Matter of Honour, Lt-Gen Jonathon Riley, war studies

A Matter of Honour

The System of Honour in 18th and Early 19th Century Society & the Military

Delivered as a lecture in Canada, June 2013

Lieutenant-General Jonathon Riley CB DSO PhD MA FRHistS
Visiting Professor in War Studies, King’s College London

Introduction and Origins

The system of honour as it was known, understood and practised among noble and gentle families in the 18th and early 19th centuries is of considerable antiquity, for it can first be discerned in the medieval codes of chivalry, courtly love and trial by combat. Underlying these codes were the notions, first, that nobles and gentles were expected to behave in a more elevated manner than the lower orders of society, towards whom they had obligations as overlords in return for feudal service; secondly, of protecting the weak; and thirdly the notion that combat is, in itself, an honourable occupation. To place oneself in danger in pursuit of a just cause was worthy of the highest praise. The very apogee of this was the writings of St Augustine of Hippo spread through several of his works including The City of God, on Jus ad Bellum (the right to go to war – or the just war) and Jus in Bello (or the right conduct in war).1 In times of peace, when the dangers of war were not available as a means of proving honour in combat, formal tournaments gradually replaced the more uncontrolled and deadly mêlée as the means of demonstrating knightly prowess, chivalric conduct and the absence of fear.

Medieval society was inherently violent – far more so than today and far more so than in the 18th century; there were probably by most estimates ten times the number of murders per head of population in, say, London, than there are today.2 Men of all ranks in society were routinely armed: swords for the nobility and gentry; knives, clubs and bludgeons for the lower orders; bows and spears for hunting in the country. Scuffles could therefore very quickly become fatal. Noble families, especially in Italy, were also prone to blood-feuding among themselves.

In response, a system of manners, courtesy and civility slowly developed throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. These behaviours were designed to diffuse tensions between gentlemen; the system, and the literature that supported it, placed great emphasis upon personal honour and reputation. This literature included such works as the Englishman Simon Robson’s The Courte of Ciuil Courtesie 3 in 1577 and the Italian Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier.4 Reputation and honour are not to be confused with dignity – which applied only to the personal status of the individual – whereas honour was much more identified with the place of a family in society – its rank, privileges, obligations and expected behaviour. Under this code, where a gentleman was insulted, he had a duty not to brawl or instigate a blood-feud, but to respond to the affront in a firm but careful manner: so pervasive and compelling did these ideas become, so firmly did they take hold, that a gentleman who failed to respond appropriately to insult could find himself shunned by society – an outcast. This code of honour, upon which courtesy and indeed discourtesy were based, authorised a certain type of violence but even so it marked an advance from feuding and mere brawling. In place of blood feuds lasting generations, a single, decisive encounter between the principal parties should end the matter once and for all. This was the duel, of which more later: it may therefore have been impossible to banish violence completely from medieval and renaissance society, but at least this code contained it.

The code all but disappeared in Europe during the Wars of Religion of the 16th and early 17th Centuries; such were the hatreds engendered by these wars, with each side believing each other no more than the spawn of Satan, that courtesies of any sort between parties became impossible. The result was the appalling atrocities of the Thirty Years’ War in Germany, the Wars of Religion in France and even the Civil Wars in England, Scotland and Ireland. Once these wars had been settled a new balance of power emerged in Europe after the Peace Treaties of Westphalia in 1648 and of Ryswick in 1697, and the Restoration of Charles II in England. Civil society – and indeed civilised society – re-emerged, and with it a social organisation as strongly stratified as it had ever been. No nobleman or gentleman who had seen the world turned upside down wanted anything like it again – hence the horror and fear with which the French revolution was greeted, even among French Canadians in North America. In such a climate, the system of honour re-appeared.

The Eighteenth Century

Dr Johnson’s Dictionary, published in 1755, speaks of honour in the context of reputation, adherence to what was right or to the required conventional standards of behaviour and the privileges of rank and station, as well as in terms of noble qualities, worthiness and respectability.5 It was honour that placed a gentleman socially and determined his right to precedence as well as his own sense of self-worth: in other words it was not so much about moral or ethical excellence, rather the consequence of power or position. Thus a gentleman’s honour, and that of his family, were all-important, transcending even the law of the land. This conflict between the code of honour and the law was an evolving problem throughout the 18th century and one which will be referred to again. Because honour applied to a whole family, it could also apply to a corporate body such as a school, a regiment, a ship or even a nation. Accordingly, individuals or corporate bodies were assigned worth and stature based on the harmony of their actions within the specific, universally accepted, code of honour – and the moral code of society at large. Duelling, which will be discussed in more detail later, was very much wrapped up with this notion: participating in a duel communicated to others — it meant — that the duellists were men of honour. Duellists felt compelled by the internal and external pressures of family, society and position, to duel. The code was, therefore, both strict and unforgiving and would not permit an insult to go unanswered.6

