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The Special Reserve

Volume 40: debated on Tuesday 18 May 1920

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rose to call attention to the invidious distinction which has been made between the Special Reserve and other branches of His Majesty's Forces; and in particular to ask why the General Service Medal which has been awarded to Naval Ratings, Coastguards and Anti-Aircraft personnel who served only at home during the war has not also been awarded to Special Reservists who rendered very similar services under very similar conditions and were only detained at home for the good of the Service; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am quite aware that questions similar to that which I have put on the Paper have been asked in another place. But they are not the same questions. I am not making a claim for recognition in the shape of the General Service Medal on behalf of Territorials who remained at home, or Volunteers, or of any other of the many classes of persons who served His Majesty during the war, but on this occasion merely on behalf of a very small number of soldiers of the Regular Army who wore serving in the reserve battalions. Of the Special Reserve itself I suppose that 99 per cent. of all ranks sooner or later went out to the front, and went out twice and three times. But I am speaking of the people who were kept at home very much against their will—it broke their hearts to be kept at home, but it was only for the good of the Service. It was not because they were unfit or inefficient, but because they were indispensable for the work of preparing to win time war in this country that they were kept at home. Such people were the quartermaster, the regimental sergeant-major, the regimental quartermaster-sergeant, the shoemakers, the master tailors, and so on—men on the permanent establishment. It is absurd to say that these men did not do as much to win the war, or that in a true sense they did not just as much go to the war from the beginning to the end as the enormous number of men—more than half the Army abroad—who remained at the back of the front; for instance, people who were at Havre or Marseilles and other places not in the zone of fire. They have got the War Medal and several other medals—the 1914 and 1915 medal—but they really were further off from the fighting than many of these people on whose behalf I am speaking. And indeed in some cases Special Reserve battalions actually suffered casualties and were under fire from aircraft and from ships of war, on the coast of this country. But I make no point of that.

My point is that the work of these men helped as much as, and even more than, the work of many other men to win the war. These old soldiers have been relying on a promise which was made to them by the late Field-Marshal, Lord Kitchener. Unfortunately I cannot lay my hands on the actual text of it, or tell your Lordships where it is to be found, but there is a distinct and widespread impression that Lord Kitchener said, when these men represented that it was hard on them to be kept at home instead of being allowed to go out to join the other battalions of their regiments, that it made no difference whether they went out or stayed at home, they were doing the work of the country and would be treated in the same way as their comrades.

I wish to call attention to the invidious distinction which has been made between the Special Reserve and other branches of His Majesty's Forces, and I want to tell your Lordships what I mean by that. The public does not know what the Special Reserve did during the war, and the thing I am going to say, startling though it is, is based on utterances of high officials at the War Office and members of the Army Council, that, even at the War Office, very little is known of the Special Reserve. At the very outbreak of the war the Special Reserve had three-fold duties placed upon them, without the due and faithful performance of which we could not have won the war. In the first place, they had to reinforce the Regular Army. The Regular Army which went out in 1914 could not have kept the field for six weeks without the Special Reserve; and while the Special Reserve was being trained in that way they had to take over the duties for which the Territorials were not trained or ready—the defence of the coasts of this country. Thirdly, they had to train reinforcements not only for the Regular Army but also to form the nucleus of the New Army. Those duties were carried out and, in rough figures, the Special Reserve provided in the form of drafts for the Armies in the field no less than 67,500 officers and 4,763,000 other ranks—that is to say, roughly 2,000,000 out of the 8,000,000, or thereabouts, which were raised throughout the British Empire. In other words, the Special Reserve provided, raised, trained, and equipped, one-fourth of the total number of our fighting Forces.

You will hardly believe it, but the Special Reserve alone of all branches of His Majesty's Forces were not mentioned particularly in the thanks of Parliament to the Forces of the Crown. They were absolutely ignored. There is the most conspicuous instance of the manner in which invidious distinctions are made, and it bears out what I said just now that not even at the War Office do they know much about the Special Reserve. The men for whom I speak are Regular soldiers. They are more than that; I might call them hereditary soldiers. Most of them, so far as I know—I am not speaking for my own Regiment as I have had no complaints from them, I am speaking for a number of other regiments from whom I have heard these complaints—are men who were born in the Regiment, whose fathers and grandfathers were in the Regiment before them, and they belonged to a class which has always been held, and rightly held, to be the very back-bone of the British Army. Is it worth while for the sake of a few hundred medals to embitter and cruelly disappoint this class? It is an important thing for which they are asking. You may not think that a medal is of much account, but imagine what it must be for the man who has been a soldier all his life, after the greatest war that has ever been to have to retire to private life with nothing to show that he has been through it, with nothing to show that from the first to the last day he was breaking his heart over the most difficult, and arduous, and tedious work that fell to the lot of any one—the training of recruits and of reinforcements. These men feel it bitterly when they are among their wives and daughters and their other women-folk, because these point to them and say, "Look at So-and-so; he was out for three weeks only; he has been a soldier for only three months, but he has three ribbons and you have nothing."

