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© 2019 by Zack White and the NapoleonicWars.net team.

Court Martials: What, Why and How?

October 1, 2017

At the heart of any system of discipline has to be a system of punishments for those who break the rules. This is true of all works of life, whether you are a citizen walking down a street, an employee of a company, or a parent raising children. The army was, and is, no different.


The Courts Martial have a long history dating back to the time of Edward I. As armies developed over the 17th and 18th Century though, something closer to the modern system emerged, where a rational process of trial was used to work out if the person accused of the crime was guilty.


There is often quite a bit of confusion about the different types of trial during the Napoleonic Wars. Since no-one has written a book about punishment in the British army at the time, you quite often find that people assume, or, with the best of intentions, make mistakes, which are then accepted as fact. In the last few weeks, I’ve found a few examples of this, so I want to take some time to layout the proper system here.


There were officially three types of court martial during the period: General Court Martial, General Regimental Court Martial, and Regimental Court Martial. General Courts Martial and Regimental Courts Martial had been around for many years, but General Regimental Courts Martial were only held from June 1812, as they were a new creation and did not exist before that point.


General Courts Martial were for the most serious crimes – bad cases of desertion, serious theft, and serious cases of disobedience. It was also the only court with the power to try officers, although the punishments for officers were usually much less harsh than for ‘ordinary’ men. As they were so important, they had a lot of officers who judged on them – usually 13, plus the ‘president’ of the court’, who was always a senior general. It was not the case that the same officers were always picked to be judges – the system was very clear about strict rules that aimed to ensure that officers who were judging did not have any reason to be biased in a trial.


General Regimental Courts Martial were the next step down. These could be attended by fewer officers, but could not try officers, as this could only be done by the General Courts Martial. They were effectively smaller versions of General Courts Martial, which tried slightly less serious offences (eg soldiers trying to sell bits of equipment), although they seem to mainly have been used for slightly less serious desertion cases, or instances where a soldier left a unit, and signed up in another one, in order to get his bounty money twice.


Regimental Courts Martial were the smallest, and were often used for minor offences. The records for these types of court are harder to find, so it is difficult to be sure how they actually worked in practice. However, the idea was that they were designed to deal with minor issues of discipline internally in a regiment, and the officers who attended were almost always drawn from the same unit as the accused. There were limits on the scale of the punishment that they could hand out, though – the maximum was 300 lashes of the whip.


There was no official system of appeal. Rankers and Non-commission officers who were tried at Regimental or General Regimental Courts Martial could request that their case was reconsidered at a more senior court. There was, however, always a risk that the higher court would hand out a larger punishment.


That said, there does also seem to have been a murkier, informal system of punishment. The Drum Head Court Martial was a well-known method of punishment designed to issue swift justice on the march. If the guilt of an individual was very clear (eg they had been caught red-handed), the a senior officer could order for them to be tried and punished instantly by a very rough and ready court of officers. The punishment was then inflicted on the spot, and the unit moved on.


There was however, also a phenomenon called the Barrack Room Court Martial. This was carried out by NCOs, with the permission of their officers, and generally led to some kind of physical punishment (eg being beaten), or something humiliating. One trial took place due to a soldier not bothering to see to his own hygiene. He was found guilty, and was promptly dropped into the horse’s watering trough! There was no records for these trials, so it is hard to know how widely they were used. It does, however, provide a window into an unseen system of judgement, which suggests that the ‘ordinary’ soldier played an important role in some of their comrades discipline.

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