The Drake Letters
Strathnairn Committee - Examination of William Henry Drake
Appointed by the Secretary of State for War to Enquire into the Administration of the Transport and Supply Departments of the Army:
examination of William Henry Drake, 27 November 1866

Tuesday, 27th November, 1866.

General the Right Hon. Lord STRATHNAIRN, G.C.B., G.C.S.I., in the Chair. 1
Com.-Gen. Sir W. POWER, K.C.B. 2
Colonel SHADWELL 3
Colonel KENNEDY, C.B. 4
Major-General Sir D. CAMERON, K.C.B. 5
Colonel GAMBIER, C.B. 6

Commissary-General WILLIAM H. DRAKE, C.B., examined.

  1. (Sir William Power.) I wish to ask you, as an officer of experience and considerable standing in the department, your opinion of the existing organisation of the Commissariat, and its connection with the other Administrative Departments of the army, and whether you consider that, in time of war, it would be likely to work well and without friction? – The organisation of the Commissariat, as far as it goes, simply to supply an army in garrison quarters and on foreign stations is sufficient as it is; but it is wanting altogether in power for any active service in the field. I found it so in the Crimea, and I found it so during the short space of time I was in New Zealand.

  2. (Chairman.) For what reason? – I think it is an inherent weakness in any department to be entirely civil, and not have a cordial co-operation with all other departments.

  3. (Sir William Power.) Why should not that cordially exist? – From a departmental feeling arising on both sides, I think, in a great measure, and a want of one general head to bring them into cordial co-operation.

  4. Do you not think also that it is a cause of inherent weakness that the system should be different at home from what it is abroad? – Yes; very much so.

  5. And that, consequently, there are no reserves, or scarcely any, from which a department can be organised for the supply of the army in case war should break out? – In the event of war there is no reserve whatever in the Commissariat.

  6. Except a small number of officers? – Yes; a very few, and they supply England. You would be obliged to break up the system in Engalnd in order to provide a supply of officers for the field.

  7. In fact, they are insufficient at home for the wants of the home service, are they not? – I have not had sufficient experience to say that they are insufficient at home, but they are not sufficient to supply officers for the duties at home, and for any force in the field, even a small force.

  8. (Chairman.) You mean as they are now constituted? – As they are now constituted.

  9. (Sir William Power.) You were in New Zealand, and in China, I believe? – I was not in China. I was in New Zealand for a few months, and I was in the Crimea throughout the war.

  10. You have had a great deal of colonial and foreign service altogether? – I have had above thirty-four years’ colonial and foreign service altogether; in fact, the whole of my service has been in the colonies, Gibraltar, Greece, and the Crimean, with the exception of a few months in Engalnd.

  11. (Chairman.) Do you think it would be a beneficial arrangement if the Commissariat could not only be enlarged and strengthened in itself, but could control other departments? – Ever since my experience in the Crimea, when I was in frequent communication with the French Intendance under M. Blanchaud, I have held the opnion which I then formed, that their system is far better than ours; that although we could not adopt the French system in its purity, we might, in a great measure, assimilate our service to theirs by bringing it under one controlling power, or governing body. I consider that the whole of what are called the Civil Departments of the army might be very advantageously brough under one controlling power.

  12. Would you name them? – The Military Store, the Purveyor’s, the Barrack, and the Commissariat Departments.

  13. (Sir Duncan Cameron.) Would you include transport? – I would include all transport. I think transport a most necessary thing for the supply of an army in the field; but if you separate the transport from the supply, I do not think the supply could be carried on.

  14. (Sir William Power.) In fact, you think that whoever has the direction of the transport would have to be responsible for the supply? – Yes.

  15. (Chairman.) Would you give the Commissariat the charge of the construction of transport carriages? Would you let them undertake the manufacture of the actual vehicles? – It is found to answer very well at the Cape of Good Hope where the Commissariat have that duty. They have the whole of the manufacture under them.

