by Aly Renwick
In 1831, Alexander Somerville, a soldier in the Scots Greys, wrote a letter to the press because he was concerned about his regiment’s riot training. It was just over a decade after the Peterloo Massacre and Somerville was apprehensive: ‘that while the Scots Greys could be relied upon to put down disorderly conduct, they should never be ordered to lift up arms against the liberties of the country and peaceful demonstrations of the people.’
Charged with writing a ‘seditious letter’ to a paper, Somerville was sentenced to be flogged with 150 lashes. Later, he described his ordeal:
‘The regimental sergeant-major, who stood behind, with a book and pencil to count each lash, and write its number, gave the command, “Farrier Simpson, you will do your duty.” The manner of doing that duty is to swing the “cat” twice round the head, give a stroke, draw the tails of the “cat” through the fingers of the left hand, to rid them of skin, or flesh, or blood; again to swing the instrument twice round the head slowly, and come on, and so forth.
Simpson took the “cat” as ordered; at least I believe so; I did not see him, but I felt an astounding sensation between the shoulders, under my neck, which went to my toe nails in one direction, my finger nails in another, and stung me to the heart, as if a knife had gone through my body. The sergeant-major called in a loud voice, “one.” I felt as if it would be kind of Simpson not to strike me on the same place again. He came a second time a few inches lower, and then I thought the former stroke was sweet and agreeable compared with that one.
The sergeant-major counted “two.” The “cat” was swung twice round the farrier’s head again, and he came on somewhere about the right shoulder blade, and the loud voice of the reckoner said “three.” The shoulder blade was as sensitive as any other part of the body, and when he came again on the left shoulder, and the voice cried “four,” I felt my flesh quiver in every nerve, from the scalp of my head to my toe nails. The time between each stroke seemed so long as to be agonising, and yet the next came too soon. …’ [The Rambling Soldier, by Roy Palmer, Penguin Books Ltd 1977.
[For information about Peterloo please see: https://vfpuk.org///2015/waterloo-and-peterloo-by-aly-renwick/.]
Throughout the history of the British Army and Navy, officers were often as frightened of their own soldiers and sailors as they were by any enemy. Requiring instant obedience, they therefore enforced stern discipline to maintain their control. In the army the Mutiny Act had stipulated that soldiers committing ‘crimes’ like mutiny, desertion or sedition should be tried under military, not civil law. Crown forces were then empowered to set up courts-martial to deal with these offences.
Over the following centuries British soldiers were punished in a variety of ways. The ‘wooden horse’, which often caused rupture; the ‘log’, which was an iron weight chained to the leg; ‘pack and porcupine drill’ for hours on end, spread out over days and sometimes weeks. In both the army and navy, of all the punishments after execution, flogging was the most dreaded. ‘Calling out the Militia for Duty’ was a soldier’s song in the Victorian era. In one of the verses the colonel tells his men:
‘You are her Majesty’s soldiers now,
And if you dare to wrangle,
The cat-o’-nine-tails is your doom,
Tied up to the triangle.’
Flogging was barbaric, as even a few lashes could rip a man’s flesh to the bone. Other rank and file soldiers were often ordered to administer such punishments. They were usually revolted by their participation, like this ex-drummer:
‘At the lowest calculation, it was my disgusting duty to flog men at least three times a week. From this painful task there was no possibility of shrinking, without the certainty of a rattan over my own shoulders from the Drum-Major, or of my being sent to the black hole …’
The ex-drummer then described his flogging of other soldiers:
‘After a poor fellow had received about one hundred lashes, the blood would pour down his back in streams … so that by the time he had received three hundred, I have found my clothes all blood from the knees to the crown of my head. Horrified by my disgusting appearance, I have, immediately after the parade, run into the barrack-room, to escape from the observations of the soldiers, and rid my clothes and person of my comrade’s blood.’ [The British Soldier, by J. M. Brereton, Bodley Head 1986].
An anti-recruitment broadsheet from the time showed an illustration of a flogging and ends with the message:
‘YOUNG MEN OF ENGLAND!
As you value your own self-respect, don’t let yourselves be bribed by a contemptible bounty of £5 or £6, into voluntarily submitting to this gross degradation. If you do, you must not complain if the punishment of your folly is scored in stripes on your bloody and lacerated back.’
Most of the public gradually became opposed to the corporal punishment of soldiers and sailors. And military recruitment squads were often subjected to a variety of taunts, including:
Q – Why is a soldier like a mouse?
A – Because he lives in constant terror of the cat!
In Perth, in Scotland, local washer women carrying stones in their skirts attacked a public military flogging, forcing the officers to flee and administered a ‘handsome flogging’ to the bare posterior of the unfortunate adjutant, whom the women managed to catch.
