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

Feeding the Rising: military and civilian food supplies during the Easter Rising, 1916

On Easter Monday, 24th April, the staff of the Hotel Metropole on O’Connell Street were surprised to see a party of armed uniformed men enter the premises. Brandishing their guns at the manager, the men demanded all the cooked meats and bread from the kitchens. As the provisions were carried to the neighbouring building, the rebel headquarters in the General Post Office, the leader paid for the supplies with paper notes, later assumed to have been ‘liberated’ from the post office.  Over the next few days, the rebels stopped food delivery vans and confiscated their contents at gunpoint. Some unlucky deliverymen were given receipts from the ‘Irish Republic’, 1 stating how much they were owed but most of the 2,000 rebels did not have time for bureaucratic niceties. 2

From the Cork Examiner, 5 May 1916
From the Cork Examiner, 5 May 1916

While the rebels found food by any means possible, the British military faced the challenge of feeding large numbers of troops, as thousands of reinforcements joined the 2,312 men already in Dublin barracks. 3 The declaration of martial law on Tuesday 25th April helped the army provision itself because it gave the military complete control over economy and civil society. Soldiers were the first to be fed, and the army commandeered what it needed from wholesalers and distributors who willingly acceded to their demands. 4 As reinforcements poured into Dublin from the Curragh, Belfast and England throughout the week, the army’s need for food grew exponentially. The increased military demand, the cordon that was placed around the city centre, and rebels taking food at gunpoint, halted ordinary food distribution. With both state and rebel armies absorbed in the battle for streets and food, the civilian population were temporarily ignored.

Since every household bought fresh bread daily, a bread shortage was almost immediate. A large city centre bakery, Boland’s, had been occupied by the rebels, making the scarcity more acute. Desperate civilians, even in the embattled city centre, had no choice but to venture out to find bread. Queues formed outside bakeries from as early as 6am. 5 The remarkable sight of staid, throughly respectable professional men carrying cauliflowers or bread loaves amused passers-by during a difficult week. 6 Suburban residents may have been safe from bullets but the people of Howth, who received all their bread from the city centre, were forced to send to Drogheda for supplies. 7 The suburb of Ballsbridge was fortunate to have a bakery – Johnston, Mooney and O’Brien’s  – in the area, which continued to bake throughout the insurrection. In a remarkable gesture, the bakery did not raise their prices, selling at normal, pre-Rising rates. 8 In general, scarcity drove prices up: butter prices more than trebled until supplies ran out and margarine was substituted. 9

Image © IWM (Art.IWM PST 5160)
Image © IWM (Art.IWM PST 5160)

Of course, food prices were irrelevant to the those who had no money whatsoever. When the rebels captured the GPO, they commandeered the money intended for the families of serving British soldiers. The separation allowances were a lifeline for the Dublin poor, who endured wartime price rises with little corresponding increase in wages or job opportunities. During the Easter Rising, service families who lost their income became desperate. By Friday 28th April, privation had become starvation: ‘At almost every shop … women could be heard begging in vain for a single loaf or a drop of milk for their starving children.’ 10 Outside the besieged city centre, the poor raided market gardens for vegetables. 11

Image from
Image from

At the start of Easter Week, the army was too busy to bother with civilian needs, apart from an emergency distribution of Bovril to hungry Dubliners. 12 Once military success was assured, the army began supplying the civilian population with food. By Saturday 29th, the day of the surrender, the military were delivering supplies to local committees in the food-deprived suburbs of Rathmines and Terenure. 13 Bureaucratic attention turned on the poor on Friday 28th, when the army agreed to deliver food to depots run by the St Vincent de Paul, who would distribute the aid to the needy. In Fairview, the Army Service Corps handed out food to the hungry. 14 As well as supplying free food to the poor, the army continued to control food distribution in Dublin in the week after the Rising. Military transports delivered provisions to ‘responsible traders’, attempting to control prices by supplying only those shopkeepers who would not ‘mulct’ their customers.

