The Provost Marshal

In order to gain an understanding of the current functions and responsibilities of the modern SACMP it is necessary to review the past and to trace the foreign roots of the corps.


Apart from the designation "Military Police", the SACMP, are also known as "Provost", with policing as a function. In order to better understand this title, the Oxford Dictionary describes the term as follows:


PROVOST: ... One appointed to preside over or superintend something; the representative of the supreme power in a district or sphere of action = Ruler, chief, head, captain, etc - 1631. An officer or official in charge of some establishment, undertaking, or body of men ...... An officer charged with the apprehension, custody and punishment of offenders - 1873. An officer of the military police in a garrison or camp, or in the field: see net (In this sense usually pronounced provou) - 1692 .... comb. : p. cell, a cell for confining military prisoners; - sergeant, a sergeant of the military police".

"PROVOST MARSHAL: In the Army, an officer appointed to a force or on active service, as head of the military police - 1513".


The modern Provost Marshal can trace his humble beginnings back to Europe and the Middle Ages where the marshal was first a horse servant and usually placed in charge of a paddock of twelve horses. As cavalry grew in importance as a military force, so did the position of the marshal. He soon became the commander of the cavalry troops and the highest ranking officer within the king's court.

The position of marshal in the European countries then evolved into two separate offices. One marshal had charge of the administration of the emperor or king's court and issued proper protocol and arranged meetings and celebrations. The other was the land marshal, who was the leading member of any assemblage or subordinate states or districts, always working directly for the emperor. Regardless of the duties performed, the man bearing the title of marshal would be one of the most trusted servants of the emperor or king, and his tasks would be among the most important in the realm.

During his reign, the French emperor Charlemagne (742-814) assigned the marshal the responsibility of transporting stores to the battle sites to be utilised in siege operations. Eventually, this led to the marshal being placed in charge of the baggage trains and responsible for the supervision of the complete logistical system.

The Provost Marshal used by the Norman invaders of 1066 to enforce military discipline, toured the country with personnel and equipment which left doubt as to their earnestness of purpose. Not only was all the fearful apparatus used in torture, a then widely used "persuasion", under the Marshal's care, but his team itself gave grim evidence that punishment would be swift and often final.

This "Provost Marshal" was thus ominous, cruel and merciless. The Norman kings considered the appointment of such as person as necessary in order to maintain the peace between their squabbling armies. The king personally approved the appointment and to this day it remains the prerogative of the reigning British monarch to approve this purely military appointment.

The beginnings of law enforcement as a responsibility of the marshal occurred in Germany under the Hohenstaufen rulers (1138-1254) when the marshal was placed in charge of all aspects of army administration including the authority to act as direct agent of the emperor, granting him the highest judicial powers. At the onset of the Third Crusade in 1189, the marshal was given the authority to act for the king in legal and judicial matters.

Modern Provost Marshal functions began to take their current form during the period of the Holy Roman Empire (962-1806). The marshal of the army of the Holy Roman Empire was given the responsibility of enforcing all orders and laws among the military as well as the power and authority to act as judge. He was specifically tasked to deal with two acute problems brought about primarily because of the use of large amounts of mercenaries; straggler control and AWOL apprehension. The marshal further had the authority to inflict severe corporal punishment when dealing with violators.

The tasks of the Provost Marshal were so unpleasant that civilians were mainly used in the post. William of Cassingham, who was appointed as a military Sergeant of the Peace by King Henry III on 28 May 1241, is the first named military policeman. He and his tipstaves or under provosts were the ancestors of the modern day military police.

A set of royal instructions issued in 1312 defined the authority of the provost marshal as "jurisdiction, which is even more potent and terrible than all of the evil omens and witchcraft."

After 1400 the term "provost" came into prominence and was applied to the highest law officers who were directly responsible to the king. The first Provost Marshal of whom there is any personal record was one Sir Henry Guyldford, who was on the Cadiz Expedition against the Moors of Barbary, in 1511. He was a civilian in service of the state and was personally appointed by the king. King Henry VIII (1491-1547) revised and reformulated the tasks of the Provost Marshal in 1513, and those rules contained in his Articles of War bear a resemblance to the duties of a present-day provost officer (These rules of punishment remained in force for some 300 years until they were again revised in 1879).

In 1557 the Provost Marshal Company consisted of himself, a chaplain, two judges, two carpenters, two jailers, a hangman and his assistant, together with various horsemen. It is very clear that discipline was enforced by the use of trials that took place immediately with execution of sentence shortly thereafter.

When the army led by the Earl of Sussex entered Scotland in 1571, it had a provost establishment of a provost marshal at 6 shillings 8 pence a day, a gaoler and tipstaves at 12 pence each, under gaoler at 6 pence each.

In 1629, the Articles of War of Charles I of England contained the following comment concerning the position of Provost and his responsibility:

"The Provost must have a horse allowed him and some soldiers to
attend him and all the rest commanded to obey and assist or else the
Service will suffer, for he is but one man and must correct many and
therefore he cannot be beloved. And he must be riding from one
garrison to another to see the soldiers do not outrage nor scathe the
country."

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), a Provost Marshal was appointed in every county (province) in order to suppress gangs of dismissed soldiers who terrorised the public.

During 1643 an army officer was appointed for the first time as Provost Marshal. This was one Captain William Smith.

From 1655 until 1657 England was in the throes of a civil war. Oliver Cromwell was in power and placed the country under martial law. He divided the country into twelve districts, and placed each under a provost marshal who controlled the civilian and military population with mounted troops.

In 1662 Francis Markham compiled the ideal requirements of the Provost Marshal. These were:

"A man with great judgement and experience of martial discipline .....
well versed in all laws and ordinances of a military camp and in all
matters essential to the smooth running of an army ...."

"the Provost Marshal should love justice, be impartial in his dealings
and have an eye that could gaze on all objects without winking and
while having a heart filled with discreet compassion was not touched
by foolish or melting pity".

Charles II in 1672 said of the duties of the provost marshal, " ... the provost marshal, either regimental or general, was to apprehend and hold offenders for trial, to punish them according to the sentence of the court. No one was to hinder the provost except on pain of death and all officers and soldiers were to aid him or suffer court martial."

This situation continued until about 1809 when the Duke of Wellington, complaining about the behaviour of his soldiers, recognised the need for provost and wrote:

"There ought to be in the British Army a regular provost establishment
of which a proportion should be attached to every army sent abroad."

In 1810 the Duke of Wellington used professional soldiers for this task thereby laying down a clear line between the military and civilian systems of treating crime and the execution of sentences.