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DateOriginal Topic
2nd June 2005Severe Corporal Punishment in 1879
By Michael Boyle
I've just finished reading A.R. Skelley's "The Victorian Army at Home" where he compiled flogging statisitcs from government sources that show a rather remarkable spike for 1879.

1869 - 1
1872 - 0
1876 - 2
1878 - 29
1879 - 545
1880 - 25
1881 - 14

As flogging was only legal then on active service it would seem that for some reason someone in South Africa must have felt extremely threatened in order to resort to so many instances of it during the AZW. (The subsequent ABW didn't seem to necessitate it.)

It didn't seem to get much press or mention in other books I've read so I can't help to wonder why.



2nd June 2005Michael Boyle
Flogging was of course totally abolished in 1881, could the AZW have put the final nail in that coffin? (Skelley pretty much just skips right on.)
2nd June 2005Coll

You've probably already seen this previous topic, but if you type flogging into the search facility above, the subject is covered in a bit more detail.

2nd June 2005Michael Boyle

Yes, I tried that, but the topic from 21 Nov. 2003 was more concerned with the 'how''. The topic of 19 Aug. 2003 concerned the 'who' but I'd like to try and figure out the 'why'.

The 'how' was up to 21 lashes in front of the regiment strapped to a wagon wheel or triangle with a cat'o'nine (which delivered 27 wounds per stroke). The 'who' was "one of the soldier's comrades". (Though I find that difficult because an untrained man could [and did at times, though not in the AZW] kill in the act.)

The 'why' I find to be odd. Flogging was of course seen as a primary method of encouraging discipline (not only in the individual concerned but in those forced to watch). However in the decade leading up to the AZW and the two years after ,in spite of the many places British soldiers were on active duty, there seems to have been little need to resort to it elsewhere.

Why would discipline have been seen to be so lacking during the AZW when little of note seems to have been mentioned in any of the sources? (To the contrary there are many attestations to the splendid discipline shown.)

(I realize there are two degrees of discipline - battle and regulation but flogging could be imposed for either breach.)



2nd June 2005Trevor
I think a way to find a "why" to your question Michael. Would be to find out what the punishments where for?
Was there some sort of common denominater to the "crimes" commited in 1879!
Not sure how you would find out what the "crimes" were for those punishments.
But i'm sure someone has an idea!
2nd June 2005Michael Boyle

Skelley does cite his references, which are somewhat obscure government reports. The ones seemming to deal with the time in question being "General Annual Return of the British Army, P.P., XLIII (c. 1323) 1875, p.40 ; XLIII (c. 6196), 1890, p. 56" niether of which I'm able to access at present. (They may not delineate the offences anyway.)

The sheer volume of floggings there, at a time when they were rarely resorted too elsewhere would seem to belie any common denominator on the part of the victims.

I was struck by the number of punishments cited in Holmes but that doesn't cover the full extent of all the regiments involved.


2nd June 2005Michael Boyle
Well I seem to have found my answer. The following is an extract from an article by Brian Best "CAMPAIGN LIFE IN THE BRITISH ARMY DURING THE ZULU WAR" found at :

An excellent article, do check it out if you haven't already seen it, it contains a wealth of information!

"During the duration of the War no less than 545 British soldiers were flogged; the highest number in one year for many years. The wrongdoer was given twenty-five lashes for offences ranging from drunkenness and stealing to insubordination and desertion. A common offence was "dereliction of duty",
which covered those sentries who fell asleep when on guard duty, and merited fifty lashes. After Isandlwana, the Zulus were taken very seriously and any lack of vigilance which jeopardised the security of the camp had to be
dealt with severely to "encourage" the other sentries. With the drop in morale, desertion was another real threat. Until reinforcements arrived and equipment replaced, the Army were reduced to sleeping in the open in cold and wet
conditions, with only hard biscuits to eat. The soldiers were in no condition to resist the expected Zulu invasion. The Army perceived that the only way to keep the troops in line was to publicly flog any wrongdoer. Given the times
and conditions and the fact that the Army did hold together and ultimately triumph, the harsh punishment could be said to have been justified. Back in Britain, however, the sudden increase in the number men flogged in such a short time, especially young recruits, caused an outcry and led this form of barbaric punishment to be totally banned. Its place was taken by Field Punishment Number One, a left-over from the flogging ceremony in which the man was tied spread-eagled to a wagon wheel and left for several hours under a hot sun.

Editors note; Readers will possibly be surprised at the high incidence of flogging during this campaign, though already banned in the Royal Navy.Such strong measures to ensure discipline emanated from Lord Chelmsford
himself who instructed his officers on the 31st December 1878, just days prior to the invasion, that any soldier, European or native, transgressing orders "renders himself liable to a flogging". Other senior officers followed his
example, Col. Clarke wrote " Discipline was, in general, very good but it is necessary that the power of inflicting corporal punishment should be maintained with an army in the field'. Col. Bray continued, 'the discipline of the army suffered much from the difficulty of preventing the men from buying spirits. Flogging can never be done away with in war time in the English army unless some equally efficient punishment can be discovered'. The above italicised comments came from an original copy of the 'Precis of Information concerning Zululand' which formally belonged to Maj. Dartnell of Isandlwana fame. (With grateful thanks to Ian Knight for the tempoary loan of this
historical jem)."

