World war 1 "Battle Police"

Gentlemen wonder if anyone can help. Reading a book at the moment about the Bradford Pals battalions by David Raw. In one of the chapters there is a mention of "Battle police " who,s job was to check the front line trenches after the troops went "over the top". Evidently they were to shoot anyone who refused to take part in the attack. Does anyone know if this in fact ever occured?. Were they MP,s or from the same battalion?.
Advances were supervised by Military Police to keep an eye out for deserters, but it would be highly unlikely that they would prowl the trenches after an advance looking for cowards. Even if they did, they had no authority to shoot on sight, the full court martial procedure would be followed.

Tommy by Richard Holmes is an excellent source for this sort of thing. For the novice, one of the best descriptions of the Court Martial process in WW1 is in Mud, Blood and Poppycock by Gordon Corrigan.
I think there were a number of safeguards in place;

a. The RSM and his Provost staff in the communications trenches, who would sweep behind the advancing companies.

b. The uncommitted company. After Neuve Chapelle in 1915 most Infantry Battalions left one company out of each major attack to leave a nucleus for the future - they would take turns for this. The company would be used for GDs - portering, bring ammunition up, casualty clearing etc. I believe some Officers / NCOs were responsible for questioning any guys coming back.

c. The Bde RMP.

Ratso_Rizzo said:
Evidently they were to shoot anyone who refused to take part in the attack. Does anyone know if this in fact ever occured?. Were they MP,s or from the same battalion?.
Umm... don't think so! Shooting those suspected of desertion on the spot was certainly not officially ordered / sanctioned. May well have happened in the heat of the moment to stop panic getting out of hand, though.

Worth remembering that it was actually very rare for those refusing to advance to be shot after court-martial. While there are some well-known cases ( recently re-publicised in the "Shot At Dawn" debate ) of executions, they were only in particularly dire circumstances i.e. when the individual had a long and nasty history and / or the particular unit was being singled out for poor discipline.

Tough times...

A number of old soldiers were enlisted directly from civil life, as were civil policemen, and units of infantry and cavalry were transferred en bloc. The practice of temporarily 'attaching' men, or complete units, for police duties continued.

At first each divisional establishment included an Assistant Provost Marshal (usually a captain) and 25 NCOs of the MMP. Corps headquarters had a small detachment of MFP men. The APMs on lines of communications duties had even fewer men. As far as provost duties were concerned, no instructions existed as to what these might be, and they had to be defined and acted on as they became apparent. In France these mainly included the manning of 'stragglers' posts', traffic control, dealing with crime committed by British soldiers, the control of civilians within the battle area, handling prisoners of war, and patrolling rear areas and ports. Of these, perhaps the operation of stragglers' posts has become the least understood, giving rise to the legend of the Redcap, pistol in hand, forcing shell-shocked Tommies forward to certain death. The facts paint an entirely different picture. Stragglers' posts or battle-stops, as they were sometimes called, were collecting points behind the front lines where prisoners of war were taken over from the infantry, runners and message-carriers were checked and directed. Walking wounded from Regimental Aid Posts were directed to casualty collecting stations for evacuation, and 'stragglers' were dealt with. This last-named duty involved halting soldiers who were obviously neither casualties, signalers or runners, re-arming and equipping them if necessary, and sending them forward to rejoin their units, individually or in groups. With so few MMP or MFP men available, this type of work was mostly done by 'trench police' or 'battle police', men from a division's cavalry squadron or cyclist company, regimental police or corps cavalry, who also directed traffic in communication trenches. All worked under the direction of the divisional APM. Later in the war, a typical division in the line employed over 250 officers and men on provost duties within its area. They manned four straggler posts, provided an MP presence at the casualty collection post, operated various road traffic control posts and a number of mobile traffic patrols.

Military police were familiar figures at Mons, the Marne, Ypres, and the Somme. In war-ridden France, British Military Police, that is the CMP, were used for the first time to control refugees and stragglers. The Battle of Ains was the first time that a traffic circuit was used, whilst the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in 1915 was the first time that traffic posts were used. The importance of traffic control in the battle area was evident from the start of the war, but a planned approach to the problem of traffic did not emerge for some time. At first, divisional provost troops attended to the needs of their own formation, but this attitude frequently led to delays. Improvements were made, but not in time to prevent a serious traffic control problem at the battle of Loos in September 1915. After the start of the battle, two divisions, the 21st and the 24th, were called forward from reserve to exploit a breach in the enemy's line. Their approach march has been described by one commentator as like trying 'to push the Lord Mayor's procession through the streets of London without clearing the route or holding up the traffic'. The infantry of the two divisions arrived at the battle late and exhausted, and their attack failed. In the wake of the disaster the problems of traffic control were properly tackled and corrected.

Absenteeism and desertion became an increasing problem as the war progressed. It was the duty of military policemen to apprehend deserters and hold them for trial by court martial. Much has been written about the British soldiers of the Great War who suffered death by firing squad for the crimes of cowardice or desertion. More than 3,000 sentences of death were passed by British courts martial between 1914 and 1920, of which 346 were carried out;
266 were for desertion,
18 for cowardice,
37 for murder,
seven for quitting post,
three for mutiny,
two for sleeping while a sentry,
six for striking a superior officer,
five for disobedience and
two for casting away arms.
Many of those shot were under suspended sentences of death and had re-offended. Against these figures should be balanced those of the 702,410 officers and men of the British forces who were killed in action. Assistant Provost Marshals and their men had the grim duty of supervising the executions of men sentenced to death. They themselves were not required to furnish the firing squads. Any serious offenders, if not sentenced to death, rapidly found their way to Field Punishment Centres or Military Prisons. These were run by men of the MPSC and by military policemen, while Provost Marshals had the supervision of the FPCs.

