Punishments They Underwent in England in Olden Days
Brutality Was the Rule
One of the Mildest of the Inflictions Was Drumming the Culprit Out of Camp and This Was Awarded With Branding and Humiliation
The Lewiston Daily Sun, Lewiston, Maine, 4 August 1915
(From Chambers' Journal)
In times happily gone by discipline in the British army was maintained by methods the majority of which can only be described as vindictive, tyrannical and even brutal in severity. It is doubtful if the savages of the dark ages could have conceived more revolting penalties than some which were inflicted by courts martial, and even by commanding officers on their own responsibility, in former times.
The voluntary sufferings of the saints, the tortures of the religious orders of the olden days, pale before the cruelty involved in the various forms of death penalty, the riding of the wooden horse, picketing, running the gauntlet, branding and flogging. It is comforting that these punishments have gradually succumbed to the force of public opinion and the progress of civilization.
Drumming out of the army—or trumpeting, as it was called in the cavalry and artillery—was of a different character. It was vindictive, unnecessarily so, but not brutal or even painful. It was quaint and at the present day might almost have been considered theatrical. The prisoner, handcuffed, was brought from the guardroom to the parade ground under escort. The crime of which he had been found guilty and the sentence of the court martial, were read aloud by the adjutant, he was to be degraded, branded as a bad character, discharged from the service with ignominy and to suffer a term of imprisonment with hard labor.
In the process of degradation the buttons, braid, badges, facings and even the medal which he had earned were stripped from his tunic. Then came the branding. There is nothing necessarily degrading in branding. All recruits in the Roman army, for instance, were branded on final approval, but its infliction as a punishment is another matter altogether and not so easily defended. It was apparently a custom peculiar to the British army. During the reign of George I, deserters were "stigmatized on the forehead." At a later period in history they were branded on the left side two inches below the armpit, and later generally on the arm.
The tattooing was applied with a brass instrument containing a series of needles points, the punctures made by which were rubbed with a composition of pulverized indigo, India ink and water. It was administered by the drum major under the supervision of the medical officer in the presence of the regiment on parade, and in justice to the authorities, it must be admitted that it was accomplished with as little pain as possible.
Further than that there is little that can be urged in its justification. Branding was a relic of bad times, and carried something revolting to humanity along with it. Any indelible stigma or brand of infamy is a fearful punishment. For one thing, the infliction was completely irremissible. It could be removed neither by repentance nor by any subsequent period of good conduct. The brand a soldier and then discharge him from the service, as in this case, was to turn him adrift in the world with greatly impaired means of earning an honest livelihood.
Hunger frequently urges its victims to follow dishonest courses, and what else could be expected from a branded and discharged soldier, precluded from all honest means of future support? It was a cowardly and vindictive form of punishment, since its infliction could neither promote the amendment of the offender nor render him more subordinate.
The last scene in the drama of drumming out of the army was perhaps the quaintest. The regiment being formed in line, with a sufficient interval between the front and rear ranks, the prisoner was escorted down the ranks, following by the band playing what was known as the "Rogue's March." In this manner he was practically turned out of barracks, the escort finally marching him to the military prison to undergo his sentence of hard labor. In cases where a man was discharged with ignominy without imprisonment, his exit from barracks was not infrequently accompanied by a kick from the youngest drummer. Formerly he was conducted by the drummers of the regiment through the streets of the camp or garrison, with a halter around his neck and a written label containing the particulars of his crime.