[Transcribed by Megan Stevens]
Perhaps what most excites the admiration of civilians in modern warfare is the Commissariat. They wonder, as well they may, at the providence and command of resources by which ten thousand men, on arriving at a village or a mountain pass, of which none of them had heard the day before, will find a table spread for them in the wilderness in the shape of biscuits and beef for that number of men. That the ravens who prepare this miracle occasionally fail, and the army has to go to bed, or rather to grass, supperless, is no matter of surprise. The surprise is, that the feeding of a host as fleeting and vagrant as the birds of the air should be done with anything like regularity. How far it is done, we leave to the student of such glorious tales as the history of the Peninsular war. But what will our civilians say when they hear that the difficulty is not so much in war as in peace, and that at this moment the British soldier lodged in the palatial barracks of England at Knightsbridge, is suffering privations just as if he had arrived, after a long forced march, at the summit of the Sierra Morena? If in the latter case rivers and rocks, the outposts of the enemy, or a hostile population, had interposed between him and his supplies, in the present instance he has not less reason to complain of the inaccessible passes of office, rugged forms, inhospitable functionaries, and a system of government which defies all the skill of geographies, scouts, and guides. The story is soon told, and we have the reader to say whether we have at all exaggerated the extent of the inconvenience, or the absurdity of the cause.
All who have the misfortune to keep house are aware that provisions have very nearly doubled in price since last spring, and that persons with limited incomes have suffered accordingly. Now, there is nobody with a more limited income than the British soldier. It is, and has been, and will be for many years, the inexorable thirteen pence. Nor is he allowed to spend this as he pleases. He must pay a contract price for a daily ration of bread and meat sufficient for his dinner, with a little over for his breakfast; and he must pay also continual drawbacks for articles of clothing and costs of repair, not left to his own judgment, but enforced by the order of his superior. Where the whole income is fixed, and where the expenditure is highly elastic, it is evident that there ensues a sort of pressure like that in the boiler or a steam-engine, and that something or other must give way. In this instance the most elastic, most swollen item, is the contract price which the unhappy soldier must pay for his ration, and which, from an average of 4 ½d., is now 6d. This, it is scarcely necessary to say, does not include the whole of even a soldier’s hard fare. It only gives him the basis of his dinner, and he has to pay for various et ceteras, all of them now much dearer than usual. Thus, after he has paid for his ration, he has, out of a diminished remainder, to find various necessary things at a greatly increased price. Everybody with any insight into the mystery of a soldier’s life and ways knows that in this state of things he is simply a bankrupt, a starving adventurer, reduced to live on his wits. In the best of times it has been calculated that all the pocketmoney the most careful soldier can save from his income and call his own, to hoard or to spend, is about three half-pence a-day. This margin has long since ceased to exist, and for many months no soldier has been able to do more than make both ends meet. The regiments that were at Chobham were particularly unfortunate, for they have only just paid for the extra repairs of their uniforms required after the weather and other hardships of the camp; and, while their pay has been stopped to meet this demand, their debts to less powerful and less exigent creditors have been running up all the faster. Now, what was to be done in this case? Every reasonable person would say that either the pay ought to have been raised, or that the soldier ought to have been provided with rations at a more moderate price. So thought the Horse Guards three months ado — that Horse Guards which people in general fondly imagine to be solely responsible, under Parliament, for military affairs. The Horse Guards, however, had to apply to the War-office, which may be said to have the financial administration of the army, and the War-office, wishing nothing but well to the soldier, could only refer the case to the Treasury. What keeps it in the Treasury, whereabouts it is, — whether sunk, dead, and forgotten at the bottom of the abyss — whether eddying in daily discussion, or floating on the surface in temporary favour, or wedged between the edges of thick-ribbed etiquette, is wholly unknown — as unknown as the fate of the famous diver who a second time descended Charybdis.
Now, put aside the question of reform, what a field for curiosity is here! Talk of the North-West Passage, of Central Africa, Central Australia, or Central Asia, — will any one earn an admission to the Travellers’ Club by exploring the wilds of the Central Treasury? What sort of a region is it where a recommendation from the Horse Guards that a hundred thousand British soldiers shall not be pinched for food, or fall into hopeless insolvency disappears, becomes absolutely lost, and passes away from human recollection? No account can be given of it. Whether it be frozen, or starved, or dead of thirst, or slain by the natives, no one can tell. Some day the skeleton will be found in a drawer, and some antiquary will put together with it the fact that the British army about this time was ill fed, in debt, in disgrace, and unpopular; that even the popular indignation against Russia failed to bring recruits; and that England was obliged to resort to her old practice of subsidizing the armies of her allies. But surely it is possible to make the discovery in our own times, and to act upon it. Is there no one in the House of Commons who, as a matter of scientific inquiry, intimately concerning the credit of the Horse Guards and the War-office, the constitution of the Treasury, the welfare of a hundred thousand men, and the glory of England, will just ask the plain question, what has become of the recommendation that the soldier’s pay be increased during the present high price of provisions? The reader uninitiated in tradesmen’s bills, and knowing no more of bakers’ bread and hot joints than that, they appear on table and he eats them, may cast his eye over the short table in the return of the REGISTRAR-GENERAL, and there he will see that for the last quarter of last year wheat was 69s. 10d. per quarter, against 40s. 5d. of the same quarter the year before, while beef was a penny a-pound dearer, mutton also much dearer than the year before, and potatoes more than twice what they had been in the first quarter of 1852. It does not take a Chancellor of the Exchequer or the collective wisdom of Parliament to make out how pinched a soldier must be with his invariable pay in such a rising market. Yet nothing is done, and the remedy for an empty stomach, bankrupt credit, and exhausted patience, is as tardy as if the sufferers were at the antipodes. If it is nobody’s fault, and there really is no remedy, then let us know how it is. We may not be able to save the existing army from semi-starvation and its attendant ills; but we may at least bequeath some timely information to our posterity; and warn them that not even the exigency of official routine should permit a British soldier to be put on short commons for a quarter of a year.