That was in 1944, four years after Dunkirk. That would not have happened if there had been ever since the events of Dunkirk an element of serious mental or emotional instability in him.

We had by the time this man came back to his unit in 1948, and by the time the letter from the wife was written, this situation: here is a man who has done well in his career receiving an advancement that could not have been achieved by a man suffering from any serious mental or emotional difficulty. At this stage his commanding officer receives a letter from the wife suggesting that her husband possesses a number of deficiencies of character. It was suggested that he was guilty of a liability to romance, and there was medical evidence of occasional attacks of hysteric amnesia, which means to the layman that he was liable to forget those things that he would prefer not to remember. That is really not much more than a common human frailty which he possessed in more than average degree.

When the commanding officer receives a letter from a man's wife suggesting, in effect, that her husband is not fit for his military duties, what is the proper action for him to take? Can he say to such an officer that, on account of a letter, he is to be prevented from carrying out the ordinary duties belonging to his rank and station? If the commanding officer had done so, he would have been subject to criticism. The commanding officer said, in effect, that he would keep a fatherly eye on the officer in the light of the letter the wife had written. Frankly, I do not see, in view of the man's previous career, that there was any other appropriate action which the commanding officer could have taken. There was, up to that time, no reason to suppose that this officer was not fully in command of himself and in command of his actions.

In order to make doubly sure the commanding officer proposed that Captain Hartman should have a psychiatric examination, a proposal that was not at all welcome to Captain Hartman. About the time he was recommended for the psychiatric examination events occurred which led to his trial for misappropriation of funds. Really a case is not made out at all that anything he did at that time, or anything for which he was subsequently convicted at the second trial, was due to mental or emotional instability. In effect, the medical report did not regard the case as serious. The purpose of getting him into hospital was for further examination, as a result of which he was considered to be in every way fit to stand his trial. It was at no time suggested, as it could have been at either trial, that he was not responsible for his actions and was unable to defend himself.

I do not think, in spite of the great emphasis the hon. Member for Hertford has made, there was delay in dealing with the wife's letter, which the commanding officer was bound to regard with a great deal of reserve, or in dealing with the moderately-worded psychiatric report. In any event, we cannot escape the fact that in the middle of last year this officer was convicted of conspiracy to defeat the ends of justice, and of perjury, and the two witnesses who gave evidence for him at the first trial were also convicted and sentenced to be severely punished.

We all of us would say that the contention that a man ought not to be convicted, or ought to be treated with leniency, on mental or psychological grounds, has to be looked at with great reserve. It is a contention which could often be used as a way for a man to avoid the consequences of his own actions if the offence were, say, one of a sudden outbreak of violence, or if great mental strain entered into it. But this is a matter of carefully planning, and rehearsing with the witnesses, subornation of perjury, which is really not an offence which can be committed by a man who is not in the full possession of his faculties. What would be the judgment on military justice if the corporal and trooper who committed the perjury had to serve their sentences, and the man who bribed them to commit the perjury were to escape by a plea of mental or emotional instability for which we have no adequate medical or psychological evidence?

I admit the sentence is a heavy one. Against that, it must be remembered that any system of justice has to regard the offence of suborning to defeat the ends of justice as an extremely serious one. I know that this man has a record of good service. If his disorder is not, in my judgment, and I think, in the judgment of the medical officers, as serious as the hon. Gentleman has made out, even so he is clearly suffering from, or has suffered from, a minor form of disorder. These are facts to be borne in mind when considering the severity of the sentence. As I think the House knows, sentences of this kind are subject to periodic review. I will see to it that at the next review—I cannot charge my mind with the exact date at the moment. but if it is some distance off arrangements can be made to bring it forward—the circumstances so sincerely and eloquently urged tonight are before the reviewing authority.

There was also a request made to which I cannot accede. That is that this man should be transferred from prison to hospital. The reason I do not think I ought to accede to that request is of great significance, because there is a lot in the whole nature of the case which I think must be set against the hon. Gentleman's continued insistence that this man ought to have been in hospital long ago. In my view he was at all times quite capable of observing the law, and behaving in a manner consonant with his position as an officer. My reason for thinking this is a recent medical report, made only a few days ago, which says clearly that he shows no signs of psychosis or psycho-neurosis; that he is an active, powerful man, and is in a robust state of physical health; also, that he has gained weight during his prison sentence. He is out on individual farm work, which means that he goes out and returns unescorted. His behaviour is good and he has shown no sign of hysteria at any time during his imprisonment. That is the report of a qualified person.

The man himself says he has not felt so physically fit for years, and that he wants no psychological treatment, nor does he need it. That is his view, but it is again shared by the medical adviser. In the face of this, I do not think there is any case for transferring him to hospital at this stage, and we must weigh up his medical state in the past in the light of this full medical report. I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman that there has been injustice in this case, or excessive harshness, but. as I have said before, I will draw to the attention of the reviewing authority the considerations pressed by both hon. Members tonight.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Half-past Eleven o'Clock.