  16. (Sir William Power.) And at Gibraltar? Yes: at Gibraltar too.

  17. (Chairman.) I mean the construction of them? – Yes, the manufacture entirely; in the case of the Cape of Good Hope, which is a very much larger establishment than that at Gibraltar, the manufacture takes place from the raw material.

  18. They purchase the raw material? – They either purchase it or get it supplied from England in gross, and it is made up.

  19. (Sir William Power.) The timber is all supplied on the spot, is it not? – A great part of it is. In some cases the timber is not so good as in England, and then timber is sent from England. In short, where it is found beneficial to obtain it on the spot, it is so obtained; where it is more beneficial to have it sent from England, it is sent; but the manufacture is entirely in the hands of the Commissariat.

  20. (Chairman.) Is there any Inspector of Contracts at the Cape of Good Hope? – No; the senior Commissariat officer is always Inspector of Contracts.

  21. Both abroad and in the field? – Yes.

  22. If you had charge of the construction of carriages in the field, you must have a sort of atelier, a depôt of construction? – Yes; I think there should be a small depôt of construction at home, but I think those things might in the main be very advantageously got by contract. You require to have a small depôt of construction not only to initiate the style of carriage you want, but also to inspect anything that is handed in by the contractors; and you should have a competent person over your workmen.

  23. And also as a school for service? – Yes, certainly; as a school for active service in the field.

  24. Have you not heard that the French tried for a great number of years a system of contracts, and gave it up as inefficient in time of war and hurry? – Yes; contracts in time of war are never to be fully relied upon. I think you never can rely for any one service in time of war upon contracts; but although I mentioned that I thought the French system was one which we might partially assimilate ourselves to, it is not one entirely to be followed by us. I think there are many reasons why the French fail in their system of contracts where we have not.

  25. (Sir Duncan Cameron.) Have the French given up their system of contracts altogether? – I think not entirely.

  26. The fuel and light to the troops is all furnished by contract, is it not? – The fuel, I think, is; I do not know whether the light is. I think hay and straw are furnished in some of the departments by contract; in others they are procured by purchase.

  27. (Chairman.) If you think the system of contracts impossible in time of war, how would you supply its place just at the time when you required the most carriages? – I would supply it by having a certain depôt in England. When I said by contract, I referred to the supply of the wagons themselves to the Commissariat; not the supply of the transport, but the supply of the materiel – of the articles themselves; those would be held here ready to ship to any place with the troops.

  28. Then what other contract did you allude to? – I think that contracts for supplies and everything else are not to be entirely depended on in the field. In the first place, you must, at any time (I speak from the experience of the Crimea), enter into much larger contracts, that is to say, contracts for a much larger quantity of things than you actually require, knowing that some portion of the contracts may fail; and you must, besides that, keep a reserve in case the whole of the contracts fail.

  29. You think you could safely trust to contract for the supply of carriages for the transport? – It would be simply that the construction of them would be undertaken by contractors.

  30. You think that might be safely done? – I think so.

  31. It was not well done in the Crimea, was it? – I do not think that any transport carriages were furnished by contract in the Crimea, for the Commissariat.

  32. How were they furnished? – They were furnished from England.

  33. But were they furnished by contractors? – I am not aware how they were procured in England.

  34. (Sir William Power.) Do you consider that the system under which the Purveyor’s Department, for its hospital supplies, clothing, and so forth, and the Military Store Department for its miscellaneous stores, are organised, is satisfactory, that in time of peace they should have all those duties in their own hands, procuring their supplies from their reserves through the mediation of the head of the department at the War Office, when in time of war they are suddently thrown on the Commissariat to provide for them everything they may not have in hand, thereby, of course, greatly increasing the labour and responsibility of that department, which, as it does none of the duties in time of peace, has of course no officers to spare for such extra duties in time of war? – I think the present mode of supply of the Military Store Department and the Purveyor’s Department, as distinct from the Commissariat, is very ineffective and very expensive. It leads to a considerable expense which might be avoided by concentration under an authority which would give the means for one branch of the service to control the whole of the supplies for the army both in time of peace and in time of war. The very fact of the systems in time of peace and in time of war being different, must lead not only to very heavy expense, but it must lead to an inefficient performance of the duties in some of the branches.

