MossValley: 1882, Army Reorganization - speech by Hugh Childers, Secretary of State for War
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Transcript of a
delivered at Pontefract on 19th January 1882
by the Right Hon. Hugh C. E. Childers, M.P., Secretary of State for War

Printed at the War Office,
by Harrison and Sons,
Printers in Ordinary to Her Majesty

Hugh Childers, Secretary of State for War 1880-82 Brother Yorkshiremen,

I cannot commence my address to you this evening without referring to the circumstances under which it has been postponed since the early part of last month. I have rarely felt more acutely the death of a friend than I did when, on the morning of our intended meeting, I heard of the sudden death of Mr. Routlidge, the Chairman of our Liberal Association. He was man singularly calm in manner, but with a warm heart, and of admirable judgment. I never consulted him, whether about political or local affairs, without being markedly impressed by the ready wisdom of his advice, and the genuineness of his sympathy. His memory will long remain dear to all who knew him.

And now, Gentlemen, let me recall to your recollection the pledge which I gave you when in May, 1880, I asked you to confirm by your voices my acceptance of Office in Mr. Gladstone's Second Government. I expressed to you my conviction that every branch of our comparatively small Army ought to be maintained in a high state of efficiency and usefulness; and I said that it was in the hope of contributing to this end that I had undertaken my duties at the War Office. You may be, I think, interested to know how I have fulfilled the promises I then made to you, and I shall accordingly confine myself this evening to some account of the Army, and of the reforms which are being effected in its organization.

Before I took office, I had had some part in enquiries by Committees about the Army, but I was not aware, until I entered upon my duties at the War Office, of the very large number of pending questions, some of the highest importance, which it would be my duty to solve. I believe I once said in the House of Commons that they amounted to something like ninety in number; but however that may be, it was soon very evident to me that for two or three years my time, if I held office so long, would be exclusively devoted to them; and this will partly account to you, Gentlemen, for the comparative rarity of my speaking on other subjects since you re-elected me. But I am able to say that, while much still remains to be done, we have made no inconsiderable progress in the work I found before me; and as what we have effected up to this time is already bearing good fruit, you may like to know something of it.

The first object at which I aimed was one at which I am happy to say we have been completely successful. I endeavoured to secure the cordial co-operation of all those who, either in or out of Parliament, took an active interest in military affairs and Army efficiency, and I determined, if possible, to raise the questions which we had to discuss and decide out of the arena of party politics. The opportunity was good, for the great changes effected by Lord Cardwell ten or twelve years ago, however hotly some were contested at the time, had not been materially disturbed, or even disapproved by his successors. As I have said, Gentlemen, we have had in this complete success, and the best proof is that in the two or three hundred speeches made by distinguished public men since the beginning of the recess, all of which I believe I have read (I do not include replies to the toast of the Army), there is only one in which any special reference has been made to Army matters; and that was by my friend Mr. Trevelyan who, telling the public what had been done for one of the two fighting services, could not refrain from saying a good word for the administration of the other.

But while orators have been silent, the press has not been equally so, and I confess that I have been greatly aided, as I always am, by the intelligent criticisms, whether friendly or not, of the great fourth estate. Among those criticisms, however, there is one which, though never recently mentioned in Parliament, deserves, I think, passing notice. It has been suggested that of late years, successive Secretaries of State for War have, in the government of the Army, been encroaching on the functions of others. The Army, these critics say, is the Army of the Crown; we, Secretaries of State forsooth, want to make it the Army of the House of Commons. The Crown, they say, governs the Army through the Commander-in-Chief. The Secretary of State is a mere financial officer, who has gradually intruded on the province of the Crown by means of the power of the purse.

Now, Gentlemen, I am bound to tell you that all this is a mere delusion. These writers ought to reflect that to no one can the wrongful attribution of power be more distasteful than to the Sovereign herself. The Queen, Gentlemen, as she is the most just and wise, so is she the most constitutional of Sovereigns. The Queen is the undoubted head of the Army; she is also the head of the Navy, and of every branch of the public service. As such she can do no wrong. But she does no wrong for the express reason that all her acts are the acts of her responsible Minister. The doctrine of personal government which you have seen so undisguisedly claimed in Prussia within the last few days is absolutely unknown to our Constitution.

