Lieutenant-Colonel Toby Masterton looked the boy straight in the eyes. “Your behaviour has been contrary to good military discipline. You will now drop your trousers, bend over and touch your toes.”
Eighteen-year-old Sapper Alan Barrett had been returning his commander’s stare impassively; but now his eyes sparkled as the seriousness of the situation sank in.
He had not expected this. Barrett knew the Lt-Col was newly appointed to command the Royal Engineers embarkation camp. What he didn’t know was that Masterton had specific instructions to tighten up discipline at the unit. And, he was going to do this in traditional military style.
The Lt-Col rose from behind his desk and picked up his swagger stick. It was a solid rod, about twenty inches long. He knew from experience this would leave an impression on the boy’s behind that he wouldn’t forget in a very long time.
“Get on with it Barrett,” it was a stern command. Masterton smacked the stick into the palm of his left hand to emphasise his impatience.
Barrett had not expected this. He had been absent from the camp without leave and knew he would have to be punished, but usually a lad was confined to camp or lost some other privileges, or even a day’s pay. But, to be ordered to take down his trousers and bend over like some schoolboy in front of the headmaster was unheard of.
Blushing scarlet, the boy began to loosen his trousers and let them drop to the top of his (not very highly polished) army boots. Then in one athletic movement he swooped over, stretching his fingers so the tips touched his steel toe caps. Barrett knew the procedure. He had been caned many times both at school and the orphanage where he had been brought up. He knew very well the sting a whippy rattan cane could make as it thwacked into his stretched backside.
The difference today was that he wasn’t at school, his trousers were at his feet and it wasn’t the headmaster about to whack him with a thin whippy cane, it was his commanding officer who was going to lay into him with a solid stick.
Masterton looked on impassively as the boy obeyed his order without question. He deserved this thrashing and it would do him a lot of good, he thought. Once word got around camp that this was how miscreants were treated, the Lt-Col expected behaviour to improve immeasurably.
Masterton took hold of the boy’s khaki shirt and moved the tail away from the target area, revealing an expanse of off-white cotton underpants. Barrett was quite small, a consequence of poor diet from an early age. Most men of his social class were the same. It was a wonder they were fit enough to undertake military service.
He placed his hand on the base of Barrett’s back to move him slightly so he could get an uninterrupted swing into his buttocks, raised the swagger stick shoulder high and brought it crashing down into the boy’s cheeks. He let out a gasp and screwed up his face tightly, but otherwise remained impassive. After a dozen strokes he was ordered to stand.
Barrett had never known such agony, it felt like his bum was a covered in welts and his pants were stuck to his skin; he was sure he was bleeding.
His face had turned from scarlet to deathly white and he was desperate to scream out with the intense pain, but he was a military man and as such he could not show he was hurt.
On command he pulled up his trousers and was dismissed. Later, he was still so sore he had to eat his lunch standing up.
Masterton was thirty-nine years old and had been brought back to England from Germany to take command of the camp. The Top Brass had decided it was going to ruin and it needed a strong disciplinarian to turn it around. Masterton was their man and they didn’t mind too much how he went about the job as long as he succeeded.
The Lt-Col soon let it be known to fellow officers and NCOs that he approved of corporal punishment above all other sanctions and he was prepared to turn a blind eye to its use.
That was how Peter Jenkins found himself, trousers and pants down, bent across the knee of Lt Allenby. Gunner Jenkins was a mess orderly and among his other duties he was expected to keep Allenby’s quarters clean and tidy. He was a jolly boy and Allenby liked having him around. He wasn’t well educated and Allenby had started helping him with his reading (many of the boys joined up especially so they could have a chance to learn to read and write). Allenby thought he had developed a good relationship with the eighteen year old and hoped the boy saw him as a bit of a father figure.
Things went very well until one day anxious to get away from camp on a forty-eight hour pass Jenkins skipped his chores and left the lieutenant’s bed unmade and his room un-cleaned.
Jenkins knew he had behaved badly and expected to be punished on his return. But he didn’t expect to find himself face down across his commander’s knees staring at the un-swept floor while the lieutenant whacked his bare arse with a gym slipper. The pain was intense and so was the humiliation of showing his crack and balls to his master.
