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21 September 2014
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The Soldier's Trade in a Changing World

By Professor Richard Holmes

Image of a horse-shaped instrument of punishment
Instrument of punishment circa 1760  ©
Across its history, the British Army has sought to control its soldiers’ behaviour by a mixture of carrot and stick.

Cohesion in battle was enhanced by self-respect, comradely emulation – men were anxious to retain the respect of their friends – courageous leadership, regimental pride, and a sense of national superiority which even allies sometimes found irritating. Rewards like prize money, decorations or promotion assisted the process.

'Generally, offenders were flogged on the bare back for a variety of offences ...'

But however great its emphasis on self-discipline, the army has also maintained a framework of externally-imposed discipline, punishing deviant behaviour and applying standards more rigorous than those prevailing in the outside world, arguing that its members were expected to run risks and meet challenges outside the compass of normal civilian life.

If the existence of a separate disciplinary code is one of the things that marks the army out from society it also risks bringing it into conflict with that society, especially as the latter’s own rapidly-changing values may mesh uncomfortably with the army’s more traditional norms.

Traditionally, British discipline was harsh. Some French deserters who joined the British army in the Peninsula War promptly deserted from it because they found the discipline too severe.

During the 18th century some old punishments survived. These included ‘riding the wooded horse’, a sharp-backed frame on which the offender sat astride, sometimes with weights attached to his feet to increase discomfort. Generally, offenders were flogged on the bare back for a variety of offences, and shot or hanged for more serious ones. Flogging aroused particular opposition.

In 1831 Private Alexander Somerville of the Royal Scots Greys was flogged with the cat o’nine tails after writing to a newspaper at the height of the agitation for Parliamentary reform. He removed his shirt and was tied up, and then heard the RSM order:

‘Farrier Simpson, you will do your duty. Simpson took the cat as ordered, an, 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 for Simpson not to strike in the same place again.
Autobiography of a Working Man, Alexander Somerville

Traditionalists like Wellington defended it, arguing that the army contained a proportion of blackguards who could not be kept in line in any other way, while reformers maintained that it dishonoured both the victim and the army in which he served.

Although in 1835 a Royal Commission recommended that flogging should continue, it was abolished in peacetime in 1868, on campaign in 1881, and in military prisons in 1907.

Published: 2005-02-28

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