If Ye Break Faith

This blog is dedicated to the promotion of educating about the Canadian experience of World War One. To discover who we are as a nation in the 21st Century, we must understand our past.


Monday, 15 December 2014

Never Pass a Fault

It is a curious thing, from a civil standpoint, how an army can endure such conditions, fierce and fearsome as are found on the front line, and continue to operate beyond what must seem the limit of human endurance.  The well regarded, if not sometimes controversial historian Niall Ferguson, in his work on WWI muses “Given the awfulness of the conditions soldiers had to endure the most surprising thing of all about the war, perhaps, is that military discipline did not break down much more often, or earlier, than it did.”[1] His curiosity is not misplaced, but reveals that from his perspective there is no intimate understanding of how the military functions as a system.  As the military is poised to operate at such extremes, it must be structured to incorporate those extremes and still function effectively.  That structure is found, in both deterrent and encouraging factors within one key element: Discipline.


Professor Gary Sheffield writes: “Armies in the First World War drew upon a pool of recruits, some of which were already accustomed to industrial discipline in factories and other workplaces…. Even so, all armies subjected new recruits to basic training which ranged from the unpleasant to the brutal, the aim being to break down the individuality of the new soldiers and to mould them into a group that would carry out orders unquestioningly….

“Military discipline makes the difference between a mob and an army. It is a form of behaviour that is the consequence of training and indoctrination, designed to ensure compliance to orders among individuals and groups, to create and maintain cohesion in military units.”[2]

Discipline is the foundation upon which the military is based.  With clear, simple and easy to understand rules a soldier is indoctrinated to appreciate what behaviour is expected, what will be rewarded and what will be punished. “Military discipline is rather different from the code of conduct found in any other workplace.  It has to be….It has long been recognised, in all armies, that a legal code designed to regulate civilian society is impractical for the business of waging war.”[3]

To that end, the military has a very rigid and codified system of laws and conduct.  For the Canadian expeditionary Force, these laws, offences and the procedures for addressing them were found within the King’s Regulations and Orders for the Canadian Militia; the Manual of Military Law; the guide: A Manual for the Canadian Militia (Infantry); and the Canadian Officer’s Guide to the Study of Military Law.[4] “The whole purpose of military law is to maintain the discipline of the army, and acts and omissions that in civil law may be mere breaches of contract…must, by the very nature of what the army is for, be made offenses that attract penalties.”[5]

The most egregious of those offenses, which would attract the most severe penalties would be dealt with a trial by Court Martial.  Library and Archives Canada lists in their database 11,878 Courts Martial occurred for the CEF during WWI, with the understanding that the number includes serial offenders.[6] Lesser crimes were tried within the Regimental or Company level as “Summary Offences”, since Courts Martial were reserved for more serious offences, or were recommended if it was believed an infraction merited a more strict punishment.  It was to the discretion of the commanding officer which would be tried as such, or which would be held over for Courts Martial.[7] While the powers of punishment at this level were remarkably less severe, it did afford the opportunity to handle disciplinary matters “in house” as opposed to involving higher command and quite possibly putting a battalion and its command in a negative light.  Similarly, further down the chain, more minor infractions, which at times might merit a summary trial would be dealt, unofficially, with what is known as “Administrative Punishment.”  In order not to draw lapses of discipline and thus scrutiny from above, errant soldiers might find themselves in possession of extra duties, be automatically volunteered for unenviable jobs or be dealt with in a more “hands on” way.

As far as punishments went, Courts Martial were the only disciplinary procedure to have had the authority to issue a capital sentence.  “There were 361 military executions carried out in the armies of Great Britain and the British Empire during the First World War.  A further 2,719 death sentences were passed and eventually commuted.  Within the Canadian Expeditionary Force specifically, there were 25 executions and another 197 death sentences were commuted.”[8]  Of those twenty-five, twenty-two were executed for desertion, one for cowardice, and two for murder.

There are some important factors to place into the consideration regarding this type of penalty.  First is the severe consequences which may occur du to the offence- such as a collapse of order from mutiny, desertion or severe insubordination (i.e. striking a superior); or placing other’s lives at risk with cowardice or being asleep at a sentry post.  The nature of the crime may be one that would reflect poorly upon the military as a whole, such as murder, sexual offenses or looting.  Another consideration is that these punishments, as they were severe, were not dealt out lightly.  Not quite two percent of Courts Martial for the CEF resulted in a sentence of death, and of those, only 12% were carried out. 

