Daily Life of Soldiers and Officers


Discipline and Punishment

A 'cat of nine tails' whip

Caption: A 'cat of nine tails' whip

In the British army, the slightest lapse in conduct was mercilessly punished following the summary judgement of a regimental court-martial, and there was no possibility of an appeal. Even minor offences were punished "cruelly and barbarously," in a manner unequalled in Western Europe: the purpose was to inspire terror by setting an example. "There were few Saturdays," related Philippe Aubert de Gaspé, "on which those who went to the market in Upper Town in Quebec City were not saddened to hear cries of pain emanating from the barracks yard." The soldiers were frequently whipped, and the cat-o'-nine-tails was the instrument of punishment par excellence. Any minor offence could call for this. In 1810-11 at Fort George in Upper Canada sentences of 75 lashings for the loss of a shirt, 100 for the loss of a razor and 295 for having left the barracks without permission were reported. The most common offence was drunkenness, which could merit 100 or 150 lashes.

The sentence was carried out in front of the whole regiment. Stripped to the waist, the soldier was tied up by the wrists. Behind him was a drummer in charge of administering the punishment, with the drum major in turn behind the drummer to strike him with a cane if he failed to whip the prisoner hard enough. After 25 lashes, another drummer took over and so on until the assigned number of lashes had been administered. After the 50th lash the back becomes a horrible mass of bleeding gelatin, and after the 100th blood flows freely. When the soldier lost consciousness he was revived with a bucket of water. The spectacle was so distressing that young soldiers sometimes fainted when they witnessed it for the first time.

According to Aubert de Gaspé, who frequently spoke with officers of the British army on the use of the whip, "they all agreed that 25 to 30 bad apples in each regiment were the only ones to receive this cruel punishment. Most, they said, became insensitive to pain after frequent flagellations. Their skin became so hardened that the cat-o'-nine-tails struck only dry skin resembling parchment stuck onto the bone. They added that the judges at courts-martial avoided to the greatest extent possible inflicting the whip on those who had never had it before, because, after undergoing the experience only once, they became incorrigible." 79 This inhuman punishment, which people wanted abolished as early as the late eighteenth century, continued for much of the following century. The number of lashes was limited to 1,000 in 1813 and to 200 in 1833; it was restricted to repeat offenders after 1859, after which it was rarely used. However, the whip was not officially abolished until 1881.

The militiamen, volunteers and soldiers of the "provincial" regiments raised in a colony, such as the Royal Canadian Volunteers or the Canadian Voltigeurs, were not subject to this punishment. It was, however, applicable to soldiers in colonial regiments raised by authority of the British Parliament under the rules of the regular army, such as the regiments of Fencibles or the Royal Canadian Rifle Regiment.

Other punishments inflicted on British soldiers and colonial troops were more in keeping with military punishments meted out in other armies of the period: solitary confinement, forced labour, branding, caning and the ultimate penalty, the firing squad.

Additional Images

Scenes at Laprairie 1812-1813
Officers at a regimental court martial, circa 1835