Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics

"In no service or country is the ceremony so awful and impressive:" British Military Executions in the Napoleonic Period.

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.[1] 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."[2] Charles Oman, on other hand, seems to feel that shooting was used for desertion and hanging for all other offences.[3] 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."[4] 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 existence.[5]

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.[6]

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 being open.

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.[7]

[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 ever beheld.[8]

[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.[9]

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.

 

Notes:

[1].  Charles Oman, Wellington's Army, 1809-1814 (London, 1913, reprinted 1993), 243-244.

[2].  John Adolphus, The Political State of the British Empire ... (4 vols, London, 1818) vol 2, 411.

[3].  Charles Oman, Wellington's Army, 243.

[4].  John Adolpus, Political State of the British Empire, 411.

[5].  John Adolphus, Political State of the British Empire, 414-415.

[6].  David 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.

[7].  John Cooper, Rough Notes of Seven Campaigns, 1809-1815 (1869, reprinted 1996), 73.

[8].  Robert Knowles, The War in the Peninsula. Some Letters of a Lancashire Officer (1913, reprinted 2004), 51, Knowles to father, 18 February 1812.

[9].  H.C. 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

 

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