Tuesday, 23 February 2016


I have recently read a book entitled Executed at Dawn by David Johnson, which documents the roles not only the participants of the whole process, but also looks at the campaign to have 302 soldiers who were convicted, sentenced to death by Field Courts Martial and executed during the First World War pardoned.

I had also previously read a book called Blindfold and Alone by Cathryn Corns and John Hughes-Wilson, which also looks at the stories behind those executed, although the number stated in that book is 306, four more than David Johnson claims.

During the First World War, there were actually 346 British and Commonwealth soldiers who were executed for a variety of crimes with 91 of these soldiers already under a suspended sentence for a previous crime, 40 of these being a suspended death sentences.  However, 40 of the 346 soldiers were convicted of crimes that would have carried the death penalty had they been convicted by a civilian court, 37 for murder and 3 for mutiny.  Of the remainder, they were all convicted of the military crimes of desertion (266), cowardice (18), striking or using violence to a superior officer (6), disobedience to a lawful command (5), quitting a post without authority (7), sleeping at post (2) and casting away arms (2).

However, when one considers the fact that there were more than 300,000 Officers and men who faced a Courts Martial and that 3,080 death sentences were passed (1% of all of the sentences) with only 346 sentences being carried out (11% of the death sentences) one can see that the often seen perception was that the British Army was executing soldiers all over the place is not completely true.  What seems to have caused the most controversy was that these soldiers were executed for crimes that had no civilian equivalent, that many of the soldiers were suffering from what in modern parlance would be described at Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), that the process was seen as unfair in that there was no right of appeal and also that whether the sentence was confirmed or not by the senior officers was sometimes based on very subjective reasons.

As far as the crimes having no civilian equivalent, I do not think that this can really be put forward as an argument, as life in the armed forces is completely different to civilian life, and the basis of the military life is discipline.  For that reason, there have to be military laws that have no civilian equivalent and which may result in a custodial or other punishment.  For example, if I become disgruntled with my work, I can tell them to stick it where the sun doesn’t shine, clear my desk and leave.  The worst that is likely to happen to me is that I won’t get my final salary in lieu of notice.  However, if I do this in the military without giving proper notice and serving out that notice, it is classed as being absent without leave, which could lead to a custodial sentence, or, depending on circumstances, be upgraded to desertion which would, nowadays, result in a custodial sentence but, as can be seen above, resulted in the execution of 266 soldiers during the First World War.

The next argument that was put forward for the pardoning those executed was that many of those who were executed had deserted due to suffering from shell shock, something that would now be recognised as PTSD, but at the time was seen as a weakness or perhaps cowardice when a severely traumatised soldier reached the limit of coping mechanism and ran away or refused to carry out what was seen as his duty.  Whilst it is undoubtedly the case that there were many soldiers, some of whom were convicted and subsequently executed, suffering from shell shock, I do not think that we can condemn either the Medical Officers who declared the soldiers fit or the senior Officers who confirmed the sentence.  In modern times, the mental health support to soldiers returning from war zones is excellent, and there have been many studies into the causes and prevention of PTSD.  However, in the early part of the 20th Century and during the First World War, there was limited or no understanding of the effects that prolonged exposure to the traumatic effects of battle would have on individuals, particularly those who were conscripted rather than being regular soldiers.  However, there is limited evidence available to confirm whether a soldier was genuinely suffering from shell shock when he committed his crime (and I sadly have no doubt many were) or whether this was something claimed in mitigation in the hope of being dealt with more leniently (again, I have no doubt that this did happen).

In the 21st Century the procedure for Courts Martial has evolved since those that were convened in all of the theatres in which the British and Empire Armies fought between 1914 and 1918.  When a soldier joined the Army in during that War, he would have known that he was subject to Military Law and that the way in which trials and punishments were carried out was very different to the civilian law that he had been subject to prior to enlisting, including the right of appeal, which was present in civilian law but not in military law. There is also the argument that even if the soldier was ignorant of the law, this was not a defence.  At the time that the offence was committed, that was the procedure for the Courts Martial.

As for whether the decisions made by the senior officers were subjective or not, again it is likely that many of these were.  The procedure was that prior to a sentence being enacted, it would pass up through the chain of command with the Brigade Commander, Divisional Commander, Army Commander all making their recommendations as to whether the sentence should be carried out or not and finally the Commander-in-Chief, Field Marshal Sir John French from August 1914 until  December 1915 and Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig from December 1915 until the end of the war, who would have the final say in whether the sentence was carried out.  As already stated, 89% of these sentences were commuted or suspended, but the reasons for the remaining 11% being enacted appears to vary greatly.