This is not a matter of custom or of unwritten law. The functions of the Secretary of State for War, as "administering the Royal Authority and Prerogative in respect of the Army", are laid down with great precision by the Order of the Queen in Council of June, 1870. Under him there are three great Departments, the heads of which are equally responsible to him; the Commander-in-Chief for the Military Department, the Surveyor-General for the Ordnance and Supply Department, the Financial Secretary for the Finance Department. No act of discipline can be exercised, no appointment or promotion can be made, no troops can be moved, no payments can be made, without the approval expressed or implied of the Secretary of State. To say that the Secretary of State has no controlling power in such matters, when he is responsible to Parliament for any improper exercise of the Queen's prerogative in regard to them, is manifestly absurd.

On this subject I have never known any misapprehension within the walls of the War Office or in Parliament. Differences of opinion upon subjects in which these great officers advise there have been, and I hope there always will be. There would be something, I should fear, vitally wrong in the state of the War Office, if at all times everybody was agreed as to the details in the administration of that most complicated machine, the Army. But I am fortunate in having the assistance on military questions of so efficient a body of Officers as those who, under the authority and responsibility of the most experienced of them all, the present Commander-in-Chief, manage the Military Department; and I believe I may say with perfect justice that, whether as to that Department or as to those of Ordnance or Finance, there never has been a time when the advantages of energetic administration have been better understood, or when there have been fewer arrears in every branch of the Office than now.

And now, Gentlemen, having set right these misapprehensions, let me pass to the great aims of our policy in military reforms.

My first object was to increase the popularity of the service. Of course matters were very different in 1880 from what they had been half a century before. The Duke of Wellington so recently as in 1829 said that "the man who enlists into the British Army is in general the most drunken, and probably the worst man of the trade or profession to which he belongs, or of the town or village in which he lives." Much, I am happy to say, had been done since then.

His pay, his clothes, his food, his education, his barracks, his pension, his treatment generally, had all been cared for and improved. But the improvement had been very gradual. It was only in 1847 that the abolition of the system which was called life service was carried against the opposition of nine-tenths of the Army, by the personal influence of the Duke of Wellington. Service, however, in the Army continued to be unpopular. All its attractions utterly failed to supply us with sufficient men before the end of the Crimean War. Commission after Commission, Committee after Committee, failed to reach the root of the evil. No increase of pay and pension produced a sufficient supply of recruits or an adequate reserve.

In 1867, General Peel, the Conservative War Minister, said that it had come to be the question whether the British Army should be allowed to collapse. It was only when, eleven years ago, short service was established — when, under it, young men could enlist for a few years and then go back to their homes and trades, liable to be recalled to the Colours in a great national emergency — that the Army began to obtain men enough for the current requirements of the nation, and a reserve for the contingency of serious war.

I resolved, after carefully studying the mass of evidence about length of service collected by Lord Airey's Committee, to maintain the principle of short service. But the system was a little inelastic. Six years were hardly enough for India and the Colonies, and were unnecessarily long for exclusively home requirements. For the former I raised the six to eight years, and I took power to feed the Reserve with men of three or four years' service, who were not likely to go abroad. These changes, while preserving the general principle, met the greater part of the criticisms to which short service had been exposed.

But, Gentlemen, I am sorry to find what great ignorance on this subject prevails even among people who might be expected to be well informed. I will give you an instance.

A few days ago a Member of Parliament, Mr. Dixon Hartland, giving away the prizes at a Volunteer meeting, took the opportunity, to my great regret, for nothing is better understood than that controversial subjects are out of place on these occasions, to denounce short service. He said, "The new system of short service is being brought to trial, and we have seen the result of that system in the recent war in the Transvaal. There is no question that if we had had tried soldiers on Majuba Hill we should have held the position against any force the Boers could have brought against us. But we had an army of boys, and they could not hold that hill, not from any fault of their own, but because young soldiers cannot be expected to have the same qualities as old ones."

