Researching Canadian Soldiers of the First World War

Part 15: Crime …

By Michael O'Leary; The Regimental Rogue

Introduction

"Twenty-four hours should elapse before a soldier charged with drunkenness is brought before his Commanding Officer, in order that he may be perfectly sober.

The Guide: A Manual for The Canadian Militia (Infantry), by Maj-General Sir William D. Otter (1914 edition).

One of the eternal elements of military service is that some soldiers will manage to get themselves in trouble with the military authorities. In Part 3 of this series, Courts Martial, the military justice system was introduced by means of showing you how to access the Court Martial records held by Library and Archives Canada.

Courts Martial, however, were not the sole means of dealing with disciplinary transgressions, and less serious crimes were dealt with by summary trials conducted by Commanding Officers or Officers Commanding Companies.

This article will explore some of the types of offences for which soldiers of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) were commonly charged, tried and punished during the First World War.

Guiding Documents

The subject of military law, offences and scales of punishments, including the conducts of summary trials and courts martial is a complex collection of information built up over many years. Even today, no military officer would begin to execute duties related to military justice without closely consulting with the most up-to-date references. For an officer of the CEF, the following references might be used:

Court Martial Offences

Courts Martial were held to try crimes when, if the soldier was found guilty, the powers of punishment permitted a Commanding Officer at Summary Trial might not prove sufficient for appropriate punishment. Soldiers might be tried by a District Court Martial, or by Field General Courts Martial, the difference being in the manner in which they are authorized, a matter which was no doubt of little importance to the accused. General Courts Martial were conducted by at least five officers (minimum of nine whilst in the United Kingdom), while Field General Courts Martial required only three officers to dispense justice. The later could be conducted with less than three, subject to restrictions on powers of punishment.

Some offences, by their nature would be automatically held over for trial by Court Martial, others might be tried by Summary Trial in front of a Commanding Officer or sent to Court Martial depending on circumstances and the likely severity of punishment if the accused was to be found guilty. The Library and Archives Canada database of Courts-Martial of the First World War lists 11,878 proceedings for the CEF during the war. This would represent the trials of somewhat fewer soldiers, as some were known to have appeared more than once before a Court Martial.

The charge sheet from the Court Martial docket of 214215 Private John Leonard Shook. Court Martial records for soldiers of the Canadian Expeditionary Force are available from Library and Archives Canada.

The charge sheet from the Court Martial docket of 214215 Private John Leonard Shook. Court Martial records for soldiers of the Canadian Expeditionary Force are available from Library and Archives Canada. See Part 3: Court Martial Records

An example entry of a Court Martial trial result from the Part II Daily Orders of The Royal Canadian Regiment.

An example entry of a Court Martial trial result of 454807 Private Amedie Lascelle, from the Part II Daily Orders of The Royal Canadian Regiment.
(I.H.L. = Imprisonment with Hard Labour.)

An example of a Court Martial entry in the service record of 454726 Private Jean Collin, The Royal Canadian Regiment.

An example of a Court Martial entry in the service record of 454726 Private Jean Collin, The Royal Canadian Regiment.

From the Court Martial statistics for a single infantry battalion in the CEF, I have reviewed the data for The Royal Canadian Regiment (The RCR). Having identified a total of 170 Courts Martial from the unit Part II Daily Orders and the LAC Court Martial database, they provide a cross-section of possible charges that may be found in any unit. The following offences appear in one form or another for The RCR, and sometimes in combination for multiple charges against a soldier:

Summary Trial Offences

It is to be expected that there will be some overlap between lists of possible Court Martial offences and those that were tried by Summary Trial, since the determining factor between types of trial was the potential severity of punishment and not only the nature of the offence. Continuing with data from The Royal Canadian Regiment as an example for a single front line infantry unit, the battalion's Part II Daily Orders list a total of 1350 cases of summary punishment, although this will include instances where two types of punishment were awarded (such as detention and forfeiture of pay earned while absent).

An example of summary trial punishments recorded in the Part II Daily Orders of The Royal Canadian Regiment, Daily Orders dated 21 Aug 1917.

An example of Summary Trial punishments recorded in the Part II Daily Orders of The Royal Canadian Regiment, Daily Orders dated 21 Aug 1917.

An example of a summary punishment recorded in the service record of 477212 Private Albert Cumberland of The Royal Canadian Regiment.

An example of a summary punishment of 10 days Field Punishment Number 2 for drunkenness and stealing rum, as noted in the service record of 477212 Private Albert Cumberland of The Royal Canadian Regiment.

The following list of 85 different offences are taken from almost 1500 examples of summary charges laid against soldiers in the overseas battalion of The Royal Canadian Regiment during the First World War. The list is arranged in order of decreasing frequency (the number of instances of each type of charge is noted in red).

Offences by Army Act Section

While most entries in soldiers' service records and regimental records will identify the nature of the charge in a descriptive manner, there are occasions when only the section of the Army Act (e.g., A.A. ###) will be known. In such cases it is necessary to go to the applicable edition of

The King's Regulations and Orders for the Canadian Militia, which is available at the Internet Archive, or the Manual of Military Law to confirm the offence by its Army Act designation. Notably, the Library and Archives Canada database for Courts Martial lists sections of the Army Act, but does not include a descriptive entry for all records.

The following match selected Army Act sections to the description of offence as shown for various records in the LAC Court Martial database:

Army ActDescription of Offence
4(7)Cowardice in the face of the enemy
6 (1f)Assault
6(1b)Leaving duty post without orders
6(1k)Drunk while on guard duty
7(2b)Inciting a mutiny
8Striking a superior officer
8Threatening a superior officer
8 (2b)Insubordination
9Disobeying a superior officer
10Breaking arrest
12Desertion
14(2)Assistance of or connivance at desertion
15Absence without leave
17Fraudulently misapplying regimental funds
18Theft
18(4b)Receiving stolen goods
19Drunkenness
22Escaping confinement
22Escaping arrest
24Loss of equipment
37(1)Striking a soldier
40Conduct to prejudice of good order and military discipline
41Fraud

The soldiers of the CEF (and any of its units), like any cross-section of society, included members who would take the opportunity to break rules and regulations. The Army's response was to apply the relatively rigid structures of King's Regulations and Orders to bring those soldiers to justice, try them for their sins and, if found guilty, apply appropriate punishment. This article has explored the many ways in which soldiers could find themselves in front of a Court Martial or their Commanding Officer, and shown the methods by which these actions were recorded for a researcher to find today.

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