Drumhead court-martial

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The drumhead court-martial of the Finnish 15th Brigade in July 1944

A drumhead court-martial is a court-martial held in the field to hear urgent charges of offences committed in action. The term is said to originate from the use of a drumhead as an improvised writing table,[1][2] as an altar for religious services, [3][4] or a traditional gathering point for a regiment for orders or decisions.[5]

It is also used as a reference to a Kangaroo Court in its derogatory form.

The earliest recorded usage is in an English memoir of the Peninsular War (1807).[6] The term sometimes has connotations of summary justice, with an implied lack of judicial impartiality, as noted in the transcripts of the trial at Nuremberg of Josef Bühler.[7] According to Sir Arthur Wynne Morgan Bryant, such courts-martial have ordered lashings or hangings to punish soldiers (and their officers) who were cowardly, disobedient – or, conversely, acted rashly; and especially as a discouragement to drunkenness.[8]

The term "flying court martial" or "flying drumhead" is used to refer to the mobile courts martial used by the German armed forces in the last two months of the Second World War. The "flying" is generally taken as a reference to their mobility, and may also refer to the earlier "flying courts martial" in Italian Libya. Italian military judges were flown in aeroplanes to the location of captured rebels, so that a court martial of the rebels could be held as soon as possible after capture.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Definition from Brewer's Dictionary
  2. ^ An example of an illustration from the Thirty Years War showing a drum used as a table at military executions
  3. ^ parade and drumhead service
  4. ^ Drumhead Service at Culzean Castle
  5. ^ Her Majesty the Queen presents the RAF with the new colour at a Drumhead service, RAF Fairford. (Photo: Cpl Scott Robertson RAF)[dead link]
  6. ^ 'Court martial, n. 1.b. drumhead court-martial', Oxford English Dictionary Online (2009), citing Sir Charles Shaw, Personal memoirs and correspondence, comprising a narrative of the war ... in Portugal and Spain (1837), II, 449.
  7. ^ Transcript at the Nizkor project
  8. ^ Years of Victory (1802-1812), Arthur Bryant, 1944