Courts mar­tial reg­is­ters can re­veal if your sol­dier fore­bears faced mil­i­tary jus­tice, Phil To­maselli ex­plains how

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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 an­ces­ 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.

Read all about it

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

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