Blood Brothers – 18th century martial punishment

I am thrilled to welcome to All Things Georgian a new guest, Melanie Barnes. Mel is is a lawyer and recent NFTS Screenwriting MA graduate, who has more than a passing interest in 18th century marriage law, military history and like myself, she loves all things Georgian.

Mel’s post today takes a look at punishment and so I should warn you that it includes images of violence, which many people may find upsetting.

The British Army, an elite unit of around 1000 “gentlemen volunteers” from Scottish, English, Irish and Welsh regiments, came into being with the restoration of Charles II.  According to those in power, by 1689 the army had expanded to a force of 74,000 unruly and untrained “common men” who we now know probably weren’t volunteers at all.  Perhaps suspecting that catchy ballads, inspirational drumming and the promise of non-existent bounty was unlikely to sustain the new recruits for long, in the same year Parliament introduced the Mutiny Act and made desertion punishable by death.

Discipline and obedience is the foundation of an army.  Otherwise, the theory goes, your large majority of murderous soldiers, all traumatised by war, will not easily be managed by the minority of posh blokes with authority.  Prior to 1689, regulations were in place to discourage insubordination and mutiny but during peace-time could only be dealt with under civil law.  The Mutiny Act introduced a much clearer distinction between military and civilian law, although there were occasions when civilians travelling with the army were also sentenced under Martial Law.

Death was the most extreme penalty of all, with beheading apparently reserved only for the most aristocratic.  This is surprising, as I’d always assumed that those who made it onto would prefer to be poisoned by sumptuous grapes or drowned in a pond of lilacs and flowers.  For those of us who only make it onto, I’m afraid punishment of death was the less honourable death by shooting or rope.

For anyone who has watched Handmaidens, you will already have a good idea of 18th century military punishments, and only have to reimagine most of the scenes with men wearing red coats instead of capes – the ceremony is very similar.  Troops would surround the prisoner in a semi-circle who would then be tied to a stake and blindfolded.  After (hopefully) being told by the Chaplain that that all would be forgiven and they were definitely going to heaven, the execution party would fire, followed by a reserve party if the target was missed.  In one case, a soldier was shot simply for grumbling about having to go on sentry duty –  I wouldn’t have lasted long!

Very occasionally, punishment would be by fire. The records show that on one occasion in Flanders, during the Nine Years War, a French spy was apprehended after throwing a fire bomb into a wagon of explosives.  In retaliation, he was burned slowly on a stake; a hideous and painful death.

Decimation (John Beaver, Roman Military Punishments, 1725) MetMuseum
Decimation (John Beaver, Roman Military Punishments, 1725) Metmuseum

The most terrifying punishment builds on the Roman punishment of decimation; death of a minority by chance.  This was usually ordered when a large group were considered culpable but it wasn’t feasible for them all to be killed.  For example, permission was sought in 1668 for several soldiers to “throw dice for their lives”, with the lowest score resulting in death.  There were several other instances of dice being used for this purpose.

A Sepoy Punishment. Robert Mahon. Yale Center for British Art
A Sepoy Punishment. Robert Mahon. Yale Center for British Art

In another case recorded at a Court Martial in Flanders in 1694, several men were caught deserting their post and one was ordered to be executed.  The remaining six had to draw lots, with two being executed, a scenario recorded several other times in the records.  In our day and age when an abusive tweet or harsh word is considered a crime, it is difficult to imagine the horror and dread experienced by the men who were killed for deserting out of fear, and later, bad luck.

A hangover from medieval torture was the punishment of disablement or mutilation.  The strappado is a form of torture in which the prisoner’s hands are tied behind their back and they are hoisted to the ceiling on a rope.  In medieval times, they would then be dropped, bottom-first, onto a large spike. OUCH!  In the army, the lucky devils were simply dropped to the ground, in a way that usually guaranteed a serious disability.

