Thomas Swatton – a tale of drink and the lash…

This story will be another of a series of odd ones following on from that about Thomas Swatton of the 66th Foot. This is a tale of yet another Thomas Swatton ( a name seemingly as common as muck in our family) who joined the army and, like the former Thomas, I have no concrete evidence that he is a direct relation but reiterating how unusual the surname is and that he was born in the same region (around Hampshire/Wiltshire) as all the others, again I’m convinced there must be a familial link.
This tale, however, will be rather more depressing than Thomas of the 66th.
The Thomas Swatton of this tale was born in 1834 in Ogbourn, Wiltshire and at the age of just 16 or 17 he enlisted in the 38th Regiment of Foot in October 1851. The regiment had just returned from a three-year tour of duty in North America, landing back at Portsmouth in August of that year. The next couple of years, Thomas’ introduction to the army, saw it based in the UK but things would change with the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1854.

38th foot light company 1855

1854 – Members of 38th Light company parading for Lieutenant-General Sir John Campbell

The strength of the Regiment on embarkation from England was 32 officers and 910 men and they sailed on two steam ships, the Megara and Melbourne, bound first for Gallipoli where they disembarked in the middle of May. In June they moved to Scutari (now in the outskirts of Istanbul) and then to Varna (now a city in Bulgaria), then still part of the Ottoman Empire.
For the following 10 weeks the 38th were to be involved in the loading and unloading of ships at Varna docks – a somewhat unglamorous start to the expedition to the East. Finally on the 14th September the 38th landed in the Crimea some twenty-eight miles march from Sebastopol – and the capture of Sebastopol was to be the main war aim of the Allies.
On the 19th September the whole Allied force of some 60,000 men began their advance on Sebastopol when, only some 12 miles from the city, the first major action of the war involving the British was to be fought near the Alma River the following day. The 38th would play little part in the battle, their commanding officer later complaining loudly about the delays that had prevented his regiment from being engaged.

38th veteran

38th Regiment veteran from the Crimea

In November, however, under foggy conditions the Russians made a huge sortie and launched a surprise attack on the British. This would become known as the battle of Inkerman. The superior firepower of the British, including the bulk of the 38th, inflicted heavy casualties on the Russians who, nevertheless, continued to pour men into the fight. But when the French arrived, attacking the Russian flank, they were forced to withdraw.

After this, the British troops were faced with the grim siege of Sebastopol dragging on through the Russian winter. The logistical support for the army failed utterly and the troops had no warm winter clothes, inadequate shelter and meagre rations. On top of this the army was ravaged by cholera and typhus.

A substantial number of men of the 38th were to lose their lives to disease. In fact far more men died of disease than in the actual fighting and the number of British troops quickly whittled away. Indeed numbers decreased so much that the British could not spare any for a major offensive against the Russians and it wasn’t until 18th June 1855 the men of the 38th were to find themselves in another major attack. Lord Raglan, with typical hubris, had chosen the anniversary of Waterloo to claim his final victory at Sebastopol so confident was he that the allies would carry the city. As part of the British assault on the Great Redan, the 38th were to fight a diversionary action to the left of the fort. The brigade of which the 38th was part captured the cemetery and went on to occupy some of the suburbs of Sebastopol but the main French attack on the fort got pinned down so Raglan ordered the British troops to attack the Redan directly. The result was a massacre.

But what of our Thomas Swatton?

After coming through the appalling winter of 54/55 and being promoted in the spring to corporal, he was promoted again, to sergeant, after the failed attack on the Great Redan in July.

floggingBut something finally broke Sergeant Thomas Swatton and in November he was disciplined, probably for drunkenness as that was by far the most common offense. His service record states that he was imprisoned for a month. Most likely this was on a prison ship in Balaklava harbour. He was broken back to the ranks and given 50 lashes…

What made flogging so powerful was the very thing objected to by reformers: it was a punishment designed to humiliate and degrade. As the government explained in 1834, ‘The object of the punishment was, to strike terror into others by the example.

