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I'm looking for examples of countries that have armed prisoners and sent them to war? Were the prisoners coerced, or were they offered amnesty should they survive?

  • Mark C. Wallace, I am actually asking for notable examples, so that I an look them up. If you can edit the heading, go on! – Vorac Oct 16 '12 at 7:32
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    Generally the site discourages questions that are answered by lists of examples. – Mark C. Wallace Jan 6 '14 at 17:04
  • Wasn't there something about the ancient Chinese sending armies of convicts into battle, where the first row would be beheaded in front of the enemy as a demoralizing tactic? – SPavel Jan 5 '17 at 15:47

15 Answers 15

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I believe that often is subjective.
Here are some examples from World War II:

  • Strafbattalions in Nazi Germany were created from prisoners
  • Dirlewanger Brigade in Nazi Germany was originally formed for anti-partisan actions, but took part in war battles, later.
  • Shtrafbats, in the Soviet Union, were created mostly from courted privates and officers for Red Army.

The Wikipedia article on Penal military units links to other examples.

In the Soviet Union Order No. 227, soldiers and officers convicted of cowardice and/or disciplinary problems were assigned to penal battalions. Penal battalions were sent to the most dangerous sections of the front lines. There was a possibility to achieve amnesty through outstanding military service, though no amnesty was guaranteed.

Relevant parts of the order:

The Supreme General Headquarters of the Red Army commands:
...
Form within each Front from one up to three (depending on the situation) penal battalions (800 persons) where commanders and high commanders and appropriate commissars of all service arms who have been guilty of a breach of discipline due to cowardice or bewilderment will be sent, and put them on more difficult sectors of the front to give them an opportunity to redeem by blood their crimes against the Motherland.
...
Form within the limits of each army up to ten (depending on the situation) penal companies (from 150 to 200 persons in each) where ordinary soldiers and low-ranking commanders who have been guilty of a breach of discipline due to cowardice or bewilderment will be routed, and put them at difficult sectors of the army to give them an opportunity to redeem by blood their crimes against the Motherland.

I have no information about amnesty for Nazi soldiers.

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    @Anixx, it's interesting. Could you provide some links? – default locale Sep 24 '12 at 3:35
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    @jwenting I assume it's an answer for Anixx's comment. I have to say that I agree that regime in penal units was extremely harsh and mortality rate (is it a suitable term?) was very high. But considering shtrafbats, I found references in support of amnesty for hospitalized soldiers. I don't have any statistic on number of such occasions, though (at least one example from quick google search). Also, "wounded" and "turning back in hopeless situations" are different categories. – default locale Mar 4 '13 at 15:01
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    @jwenting is there a citation for the "no medic, go on even if you're bleeding to death"? – o0'. Jan 6 '14 at 16:46
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    @defaultlocale: I couldn't locate the link in a few min, and now have to go. Maybe you have a better luck, if you are interested. It make have been from Solzhenitsin, or from another author who collected prisoners' stories of those times. There were basically two story lines told by many 1st hand witnesses: the promise of amnesty for 10 missions as the rear Il-2 gunner (unprotected, 8x death rate compared with Il-2 pilots), and the promise of amnesty for 10 mine field clearing missions. About amnesty for being wounded: the 1st time I've heard about that is your question. – Michael Jan 6 '14 at 22:23
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    @Anixx just fyi, the Wikipedia page default locale linked in his answer also uses the "mission" vocabulary, but only in the air force, where it actually makes sense (mission=from takeoff to landing) – antipattern May 4 '17 at 0:52
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The French Foreign Legion was originally a fighting force made up of criminals and other undesirables.

The purpose of the Foreign Legion was to remove disruptive elements from society and put them to use fighting the enemies of France. Recruits included failed revolutionaries from the rest of Europe, soldiers from the disbanded Swiss and German mercenary regiments of the Bourbon monarchy, and troublemakers in general, both foreign and French.

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    yes, but they weren't convicts (unless an escaped prisoner were to apply, in which case the Legion Estranger will not care, they don't ask for your history or even proof of identity on enlistment, or didn't use to, it may have changed). – jwenting Mar 5 '13 at 11:12
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    @jwenting "Etrangere" in French. And you are correct, today they go as far as checking with your home country and interpol that you aren't wanted. Also things have changed in general, while they welcome tough people from rough places, things like a past of drug use/dealing, violent assault etc automatically disqualify you today. – Juicy Apr 26 '14 at 21:39
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In ancient times some states would in times of extreme adversity arm their slaves and promise hem freedom if they acquitted themselves well in the fight.

For example:

However by the time of the Achaean war in the 140s BC, the League's army had decreased in strength and efficiency. The League was even reduced to freeing and arming 12,000 slaves.

