A cold Christmas dinner: festivities in army barracks

Christmas at Chelsea Barracks, 1915
Christmas at Chelsea Barracks, 1915, Bloom Collection, Museum of London

According to a 1907 account by an army chaplain, Rev. E.J. Hardy, soldiers ate well on Christmas Day. 1 The usual boiled beef or mutton was served alongside goose, turkey, ham and pheasant. Unfortunately this abundant repast was eaten cold because the barrack cookhouse and its staff were not able to cook such a variety of food in just one day, especially when it was served in the early afternoon. In order to have the meal ready, preparation of the Christmas feast had started a few days before the 25th. Cold food notwithstanding, the ordinary soldier greatly appreciated the range of meats on his table. He ate copious condiments and pickles with his meat; one man thought pheasant ‘tasteless stuff’ without mustard.

The barrack rooms in which soldiers lived and ate were transformed by homemade decorations. Alongside the holly and the ivy, coloured paper streamers hung from the ceiling. The bare white-washed walls were enlivened with festive slogans painted in gilt by an artistically talented soldier. What would have been graffiti and liable for barrack charges the rest of the year was embraced and celebrated as art at Christmas. Some common messages included: ‘To Our Comrades Abroad – God Prosper Them’, ‘A Health To Everyone’, ‘At Peace, but Still On Guard’ and ‘At Rest, But Ready’. There were also joking references to life in the barrack. A room where the regimental drummers dined together was decorated with the ‘Drummer’s Restaurant’, while over the door of the guard room where the same men were arrested again, and again, was painted ‘There’s No Place Like Home’.

From the Bloom collection, Museum of London.
From the Bloom collection, Museum of London.

In spite of the holiday, soldiers were obliged to work on Christmas Day. In the cavalry, the horses had to be fed, watered and cared for as usual. Even the Church Parade on Christmas morning was work, as men attended church in immaculate parade order, the army equivalent of Sunday best clothes. Dressing in parade-order uniform took a lot of time and demanded fastidious attention to detail. 2 Throughout the day, a portion of men had to be ready for guard duty or to form a piquet, a group of armed men poised to respond to an alarm, at all times. At Christmas, there was a danger that over-consumption of alcohol would leave the men incapacitated. Hardy claimed that excessive festive drinking had been a problem in the 1880s when he first joined the army, but that matters had improved enormously by 1907.

Luckily, most routine duties were suspended on Christmas Day. The soldiers and NCOs who worked in the officer’s mess, serving table and keeping the books, had a day off because, to give the staff a holiday, officers generally dined out. Many officers were not in barracks at Christmas because they had the means to travel home during their winter-time furlough. As trains became cheaper and quicker, more ordinary soldiers also travelled home to visit their friends and relations. For those remaining in the barracks, the post-dinner hours weighted heavily upon them. Inevitably, contests of all kinds were started to divert the mind and body. Officers in the 78th Regiment dusted down the mess betting book: on Christmas Day 1824 Mr Cooper and Mr Wilson wagered 1 bottle of port that Cooper would consume a bottle of beer with a spoon while Mr Wilson ate a dry penny roll. (Cooper won this bet.) 3 Soldiers played informal games of football, organised sing-songs or dancing. Occasionally, the long hours after a large meal and generous amounts of alcohol were marred by fighting. Two men in the Curragh argued over which of their respective regiments had travelled furthest up the Nile, and their personal dispute nearly escalated into a brawl between the different regiments. Boxing Day or St. Stephen’s Day, 26th December, was also a holiday though no sumptuous meal was served. More football was played by the soldiers, while officers with a passion for hunting could ride to hounds with a local pack.