Even during the War there had been questions raised in Parliament regarding these executions, but nothing was really done until after the end of the conflict.  A Member of Parliament named Ernest Thurtle lobbied for changes to the capital offences within Military Law and was successful, as in 1928 the military offences of striking or using violence to a superior officer, disobedience to a lawful command, quitting a post without authority, sleeping at post and casting away arms all became non-capital offences.  However, Thurtle continued to lobby for the remaining “purely military” capital offences and in 1930, Royal Assent was given, leaving mutiny as the only Military offence that could be punished by death.  Even the offence of mutiny became no longer punishable by death following the adoption of the Human Rights Act (1998).

From the end of the War there had been a campaign to have all those soldiers executed pardoned, with there being more determination for this from the 1960s onward.  The Shot at Dawn Campaign was eventually successful when the then Secretary of State for Defence, Des Browne, granted pardons in 2006, although the original convictions were not quashed.

So where do I stand on this?  As already stated, I do not doubt that many of the soldiers executed during World War 1 for purely Military offences should not have been executed.  But that is looking back on events that occurred a century ago and judging based on the knowledge that we know have with regards mental illness as well as the current law.  For that reason, I do not believe that there should have been a blanket pardon.

With regards to remembering these men, I do believe that every one of them was a victim of the war, in exactly the same way that those killed by enemy action were victims.  In almost all of the cases, I suspect that it was the circumstances in which they found themselves that made them behave in the way that they did.  So they should definitely be remembered and commemorated on War Memorials, but there is no denying that they committed the offences, under the Military Law of that time to which they were subject.  They were dealt with by the Military Courts of that time and they were sentenced according to the sentencing guidelines of that time.  I do not believe that we can look back and judge using the laws, courts and sentences of this time. 

Next thing you know we’ll be apologising for things that our ancestors did 50-200 years ago.  Oh, hold on….

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Cash Cow

I got my new car about two years ago and in the time that I’ve had it, I have managed to fall foul of the law on two occasions, both of which involved speeding.

Bearing in mind that I’ve been driving for more than 20 years, it is probably surprising that I have only got any penalty points on my licence in the last two.

The first occasion was a bit of surprise as I was caught approaching the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge at Dartford.  This is the method by which one crosses the Thames from Essex into Kent, and the reason that it was such a surprise to receive the letter informing me of the fact that I’d been caught speeding was that this area of the M25 was normally at a standstill due to the tolls on the far side of the bridge.  In fact, I don’t think that I have ever driven straight over the bridge without a delay of some description on all of the times that I have crossed it.

Anyway, I had taken Alec back up to University in Hull in September 2014 and was driving back when I was ‘captured’ doing 57mph in a 50mph zone.  However, as this was my first offence, I was given the option of attending a half-day ‘Speed Awareness Course’, which I chose to do.  It was more expensive than paying the fine, but it meant that I wouldn’t receive any penalty points.

I knew roughly what to expect as Emma had attended one of these courses earlier in the year (yes, I did rip the piss and then regretted it when my letter arrived!) and I attended at a hotel in Maidstone in December 2014.

The course was useful and I did learn some things. At the end of the course we were informed that if we were caught speeding in future, we would be unable to attend another course for three years and we would have to take the points, so with that I decided to make sure I stuck to the limit.

And generally, I have.  However, last summer I was on my way to Aldershot on the M25 when I was ‘captured’ again.  I have to say that I still feel that this one was a little unfair as the M25 has a variable speed limit.  As I approached one of the gantries, the speed limit was 50mph, but just as I was going under it, it changed to 40 mph, I saw a flash, and a week later I received a letter informing me that I had been photographed travelling at 51mph in a 40mph zone.  Even if I’d braked as soon as the speed limit changed, I would probably still have been over the limit!  So this time, I had to send all of my documents off and pay a £100 fine online.

And the reason that I think that this is a bit of a cash cow is because when I travel back and forth along the motorway every Tuesday, I have witnessed some appalling driving behaviour that will never be caught using a camera.  Apart from the usual people using their mobile phones whilst driving, which is illegal, as well as people reading books and work, or people using laptops, I think that one of the worst things I saw was a woman driving with her knees whilst holding a bowl in one hand and shovelling her breakfast in with the other and although there was a speed restriction in place at the time, she was still travelling at 40mph!

