Court martial

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A Court martial is a military trial of a member of the armed forces on a criminal or military charge. Criminal charges would be those that would be subject to a criminal trial if the offender were a civilian, these could include murder, sodomy or theft. Military charges would include specifically military issues such as desertion or cowardice in the face of the enemy.

In the Articles of War, many of the offences require a court martial to be convened. This was mandatory if the accused was a commissioned or warrant officer or the charge involved the death penalty.

In the early 19th century, a Royal Navy court martial was made up of a board of post captains presided over by the most senior captain. There was usually a clerk who provided legal advice to the board and recorded the evidence and decision of the court. Sometimes in remote locations, it would take an extended period of time before a sufficient number of post captains were present to form a court. During this period an ordinary sailor would be confined either ashore or aboard but an officer would be relieved of duty but usually allowed his freedom.

The court could administer sentences ranging from a reprimand or dismissal from the service to flogging round the fleet or a death sentence.

In the Canon

The surviving captain and crew of a ship would be tried for the loss of their ship either to enemy action or to shipwreck. Jack Aubrey was tried in Master and Commander for the capture of HMS Sophie.

He should also have been tried for the loss of HMS Polychrest, HMS Ariel and HMS Diane but O'Brian does not describe these trials or their results.

Other courts martial are described in some detail, for example in The Ionian Mission [1],


  1. The Ionian Mission, Chapter 4, pg. 104 ff (HarperCollins ppbk)
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