But below the rank of gentleman there was a solid core of farmers and businessmen who never subscribed to the notion of honour. In 1810, regimental officers billeted at Bletchingly in Sussex tried to provoke local farmers into duelling over hunting and damage to farm property. Mr Hitchin, the farmers’ leader, said calmly that he had a family, that he had nothing to do with pistols, but he was happy to meet the Colonel with his horsewhip. He then prosecuted the Colonel at the Sussex Assizes. Hitchin was a man of substance, more prosperous probably than most of the officers concerned, but he saw no appeal in the honour culture.

The Duel

The duel was thus rooted in, and a contributory factor to, the code of honour. Duels were fought not so much to kill one’s opponent as to gain satisfaction, that is, to restore one’s honour by demonstrating a willingness to risk one’s life for it, just as those medieval knights had done in tournament and battle. In its early manifestations, the duel spawned a new and aggressive style of fencing with the sword, using the Italian rapier rather than the old broadsword. It rapidly became popular throughout Europe as the nobility and gentry took lessons from fencing masters. A duellist had to calculate both the odds of being killed or injured in a duel with the sword and also the consequences or reprisals that might follow, for duelling was illegal in England as elsewhere: indeed it always was, and from the reign of Elizabeth I there were frequent prosecutions and even executions, such as that of Lord Sanquar who was hanged on 26 February 1612 outside Westminster Hall in London. 8 As a result of this particular case, King James I issued a proclamation in 1613 banning the publishing of any reports or writings about duels, followed the next year by another proclamation against “private challenges and combats”. 9 But honour was more important than the law and long continued to be so. Even judges – for example Lord Norbury and the Solicitor-General, Lord Eldon, in the early years of the 19th century – duelled; so too did government ministers – witness Lords Castlereagh and Canning. In Upper Canada in 1809, Richard Uniacke was tried for the murder of William Browne in a duel; almost all the provincial bar was either implicated in the affair or came forward as witnesses. 10

By the 1770s, duels with the pistol had become increasingly common in Britain and North America: swords were only used once, for example, in twenty-one reported duels between 1780 and 1789, 11 although the sword remained dominant for many years to come in Europe. The move to the pistol may have been to do with a sense of fairness. Swordsmanship required special education and training, which was not available to all and this would put one party at a significant – and perhaps dishonourable – advantage over another. John Cockburn, for example, writing as early as 1720, said that it was “Base, for one of the sword to call out another who was never bred to it, but wears it for fashion’s sake.” 12 Pistols gave the young less advantage over the old, and the inherent inaccuracy of smooth-bore pistols (but not their rifled equivalents) introduced an element of uncertainty for both parties. Wearing swords was indeed fashionable although it declined after 1790, but swords remained a statement of one’s position in society – they were thus part of court dress – and were often lavishly decorated as a statement of the wealth of the owner. Pistols too soon went this way.

Another change during the 18th century was in the role of seconds – that is, the supporters of the parties to a disagreement. By 1765, this began to change from actual participation in combat, to guardianship of the honour of the contending parties and the brokering of peaceful settlements to disputes. Where one party had offended another it became possible for a gentleman to make a carefully worded apology, one that did not damage his reputation, and the opposing gentleman could offer gracious acceptance. The seconds would then publicise both the facts of the dispute and the resolution, making clear that nothing had been done that sullied either party. 18th and early 19th century newspapers often carried advertisements recording the amicable settlement of a quarrel – many more than actually came to a duel. However, if negotiations failed then the seconds would determine the place, date, time and circumstances of a meeting. 13

The chances of being killed or wounded depended greatly on the type of pistol being used – smooth bore or rifled – and the distance at which the seconds decided fire should be exchanged; also upon the number of shots permitted. Twelve paces were usual, followed by ten. Twenty risked ridicule; fewer than ten meant almost certain death – hence the consternation of Captain Edward Corry, Isaac Brock’s opponent in the Barbadoes in 1791, when Brock as the injured party insisted on firing across a pocket handkerchief.14 This meant certain death for both parties and Corry refused to fight. In consequence he was shamed and left the 49th Regiment soon afterwards.

