The Guardian ran an article by John Sweeney over the weekend, lamenting the inattention to 306 soldiers shot for desertion during the First World War. Predictably it demanded a pardon for them all, and cast aspersions on the MOD and the conduct of the war. As it happens I have been re-reading Gordon Corrigan’s excellent Mud, Blood and Poppycock, which devotes a chapter to military discipline and the application of the death penalty during that conflict. As a soldier, Corrigan spent a significant amount of time as a president of courts martial so he knows what he is talking about. His research is impeccable.
The first point to be made is that military discipline is covered under a separate branch of English Law, enshrined in the Army Acts. These have changed somewhat since 1918, but the general thrust remains the same. A string, just and effective legal framework is required to maintain order in the lethal chaos that is battle. The point being that the Acts were passed (annually) by Parliament and therefore represented the view of the electorate at the time. Note also that the acts proscribed how justice was to be administered; there was due process, albeit somewhat less complicated that would be found away from the battlefield, and that was complied with.
The second point is that of the 123,383 Field General Court Martials held during the war (the most common format for dealing with soldiers), 3,080 resulted in the award of a death penalty and only 346 were executed in all theatres of war, 322 of which were in France or Belgium. The offences tired covered all offences under the Army Act, the overwhelming majority of which did not have the death penalty. The court comprise three officers, and in the case of a death penalty they had to be unanimous. Moreover the punishment had to be confirmed by higher commanders, and in almost 90% of cases they ordered clemency.
Almost all offences effectively turned upon points of fact: the accused was either at his post or he was not. He either had his weapon, or did not. He either obeyed an order, or did not. In almost all cases, the accused was in no better or worse part of a battle than his comrades – the difference was that they did their job and the accused did not.
“Shell shock” was a known problem, as it had been since the Boer War and treatment was provided, that treatment usually involved evacuation from the front line and rest, which is pretty much what it would do today (although the terminology might be different). If shell shock was cited as a defence doctors were consulted and no soldier diagnosed with shell shock was executed. If the doctors were nor satisfied that the accused was suffering from shell shock, then the defence was not accepted. The Southbrough committee of 1920 investigated, inter alia, and it was satisfied that from 1914 onwards allegations of shell shock in courts martial were examined very carefully.
Corrigan actually reviews the case of Lance Sergeant Stones; as he observes it is one of two often aired in the press around Remembrance Day. Following a German raid on the British forward trench, L/Sgt Stones was found 750 yards away, running away from the front along a communication trench without his rifle. Duly charged with “shamefully throwing away his arms in the face of the enemy” he was defenced at his court martial by a Captain of his regiment who was a qualified solicitor. Stone’s reason for not having his rifle was that he had used it to block the trench. It is hard to understand how a single rifle would constitute any sort of obstacle; the better solution would have been to use it as intended, to shoot at and kill the advancing enemy. Corrigan comments further that, had Stones been a private soldier he might well have received clemency, but he was an NCO from whom more is expected.
Remembrance Day is the time when we remember those who did stand, did fight and, as a consequence of that dutiful resolution, died. The simple fact is that those executed failed to fight when their mates were. While their deaths were caused by the war, so were many others. They should all be remembered, but 11th November is for soldiers who died doing their job.