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From the Flemish 'Kasseren' the phrase entered the English language in the late 16th century, during the wars in the Low Countries. Although the O.E.D. states that the first printed use in this sense appears in Shakespeare's Othello (1603), it appeared in the 1595 tract The Estate of English Fugitives by Lewes Lewkenor, 'imploring his help and assistance in so hard an extremity, who for recompence, very charitably cashiered them all without the receipt of one penny'.
It is especially associated with the public degradation of disgraced military officers. Prior to World War I this aspect of cashiering sometimes involved a parade-ground ceremony in front of assembled troops with the destruction of symbols of status: epaulettes ripped off shoulders, badges and insignia stripped, swords broken, caps knocked away, and medals torn off and dashed upon the ground.
The term originated in the era when British Army officers generally bought their commissions; being cashiered meant that the amount they had paid was lost, as they could not "sell-out" afterwards. Essentially, the commission purchase price was a cash bond for good behaviour, forfeited to the Army's cashiers (accountants) in the event of cowardice, desertion or gross misbehaviour.
Famous victims of cashiering include Francis Mitchell (1621), Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald (after the Great Stock Exchange Fraud of 1814), Alfred Dreyfus (1894, see trial and conviction of Alfred Dreyfus and Dreyfus affair), and Philippe Pétain (1945).
While most closely associated with Captain Dreyfus, the ceremony of formal degradation (Degradation militaire) occurred several times in the French military under the Third Republic. At least one other army officer and a naval officer were subjected to the ritual of having their swords broken and the insignia, braid and buttons publicly torn from their uniforms, after being found guilty of charges of treason. More commonly a number of NCOs and private soldiers underwent similar punishments for committing various serious offenses, before execution or imprisonment.
- Holmes, Richard (2001) . "Chapter III - Brothers of the Blade". Redcoat: the British soldier in the age of horse and musket (Hardback ed.). London: HarperCollins. p. 159. ISBN 0-00-257097-1.
- Larcade, Jean-Louis. Zouaves & Tirailleurs: les regiments de march et les regiments mixes (1914–1918). p. 529. ISBN 2-9515171-1-4.