Crucifying Tommy: Punishment in the First World War
Humiliating, painful and reminiscent of crucifixion, the British army’s Field Punishment No 1 fuelled public outrage during the First World War
On October 29th, 1916 the Illustrated Sunday Herald carried an article on punishment in the British army. The article was a condemnation of Field Punishment Number 1, commonly known among the rank and file as ‘crucifixion’. The headline asked: ‘Why “Crucify” Tommy?’ The article had been written by Robert Blatchford, a campaigning journalist who had been a sergeant in the army and who, in the run-up to the First World War, had broken with British socialists over what he considered to be a serious threat from Germany. He could not easily be written off as an unpatriotic ‘crank’, like those who usually raised their voices in criticism of military policies, particularly conscription, during the war.
Blatchford began his criticism by quoting a letter that he had received describing the punishment meted out to half-a-dozen Liverpool ‘Pals’, who had lost their gas helmets in a marsh. ‘They were tied by the neck, waist, hands and feet to wheels for one hour’, explained his correspondent. One of them died. For Blatchford the punishment was ‘Boche-like’; a ‘Hun-like torture’ authorised by ‘doltish martinets’. He noted that severe floggings had been inflicted 100 years earlier and that these had been defended by ‘the mentally constipated military boobies of the day’. He stressed that the army currently fighting in France and elsewhere was made up of patriotic volunteers, who had left decent jobs for the good of their country. Moreover, the army was ‘the King’s Service … not a reformatory for the punishment and reclamation of refractory hooligans and thieves’.
The assumption that the British army entered the First World War with a harsh military legal code, employing ferocious punishments, is easily made but not as easily justified. The army, like civilian society, still clung to the death penalty, though the number of capital offences was much greater under military than civilian law. Only a person convicted of murder or treason might be sentenced to death and executed following a guilty verdict in a civilian court. There were 27 offences that carried the death penalty in military law; though 15 of these only came into force when men were on active service. Most of the army’s capital offences had slipped into abeyance by 1914 but during the course of the war at least four men were shot on the Western Front for what might broadly be described as general and incorrigible disobedience. Nevertheless the death penalty and military executions by firing squad have overshadowed the understanding of the variety of punishment in the British army during the war. In particular, the anger aroused by the belief that many of those shot were suffering from shell-shock has obscured the public outcry against Field Punishment No 1; and it has also obscured the army’s concern to reduce the potential for such outcry in future and to limit the opportunities for brutality and unnecessary hardship in punishment