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The Napoleon Series > Military Information > Organization, Strategy & Tactics

British Military Discipline in the Napoleonic Period: Gleanings from the Inquiry into the System of Military Punishments in the Army, 1836

By DE Graves

In 1835, King William IV created a commission "for the purpose of inquiring into the several modes of Punishment now authorized and in use for the maintenance of discipline and the prevention of crime" in the British army. The thrust of the commission's work was to ascertain whether or not the punishment of flogging should be retained or abandoned in favour of other means of discipline but they also investigated other tangential subjects including the commissioning of officers from the ranks, the establishment of a system of decorations similar to the Legion d'Honneur and ways to ameliorate the living conditions of the soldier. The commission was most energetic in questioning witnesses, interviewing no fewer than 72 persons, including ministers and medical professionals who had preached against flogging. Most of the witnesses, however, were soldiers, ranging in rank from field marshal to privates, from the both the British and French armies. As well, the commission circulated a questionnaire on the subject of flogging to several hundred serving and retired officers. The transcripts of the interviews with witnesses and the responses to the questionnaire will be found the Report from His Majesty's Coimmisoners for Inquiring into the System of Military Punishments in the Army; with Appendices, printed by W. Clowes, London, 1836, which is available in digital form on the Internet. Below are excerpts from the testimony of some of the witnesses who were veterans of the Napoleonic Wars which shed light on disciplinary matters, not only in the British army but also in the French, Portuguese and Prussian armies.

General Sir Henry Fane

[Fane entered the army in 1793 and served as a senior cavalry commander in the Peninsula during the latter years of the war]

"It chanced that I was ordered [in 1814] to conduct from Thoulouse [sic], after the battle of Thoulouse [sic], to Boulogne and to Calais, the whole of the cavalry, some artillery, and the matériel of the Duke of Wellington's army. I marched them in two columns through France, and embarked them at Boulogne and Calais. By the power of maintaining discipline which I had in my hands, I was enabled so to conduct them as to receive so much of the approbation of the French government as to be offered as a distinction the order of the legion of honour. I will ask any member of the Commission, how I could have conducted those two columns, had the power of inflicting corporal punishment, if necessary, been taken out of my hands, and the power of solitary confinement only substituted in lieu of it."

"The Army [in 1814] was in that state of discipline, that it does not occur to my memory that I had occasion to inflict one corporal punishment upon that march. What might have been done regimentally I cannot undertake to say, but I have no recollection of having given an order to lead to that result. I gave out an order when I arrived at Calais or Boulogne, thinking the troops for their good conduct, and pointing out that there was only one offence committed during that march, which the French authority thought necessary to bring before me. There was only one robbery committed, which was the only serious offence, with two very large columns of troops. ...... The guilty individual was never discovered."

Lieutenant-Colonel De Lacy Evans, MP

[Evans joined the army in 1806 and served chiefly on the staff, both in the Peninsular and during the Waterloo campaign]

Question: "When you were in the quarter-master-general's department you served in Spain, did you not?"

Answer: "In Spain, France, Belgium, and America."

Q: "Had you any opportunities of comparing the discipline maintained in the French Army, and the discipline maintained in the English Army?"

A: "That is also connected with politics. We knew the French commissariat was exceedingly inferior to ours; and also, in consequence of the position in which they were hostilely place to the population of Spain, the generals of the French Armies had greater difficulties and fewer pecuniary means probably than we had. Those might have been amongst the causes why their troops were far less disciplined than ours, in regard to plundering and pillaging. But I do not think that the French soldiers, from various causes, gave loose to the same degree of licence which may have been witnessed in times of disorganization in our Army. An English soldier commits greater and more reckless excesses than a French soldier. The French soldier plunders much more frequently, but also more systematically, and perhaps less destructively; but they were infinitely more compelled to live at free quarters on the inhabitants than our troops were. It seems to have been the system of the French government to make the country in which they made war support the war. This was the Roman maxim. Besides they had not the same financial means to rely on, nor adequate depots to resort to. The French soldier, therefore, had a right to licence, and was frequently left for support to the exercise of his own ingenuity.