In 1834, in the face of growing public opposition to the flogging of soldiers, a Royal Commission, headed by Lord Wharncliffe, was appointed to examine ‘Military punishments in the Army.’ Anyone with any experience of government reports, will not be surprised to learn that the Royal Commission came down on the side of the establishment consensus and argued in favour of flogging:
‘The opinion of almost every witness whom we have examined, is that the substitution of other punishments for corporal punishment in Your Majesty’s Army, upon actual service, and in the field, is impracticable, and if practicable, would be insufficient for the maintenance of proper discipline.’
The House of Commons was stuffed with members supporting various vested interests, so, when a motion to reform corporal punishment in the armed forces was debated in the House of Commons, unsurprisingly, it was defeated, with 227 votes against and only 94 votes in favour. At Westminster, the Duke of Wellington and the ‘great hero of Waterloo,’ Arthur Wellesley, who was a former Army Commander-in-Chief and now a Cabinet member, vigorously supported flogging saying:
‘British solders are taken entirely from the lowest order of society, … I do not see how you can have an Army at all unless you preserve it in a state of discipline, nor how you can have a state of discipline, unless you have some punishment … There is no punishment which makes an impression upon any body except corporal punishment. … I have no idea of any great effect being produced by anything but the fear of immediate corporal punishment …’
[From the Report from His Majesty’s Commissioners for Inquiring into the System of Military Punishments].
It was Napoleon, Wellington’s great enemy, who described his English opponents as ‘la perfide Albion!’ The French, whom Wellington’s army often faced in battle, claimed they could distinguish the British dead after a battle by the scars on their backs inflicted by floggings. Wellington, who had once called his men ‘the scum of the earth’, also said of his soldiers: ‘I don’t know what they do to the enemy, but by God they frighten me.’ And British soldiers were flogged so often that they became known throughout Europe as the ‘bloodybacks.’
The opposition to flogging, however, continued to grow and in 1867, Arthur J. Otway proposed another motion in Parliament that British soldiers should no longer be flogged in peacetime. In his case against flogging he said that: Men were entrapped into the army when drunk by some wily recruiting sergeant, and when, sobered up, they ran from the trap, they were flogged. In 1865 seventy-two men had been flogged for desertion, and seventeen for habitual drunkenness. Yet when it came to officers, how different was the picture! A captain serving in India was so drunk he had to be forcibly removed from the table of an Indian sovereign – but all he received was a reprimand.
Otway then pointed out that: Far from having diminished, military flogging had actually increased. In 1833 there had been 307 cases; but in 1864 528 men had received a total of 25,638 lashes; in 1865 441 men had suffered 22,275 lashes. One man had been flogged for a ‘miscellaneous’ offence, while another had recently died in hospital after this punishment. [The Strange Death of Private White, by Harry Hopkins, Weidenfeld and Nicolson].
Parliament again proved unsympathetic, as the establishment, intent on protecting their vested interests, maintained the right to control soldiers and sailors through severe punishments. It was not until fourteen years later, and then only under strong pressure from reformers, that the Army Discipline Act of 1881 abolished the flogging of soldiers – but it was to continue in military prisons till 1907. In the navy flogging was also suspended in 1881, although it continued in naval prisons. And flogging was not formally removed from the statute book until 1949.
In Place of the Cat
In the army other punishments were then substituted, like the dreaded Field Punishment Number 1, where the defaulter was lashed in an X formation to the wheel of a gun carriage. He was left like that for many hours a day, doing fatigues and pack-drill during periods of release and fed only bread and water. Archie Baxter, a New Zealander who underwent this punishment as a conscientious objector in the First World War, described his ordeal:
‘My hands were tied together and pulled well up, straining and cramping muscles and forcing them into an unnatural position … I was strained so tightly … that I was unable to move a fraction of an inch … The pain grew steadily worse until by the end of half-an-hour, it seemed absolutely unendurable.’
[Please see: https://vfpuk.org///2016/archie-baxter/]
Soldiers called the new punishment, ‘the crucifixion’ and it was used extensively in the First World War – as were executions. Under the regulations of the Army Act, over 3,000 men in Britain’s armed forces were sentenced to death during the First World War. Many sentences were commuted to terms of imprisonment, but over 300 soldiers were ‘shot at dawn.’ Averaged out, they amounted to more than one execution per week for the duration of the conflict. Many of the executions, however, occurred before and during large-scale attacks – like the Battle of the Somme, when soldiers were ordered ‘over the top’ to almost certain death. Several of the men ‘shot at dawn,’ were suffering from shellshock, which we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder – PTSD.
Today, in a time of the new imperialism and the ‘War against Terror,’ those running Britain’s modern armed forces have retained their ability to force service men and women into a state of blind obedience. While todays control is often more psychological than physical, the rank and file can still be punished for ‘crimes’ like whistleblowing, going awol, dissidence, or even questioning actions they are ordered to perform. Starting, within regiments, with local punishments that can lead to detention in the guardhouse, or, for more ‘serious crimes,’ end up in Colchester military prison. Even when nowadays often being ordered to take part in military actions that are in the direct interests of multinational corporations, the rank and file still must do or die – and never question the reason why.
Aly Renwick served in the British Army in the 1960s and is a member of VFP London.