During the First World War,'Redcap' or 'Cherrynob' became the terms applied by British soldiers to any military policeman to the red cap cover which had been taken into use before the war to distinguish an MP on duty, when the blue uniform then worn resembled that of a civilian policeman. The practice of wearing red cap covers continued with khaki service dress, but was only worn by men of the MMP and MFP) Not all the men attached for provost duties were as efficient as the regular Redcaps, and their behaviour at times fell short of the standards of the corps. However, discipline in the British Expeditionary Force in France, and in the armies at home and in other overseas theatres was properly maintained throughout the war. The British suffered no serious breakdown of discipline like that in the French Army in 1917, and this was due in no small measure to the efforts of provost forces.

By the end of the war the strength of the forces under the control of the Provost Marshal of the BEF had grown to almost 15000 all ranks, while it has been reckoned that over 25,000 men served in a provost role during the war. Some 375 lost their lives and the corps won 477 decorations including 13 DSO's (Distinguished Service Order). Their achievements had a particular cost. The pre-war soldiers' respect for the Redcap had plummeted by 1918 to an all-time low, particularly within the ranks the 'poor bloody infantry', who saw the military policemen as the instrument of a brutal regime which had sent them into the line again and again and had savagely punished their weaker comrades. The constant Redcap presence, in the line and out, particularly that of a minority of over-zealous or bullying MPs, exacerbated the ill-feeling. This was a great pity, for the legend of the brutal Redcap devalued the achievements of British Provost forces, who had risen to the challenges of the war.
A shameless cut and paste.


Adding to Western about the death sentence it is worth reading George Coppard:
One fine evening two military policemen appeared with a handcuffed prisoner, and, in full view of the crowd and villagers, tied him to the wheel of a limber, cruciform fashion. The poor devil, a British Tommy, was undergoing Field Punishment Number One, and this public exposure was part of the punishment. There was a dramatic silence as every eye watched the man being fastened to the wheel, and some jeering started. Lashing men to a wheel in public was one of the most disgraceful things in the war. Troops resented these exhibitions, but they continued until 1917, when the War Minister put a stop to them, following protests in Parliament.

I believe that an important modification of the death sentence also took place in 1917. It appeared that the military authorities were compelled to take heed of the clamour against the death sentences imposed by courts martial. There had been too many of them. As a result, a man who would otherwise have been executed was instead compelled to take part in the fore-front of the first available raid or assault on the enemy. He was purposely placed in the first wave to cross No Man's Land and it was left to the Almighty to decide his fate. This was the situation as we Tommies understood it, but nothing official reached our ears. Let the War Office dig out its musty files and tell us how many men were treated in this way, and how many survived the cruel sentences. Shylock, in demanding his pound of flesh, had got nothing on the military bigwigs in 1917.
Extract from his book 'With Machinegun to Cambrai'
"Evidently they were to shoot anyone who refused to take part in the attack"

Exceeds Powers of CO, or Brigade, Divisional, Corps or Army Commander.

A myth of history I will suggest.
I grew up in World War 2. Most of the older men had served in World War 1, including my grandad. I used to sit in the pub garden on summer evenings listening to their tales.

One night the subject got on to going 'over the top', fear, casualties, etc., and one man told of the hated and feared "Field Police", who did indeed have the authority to summarily shoot anyone still in the trench when they should have gone over with their mates.

One of these had shot a terrified 15 year-old, who had already been in enough attacks to last a lifetime.

This caused enough bad feeling in this midlands regiment that the policeman was switched to another section of the front line.

Unortunately for him the word was passed on, and in the next attack involving the new regiment, as the men went over the top, officers and sergeants leading, the last man to climb the ladder out turned and shot the policeman dead.

The army obviously doesn't want the role of the "Field Police" to get around.
At a guess, if these guys were entering the forward trenches as the boys went over the top, the "summary" bit would probably have been used. The threat of a CM is not going to do much.

Not only the role of the FP is hidden but also their character. Rank cowards all of them, or they would be going over the top with the rest of the boys wouldn't they. Not cushying it up in some safe billet.

The Royal Engineers Dispatch Riders wore Blue and White ribbons to distinguish them as such to prevent "red on blues" from the Redcaps. These colours were later used for teh TRFs of teh Royal Corps' of Signals, who took on these duties.

from a ww1 forum

When I was about 17, in the early 50s I used to visit the Local KOYLI Drill Hall on a Sunday Morning to attend meetings of the Regimental Association. It was always crowded with old soldiers from the Great War. I say old many were nowhere near as old as I am now.

On one such morning a rather smartly dressed man came in wearing the KOYLI Regimental tie and suddenly a violent argument started between several members inc. Granddad and newcomer. The man was ordered out and told not to come back. It appears that the man left the KOYLI and posted to the 'Battle Police'. Of course this started many anecdotes about the Police Inc one were there was a gun battle between the KOYLI and the Police in a forward trench during the battle of the Somme.
There seems anecdotal evidence of ill men being pushed in to No Mans Land to save them from the Battle Police entering the trenches.