DESERTION, the act of forsaking or abandoning; more particularly, the wilful abandonment of an employment or of duty, in violation of a legal or moral obligation.
The offence of naval or military desertion is constituted when a man absents himself with the intention either of not returning or of escaping some important service, such as embarkation for foreign service, or service in aid of the civil power. In the United Kingdom desertion has always been recognized by the civil law, and until 1827 (7 & 8 Geo. IV. c. 28) was a felony punishable by death. It was subsequently dealt with by the various Mutiny Acts, which were replaced by the Army Act 1881, renewed annually by the Army (Annual) Act. By § 12 of the act every person subject to military law who deserts or attempts to desert, or who persuades or procures any person to desert, shall, on conviction by court martial, if he committed the offence when on active service or under orders for active service, be liable to suffer death, or such less punishment as is mentioned in the act. When the offence is committed under any other circumstances, the punishment for the first offence is imprisonment, and for the second or any subsequent offence penal servitude or such less punishment as is mentioned in the act. § 44 contains a scale of punishments, and §§ 175-184 an enumeration of persons subject to military law. By § 153 any person who persuades a soldier to desert or aids or assists him or conceals him is liable, on conviction, to be imprisoned, with or without hard labour, for not more than six months. § 154 makes provision for the apprehension of deserters. § 161 lays down that where a soldier has served continuously in an exemplary manner for not less than three years in any corps of regular forces he is not to be tried or punished for desertion which has occurred before the commencement of the three years. Desertion from the regular forces can only be tried by a military court, but in the case of the militia and reserve forces desertion can be tried by a civil court. The Army Act of 1881 made a welcome distinction between actual desertion, as defined at the commencement of this article, and the quitting one regiment in order to enlist in another. This offence is now separately dealt with as fraudulent enlistment; formerly, it was termed "desertion and fraudulent enlistment," and the statistics of desertion proper were consequently and erroneously magnified. The gross total of desertions in the British Army in an average year (1903-1904) was nearly 4000, or 14% of the average strength of the army, but owing to men rejoining from desertion, fraudulent enlistment, &c., the net loss was no more than 1286, i.e. less than 5%. The army of the United States suffers very severely from desertion, and very few deserters rejoin or are recaptured (see Journal of the Roy. United Service Inst., December 1905, p. 1469). In the year 1900-1901, 3110 men deserted (4.3% of average strength); in 1901-1902, 4667 (or 5.9%); in 1904-1905, 6 553 (or 6.8%); and in 1905-1906, 6258 out of less than 60,000 men, or 7.4%.
In all armies desertion while on active service is punishable by death; on the continent of Europe, owing to the system of compulsory service, desertion is infrequent, and takes place usually when the deserter wishes to leave his country altogether. It was formerly the practice in the English army to punish a man convicted of desertion by tattooing on him the letter "D" to prevent his re-enlistment, but this has been long abandoned in deference to public opinion, which erroneously adopted the idea that the "marking" was effected by red-hot irons or in some other manner involving torture. The Navy Discipline Act 1866, and the Naval Deserters Act 1847, contain similar provisions to the Army Act of 1881 for dealing with desertions from the navy. In the United States navy the term "straggling" is applied to absence without leave, where the probability is that the person does not intend to desert. The United States government offers a monetary reward of between $20 and $30 for the arrest and delivery of deserters from the army and navy.
In the British merchant service the offence of desertion is defined as the abandonment of duty by quitting the ship before the termination of the engagement, without justification, and with the intention of not returning.
Desertion is also the term applied to the act by which a man abandons his wife and children, or either of them. Desertion of a wife is a matrimonial offence; under the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857, a decree of judicial separation may be obtained in England by either husband or wife on the ground of desertion, without cause, for two years and upwards (see also Divorce).
For the desertion of children see CHILDREN, LAW RELATING TO; INFANT. (T. A. I.)
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