Random Thoughts of An Old Soldier

Lt.-Col W. Boss
The Connecting File, January 1948


In connection with Corporal Punishment, the following remarks of Major-General Granville Egerton are of interest:

"At Shepur cantonments, Afghanistan, my diary tells me that I saw a British soldier flogged on parade on April 14th, July 6th and July 23rd, 1880 - in each case 25 lashes - for drunkenness on guard, drunk and assaulting a sentry, and sleeping on sentry. I was a very young officer then, but I can remember to this day my feeling of disgust, and of astonishment that a country could expect self-respecting men to enlist voluntarily in an army which permitted such a punishment. These, thank God, were probably the last instances of flogging in the British Army."

In the Army of ninety years ago a Commanding Officer was empowered to award sixty days confinement to barracks. Soldiers confined to barracks had to wear a white stripe on the left arm of their jackets, so immediately after the award they were marched up to the tailor's shop by a Company N.C.O. for the purpose of having the "Defaulter's Ring" sewn on, and to add insult to injury they were required to pay the tailor a small fee for this service. Drill in heavy marching order appears to have been inflicted for periods varying from two to eight hours a day and from three to twenty-one days or more: this immoderate punishment was strongly censured by the Duke of Wellington, who directed it should in no case exceed three or at least four hours a day and be inflicted at proper intervals.

As the powers of Commanding Officers and Courts-Martial to award corporal punishment were curtailed, heavy sentences of imprisonment appear to have been substituted. In one Regiment serving in Canada in 1851 it is recorded that there occurred during the year no less than twenty cases of corporal punishment, and that the trials by District and Regimental Courts-Martial amounted to the large number of 142. A typical sentence at this period was:

"Escaping from Guard House when a prisoner awaiting sentence of Court-Martial." 50 lashes and 672 days imprisonment.

It was not until 1884 that a strong effort was made to "make the punishment fit the crime" and even then the views of superior authority as to suitable punishment seem harsh to the soldier of the present day. By this time the conditions under which soldiers served had changed considerably and the discharge of the worthless and incorrigible type had been facilitated. Writing to all General Officers Commanding on 23rd February, 1884, Lord Wolseley then Adjutant-General, impressed upon them the maxim that "the proper amount of punishment to be awarded is the least amount by which discipline can be effectually maintained". His letter clearly shows the change of thought be ginning to make itself felt in 1884, three years after corporal punishment had been abolished altogether:

"The attention of the Field Marshal Commanding in Chief has been lately particularly called to the large number of men tried by Court-Martial, and to the severity of the sentences awarded them.

"In addition to instruction, young soldiers require encouragement and consideration; and, as a rule, it is not advisable to deal with them at first with the same severity, in proportion to their offences, as may have hitherto been requisite with older and more experienced men.

"A crime which, when summarized into a charge before a Court Martial, appears deserving of the severest punishment, may, if carefully considered with regard to the intent, character and temper of the prisoner, and the circumstances of the case, resolve itself into an offence which should not even be a subject for trial.

"The conditions under which soldiers serve have been much changed of late, and every facility is now given for the discharge of those bad and worthless men, of whom some years ago, it was almost impossible to get rid; and His Royal Highness is disposed to think that those changes in the condition of our Army all point to the possibility of reducing the scale of punishments, except in cases of determined desertion and aggravated insubordination."

The views of the Commander in Chief were evidently not heeded in some quarters, for in September. 1855, he had a circular sent to all commanders, confidentially, i n which he expressed his own opinion as to appropriate sentences for specific offences. He also declared that "confirming officers are not to consider themselves precluded from making any reduction from the punishment recommended in the scale when they think such a course desirable." It is interesting to study the opinion of the Commander in Chief in the light of present day punishments, and then make comparisons with some of the punishments referred to in the previous article. His recommendations were:

Thus, down through the years the lot of the soldier has slowly but steadily improved. The Military profession now offers a career which equals any opportunities that civil life can hold out, and particularly is this applicable to those whose circumstances preclude them from proceeding to a university degree.

In startling contrast to the severe punishments of earlier days is the Suspension of Sentences Act, passed in 1915 and 1916 when British and Canadian troops were fighting in the Salient and on the Somme. Sentences of Imprisonment or Penal Servitude in the Field were normally subject to review under the Suspension of Sentences Act, which was designed to:

(a)     prevent wastage occasioned by sentences of penal servitude and imprisonment.

(b)     give an opportunity to deserving soldiers to redeem their characters by a period of good conduct, or by it gallant or meritorious deeds, and

(c)     provide the machinery for affording sympathetic treatment to men convicted of offences of extreme gravity from a military point of view, due often to exhaustion or temporary loss of nerve.

On confirming a sentence of imprisonment or penal servitude, the Confirming Officer was required to recommend accordingly if he considered it desirable that the sentence should be carried out; if no such recommendation was made it was assumed that suspension of sentence was desired. Men under suspension of sentence were treated as free men, and were not subjected to extra fatigues or other treatment suggestive of punishment in respect of the suspended sentence. Cases were reviewed periodically with a view to remission.

During the War of 1914-18 cases occurred where men left their posts without orders on account of the presence of gas, and it became necessary to issue a warning that no distinction could be made between gas and any other method of offensive action that the enemy employed. Soldiers who, without orders from an officer, quit their posts owing to the presence of gas were liable to be charged with Desertion or Cowardice according to the circumstances. The fact that they may have been affected by the gas was not an excuse.

An interesting method of dealing with absence without leave developed in 1916. In many cases absentees did not give themselves up or were not apprehended in Canada until after their units had embarked for overseas, when, witnesses to the attestation and absence of the soldier having left the country, it was almost impossible to secure the offender's conviction by Court-Martial. Under the authority of the War Measures Act, the Governor-General in Council promulgated regulations which made absence without leave when on active service an offence under the Criminal Code and subjected the accused to trial either in the Civil Courts or by a military tribunal. Production of the absentee's attestation paper and an official statement that the unit to which the man belonged had left Canada for overseas service was sufficient to cast upon him the onus of proving that his absence from his corps was not illegal. The military pay and allowances of a soldier convicted of absence without leave could be stopped to make good any loss or damage to his arms, equipment, clothing and necessaries, and a later regulation, passed in July, 1916, authorized deductions from his pay and allowances to cover the cost of apprehending, prosecuting and returning absentees to their Corps. The regulations were revised in August, 1916, to provide that any justice of the peace, police or stipendary magistrate could try any charge of absence without leave, and the official statement was only required to affirm that the accused was absent without leave from his corps or unit; it was immaterial whether the unit had or had not left Canada for overseas service.

Sentences of life imprisonment were a warded to certain Canadians who defied the Conscription Act of 1917 and, after being apprehended, refused to don the uniform, but few of them were kept in prison for more than eighteen months or two years. Thus justice was tempered with mercy.

But to go back about three hundred years, the following sentence passed in 1651 should be interesting to the soldiers of the present day:

"Tryed and found guilty by testimony and their owne confession of plundering and offering violence to the persons of two countrymen. Resolved that Brian Carter and Henry Brigges bee brought from the prison, with ropes about their neckes, and their faults uppon their brests, to the gollowes att the time of the parade, and being tide uppe by the neck receive 30 stripes appiece uppon their bare backes. Afterwards to aske forgiveness uppon their knees for the injury done to the poore men and the army. And after that to bee kept with bread and water till they have restor'd fower fold to the countrymen for what they have taken away.