Q: "When you advanced with the Army into France, how did you find the discipline of the French Army in respect to the inhabitants of that country?"

A: "That certainly is a very fair question; and it was not very materially improved, but that is also connected with politics. The wars of Napoleon at that time [e.g. 1813-1814] had almost ceased to be national wars. They were wars that still deeply engaged the spirit and feeling of military ambition; but the great mass of the population of France had become weary of the interminable contest, and ceased to sympathize with the imperial soldiery. From this cause, and from the severe conscriptions and other burdens, they were exposed to, a species of hostile felling had even grown up between them and their own troops. There is no doubt, however, but that their discipline was inferior to ours, even in their own country."

Q: "Have you known instances in France, in which the inhabitants of a village have rather looked forward to the arrival of the English Army for protection?"

A: "Yes, it was occasionally so. But although the French Army was in its own country, still some of the causes existed which had existed in Spain, and some of these to a greater degree than in Spain. The whole of their financial system was in disorder, and when we entered France their regular Armies were so much reduced, that a much larger proportion of the troops we had to contend with were conscripts but recently embodied, and therefore less disciplined than the old soldier we were engaged against in Spain. I believe also that some of the inferior officers even had been withdrawn to the north, which left the army before us in a still more disorganized state than, under ordinary circumstances, would have been the case."

Q: "If the French army, from the want of pecuniary means, were unable to supply their Army by means of their commissariat, the consequence was a discipline which might otherwise have been applied to prevent the soldiers pillaging or doing injury to the inhabitants of the country, must necessarily have been removed to enable them to obtain food?"

A: "Yes, these were amongst the causes of their lax discipline and frequent pilferage."

Q: "Then, in point of fact, many offences that would have been punished in our Army, must necessarily have been passed over in the French Army?"

A: "Yes, certainly, even if their system of punishment had been the same, as ours, which was not the case. And even at other periods, when the means of the French Government were not in so ruined a state, they went upon the principle of making the scene of operations support, as far as possible, the war. In this respect they were far less scrupulous than we, disregarding the eventual hostility of the inhabitants exposed to these disorders, which must usually be the result, of this system. But of the state of the French Army at that time, and of the feelings of the inhabitants towards them, there may, perhaps, be suggested this further explanation -- that they had dwindled, in fact, from the condition of a national force into that of followers of Napoleon, actuated by violent personal ambition, rather than by any general or patriotic feeling, and hence, therefore, the increased alienation between them and the inhabitants."  

Lieutenant-Colonel James Fane

[Fane joined the army in 1805 and served mainly in the 11th and 52nd Foot in the Peninsular]

Q: "Have you seen cases in which the infliction of corporal punishment has failed in reforming the individuals punished, but, on the contrary, has rather hardened their feelings, and made them more reckless?"

A: "I think, in the course of my military life, I have seen one or two desperate characters that nothing would have reclaimed; and that very severe punishment in their cases tended more to harden than reclaim them."

Q: "Though such men are generally repeatedly punished in that way?"

A: "They have been; but I have also seen men when on service, who, knowing that the punishment of death would be awarded to them for the crime, which was plunder, persevere in it, until they heard or saw the provost-marshal was coming up in the rear of the division. I mean to say, by that, that I think the fear of immediate corporal punishment had more effect upon them than the chance of being tried and hanged."

Q: "The provost-marshal has the power of inflicting corporal punishment without trial, has he not?"

A: "Yes he has."


Q: "Have you ever had occasion to contrast the discipline of the French army with the English army when they have been in the field?"

A: "Yes, I have." ......

Q: "In the course of your service, have you ever followed the French Army in taking up your quarters?"

A: "Yes, frequently."

Q: "What has been the feeling expressed by the country people upon those occasions towards the French Army, in respect of their treatment to them?"

A: "It has not been at all equal to the feeling towards ours. The French discipline was not as good as ours. The men plunder more, and committed more crimes which passed unnoticed. Crimes which we took notice of, the French did not."

Q: "Have you ever seen occasions, when you arrived, of the English troops being rather looked upon as a blessing in comparison with the French?"

A: "Many times."

Q: "In France as well as in Spain?"