Courtesy of the National Review
Courtesy of the National Review

But it wasn’t just men who received corporal punishments.  Whipping was a common chastisement and records reveal that civilian women also received this treatment.   The amount of strokes, or stripes, depended on the crime, but often was based on the biblical “40 stripes save 1”, in other words, 39 strokes.  There were, however, instances where the sentence was for much more.  One story relates to a woman who was found guilty for inciting to mutiny.  Her sentence was that she should be gagged and receive 50 lashes on her bare back, 10 at 5 different spots, and then to be sent away from the garrison on the first available ship.   This wasn’t seen as enough, and she was also sentenced to being whipped all the way from the prison to the dock.  In Ireland, another woman was sentenced to death for inciting troops to desert their post, something I would be likely to do at the first sight of blood!

Courtesy of Wikimedia
Courtesy of Wikimedia

Most of us have heard the saying “running the gauntlet” but I never knew the ruthlessness of its origin.  The word Gatloup was used by the Roman Army, and is said to have derived from a Germanic word meaning “lane” and “run”.  Essentially, as seen in the picture, the regiment would line up and form a lane of men, all of whom would hold a cudgel or other weapon.  The prisoner would then have to run past them all, perhaps even a number of times, and be struck by each and every soldier.  It was an officer’s duty to make sure all of the soldiers adequately attacked the prisoner, so by the end the poor man would be very badly beaten.  By the Victorian times, the saying was already being used as a joke, perhaps signifying the lack of continued use as a punishment in the army.

Courtesy of the Revolutionary War Journal
Courtesy of the Revolutionary War Journal

Lesser sentences were also given for lesser crimes, for example, mutilation by branding, cutting off the ears or nose, or even temporary starvation.  Another sentence was time spent on the “wooden horse”, a punishment designed to humiliate the offender, usually with physical pain by tying guns or weights to his or her legs, or making them face the backside which might have been used for an officer.   All of these punishments were designed to deter others in a way that is less apparent in our sentencing system of “just deserts”,  Under this philosophy, the sentence should be commensurate with the offence, and cannot be ordered as a deterrent to the wider community.

Hanging by the Thumbs (Modern Military Punishments) William Hogarth MetMuseum
Hanging by the Thumbs (Modern Military Punishments) William Hogarth MetMuseum

The life of an 18th century soldier was harsh and unrelentingly brutal.  The wars of the Georgian period were less about freedom and more about power and wealth, so the hardships endured and the lives lost are difficult to justify.

When you next commemorate those who have fallen, take a moment to also remember the god-forsaken lives of the red-coated soldier in his thread-bare shirt:

Went to a tavern and I got drunk

That is where they found me

Back to barracks in chains I was sent

And there they did impound me.

Fifty (lashes) I got for selling me coat

Fifty I got for me blankets

If ever I ‘list for a soldier again

The devil will be my sergeant



The Oxford history of the British army (1996)

History of the British Standing Army (1894), Harrison & Sons, Walton, Clifford

Tried and Valiant (1972, Leo Cooper, Sutherland, Douglas

British Soldiers in the eighteenth century

British Army

Recruiting Citizens for Soldiers in Seventeenth-Century English Ballads

Featured image

Cat of Nine Tails, Wikimedia

8 thoughts on “Blood Brothers – 18th century martial punishment

  1. mistyfan

    Wow, no wonder they had to use pressgangs and such! I don’t think that sort of discipline would have attracted many volunteers, even allowing for the fact it was a brutal age. Modern soldiers are so lucky. Even conscription sounds mild compared to that.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. mistyfan

    There are also stories of women dressing up as men and joining these armies, such as Hannah Snell, Phoebe Hessel, and of course James Barry. I wonder how they found such discipline?


    1. Sarah Murden

      Life would have been incredibly difficult for these women all of the time, so it’s difficult to imagine how they would have coped with such discipline, but I’m sure they would have witnessed plenty of it, but hopefully and presumably, none was enacted upon them.


  3. bart9349

    The most famous example of misuse of military punishment was the execution by firing squad of Admiral Byng for failing to “do his utmost” in 1757. He was the scapegoat for the British’s loss of Minorca from the French. He was denied clemency as a result of a political struggle. He was shot on deck of a British warship.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Merkwaardig (week 3) |

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