 Nor was an execution as swift as public imagination may have it- the condemned dragged from his conviction to a brick wall and blindfold.  All such sentences needed to be confirmed by the Commander in Chief (Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig, from 1915 onward, preceded by Sir John French) who would only be required to do so if no one else in the chain of command from brigade to corps to army, then to C-in-C had deferred the sentence.  This process put a great level of check into the system to ensure that utmost attention to law and procedure had been upheld.

“On 16 August 2006, British Defence Secretary Des Browne announced that the government would issue full pardons for all 306 Commonwealth soldiers who were executed under these circumstances [specifically desertion and cowardice-CJH] during World War One.”[9]  These pardons have come after lengthy campaigns of public support from relatives of those executed and human rights groups.  This placed pressure on the government to act, without addressing the public perception of law and justice is often not congruent with the way in which those concepts work in a military context.  Naturally, there is some dissention from those who have an innate understanding of how the military operates that these men have been exonerated for their severe offences; regardless of whether or not those crimes committed today would warrant a death sentence.  

Something else to be observed is that the punishments awarded for infractions, from the unofficial “administrative” level, to the most severe capital case, is not only to have in place consequences for behaviour, but that they are also a symbolic act of purification.  A soldier who stands his punishment and returns to his unit is regarded as having been cleansed.  Even the coward or deserter being put to the post can be said to at least have had the courage enough to face his final volley.
A rigid system of this sort would be of little use, though, if it were not made clear to soldiers not only what behaviour would result in punishment, but why; as well as the corollary- what behaviour was expected and how adherence to this conduct could be rewarded. “Discipline was an important factor in holding armies together, but it was not the only one. Depending on the army and the individual, belief in the cause, loyalty to unit and/or comrades, leadership and other issues were also significant.”[10] 

 There are few better explanations of this balance than that offered by Captain John Paul Jones upon the founding of the US Navy during the American Revolution.  In his opinion a good officer observed that “No meritorious act of a subordinate should escape his attention or be left to pass without its reward, even if the reward is only a word of approval.  Conversely, he should not be blind to a single fault in any subordinate, though at the same time, he should be quick and unfailing to distinguish error from malice, thoughtlessness from incompetency, and well meant shortcomings from heedless or stupid blunder.”[11]  This is the nature which exists in the modern era as the proviso of “Never Pass a Fault,” to not allow a mistake, no matter how minor go unnoticed and uncorrected.  This idea alone ensures a high standard of behaviour among service personnel. 

Through a strict balance of these two factors, reward and punishment can discipline be achieved to the point that it can withhold the stresses of war. “In fact, high casualty rates do not correlate consistently with collapses of morale.  Some of the most reliable regiments on both sides were the ones which suffered the highest casualties.”[12]

In an age where once again veterans of the armed forces are highly regarded by the public they serve, it becomes important to rely on the high standard of personal behaviour which they were subjected to in that service.  Elements such as personal accountability, decorum and deportment in public can help to set the standard and a good example to follow which will continue to inspire public support.  Falling into bad habits, appearing in public agitated or crude and airing grievances in a public forum in an aggressive and accusatory way is not only contrary to the conduct we once abided by, it will serve to turn that support, so dearly won, against us.

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[1] Ferguson, Niall “The Pity of War: Explaining World War I”, Basic Books, 1999 pg 343
[3] Corrigan, Gordon “Mud, Blood and Poppycock” Cassel Military Paperbacks, 2004, pg 215
[4] http://regimentalrogue.com/misc/researching_first_world_war_soldiers_part15
[5] Corrigan, Gordon, ibid. pg 216
[6] http://regimentalrogue.com/misc/researching_first_world_war_soldiers_part15
[7] http://regimentalrogue.com/misc/researching_first_world_war_soldiers_part15
[8] Iacobelli, Teresa “Death or Deliverance: Canadian Courts Martial in the Great War” UBC Press, 2013 pg 4
[9] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Canadian_soldiers_executed_for_military_offences
[11] http://www.usna.edu/
[12] Ferguson, Niall, ibid. pg 339

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