A: "No; not so much in France -- more in Spain and Portugal."

Q: "But in France have you found the inhabitants of the country satisfied with the discipline of their own Army?"

A: "I think they preferred ours, though from their national feeling they are not very fond of acknowledging it."

Q: "Did you advance with the Army from Waterloo to Paris?"

A: No; I was left behind wounded; but, coming up after, I observed that, in the country on the line of march where the Prussians had gone, the houses were destroyed, and the people dispersed; whereas, on the line of march of the English, you found every body in their houses, and you could purchase any articles you wanted, and get quarters. Indeed, having first adopted the Prussian line of march, I found it so bad that I was obliged to leave it."

Lieutenant Thomas Blood

[Blood served throughout the Peninsular campaigns as a private soldier in the 43rd before being commissioned in 1813. On being questioned about the use of summary punishment, he recalled an example that took place near Ciudad Rodrigo on 26 September 1811 when the Light Division was serving as the rear guard when a soldier refused to obey orders.]

"Shortly after this, in retreating, a soldier, as well as I recollect, who was in the company with me, became most insubordinate and insolent to his officers, setting all authority at defiance. In consequence, the regiment got in front of the division on the retreat, owing, I suppose, to the circumstances being communicated to the general commanding, and the rear regiments formed line, the enemy having halted; on which there was a drum-head court martial, the man tried and instantly punished. He received, as well as I recollect, 50 or 100 lashes. This had the desired effect; it at once checked his mutinous conduct, and we had no more of it."

Q: "What was the act of mutiny?"

A: "Most improper and disrespectful language to his officers and non-commissioned officers, setting them and all authority at perfect defiance."

Q: "What did it appear to you was the effect of the immediate infliction of the punishment on the rest of the men?"

A: "It appeared to have had a very desirable effect; in fact, it instantly checked this turbulent fellow's insolent behaviour, and was of course an example of terror which prevented others, if so inclined, from being guilty of or led into a like breech of military order, and the men felt sensible that he fully deserved the punishment he received."

Major-General Henry Hardinge

[First commissioned in 1801, Hardinge occupied a senior position on the staff of the Portuguese army before commanding a Portuguese brigade in the latter stages of the Peninsula campaign]

"... the discipline of the Army thirty years ago [e.g. 1806 or thereabouts] was very much carried on by regimental courts martial under one article of war, commonly called by the soldiers the "Devil's Article" by which, "all crimes not capital were to be tried and punished according to the nature and degree of the offence;" more than half the offences were tried under that single article."

Q: "Are you at all aware by what means they are enabled [the French] to avoid the necessity [flogging] which you consider so strong as it respects the English Army?"

A: "... I am bound to add, that having served with the Prussian Army during the campaign of 1815, when I had an opportunity of witnessing what the Prussian system was, that that system in the field was very inferior to the British system, inasmuch as they had not the means we have of putting down a great deal of insubordination and irregularity. In our service this would instantly be done by corporal punishment, or rather by the fear of it, and I consider that of all the Armies which I have seen in the field, there is none which can compete for strictness of discipline with the British Army, through that Army, in the composition of its men, is infinitely inferior as to the respectability of its classes to any other Army in Europe; consequently I am irresistibly led to this conclusion, that if the effect of British discipline be such that our army, not only for the important object of destroying its enemies, but also for the object of going through all the severities of a campaign, can be maintained in a higher state of discipline than any other, we ought not to relinquish that system. It was evinced in the south of France where our Army followed the French Army through their own country, and when it was admitted by our enemy that the discipline, forbearance, and good conduct of the British troops to the inhabitants of the country were infinitely superior to that of the French Army towards their own countrymen."

Q: "Are you at all acquainted with the discipline of any of the other Armies of Europe from having served with them?"

A: "No, except for the Portuguese Army, which I was the deputy quartermaster-general, from 1809 to 1813."

Q: "In the Portuguese Army there are very severe punishments by strokes of the sword?"