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    the Confederacy during the US civil war did the same thing. – jwenting Mar 4 '13 at 13:59
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    The Union did the same with Confederate prisoners but only to fight Indians. – ExpatEgghead Jan 7 '14 at 12:08
  • @ExpatEgghead During or after the Civil War? – Felix Goldberg Jan 7 '14 at 19:16
  • During as far as I know. The best source I have is the book'Gone With The Wind' and the character George Ashley Wilkes who had this offer made to him and refused thus keeping him in Rock Island Arsenal. – ExpatEgghead Jan 8 '14 at 9:27
  • archives.gov/research/military/civil-war/galvanized-yankees.pdf Interesting term - galvanized yankees – ExpatEgghead Jan 8 '14 at 13:27
9

"Prisoners" fall into two categories. The first is military men court-martialed for cowardice, or other offenses, that are given a chance to redeem themselves. The second is criminals sent to war.

The first kind of prisoners were quite common particularly in totalitarian societies such as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union (e.g. in World War II).

The second type was less common, but used from time to time. By definition, criminals are aggressive people suited to fighting, and who need a chance to redeem themselves.

Sometimes the "amnesty" was offered before the criminals were caught. The British (and other countries) did this in the 17th and 18th century with pirates. Provided that they agreed not to attack ships of their own country, such people were given letters of pardon that immunized them from punishment for attacking the ships of OTHER countries. That process turned "pirates" into "privateers."

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    +1 for categorization. But criminals are aggressive people suited to war line sounds weird for me. Regular army assumes discipline and organization. I think personal aggressiveness is a negative factor here. – default locale Sep 21 '12 at 13:43
  • I believe the British Navy in the early 1800's was comprised of some men who were convicts, not sure about the land armies under Wellington but I recall some historical novels that often referred to men who might have gone to jail but went to serve. – MichaelF Sep 21 '12 at 17:01
  • How number of court-materialed soldiers corresponds to totalitarity of state? I think it only corresponds to the magnitude of hostilities. -1 – Anixx Sep 23 '12 at 3:39
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    Concur that criminals are not by definition aggressive people suited to war. None of the clauses in that sentence are defensible. War demands disciple more than aggression, and "criminal" can include people whose behavior or opinions differ from that of the local government. (Are Nelson Mandela, Ghandi or Martin Luther King intrinsically excellent warriors merely because they were convicted?). Nor do they automatically need redemption. Rest of the answer is excellent. – Mark C. Wallace Oct 15 '12 at 14:08
  • +1, default locale, you can see a good example how it worked at "The Dirty Dozen" movie. :) – Darek Wędrychowski Mar 4 '13 at 12:33
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The British army has sent convicts to war, perhaps most notably during the time of Wellington and the Peninsular War. Convicted criminals could choose between prison/execution or joining the army. An army of such men lead Wellington to describe them as "The scum of the earth" after the looting that occurred following the battle of Vitoria.

  • Wellington (when he was still General Wellesley) is reputed to have said - during the Peninsula War "I don't know what effect these men will have upon the enemy, but by God they frighten me". Nelson's navy was also made up of a lot of convicts, I believe. – WS2 Dec 18 '16 at 22:20
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I know it has been common practice in the USA in the past to send convicted criminals to serve in the military in time of war in lieu of jail or some other kind of community service. Particularly during WWII, when thousands of men were paroled contingent on military service.

During the unit self-intro bit at the beginning of Stripes, I believe at least one recruit had been sent by a judge. That is high fiction of course, but I know of a least one reference in non-fiction: In the opening chapters of Hill 488 Ray Hildreth relates being given a choice of jail or military service after some "youthful indiscretions"

This is cheifly something that was done back when there was a draft (and thus men of fighting age would have been at a premium), not something done today with the USA's all-volunteer armed forces. So the reference in Stripes was probably an anachronisim. Today the USA armed forces generally do not even accept convicted (violent) felons. For example, the current Army regs(pdf) on this require a waiver for a lot of criminal offenses, and a lot more cannot be waived.

  • BTW: Hill 488 is a whale of a read. Sort of like Rorke's Drift in Vietnam. – T.E.D. Sep 21 '12 at 14:08
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    I don't know how common it is or was in the US, but I remember during MEPS being asked a question along the lines of: Did a judge order you to join the service? I want to say it was on one of the forms I had to fill out but it could have just been something I was asked. It made me think that joining the service instead of being sentenced for a crime is/was fairly common at one point in time. – stoj Oct 14 '12 at 3:52
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    they were not prisoners. For specific non-violent crimes people'd be offered the choice of prison or enlistment in the armed forces. – jwenting Mar 4 '13 at 13:58
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    @T.E.D. The wiki page alone is good. The statement of SGT Howard about LCpl Bins which was used for his MoH had me rapt. – CGCampbell Jun 27 '14 at 15:09
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    Two of the sailors who served with me in the 1980's were given an option by the judge: join the military or accept the court's punishment. (Both were misdemeanor cases, not felony.) They were both good sailors, I might add. – KorvinStarmast Dec 19 '16 at 17:10
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A large part of the French "Black Legion" under the American Colonel Tate, which invaded Wales in February 1797, was made up of convicts. An action referred to as "a singular expedition of jail birds" by French author Captain Desbriere.