Now, Gentlemen, you ought to know that this statement is absolutely unfounded; and Mr. Dixon Hartland should not have made it without enquiry. On Majuba Hill, besides some sailors of the Naval Brigade, we had only men of two Line battalions. No less than eleven-twelfths of the men of those two Battalions were above 22 years of age, and with more than 3 years' service. Their average age was about 27, and their average service 7 years; and I hold in my hand a paper showing this in full detail. In fact one of the Battalions had been a few months before in Sir Frederick Roberts's famous march from Cabul to Candahar, and had shown of what endurance British soldiers are capable. Whatever may have caused our failure at Majuba Hill, the very last argument that anyone except Mr. Dixon Hartland has ventured to adduce from it, is that it proves the impolicy of employing young soldiers, or what he unreasonably calls 'boys'.

In one respect, however, I found a great want unsupplied. In common, I am bound to say, with France and Germany and the other Military Empires, there was in the Army a general complaint of the difficulty of obtaining and retaining good non-commissioned officers. They were too young, and they left too soon. I was soon satisfied that, while enough had been done for the pay of the common soldier, we should look to the better treatment of the non-commissioned officer as the means of both improving that rank itself, and also of enlisting into the Army a better stamp of men emulous of rising to it.

We have, therefore, done much for the non-commissioned officer. In the first place, we established a new rank to which he might be promoted between non-commissioned and commissioned officer, that of Warrant Officer already known in the Navy. And I see by the last Army List, in which we now print the names of all Warrant Officers as well as those holding Commissions, that no less than 700 serjeant-majors and others of analogous ranks have obtained this honourable distinction.

Secondly, we have generally raised the pay and pension of non-commissioned officers; and, thirdly, not the least important boon, we have excepted all non-commissioned officers from the ordinary conditions of short service. Every corporal (with the consent of his Colonel) — every serjeant (subject only to the special veto of the Secretary of State) — may serve, if he wishes, his full time for a liberal pension. While so serving he will be also eligible for employment in the permanent staff of the Militia or Volunteers with which his battalion is associated.

These great boons have already borne remarkable fruit. There has not been time enough yet to estimate to what extent those who are already non-commissioned officers will take advantage of them; although in this respect there is manifest progress. But the effect upon recruiting has been very marked. One of our most important reforms was to raise the lowest age at which recruits could be taken from 18 to 19. We were warned that this might prevent our getting a sufficient number; and watching as I do most carefully the recruiting returns, I confess that for the first few weeks this increase of age made me uneasy; but, as the new advantages of the Army became appreciated, the tide rapidly turned.

Thanks to the widespread knowledge of these advantages, and to some extent to the abolition of flogging, we are now getting every week more men and better men. So much is this the case that, to keep within our authorized numbers, we have been able to fulfil the promise I made to Parliament, and to allow a number of men, after less than six years' service, to volunteer into the reserve, with a good round sum of deferred pay in their pockets, becoming thus, at four and twenty or five and twenty years of age, our best recruiting officers in the villages to which they return.

And this brings me, Gentlemen, to the second very important branch of last year's reforms. I mean the establishment of the Territorial Regiments.

One of Lord Cardwell's main objects was to give a greater local character to our military forces. He linked regiments in pairs, establishing a depôt for each pair, or, as here, in Pontefract, a double depôt for four regiments. One regiment was to be at home, and by recruiting, mainly through the agency of the local depot, was to supply from year to year drafts for the regiment abroad. With these regiments Militia Regiments, having the depot in common, were associated; and it was hoped that the Militia Battalions would afford large numbers of recruits to the Line Battalions.

To a great extent this plan succeeded; but it was not universally popular. Since 1873 Officers have been appointed, not to one regiment, but with liability to serve indiscriminately in two linked regiments, and this was eminently distasteful. I therefore, after well weighing the arguments on both sides, determined to give effect to a plan, not indeed my own, but one for which my predecessor, Colonel Stanley, must have the main credit.

He was Chairman in 1876 of a Committee, including the Duke of Buccleuch, Lord Exeter, Lord Limerick, Sir Henry Havelock, Sir Garnet Wolseley, and four other distinguished Generals, and they recommended that the two regiments of the Line and the two regiments of Militia should not merely be linked or associated, but should constitute one Territorial Regiment of four battalions; that these new regiments should take their title from the county or district of their depot, and that in every possible respect their battalions should be bound together and assimilated.

I have adopted thoroughly and heartily Colonel Stanley's plan, and so far with perfect success. Nothing struck me so much when I visited recently the garrisons and depots in the south of England, and especially inspected the recruits, as the extent to which, during the last few months, they have come from the county from which their regiment draws its title.