After a couple of dozen hard whacks the boy was released. For some moments he stood hypnotized, not certain what he should do next. His rear was on fire and raw from the top of the cheeks to his thighs. The imprint of the slipper was clearly visible where the sole had branded the flesh. If you looked closely you might be able to read the trade name ‘Dunlop’ in reverse across his buttocks.
Allenby ordered him to get dressed and resume his duties. So, fighting back the urge to bawl his eyes out and with a throbbing backside, the eighteen year old held onto a broom and started to sweep the floor.
No boy on the base was allowed to smoke until he reached twenty-one and became a legal adult. If he did Lt-Col Masterton had ordered he should be flogged across the buttocks with a stout cane. He preferred it to be done with some ritual.
The camp’s military police soon devised a ceremony that struck fear into the hearts of all the young tobacco addicts. Tommy Alberston, a twenty-year-old serial smoker, was the first to go through the rite. The camp had a dummy gun, rather like a canon used one hundred or more years earlier, and this became the centrepiece of the proceedings. He was marched in to discover beside the gun a file of men and a corporal from the military police; he was a big, powerful fellow and he fingered a stout cane.
On command Alberson stepped forward hitched up his trousers and threw himself across the gun on his stomach; his head hanging down one side, his feet on the other. A couple of men knelt by his head and took a wrist and an ankle each and drew them together so that the trousers fitted very tightly across the young man’s firm buttocks.
The corporal threw himself into his striking stance, intending to inflict the maximum pain possible. Swish! Alberson stifled a scream and tried to wriggle free, but the two men gripped him firmly in position.
The corporal was in no hurry. The first stroke had been a sort of overhead and downward cut. This second one – swish! – came underhand and upwards. He wriggled on the gun, sweat now pouring from his body and his face was scarlet as one supposed were his buttocks.
Whizz! A straight forearm cut fair across the other two lines. The men let his hands and feet go, he sprang erect with flushed face and suspiciously brilliant eyes, and trotted off to his duties, but he wouldn’t be able to sit down to do them for a day or two.
Nobody could remember the last time a lad had been birched at the camp. The police corporal didn’t even know how to prepare the birch rods so he sought the advice of a willing retired officer. He was able to find the necessary leafless branches in a copse close to the army camp. He cut eight of them so they were three feet long and tightly bound them at the base with sticking plaster. He had been advised to soak the birch in brine for as long as possible to ensure the suppleness of the rods and the effectiveness of the sting they would inflict on bared flesh: he found a large enamel bucket and thus prepared he was ready to deal with Gunner Johnstone.
Johnstone was nineteen-years-old and something of a recidivist; he was constantly in trouble and often for similar offences which other punishments had failed to control. When sentence was passed, twelve cuts of the birch bare breech, he was impassive. He too knew no lad had been birched in living memory and when he survived the ordeal he would be something of a hero in the camp.
The sentence was set for the following morning (to allow the birch to soak overnight) and Johnstone was summoned to the camp gymnasium for nine o’clock. As with Alberston’s caning, there was a guard of honour to meet him when he arrived as instructed dressed only in a white PT vest and tight gym shorts. Johnstone was a big fit lad, standing over 6 ft tall and he was a keen football player and athlete. His body was muscular and well-toned and he fitted snugly into the vest and shorts; not that it mattered too much since the shorts would be removed and the vest pulled right back so that he was naked from nearly the shoulders down.
He was commanded to stand in front of the vaulting horse and after the charges and the punishment details were read aloud, he was instructed, “shorts down and over the horse lad.”
Johnstone wished that some of his pals were among the guard of honour to witness how well he would take the birching; after all a little bit of history was about to be made here.
The corporal and his colleagues had decided Johnstone should not be held down for his whipping, instead he would be expected to take it like a man. They fully expected that he would not be able to do so and would try to escape his punishment after the first lash landed eight supple birch twigs into his bared buttocks. Then, they would add to his humiliation by forcing him back over the horse and holding him steady while the corporal laid in the remaining eleven cuts.
