This is Gonna Hurt — Military Punishment Throughout the Ages

Even in 18th Century, flogging was a controversial punishment in the Royal Navy. It supposedly "made a bad man worse and broke a good man's heart." A dozen lashes was just one of many military punishments that have been handed down over the ages.

Even in 18th Century, flogging was a controversial punishment in the Royal Navy. It supposedly “made a bad man worse and broke a good man’s heart.” A dozen lashes was just one of many military punishments that have been handed down over the ages.

“A number of armies and navies have gone down in history for the cruelty, depravity and (dare we say it?) creativity of their punishments.”

FREDERICK THE GREAT famously remarked that his soldiers must fear their officers more than they fear the enemy. While the 18th Century Prussian leader and strategist was famous for the harsh discipline he inflicted on his men, he was by no means the only military leader who meted out savage penalties for his soldiers’ transgressions. In fact, a number of armies and navies have gone down in history for the cruelty, depravity and (dare we say it?) creativity of their punishments. Here are few examples.

Disgraced Roman soldiers faced lethal beatings from their own squad mates. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Strict Legions

Discipline was harsh in Caesar’s army. Commanders had the power of life and death over their soldiers and summary executions were well within a general’s authority. Men could be punished for all manner of offences: insubordination, cowardice, as well as something vaguely referred to as “unmanly acts”. For theft or desertion, the condemned would be sentenced to fustuarium, a punishment that involved the victim being stoned or beaten to death with clubs before the entire company. In the rare instance that the accused survived such an ordeal, he would be banished from the army. For lesser offences, soldiers could be fined, put on half rations or forced to eat raw barley, which was known to painfully rip through the digestive tract. Other punishments were even more creative. For example a soldier accused of treason might be sewn into a sack containing live snakes and then thrown into a river. On at least one occasion, a Roman soldier who stood accused of raping a citizen’s wife found himself tied hand and foot to the limbs of two trees trunks that had been pulled tight and lashed together. When the trunks were released, the condemned was ripped in two.

Of course, the Roman army’s most famous form of punishment was Decimation — or  the random execution of every tenth man in a unitInflicted on a century or cohort for such things as mutiny or cowardice in the face of the enemy, the condemned were typically beaten to death. The fatal blows were administered by the unlucky soldiers’ own comrades.  

A 18th Century ‘cat o’ nine tails.’ (Image source: WikiCommons)

The Flog of War

Britain’s Royal Navy was notorious for its harsh discipline and for good reason. Since a good many sailors in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries were pressed into service unwillingly, a firm hand was often needed to keep the crews in line. All of the Royal Navy’s punishments were listed in a document entitled the Articles of War, which were originally drawn up in the 1660s. Each week, the crews on all British vessels, from the largest ships of the line to the smallest sloops, would muster on deck to hear the code, its list of offences and the corresponding punishments – all read aloud by the captain. The ritual ensured that no sailor could claim to be ignorant of the regulations. While death was the penalty for serious crimes, flogging was frequently administered for lesser offences. Lashes were delivered to the bare back of the accused before the eyes of the entire ship’s company.

The cat `o nine tails, which consisted of nine waxed cords of thin rope with a knot on the end of each strand, was the implement of choice. Each lash typically bit into the back of the victim tearing the flesh and causing considerable bleeding. Afterwards, the accused was taken below to have salt rubbed into the wounds – a painful practice done mostly to prevent infection.

Flogging was favoured by captains specifically because it was so feared. And in a navy constantly short of man-power, it didn’t cause lasting damage allowing the condemned to continue to serve. Variations of the punishment included “flogging around the fleet.”  This involved the unlucky victim being tied to a rack on a ship’s launch, and then rowed to the gangway of each vessel in the squadron. A crew member from every ship would board the tiny boat and deliver blows. Another version known as “running the gauntlet” saw the condemned being led down columns of sailors assembled on deck. Each crewman would offer a single lash with a small length of rope. This punishment was reserved for a sailor who committed an offence against the entire ship’s company, such as thievery or pilfering ship’s stores.

By 1750, the maximum number of lashes allowed was limited to a dozen, but flogging wasn’t banned completely until the 1880s.

During the U.S. Civil War, firing squads were reserved for only the most serious offences. Lesser crimes were dealt with much more creatively.

Black & Blue in Blue and Grey

Discipline (or lack there of) was an enormous challenge to both Union and Confederate commanders during the American Civil War. Neither faction had much of a professional army at the start of hostilities and both sides drew mostly upon volunteers who were largely unaccustomed to the strict regulations that were the hallmark of life in the ranks.

Accordingly, the most common offences in Civil War armies included insubordination, malingering, dereliction of duty, desertion, and cowardice. While formal courts martial could take time to be convened, commanders in the field were empowered dispense justice as they saw fit. And while the lash had been abolished in the U.S. military years before the war, there were still a number of unpleasant methods of corporal punishment available to chose from.

