British Army Discipline and Capital Punishment 1914 Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

British Army Discipline and Capital Punishment 1914

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The army of 1914 was, as all armies are, governed by regulations and military law. Military law in the British Army has always been an extension of criminal law, which means that there are military offences in addition to those that would be tried by a civil court. Most minor offences, up to battalion or regiment level, were dealt with by the unit commander. Major offences were dealt with by court-martial and were referred to higher formation command. There, they would invariably call for the Provost Marshall (PM) or Assistant Provost Marshall (APM) who was responsible for the maintenance of discipline and the military police within that formation.

The System

The basic premise of the system in peacetime was, if it is between soldiers, it's military, if civilians are involved, it's civil. On active service, everything was military including those crimes that would have been tried by a civil court. Unit and sub-unit commanders had the job of hearing the offence. In practice, it was usually the Company1 Officer Commanding or the Battalion2 Commanding Officer. Smaller sub-units, detached from the parent unit would usually have some powers assigned to them. Even serious offences started there, but would be passed on to higher formation if beyond the jurisdiction of the unit commander.

The British Army was composed of volunteers. Volunteers for the army were regarded by many as lower beings, not fit for the niceties of British justice. It the past, it had been the practice to allow some criminals into the army as a method of reforming them, and although numbers of criminals had been significantly reduced, the stigma of 'criminal' stuck. The system was not the same as the civil courts. The commander taking the hearing would be judge and jury, with very little chance of appeal, although that was included in regulations. Every soldier had the opportunity to elect to be tried by court-martial, if he thought the Unit Commander may be prejudiced against him. Another anomaly was the fact that, apparently, the accused was guilty and had to prove his innocence. The accused was 'escorted' by two others, with caps and belt removed from the accused, indicating disgrace3. On the other hand there was also the note that the cap and 'anything that may be used as a missile' should be removed. This may suggest that the removal of items of clothing and the presence of an escort were there to protect the conducting officer, in the same way as the 'dock' protects a judge in civil courts. On the whole, although apparently not quite as fair as civil law, it was accepted as the norm by soldiers and this situation does not seem to have caused much disquiet.

The system was initiated by the NCO4 noticing the infringement of regulations or orders or, alternatively, on report from another soldier or civilian. The accused would then be informed that he was to be charged with an offence (known as the 'warning of charge'). If in custody in the guard room, his name would be entered on Army Form B 252, the charge sheet5. Once that was done, he would be processed through the system until the appropriate level was reached to decide whether he was guilty or not and, if necessary, punishment. The result would be recorded in the subject's pay book, personal record and the unit Punishment Book. Anyone under punishment was classed as a defaulter.

Punishment — Minor Offences

Minor offences were to do with King's Regulations, Standing Orders and Unit Routine orders and included incorrect dress or untidy appearance, loss of personally-issued clothing and equipment; not saluting or addressing superiors correctly; dirty or incorrect equipment; being late on parade or after curfew and so on. They would be detected and dealt with by the NCOs and officers of a man's own unit. NCOs often gave men extra fatigues (work) or exercise as punishment for trivial indiscretions to avoid blackening their service career.

The Officer Commanding (Company) could give the following punishments:

  • Up to seven days confined to barracks.

  • For drunkenness, a fine up to 10 shillings.

  • Forfeit of all pay for being absent without leave.

  • Extra guard or picquets6 for offences on those duties.

  • Reprimand or admonish NCOs below the rank of sergeant.

The commanding officer (battalion) could sanction maximum punishments as follows:

  • Detention up to 28 days in the guard room cells.

  • Field punishment up to 28 days to a soldier not being a NCO (on field service).

  • Forfeit of all pay up to 28 days.

  • For drunkenness, a fine up to 10 shillings.

  • Confinement to camp for up to 14 days.

  • Extra guard duty.

  • Reprimand (officially noted).

  • Severe reprimand (officially noted).

  • Admonition (warning, without punishment).


This was a common cause for complaint, particularly in peacetime. A system applied here too, which was quite specific:

  • First case — no fine.

  • Second case — 2s 6d (two and a half days' pay).

  • Third and subsequent cases — 5s (five days' pay)

  • Third and subsequent cases within 6 months — 7s 6d

  • Third and subsequent cases within 3 months — 10s

Field Punishments

These were punishments carried out in the field, ie out of barracks. They were regarded as rather brutal by most soldiers. They were administered by provost staff unless the unit was on the move, when the unit would carry it out. There were two field punishments:

Field Punishment No 1

The offender may, unless the court-martial or CO otherwise directs:

  • Be kept in irons.

  • Be attached by straps, irons or ropes for not more than two hours in one day to a fixed object. Must not be attached for more than three out of four consecutive days or for more than 21 days in all.

  • Be made to labour as if he were undergoing imprisonment with hard labour.

Field Punishment No 2

Same as No 1, except he may not be treated as above in (2).

