Courts Martial of the First World War

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Field Punishment No. 1
Field Punishment No. 1 (detail), Library and Archives Canada, RG9 III-C-3, vol. 4121, folder 2, file 6

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Courts Martial Records

Courts martial are legal bodies convened to determine the guilt or innocence of accused military men and women.

Courts martial had the authority to try a wide range of military offences that resembled civilian crimes like fraud, theft or perjury. Others, like desertion and cowardice were purely military crimes. Military offences are defined in the British Army Act.

A panel of officers sat in judgement at a court-martial, while the accused was represented by an officer who may be a military lawyer.

Punishment for military offences ranged from fines and imprisonment to execution.

Offences, punishment, and instructions on how to run a court martial are explained in the Manual of Military Law, which was distributed to Canadian Expeditionary Force units.

Records of individual courts martial consist of an average of 20 to 25 documents, many of which are standardized forms. These document the trial and the charges under the Army Act.

These records identify the officers who sat in judgement, and the evidence presented in court including statements by the accused and witnesses. In cases of conviction, the records document the sentence. Many records include formal rulings by the Judge Advocate General, who is the senior officer responsible for military justice.

Researchers should note that the quality of the images on these microfilm reels is often poor, and that the paper originals no longer exist.

Military Offences

Military offences were identified by 'AA' for Army Act, followed by a number indicating the specific section of the Act under which the service person was charged. Some of these sections are summarized below:

Offences in Respect of Military Service

  • Section 4: the most serious military crimes, including deserting one's post, convincing a superior officer to surrender, throwing away one's arms in the presence of the enemy, assisting the enemy, corresponding with the enemy, or showing cowardice in the face of the enemy.
  • Section 5: disobeying orders, failing to rejoin His Majesty's Forces after being released from an enemy prisoner of war camp, and spreading rumours that might cause fear and alarm amongst the troops.
  • Section 6: a wide range of crimes including plundering, leaving one's post without orders, physically attacking another soldier, stealing from civilians; revealing secret passwords, being drunk at one's posts and making false alarms about attacks.

Mutiny and Insubordination

  • Section 7: leading and taking part in a mutiny, and refusing to report soldiers who were planning to mutiny.
  • Section 8: striking or threatening a superior officer.
  • Section 9: disobeying lawful orders from a superior officer.
  • Section 10: resisting arrest.
  • Section 11: refusing to obey a general order.

Desertion, Fraudulent Enlistment, and Absence Without Leave

  • Section 12: deserting or encouraging others to desert.
  • Section 13: fraudulently enlisting in the forces, for example by lying about one's age.
  • Section 14: assisting a person to desert, and failing to report a person whom one knew intended to desert.
  • Section 15: being absent without leave.
  • Section 16: behaving in a scandalous manner, unbecoming the character of an officer and a gentleman.
  • Section 17: the fraudulent use of public or regimental funds.
  • Section 18: "malingering", pretending to be ill or deliberately injuring yourself.
  • Section 19: drunkenness.

Offences in Relation to Persons in Custody

  • Section 20: officers and men who had been given the task of guarding prisoners. Such men could be charged for releasing a prisoner without the proper authority; or allowing a prisoner to escape.
  • Section 21: unnecessarily detaining someone without bringing his or her case to the proper authorities for investigation or trial.
  • Section 22: attempting to escape from custody.

Offences in Relation to Property

  • Section 23: fraudulently selling government property or extracting exorbitant prices for goods and services.
  • Section 24: selling, pawning, losing, or destroying arms, equipment, decorations and other public property as well as "ill-treating a horse used in the public service."

Offences in Relation to False Documents and Statements

  • Section 25: knowingly altering or making false statements on official documents.
  • Section 26: falsely filling out documents or refusing to complete reports relating to arms, ammunition and equipment.
  • Section 27: making false statements about the character of another officer or soldier and making false statements about one's own military career.

Offences in Relation to Courts Martial

  • Section 28: making false statements or refusing to answer questions on the witness stand, refusing to take an oath in court, refusing to produce documents when asked to do so by the court, and insulting or disrupting the court.
  • Section 29: knowingly giving false evidence in court.

Offences in Relation to Billeting

  • Section 30: "billeting", the practice of soldiers' lodging in private homes while on active service. Service men and women could be charged for mistreating, threatening or refusing to pay householders for billeting troops.

Offences in Relation to Impressment of Carriages

  • Section 31: offences that occurred when service men forced civilians to hand over their horses and carriages without proper compensation.

Offences in Relation to Enlistment

  • Section 32: re-enlisting in the forces without declaring that one had been previously discharged in disgrace.
  • Section 33: making false statements on an attestation paper.
  • Section 34: helping a person to enlist fraudulently.

Miscellaneous Military Offences

  • Section 35: using traitorous or disloyal words against the sovereign.
  • Section 36: disclosing the location of forces, bases or operations to the enemy.
  • Section 37: stated that officers could be charged for striking or ill-treating soldiers, while both soldiers and officers could be charged for refusing to repay advances on their pay.
  • Section 38: fighting, or assisting in a duel, and attempting to commit suicide.
  • Section 39: refusing to help the civil authorities take custody of a service person who was accused of a crime.
  • Section 40: acting to the prejudice of good order and military discipline.
  • Section 41: courts martial could try soldiers for treason, murder, rape, manslaughter and a number of other civil offences when they occurred more than one hundred miles away from the nearest civilian court.
  • Section 155: selling a promotion in His Majesty's Forces.

Search Tips

  • Be careful when using regimental numbers. For example, if you type 222044, you will obtain only one reference. Officers did not have a regimental number unless they enlisted first as privates or non-commissioned officers.
  • If you did not find the person by name, you can try searching variations of the spelling or combinations of given names and initials (e.g. Simpson, Harold or Simpson, H* or Simpson*).

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