However hard they are trained, all armies face some problems with discipline. Anything from shirking tedious duties to running on a bloodthirsty rampage can undermine the good order on which successful armies are built. Modern armies mostly deal with this through the withdrawal of rank or privilege, and occasionally with imprisonment. Some armies went to more violent extremes.
Painful but non-lethal violence has been a feature of military discipline since the dawn of war. What is surprising is the number of ways armies have found to hurt their own men.
From the early days of Rome, discipline was strictly enforced within its armies. This became stronger as the military became more professional during the late republic and the empire. The use of caning is reported in 14 AD and was clearly no novelty then.
The Romans’ Byzantine successors adopted their violent tendencies and recorded them in a military manual called the Strategikon. During drills, officers walked along the back of the ranks carrying long staffs with which to hit anyone who spoke or who left his place. Centurions carried cane vines called vitis, which left scars on the backs of the undisciplined.
These scars were matched by those of the whips used in 18th-century European fleets. Many sea shanties record the pain of such discipline, and the British navy was famous motivated by rum and the lash.
The Death Penalty
Like beatings, military executions have taken many forms down the years. Roman sentries found asleep at their posts were clubbed to death by their comrades. This acted as a form of discipline for the whole unit. By taking part in killing their comrade, the remaining soldiers were reminded of what was at stake for them, and of the fact that their lives had been put at risk by his failure.
Punishment for fleeing a battle was more imaginatively terrible. To make clear the importance of their failing, legionaries found guilty of this cowardice received punishments normally reserved for the lowest classes of criminals – being thrown to wild beasts or crucified. Public display again ensured that the message reached far and wide.
Execution remained a common punishment long after Rome had fallen. Sometimes this punishment took place after a court-marshal, but at other times, such as during the rule of Soviet political commissars, it could take place in the heat of the action. At Canterbury in 1755, James Wolfe ordered his officers to immediately execute any man who quit his position, saying that “a soldier does not deserve to live who won’t fight for his king and country.”
The British army executed 346 of its own soldiers during the First World War, many of them men whose minds had been broken by their experiences and who had fled suffering what we would now regard as mental illnesses. But following the war, support for the death penalty for desertion waned, and it was abolished in Britain in 1930. The United States executed one man for desertion in World War Two, the unfortunate Private Eddie D. Slovik. More brutal regimes in Germany and Russia commonly used such punishments throughout the war.
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