When the unit was on the move an offender sentenced to Field Punishment No 1 was exempt from the operation of (2), but all offenders sentenced to field punishment were to march with their units, carry their arms and accoutrements, perform all their military duties as well as extra fatigue duties, and be treated as defaulters. Field punishment for a period not exceeding three months could also be awarded by a court-martial for any offence committed on active service.

Punishment — Serious Offences

These were tried by court-martial of which there were four types, General Court Martial (GCM) District (DCM), Regimental (RCM) and Field General (FGCM). Of these the regimental had the least power. Of the others, the FGCM and GCM could pass a death sentence. Officers could only be tried by GCM or FGCM and NCOs above rank of corporal could not be tried by a court inferior to a DCM.

A FGCM was made up of a president who was an officer with field rank (a captain may sit if no senior officer available) and a minimum of two other officers. In some circumstances, one other would be accepted if no other officers were available, but the powers of this type of FGCM were limited. Some of these offences were ones that would have been tried by a civilian court if the man had not been on active service eg, murder or rape. There was a given maximum punishment for each offence.

Penal Servitude

This was essentially confinement in a military jail and subject to the privations of such institutions. All offenders would be 'reduced to the ranks'. Offences included:

  • Leaving the ranks on pretence of taking wounded men to the rear.

  • Wilfully destroying property without orders.

  • Offering violence or using threatening language to his superior officer.

  • Disobeying a lawful command given by his superior officer.

  • Striking a person in whose custody he was placed (second offence).

  • Fraudulent enlistment (second offence).

Cashiering or Imprisonment

Cashiering was only applied to officers and was the removal of commission and dismissal from the service. Imprisonment was indicative of a shorter and less intense period of confinement than penal servitude, probably with the subject's own unit. Offences included:

  • By discharging firearms negligently occasioning false alarms in camp.

  • When concerned in a quarrel, refusing to obey an officer who ordered him into arrest.

  • Striking a person in whose custody he was placed (first offence).

  • Fraudulent enlistment (first offence).

  • Assisting a person subject to military law to desert.

During the Great War, 5,952 officers and 298,310 other ranks were court-martialled. Of those tried, 89% were convicted; 8% acquitted; the rest were either convicted without the conviction being confirmed, or with it being subsequently quashed. The main punishments applied were:

  • 24% — 3 months detention in a military compound

  • 22% — Field Punishment Number 1

  • 12% — Fines

  • 10% — 6 months detention

  • 10% — Reduction in rank

  • 8% — Field Punishment Number 2

Capital Punishment

General and FGCM could impose the severest penalty — death, usually by firing squad. It was rare; the army executed 37 men between 1865 and 1898, a period of frequent colonial wars, and another four during the Boer War (1898 - 1902). The list of offences punishable by death seems endless:

  • Shamefully delivering up a garrison to the enemy.

  • Shamefully casting away arms in the presence of the enemy.

  • Misbehaving before the enemy in such a manner as to show cowardice.

  • Leaving his CO to go in search of plunder.

  • Breaking into a house in search of plunder.

  • Committing an offence against the person of a resident in the country in which he was serving.

  • Forcing a safeguard.

  • Forcing a soldier when acting as sentinel.

  • Doing violence to a person bringing provisions to the forces.

  • By discharging firearms intentionally occasioning false alarms on the march.

  • When acting as a sentinel on active service sleeping at his post.

  • Causing a mutiny in the forces, or endeavouring to persuade persons in HM forces to join in a mutiny.

  • Disobeying in such a manner as to show a wilful defiance of authority, a lawful command given personally by his superior officer.

  • Striking his superior officer.

  • Deserting HM service, or attempting to desert.

All were detailed in the Army Act and King's Regulations. During the Great War, 3,080 men, 1.1% of those convicted, were sentenced to death. Of these, 89% were reprieved and the sentence converted to a different one. However, 346 men were executed for the following crimes:

  • Desertion (266)

  • Murder (37)

  • Cowardice in the face of the enemy (18)

  • Quitting their post (7)

  • Striking or showing violence to their superiors (6)

  • Disobedience (5)

  • Mutiny (3)

  • Sleeping at post (2)

  • Casting away arms (2)

Compared to the other armies of the Great War, the British Army was well disciplined and, although many were tried and convicted, serious offences were comparatively rare.

Later Developments

There was, and still is, much controversy about the death sentence handed out to men who served their country in time of war. After Parliamentary debate, the Army Act of 1930 stated that British military personnel could not be sentenced to death for offences such as desertion and cowardice, but were given terms of imprisonment instead. The only military offence punishable by death was mutiny. Civilian crimes which merited the death penalty remained in place.

Further Reading

1Company in the infantry, battery in the artillery, squadron in the cavalry.2Battalion in the infantry, regiment in most other units.3From this Researcher's experience in the Regular Army of the 1970s, only the Scots Guards allowed the wearing of standard dress without any 'removals' and no escort. 4Non-Commissioned Officer — lance corporal to regimental sergeant major or equivalent.5It still is!6Frontline: A group of soldiers sent out to find the enemy. Behind the lines/peacetime: A small, organised group of soldiers detached from the main body to guard an important place or person.

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