Flogging and Courage: the British Army 1800-81

Discipline in the British Army was sadistic. There was institutional savagery with floggings and public execution occurring so frequently they were normalised. The army had a subliminal desire to ‘toughen’ up soldiers for the ordeals that lay ahead of them. Discipline was a two phase process: punishment and conditioning. Infantry fought on battlefields with soldiers literally engaging in hand-to-hand mortal combat. Absolute discipline was crucial for battlefield success (and survival). Soldiers had to have an unreflecting reflex courage impervious to the heat of battle. This was achieved by ruthless discipline creating a mental state where obedience was ‘natural’.

Severe punishment was summarily awarded for trivial misdemeanoursi. A soldier in 1864, of previous good character, was punished with four years penal servitude for protesting about his sergeant. The punishment was for ‘insubordination’ii. However even in the Victorian period the army was subject to external scrutiny. Public outrage about specific instances could result in parliamentary questions. The notorious behaviour of the earl of Cardigan became a cause celebre iii. He provoked outrage by having a soldier flogged on the Sabbath, which was seen as a desecration of the holy day. Worse: Cardigan had the flogging conducted inside a church immediately after a church service with the congregation still present. The outrage was caused by being on a Sunday in a church. The punishment itself caused no outrage. Both the public and parliamentarians took a very dim view of the sacrilegious nature of Cardigan’s conduct.

In 1807 the suggested maximum number of lashes was reduced to 1000, whilst flogging in the range of 300 to 700 lashes was usualiv. Later in the century a private was flogged to death despite the suggested maximum being fifty lashes at that timev. The savagery of the punishments that were inflicted reflected the view that soldiers were criminally minded:-

Military traditionalists in the early and mid- Victorian period attributed crime among soldiers to constitutional depravity and inherited degeneracy.”vi

Corporal punishment was cheap and quick unlike prison. Additionally public humiliation such as ‘branding’ was used as a public humiliation and a warning to others. (The letter ‘D,’ for example, was tattooed on the forehead for desertion.) This was a further reason why using prison as a punishment was opposed by the army. Prisoners in prison were invisible. Prisons didn’t intimidate to the same degree. Seeing punishments inflicted was everything. Brutalisation extended across the entire army. Those who were punished, those who inflicted punishment and the mass ranks who gathered as observers, (willingly or not) were all made callous to the pain and suffering of othersvii. Floggings were collective acts using the victim as an object lesson, as it were, for every soldier who was present or who would hear about it subsequently. Soldiers were gathered together to watch the victim’s back reduced to pulp. The objective intimidation of soldiers gathered on the parade ground watching sadistic punishment.

The Wellingtonian tradition lived on,

The story of Britain’s imperial legions is indeed as much a record of callous indifference to human suffering, incompetence in high places and wanton waste of expendable cannon fodder as of bravery and honour, glory and self-sacrifice.viii

However even an intimidated army feared some things more than corporal punishment no matter how brutal. Being posted overseas to both the West Indies and West Africa, which were notorious for high death rates for Europeans was interpreted as a death sentence. As a consequence there was a marked increase in desertion rates when a battalion was selected for duty in either of these regionsix. Despite this, however, other fears triumphed. One solution to this challenge was the creation of special battalions- ‘condemned corps’- who went there in lieu of a known punishment. They took their chance against the certainty of whatever sentence they had been awardedx. This was a military form of transportation. However, because of the slowness of understanding about the ability of quinine to defend against the endemic diseases of West Africa it was a ‘lottery’ that the soldier stood a good chance of losing.xi

The British Army in the period 1800-70 was fearsome. Extending from the triumphs of the Napoleonic wars (1803-15) to the suppression of the Indian Mutiny (1857-8) they appeared to be unbeatable. That they were a force, which could be used as an iron fist was achieved by a level of corporal punishment which beggars belief. Mortal combat demanded an unflinching obedience and British soldiers had had that trait beaten into them.

i Alan Ramsay Skelley, The Victorian Army at Home: The Recruitment and Terms and Conditions of the British Regulars, 1859-1899 (Montreal 1977) “punishments which were awarded in the army either summarily or by court-martial seemed frequently to bear little proportion to the offences that were committed.” p139

ii Loc.cit

iii Hansard Parliamentary Debates ‘Flogging on a Sunday – The Earl of Cardigan’ 22 April 1841 (henceforward Hansard) The earl of Cardigan, had a soldier flogged immediately after church service and in the church. This was unprecedented and should never be done “except in cases of military exigency.” Mr Macauley’s reply to Mr Hawes cc 971-2

iv J R Dinwiddy, ‘The Early Nineteenth Century Campaign Against Flogging’ English Historical Review 97:383 (1982) pp 308-331 Especially pp310-311

v Skelley, The Victorian Army at Home pp148-9 In 1867

vi Peter Burroughs ‘Crime and Punishment in the British Army, 1815-70’ English Historical Review 100:396 (1985) pp545-571 p547

vii Ibid p561

viii Peter Burroughs, ‘The Human Cost of Imperial Defences in the Early Victorian Age’ Victorian Studies 24:1 (1980) pp7-32 See especially p 8. Later in the century in a parliamentary debate Peter Taylor commented that after the re-introduction of flogging as a civilian punishment there was an increase in brutality. p15 Peter Alfred Taylor, The ‘cat’ speech in the House of Commons against the governments flogging bill, June 14 1875 Cowen Tracts (London 1875)

ix Burroughs, ‘Human Cost’ p11

x Burroughs, ‘Crime and Punishment’ p560

xi Thomas R H Thomas, ‘On the value of quinine in African Remittent Fever’ The Lancet 1 (1846) pp244-245 See also Tim Moreman’s review of ‘Philip D Curtin, Disease and Empire: the health of European troops in the conquest of Africa’ Africa 71 (2001) pp526-527

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