Military crimes 1914-1918 British Army

Military law reinforces discipline

The maintenance of discipline in the army has always been considered a very serious affair. Whilst it is clear from statistics that there was much ill-discipline in the army throughout the war, most of it was of a non-serious nature. The instances of failure to obey orders are relatively few, and the number of men convicted and suffering from serious punishment was miniscule as a proportion of the whole. The acts of discipline outlined on this page were defined by the Army Act and the Field Service Regulations. This page is a general guide only.

Small scale misdemeanours

These crimes included everything from matters of individual presentation such as being unshaven, untidy or losing kit; not saluting or addressing superiors correctly; dirty or incorrect equipment; being late on parade or after curfew, etc. They would be detected and dealt with by the NCOs and officers of a man’s own unit. NCOs often gave men extra fatigues or exercise as punishment for small matters. Being confined to barracks and/or losing a day’s pay was a torment too, for men who were eager for rest and amusement.

Moderately serious offences

For moderately serious crimes a man could elect to be tried by a District Court-Martial, or be ‘convicted’ and sentenced by his Commanding Officer. The CO could sanction maximum punishments as follows: detention up to 28 days; field punishment up to 28 days; forfeit of all pay up to 28 days; for drunkenness, a fine up to 10 shillings. The CO could inflict minor punishments, with the offender having no right to a court-martial: confinement to camp for up to 14 days; extra guard duty; reprimand, severe reprimand or admonition.

Serious matters

These were tried by Courts-Martial. Some of these offences were ones that would have been tried by a civilian court if the man had not been on active service e.g. murder or rape. Other offences were purely military in nature, such as desertion.

Table of offences tried by Court Martial

Charge Maximum penalty
Shamefully delivering up a garrison to the enemy Death
Shamefully casting away arms in the presence of the enemy Death
Misbehaving before the enemy in such a manner as to show cowardice Death
Leaving the ranks on pretence of taking wounded men to the rear Penal Servitude
Wilfully destroying property without orders Penal Servitude
Leaving his CO to go in search of plunder Death
Forcing a safeguard Death
Forcing a soldier when acting as sentinel Death
Doing violence to a person bringing provisions to the forces Death
Committing an offence against the person of a resident in the country in which he was serving Death
Breaking into a house in search of plunder Death
By discharging firearms intentionally occasioning false alarms on the march Death
When acting as a sentinel on active service sleeping at his post Death
By discharging firearms negligently occasioning false alarms in camp Cashiering or imprisonment
Causing a mutiny in the forces, or endeavouring to persuade persons in HM forces to join in a mutiny Death
Striking his superior officer Death
Offering violence or using threatening language to his superior officer Penal servitude
Disobeying in such a manner as to show a wilful defiance of authority, a lawful command given personally by his superior officer Death
Disobeying a lawful command given by his superior officer Penal servitude
When concerned in a quarrel, refusing to obey an officer who ordered him into arrest Cashiering
Striking a person in whose custody he was placed Cashiering or imprisonment
Deserting HM service, or attempting to desert Death
Fraudulent enlistment First offence imprisonment; second penal servitude
Assisting a person subject to military law to desert Imprisonment
Behaving in a scandalous manner unbecoming the character of an officer and a gentleman Cashiering
When charged with the care of public money, embezzling the same Penal servitude
When charged with the care of public goods, misapplying the same (applicable to Quartermasters) Penal servitude
Wilfully maiming himself with intent to render himself unfit for service Imprisonment
Drunkenness Cashiering or imprisonment
Committing the offence of murder Death

Notes to this table: (1) offences where cashiering is shown as maximum punishment applied to officers only; (2) in order to enable a court-martial to award a field punishment, it was essential to allege ‘when on active service’.

Types of Court-Martial

The courts-martial process was meant to be thorough, well-documented and carried out in accordance with law expressed in the Army Act which was subject to annual re-consideration by Parliament. Men on trial were supposed to be represented, and much evidence gathered and considered. In practice, especially at times of stress due to action, both of these principles were ignored or only barely adhered to. Documentation was often scanty, the process quick; men were often not represented, and indeed were often tried by officers of their own regiment or corps.

Type of Court Minimum no. of members Minimum service of members Rank of President Maximum Powers Convening Authority
General 5 (9 in UK, India, Malta and Gibraltar) 3 years An officer with Field Rank (a Colonel if possible) Death His Majesty, or GOC by Warrant
District 3 2 years An officer with Field Rank (a Captain may sit if no senior officer available) 2 years hard labour; reduction of NCO to the ranks; discharge GOC, or other officer with Warrant
Regimental 3 1 year Captain 42 days detention GOC or CO
Field General 3 (2 if no third officer available, but powers were limited) An officer with Field Rank (a Captain may sit if no senior officer available) Death OC detail when on active service, where no GCM was possible, or no superior authority

Officers could only be tried by GCM or FGCM. NCOs above rank of Corporal could not be tried by a court inferior to a DCM

The outcomes of Courts-Martial

In all, 5,952 officers and 298,310 other ranks were court-martialled during the war. This amounts to just over 3% of the total of men who joined the army. Of those tried, 89% were convicted; 8% acquitted; the rest were either convicted without the conviction being confirmed or with it being subsequently quashed. Of those convicted, 30% were for absence without leave; 15% for drunkenness;14% for desertion (although only 3% were actually in the field at the time); 11% for insubordination; 11% for loss of army property, and the remaining 19% for various other crimes. The main punishments applied were : 3 months detention in a military compound – 24%; Field Punishment Number 1 – 22%; Fines – 12%; 6 months detention – 10%; reduction in rank – 10%; Field Punishment Number 2 – 8%.

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. 346 men were executed. Their crimes included 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. Of the 346, 91 were already under a suspended sentence from an earlier conviction (40 of these a suspended death sentence).

Field punishments

Field Punishment Number 1 consisted of the convicted man being shackled in irons and secured to a fixed object, often a gun wheel or similar. He could only be thus fixed for up to 2 hours in 24, and not for more than 3 days in 4, or for more than 21 days in his sentence. This punishment was often known as ‘crucifixion’ and due to its humiliating nature was viewed by many Tommies as unfair. Field Punishment Number 2 was similar except the man was shackled but not fixed to anything. Both forms were carried out by the office of the Provost-Marshal, unless his unit was officially on the move when it would be carried out regimentally i.e. by his own unit.

Military Police

Military Police matters came under the office of the Adjutant-General. On his behalf, the Provost-Marshal supervised military police duties of the army in the field. At each level of the army hierarchy, the AG and the PM were represented. Each infantry Division, for example, had an Assistant Provost-Marshal, who received orders from the Divisional Assistant Adjutant-General, and who was responsible for organising the police under his command. The military police (‘redcaps’ from the red cover around their service cap) were responsible for arresting all persons found without passes, plundering, making unlawful requisitions, or committing offences of any kind. They were also responsible for collecting stragglers, and for guarding against spies. In case of emergency they could call upon any troops in the vicinity to supply guards, sentries or patrols. In the Indian Army, the Provost-Marshal could order corporal punishment without trial, of up to 30 lashes.


A soldier’s life

British Army military detention barracks 1914