The “accused” not the “prisoner” in First World War discipline, and sentence before evidence in 40 Years On

I am re-reading Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That and came across an unexpected piece of sensitivity towards the status of those allegedly in breach of Kings Regulations or, at least, in the label given to them.

We are not talking here of Courts Martial and serious offences but of minor matters dealt with in the Battalion Orderly Room. Sessions would apparently last “for five hours every day, at the rate of one crime dealt with every three or four minutes”. Graves gives some dialogue:

Escort and prisoner, right turn! Quick march! Right wheel! Left wheel! Mark Time! Escort and prisoner, halt! Left turn!

Given the rate at which these offences were dealt with, one would not expect the army to be overly sensitive as to the language used. Graves notes, however, that:

The sole change brought by the introduction of the civilian element into the army was that, about halfway through the war, an Army Council instruction laid down that henceforth the word of command must be: “Accused and Escort, right turn, quick march…” instead of “Prisoner and escort, right turn, quick march…”

At a time when press, prosecution and, so one hears, some judges, seem convinced that the party before the court is ipso facto guilty by virtue of being there at all, it is interesting to see that even army discipline was expected to acknowledge the status of the accused before the hearing.

This is not a mere matter of semantics, and it happens the other way as well. When a Wiltshire policeman, high in zeal and low in IQ, hands out the label “victim” to anyone who was once in the same room as Ted Heath 30 years ago, the concept of victimhood is debased, to the disadvantage of anyone who truly is a victim.


By chance, something else from my current reading touches on distortions of criminal procedure. I am going next week to see Alan Bennett’s 40 Years On in Chichester, and am re-re-reading it.

Neville Chamberlain is appearing before the Court of History:

Judge: …I shall now proceed to sentence (Drum roll).

Counsel: But the evidence, m’lud.

Judge: The prisoner has come here for sentence. Let us get that out of the way before we hear the evidence. First things first.

Counsel: It’s usual to have the evidence first, m’lud.

Judge: Don’t try and tie me up in legal mumbo jumbo. I know the trial procedure backwards.


This is irrelevant to my theme of courts and nomenclature, but the reason I know this play is that some 43 years ago, I was follow-spot at a production of the play in the Oxford Playhouse, and watching it night after night left much of it in my head in the tones and cadences of those who then took the parts.




About Chris Dale

I have been an English solicitor since 1980. I run the e-Disclosure Information Project which collects and comments on information about electronic disclosure / eDiscovery and related subjects in the UK, the US, AsiaPac and elsewhere
This entry was posted in History, Words and language. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The “accused” not the “prisoner” in First World War discipline, and sentence before evidence in 40 Years On

  1. Fascinating. The court room scene is straight out of Alice in wonderland, with verdict first, evidence afterwards. The play looks a hoot!

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