Oxford History of the Prison

Chapter X.
Military Punishments.

An English writer of the seventeenth century, one Gittins, says with a burst of noble and eloquent sentiment: “A soldier should fear only God and Dishonour.” Writing with candor he might have added, “but the English soldier fears only his officers.” The shocking and frequent cruelty practiced in the English army is now a thing of the past, though it lasted to our own day in the form of bitter and protracted floggings. It is useless to describe one of these military floggings, and superfluous as well, when an absolutely classic description, such as Somerville’s, in his Autobiography of a Workingman, can be read by all. He writes with stinging, burning words of the punishment of a hundred lashes which he received during his service in the British army, and his graphic sentences cut like the “cat” — we seem to see in lurid outlines the silent, motionless, glittering regiment drawn up in a square four rows deep; the unmoved and indifferent officers, all men of gentle birth and liberal education, but brutalized and inhuman, standing within these lines and near the cruel stake; the impassive quartermaster marking with leisurely and unmoved exactness every powerful, agonizing lash of the bloody whip as it descended on the bare back of a brave British soldier, without one sign of protest or scarce of interest from any of the hundreds who viewed the scene, save on the part of the surgeon, who stood perfunctorily near with basin and drugs to revive the sufferer if he fainted, or stop the punishment if it seemed to foretell a fatal result. We read that raw recruits sometimes cried out or dropped down in the ranks from fright at the first horrifying sight of an army-flogging, but they soon grew scarcely to heed the ever-frequent and brutalizing sight. These floggings were never of any value as a restraint or warning in the army; the whipped and flayed soldiers were ruined in temper and character just as they were often ruined in health.


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