So it would seem to be a question of poor morale. ("The beatings will continue until morale improves!")


2nd June 2005Keith Smith


The Brian Best paper to which you referred was originally published in the Journal of the Anglo-Zulu War Historical Society, December, 1997.

3rd June 2005Michael Boyle
Thanks Keith, now if only I can find my password!
4th June 2005Trevor
So Michael!
To improve Moral and discipline, they used the lash. And IT WORKED!!!!!
We have the same problem today in society.
I wonder if??????????????????????
No. I'd better not go there.
4th June 2005Dave Nolan
Trevor, Au contraire, I would say the fact that it had to be used 545 times proves that it doesn't work.......
4th June 2005Coll

It does make you wonder if the surviving soldiers bore the brunt of british military rage after the defeat at Isandlwana by natives.

It also seems to me that they were getting punished for even the more trivial 'crimes'.

Stabbed in the chest with an assegai from the Zulus or suffer lashes from the british, it really does appear that the soldiers in the ranks were definitely stuck in the middle of a very difficult situation.

4th June 2005Michael Boyle
I must admit to being somewhat torn but for now will defer to Brian Best's studied explanation.

The bit of 'cubicle' humour at the end was of course facetious. Morale at the time does seem to have been much poorer than we generally credit and poor morale does lead to poor discipline. The floggings naturally,seem to have been an attempt to correct discipline not morale. (Perhaps along the lines of one's father saying "You'd best straighten up or I'll give you something to cry about!")

One must remember that falling asleep on guard was also a capital offence during war time (and had remained so until relatively recently, though rarely used) so the flogging alternative could be seen as compassionate. Of course not all the floggings were related to this. (And the victim's may not have agreed!)

I'm working under the assumption that most of the floggings were post-Isandhlwana (at least for British soldiers who are the only ones included in the study) and am unclear how wide spread they were in Wood's column and think Pearson, holed up at Eshowe would not have found need to encourage discipline while his troops were besieged.

My thinking is that as the reinforcement and replacement troops sent to SA from Britain contained a fair amount of 'green' troopers, who had yet to learn how to be more circumspect with their behaviour and drinking, this may have resulted in a majority of the floggings.

Coll, the point you bring up is part of what I'm torn on. Humiliation breeds rage and the humiliation of the defeat would have fallen most heavily on the officer corps as regardless of what individuals were held responsible it would clearly be seen as a failure of command. This coupled with the enforced inaction of the central column until the second invasion may have resulted in over-reaction. (Idle hands being the devil's playthings.)

The telling point for me is that only fifty imprisonments were included with the floggings, a ratio far out of kilter with historical precedents.



5th June 2005Peter Ewart

I was familiar with the 500-plus flogging figure for the AZW but hadn't realised it had been such an unusual number compared with the the years immediately before and after 1879. Just re-read Brian Best's article, who states that it was a much higher figure than for many years.

However, a thought occurs. I can't see anything in the posts above which stops me posing the following question. Has the detailed research been done (e.g. looking at the same figures seen by Skelley) to ascertain whether the high figure for 1879 relates entirely to the AZW? It appears to me from the above that he is quoting for the whole army. Or not? Were there no floggings in Afghanistan that year? Or in India, where there were more British soldiers than anywhere with the exception of home?

No doubt many - most? - referred to floggings in Zululand, given that that's where an army was on campaign that year. However, might the 545 figure contain some which took place elsewhere? Is the figure definitely relative only to the AZW? How many floggings were there in other places that year?

If the answer is that the 545 definitely relates to the AZW alone, then it would seem highly likely that the 1878, 1880 and 1881 figures almost certainly refer to S Africa also, given the very recent end of the 9th Frontier War, the build-up of forces for the AZW and the subsequent 1st ABW .

Why, though, the missing years in the 1870s?

7th June 2005Richard
Isnt it strange that the army and navy abolished corporal punishment in the 19th century, but in civilian life in Britain the birch wasnt abolished until the 1950's?
And why was flogging performed by the Drum Major?
7th June 2005Michael Boyle
Actually there is quite a bit of confusion as to the flogger. I've read the Drum Major led the drums in a long roll to try to drown out the screams and the lashes were put on by a farrier with a senior sgt. standing behind him with a cane to encourage him not to let up while an officer counted the strokes and a medical officer stood by to stop it if it started looking too bleak for the victim. If the medico stopped it the victim was sent to hospital until recovered and the punishment then resumed. There was even slang associated with it - a 'nightingale' was one who 'sang out' while being flogged. (Implying there were those who didn't?!)

Corporal punishment wasn't abolished in U.S. schools until the early 1970s, but had required a parent's written permission at the start of the school year. (My grade school principal used a cricket bat with holes drilled in it!)

Thus far in my reading the few books and articles that mention it at all credit the extreme use in the AZW as ringing the death knell for flogging (outside prisons). There is a contemporary illustration of flogging in the AZW (with one on the wheel and more lined up) in "Go To Your God Like A Soldier" but Ian Knight doesn't go into much either.