A Short History of the Royal Military Police and its Antecedents
Early Records The title of Provost Marshal is one the most ancient appointments in the service of the British Crown, its origins are lost in antiquity. In the times of the Norman kings, the Provost Marshal was an under-officer of the Earl Marshal, holding the appointment within the Court of Chivalry. One of his most important duties was to maintain the ‘King’s Peace’ with the feudal armies, and, as it was an imperative that the officer holding the appointment should be of undoubted allegiance to the Crown he was personally appointed by the King.
Although primarily a military officer, the Provost Marshal was also responsible for maintaining the peace “12 miles about the Prince’s person”, and dealt summarily with all offenders, military and civilian alike. This side of his duties was elaborated from time to time, at least until the reign of Elizabeth I, when officers given the title of Provost Marshal were appointed in each county to suppress gangs of disbanded soldiers who were terrorising the countryside; again during the Spanish Armada invasion scare, Provost Marshals were ordered to escort the levies of locally raised militias to their place of duty, and “to diligently and speedily punish” spreaders of false rumours and confusion.
In his military capacity the Provost Marshal had assumed most of the duties as we would recognise them today by the beginning of the fourteenth century, and was on the customary establishments of all field forces from then onwards. He exercised his authority with the first expeditionary force of Edward III in 1381, and it is evident that he was functioning at Crecy and Agincourt. By the fifteenth century, deputy Provost Marshals were being appointed to individual field forces and garrisons, and had, to assist them, a definite form of ‘Camp Police’. By the sixteenth (Holbein’s sketch of Sir Henry Guildford KG circa 1527. Guildford, a favourite of Henry VIII, is the first recognisable Provost Marshal of whom there is a personal record and was appointed as Provost Marshal of the English Expenditionary Army sent to Cadiz to combat the Barbary Pirates in 1511.) century there are many contemporary references to a well-established Provost Service, the duties of which were laid down in the Articles of War of Henry VIII in 1513, with the maintenance of military discipline as the most important. It is here that the term ‘Provost Company’ was mentioned officially for the first time. In 1537, the Provost Marshal’s staff included: a chaplain; two judges; two tip-staves (proto-police officers); two gaolers; a hangman and his assistant; and several horsemen.
Civil Wars and a Standing Army There are constant references to Provost between the 16th and 18th centuries. In the Civil Wars, both sides appointed Provost Marshals with Charles I raising the title in the Royalist Army to “Provost Marshal General”, a title later regarded with considerable importance and retained until 1829. The Provost Service became part of the establishment of the Standing Army at its inception in 1660, but was only called into being with the Army on active service, however, in 1685, the appointment of Provost Marshal General became a permanent post and Provost Marshals were appointed to various Formations, Garrisons and to individual Regiments.
Napoleonic Wars The Duke of Wellington took a great interest in his Provost Service, issuing comprehensive orders laying down Provost duties and those of his Provost Marshals and their assistants: his “Bloody Provosts”. In 1810, Wellington complained that the Provost service was not large enough, so he raised the Staff Corps of Cavalry (This must be distinguished from both the Royal Staff Corps: an organization of field engineers and craftsman that had existed throughout the Peninsula War and the Allied occupation of France; and the Corps of Mounted Guides, also established by Scovell, and employed as couriers; to conduct reconnaissance; and to act as guides.) (SCC) consisting of volunteer cavalrymen – 144 in the UK, and 142 in Spain and Portugal, under the command of Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel (and Major Commandant of the Corps) George Scovell. Until their new uniforms were issued, they wore a red scarf tied around their right shoulder to distinguish them as serving with the Staff Corps rather than their own regiments. While Scovell had seen his new command as a embryonic unit of special troops able to undertake a variety of duties, Wellington saw them undertaking one task above all others namely to police his notoriously ill-disciplined Army. Disbanded following Napoleon’s abdication in 1814, it was re-formed a year later just after the Battle of Waterloo, providing Provost duties for the Allied armies occupying France, before its final disbandment in 1819. During the “Long Peace” after Waterloo, the Provost Services dropped shapely in number, and the appointment of Provost Marshal General reverted to the earlier form of ‘Provost Marshal’, at the same time dropping in rank to Captain. Following the outbreak of the Crimean War (1853-56), the Mounted Staff Corps (MSC) was formed to assist the Provost Marshal with the majority of recruits coming from the Irish Constabulary and some from the Metropolitan Police. The MSC was disbanded at War’s end.