Bucking and gagging was one of them. Under this penalty, the accused would have to sit for long periods bent forward with his hands tied underneath his legs, his feet tied together and with a rod or stick held in place between his teeth like a horse’s bit. More humiliating than painful, it was a often employed in both armies for all sorts of minor offences.

Others in breach of regulations might be forced to march around the camp carrying a heavy log to the point of exhaustion.

One of the more painful punishments was “riding the wooden mule”. This involved the accused sitting on narrow rail that was elevated just high enough so that the victim’s feet couldn’t touch the ground. An offender might be ordered to stay on the mule all day.

For acts of cowardice under fire, offenders could have a large “C” branded on their forehead using a red-hot iron.

For the more serious crime of desertion, punishment was death by firing squad. Under such a sentence, the condemned would be marched before the entire regiment and then was forced to stand or sit on his own coffin in front of an open grave. A dozen hand-picked men would form the firing squad and carry out the sentence. Despite the large numbers of desertions recorded in the Civil War, fewer than 200 executions were carried out, which suggests commanders were reluctant to order executions.

“It takes a brave man to be a coward in the Red Army.” (Image source: WikiCommons)

Stalin’s Penal Battalions

Soviet generals had more inventive and practical methods of putting condemned soldiers to death than just a mere firing squad. Infantrymen who had retreated without orders or committed other offences might find themselves assigned to one of the many penal battalions established in the Red Army during the Second World War. Members of these ill-fated units would be forced to carry out suicidal charges against fortified enemy positions or even march across minefields to clear them for regular troops waiting in the rear. Assigned to every penal unit would be a sizeable contingent of heavily armed NKVD state police guards who would trail the column shooting any prisoner who refused to attack. These punishment brigades were typically manned by condemned soldiers, political dissidents, and even loyal soldiers who had been captured but somehow managed to escape from German captivity. Under Stalin’s orders, surrendering or being captured was a punishable offence. Officially, the condemned could have their sentences commuted and might even win decorations if they performed heroically under fire. Yet in reality, the penal battalions would be used and reused in combat continually until their manpower was nearly completely depleted. Any survivors would be folded into other penal battalions. “It takes a brave man to be a coward in the Red Army,” Stalin once remarked.


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17 comments for “This is Gonna Hurt — Military Punishment Throughout the Ages

  1. 29 June, 2012 at 2:26 am

    I always found decimation in the Roman army “interesting”. Every tenth man (hence decimation) in a century would be clubbed to death by their mates to motivate them in the future. The punishment was usually handed out for a century or legion performing poorly. The “offenders” were chosen by lot, so it could actually happen that the valiant soldiers would be killed while the cowards lived. This us also where the modern term decimate comes from.

    • MHN
      29 June, 2012 at 7:04 am

      I remember that from my high school Latin class.Lol. Thanks for adding that.

  2. Phil Hardy
    1 July, 2012 at 6:41 pm

    Ummm, the section on the Royal Navy is inaccurate and fails to deal with the circumstances of the time. In fact, punishments dished on board a RN ship were in many cases milder than could be expected from a civilian criminal court for a similar offence. For example in the 18th century and the first half of the 19th one could be hung or transported for theft, in the RN a thief would be made to “walk the gauntlet” and get a mild flogging from his mess mates.

    The sentence, “Harsh justice was needed to keep the crews in line”, is one commonly quoted but it has no basis in fact. For a start consider this: the performance of RN crews in combat was far superior to any other navy (with the possible exception of the USA) and you don’t get good fighting spirit from men who have to be flogged and treated harshly to keep them in line.

    I don’t know if you are prepared to accept guest contributions but I would be happy to write an article on Royal Naval discipline at the time of the Napoleonic wars.

    • MHN
      1 July, 2012 at 8:57 pm

      Thanks for the feedback. I’d be happy to accept contributions.

  3. Highschooler
    13 December, 2012 at 11:27 pm

    I was wondering what the discipline for desertion and such was during the times of exploration, in times like Christopher Columbus, Cortez, Francisco Pizarro, as well as what the punishments were on the Native American’s side.

    • 14 December, 2012 at 8:15 am

      Good question; I don’t know though. Now I’m curious!

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  9. 16 August, 2013 at 12:41 pm

    Another interesting albeit painful post! The sketch of the wooden mule – I had seen one with buckets of dirt tied onto each ankle. That was pretty excruciating, I’m sure. One account I read was the soldier was unable to walk for a number of days after. Egads. I’m sure his twig and jewels were never the same. 🙂

    Of course, when a Japanese soldier tried to desert or offended a high ranking officer, he was plain shot right on the spot or more sportingly, beheaded with the officer’s ancestral samurai sword.

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