In proof of the certainty of death we may look to the example of a duel in Hyde Park, London, in 1803, between a Lieutenant W. of the Navy, and a Captain I., of the Army; Captain I had seduced the lieutenant's sister. Lieutenant W, who “seemed impressed with a deep sense of melancholy”, insisted that the distance should be only six paces. At this distance they fired and the shot of Captain I struck the guard of Lieutenant W's pistol, tearing off two fingers of his right hand. The lieutenant deliberately wrapped his handkerchief round the wound, and looking solemnly to heaven, exclaimed, “I have a left hand, which never failed me.” They again took their ground. Lieutenant W looked steadfastly at Captain I and looking up to heaven, was heard to say “forgive me.” They fired, and both fell. Captain I received the ball in his head and died instantly: the lieutenant was shot through the chest. He asked if Captain I's wound was mortal. Being told it was so, he thanked heaven that he had lived so long. He then took his ring off his finger and said to his second, “Give this to my sister, and tell her it is the happiest moment I ever knew.” A quantity of blood then gushed from his wound, and he instantly died. 15

On the continent of Europe, duellists were usually placed back to back, they then stepped out the required number of paces, turned and fired. In Britain and North America it was more usual for the seconds to place the parties at the required distance. The duellists would stand side-on, and at a given signal, raise and fire their weapons, often simultaneously and without taking careful aim. This combination of weapon and positioning often avoided death or serious injury. Sometimes the parties would toss a coin for the right to fire first. It took great nerve and courage to await the other party’s shot. Occasionally in a turn-and-turn about duel, one party would deliberately miss – or “delope” as it was called – thus satisfying honour without injury. Only in deeply personal or grudge matches would more be allowed. Even though one exchange of shots or a few passes of the sword – enough to draw blood – was generally enough to satisfy honour, the chance of death or severe wounds remained high. Out of 834 recorded duels between 1785 and 1844 in Britain, there were 277 deaths, or 32%, and 341 wounds, or 40%. 16

The most usual cause of a duel with repeated shots would be over women; however, men feared loss of dignity and rarely took steps to protect women over whom they had no control or in whom they had no interest: if a neighbour beat his wife, it was his affair – but a companion at the theatre, for example, who was insulted was a different matter: if the gentleman did not act it would be implied that he could not protect his own. In 1761 Colonel Egerton was wounded and Colonel Grey killed in a duel after Grey had bumped into Egerton whilst leaving the theatre. Egerton had called Grey “a stupid booby”, blows had been exchanged and a duel was inevitable. 17

It is a fact that it was much more common for gentlemen to “step out”, as it was known, in Ireland than in England – and Brock’s opponent, Corry, was an Irishman. In 1777, at the summer assizes in the town of Clonmel, County Tipperary, a code of practice was drawn up for the regulation of duels. It was agreed by delegates from Tipperary, Galway, Mayo, Sligo and Roscommon and intended for general adoption throughout Ireland. A copy of the code, known generally as “The twenty-six commandments”, was to be kept in every gentleman's pistol case for reference should a dispute arise regarding procedure. 18 An amended version known as “The Irish Code of Honor”, and consisting of 25 rules, was adopted in some parts of the United States. In Ireland, a duel was in many ways considered a necessary part of a young man’s education. As one contemporary source put it, “When men had a glowing ambition to excel in all manner of feats and exercises they naturally conceived that manslaughter, in an honest way (that is, not knowing which would be slaughtered), was the most chivalrous and gentlemanly of all their accomplishments. No young fellow could finish his education till he had exchanged shots with some of his acquaintances. The first two qualifications always asked as to a young man’s respectability and qualifications, particularly when he proposed for a lady wife, were ‘What family is he of? And ‘Did he ever blaze?” 19

Military Aspects and Applications of Honour

Honour was the basis of the European military system in the 18th century even more than it was the foundation of noble and gentle society: “the professional soldier always fights” was the general rule. 20 It was soldierly honour that impelled a man to remain at his post in battle, even in danger, rather than desert his fellows. Any officer commissioned into a regiment of the British Army during the 18th century joined a club, a club with its own distinctive rules, standards and codes of conduct. These were imposed on all those who joined and included the standards relating to honour, a code which was enforced at least informally so that every member learned the rules of the club, or else left. Violations of this code would bring pressure from peers and sometimes seniors until the offender and the defendant cleared the stain.

Morris Janowitz in his book The Professional Soldier, 21 identified the major components of the code. First, to behave honourably, officers were gentlemen. This became difficult during the Napoleonic Wars when up to a third of all junior officers in any regiment might have been commissioned from the ranks. Secondly, loyalty to the Colonel of the Regiment was a personal matter, as was loyalty to the group, the mess. These first two factors also meant that consorting in a familiar way with non-commissioned ranks was a serious offence. Thirdly, officers fought to maintain the standards of glory set down by their predecessors. Thus courage was set at a premium.