Military Mounted Police and Military Foot Police. The modern history of the Military Police as we know them today commences with a War Office circular dated 13th June 1855, when certain cavalry regiments were directed to supply Non-Commissioned Officers and me of “five or ten years’ service, sober habits, intelligent, active and capable of exercising a sound discretion” to form a permanent Corps of Mounted Police at the new Cantonment that had been established in Aldershot in 1853. This was the first occasion of the use of the term “police” in a military context. On the 4th July 1855, a total of twenty-one other ranks (Selected from 2nd Dragoons, 3rd Light Dragoons, 16th Lancers, 7th Hussars and 15th Hussars. Corps pay of 1s.6d daily for Sergeants and 1s.0d for privates, was authorised. JNCOs appear to have been overlooked.) were dispatched to form the ‘Corps’ and granted Corps pay, although they were retained as supernumeraries on the Muster Rolls of their parent regiments in order:‘To be employed as a Corps of Mounted Police for the preservation of Good Order in the camp at Aldershot, and for the protection of the inhabitants of the neighbourhood’.
In 1865, the strength of the Corps increased to 32 mounted men. In 1872, a detachment of Mounted Police attended the Army’s annual manoeuvres under an Assistant Provost Marshal appointed for the occasion, and two-years later the first set of printed orders were published for their guidance. These were signed by Major Thomas Trout, the first Provost Marshal to rise from the ranks of the Corps and whose appointment included the offices of Commandant, Quartermaster and Officer-in-Charge of Records of the Military Mounted Police (MMP).
The MMP was established as a distinct Corps for service at home and abroad on 1st August 1877 (The MMP was authorised on 31 July 1877, as a result of a Horse Guards letter (12709/200 C 10382) dated 12 May 1877. All serving personnel who came up the standrds then set were transferred to the new Corps on 1 August 1877. Those not reaching the standards were returned to their parent regiments.) , with an increased establishment of 75: 1 sergeant-Major; 7 sergeants; 13 corporals; 54 privates; and 71 horses. From this date the Corps maintained its own muster and pay rolls and all promotions were within the Corps. Military Police were serving in Woolwich, Shorncliffe and Portsmouth in addition to Aldershot and on 1st April 1878, a second Quartermaster’s Commission was granted when No. 1, Sergeant-Major William Silk (Trout’s son-in-law) became the second officer in the Corps. Medals were earned and casualties suffered by Military Policemen in the Egyptian campaign of 1882-84, at Tel-el-Kebir and Suakin-el-Teb, and with the Nile Expeditionary Force – the MMP’s first deployment overseas.
On the 1st August 1882, a sister Corps to the MMP was formed for special service in Egypt – the Military Foot Police (MFP). The Foot Police were recruited entirely from men recalled to the Colours, who had served with the Metropolitan Police Force. The MFP were authorised as a permanent Corps on 2nd July 1885, with an establishment of: 1 sergeant-major; 13 sergeants; 17 corporals; and 59 privates. The end of the century saw the Military Police with a strength of just over 300, with detachments at all the garrison towns in United Kingdom, permanent detachments in Cairo and Malta, and an honourable active service record in Egypt and Sudan, and in South Africa during the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) where the majority of both the MMP and MFP would serve eventually.
The First World War (1914-18) The total Military Police strength at the outbreak of war was 508 all ranks - immediately increased to 761 with the recall of all reservists, many of whom had been civil policemen. By 1918, Corps strength was over 25,000 all ranks and battalions of famous regiments such as the Honourable Artillery Company, the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry and the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry were used to supplement provost duties. The Military Police served in all major theatres of war and in addition to Provost there were also Traffic Control Companies, Docks Police and a Special Investigation Branch.
The Battle of Neuve Chapelle (1915) was the first major battle when Military Police of various divisions and brigades worked to a common plan to serve the Army as a whole, rather than their own particular formations to which they were attached. All Military Police from Brigades and rearwards were coordinated on an organized road network in order to control traffic, and for the first time in mechanized warfare demonstrated their indispensability if order rather than chaos, was to reign in the battlefield. Indeed, not only in traffic control, but also in the new methods for handling stragglers, prisoners-of-war, the recovery of weapons and many other tasks made possible by the coordination of Provost on the battlefield at the highest level, was Neuve Chapelle an outstanding date in Military Police history, since when their essential role in modern warfare has been recognised. Nor was the need for Military Police over with the signing of the Armistice as no Unit or Corps was called upon to play so big and important a part as the Military Police in the Army of Occupation on the Rhine.