  35. (Colonel Shadwell.) Under the present system, is not it the case that the senior Commisariat officer at the commencement of a campaign finds himself charged with the responsibility of a very different charcter from that which he has been entrusted at home; and that practically he has to improvise a large working establishment of a novel description, with very inadequate means? – That was my experience in the Crimea, certainly, because duties entirely foreign to the Commissariat in time of peace are thrown upon them in time of war; and of course no portion of the other establishments are transferred to them. The establishment, in fact, of each of those departments being required to carry on the detail according to the organisation which has been arranged after the articles have been procured by the Commissariat, the present departments, or the departments as they stand at the commencement of a campaign, are barely sufficient to carry on the details of their own duties.

  36. (Sir William Power.) Do you consider the present strength of the Commissariat Department sufficient to create a reserve for the various new duties imposed upon it when war breaks out? – No; it seems to be found sufficient in time of peace, but I do not think it at all sufficient in time of war.

  37. (Sir Duncan Cameron.) I think the war in New Zealand showed that. You were obliged to borrow officers from the line? – Yes: and in the Crimea it was exactly the same. We borrowed officers from the line, and took civilians of every possible class we could get. It is also attended with this difficulty, that at the time when we most urgently require the officers from the line, they are most required in their regiments.

  38. (Sir William Power.) Do you not hink that if the same duties which the Commissariat have to perform in time of war abroad were entrusted to them at home, it would give them a useful and economical augmentation, such as would add to their strength and furnish a reserve for time of war? – Yes, certainly; if they had the same duties to perform a thome as they have abroad they would be in a better position to take the field.

  39. You are aware, perhaps, that on the Active List of the Department there are not more than there were twenty years ago? – Yes; I am aware of that fact.

  40. In the meanwhile the duties have been very largely augmented? – They have been very largely augmented.

  41. And the number of stations also? – Yes.

  42. Do you consider the subordinate establishments sufficient and of the right description? – No; very far from it.

  43. Will you state in what respects they are not sufficient? – Under the present system the storekeepers and the assistant-storekeepers get too much localised to be efficient for general service in time of war; and the parties below them, who are mere labourers, and men of that description, should be, I think, persons morein the position of privates in the army, who could look forward to rising in grade, and could be made useful as assistant-storekeepers if any number was required.

  44. You would extend in fact the Commissariat Staff Corps? – Yes; and a number of Warrant Officers connected with the Staff Corps would be found probably a very efficient body to replace the civilians now employed in the subordinate capacities of storekeepers.

  45. Who are not available for general service? – Who, though highly paid, are not available for general service.

  46. Do you think it is safe to leave the Commissariat without a nucleus at any rate for transport in time of peace, such as might be extended in time of war, so that proper patterns of wagons, and a proper system of organisation and discipline, might be established previously to the outbreak of war? – It is very inexpedient, because it must lead to a very large expenditure at the commencement of a war; and not only that, but there would be a want of previous experience.

  47. In fact, you have to invent and improvise those establishments, just at the time that you require them? – Yes, exactly.

  48. You are aware generally of the nature of the recommendations of the Committee in its Preliminary Report, I think? – Yes.

  49. Do you consider that the plan there proposed, of having a Control Department for the general supervision of the whole administrative services of the army connected with its supply of clothing, food, and material comforts of all kinds, and having under it the Pay Department and the transport, and the whole machinery by which the supply of an army is to be provided, is a good system, and a preferable one to the existing system? – Yes; I consider it a very preferable system, and one which, in time of war, would lead to great economy of material in every branch of the service, combined with increased efficiency. The person exercising such a control would be enabled to apply the surplus of one department to make good the deficiency of another.

