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- History - general
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- June 1983 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
WE OFTEN HEAR people talk about the ‘good old days’, but how good were they really?
Take punishment in the services as just one instance. Here we find that the use of the lash was a ‘cure all’ for all sorts of crime. In those days the commanding officer held the power of life and death in his hands, and quite often he exercised his powers to the utmost. It is regrettable that some of those barbaric old customs lasted until well into the twentieth century.
Let us take ‘Number One Field Punishment’, as carried out by the British Army until the end of the Great War. In this form of punishment, the offender was lashed to the wheel of a field gun. The wrists were lashed to the steel tire, and as far apart as possible. The feet were then drawn apart and lashed to the bottom of the wheel, leaving the man lashed in a spread-eagled position.
But, this was a minor event when compared with ‘flogging through the fleet’, as practiced by the Royal Navy until well into the 1800s. This was a very severe type of punishment, and very humiliating for the recipient, IF he lived. The ritual was carried out as follows.
In the punishing ship two cutters were prepared.
The first cutter was fully manned with oarsmen, and was used to tow the second cutter which had a wooden triangle rigged in it. In the stern sheets of the towed cutter were a file of marines, with loaded muskets, and a drummer. Sometimes a third boat carrying another file of marines was used. The punishment began in the victim’s own ship. He was triced up to the triangle so that he hung in mid air, his feet not being permitted to touch any solid support. His crime and punishment was read out to the ship’s company.
The bosun’s mate then doubled down the gangway and dealt out ten lashes with the cat o’ nine tails onto the bare back of the offender. The lashing was accompanied by the drummer giving a monotonous roll. It was sometimes the practice to fire one gun before the punishment began, as a signal for the rest of the fleet to be ready. In any case, no captain liked to be outdone, so the punishment always went as planned.
After receiving ten lashes at the gangway of his own ship, the offender was rowed to the nearest ship of the fleet. He was met at the gangway by the bosun’s mate, who dealt out ‘ten of the best’. And so it went on, each ship in the fleet being visited in turn, and the poor old offender receiving ten lashes at each visit. A doctor was supposed to accompany the offender, and had the power to stop the show if the offender suffered more than he could stand, but, sad to say, the doctors were not much better than the callous brutes that ordered the punishment, so the show went on. Fleets of twenty or thirty ships were normal, and multiplied by ten meant a lot of lashes.
Flogging on board was every bit as callous. Here the offender was either triced up by his wrists to the standing rigging, or to a wooden grating. His shirt was removed so that his bare back was exposed to the assembled ship’s company. The charge and verdict was read out, and hands were ordered to ‘witness punishment’. If more than ten lashes were to be given two bosun’s mates had to be employed. The fiends worked in relays, giving ten lashes each. The idea for the use of two floggers was so that all lashes would be well laid on. While one bosun’s mate laid into the poor blighter, the other rested.
Sentences of up to 500 lashes were not uncommon. If the victim passed out he was cut down and had salt rubbed into the open cuts on his back. When the surgeon was of the opinion that the victim was ready for more punishment, the victim was brought on deck again to receive the rest of his quota.
The Army was very fond of flogging, and it is on record that a court martial in Edinburgh in 1801 awarded 1500 lashes to a private of the 5th Fencible Regiment. Flogging was quite a normal feature of life in Nelson’s days, even the young midshipmen were issued with ‘starters’ to hurry the men along. The starter was a three foot length of rope with a monkey’s fist worked in the end, and could give a nasty crack.