Dishonourable discharge

In an era when men fought to maintain their honour, few punishments cut as deep as degradation or cashiering. The ritualistic and public disgracing of a soldier was reserved for the most serious crimes. Symbols of office and rank were destroyed – swords broken, batons snapped, uniforms torn and badges and medals ripped off. All of this was performed in front of an audience and to the solemn soundtrack of a slow drumbeat.

On 5 January 1895 a select group of army officers, politicians and journalists were gathered in the Morlan Court of France’s École Militaire in Paris. As they talked amongst themselves, the growing sound of a swelling crowd could be heard from beyond the walls of the academy. What was to follow became one of the most infamous scenes in French history – the degradation of Captain Alfred Dreyfus.

Alfred Dreyfus, in Vanity Fair,_1899-09-07.jpg: "JB GUTH" (Jean Baptiste Guth) derivative work: Londonjackbooks (Alfred_Dreyfus,_Vanity_Fair,_1899-09-07.jpg) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Dreyfus was a Jewish officer who had been tried by a Court Martial of spying for Germany. His case would become a cause célèbre, dividing radicals and conservatives, the secular and religious and poisoning political debate in the Third Republic with a particularly virulent strain of anti-Semitism. It stands today as one of most egregious miscarriages of justice.

Whilst the story of l’affaire Dreyfus has many interesting aspects – his incarceration on Devil’s Island, the machinations of the War Office and army to maintain ‘honour’, Franco-German relations in the aftermath of the War of 1870 and the rivalry between military elites from the Ecole Polytechnique and the École Spéciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr – but it is his ritual degradation that caught my imagination.

It was a cold and clear early morning in Paris when up to 5,000 troops and invited guests gathered to perform the army’s ritual humiliation on one of its brother officers found guilty of the most heinous crime. A slow, steady drum beat sounded across the court and the invited spectators and uninvited onlookers fell silent.

Cashiering of Alfred Dreyfus in the Morlan Court of the École Militaire in Paris by Henri Meyer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Dreyfus was brought out into the open and escorted to the front of the École Militaire by four artillery officers. Once in position General Darras, representing the President of the Republic, read the judgement out loud:

“Dreyfus, you are unworthy to carry arms. In the name of the people of France we degrade you.”

An adjutant in the Republican Guard then stepped forward and tore off the buttons and badges from his unform, ripped out the thin strips of gold braid from his epaulettes and jacket, cut the red stripes from his trousers and tore away the cuffs and sleeves of his jacket.

With Dreyfus’s uniform now in tatters, the adjutant took the ‘traitor’s’ sword and broke it over his knee. Although the adjutant was particularly large, this was not quite the feat of strength it appeared – the sword had been worked the day before to ensure it would snap at the right place and without too much effort.

Dreyfus was then slow marched to the solemn and sombre accompaniment of the drum and the outraged shouts and calls of the Parisian mob. Many commentators remarked on Dreyfus’s composure. He did protest his innocence and gave out shouts of “vive la France” and “vive l’Armee”. His cries were drowned out by the crowd who demanded “death to the traitor” and “death to the Jews”.

Although Dreyfus’s treatment is one of the most famous examples, it is by no means the only time this ritual humiliation was used in France – this New York Times article reports the treatment of Captain Mathuzewich. Neither was the process reserved to the French army – a similar process, cashiering, was used throughout the British army and its colonial offshoots.

Cashiering of John Whitelocke

Examples of this are given in Margaret Griffin’s ‘Regulating Religion and Morality in the King’s Armies: 1639-1646’. A dismissal with infamy is described involving an officer of artillery in Falkirk in 1745. His sentence was read out, his commission cancelled, his sword broken over his head, his sash cut into pieces and thrown into his face and, with a kick up the backside somewhat dispelling the solemn nature of the ceremony, he was turned out of the line.

Other soldiers were simply drummed out of the line with a halter (or collar for livestock) tied around their neck. The cancelling of the commission was particularly damaging to the officer in the days when these were bought and sold. If his commission was cancelled, it could not be sold on and resulted in a real economic penalty for the disgraced soldier.