In illustration of this rising local sentiment I was much impressed by a speech the other day made by Colonel Jordan, the Colonel of the Berkshire district, from which what used to be the 49th and 66th Regiments now take the common name of the Berkshire Regiment. It was at a meeting for a memorial to the men of the 66th who fell at Maiwand, and I will read to you his words. "The regiment lost in the battle of Maiwand 52 Berkshire men, some of whom I knew myself. At the time of battle there were 227 Berkshire men serving in the regiment. Immediately I heard of the loss, I knew that the regiment would want recruits, and that the other battalion — they were now joined in one — would require men to go abroad. I went into the matter; the response was splendid. Within six weeks I had 152 recruits come in voluntarily;I was quite surprised at the number, because it was at a busy time in August and September. At the present time there are 429 Berkshire men serving in the second battalion, and in a very short time the whole of the second battalion will consist of Berkshire men. At the present time I only require 93 men, and I have 200 recruits in the barracks more than I want for the Militia and the regiment."

This, Gentlemen, is the spirit which is growing up all over the country, and which we will do our best to promote. What I want to bring about is a state of public opinion as to our military forces, which will make each county, or in some cases, as here, each division of a county, feel a special interest in a particular regiment and the men belonging to it; and I mean by a regiment not only its Line battalions but its Militia battalions, and also, I hope soon to say, its Volunteer battalions. I wish to see the Line and the Auxiliary Forces closely bound together, the men in the one feeling themselves to be the comrades of the men in the other, drawn from the same classes, wearing the same uniform, proud of the same Colours and badges. I want to see the Permanent Staff of all having the same origin, with the District Colonel at their head, selected from those who have spent their lives in the regiment. In the same way I hope to localize our Artillery, binding together the Royal Regiment with those Militia Artillery regiments, of which the country is so justly proud, and also, possibly, with Volunteer Artillery. The localization of the Cavalry presents greater difficulties, but I fully expect to add to the efficiency of the Yeomanry, in which we of the West Riding take so much interest. Gentlemen, I firmly believe that by thus evoking and developing sound local feeling, we shall do much more to bring about and widen a true esprit de corps in the Army than ever was due to the mere number in the Army List assigned to a particular Line Battalion.

And this brings me, Gentlemen, to a controversy, of which you doubtless have heard something, about the numbering of regiments, and the supposed mischief we have done by substituting for numbers Territorial Titles. I admit that we have been blamed for this by a good many people disposed, in other respects, to approve our policy; and I particularly noticed an article in the January number of a well known magazine, for the Editor of which I have the highest respect, which represented this as the special fault we had committed, and implied that we had made a sudden change without notice. The writer could hardly have remembered that the proposal was made by Colonel Stanley five years ago in a report laid before Parliament, and discussed by every newspaper, and at every regimental mess in the country; so that, of all our reforms, it was the one to which want of notice least applied.

I frankly admit, Gentlemen, that I should have been glad to spare so many officers the personal inconvenience which this change has entailed on them. We all know that nothing is so vexatious to the inhabitants of a street as to have the number of their houses suddenly altered for some public advantage; and this, I am told, all but produced a revolution in Oxford Street the other day. No one, I think, would accuse me of wantonly causing annoyance to the great body of regimental officers, over whose interests it is my privilege to watch.

But I will ask the critics of the change a simple question. A regiment now consists of what used to be, as a general rule, two Regiments of the Line, and one or two Regiments of Militia. You have here at Pontefract, for instance, the South Yorkshire Regiment, consisting of what used to be the 51st and the 105th Foot, and the old 1st West York Militia. Those former regiments are now battalions, 1st, 2nd, and 34d, of a consolidated regiment.

If a number is to be retained, which is that number to be? Of course one regiment cannot have two or more numbers. Is, then, the old Territorial West Yorkshire Militia to call itself a Battalion of the 51st, or is the 51st to call itself a Battalion of the 105th? We heard, Gentlemen, I may tell you, a good deal on this subject before we definitely adopted the change. The Officers of some regiments were indifferent to the change, as they never called themselves by their number, — for instance, in some of the Fusilier regiments, or the Buffs, or the Borderers, or the Connaught Rangers, or the Highland Regiments. Others, no doubt, would have greatly wished, if possible, to keep their own numbers. But the one point upon which we found them all agreed was, when they became one of two battalions in a regiment, their objection to take the number of the other battalion. Any title, Territorial or Non-Territorial, was better than this. I think you will therefore see, Gentlemen, that even had we wished to retain the numbers, and had persuaded the Militia to accept them, the solution would have been as far off as ever.