But the observation of Christmas was not uniform in the British army, as regimental identity and tradition separated the Scottish units from the rest. Scottish soldiers were relatively indifferent to Christmas day, but celebrated New Year’s Eve, or Hogmanay, with great gusto. This distinctive holiday pattern originated in the Scottish Kirk’s disapproval of Christmas as ‘popish’, an attitude which did not change even as Victorians embraced the festival. 4 In his memoir, Scottish soldier John Pindar waxes lyrical on the wine-house conviviality of New Year’s Eve with his comrades. 5 Scots frequently took on extra duties during 25th and 26th December, allowing their English and Irish colleagues time to celebrate. The favour was then returned on New Year’s Eve and Day. 6  Whatever the regiment or the festival, the army strove to find a balance between festive cheer and military discipline, between personal gratification and institutional demands.

Robert Burn's most famous composition 'Auld Lang Syne'
‘Auld Lang Syne’ by Robert Burns, Burns Museum
  1. Rev. E. J. Hardy, ‘Christmas in the Army’, Belfast Weekly News 19 December 1907. This article appeared in a number of newspapers that year.
  2. Compulsory Church Parade was only abolished in 1946 Jeremy A. Crang, ‘The Abolition of Compulsory Church Parades in the British Army’ Jrnl of Ecclesiastical History vol. 56, issue 1, (2005) pp 92-106.
  3. Graham Sharpe Gamblings Strangest Moments ‘A Mess of Bets; Officers Mess 1822-1908’
  4. http://www.scotsman.com/heritage/people-places/christmas-and-new-year-traditions-in-scotland-1-3226062
  5. John Pindar, Autobiography of a Private Soldier (Fife, 1877), pp 98-106.
  6. Pindar, p 110.
Posted in Barracks, Britain, Christmas, Food, Football, History, Ireland, Military, Religion, Scotland, Soccer, Sport, World War I | Leave a comment

The death of Robert Sim: a protest against flogging in Limerick city, 1867

On a grey February Monday in 1867, an inquest jury of 12 Limerick men met in the hospital of the New Barracks, to investigate the death of Private Robert Sim ‘then and there lying dead’ before them. Sim, of the 74th Highland Regiment, had died 2 days earlier, from ‘congestion of the brain, occasioned by erysipelas’ according to the military surgeon Charles John White. 1 (Erysipelas is an acute bacterial infection of the skin, most frequently occurring on the face in this time period. 2) So why did Sim’s death warrant a coroner’s investigation? Before the discovery of antibiotics, even the strongest individual could die from an infection, or the accompanying fever. Inquests were convened when the coroner had doubts about the cause of death, and these suspicions were generally aroused by a report from a clergyman, a policeman or a local government official. For Sim’s was no ordinary case of sudden fever: 17 days before his death he had been taken the barrack square, tied to the halberds and lashed fifty times with the cat o’ nine tails. The sounds of flogging – the drum beat to keep time for the flogger, the groans of the man under the lash – may have echoed through the streets around the barracks, as it had in Castlebar in 1845. Limerick Coroner John Gleeson called the inquest on Sim’s body because he, and others in the city, suspected that the Private’s death was something out of the ordinary.

The conflict between medical expertise and lay common-sense on inquest juries. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
The conflict between medical expertise and ordinary common-sense on inquest juries.
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

The inquest called 5 military witnesses: two NCOs (non-commissioned officers) responsible for running the military prison and hospital respectively and three regimental surgeons. The officer commanding the regiment, Colonel William Kelty McLeod, was also present and participated. The jurors questioned each witness, their inquiries revealing their collective concerns about the medical care offered to Private Sim after the flogging. The NCOs were asked about the practice of sending flogged men to jail rather than prison, while the surgeons were asked about whether doctors supervised floggings (they did) and if military prisoners were visited daily by medical officers (they were). Of course, the jury’s main concern was what had caused the death of Robert Sim. Military surgeon Charles White, who had examined Sim’s body, stated that the soldier died of erysipelas, but the jurors were not so sure. The foreman of the jury asked whether the infection was caused by the flogging Sim had endured but White refuted this, pointing to the length of time between the punishment and the onset of infection. He also said ‘I cannot say whether the death of the deceased was accelerated by the punishment he underwent; I should say it had very little or nothing to do with it.’ 3 By the time Sim was seriously ill, his back presented ‘a perfectly healthy appearance’.