But the army faced a food problem that was more politically pressing than organising a city-wide distribution system and feeding over 16,000 soldiers. 15 After the rebel surrender, about 1,000 insurgents who were detained by the army in Dublin had to be fed 3 times a day. There were regulations to interpret, accounts to be kept and all with an eye to the highly charged context surrounding feeding and politics. Suffragettes had begun hunger strikes in 1909, many of which were ended by brutal, life-threatening force feeding by prison authorities. James Connolly, a captured rebel leader, had gone on hunger strike three years previously during the Dublin Lockout. 16 Furthermore, the treatment of Irish dissidents in British detention had long been a sensitive political issue. 17 Five years after his conviction, the prisons conditions of the Fenian, O’Donovan Rossa, were still scrutinised in Ireland: rumours in February 1870 that he had been flogged shocked the nationalist press.18 In the case of the Easter Rising, with the Great War raging in Europe and martial law in force in Ireland, the civil government had allowed the army to assume complete control of the response to the insurrection. Fatally for the 16 executed rebel leaders, the government did not regain control immediately after the rebel surrender. Like the soldiers on the Front, the rebel leaders were subject to the swift and brutal punishments dispensed by the British army at war. 19 It was 20 May before General Maxwell agreed to seek the Prime Minister’s permission before executing prisoners.20 Once the executions ended, the army’s attitude to rebel prisoners in its custody became conciliatory, as proved by the ration plan drawn up in Richmond Barracks.

Rebel prisoners in Richmond Barracks
Rebel prisoners in Richmond Barracks

Per day, each prisoner received:

1 lb. of Fresh Meat
1 lb. of Bread
1 lb. of potatoes or other fresh vegetables
4 ozs of Bacon
4 ozs Jam
4 ozs Margarine
3 ozs Sugar
3 ozs Cheese
1 oz. Tea
1/2 oz. salt
1/50 oz. of pepper
1/4 pint of Milk

Based on the standard ration issued to British soldiers, 21 this allocation included margarine and fresh vegetables that were not usually given to men in uniform. But this ration could be further improved if the officer in charge decided that more ‘comforts’ were necessary. The letter describing the rations concludes with an incredible phrase ‘to be supplied regardless of expense’, proving how extraordinary the political circumstances were after the Easter Rising. 22 The British army, ever conscious of the Treasury, never spent money with abandon.

Prisoners did benefit from this permissive rationing. Between May and June 1916, the officer in charge of prisoners’ supplies in Richmond Barracks authorized extra bread and potatoes, the staple foods of prisoners who were, in his opinion, ‘largely from the peasantry’. They also received extra milk, sugar and cheese. On fast days, the prisoners were fed fish and tinned salmon ‘in deference to [their] religious convictions’. The considerate and generous feeding of the rebel prisoners was ‘to be done regardless of expense, to avoid complaints on the part of prisoners.’ 23 Without doubt, the army was aware of the political sensitivities around Irish rebel prisoners in British custody. These comfortable conditions were intended to preempt any publicity that rebels sympathisers could exploit if the prisoners were mistreated.

Muriel Brandt, The Breadline, 1916 (c.1950)
Muriel Brandt, The Breadline, 1916 (c.1950)

Unlike civilians outside the barrack walls, the rebels were assured of a daily breakfast, dinner and supper. They were undoubtedly luckier than inner-city Dubliners who struggled to feed their families in the aftermath of the Rising. Such was the distress caused during Easter week that the Poor Law system offered relief from 8th May to the poor ‘without involving them in any disability’. 24 Here too, fiscal prudence was set aside, and cash payments were made without the usual parsimony. Was this a humane response to deprivation or part of the civil government’s conciliatory policy towards Ireland? Although the army continued to manage the logistics of Dublin’s food supply, the power to feed the people was firmly back in civilian hands.

  1. Feeding the Rebels, Cork Examiner 3 May 1916.
  2. On acquiring supplies see Ann Matthews, The Irish Citizen Army (2014), pp 97-8. Figures for rebel forces, Matthews, p 104.
  3. Matthews, The Irish Citizen Army, p 105 and 106.
  4. The Food Supply, Cork Examiner, 3 May 1916
  5. The Food Supply, Cork Examiner, 3 May 1916.
  6. This was sufficiently humourous to be reported twice: The Food Supply, Cork Examiner, 3 May 1916; Supply of Bread, Cork Examiner 4 May 1916.
  7. Report by Special Correspondent Valentine Heywood, Cork Examiner 3 May 1916.
  8. Supply of Bread, Cork Examiner 4 May 1916.
  9. The Food Supply, Cork Examiner 3 May 1916.
  10. Report by Special Correspondent Valentine Heywood, Cork Examiner, 3 May 1916.
  11. The Food Supply, Cork Examiner, 3 May 1916.
  12. Incidents of the Rebellion, Cork Examiner, 4 May 1916.
  13. The Food Supply, Cork Examiner, 3 May 1916.
  14. The Food Supply, Cork Examiner, 3 May 1916.
  15. Troop figures here:
  17. Sean McConville, Irish Political Prisoners 1848-22: Theatre of War (2003).
  18. Cork Examiner, 15 February 1870.
  19. For more on the legal basis for the rebel’s execution see
  20. McConville, p 431.
  22. H. Fraser Lt. Colonel, Provost Marshall, Richmond Barracks to The A.D.S.T., Irish Command, undated, WO 35/69/4.
  23. Lieut. G. Wynn Rushton to A.D. of S.&T., Irish Command, Supply Account of Sinn Fein Prisoners for the period 14/05/15 to 15/06/16, WO 35/69/4.
  24. Dublin’s Food, Cork Examiner, 4 May 1916.
Posted in Barracks, Britain, Co Dublin, Court Martial, Easter Rising 1916, Flogging, Food, General John Maxwell, History, Ireland, James Connolly, Military, O'Donovan Rossa, Prison, Punishment, Uncategorized, Urban, World War I | Comments Off on Feeding the Rising: military and civilian food supplies during the Easter Rising, 1916