But what is the real history of these numbers? When regiments were first formed, and even in the last century, they were always called by their Colonel's name. The only object of numbers, which were adopted later, was to mark their precedence. Since then, those numbers have been constantly changed, as often, in fact, as in 49 instances during the last century. One of these changes is a little instructive. The 100th Regiment became in 1798, the 92nd. In 1816, what had in turn become the 100th, was turned into the 99th, and then the 102nd became the 100th. This in turn was disbanded, and later, in 1858, a new 100th was raised, now called the Leinster Regiment. What esprit de corps could have attached to such a number?

But, in truth, giving regiments territorial titles is no novelty. Numbers were not thought much of in 1782, just 100 years ago. In that year Field-Marshal Conway, one of the ablest solder-statesmen England has known, conveyed to the Army the following order from the King, namely: "That each regiment should take a county name, and be looked upon as attached to that county, and that Colonels should endeavour by all means in their power to cultivate and improve that connection, so as to create a mutual attachment between the county and the regiment, which may at all times be useful towards recruiting the regiment."

We, Gentlemen, are only reverting to Field-Marshal Conway's policy. Unfortunately, he was not able to combine the Line and Militia, and when the Army was enormously increased in the great French war, the new regiments were raised independently of local connection, which in time was nearly obliterated. Our reform is more thorough, and, whatever other changes may be made, I believe the territorial character of our Army is now firmly secured.

Gentlemen, there are other salient points in our policy, which, if time allowed, I should have wished to explain to you at some length. For instance, I should have been glad to give you some detail as to the removal of an evil, the most dangerous to the efficiency of our Officers of any that can be imagined; I mean the compulsory retirement, at the early age of forty, of more than half of those who enter the service. We have reduced retirement at early ages to a minimum, and already since the 1st of July some 64 Officers have been thus saved from compulsory idleness, and of these 48 have been restored to regimental duty.

I should have liked to have explained to you how we have already reduced the enormous, so-called, Active List of General Officers from 343, excluding the Indian and Marine Generals, to 176; how we are effecting a gradual reduction of 500 superfluous regimental Officers; and how we are giving effect to the principle of promotion by selection, especially to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, and to a certain degree to the rank of Major-General.

I should have liked to give you some detail as to the growing popularity of the Army in classes from which Officers as a rule come; how, for instance, 731 candidates competed at the last examinations in September and December for 119 cadetships and commissions. I should have also been glad to explain to you the outcome of our improved system of supplying troops to India at a great economy to Indian Finance. I should have wished to tell you something about the advances in gunnery science both here and abroad, and what steps we are taking to make up for our lee way in the years since 1874. But time fails me to go at any length into these matters.

There is, however, one reform about which I must detain you for a few moments. I promised Parliament that I would do my utmost to remove what is an undoubted blot in our recent system, — I mean our unpreparedness for small wars. Should we be unhappily engaged in a considerable war, we have large reserves to bring out. But these are only available on what the law calls a great national emergency. And what we want is to have a more moderate force, say of some 25,000 men, always ready for active service, and this without disturbing our regular, I may say, clock-work arrangements, for the relief of our forces in India and the Colonies. Now, it was for this that I asked Parliament to increase the Infantry by 3,000 men. And I proposed to effect our object by gradually building up, at the head of what is called the roster, 16 battalions containing, with their depots, 1,100 or 1,000 men each, 800 of whom would be fit for service anywhere; with 8 more in the Mediterranean also 800 strong. These, with Cavalry, Artillery, and Guards, will constitute a thoroughly corps d'armée.

Now, Gentlemen, Rome was not built in a day; and battalions of this strength, specially with the demands made from Ireland, cannot be improvised even in six months. We have, however, I may tell you, worked out with great patience and care all the details of this reform. I watch them from day to day, and I can assure you that I shall not be satisfied until, step by step, this most necessary weapon, an efficient first corps d'armée, is ready to our hands. Every month, I may tell you, is bringing, and will bring, it nearer completion.

