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….