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Navy CP - June 1904

Corpun file 16434


The Times, London, 13 June 1904

Corporal Punishment In The Navy.

To The Editor Of The Times.

Press cuttingSir, -- Certain doubtless well-intentioned but mischievous persons have of late devoted themselves to raising an agitation against corporal punishment in the Royal Navy. I propose to set forth exactly what are the King's Regulations on the subject.

Section 729. -- "It being requisite for the maintenance of the efficiency, discipline, and even safety of his Majesty's ships of war, that the power of inflicting corporal punishment, when absolutely necessary, should be continued; such punishment, under the following conditions, may be inflicted under the responsibility and authority of the captain, who is, however, to exercise the power vested in him with the greatest discretion and forbearance compatible with the discipline of the Service.

"Note. -- The power of commanding officers to award corporal punishment for any offences tried summarily under section 54, Naval Discipline Act, is suspended till further orders."

The Regulations then proceed to lay down --

(a) A maximum of 25 lashes.

(b) Necessity of a warrant properly completed 12 hours before punishment (except for mutiny).

(c) Exemption of petty and non-commissioned officers and first-class conduct men from summary sentence (except for mutiny).

(d) Exemption of second-class conduct men from summary sentence, except for (1) mutiny or (2) violence to a superior officer.

(e) That in case of (2) violence, summary corporal punishment is not to be carried out on board if the prisoner can be sent to a prison; and that, if reasonably possible, a Court-martial is to be held.

(f) That in peace time the approval of a flag officer present is necessary.

Press cuttingSection 730. -- "When the captain ... is of opinion that no punishment (other than corporal) would be applicable or expedient under the circumstances, then (except in open mutiny) he is to appoint one or more officers to inquire ... and after the report ... and after full investigation on his own part, he is to act as may seem right in his judgment."

Section 732. -- "Exceptional power is hereby given to the captain or to the commanding officer in the case of open mutiny. When an immediate example is necessary ... any person under the grade of subordinate officer ... may be summarily punished corporally ..."

Section 734. -- "By corporal punishment is to be understood the usual punishment at the gangway ... according to the custom of the Service, in the presence of the captain, the officers, and the ship's company."

Section 659. -- "Should a Court-martial award corporal punishment, it is not to be carried out without the previous approval of the Admiralty."

Section 759. -- "Birching is to be confined solely to boys rated as such, and is to be inflicted with the birch as supplied from the dockyard; the birching is to be given over the bare breech, and is never to exceed 24 cuts; it is to be inflicted by the ship's police in the presence of the executive officer, a medical officer, two or more petty officers, and all the boys."

"(The punishment is to be awarded by warrant, with (in flagships) the approval of the flag officer.)"

2. "Caning on the breech with clothes on is limited to boys, and is to be inflicted with a light and ordinary cane. The number of cuts is not to exceed 12."

3. "Drummers under the age of 18 may be caned, but not birched."

The extracts given above show exactly what naval law lays down. I proceed to state how it works in practice.

Press cuttingCaning of Boys. -- Our boys do not differ essentially in their human nature from other boys. They are good-hearted, easily led, full of high animal spirits, and inclined to kick against the minor laws of routine. And, as in any other collection of boys, there is a percentage of ill-conditioned youths, lazy, dirty, foul-mouthed, and at first useless to the ship. To such a minority the word of his lieutenant, the advice of a chaplain, the reprimand of a commander are as nothing. But "six with the cane" exactly meets the case. It surprises the densest hobbledehoy into sensibility, and the law becomes something tangible and actual in his existence.

It has been my professional duty to see every boy who has been caned in ships where I have served after his punishment, and I state conscientiously that I have never found any boy the worse for it physically or in character. I have known self-respect grow side by side with respect for the arm of the boy's corporal who wielded the cane. I have heard over and over again, "No, Sir, it wasn't too bad; but I'll not let Corporal So-and-So have another go at me."

Birching. -- The birch is reserved for liars, thieves, and offenders against decency and common morality. I have seen it applied (a) to a boy who was habitually filthy, (b) to one whose leisure was given to telling foul stories to his mates, and (c) to a boy who had been grossly cruel to a ship's pet -- a monkey. There was not a man or boy on board who did not think the punishment fitted the crime.

Press cuttingThe cane used is the familiar object of our school days, in the hand of a ship's corporal, who has generally some confidential instructions as to whether he is to lay it on hard or light. I know at least one officer who has taken "six" himself so that he might know to what sort of thing he was condemning others.

The birch is an ordinary birch, which, as some of us know, stings freely and occasionally breaks the upper skin. But the birch hurts less than the cane in the end. As for the birching being disgusting and degrading, I submit that it is never given save for disgusting and degrading offences. A boy who gets the cane for a boy's prank or for kicking against rules generally takes it like a man; a boy birched for a mean or low offence often howls like a cur. I speak of what I have seen and known.

Flogging. -- No case of flogging has ever come under my notice. The regulations quoted above are sane, moderate, and framed so as to emphasize the responsibility of the captain ordering the "cat" to be used. The "cat" will never be laid on again in the Navy except for open mutiny, brutal assault of an officer, or unnatural crime, in my opinion. But it is kept in reserve as the ultimate argument of the powers that be, and if a vote were taken for and against the retention of the "cat" as a possible punishment for crimes against country and humanity, the British sailor would uphold the custom of the Service and the Regulations of his King.

I hope, Sir, that I am as humane as the "humanitarians," but I know what I am talking about, and they do not know the Navy or human nature, if one judges by their published opinions. No man who has not grown old in the service of his country at sea, who has not learned to appreciate the strenuous virtues and strenuous vices inseparable from seafaring, should consider himself capable of judging a matter which lies outside the scope of his experience and knowledge. Yet we of the Service are willing to recognize that "humanitarians" are sincere and well-meaning men, although we consider their methods wrong and their opinions lacking in authority.

I am, Sir, your obedient servant,


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