But Sim’s body was also examined by a civilian doctor, Dr Jonathan Elmes. He agreed with the diagnosis of erysipelas, having seen inflammation on the head and face consistent with the disease. Elmes also noted abrasions on the skin between the shoulders ‘probably the remaining marks of punishment’. His verdict on Sim’s death was ‘irritative fever, with the concomitant congestion of the brain’, which was in agreement with Surgeon White. However, under questioning from the jury, Elmes offered a medical opinion at odds with White’s: ‘I have no doubt but that the punishment the deceased underwent led to the train of symptoms which led to his death.’ 4 The jury now had two contradictory assertions from medical professionals who agreed erysipelas had killed Sim, but differed on whether the flogging had affected his health. They had viewed the body, listened to the evidence and questioned the witnesses. The jury of 12 Limerick men reached a startling conclusion; that Sim died from fever ‘accelerated from corporal punishment he received, as the result of a district court martial.’ 5 This finding blamed the death of Private Sim not on any medical deficiency in his care but on the flogging he received 17 days before he died. It was not the verdict Colonel McLeod wished to hear.

When the inquest ended, the body of Private Sim was taken from the New Barracks to be buried in the military graveyard. An ‘unusually great’ crowd of civilians followed the cortege from the barracks to the military graveyard on the northern edge of the city. According to the Limerick Reporter, these were mostly from ‘the humbler class’, a section of society the editorial writer believed ‘are by no means undiscriminating admirers of British soldiers’. Yet many attended Sim’s burial, showing their sympathy with his fate by their conduct and demeanour. 6 The presence of so many civilian mourners shows how widely the news of Sim’s death and the coroner’s inquest had spread in the city, for the funeral did not start until the inquiry had closed. Limerick people had waited outside the barrack for the inquest to finish, in order to follow Sim’s coffin to the graveyard.

A London crowd waiting for an inquest verdict (1901)
A London crowd waiting for an inquest verdict (1901) Source

The knowledge of the soldier’s punishment and death was not confined to the coroner and those men with enough property to be eligible for service on his jury. Since Sim was a Presbyterian, the public interest cannot be explained by any fraternal denominational feeling, for Limerick was an overwhelmingly Catholic city.

The next day, the verdict was reported in the Limerick, Tipperary and Cork press, and over the next few weeks the story featured in other newspapers in provincial Ireland. Later that week, the Limerick Reporter even published an editorial piece titled ‘Scourging soldiers in Limerick garrison’. In a year where Fenianism and the threat of rebellion once again occupied minds the writer pointed out that Sim was ‘punished more severely than the most decided Fenian’. (In his time in Limerick, Sim may have been part of the ‘flying columns’ formed by the 74th to police the surrounding countryside for Fenians. 7) He even claims that further horrors await: another flogged soldier in Limerick barracks is so ill ‘that his death maybe expected at any moment’.

The 74th Regiment by Daniel Cunliffe (1846) Source
The 74th Regiment by Daniel Cunliffe (1846) Source

The fate of Robert Sim had not escaped the notice of members of parliament who were opposed to flogging, and who annually challenged the Mutiny Bill clause on corporal punishment. Since Francis Burdett had made it a feature of the annual army vote, a succession of leading reformers had taken up the cause.8 By the 1860s, decades of persistent agitation had begun to bear fruit: in 1863 and 1864 the government won the vote to retain flogging in the army by just 2 votes.9 In 1867, the House of Commons debated the Mutiny Bill a few weeks after the Limerick jury’s verdict. In proposing that the government abolish flogging in the army in peacetime, Sir Arthur Otway referred to Sim’s death saying, ‘if it were possible that death should result from the punishment, the punishment ought to be abolished altogether.’ 10 For the first time ever, the government lost the vote and Otway’s motion to restrict flogging to wartime passed. Two weeks later, the Limerick jury petitioned the House of Commons to establish an inquiry into the punishments inflicted in the 74th Regiment and the many desertions from it.11

Sir Arthur Otway M.P.
Sir Arthur Otway M.P.