  50. Would it not also be safer and more convenient in every respect for the General to have to depend upon one officer, whose interest and responsibility it would be that all parts of the department should work equally well, rather than on the heads of several departments, each anxious to put his own forward, and procure the utmost advantage for it? – I think it would certainly give great facility to a General officer in the field to have one person to whom he could make application on all questions relating to supplies, stores, and transport, just as the Chief of Staff concentrates the Military Departments.

  51. (Colonel Shadwell.) Do you not think that such a system would be equally beneficial both at foreign stations and at thome, as well as in the field? – Yes, certainly; it would be more beneficial in time of war, it would be very beneficial in the field, but it is necessary that the system should be established in time fob peace at foreign stations and at home, or the department would require to be improvised at the worst possible time.

  52. (Sir William Power.) Would it not also be a great advantage for the Secretary of State to have one responsible agent instead of several heads of departments? – I should imagine so.

  53. That is important in` point of principle? – I should imagine that it would facilitate business very much in the War Office. One would suppose that the business, instead of being conducted in five or six different branches, being conducted by one, would give great facility in every way. It being understood that the head of the Controlling Department would have nothing to do with the detail. He would be, in fact, the collector of information for the Secretary of State on all pints, as well as being held responsible for the different branches. He would collect information, and it would all pass through that one chief to the Secretary of State.

  54. Do you consider that it would be safe for the Commissariat to depend for its implements and materiel, transport, vehicles, and all the means by which it works, on another and independent department, such as the Military Store Department? – No; it was found not to be so in the Crimea; it was also found not to be so in New Zealand. With every disposition on their part to assist us, they had not the means.

  55. They had to apply to you to get for yourselves, through them, what you could get for yourselves more easily without their assistance? – Yes; they had to apply to us to get the things which were procured by us, received by them, and handed back to us for use.

  56. (Colonel Gambier.) Had you any pattern for the wagons which you got made out in the Cape of Good Hope for the Commissariat? – No; they were not adapted for general service, but they were very well adapted to the service of the Cape of Good Hope. I was Commissary-General after General Mitchell left, and I reduced the weight of the wagons very considerably; they were all made by the Commissariat in King William’s Town, in British Kaffraria, where the whole establishment was.

  57. Where did you get the pattern; did you get it yourself? – No; I fancy it was an existing Cape pattern very much improved. The Commissariat wagons were looked upon by the people at the Cape as very superior to their own, and they took patterns from us frequently; the civil wagons were very much conformed to our pattern, with the exception of very large bullock wagons. One wagon went with Prince Alfred from Graham’s Town to Port Natal, over all sorts of roads, without any injury whatever.

  58. (Sir Duncan Cameron.) What would that distance be? – About 650 miles each way; it would be 1,200 or 1,300 miles altogether. Those are mule wagons.

  59. They are slow, are they not? – No, far from it; they go from six to eight miles an hour. I would just explain that my idea was that the one controlling power should be in constant communication with the General Officer Commanding.

  60. (Chairman.) And it must be under his authority? – Yes; the head of the Control Department should be in constant communication with the General Commanding-in-Chief, just as the Quartermaster-General is in military service. The one is his right hand, and the other his left.

  61. (Sir William Power.) The one is his officer of action, and the other is his officer of administration? – Yes; exactly.

[Report of a Committee appointed by the Secretary of State for War to Enquire into the Administration of the Transport and Supply Departments of the Army. Presented to both Houses of Parliament by Command of Her Majesty. (London: Harrison & Sons, 1867), pp. 118-121.]
1. Field Marshal Hugh Rose, 1st Baron Strathnairn.
2. CG in Chief Sir William James Tyrone Power.
3. Colonel Lawrence Shadwell, Unattached, Military Assistant, War Office.
4. Colonel John Clark-Kennedy, C.B., Commandant, Military Train.
5. Major-General Sir Duncan Cameron, K.C.B.
6. Colonel Gloucester Gambier, C.B., Deputy Adjutant-General, Royal Artillery.

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