Professor Norman Dixon in his famous work The Psychology of Military Incompetence, wrote that military codes of honour existed to control the behaviour that fear might otherwise produce. 22 In other words, the social consequences of cowardice had to be made more unpleasant than the physical consequences of battle. Most men have more physical than moral courage and wounds or even death came to be seen as preferable to disgrace. At Waterloo, Lieutenant-Colonel Lord Portarlington of the 23rd Light Dragoons arrived late on the field – probably in consequence of too much drink in Brussels, or perhaps a love affair. He found that he had missed a heavy engagement with his regiment: he had been absent at the moment of danger and was immediately ostracised. He charged bravely twice later that day with other regiments – but it did not matter. He resigned his commission and lived the rest of his life in disgrace. 23

This extreme example demonstrates that there was among soldiers a deep sense of personal obligation and desire to obtain the respect of their fellows, and not to be found wanting. The “Forlorn Hope” is a good example. This was the party of volunteers who would lead the attack on a breach in any enemy fortification. It carried an extremely high likelihood of death or wounds but even so there were often quarrels about who would go, among officers and sergeants particularly. Take, for example, the assault on San Sebastian in 1813. Of the seven officers, two were killed and four wounded. Among the men, six vacancies were offered to Captain Costello’s company of the 95th Rifles. A private in another regiment offered one of Costello’s men £20 for his place – almost a year’s pay and perhaps the man had an eye on being first at the loot – but he was indignantly refused. For the main assault on San Sebastian, Lieutenant-General Sir John Oswald, commanding the 5th Division, thought that an assault across the estuary would only repeat the failure of an earlier attempt and the Duke of Wellington therefore called for volunteers from 1st, 4th and Light Divisions to storm the place; 750 men came forward, but Oswald was so infuriated by the insult that he swore that they would be nothing but supports to his own division, which would take the town. Unhappily, Oswald was due for relief and his replacement, Sir James Leith, actually arrived only two days before the assault. Oswald, to satisfy the all-important code of honour among gentlemen, stayed on as honorary ADC to Leith to help him in complete the assault plan. Although the attack succeeded, the casualties were heavy and included Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Richard Fletcher the chief engineer, who was killed; General Oswald, who was wounded; and General Leith who was blown from his horse and also wounded. 24

Example by Officers was especially important, mirroring the obligation of the nobility and gentry in civilian life to behave in a more elevated manner, as much as the imperative of bravery in action. King James II of England, a man of very considerable experience in action, remarked that English troops could be relied on not to run so long as their officers set a good example. 25 In the 18th and 19th centuries, with the possible exception of the lieutenant-colonel commanding the regiment, who would manoeuvre it and decide the battle tactics, command by officers was synonymous with leadership; leadership meant example, and example meant being in the forefront of danger. Little was expected of an officer, other than that he should look after his men before he looked after himself; that he should not lose control of his men; and that he was brave in the face of the enemy – but woe betide any who was not brave, as witness the earlier example of Waterloo. Officers were not much in evidence in barracks during peacetime, it is true, but in the field, the officers would take a good deal more interest in the well-being of their men. It was a long-held tradition in the British army, and one still valid to this day, that on campaign the first priority is the horses (or in modern terms, vehicles), then the weapons, then the N.C.O.’s and men, and finally the officers. No officer would dine, then as now, without seeing his horses and men fed first.

It was probably this sense of honour and example, that eternal need to lead by example, amounting to compulsion, that led Brock to his death at Queenston Heights in October 1812, doing the job of a Captain. 26 Even a general was expected to show an example by placing himself at the head of his men: Napoleon did this frequently; 27 Lieutenant-General Sir John Moore was killed doing it at Corunna; Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Picton died at the head of the 5th Division at Waterloo, and the Russian Prince Bagration similarly at Borodino, to name but a few. It is as well to remember that, in addition to Brock, five British Generals were killed in action or died of wounds during the year 1812, a total not out of place for the whole period of the Napoleonic War: the others that year were Brock’s close friend Major-General Barnard Foord Bowes and his cousin Major-General John Gaspard Le Marchant at Salamanca; Major-General Robert Crauford at Cuidad Rodrigo; Major-General William Harvey at Badajoz; and Major-General Sir Edward Paget during a reconnaissance. 28