It is also of practical value. When these men leave the Army and look for employment the kind of post they get is, perhaps, that of Commissionaire. They go to an employer and he asks, "What medals have you got?" and the man replies that he has the Frontier medal, the General Service Medal for South Africa, and so on. He is then asked, "Why have you not the medals of the big war?" and he is told that he will not make a good enough show unless he has those medals. It is not too much to say that a great many of these excellent soldiers are losing chances of employment because this recognition is not being given to them. They want something to show that they took their part in the war, and you must agree that the part they played was in no way inferior to that of any other rank or class of people. They are asking for only one decoration. The men whom they trained, who—perhaps, were only three or four days at the Front during the whole war, men who, perhaps, never even heard the sound of the guns, have three decorations.

The only thing I have to add is that I know that what is deterring the Army Council from making a recommendation to His Majesty in this respect is that they are afraid it will create a precedent, and that they may find it difficult to refuse applications for war medals from a million or more people who put on khaki but who were not fully trained soldiers, who did not even give full time to the job, and who were not physically fit to play any great part in the war. But the men for whom I speak are regular soldiers; they were soldiers long before the war; they were soldiers who each played a very special and valuable part in the making of that splendid Old Army which saved this country and the world in 1914. They were men trained and fit in every way, and it was a real cruelty and hardship to them to keep them in this country at the work of training. But the work they did was, as was acknnowledged by Lord Kitchener and by every inspecting officer who went round, of the greatest possible value. Therefore I hope that my noble friend, to whom I have written privately more than once on this matter pointing out all these considerations, will have been able to secure such consideration of the matter at the War Office that he will be able to make an announcement which will remove this sense of bitterness and disappointment which prevails among a class who are the most valuable of the citizens of this country. I beg to move.

My Lords, I am extremely sorry that I cannot make a statement in the sense my noble friend desires. He has raised that very difficult question of who is entitled to the war medals; and he knows very well that these questions of theatres of war, areas within which persons may claim these war medals, and their definition, necessarily must cause a good deal of unfairness and some hardship. He has said with perfect truth that many persons who have gone to theatres of war, and who have come back with two or three decorations, have not really done more and have run no greater risks than many who did hard work in this country. All those things I am bound to say are true.

But the only answer that I can give him at present is much on the lines of what was said by my right hon. friend the Secretary of State in another place—namely, that a distinction anyhow had to be drawn, as regards the war medal, between those who went to the war and those who did not, and that it might to some extent depreciate the value of the war medal if it were granted to persons who did not go to the war. Obviously there is very great hardship to a number of people who, contrary in fact to their own desires, were not allowed to go to theatres of war, that they therefore did not get the war medal. I suppose one must consider that the fortune of war. Then my right hon. friend also stated, as my noble friend recollects, that anyhow this task of getting war medals ready would take some years and, therefore, he thought that those who did go to the war ought certainly to have priority over any others, although he did not prejudge the question as to whether a medal should be given to those who did not go to the war but served in this country. At the same time, I think he rather suggested it might not be wise to give the same medal to those who did not go and yet served in this country as to those who did.

I quite understand that my noble friend on this occasion is speaking on behalf of a certain limited class of men, and he believes he can draw a distinction between them and others who did not go to the war. Nobody recognises more than my noble friend that if once—and it is occurring constantly with the granting of medals and decorafions—if once you do grant a medal to a particular class of men it is almost impossible to refuse it to other classes of men. Therefore, you are inclined to draw the line where possibly it may be considered in some quarters rather harsh. My noble friend appeals for these men on the ground that they were old soldiers who were prevented from going to the war. If it is possible to draw any particular distinction in their case nobody would be more pleased than myself, but all I can undertake to say now is that I will represent to the Secretary of State the very forcible way in which my noble friend has put forward this case. Certainly will I undertake that when this matter does come to be considered the case of these men shall have very full consideration. In fact, I will put forward the matter myself and see if it is possible to draw any distinction in their case. But I can make no promise, because I am not sure whether it will be possible to do so.

I am very much obliged to my noble friend for his sympathetic reply, and I can at once suggest to him a means of drawing a distinction. The suggestion I make is that the General War Medal should be granted to all men who were serving under regular enlistment in the Regular Army prior to 1914. That would make a hard and fast line. There is no question whatever that the war was won by the whole British Army, and that wherever men of the Regular Army were serving they were playing their part. My noble friend said that if you once begin to give medals to one class it is difficult to know where to stop. I would ask him, Is the medal going to be given to all Members of Parliament seeing that it has already been given to Mr. Asquith and Mr. Lloyd George? You will never convince the public that it is fair to bestow war medals on these two eminent statesmen and not to give them to soldiers who, day in and day out, were breaking their hearts over their work in the Army.

I was not referring to the honorary gifts of medals. The distinction to which I alluded was between men who went into a theatre of war and those who did not. If, for any reason, you grant medals to a class of men who did not go to a theatre of war, obviously all those very large classes of men who did not got to a theatre of war will ask why they are not included in the particular decoration.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned at five minutes past 'eight o'clock.