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Shot At Dawn... In The Public Interest

The term political correctness referring to euphemisms such as "vertically challenged" to describe people who are short, can also be used to examine past events, to decide if they were morally defensible at the time.


In 1993, the British prime minister, John Major, was asked to grant posthumous pardons to more than 300 soldiers executed during World War I. He refused, saying attitudes and values may change with the passage of time, but to substitute more recent judgements and pardon these men would be rewriting history. In other words: You can't judge what they did back then; a time of different values and ideals. But decency and fairness have always existed, even if our forbears chose to ignore them. There are plenty of historical examples of morally indefensible behaviour. For instance, in 1763, General Amherst, commander of British forces in America, wrote several letters expressing his abhorrence of North American Indians and suggesting they be given a distribution of smallpox-infected blankets and clothing. Twenty-six years later, in 1789, Captain Watkin Tench, unable to explain the virulence of a smallpox epidemic among Aborigines in Sydney Cove, wrote: "It is true that our surgeons had brought out variolous matter in bottles; but to infer that it was produced from this cause were a supposition so wild as to be unworthy of consideration." Variolous, meaning smallpox, which begs the question, why the need for such matter, other than to infect the local inhabitants?


In the Boer war, Colonel Baden-Powell, founder of the Scout movement, hero of Mafeking, saved the white population by halving the rations of black Africans. Is it rewriting history to say such behaviour was as morally indefensible then as it is now, especially when Africans were made to pay for rations taken from them in the first place? But then it was entirely consistent with the view stated by the British high commissioner, Alfred Milner, at the outset of the war: "You have only to sacrifice 'the nigger' absolutely, and the game is easy." Britain had long before abolished slavery, so both men must have known their views were morally indefensible and politically incorrect and, in fact, Milner's comment was in a private letter to prime minister Asquith, and Baden-Powell's diaries, complete with calculations, were kept secret until long after his death. No accounts of Mafeking ever explained how he'd managed to save the town.


The Duke of Wellington once said, "I consider all punishment to be for the sake of example and the punishment of military men in particular as expedient only in cases where the prevalence of any crime, or the evils resulting from it, are likely to be injurious to the public interest." The term public interest sounds objective, but is it? How can one not support something in the "public interest"?


Hundreds of young soldiers in World War I were executed as a disciplinary example, in the public interest. They had gone absent without leave from fear, confusion, shell shock, or cowardice, only to end up facing a firing squad of equally young men, also prone to fear, confusion, shell-shock and possibly cowardice, and now horrified at having to shoot one of their own. The high incidence of officers forced to administer the coup de grace suggests that many firing squads from the prisoner's unit deliberately shot wide of the mark. For centuries, the army governed by a system of control called the discipline of fear. Running the gauntlet meant an offender ran between two rows of men who struck him with clubs. Being punished by his peers allowed him to retain his honour. Floggings with cat-o'-nine-tails were common and a deterrent so strong, an 1836 royal commission reported that young soldiers often fainted at the sight. The fear of flogging was greater than the fear of death. 



The army was held in low esteem by the public, as being full of drunkards and criminals, unable to find an honest job. It caused resentment when it was called out during industrial unrest. The real recruiting-sergeants, especially in Ireland, were hunger and unemployment.


Conditions in military prisons were far more rigorous than those in ordinary jails and included shackling and clamping in irons. Change moved slowly. There were no executions in the Crimean War, only floggings. By 1871 the practice of branding deserters with the letter D for deserter, and BC for bad character, was abolished. Flogging was abolished 10years later, leaving a disciplinary vacuum that was to have wide repercussions.


British generals admired the Prussian code of discipline, but the Germans were already replacing this with a more progressive code, that retained the death penalty, but gave soldiers greater protection under it. The British Army Act of 1881 reformed military law, but retained 27capital offences, 12 at any time, and 15 on active service, more than either the French, or German armies. Seventy-five per cent of British executions from 1914 to 1920 were for desertion, yet in France and Germany some desertion was tolerated, even expected, among untried, conscripted troops. This emphasis on execution under military law was not unlike the criminal code since Britain relied more on capital punishment than most other European countries. The "theatre" of execution was all important in the 18th century; the procession through crowded streets, church bells ringing, spectators climbing walls for a better view, then the victim on the scaffold, humble and contrite, or openly defiant. A different take on "the public interest".