An officer’s honour was his most treasured possession and any slight had to be answered. Accusations of cowardice aside, charges of lying, “giving the lie”, or slandering the name of a brother officer demanded immediate redress, as did slandering or defaming the name of a regiment. However this code was not a set of defined regulations and nowhere was the conflict between honour and the law more stark than in the military. In this regard, Courts-Martial records give the best view of matters, especially in the answering of charges in that classic honour crime, “conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman”: the so-called “Devil’s Article”. 29

Conduct unbecoming was not, however, defined in the Articles of War and indeed was kept vague so that the charge remained flexible as ideas of honour changed. In 1778, the most relevant article, cited above, stated that “Whatsoever commissioned Officer shall be convicted before a general Court Martial of behaving in a scandalous infamous manner, such as is unbecoming the character of an officer and a gentleman, shall be discharged from the service.” Around 1789 a further clause was added which stated “that in every charge preferred against an officer for such scandalous or unbecoming behaviour, the facts or fact wherein the same is grounded, shall be clearly specified.” 30 Until its replacement by the Armed Forces Act in the early years of the twenty-first century, the Army Act of 1955 in Great Britain contained a section on “scandalous conduct by officers”. Moreover such a charge could be used to discipline officers for behaviour which was not criminal, or even dishonourable, but which offended the officers of a particular corps.

Not surprisingly, this led to tension between regimental officers and the Judge Advocate General, who wanted a more precise regulation, for it was possible that a man might be charged with conduct unbecoming and not know of the specific nature of the complaint until he actually faced a court, thus making it all but impossible to prepare a defence. Lieutenant Colin Campbell, for example, was charged in July 1759 after a quarrel with a Lieutenant Munroe, by Brigadier Bryan Crump. Crump tried to introduce evidence of Campbell’s every shortcoming since joining the corps, evidence which was rejected by the court as irrelevant. The JAG agreed. 31

There was bound to be disagreement of this nature as long as courts-martial were not only courts of law, but in effect courts of honour – two functions that were by no means the same. Felonies are precise, honour is not. Alexander Tyler in an essay in 1800 set this out: “. . . there are offences which admit of no precise definition, and yet which in the military profession are of the most serious consequence, as weakening and subverting that principle of honour on which the proper discipline of the army must materially depend. Of these a Court-Martial, which is in the highest sense a Court of Honour, are themselves appointed the sole judges, or rather the legislators: for it is in their breasts to define the crime as well as to award punishment.” 32 However, an indictment for conduct unbecoming could be softer because it was more ambiguous than a precise criminal charge. Major Ralph Correy of the 28th Foot, for example, was charged under conduct unbecoming for buying and selling goods illegally. When found guilty, he was suspended without pay for six months. A criminal prosecution could have seen him cashiered and imprisoned. 33

Generally, however, there are some readily identifiable groups of activities into which charges of conduct unbecoming fall. The largest of these is disputes between officers of equal rank stemming from quarrels over women, insults real or imagined, disputes over cards, debts and defamations of character. Disputes over cards were notorious for degenerating into violence, especially when drink had been taken. When quarrels reached the point that duelling was all but inevitable, the court martial, as an honour court, was the only alternative. 34

Duelling was officially forbidden by Article XIX of the 1737 by the Articles of War: “No officer or soldier shall use any reproachful or provoking speeches or gestures to another . . . Nor shall any Officer or soldier presume to send a challenge to any other officer or soldier, to fight a duel, upon pain of being cashiered, if he be an officer, or suffering the severest corporal punishment, if a non-commission officer, or private soldier.” 35 To protect men who were challenged to duels and refused to fight, the Articles stated that “Nor shall any officer or soldier upbraid another for refusing a challenge, since according to these our orders, they do but the duty of soldiers, who ought to subject themselves to discipline; and we do acquit and discharge all men who have quarrels offered, or challenges sent to them, of all disgrace, or opinion of disadvantage in their obedience hereunto. . .” The reasons for this are obvious: fights between officers would damage a regiment; good officers could be lost; it set a bad example to the men; and it was a glaring example of disharmony in what was supposed to be a brotherhood.

Of course it was quite one thing for the Articles to make this sort of pronouncement and quite another to enforce it when the code of honour dictated very different behaviour. Officers might try to resolve quarrels peacefully, but the officer who refused a challenge was subject to social penalties, including ostracism, that made the approval of the Articles of War insignificant. No officer could permit an insult, a blow, a challenge to his courage, for example. Military officers were as prone, or more so, to duelling than their civilian counterparts for although duels were illegal, in practice, so long as things were done discretely, duels were winked at.

