Grade 5 and the True Meaning of Decimation

Roman Decimation

From Wikipedia: Decimation (Latin: decimatio; decem = "ten") was a form of Roman military discipline in which every tenth man in a group was executed by his cohorts. The discipline was used by senior commanders in the Roman Army to punish units or large groups guilty of capital offences, such as cowardice, mutiny, desertion, and insubordination, and for pacification of rebellious legions. The word decimation is derived from Latin meaning "removal of a tenth". The procedure was a pragmatic attempt to balance the need to punish serious offences with the realities of managing a large group of offenders.


A cohort (roughly 480 soldiers) selected for punishment by decimation was divided into groups of ten. Each group drew lots (sortition), and the soldier on whom the lot of the shortest straw fell was executed by his nine comrades, often by stoning, clubbing, or stabbing. The remaining soldiers were often given rations of barley instead of wheat (the latter being the standard soldier's diet) for a few days, and required to bivouac outside the fortified security of the camp for some time.

As the punishment fell by lot, all soldiers in a group sentenced to decimation were potentially liable for execution, regardless of individual degrees of fault, rank, or distinction.

True Meaning Lost

You only have to watch the television news or read MSN to realise that the word "decimate" has morphed into "almost annihilate" or "visit widespread destruction upon" and has quite replaced "devastate" as in "fish stocks have been decimated by climate change" or "ethnic cleansing has resulted in the decimation of the population".

When I hear "the koala population was decimated by the bushfire" I always want to respond with "1 in 10 - could've been a lot worse".

But what has this to do with Grade 5?

Corporal Punishment

Christian Brothers Strap

(click for larger image)

In the 1950s, corporal punishment was a totally accepted method of discipline. And perhaps nowhere more so than among the Christian Brothers.

Each Brother was armed with a strap, in shape like the one shown to the left, but generally black or dark brown.

It was administered at high speed (whack!) to the outstretched palm of the offending pupil, typically one, two or three times to a maximum of six. For some reason, it was known colloquially as "getting the cuts" though normally there was no actual cutting involved.

Offences ranged from talking in class (!) to running in the playground before you were allowed to not doing your homework.

If you remember being strapped for other transgressions, please comment below.

But back to Grade 5 and our introduction to the redoubtable Brother Mahon. Again, never discovered his first name, though I recall his initial was "I". Ian, Ignatious?

Like Cusack from the previous year, Mahon was another young guy, maybe around 20.

But there the similarity ended.

While Cusack was a nice young guy who genuinely seemed to like kids, Mahon ruled by fear. So much so, that later on in life I have wondered if the training at Strathfield included something like "The only way you'll keep control over these little bastards is by putting the fear of God into them."

To be fair to Mahon, he had an awful job. Grade 5 was the big intake at St Laurence's and, while the number of kids in the class varied from day to day with illness and so forth, it was rarely less than 100, and I think peaked at 105.

Nowadays, when teachers take stress leave if they have to handle more than 12, it's worth reflecting on that fact. One single teacher, responsible all day, every day for a class of over 100 ten year olds!


Decimate by Killing 1 in 10

Given the number of transgressions that were punished by being given the strap, including not doing your homework or being unable to answer a question based on yesterday's lessons correctly, it was physically impossible for Brother Mahon to administer that much discipline.

So he used to decimate us.

Say he was going round the class asking questions we were supposed to know the answers to.

Every boy who produced a wrong answer would be made to leave his desk and stand against the wall. At the end of the exercise, there might be, say thirty or so kids standing against the wall.

The good Brother Mahon would then count off 9 out of every 10 kids to sit down and would apply vigorous strap punishment to those left. That way, he maintained discipline without reducing himself to a physical wreck. Cruel and unusual punishment it might have been, but it was certainly effective!

It wasn't always decimation. If the numbers were smaller, it might be 1 in every 5 or every 7. The unpredictability added to the fun.

I think Br Mahon disappeared the following year or maybe the year after. I wouldn't be surprised if he'd had some sort of breakdown.

Does anyone know?

About the author, Phil Lancaster

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