As I’ve said, these offences will never be caught on camera, the perpetrators will only be caught if there is a Police Officer in either a marked or unmarked car catching people in the act, but that is an expensive way of policing.  There is the cost of the fuel, the wear and tear to the vehicle and the wages of the officer driving, which will all add up and he or she will not catch all of the miscreants.

Compare this to a camera that can take countless pictures that will bring in £100 a time.  And yes, there is still the expense of administering all of this, but it will be far less expense for much greater reward than an officer on the road.

When I first started travelling to Aldershot, there were roadworks between junctions 5 & 6 in both directions on the M25, with a speed limit of 50mph.  There was also a camera on a gantry on the anti-clockwise side that, as I approached going clockwise at the usual 10-20mph, would be flashing like a strobe light at the cars that were passing in the much freer moving opposite carriageway.  And at £100 each, you can’t tell me that the camera didn’t pay for itself after its first day in use, or that Kent Police didn’t greatly increase their coffers.

Or am I being cynical?

Monday, 8 February 2016

Mad, Bad and Dangerous!

The NHS Trust that I work for has recently been in the news, and unfortunately not for good reasons.  It became the first NHS Trust to be charged with Corporate Manslaughter following the unfortunate death of a lady shortly after she had given birth in 2012.  In addition, the two anaesthetists involved were also to be charged, but as one of them fled back to Pakistan, only one was actually charged with Gross Negligence Manslaughter.  However, the trial collapsed when the judge stated that there was “…little or no evidence [the anaesthetist on trial] had done anything wrong that had contributed to [the lady’s] death and, likewise, there was no evidence of systemic failure at the trust.

It also came out that during the trial that the judge had had to reprimand a man for making an inappropriate tweet and ordered him to remove it after he posted a link to a news report of the trial and stated that it was a "tragic case from which huge lessons must be learned".  In fact, the judge described this actually as potentially being in contempt.

What is concerning about this last part is that the man who actually posted the tweet and had to be ordered to take it down was Jeremy Hunt, the current Secretary of State for Health, and therefore someone whom you would expect to have more insight into the potential fall-out of such an ill thought out action.  However, this is not his first gaffe, nor has it been his last.

Since he has been the Secretary of State for Health, we have seen, for the first time in forty years, doctors going on strike. And why?  Well, Mr Hunt has decided that he is going to reform the NHS in an effort to have doctors working more hours for less pay.  And to do this he has misquoted a piece of research and cited it is his claim that patients are more likely to die if they are admitted to hospital at weekends rather than during the week.

However, the way in which he has gone about this is somewhat dictatorial, including threatening to impose the contract on the doctors if they refused to accept it.  Rather than comply, there has so far been one strike by the junior doctors, with another planned for next week.

And as for reducing the death rate due to weekend admissions, there is some evidence that Mr Hunt’s mad ramblings have resulted in people being too scared to go to hospital on a Saturday or Sunday, waiting instead until a weekday, but which time, in some cases, they have deteriorated to a point that they are far sicker than they were at the weekend.

We then had the incident with the tweet, proving that this idiot is so bad at his job he obviously had no idea that what he was doing was wrong.

And now, the latest in the catalogue of cock-ups, is the advice that he has issued to parents following the death of a child called William Mead, whose parents called the non-emergency 111 service and were reassured that he would be fine.  He died soon after from an undiagnosed sepsis.

Whilst Mr Hunt accepts that there needs to be more doctors and nurses available for the 111 service, he has advised parents that if they are concerned about a rash that their child may have, they should go online and compare their child’s rash to the pictures that they see!

To quote a former colleague of mine, in his open letter to Mr Hunt
 “…as a consultant in Emergency Medicine, with 6 years at medical school, 10 years training as a junior doctor and 4 1/2 years a consultant - I still find rashes difficult. I still need help from others. I am still not 100% sure when a child has got meningitis and when they haven't. I need much more than just a picture. I need a full examination, a history, various tests and to use my experience to come to a judgment. So if I am not sure, I think to advise parents to go to Google (because you privatised and dismantled a perfectly well functioning NHS Direct service) is perhaps giving false reassurance and bad advice”.

This suggests that, with this dangerous advice, this man would rather put lives at risk than spend the money needed to provide a good service, this man would rather have the parents of sick children “guess” whether their child’s rash is serious enough for them to require hospital treatment.

Perhaps there should be a gross negligence manslaughter charge against the Secretary of State for every death caused by his ignorant advice.