"In no service or country is the ceremony so awful and
impressive:" British Military Executions in the Napoleonic
By D.E. Graves
During the period, 1793-1815, the discipline of British army was
very strictly maintained and offenders were severely punished. It
has been calculated that, between 1808 and 1814, Wellington executed
at least 112 soldiers for such offences as desertion, mutiny, gross
insubordination, and the murder and robbery of civilians. Military
law did not actually prescribe the method of death but a period source
states that it was "the general practice to adjudge officers
or soldiers found guilty of capital offences, to be shot; but for
deserting to the enemy, or for theft, a soldier is usually hanged,
as the most ignominious means of punishment." Charles
Oman, on other hand, seems to feel that shooting was used for desertion
and hanging for all other offences. There really to have been no hard
and fast rule as to the method of capital punishment as we know,
for example, that deserters were both shot and hanged.
Circumstances permitting, British military executions were carried
out with much pomp and solemnity, one period commentator believing
that: "In no service or country is the ceremony so awful
and impressive." He
describes that ceremony:
The sentence of death being approved by the king, the warrant
is issued under the sign manual; and on foreign
stations the commander in chief issues his warrant to the second in
command, and appoints the time and place for carrying the sentence
of death into execution.
General orders are in consequence issued from the adjutant
general's office, arranging the regiments and corps allotted
for parade, guards, and execution parties. Five execution parties,
each consisting of a serjeant and twelve rank and file, are appointed,
of whom the provost-marshal takes the command on their arrival
at the guard. All the guards of the garrison and advanced posts
leave their centries at their respective stations, and repair
themselves to the provost-marshal's guard, at the hour appointed,
for the purpose of escorting the prisoner to the place of execution.
All these guards, as well as the execution parties, under the
immediate direction of the provost-marshal, are commanded by
the field officer of the day.
The several corps of the line, at the appointed hour and place,
parade three deep, and are prepared to draw up so as to form
three sides of a square. The execution parties in divisions,
preceded by a band of music, and a corps of drummers, with the
provost-marshal on horseback at their head, march in ordinary
time at the front of the prisoner. The music plays the dead march
in Saul. The guards, formed in divisions, march at the same time
in rear of the prisoner. The main-guard, commanded by the captain
of the day, leads. The others follow in succession, according
to the rank of their regiments.
The procession comes into the square from the rear by the right,
and the music and drums of each corps play and beat to the slow
march in Saul, as the procession passes along its front. The
execution parties march along the front of the while line, and
as far as the coffin placed in the centre, where the first three
divisions halt, and wheel back on their right pivots in line.
The fourth and fifth divisions continue to advance until they
can form opposite to the first three, by wheeling back into line
on their left pivots.
The dreadful moment now approaches, -- the music ceases, --
an awful silence ensures -- the warrant and sentence of death
are audibly read, -- the signal is given, -- and the fire of
the execution parties puts an immediate end to the prisoner's
The author of these words, John Adolphus, was not exaggerating as
it is clear that he based his description of a military execution
on the actual shooting of five soldiers carried out in Egypt
in May 1802. The orders issued on that occasion were included in The
Military Law of England by David Scott, published in 1810,
and Adolphus simply adopted them -- hence the reference to five "execution
parties" which would not have been necessary if only one
man was to be executed.
It was common practice following the execution to march the troops
present by the dead bodies, just to drive the lesson home. This was
the case in March 1812 when two deserters from the 7th and 23rd Foot
found serving in the French garrison at Ciudad Rodrigo when that
place surrendered, were sentenced to death by a court-martial. These
men were from Major-General Lowry Cole's 4th Division and the entire
formation was paraded on a large open area to watch the sentence
carried into effect. It left an impression on three eyewitnesses:
[Corporal Cooper, 7th Foot]
We were marched to see the execution, on a plain near Villa
de Cubo, and formed three sides of a square, the remaining side
When all was ready the prisoners were drawn to the grave side
on a car [cart]. One of them was elderly, the other a boy perhaps
nineteen. They kneeled on the new mould facing the guard, and
were blindfolded. All were silent. An officer approaches the
prisoners and reads the sentence and then withdraws. A pause.
The provost martial [sic] looks toward the General for the signal.
'Tis given. Twelve men fire. Both culprits fall forward. The
boy is dead; the elder rolls in agony. More shots are fired through
his head and breast, and the deserters are no more. Being laid
side by side in the grave, we marched close past it in file;
took a look at the bloody remains, and marched away to quarters.
[Lieutenant Robert Knowles, 7th Foot]
We have had a hard day's work, the whole of our Division having
been assembled to see the sentence of a General Court Martial
put in force on two deserters, who were taken in Cuidad Rodrigo.
They were sentenced to be shot; it was the most awful sight I
[Lieutenant Friedrich von Wachholtz, Brunswick Rifles]
Two deserters from the 7th and 23rd Regiments were shot before
the assembled division. It was a nauseating sight; although six
men [in the firing squad] shot, one of the pair did not die and
had to be shot in the head; afterwards there was a march past.
The illustration by an unknown artist presented
here is a very rare piece of pictorial evidence depicting an
actual military execution that was carried out at La Prairie
in Lower Canada in 1813. Note the details: the firing squad;
the sergeant with his halbard; the officer behind him; the condemned
kneeling on his coffin with his hair standing on end; his fellow
condemned standing in front of their coffins awaiting their turn;
and the priest providing the comfort of religious faith during
the condemned men's last minutes on earth.
Image provided by Robin Brass Studios.
Oman, Wellington's Army, 1809-1814 (London, 1913, reprinted
Adolphus, The Political State of the British Empire ... (4
vols, London, 1818) vol 2, 411.
Oman, Wellington's Army, 243.
Adolpus, Political State of the British Empire, 411.
Adolphus, Political State of the British Empire, 414-415.
Scott, The Military Law of England, (With all the Principal Authorities)
Adapted to the General Use of the Army ( London, 1810), 345-349,
orders issued by Major-General David Baird in Egypt
, 4 May 1802.
Cooper, Rough Notes of Seven Campaigns, 1809-1815 (1869, reprinted
Knowles, The War in the Peninsula. Some Letters of a Lancashire
Officer (1913, reprinted 2004), 51, Knowles to father, 18 February
von Wachholtz, ed., "Auf der Peninsula 1810 bis 1813. Kriegstagebuch
des Generals Friedrich Ludwig v. Wachholtz" Beihefte
zum Militaer-Wochenblatt. 1907, 259-326, 283, entry ofr
18 February 1812. The translation is mine.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: December 2008