To achieve that end, the army created a flogging ritual. To make the punishment even more degrading, the man wielding the cat was not a proper soldier: cavalrymen were whipped by the regimental farrier, while infantrymen were scourged by drummers. On the day of the flogging, the corps formed a square around a triangle of halberds to which the man was tied. All ranks were compelled to watch the punishment to the end but fainting was common and insensible spectators had to be carried to the rear. The image above shows a man in the foreground, who has been overcome and fainted. To see the flesh torn from a man’s back must have been a gruesome sight. But the gory horror of the flogging itself does not explain why ‘shame’ is a term that both advocates and critics of flogging used time and again. Why was it shameful, a disgrace, to be flogged?

slaveUndoubtedly, it was the flogging of slaves that associated the punishment with the utmost degradation in the British mind. Many soldiers must have had scars similar to this slave’s, particularly before the number of lashes was restricted.

In 1846, less than 10 years before Thomas’ experience, the case of the death of Trooper John White of the 9th Hussars brought flogging to the public’s attention. Following a post-mortem the jury brought in the verdict that Private White had died “from the mortal effects of a severe and cruel flogging of 150 lashes”.

The reporting of this case and many similar and often fatal lashings, in barracks, penal colonies and aboard ships caused the public to react. A petition demanding the end of flogging was presented to the House of Lords on 14th August 1846 obliging the government to devote a whole day’s debate to the subject of military floggings. As a concession, following the advice of the Duke of Wellington, the War Office altered its regulations, making fifty lashes the maximum punishment, soothing public opinion somewhat.

As for Thomas, after his experiences of the gruelling winter of 54/55, the death from cholera of many of his comrades and the actions at Inkerman and the Great Redan and the grinding attrition of the trenches around Sebastopol, we would these days probably put his lapse down to post-traumatic stress but it seems that after this first disciplinary episode his performance as a soldier fell apart, the consequence for him being grimly predictable.

The regiment embarked for England on the 26th of June 1856 after the peace treaty ending the Crimean War was signed in Paris. Landing back in England, Thomas Swatton, absconded and was listed as a deserter. For whatever reason, whether he was captured or returned voluntarily I don’t know, but the following month, with the regiment having moved to Ireland he was court martialled.

He was sentenced to receive 50 lashes once more and imprisoned for 84 days with hard labour.

Almost exactly a year later, the 38th embarked for India, the jewel of Empire that was in the midst of the horrific Mutiny.

Landing at Calcutta in November 1857, the 38th Foot marched on Cawnpore which had witnessed appalling atrocities perpetrated by the mutineers during the summer, and matched by the subsequent dreadful reprisals meted out by the British and East India Company troops. In December the city was threatened again by a mutineer force but they were defeated at the Second Battle of Cawnpore in which the 38th took part.

With the regiment billeted in Cawnpore, less than a month later Thomas was in trouble again, court martialled for being “Drunk on march. Violence towards a superior officer.” Found guilty he was sentenced to 42 days imprisonment with hard labour and yet another set of 50 lashes.

Just over a week after Thomas was released from this spell in confinement, his regiment marched with the force under the overall command of Sir Colin Campbell to recapture Lucknow that had be abandoned to the mutineers the previous November. The attack on the city began on 3rd March and by the 21st the city was declared clear of rebels.

As the majority of rebels escaped the city, the next months over the following summer and monsoon season were spent clearing the rebels from the surrounding countryside. As a result, the army suffered heavy casualties from heatstroke and other diseases.

The 38th used Lucknow as its base and Thomas once again managed to get himself into trouble. In July he was court martialled for the final time and, being found guilty of being drunk on duty, the sentence was the by now inevitable 50 lashes, bringing his total to 200 lashes in two and a half years.

Quite how long this sequence of behaviour could have gone on I don’t know but it wasn’t to be as in 1859, when the regiment was stationed at the Bareilly Cantonment, Thomas was badly injured. He was in the hospital hut there when the roof collapsed injuring his back which was assessed as being severe enough for him to be declared medically unfit for further service.

He was discharged from the service on 10 July 1860 and I’m afraid that’s where the trail ends; I can’t find any records that definitively relate to him after that… I’ll keep looking.

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