Rough and unpalatable, often unwholesome: a nineteenth-century British soldier’s diet

Cross-posted from How to be the hero of your own kitchen

Thanks to Rocio C. for asking me to combine two of my life’s obsessions: food and research!

Recruiting sergeants, while plying potential soldiers with drink, waxed lyrical about the comforts of army life. Regular, daily meals and a bed to himself would have seemed luxurious to many men who joined the army, because most recruits were among the poorest in society. But the quality and quantity of food served to the British soldier during the nineteenth century was poor and inadequate. Even worse, the unlucky recruit soon discovered that he had to pay for that food out of his meagre daily wage of 1 shilling as part of a ‘stoppages’ system, whereby soldiers paid for their own clothing, boots, food and equipment. 1 While the Treasury and War Office slowly, reluctantly improved soldier’s living conditions, it wasn’t until the complete collapse of the provisioning system during the Crimean War that public attention was focused on the soldier’s diet and accommodation.

Until 1844, a soldier was served just 2 meals a day: breakfast and dinner. The 1 pound (450g) bread ration was served in the morning accompanied by tea or coffee. If a man did not eat this hunk of bread immediately, he had no place to store it so it was invariably stale within hours. This illustration of the barrack room shows the room where men ate, slept and relaxed. It was not a room designed with food storage in mind, although some rudimentary cooking was possible on the open fire.

Barrack Room, New Brunswick, 1854
Barrack Room, New Brunswick, 1854


At midday, the only hot meal of the day was distributed. Each man was allocated three-quarters of a pound (340g) of raw beef or mutton a day but when it had been boiled and deboned, it probably only weighed half that. The meat was always boiled because there were no other cooking facilities available and it was served in a broth that had been thickened with potatoes, peas or flour. Any other vegetables had to be bought by the men themselves and, luxuries like sugar and fresh milk were purchased by the men as a group, from levies made on their pay. Soldier’s families were given half rations but only if the marriage had been permitted by the commanding officer. Service families ‘on the strength’ lived in the barrack rooms until married quarters became common in the late nineteenth century, but regulations permitted just 6% of men to marry. 2 Many soldiers married without permission, and those families ‘off the strength’ received no food, save what rations men could share.

All across Britain and the Empire, from Bandon to the Bahamas, the British soldier ate the same food. Foreign stations imported their meat from Britain, salted and packed in barrels to survive the long journey. In the heat of the tropics, a diet of salted meat and dry bread created a raging thirst among men who had little to drink but spirits. 3 Soldiers abroad were supplied by the Board of Ordnance, whose inadequate supervision of food quality drew complaints. Bread supplied under contract to the Board had stale crusts, cigar buts and candle wicks added to it by unscrupulous bakers trying to extract maximum profit from government contracts. 4 The other arm of the supply system was the Commissariat, a centralised provisioning agency that supplied food during wartime and at home when serious food shortages, such as the Irish Famine, threatened soldiers’ diets. 5

But most soldiers ate food sourced and purchased by their commanding officers. For traders in garrison towns, supplying the local barrack was a profitable enterprise. Under this regimental system there could be considerable variation between units. A conscientious commanding officer could carefully inspect the food purchased for his regiment, to ensure that, for example, the  meat was not mostly bone and fat. On the other hand, men under the command of disinterested officers were at the mercy of contractors who hardly had the army’s interests at heart. Some officers realised that two meals a day was a paltry diet for adult men whose duties included standing guard outdoors for many hours. Perceptive commanders also noticed that soldiers drank beer and spirits to assuage their hunger. 6 During the 1830s, many regiments organised a third meal in the afternoon to break the almost 20 hour fast between dinner and breakfast. In 1844, army regulations were changed to reflect this initiative and more bread, washed down with tea or coffee, was served in mid-afternoon but only ‘when the price of provisions and other circumstances admit.’ Unfortunately for soldiers serving in North America and Gibraltar, prices were too high and they went without the third meal. 7