In the late 18th and early 19th Centuries about one-third of all duels were between military officers; during the Napoleonic wars this figure rose to two-thirds. 36 Rank mattered: an officer of lower rank could not challenge an officer of higher rank – that would be mutiny; nor would a senior officer challenge a junior – that would be to demean himself. A junior officer who felt slighted had no choice therefore but to obey the letter of military law – and suffer no dishonour for having done so. In the Navy at least he could bring a case against the senior officer for oppression – which was not at all uncommon. The same strictures applied to military officers who refused a challenge as in civilian life. In 1783, Lieutenant Robert Cunningham of the 2nd Troop of Horse Guards refused to accept a challenge from Lieutenant William Riddell of the Scots Dragoon Guards, after a quarrel at cards. The officers of the Horse Guards told Cunningham that he should either fight or resign. Reluctantly he fought, killing his opponent and suffering a bad wound himself. 37

The mis-match between the code of honour and the law is well illustrated by the Court-Martial of Captain Benjamin Beilby of the 11th Foot in Minorca, in 1766. Beilby was accused of “having repeatedly received from Captain Robinson . . . language unbecoming the character of an officer and a gentleman without taking proper notice of it. . .” Ensign Pierce Dalton testified for example that he had heard Robison say to Beilby on parade, “Is that the way you march your guard, you shitten dirty fellow?” Another said that Robinson called out “. . . is that the way you make your men slope their arms, you dirty dog. . .” As a result, the subalterns of the 11th refused to speak to Beilby or allow him to dine with them – Robinson again insulted him when he tried to do so, saying that “By God he shall not dine here, nor any poodle dog like him.” These sanctions, it will be noted, were not directed at Robinson for having violated the Articles of War, but against Beilby for allowing himself to be insulted. The honour code called for a duel. In this case, however, no challenge was issued, Beilby claiming to be sick. The court-martial found Beilby guilty of neglect for which he was suspended without pay for a year. However the JAG in London reversed the conviction on the ground that the charge was not covered by the Articles of War. 38

Courts-martial involving accusations of cowardice were especially difficult. In 1762, for example, Lieutenant Samuel Strode told the surgeon’s mate of his regiment that he was not a gentleman; the mate responded by calling Strode a rascal, taking him by the collar and throwing him out of the house. Strode demanded an apology the next day. The mate refused and offered satisfaction, which Strode refused because the surgeon’s mate was not a commissioned officer. As a result, Strode was arrested and tried for not responding to the challenge. His dilemma was therefore, whether to duel with the surgeon’s mate to remove a charge of cowardice, or refuse the challenge because the man was not an officer or a gentleman. Strode was found guilty but released after a reprimand on grounds of his youth and inexperience. 39

Shameful remarks about a regiment or ship were quite as serious as slurs on the character of another individual officer. Lieutenant Henry Watson, for example, was charged in July 1761 with “aspersing the Regiment of light infantry . . . by saying in Public Company, that Crawford’s Corps had behaved on the day of the landing at Belle Isle infamously and scandalously”. Watson claimed that he had not insulted Crawford’s regiment, but only those in it who had behaved ill; however the Commander-in-Chief took a dim view, writing that “I . . . think every minute long till justice is done to an injured Corps, so barbarously attacked, and aspersed in the only thing which is dear to them, their honour. . .” The court, however, sided with Watson. 40

In the matter of familiarity with the rank and file, the seriousness with which this breach of the code was treated says much about how wide the gap really was between officers and men in the 18th century army. Lieutenant Richard Rose, for example, was accused in April 1762 of drinking with the soldiers in an Inn. His defence was that he had sat down to discuss the sale of a sword with one William Hinxter and was at that moment noticed by another officer and the circumstances misconstrued. In 1760, Ensign Hill was tried for “drinking and lying with the private men”. Hill admitted the drinking saying “. . . tho’ I condescended to drink with them, Yet it has appeared by the Evidence of the King’s Witnesses that the Men continued to preserve that respect which is due to an officer and look’d upon and behaved to me as such. . .” 41 If it was dishonourable to consort with private soldiers it was not therefore always clear what this meant in practice – especially on campaign. Under what circumstances might an officer sit down with the men? Could he drink with them if they treated him correctly? Hill was found guilty and forced to ask the pardon of the entire regiment on parade “for the Dishonour this my Behaviour may have reflected on them. . . .”