Johnstone stuck his thumbs in the waistband of the tight white shorts and tugged them down to his feet. Then, not looking to left or right he swiftly dived across the back of the horse. It could have been tailor made for him. A fit young man of 6ft easily fitted across the horse and with his feet planted firmly on the ground on one side he was able to stretch over the horse’s back and grab hold of the rope handles on the side that were used for carrying the PE equipment.
The corporal had a grudging admiration for the boy, who seemed ready to take his punishment without fuss. The corporal had never birched anyone before but had been advised that the pain from such a punishment could be less than that from a traditional caning and therefore he must ensure he lashed the birch rods into the proffered fleshy buttocks at considerable force.
He withdrew the birch rod from the enamel bucket and the sound of wood against metal echoed around the gymnasium, making Johnstone crane his neck to see what was going on behind him.
“Face the front lad,” ordered the leader of the punishment detail and then after a pause. “Let the punishment commence.”
The corporal took a moment to take his aim; he admired the muscle tone of the lad and his almost completely hairless body. Johnstone flexed his buttocks a little in anticipation of the agony he expected as the rods struck home, the corporal took a deep breath, lifted the birch, then lashed down the first stroke.
Johnstone gasped and gripped tightly onto the rope handles, but other than that he made no reaction. Eight small scars immediately formed across the centre of his buttocks.
Number two hurt the boy even more, but he was determined not to show it. He groaned a little, but he was still in control of himself. Lash number three was directed to the lower part of the cheeks where they met the thighs and the pain was excruciating; Johnstone gagged a little and vomit rose to his throat but he managed to swallow it down and he hoped no one in the punishment detail had noticed.
Sweat poured from his body, down his half-naked back and into the crack between his buttocks. There were dozens of lines across his bum, arranged neatly from left to right and from the top of the globes where they meet the spine to under the curves close to the thighs. Every square inch of his rear end was scarred.
The pain turned to agony and the boy’s face was as white as a sheet. The next swipe had him almost tearing the ropes from their moorings. He groaned at the agony and tears formed in his eyes, but he was not a broken man.
The corporal, unsure how a boy should react during a birching and thinking he might not be whipping the nineteen-year-old gunner hard enough, laid the next strokes on with renewed vigour. Johnstone wriggled his body from left to right, but with the aid of the horse’s handles he struggled to remain in position, prostrate across the wooden vaulting horse with his bared arse still pointing submissively at his punisher.
By cut number ten, blood was forming as some birch strokes landed upon those that had already marked the once white and now reddening bottom. Johnstone let out a silent cry; it was a wonder that he wasn’t howling the gymnasium down. The agony was intense and the pain had travelled from his blooded buttocks throughout his whole body. His shoulders ached with the effort of gripping at the rope and his finger nails had cut deep trenches in the palms of his hands. His head ached as his blood pressure went through the roof and tried to burst through his ears. But, he refused to cry out: he would not give them the satisfaction.
Then, cut number twelve thrashed into his flesh, Johnstone’s head rose and he bit deep into his tongue to stifle the yell he so wanted to make. His tongue would be damaged and he would have as much trouble speaking over the coming days as he would sitting down.
“Punishment over,” the leader of punishment detail intoned and unceremoniously the corporal replaced the birch rod in the bucket of brine.
Johnstone lay across the vaulting horse; a spent man. He could barely breathe and was in urgent need of medical attention, but the punishment detail being inexperienced in birching had not thought to invite a doctor to attend as witness.
It was a curt instruction; Johnstone fell off the back of the horse but managed (just) to stay upright. He took a deep gasp, hauled his shorts up to cover his blazing bottom and staggered out the door, bouncing off the wall as soon as he was through it and out of sight of the others.
The punishment detail was dismissed and the corporal tidied way the horse before picking up the birch rods and the bucket.
He wouldn’t admit it to anyone, but the corporal had a grudging admiration for Johnstone and the way he had taken his whipping. But the admiration was only grudging. Next time, he vowed to himself as he closed and locked the gym door, he would whip the brat to death.
Author’s note: part of this story was inspired by a news report in Daily News, London, 10 August 1903.
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More stories from Charles Hamilton II are on the MMSA website
Charles Hamilton the Second