Random Thoughts of An Old Soldier

Lt.-Col W. Boss
The Connecting File, October, 1947


Many serving soldiers of the Regiment will be amazed to learn that the following sentence was once passed upon volunteer Canadian soldiers serving in Canada:

". . . Guilty of Desertion laid to his charge, and doth therefore for the same adjudge him to serve as a Soldier for Life, in such Country, or Place or Places abroad, or otherwise and in such Regiment, or Regiments or Corps, as His Majesty shall be pleased to direct, and also to forfeit all benefits or advantages as to increase in Pay or as to Pension or Discharge which may accrue from the length or nature of the Service to which the Court has adjudged him."

A soldier receiving a sentence of this nature was usually sent to the Royal African Corps in West Africa. This custom continued until a General Order was promulgated on 25th January, 1826, wherein Courts-Martial were told to abstain from awarding "sentences of 'General Service', it having been decided that the Royal African Corps shall not receive any more deserters or culprits." So the Canadian volunteer of the Canadian Fencibles or Glengarry Light Infantry receiving the above sentence truly became a man without a country! While he undoubtedly deserved severe punishment, the sentence seems in the light of those awarded in the present day unnecessarily harsh. Nevertheless it was considered in 1812 a lenient penalty; punishment for similar offences to soldiers of both British Line Regiments and Canadian Volunteer Corps included "Death", "Branding with the letter 'D' on the forearm and transportation as a Felon", or sentences of 800, 900 or even 1,000 lashes on the bare back.

The Drummers of a regiment were charged with the task of flogging an offender. Sentences were usually carried out in the presence of the troops of the Garrison, and after the commencement of the War of 1812-14 sentences of Death for desertion were not uncommon. The Mutiny Act, precursor of the Army Act, provided however, in 1803, that in cases where death was thought too great a punishment, a deserter could be sentenced to transportation as a Felon, either for life, or for a term of years; if he returned from his place of transportation without permission he could be automatically convicted of a felony and be sentenced to death as a felon "without benefit of clergy."

Desertions were numerous because of the powers of punishment held by officers; flogging up to 200 or 300 lashes for even minor offences being quite customary in some regiments. Another factor encouraging desertion was that army pay was frequently held up for several months; when the money finally arrived the troops had comparatively large sums in their hands and sought escape from the rigid discipline and hard life.

The following extracts are taken from the returns of a regiment during the six months from the 13th November, 1810, to the 31st May, 1811:

To maintain a proper perspective, one must bear in mind that in the early nineteenth century, punishments for civilians were vastly more harsh than they are in the present day. Sentences of death could be imposed by the civil tribunal for misdemeanours that now would warrant only a prison term of six months. The Quebec Gazette of 16th February, 1767, mentions two soldiers of the 52nd Regiment being tried by the civil power for burglary; found guilty they were sentenced to be hanged on the 12th March following.

Then again, the type of men joining the Army has changed considerably. In the 1800's the rank and file of the British Army included - if we are to believe the Duke of Wellington - the scum of the earth. While he was no doubt hard on them, there was more than one occasion when the epithet was justified. So far as corporal punishment is, concerned, much depended upon the quality of officers commanding regiments and battalions. There were some colonels who hardly ever used the lash, while there were others who were always inflicting it upon the most trivial occasion. But strange to say, even the best and most humane commanding officers agreed that it was impossible altogether to dispense with the lash for the maintenance of discipline.

There is no doubt that soldiers died from the effects of flogging in Canada. The Quebec Gazette of 8th September, 1766, contains the report of an inquest held upon the body of Donald McKenzie, a soldier who died as the result of a severe whipping received by order of a Court-Martial. In this case the two officers who commanded at the time of his punishment were held guilty of wilful murder, but were not committed, the King's Chief Justice having admitted them to bail, to take their trial at the next Supreme Court. At this Assize, the Captain, Adjutant, and the three drummers who alternately wielded the lash were arraigned, but found "not guilty," presumably on the ground that they were in the execution of their duty.

The first limitation of the number of lashes which could be inflicted appears in a General Order of 30th January, 1807, promulgating sentence on a man sentenced to receive 1,500 lashes, which contained the following observations: "It appearing to His Majesty that a punishment to the extent of 1,000 lashes is a sufficient example for any breach of military discipline, short of capital offence; and as even that number cannot be safely inflicted at anyone period, His Majesty has been graciously pleased to express his opinion, that no sentence for corporal punishment should exceed 1,000 lashes."

The first one who attempted to curb flogging within reasonable bounds was, - the soldiers best friend, Frederick Duke of York. By a confidential circular dated the 25th March, 1812, he forbade regimental courts-martial from awarding more than 300 lashes to any man upon any pretence whatever, though leaving District and General Courts-Martial free to inflict severer punishment. He was ably seconded by the Commander-in Chief in Canada, His Excellency, Lieut.-General Sir George Prevost, who strongly discouraged flogging as a punishment.

Twenty years later, in 1832, regimental courts-martial were forbidden to award sentences in excess of 200 lashes.

In March, 1835, a Royal Commission was appointed to inquire into the system of military punishments, and especially whether "it may be practicable to dispense with the power of inflicting corporal punishment." The Commission, after hearing a mass of evidence from numerous witnesses of all ranks, including several private soldiers, expressed the opinion that the substitution of other punishments instead of flogging was impracticable. However, one result of the report of the Commissioners was a further limitation in the number of lashes that could be awarded, viz: General Court-Martial, 200; District Court-Martial, 150; Regimental Court-Martial, 100.

In 1847 all Courts-Martial were limited to awards of 50 lashes. In 1867 the punishment of flogging was restricted to the offences of mutiny and insubordination, accompanied by personal violence. In 1868 flogging was prohibited in time of peace, with a limit of 50 lashes retained during service in the field. This was reduced to 25 lashes in 1879 and two years later, corporal punishment was replaced by what is now known as field punishment.

One sentence awarded in 1811 must arouse the compassion of any young soldier:

What a heavy price to pay for slipping out of barracks to meet the girl friend. What whole-hearted devotion is hidden behind this brief and tragic record of a heavy date.

(Continued in Part 2)