I have told you now, Gentlemen, something of our past policy, and how we have fulfilled and are fulfilling the promises made to Parliament last Session. Let me say a word about the future.

It would be, of course, most improper that I should anticipate, in addressing you, what I may have to propose to Parliament in moving the Army Estimates. But there are some general principles, about which, among my Constituents, I need not be over reticent. I gave a pledge to enquire, so far as I could do so in the recess, into questions affecting the Volunteers. I take, as I took from the first, great interest in what was called the Volunteer movement; and I hope to show that I have redeemed my pledge, and in more than one respect shall be able to propose what will add to their efficiency.

I also hope, so long as I hold the seals of my present Office, to do all in my power towards improving the condition and raising the character of the soldier. Nothing disgusts me more than the vulgar prejudice against him which still permits his uniform in some public places to be considered as a reproach, and not an honour. I cannot deny that there was once some justification for this, but there is none now; and I should like to bring home this truth unmistakeably to the public mind.

Again, as to our Officers, there are two directions in which I should like to move. There has been a good deal of discussion lately in the Press about regimental messes, and the unavoidable cost which they are supposed to bring on young Officers. I express, now, no opinion on this particular point; but we have arrangements under discussion which will, I hope, tend to make life in the Army less expensive, without making it less popular.

On the other hand, I should like all Officers, specially younger Officers, to read an extract from a letter I lately saw from one of the most distinguished soldiers of the day. I would ask them to note it well, and perhaps to reflect that it indicates the direction in which opinion is moving as to their duties. "The Foreign Officer," the writer says, "teaches the soldier to ride, to march, to shoot, to drill, and in this he is always at work. With us it is too much the custom to regard the Adjutant and the Drill Instructors as the masters of our Army School. The Army is a profession, in which the Officers are the legitimate professors, a great school, in which they are the tutors and teachers."

I pass from this subject to one of another character, as to which I can only speak in general terms. I have told you that I think most highly of the value of our Auxiliary Forces, and I do so specially because of their eminently defensive character. There are other methods of defence which we have been carefully studying lately. I do not allude to costly fortifications, but to other weapons which science has placed in our hands at comparatively small expense. And, Gentlemen, there is one defence, one security, against the horrors of war to which, I confess, I attach the highest importance.

Sir William Napier said of the British people that they most frequently got into trouble because they were "warlike, and not military". I wish to see the people of England in the best sense military, but not warlike. It is one of the happiest results of the short service system, and of the general spread of volunteering, that they produce, in a large number of the Queen's subjects, a military rather than a warlike spirit. By a military spirit, I mean habits of discipline, respect for lawful command, and, at the same time, independence of character, and that dislike of slovenliness which, as a general rule, marks the man who has served.

I should, therefore, rejoice, if, as I have said elsewhere, our schoolboys were taught more drill, and if it was the exception for a young man, who could afford it, not to be a Volunteer. And I should not regret were such a state of feeling about military service to prevail, as would justify the Government and Parliament in establishing a system, under which a much larger proportion of the youth of the country might, if they wished, voluntarily spend a short time, at or soon after the age of 20, in the ranks. In an army really representing the average intelligence and right feeling of the country, such a short experience of military service would benefit our youth of every class, whether in town or country, whether artisan, mechanic, or peasant.

But, Gentlemen, these are, I fear, matters for the distant future; and to-night I have endeavoured rather to place before you clearly what has been already effected, and to answer some criticisms on the reforms agitated and made during the last twelve years, and which have now received legislative sanction. For the present I desire no great changes in our Army organization, but rather rest, to work out with care what we have established, to correct defects and omissions, and to carry to their legitimate conclusions principles which Parliament has endorsed. This is, perhaps, not a very heroic or ambitious programme for a War Minister to proclaim; but I shall be content if it receives the approval of my constituents and of my country.


Wikipedia pages:
Edward Cardwell, Secretary of State for War 1868-74
Cardwell Reforms
Hugh Childers, Secretary of State for War 1880-82, MP for Pontefract 1860-1885
Childers Reforms
List of Regiments of Foot
List of British Army Regiments - Land Forces of Britain, the Empire and Commonwealth

Australian Dictionary of Biography: Hugh Culling Eardley Childers, 1827-96

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