The Corps of Military Police and the Inter-War Period On 27th February 1926, the MMP and MFP were amalgamated into the Corps of Military Police (CMP), with the establishment (after the disbanding of the Army of Occupation) of again just 508 ranks; the pre-War figure. Limitations of space precludes inclusion of a detailed account all of CMP’s activities between the two World Wars; suffice to say CMP distinguished itself with the Shanghai Defence Force in 1927; with the Saar (Plebiscite) Force in 1936; and with the Palestine Emergency Force in 1936; and increased its permanent overseas stations: in Hong Kong in 1935; and Singapore a year later, in addition to maintaining companies or sections at their pre-Second World War stations in Gibraltar; Malta; Egypt (at Cairo, Abbassia, Moascar and Alexandria); and Shanghai.
The standard of entry to CMP was very high with recruiting exclusively from transfers from Other Arms, having at least the Army 2nd Class Certification of Education, good conduct stripes, a minimum of three years’ service and an irreproachable character. In 1938, recruiting of direct enlistments form civil life started in an effort to increase provost resources. These recruits had to possess equivalent qualifications to those of transferees from other parts of the Army.
The Second World War (1939-45) On mobilization in August 1939, the CMP was again very small at a strength of only 584 ranks. The recall of reservists provided an immediate war strength of; 768 serving CMP; 500 Regular Reservists; 850 Supplementary Reservists who were recruited entirely from the Automobile Association (AA), 1,002 Territorial Army (TA) Military Police, 500 Brigade of Guards reservists; and 300 Other Arms Reservists who were mostly civil policemen. Taking the to field with an effective strength of 4,121, over the next six years of war, the Corps would grow to over 50,000 divided into six distinct major branches with several sub-divisions of specialists including the Special Investigation Branch (SIB) and Parachute Provost, in order to give indispensible service wherever British troops served initially with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to France, to Italy, North Africa, the Far East and, finally, in Germany itself. Provost were at Monte Cassino and Dunkirk, Alamein and Malta; they parachuted at Arnhem and they were among the first on the beaches of Normandy.
During the War the Military Police earned a reputation for bravery and devotion to duty, as reflected in the WW2 Roll of Honour, which list 912 names, and the 229 operational awards which were won including: 7 Military Crosses (MC), 6 Distinguished Conduct Medals (DCM), 61 Military Medals (MM) and no fewer than 776 Mentions-in-Dispatches (MID). Military Police carried out immensely difficult and valuable work, establishing the tradition of being 'first in, last out' on the battlefield. The Military Police were present on every battlefront and in every country where British troops fought, or were stationed. The ever-smart Redcaps were the symbol of fair play, contributing magnificently to maintaining law and order, goodwill and morale among the soldiers of the United Kingdom, the Dominions and the Empire as well as and the citizens of war-torn Europe and the Far East.
At War’s end the first Colonels-Commandant of the Corps (and the former Commander of 2nd Army during the liberation of Europe); General Sir Myles Dempsey KCB, KBE, DSO, MS, paid the following tribute:
"The military policeman became so well known a figure on every road to the battlefield that his presence became taken for granted. Few soldiers as they hurried over a bridge, which was a regular target for the enemy, gave much thought to the man whose duty it was to be there for hours on end, directing the traffic and ensuring its rapid passage."
In 1946, in recognition of its outstanding record inthe two World Wars, His Majesty King George VI graciously granted the 'Royal prefix' to the Corps henceforth known as the Corps of Royal Military Police (RMP).
Post-War Active Service
Since the Second World War, the RMP has been active in every operational theatre - the occupation of Germany, Palestine, the Suez Canal Zone, Korea, Cyprus, Kenya, Aden, Malaya and Borneo to name, but a few. For a time, a RMP Section even guarded the British Embassy in Saigon during the Vietnam War. From 1969, RMP made a valuable contribution (and forming two Regiments) in Northern Ireland where the RMP worked in close co-operation with the then Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) (and latterly the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI)) and where, amongst many other honours, Lieutenant-Colonel Brian Gait DCM RMP, was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). In more recent years, the RMP has served in: Rhodesia; The Falklands; the Gulf, where during the liberation of Kuwait a DCM was awarded to a Staff-Sergeant Kevin Davis, a platoon commander, for outstanding bravery; in the Former Republic of Yugoslavia under both United Nations (UN) and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) command; in Sierra Leone; in Iraq; and in Afghanistan.