Unfortunately for the average British soldier, flogging in the peacetime army was not abolished in 1867. Due to the system of amendments and counter-amendments that characterizes the House of Commons, the government won the final vote on the corporal punishment clause of the Mutiny Bill. The system was so opaque that some MPs may have voted the wrong way: Sir George Bowyer complained that he had overheard members in the lobby outside the chamber trying to work out which way to vote.

‘He heard many hon. Members around him ask the questions, “Are we voting right?” “Are we voting for the ‘ayes’ or for the ‘noes’?” and he heard one hon. Member say, “I am voting for Otway,” when in reality he was voting against him.’ 12

However, Otway was not discouraged and his resolution to abolish flogging in peacetime was inserted into the Mutiny Bill in 1868. The verdict of the Limerick inquest jury, arguably more about the politics of army punishment than the medical facts of the case, showed that the public revulsion over flogging could force legislative change on a reluctant army. Wartime court martials lost the power to sentence British men to flogging in 1881, though African troops in the British army were flogged until 1946. 13 The death of Robert Sim in Limerick and the jury’s determination to condemn flogging had a direct effect on the disciplinary system of the British army.

  1. House of Commons Parliamentary Papers, ‘Robert Sim. Copy of the depositions of the witnesses and the verdict of the jury upon the inquest held on 11th February last, by John Gleeson, Esq., in the hospital of the new barracks, Limerick, upon the body of Robert Sim, a private of the 74th Highlanders, who died in the said hospital on Saturday, 9th February 1867, after receiving a flogging in the open square of the said barracks, on 19th January previous, pursuant to a sentence of court martial’, p 3.
  2. http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/1052445-overview.
  3. Robert Sim Deposition, p 3.
  4. Robert Sim Deposition, p 4.
  5. Robert Sim Deposition, p 1.
  6. The Limerick Reporter and Tipperary Vindicator, 15 February 1867.
  7. Sir John Scott Keltie et al, A History of the Scottish Highlands, Highland Clans and Highland Regiments Volume 8, (Edinburgh & London, 1875), p 613.
  8. J.R. Dinwiddy, ‘The early nineteenth-century campaign against flogging in the army’, The English Historical Review, Vol. 97, No. 383 (Apr. 1982), p 308-333.
  9. http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1867/mar/28/mutiny-bill-committee#S3V0186P0_18670328_HOC_129
  10. http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1867/mar/15/resolution#S3V0185P0_18670315_HOC_80
  11. The Lancet, Vol 92 (1867), p 408.
  12. http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1867/apr/01/mutiny-bill-committee#S3V0186P0_18670401_HOC_85
  13. Arthur Grundlingh, War and Society: Participation and Remembrance South African Black and Coloured Troops in the First World War, 1914-18 (Sun Press, 2014), p 70.
Posted in Barracks, Britain, Co Limerick, Coroner, Flogging, History, Inquest, Ireland, Military, Prison, Punishment, Religion, Scotland, Sir Arthur Otway, Westminster | 4 Comments