The plan of attack was devised by General Lazare Hoche, who had also conceived a similarly ill-fated attack on Ireland a couple of months earlier. The idea was that a small force would be landed in a relatively unprotected part of the British Isles. They could then use a form of guerilla warfare to cause damage out of proportion to their small number and provoke a lower-class revolt.

Hoche credited Carnot with the first idea of organizing a chouannerie or system of guerilla warfare in England, for the purpose of giving the inhabitants freedom and inducing them to adopt a republican form of government. With this object in view, the invaders, recruited from the galleys and prisons, and promised full enjoyment of their booty, immunity from their crimes, and a remission of all past sentences, were to proclaim themselves the "avengers of liberty and enemies of tyrants"...as they advanced they were to throw open the prisons and replenish their ranks by a fresh supply of indigenous malefactors

Napoleon and the Invasion of England, Vol 1, Wheeler & Broadley (London, 1907), pg 38

Hoche himself described the force, raised in secret, in a letter to the Directorate, on the 11th December 1796...

It is composed of six hundred men from all the prisons in my district, and they are collected in two forts or islands to obviate the possibility of escape. I associate with them six hundred picked convicts from the galleys, still wearing their irons.

Irishman Wolfe Tone had seen this force, whilst in France, and described them

I have witnessed a review of the Black Legion, about 1800 strong. These are the bandits destined for England, and are unmitigated blackguards.

As Wheeler & Broadley rightly noted, "No plan was assuredly ever conceived more entirely calculated to defeat its own object".

In the event, the force that landed near Fishguard, on 22nd February 1797, consisted of around 1,400 men (with no artillery or cavalry). After a brief stand-off with the local militia force, the French surrendered without a fight on the 24th February, having shown little intention of doing anything else.

5

During World War II, the Germans captured quite a number of Soviet troops who were from the far eastern, Asiatic regions of the Soviet Union. The Germans pressed some of these Soviet Asiatic prisoners into service in the German Army, particularly to fill out low-quality static, positional defense units. The Allies captured some of these troops in Normandy in 1944. There is an amazing but true story of a Korean man who was forced to serve in the Japanese Army. He was captured during one of the Soviet vs. Japanese fights that took place shortly prior to World War II breaking out globally. The Soviets offered him the opportunity to serve in the Soviet Army and he took it. Later, he was captured by the Germans and forced to serve in the German Army until he was taken prisoner by the Western Allies.

5

My father reported that approximately 30 of 130 men in his RAF squadron (247 China British) were former inmates of HM Prisons who were allowed to enlist for the duration of WW2 and would not have to return to complete their sentence. I have recorded this in Nash, John C., ''Across an Ocean and Time: The World as Seen by Harry Nash'', Ottawa, Canada: Nash Information Services Inc., 2010. ISBN 0-88769-013-0. Available freely at https://archive.org/details/AcrossAnOceanAndTime_201411}.

I have not, unfortunately, so far discovered documentation of this program, which I would, of course, welcome.

3

France, in the late 1940's, had a part of their colonial army made up of German prisoners of war and French collaborationists, taken from prisons and prisoner of war camps. It was called the Overseas Light Infantry Battalion. It was similar to the Battalions of Light Infantry of Africa, though I think the latter was almost all released prisoners who had not regained their civil rights.

1

One should add to the accepted answer that besides "regular" criminals as well as "soldiers and officers convicted of cowardice or/and common crimes", some political prisoners were also sent to serve in the Red Army during WWII. One of the most prominent examples is Konstantin Rokossovsky who went from a political prisoner to one of the most important Soviet military commanders.

  • Indeed. His memoir begins with the phrase how he went to a sanatorium for rest and recuperation and then took up his command. The sanatorium was necessary because he was in a very bad condition upon release from the gulag camp but he was not allowed to write about that. – Felix Goldberg Nov 8 '17 at 11:16
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The American/Canadian First Special Services Force of WWII -- the Canadians sent their best volunteers, the US Army emptied their brigs. Intended to perform special operations in Norway and Sweden, they were trained in parachuting, skiing, amphibious operations, and close combat. Instead, they landed in the Aleutians -- after the Japanese had left -- and served in Italy, where their assault of Monte la Difensa practically ended the unit as a fighting force.

