FOCUS ON: WW1 COURTS MARTIAL
Courts martial registers can reveal if your soldier forebears faced military justice, Phil Tomaselli explains how
Did your soldier ancestor face military justice? Phil Tomaselli explains how you can find out
The digitisation of the army’s First World War Court Martial registers by ancestry.co.uk provides another chance (though a slim one) for researchers whose ancestors’ records were destroyed in the Second World War to find a clue to their unit and their war service. It’s a slim chance because most soldiers kept their noses clean and so avoided the necessity of a formal trial.
Most low-level offences, such as being late on parade or having dirty equipment, were dealt with summarily by the non-commissioned and junior commissioned officers. More serious offences could, if the soldier agreed, be dealt with by his commanding officer with the power to inflict punishments of up to 28 days detention or forfeiture of pay. Only just over three per cent of serving soldiers were actually court-martialled. Many trials were held in Britain and involved soldiers who never served abroad, so don’t therefore have Medal Index Cards identifying their units.
The digitised documents are from The National Archive’s WO 86 series ( Judge Advocate General’s Office: District Court Martial Registers, Home and Abroad). The Judge Advocate General was the senior officer responsible for military law, who provided advice and oversaw its processes. There were three types of peacetime court martial which also applied to troops on Home Service in wartime: the General Court Martial that could pass the death sentence; District Court Martial that could impose two years hard labour or reduction to the ranks; and a Regimental Court Martial that could impose up to 42 days detention. Regimental Court Martial records were not kept centrally (though some regimental museums may have a few). Registers for General Courts Martial are in WO 90 and WO 92 series (not digitised) and all that survives of District Courts Martial is the register in WO 86. There was also a Field General Court Martial, applying only to units on active service, which required only three officers to be present and might be chaired by a captain. These could impose the death penalty, but decisions were passed up the line of command, right up to Field Marshal Haig, with the possibility of their sentence being reduced. Registers for these are in WO 213 series at TNA but, as
Most soldiers kept their noses clean and so avoided the necessity of a formal trial
with the District Courts Martial, they provide only details of the accused, unit, place of trial, charge and verdict. Details of some Field General Court Martial records do survive however (see the “Shot at dawn” box below).
The digitised Courts Martial registers consist of bound volumes comprising facing pages. The left-hand page gives details of the man/men being charged and the place of trial. The right-hand page details the charges and verdict. Charges included desertion, absence without leave, fraudulent enlistment, re-enlisting after discharge with disgrace, false answer on attestation, violence to superiors, insubordination or disobedience, neglect of duty, quitting or sleeping on post, drunkeness, willfully injuring or losing public property, theft, fraud, indecency, and miscellaneous military or civilian offences. Sentences range from death or penal servitude (prison with hard labour) down to reduction in rank and stoppages of pay. There’s a column for “not guilty” (though 89 per cent of men were found guilty), a column for Remitted, where time knocked off the sentence for previous good behaviour is noted and finally a Remarks column which, for example, notes when a man charged with desertion (a most serious crime) was found guilty of absence instead.
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Apart from the Registers, you’re unlikely to find anything in army documents about the court martial of an ordinary soldier, apart from a brief mention on a surviving service record. One possible source though is the local press (courts martial seem to rarely have been mentioned in the nationals). Several newspapers carried details of the court martial of Private Arthur Ireland, 16th Rifle Brigade, formerly a well-known boxer, on the charge of inciting mutiny in his platoon by threatening to hit any of them who went on parade following a problem with their food. It was alleged he’d stood on a table and made a speech telling the men to disobey orders. In his defence, Ireland pleaded that he was drunk and that his boxing career had caused alcohol to make him slightly mad. Unfortunately the verdict wasn’t recorded – but it will be in the registers!
Court martial records for officers are usually easier to trace, as some form of service record normally exists in either the WO 339 or WO 374 series (for Regular or Territorial officers respectively). Where an officer was court-martialled, there’s often a summary of the charge and the verdict and evidence is included too. Lieutenant Herbert Grainger, Dragoon Guards ( WO 339/3570) was accused of cheating at cards in the mess by improperly cutting the deck and playing with marked cards. Found guilty of conduct unbecoming an officer and gentleman, he was cashiered (dismissed), but later joined the RAF where he became a senior non-commissioned officer. Captain William Anderson Wilson, 14th Royal Fusiliers, ( WO 339/12910) was found guilty of drunkenness and using foul language to a barmaid in 1915 and dismissed.
Civilians could be tried by court martial for crimes like rebellion, assisting a soldier to desert or espionage – they also appear in the registers.
Private Harry Farr who was shot for cowardice near the Somme in 1916
Even cheating at cards could lead to a court martial