At War in the Crimea 1854-56
When the army went to war in the Crimea, the food supply chain broke down alarmingly quickly. The Commissariat, unaccustomed to provisioning the army at home because regiments so often catered for themselves, could not supply thousands of men and horses in wartime conditions. When travelling, or fighting, soldiers were issued with hard biscuit instead of a bread ration. While the biscuits did not go stale they were unpalatable and difficult to eat without cooking facilities. But the Commissariat and the regiments were slow to establish canteens. Without regular hot food, the harsh Crimean winter was intolerable. In contrast the French army was well-organised: soldiers were fed from canteens and women cantinieres or vivandieres, wearing a modified version of a soldier’s uniform, were an important part of the provisioning system.

French vivandiere in the Crimea
French vivandiere in the Crimea

While the French refreshed themselves daily with hot coffee, even this was culinary comfort eluded the British soldier, whose coffee ration, unbelievably, was issued as unroasted green coffee beans. 8 (A drink can be made from green coffee beans but it is horribly astringent, with no coffee aroma.) The war correspondent, William Russell, whose reporting exposed the terrible conditions in the Crimea, blamed much of the army’s sickness on ‘exposure, hard work and poor feeding’. 9 The skewed priorities of British commanders were shown when the Commissariat’s pack animals were requisitioned for military use. 10 Without sufficient mules and horses to transport food to depots close to the front line, the Commissariat could not feed the troops. It was a Frenchman and famous cook, Alexis Soyer, who finally tackled the catering problems of the British army. He even invented a fuel-efficient cooking stove, which he believed would save thousands of pounds of fuel per day. 11

Soyer and officers in front of his stove
Soyer and officers in front of his stove


After the publicity surrounding the terrible living conditions in the Crimea, a spate of reform initiatives were proposed and implemented in subsequent decades. Sanitation in barracks finally began to improve, as washing facilities were installed and barrack rooms enlarged. But while reformers fretted over the cubic square footage of air allocated to each soldier in a barrack room, the army diet escaped close scrutiny. Until 1874, soldiers continued to pay for their basic meat-and-bread rations. The first Army School of Cookery was established in 1885 but the sergeants cooks were not required to train there until 1890. 12 Food continued to vary enormously between regiments even into the twentieth-century when the War Office observed that officers who made a ‘hobby’ of soldier’s provisioning were responsible for most improvements.13 The story of British soldiers’ rations is as much a story of conscientious leadership as it is of hunger and thirst.

You talk o’ better food for us, an’ schools, an’ fires, an’ all:
We’ll wait for extry rations if you treat us rational.
Don’t mess about with the cook-room slops, but prove it to our face
The Widow’s uniform is not the soldierman’s disgrace.
For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “:Chuck him out, the brute!”
But it’s “Saviour of ‘is country” when the guns begin to shoot;
An’ it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ anything you please;
An’ Tommy ain’t a blooming fool-you bet that Tommy sees!

Last verse and chorus of ‘Tommy’, from Rudyard Kipling’s Barrack Room Ballads (1890)

  1. ‘Barrack Life’ in David Chandler, Oxford History of the British Army (2003), p 173.
  2. Myna Trustram, Women of the Regiment: Marriage and the Victorian Army (1984), p 30.
  3. Tony Hayter, ‘The Army and the First British Empire 1714-1783’ pp 112-131 in David Chandler, Oxford History of the British Army (2003), p 117.
  4. Hew Strachan, Wellington’s Legacy: the Reform of the British Army 1830-54 (1984) p 58.
  5. Strachan, p 59.
  6. David French, Military Identities: the Regimental System, the British Army, and the British People, c. 1870-2000 (2005), p 121.
  7. Strachan, p 58.
  8. Sir William Howard Russell, The British Expedition to the Crimea (1858), p 46 and 248.
  9. Russell, p 247.
  10. Russell, p 231.
  11., p 20.
  12. French, p 122
  13. French, p.
Posted in Barracks, Britain, Crimean War, Food, France, Health, History, Ireland, Urban | Comments Off on Rough and unpalatable, often unwholesome: a nineteenth-century British soldier’s diet