As a practical matter, many post commanders seized this opportunity to empty their stockades and rid themselves of hard-case troublemakers in all categories. Prisoners frequently were given the option of continuing their sentences or 'volunteering' for Frederick's Force.

Source: "The Devil's Brigade", Robert Adelman and George Walton. p 47 (Kindle Edition)

Frederick, the unit commander, wrote a memo in which he said:

From one post I received a telegram that said, 'All volunteers for your command have departed this date. Direct the officer in charge and armed guards to return to this station as soon as practicable.

From another:

All personnel transferred to your command are en route except 42 AWOL, 26 men sick not in line of duty and requiring further treatment, and 14 men in confinement awaiting final action on remission of sentences. These volunteers for your command will be transferred as soon as available.

(ibid)

On page 59 of the same book, the process by which Canadian members were chosen is discussed:

there were approximately 85 of us who signed up, but after taking medical and IQ tests there were only 26 left. Then Colonel Williams talked to us and advised anyone that was married to drop out as the Force was likely to have a short but lively life. I believe we ended up with sixteen men who went to Helena for training.

1

The Prussian Marshal Blucher, although born in the territory of Mecklenburg in Germany began his military career by enlisting in the Swedish army, in the Hussars in 1758. He was captured by the Prussians in 1760 during the Seven Years War and accepted the opportunity to switch sides and serve in the Prussian army, which he continued to do, on and off, for more than 50 years thereafter, playing an important part in the Napoleonic Wars including in Napoleon's final defeat at Waterloo in 1815.

I do not know if that was common in those days, but other members of his family enlisted in the Danish or Prussian armies, so it seems there was flexibility about such matters then.

I also read somewhere of an occasion in 1919 during the Russian Civil War when 'Red' (Communist/Bolshevik) troops captured by the anti-communist Whites were formed up in line, saw their officers shot in front of them, and were then told that any of them who wanted to volunteer to serve in the White army should step forward. They were not actually told what would happen to any who refused, but being able to guess, they all stepped forward.

0

I am currently writing a book on a the extraordinary life of Ralph Emerson Lee. Lee's criminal record began in 1910 at age 15 until 1946. There are newspaper accounts (do not know yet if the accounts are TRUE.) of him being released from the Az. State Prison in 1918 to serve in the army. He was supposedly released at the end of WWI with an Honorable Discharge:*

*Franklin Evening Star " (Franklin, Indiana) 25 Sept 1924, page 6 "...he (Lee) was sentenced to the Arizona peniteniary. He was confined there until the outbreak of WWI. When the war started, Arizona had a ruling that permitted the release of all young prisoners who would promise to enter the service overseas and Lee availed himself of this opportunity. He went to France and served with credit and at the end of the war, received an honorable discharge."

Despite deep digging I have not been able to substantiate this. The man was a gifted artist and could have forged the discharge document.

"Stories of the Great War for Public Speakers" by William Herbert Brown, page 200: "The Oregon State Penitentiary officials were proud of a service flag in that insitution which contained forty stars when the great war closed, representing forty prisoners who had been paroled to enlist in the U.S. army or navy. They made good to such an extent that nearly every one of them was restored to citizenship by the Governor of Oregon."

If one googles the current situation in our military branches of service one will find numerous articles that because of the enlistment crisis--men are being offered service in the military as an alternative to jail. Each branch of our military has a "waiver" system where a prisoner can opt out of jail and serve in the military. One of many examples:

www.salon.com/2006/02/02/waivers/

Above is the link to one such article. Appeared in Salon magazine, Feb 2, 2006:

Would appreciate any and all referenced sources about the state of Arizona releasing young prisoners to serve overseas in WWI

-1

I heard stories about incarcerated Americans in the U.S. penal system who were allowed to serve in hazardous capacities or duties in support of military operations during the Vietnam war/conflict. One example; CIA recruited crew members for dangerous reconnaissance flights crossing into then North Vietnam to include overflights entering China and Russian airspace. These stories were not collaborated nor verified true and accurate, as far as I know, and all seem preposterous because the very nature of such action using convicted felons would have violated American code of law. Such stories likely created and made up by desperate individuals with criminal pasts seems now woven into part of America's 'urban legends'.

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    Fair warning: This site is not likely to look kindly upon an answer consisting of nothing but unsubstantiated rumor. You may want to at least try to find a link showing that this rumor exists. – T.E.D. Jan 5 '17 at 14:33
  • FYI, This story is directly mentioned in the first 4 minutes of Miami cocaine war documentary Cocaine Cowboys (2006, 2014 extended edition). I'm currently looking for sources but I've only found this SO post. It's such a wild claim I thought surely there would be other sources. – Katastic Voyage Apr 7 at 6:15

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