Against the Lash: an anti-flogging poem

On 16 August 1845, the Londonderry Sentinel published a poem about the dehumanising effect of flogging in the army. This is the only verse on flogging I have found in the Irish newspapers, and I cannot resist reproducing it in full below. It has many narrative elements to savour: a peasant lad sheds ‘noble tears’ on a ‘sullen autumn eve’ because his aged parents are sliding into decrepitude.
For those who don’t want to wallow in nineteenth-century sentimentality, here is a brief summary of the poem. A strapping young lad decides he cannot face the impending death and decay of his parents. He leaves them in the care of a neighbouring brother and departs the peaceful countryside to join the army. All goes well: he is cheerful and steady. But his brother dies, leaving his parents alone and destitute. They have nowhere to go but ‘The Workhouse! – the prison of the poor!’. This devastating news breaks the peasant’s heart and he drinks until he abandons his military duties. For this offence he is court-martialled and flogged. The last 2 verses address the real tragedy; the destruction of a man’s spirit by the lash’s ‘horrid work of blood’. The willing soldier, the open-countenanced, honest peasant, is gone forever, the cat o’ nine tails has ‘ only made a SLAVE’.
Coincidentally, this poem was published the same day that runaway-slave, orator and author Frederick Douglass set sail for Europe. As I wrote before, opposition to flogging was long-standing, but this poem shows clearly that American slavery influenced perceptions of individual rights and freedoms in Britain, and Ireland.
And for the connoisseurs of full-technicolor melodrama, here is the poem in full:
Against the Lash – “The Peasant Soldier” (Londonderry Sentinel, 16 August 1845.)

Want drove him from his home,
One sullen autumn eve;
He loved too deeply all within,
For any “taking leave.”
Want pinched him – but his heart,
Burned neither black nor bad;
He would not rob, nor poach, nor starve:
He was – an honest lad!

Some nineteen years had past,
Over an open brow
Which having shone through youth, at last
Burnt into manhood now!
His life began in smiles,
His youth kept on their track,
And now, with manhood’s touch of woe,
He wished their sunshine back.

He saw his father old,
And powerless and weak;
He saw tears in age furrows ploughed
Upon his mother’s cheek!
He felt a dread of home
Come shrouding round his heart,
He would not see the ruin come,
He knew he must depart.

It was a sullen eve,
The sunset left the corn
With such a cloud-frown so its ear
As ever lasts till morn.
He wept – the peasant lad –
Tears – holy tears – aloud.
And felt as if his heart threw off
The frowning of the cloud!

He walked to brother’s farm –
“Brother, you’ve money –say,
Wilt keep the old uns from all harm
If I should go away?”
“I will–“Enough! No more!”
The peasant brush’d his cheek,
Then turn’d him from a brother’s door –
His brother couldn’t speak!

On, on a few more miles–
(This heart-tree grows to fruit!)
The silent parting swells to noise! –
The peasant’s a recruit
The tears are dash’d away.
The smile again is seen:
His calm resolve has won the day–
The peasant serves his Queen.

Serves and serves well! A soldier’s growth,
springs out of every limb:
The Serjeant’s foresight well may carve,
A soldier out of him.
Cheerful at bed and board,
Steady at dress and drill
No care except for HOME to hoard
Against its chance of ill!

His brother fails, the dear
Old parents of his love
Have lost their last and little cheer,
To worse than jail they move
The Workhouse! – prison of the poor! –
Oh! how his nature slunk
Away from its own anguish, when
Grief made that Peasant drunk!

Drunk with a phrenzied rage,
That would not brook its care –
Drunk with a mad defiance such
As borders on despair!
Drunk till all hope died out,
All duty seem’d forgot–
Drunk till he went with pinioned limbs
To meet the culprit’s lot.

He slept a sleep like death,
Till he and morning work
And with all that withereth
Life’s human heart! – he spoke
No word – but met “the Court,”
With heavy look of gloom,
And heard his sentence – like a soul
Departing to it’s doom!

And now the lash has done
It’s horrid work of blood!
A man’s eye dim – a man’s heart crush’d,
Where once the peasant stood!
Bring surgeon’s care and skill!
Bring bitter salt and brine!
You cannot call his manhood back,
Nor bid his spirit shine!

No more unto the drill
He hies as to a feast,
No more the ready heart and will!
He hates you now at least
He knows himself is lost
But in the young and brave,
You’ve lost a soldier and a man,
And only made a SLAVE.

Posted in Britain, Co Derry, Court Martial, Flogging, History, Ireland, Military, Poetry, Punishment, Slavery | Comments Off on Against the Lash: an anti-flogging poem