A: "Having commanded five battalions of Portuguese in the Pyrenees, the result of my observation is, that the soldier, from his nature and character, is not so difficult to manage as the British soldier, from his nature and character, and principally as he is much more sober than the British soldier; he has less personal resolution to resist authority; more submission from his previous habits as a peasant. Punishment was inflicted by a corporal seizing the culprit, and striking him with the flat of the sword upon the back. It was necessary to be done with the utmost caution, for it shook the chest so severely that sometimes consumption and lingering complaints were the consequence."

Q: "It did not leave any mark?"

A: "No, it bruised the body, and frequently led to spitting of blood, and very serious complaints; and it was not calculated to have the same effect of deterring from crime that our system has, because being given with the clothes on, and the man not appearing to suffer much from it, if he had the resolution, to conceal his suffering, which many firm men have, it had not the effect which our punishment has of deterring by the appearance of a more severe punishment."

General Rowland Hill

[Hill joined the army in 1790, served as a divisional commander in the Peninsular campaigns where he often functioned as Wellington's deputy commander. At the time of the inquiry in 1836, he was the commander-in-chief of the British army]

Q: "Were there at that time any orders give out from head-quarters recommending greater caution in passing sentence of corporal punishment?"

A: "Yes, the confidential circular letter, of which I beg to hand in a copy, was issued by order of His Royal Highness the Duke of York, then commander-in-chief."

            [The letter is reproduced in the inquiry evidence. Signed by Henry Calvert, Adjutant-General, and dated 25 March 1812, it commands that "on no pretence whatever, shall the award of a regimental court martial hereafter exceed three hundred lashes."]

Field-Marshal, the Duke of Wellington

Q: "Supposing the power of corporal punishment had not been in your hands at that time [e.g, the Peninsula], could you by any other means have established that discipline in the Army?"

A: "No, it is out of the question."

Q: "You are now speaking of circumstances upon actual service?"

A: "Yes."

Q: "Must not a certain time elapse before corporal punishment can be inflicted, on account of the proceedings of the court martial?"

A: "There was a very summary proceeding, which is now discontinued, which is called a drum-head court martial; but the man is brought to a court martial as soon as possible. A court martial is ordered; the forms take a certain time, but the man is sure of being tried, and, if convicted, of being punished. But, besides this punishment by court martial, there is in all [British] Armies the provost. I do not mean to say that the provost could be used for the purpose of enforcing an order of that description, but the provost is always liable to be used to prevent any irregularity: for instance, if there is a system of plunder going on, the provost is ordered to prevent it, and he punishes those taken in fact on the spot." ......

Q: "Upon service, do you conceive that the discipline of the Army which you had under your command in the Peninsula, was superior to the discipline of the French troops opposed to you?

A: "I have not the slightest doubt of it, infinitely superior."

Q: "Superior in respect to the treatment of the country in which they were serving?"

A: "Not to be compared with it, even their [the French] own country; and enemy's country to us, and to them their own country."

Q: "And even there the discipline of the English Army was superior to that of the French?"

A: "Infinitely."

Q: "In what respect was the discipline of the French Army so inferior to us?

A: "A general system of plunder, great looseness in the performance of the duty, great irregularity; in short, irregularity of which we could not venture to risk the instance even."

Q: "Towards the latter time of your service in the Peninsula, was corporal punishment very frequent in the Army, or more frequent than it had been in the beginning?"

A: "I cannot say that I know exactly how it was in the regiments. I rather believe it was not so frequent. I am positively certain that crime had most enormously diminished; that there was not one crime for one hundred that there were in the beginning of the time. I think my orders shew it. There was a man convicted of robbery; and I pardoned him, because the crime had become so rare. There are things of that sort that shew clearly, that by discipline, and by care and attention, the Army was brought into such a state of discipline, that every description of punishment was almost discontinued altogether.

Q: "Do you conceive that the Army, when it left [for] France from the Pyrenees, was in as efficient state for service as an Army can well be brought to?"

A: "I always thought that I could have gone anywhere and done anything with that Army. It was impossible to have a machine more highly mounted and in better order, and in a better state of discipline than that Army was. When I quitted that Army upon the Garonne, I do not think it was possible to see anything at a higher state of discipline; and I believe there was total discontinuance of all punishment."


Placed on the Napoleon Series: January 2009


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