A more easily measureable demonstration of courage or cowardice in an officer was the defence and surrender of fortified positions. From the early medieval period onwards there had been a set code of conduct in siege warfare: if a defender gave in too easily he risked the scorn of the enemy and punishment from his superiors; if he resisted for too long and caused heavy casualties to the attackers, he risked severe consequences from those same attackers. When a siege was set, initial terms would be issued: these customarily would be refused as giving in at this point would be seen as dishonourable. Next, the outworks would be taken and then the garrison summoned to surrender once more, still on relatively easy terms. Once again, a refusal was more usual than acceptance. If the defenders refused, the main defences would be breached and the defenders summoned one last time. If a garrison refused terms and the attackers then got into the town with their blood up, there would be no quarter for the enemy’s soldiers and little for the civilian population. 42 In Shakespeare’s play Henry V, Henry himself gives the elders of Harfleur this ultimatum:

Therefore you men of Harfleur,
Take pity of your town and of your people,
Whiles yet my soldiers are in my command;
Whiles yet the cool and temperate wind of grace
O’erblows the filthy and contagious clouds
Of heady murder, spoil and villany.
If not, why, in a moment, look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters. . .

On the other hand, accepting terms at this point would usually allow the defenders to march out “with the honours of war” – that is, with their Colours, personal weapons and belongings – and being allowed to march away having given parole. However, the commander could expect an enquiry at least and a court-martial at worst. In April 1756, before war had been declared, a French army of 16,000 men was landed on the British-held island of Minorca, where the fortress of St Philip was held by only 2,800 British troops under General William Blakeney. The fortress held out until the end of June when, honour having been satisfied and no relief in sight, Blakeney surrendered on condition that the garrison would be transported to Gibraltar. 44 One infantry regiment of the garrison, the 23rd Royal Welch Fusiliers, carried off its Colours – having surrendered its previous stand at the capture of Ghent in 1745. 45 The commander of the one ill-resourced attempt to relieve Minorca, Admiral Byng, was however made scapegoat by the British government, court-martialled, and shot amid a public outcry. 46 In 1783, that same 23rd Regiment defended one of the redoubts at Yorktown during the two months of the siege there. 47 When Cornwallis surrendered, with no relief in sight, the garrison marched out into captivity – but with the honours of war. The Fusilier redoubt, which had not surrendered, still flies the Union flag today and once again the regiment carried off its Colours. In contrast, US General William Hull surrendered Detroit to Isaac Brock on 16 August 1812 after half a day’s bombardment and nine casualties. When Hull asked for the honours of war, it is hardly surprising that Brock indignantly refused and equally unsurprising that Hull was tried, found guilty of cowardice and neglect of duty and sentenced to death – a sentence that was commuted in recognition of his service in the Revolutionary War. . 48 The infantry regiment of the garrison, the 4th, lost its Colours which can still be seen today in Cardiff Castle. As late as 1918, after the great German offensive of March and April, many British officers who surrendered redoubts unwounded faced courts-martial. The great majority were cleared on the grounds that they were surrounded and without hope of relief. The blame for the German breakthrough was pinned – wrongly – on the Army Commander, General Sir Hubert Gough – who was effectively removed from command and disgraced. He lived until 1962, and before his death was cleared and belatedly made a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath.


As Arthur Gilbert has rightly pointed out in his penetrating article on the subject, the 18th century officer was caught between two conflicting models of behaviour: on the one hand, the defence of his honour and on the other, the more dispassionate and less bloody resolution of disputes through the law or trial by court-martial for a perceived failure of duty. Because of this, it was perhaps essential that conduct unbecoming had to be kept in the Articles. It may not have been a crime by the legal standards of the day but without it there would have been no legal method of settling disputes between individuals when mediation failed, other than the illegal – but tolerated – duel. And if legal confrontation was to replace physical conflict as the means by which civilised men settled quarrels then this was the way ahead. On the other hand a more precise definition of conduct unbecoming might have destroyed its usefulness in settling disputes of honour. For better or worse, the officer corps was governed by its code of honour as well as its legal obligations and the very imprecision of the charge of conduct unbecoming allowed the military legal system to play a part in the settlement of disputes over honour. 49 Personal animosity could thus be reduced and an officer so charged could make his case publicly. Furthermore, the verdicts of courts-martial were subject to confirmation by superior authorities up to and including the King, thus giving an officer far more protection than if the matter were simply left to the chance of a duel.

