Exposing corruption

HMS Havant 1939 to 1940:

Battle Honours: Atlantic 1940, Dunkirk 1940.

The short but heroic life of a destroyer – a Dunkirk victim

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On this day in 1791, William Cobbett landed at Portsmouth from New Brunswick and applied for a discharge from the army.

He had become disillusioned with the treatment of ordinary soldiers and the attitude of the officer class.

From his experience as a sergeant major and familiarity with regimental accounts, he knew that corruption was rife and decided to leave the army to expose it.

The quartermaster was keeping provisions for himself and four officers were selling their men’s rations of food and firewood for profit.

The only evidence of fraud he had was the regimental accounts and so Cobbett made copies of all the relevant entries stamping them with the regimental seal in the presence of a faithful witness, Corporal Bestland.

He put the incriminating papers in a box and entrusted them to a custom-house officer who hid them in his house in Portsmouth.

When he exposed the corruption, the authorities put obstacles in the way of a prosecution and Cobbett learned of an attempt to discredit him with an accusation that he had proposed an anti-royal toast.

Cobbett decided to abandon the court martial and fled to France. It was his first confrontation with the establishment – from John Sadden’s The Portsmouth Book of Days.