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The Punishment of the Ranks [350]

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels

London, August 28. A single institution of the British army is sufficient to characterise the class the British soldier is recruited from. We refer to the punishment of flogging. Corporal punishment no longer exists in the French, the Prussian or several smaller armies. Even in Austria, where the recruits for the most part are semi-barbarians, its abolition is evidently being striven for; for instance, the punishment of running the gauntlet was recently expunged from the military law of Austria. In England, on the other hand, the "cat-o'-nine-tails"[a] has remained in full operation—an instrument of torture quite on a par with the Russian knout. Whenever a reform of military legislation has been mooted in Parliament all the old plumed hats have waxed passionate on behalf of the "cat", and none more zealously than old Wellington. For these men an unflogged soldier was an incomprehensible creature. In their eyes bravery, discipline and invincibility were the exclusive attributes of men bearing the scars of at least 50 lashes on their backsides like liegemen of old bearing a coat of arms.

The only reform has been the limitation of the number of strokes of the lash to 50. The efficacy of this reform may be judged from the fact that in Aldershot about a week ago a private expired shortly after receiving 30 strokes of the lash. On this occasion the favourite method of soaking the "cat-o'-nine-tails" in urine was employed. The application of urine on raw and bleeding flesh is an infallible recipe for tormenting the patient beyond the bounds of sanity. The nine-tailed cat is not only an instrument of torture, it leaves behind ineradicable scars, it brands a man for life. Even in the English army such a branding entails a constant oppressive burden of shame. The flogged soldier falls below the level of his comrades! But under the British military code punishment before the enemy consists almost exclusively of flogging, and thus the punishment lauded by its defenders as the only means of maintaining discipline in decisive moments becomes the surest means of destroying discipline, by breaking the moral composure and the point d'honneur of the soldier. This explains two strange facts. Firstly: the great number of British deserters before Sevastopol. During the winter when the British soldiers had to make superhuman efforts in guarding the trenches, those unable to keep awake for 48-60 hours at a stretch were flogged. Just imagine it! Floggings for heroes like the British soldiers, who had proved themselves in the trenches before Sevastopol and in the open before Inkerman[351]! But the articles of war left no choice. Floggings were meted out to the best men in the army if they were overcome by fatigue, and dishonoured as they were they deserted to the Russians. It is impossible to conceive of a better motivated condemnation of this system than is provided by these facts. In no previous war have the troops of any nation deserted to the Russians in any numbers worth mentioning. They knew they would receive worse treatment than in their own national ranks. It was left to the British army to provide the first strong contingent of such deserters, and according to the evidence of the English-men themselves it was the "cat-o'-nine-tails" which recruited these deserters to Russia.

The second fact is the difficulty England encounters in all its attempts at forming foreign legions. As early as the anti-Jacobin war, even though the British articles of war nominally apply to the foreign corps, corporal punishment had to be abandoned in fact. At the beginning of this century some heterodox British generals, Sir Robert Wilson among others, published pamphlets criticising the corporal punishment of soldiers. For more than ten years Sir Francis Burdett thundered against the "cat-o'-nine-tails" in Parliament and called the British "a flogged nation"[b]. In the Commons he found energetic seconds in Lord Folkestone and the famous Lord Cochrane (now Admiral Earl of Dundonald). In the press Cobbett conducted a strenuous campaign against the "cat", atoning for it with two years' imprisonment. At one point, during the last years of war against Napoleon, exasperation in the nation and in the army reached such heights that the Duke of York, equally notorious for his bigoted attachment to square-bashing, his bolting from the French and his amours with Madame Clarke, was forced to issue an order of the day in which all officers received notice that were flogging a frequent occurrence in their respective commands it would hinder their promotion.

How then can we explain the fact that the "cat-o'-nine-tails" has victoriously survived all these storms of half-a-century? Very simply. It is the instrument by which the aristocratic character of the British army is preserved, by which all higher positions, starting with ensign, remain secure as the apanage of the younger sons of the aristocracy and the gentry. With the disappearance of the "cat-o'-nine-tails" the extraordinary distance between the soldiers and the officers, which splits the army into two virtually separate races, would also disappear. At the same time the army's ranks would be opened to sections of the population higher than those from which they have hitherto been recruited. And that would seal the fate of the old constitution of the British army. It would be revolutionised through and through. The nine-tailed cat is the Cerberus guarding the treasure of the aristocracy.

Written on August 28, 1855
First published in the Neue Oder-Zeitung, No. 405, August 31, 1855
Marked with the sign x
This version is published in English for the first time in MECW.


[a] Here and below Marx and Engels use the English term.—Ed.

[b] The English phrase is used in the original and the German translation is given in brackets.—Ed.

[350] This article is a fragment of the section "The English Army" from Engels' survey The Armies of Europe, published in Putnam's Monthly in August-December 1855 (see this volume, pp. 401-69 and Note 295↓). Marx translated this fragment into German and made a number of additions and other changes.

[351] In the battle of Inkerman in the Crimea (November 5, 1854) the Anglo-French forces defeated the Russian army, but the Russians' vigorous action compelled the enemy to refrain from storming Sevastopol and instead lay siege to the city. Engels described the battle in detail in his article "The Battle of Inkerman" (see present edition, Vol. 13, pp. 528-35).

[295] Engels wrote this survey at the request of Marx, who received an order for it from the US journal Putnam's Monthly through Charles Dana, editor of the New-York Daily Tribune. In forwarding Dana's letter to Engels on June 15, 1855, Marx asked him to write "one printed sheet on all the European armies for Putnam's Monthly". However, Engels' survey turned out much longer and took a considerable' time to write. Marx helped Engels by collecting data on various European armies, the Spanish and the Neapolitan, in particular, at the British Museum library. After receiving the first article of the series for forwarding to New York, Marx wrote to Engels (August 7, 1855): "The article on the 'series' is excellent." On September 1 he informed Engels of the New York Times' review—on the whole, favourable—of this article, which had been published in the August issue of Putnam's Monthly, and of the reviewer's awkward attempts to dispute the instances of corporal punishment of the lower ranks in the British Army cited by Engels. The continuation and conclusion of the series were published in the September and December issues of the journal. They were numbered articles two and three (the first article appeared without a number). By printing the survey unsigned, the editors tried to suggest that the author was an American. This may also have been the reason for the minor editorial changes in the text, in particular the use of the pronoun "our" with reference to the US army (see p. 407).

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 14 (pp.501-503), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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