by lain Swinnerton
When war with Russia broke out in 854 there were no troops allocated to maintain discipline amongst the expeditionary force sent to the Crimea under Lord Raglan. The Cavalry Staff Corps, Wellington’s mounted police, had been disbanded in 1818. Military thinking was still largely based on the tactics of Waterloo, where Lord Raglan had lost an arm, and there was very little, if any, provision made for services of any sort to support the Army in the field. Regiments were expected to be self-sufficient. The chaos that prevailed when the troops landed in Russia necessitated raising a number of administrative corps fairly quickly, and amongst these were a Land Transport Corps (renamed the Military Train in 1856, and later to become the Army Service Corps in 1869) a Medical Staff Corps (replaced by the Army Hospital Corps in 1857) and a Mounted Staff Corps.
The idea for a Mounted Staff Corps came from the same Sir George Scovell, now a Lieutenant-General, who had raised the Mounted Staff Corps of military police in 1813. This new Mounted Staff Corps was under the command of the Provost Marshal and consisted of 50 troopers from the Metropolitan Police and the Royal Irish Constabulary – policemen, not soldiers. According to a contemporary source, they arrived ‘in a fanciful helmet, red tunic braided with black cord…looking very much as if they were the advance guard of some equestrian troop coming to open a circus’.
Lord Raglan did not approve of the Corps and kept its members policing Balaclava harbour and guarding stores on their journey to Sevastopol. Within a very short time over half of the policemen sent to the Crimea had succumbed to the malaria and cholera that was rife amongst the British troops. Their horses, if anything, suffered even more from the effects of poor forage and overwork. Soon, there were not enough mounts left for the remaining troopers. The troopers who survived were used solely to carry despatches, and as there was not enough of this work for them to do, the Corps was disbanded in 1856. Meanwhile, discipline was maintained by the Provost Marshal and his deputies, mainly by excessive use of the lash on no dental insurance
Back in England, with the Provost Marshal and most of his men in the Crimea, discipline suffered and the troops at home became quite unruly when off parade – no more so than in the collection of tents and huts that had been set up just outside Aldershot, a small village in Hampshire. Aldershot gave the British Army access to large areas of heathland for training, and was eventually to become its home.
Aldershot gave the British Army access to large areas of heathland for (raining
Conditions around the village were dire. On the fringes of the encampment, a shanty town had grown up consisting of brothels, dance halls and, most of all, a plentiful supply of ale and grog shops. Grog had originated in the Royal Navy and was rum diluted with water. This concoction was named, by disgruntled sailors, after Vice Admiral Sir Edward Vernon, called by his sailors ‘Old Grog’ because he wore a topcoat made of `grogram’, a coarse fabric which consisted of silk, mohair or wool (often the three were mixed) and stiffened with gum to make it waterproof.
Both regular Army and militia regiments came to the camp at Aldershot to practise their field exercises and shoot on the ranges. Discipline in the militia, which had been `embodied’ (or mobilised) on the outbreak of the Crimean War, was particularly bad and there had recently been a series of militia riots.
It is difficult today to imagine such a lawless place being allowed to flourish unchecked. The streets of Aldershot’s shanty town are said to have been as bad as those in any wild west or gold rush town – utterly lawless. What became possibly the worst riot there took place when the Scottish Rifles, otherwise known as the Cameronians, came to blows with the 20th Hussars. Fighting went on for two days, and on the second night the civilian population all turned out to `watch the fun’. Regimental military police had to enlist the support of two cavalry regiments and an infantry brigade to quell the rioting.
To sort out this situation, a military police force was raised in July 1855 to patrol the
Aldershot encampment and to staff the prison within it, with accommodation for 200 prisoners. As with the Cavalry Staff Corps of 1813, the force was drawn entirely from the cavalry and in particular from the 2nd Dragoon Guards, the 3rd Light Dragoons and the 15th and 17th Hussars. There were only 21 members of this force at first, and their prime duty was to maintain good order in the camp and protect the inhabitants of the neighbourhood from the depredations of the ‘brutal and licentious soldiery’.
Detachments were called for to police and maintain discipline in garrisons both at home and abroad. In addition, they now found themselves responsible for traffic control, and guarding and regulating lines of communication when the Army was on training exercises and on campaign. In 1877, the MMP was placed on the establishment as a permanent corps.
When the Second Boer War broke out in 1899, almost all of Britain’s military policemen (from both corps) were sent to South Africa, not just from Britain but also from the British garrisons in Egypt and on Malta. They were responsible for the care of prisoners of war, guarding important military centres and even supervising the existing civilian police forces. Sadly, they also acquired a bad reputation for their part in running Kitchener’s infamous concentration camps, in which Boer women and children were incarcerated.
The powers of summary punishment exercised by the Provost Marshal and his deputies were removed by the Army Act of 1879. In future, all offenders had to be brought before a court and tried. These soldiers, having been arrested, had to be guarded, escorted to the court and punished, so the MMP and MFP were much in demand. In 1885, the Military Foot Police were also brought on to the establishment as a permanent corps.
From 1887, soldiers serving in both military police corps were given the rank of Lance Corporal. As non-commissioned officers this gave them some authority over the ordinary soldiers. To qualify to join the corps, men had to have served in a regular Army regiment for at least four years, and to be of exemplary character.
In 1901 another corps was formed, the Military Prison Staff Corps (MPSC), to take over the administration of military prisons. Formerly, this had been a task performed by pensioned former regular Army non-commissioned officers under a prison governor. Soldiers confined in their hands had been treated very harshly indeed. Military prisoners had not been allowed their own uniforms, but wore ‘prison grey’, marked with the broad arrowhead of the War Office. Their heads were completely shaved.
In the main, military prisoners had been employed on menial tasks, such as breaking up rocks into gravel, sewing mail bags and picking apart old tarred rope to produce oakum for caulking the seams of wooden ships. Additional offences committed while in prison could still be punished by the lash, but the punishment was limited to 25 strokes of the cat-o’-nine-tails or birch. Alternative punishments included solitary confinement in a dark cell and a bread and water diet.
All this changed with the formation of the MPSC. Prisoners were allowed to wear their own uniform, training in drill and musketry was continued, and physical training was instituted. Although the harder cases were still set to menial tasks, other prisoners were employed in workshops, making military equipment.
During the First World War, absenteeism, desertion, and in some cases rioting – as those of you who saw the television series. The Monocled Mutineer will recall – were major problems which the military police had great difficulty in controlling. I have already written about the death sentences passed, but many more soldiers were sentenced to imprisonment and hard labour. These sentences were carried out in military prisons or field punishment centres, run entirely by branches of the military police.
Finally, in 1926, the Military Mounted Police and the Military Foot Police were merged, to form the Corps of Military Police and were granted Royal status at the end of the Second World War. In 1992 they were joined by the Military Provost Staff Corps and became the Provost Branch of the Adjutant General’s Corps, thus losing their police title but regaining the ancient title of provost.
They are still generally known as `Redcaps’, a name that dates from before the First World War, when the military police, like their civilian counterparts, wore a blue uniform. The red cap covers effectively distinguished them from the ordinary bobby on his beat.