In World War One, the executions of 306 British and Commonwealth soldiers took place. Such executions, for crimes such as desertion and cowardice, remain a source of controversy with some believing that many of those executed should be pardoned as they were suffering from what is now called shell shock. The executions, primarily of non-commissioned ranks, included 25 Canadians, 22 Irishmen and 5 New Zealanders.
Between 1914 and 1918, the British Army identified 80,000 men with what would now be defined as the symptoms of shellshock. There were those who suffered from severe shell shock. They could not stand the thought of being on the front line any longer and deserted. Once caught, they received a court martial and, if sentenced to death, shot by a twelve man firing squad.
The horrors that men from all sides endured while on the front line can only be imagined.
“We went up into the front line near Arras, through sodden and devastated countryside. As we were moving up to our sector along the communication trenches, a shell burst ahead of me and one of my platoon dropped. He was the first man I ever saw killed. Both his legs were blown off and the whole of his body and face was peppered with shrapnel. The sight turned my stomach. I was sick and terrified but even more frightened of showing it.”
With no obvious end to such experiences and with the whole issue of trench life being such a drain on morale, it is no wonder that some men cracked under the strain of constant artillery fire, never knowing when you would go over the top, the general conditions etc.
Senior military commanders would not accept a soldier’s failure to return to the front line as anything other than desertion. They also believed that if such behaviour was not harshly punished, others might be encouraged to do the same and the whole discipline of the British Army would collapse. Some men faced a court martial for other offences but the majority stood trial for desertion from their post, “fleeing in the face of the enemy”. A court martial itself was usually carried out with some speed and the execution followed shortly after.
Few soldiers wanted to be in a firing squad. Many were soldiers at a base camp recovering from wounds that still stopped them from fighting at the front but did not preclude them from firing a Lee Enfield rifle. Some of those in firing squads were under the age of sixteen, as were some of those who were shot for ‘cowardice’. James Crozier from Belfast was shot at dawn for desertion – he was just sixteen. Before his execution, Crozier was given so much rum that he passed out. He had to be carried, semi-conscious, to the place of execution. Officers at the execution later claimed that there was a very real fear that the men in the firing squad would disobey the order to shoot. Private Abe Bevistein, aged sixteen, was also shot by firing squad at Labourse, near Calais. As with so many others cases, he had been found guilty of deserting his post. Just before his court martial, Bevistein wrote home to his mother:
"We were in the trenches. I was so cold I went out (and took shelter in a farm house). They took me to prison so I will have to go in front of the court. I will try my best to get out of it, so don't worry."
Because of the ‘crimes’ committed by these men, their names were not put on war memorials after the war. Many of their nearest relatives were told that they had died in France/Belgium but werenever told how or why.
A French military observer witnessed one execution by the French Army:
“The two condemned were tied up from head to toe like sausages. A thick bandage hid their faces. And, a horrible thing, on their chests a square of fabric was placed over their hearts. The unfortunate duo could not move. They had to be carried like two dummies on the open-backed lorry, which bore them to the rifle range. It is impossible to articulate the sinister impression the sight of those two living parcels made on me.
The padre mumbled some words and then went off to eat. Two six-strong platoons appeared, lined up with their backs to the firing posts. The guns lay on the ground. When the condemned had been attached, the men of the platoon who had not been able to see events, responding to a silent gesture,
picked up their guns, abruptly turned about, aimed and opened fire. Then they turned their backs on the bodies and the sergeant ordered “Quick march!”
The men marched right passed them, without inspecting their weapons, without turning a head. No military compliments, no parade, no music, no march past; a hideous death without drums or trumpets.”
Whether these men will ever receive a posthumous pardon is open to speculation. It is said by the government that the evidence required to go down this route simply does not exist after all these years. It may well be that a blanket pardon for all 306 men is not justified as some of
the men executed may well have deserted and did not have shell shock.
One of the many reasons that anger the campaigners is that far more men deserted in the United Kingdom than in France/Belgium (four times) but that no-one was ever executed for desertion actually in the UK. The actual legal status of court martials has also been questioned. The accused did not have access to a formal legal representative who could defend him. Some got a 'prisoner's friend' while many did not even have this. Legally, every court martial should have had a 'judge advocate' present but very few did. The night before an execution, a condemned man had the right to petition the King for clemency but none ever did which suggests that none were aware that they had this right. On January 13th 1915, General Routine Order 585 was issued which basically reversed the belief of being innocent until found guilty. Under 585, a soldier was guilty until sufficient evidence could be provided to prove his innocence.
Immediately after the war, there were claims that the executions of soldiers was a class issue. James Crozier was found guilty of deserting his post and was shot. Two weeks earlier, 2nd Lieutenant Annandale was found guilty of the same but was not sentenced to death due to "technicalities". In the duration of the war, fifteen officers, sentenced to death, received a royal pardon. In the summer of 1916, all officers of the rank of captain and above were given an order that all cases of cowardice should be punished by death and that a medical excuse should not be tolerated. However, this was not the case if officers were found to be suffering from neurasthenia.
Footnote: In August 2006, the British Defence Secretary Des Browne announced that with Parliament's support, there would be a general pardon for all 306 men executed in World War One.
A new law passed on November 8th 2006 and included as part of the Armed Forces Act has pardoned men in the British and Commonwealth armies who were executed in World War One. The law removes the stain of dishonour with regards to executions on war records but it does not cancel out sentences. Defence Secretary Des Browne said:
"I believe it is better to acknowledge that injustices were clearly done in some cases - even if we cannot say which - and to acknowledge that all these men were victims of war. I hope that pardoning these men will finally remove the stigma with which their families have lived for years."