The court martial as both a legal court and a court of honour was also important in dealing with questions of conduct in the face of the enemy, including matters like surrender, if the example of Admiral Byng was to be avoided. While honour was imprecise and elusive it was not possible for lawyers to wish it away or abolish it in the army and navy, wedded as they were to the notion – a notion that pervaded all ranks. There are plenty of examples of soldiers as well as officers ready to sacrifice their lives for their comrades, or rejoin a battle when they had every reason not to do so, or remain at his post and die, rather than flee and live. Honour in this context, as the French writer Alfred de Vigny put it, was manly decency and the shame of being found wanting was more than could be borne. 50

A Matter of Honour © Lt-Gen Jonathon Riley, 2013

Visiting Professor of War Studies


  1. See among others for example, Richard Benson “The Just War Theory: A Traditional Catholic Moral View” in The Tidings (2006); Mark Evans Just War Theory: A Reappraisal (Edinburgh University Press, 2005).
  2. Lawrence Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641 (London, 1965).
  3. Simon Robson The Courte of Ciuil Courtesie (London,1577).
  4. Baldassare Castiglione Il Cortegiano Del Conte (Book of the Courtier) (Venice, 1606).
  5. Samuel Johnson The Dictionary (London, 1755).
  6. For a fuller discussion see Arthur N. Gilbert “Law and Honour Among Eighteenth-Century British Army Officers” in The Historical Journal, Vol 19, No 1 (1976), p 75 – 87.
  7. Stephen Banks Duels and Duelling (Oxford, 2012), p 42.
  8. Banks, p 17.
  9. See the October 1613 proclamation from the High Court of Chivalry and the February 1614 Proclamation ‘against private challenges and combats’ with an accompanying Edict and severe Censure against Private Combats and Combatants, by the Earl of Northampton, issued in the name of the King.
  10. Banks, pp 32, 33.
  11. Banks, p 27.
  12. John Cockburn, History and Examination of Duels (London, 1720).
  13. Banks, p 23 – 24.
  14. Jonathon Riley, A Matter of Honour: The Life, Campaigns and Generalship of Isaac Brock (Montreal, 2011), p 34 – 35.
  15. Cara King The Sharp Edge of Duelling (2005) citing an earlier account of 1851.
  16. Banks, p 28.
  17. Banks, p 35.
  18. The Clonmel Code (1777).
  19. Cited in M. Barry, An Affair of Honour: Irish Duels and Duellists (Dublin, 1981).
  20. Richard Holmes, Acts of War (London,1985), p 301, citing Morris Janowitz.
  21. Morris Janowitz, The Professional Soldier: A Social and Political Portrait (Glencoe, Illinois, 1960).
  22. Norman Dixon, On the Psychology of Military Incompetence (London, 1976).
  23. Cited by Professor Richard Holmes in a lecture to the Joint Services Staff College, 2002.
  24. Jonathon Riley Empire at Bay: the 6th Coalition and the Downfall of Napoleon (London, 2013).
  25. Holmes, p 302.
  26. Riley A Matter of Honour, pp 285 – 286, 302 – 304.
  27. See the discussion in Jonathon Riley's Napoleon as a General (London, 2006).
  28. Riley A Matter of Honour, p 302 – 304.
  29. Rules and Articles for the Better Government of His Majesty’s Horse and Foot Guards, etc. (London, 1778), Section xv, Article xxiii.
  30. Articles of War, 1798, Section xvi, Article xxii.
  31. Gilbert, p 76 – 77.
  32. Alexander Tyler An essay on Military Law and the Practice of Courts Martial (Edinburgh, 1800), p 117.
  33. Gilbert, p 78; TNA WO 71/69 Correy’s Court-Martial, May 1761..
  34. Gilbert, p 78.
  35. Rules and Articles for the Better Government of His Majesty’s Horse and Foot Guards, and all his other land-forces in Great Britain and Ireland and dominions beyond the sea (London, 1737).
  36. Banks, p 29.
  37. The Norfolk Chronicle, 24 May 1783, p 2.
  38. Gilbert, p 80 – 81.
  39. TNA WO 71/71, Lieutenant Strode Court-Martial, July 1762; Gilbert, p 83.
  40. TNA WO 71/68, Lieutenant Watson Court-Martial; Gilbert, p 84.
  41. TNA WO 71/47, Lieutenant Hill Court-Martial, September 1760; Gilbert, p 86.
  42. See, for example, the discussion based on siege warfare in the seventeenth century in Jonathon Riley's The Last Ironsides (London, 2013).
  43. William Shakespeare The Chronicle of Henry the fifth (London, 1599).
  44. See especially the account by Frederick Anderson, Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766. (London, 2000).
  45. A.D.L. Carey and Stouppe McCance Regimental Records of the Royal Welch Fusiliers (Late the 23rd Foot) Vol I 1689 – 1815 (London, 1921), p 122.
  46. Dudley Pope. At 12 Mr Byng was shot (London, 2002).
  47. Carey and McCance, Vol I, p 184.
  48. Riley, A Matter of Honour, p 228 – 239.
  49. Gilbert, p 86.
  50. Holmes, p 303.


Jonathon Riley, Visiting Professor in War Studies, King’s College London

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