Though there were fewer hangings in the 19th century, the symbolic significance remained important, especially to conservative politicians, as a deterrent - in the public interest. But by mid 19th century, British prison reformers had begun to question whether execution was a deterrent, or did it harden those who watched and between 1850 and 1870, floggings and executions moved inside prisons and took place in private.


From 1900 to 1914, an average of 27 death sentences were passed annually in Britain, with 15 carried out. In France, 23 were passed, but only five were carried out. Capital punishment was not practised in 19th century Prussia and was rare in other German territories.


By 1908, British criminal law had altered to allow those charged with murder and facing possible death sentences the right of appeal, but there was no corresponding development in the army. Life and death decisions remained firmly with the commander-in-chief. If public interest was the rationale for punishing enlisted and conscripted men, it's unlikely the military establishment thought of them as criminals, but that didn't stop them treating them as criminals. But the circumstances facing soldiers were vastly different from those faced by criminals and the punishment should have reflected this. On the eve of World War I, while the death penalty applied less frequently in civilian cases, in the army it still held for mutiny, cowardice before the enemy, sleeping or being drunk on duty, desertion, striking a superior officer, casting away arms and other offences. Troops had no civil rights, unlike French and German soldiers, who were considered citizens. The British army resisted political interference, so emphasis in the military code on capital punishment went unchecked. The death penalty remained until 1930.


British generals were largely unimaginative professionals, who'd seen action in earlier campaigns, none of which had prepared them for the Western Front. Safe in their chateaux headquarters, they suffered neither the stresses and strains of heavy bombardments, nor the horrors of trench warfare. Yet John French was determined to apply the sternest disciplinary standards, with execution taking precedence over the need for justice. Executions increased before large-scale offensives, the desertions prompting them being probably due to the ominous wait during the preliminary bombardment, or triggered by the huge casualties. Executions, sometimes one a week, were publicised to maintain discipline, but concealed at home, so as not to affect recruitment. One word applied to deserters. Cowardice. It was considered one of the vilest forms of degradation and in signing one death warrant, Douglas Haig wrote: "I am of the opinion that it is necessary to make an example to prevent cowardice in the face of the enemy as far as possible." In the public interest?


Flogging was replaced by "crucifixion", a field punishment whereby a man was shackled to a wheel for two hours daily for up to 28days. Used for minor offences such as drunkenness, it was thought too humiliating for officers, but between it and execution, there was nothing. But was execution a deterrent? When a young soldier in a Guards battalion was court-martialled and shot for cowardice in 1915, his company was mortified at the imputation of cowardice in any of its ranks, and felt they, too, had been disgraced. Courts-martial in the field were less formal than in peacetime, with three officers, and a president holding the rank of major or above. One, even two, officers were sometimes from the man's unit, but were unlikely to contradict a senior officer who'd referred the soldier for trial. The prosecution was conducted by the soldier's adjutant and his defence by a junior regimental officer called the "prisoner's friend". However, even when one was present, however, he often had no knowledge of law, and only hours to prepare the defence.


Often there was no evidence, no medical examination, and statements by the accused were little more than a plea of extenuating circumstances. At one court-martial no Bible was available, so witnesses were sworn in on a "handsomely bound French cookery book", surely suggesting a predetermined outcome. Standing in front of a headstone in a military cemetery is a moving experience; staring at one saying the man Died of Wounds when he was really executed, raises more complex emotions.


In Belgium, a guidebook called Unquiet graves is readily available, complete with map, directions and case histories for finding various cemeteries and particular graves. Without it, there was nothing to indicate some headstones differed from others nearby. The ultimate rights and courtesies accorded the condemned man's body were the same as those conferred on his comrades. That in itself seems contradictory.


When the term "shell-shock" came into existence, it was viewed with suspicion by the military hierarchy and many doctors, as suggesting the cause of aberrant behaviour was perhaps more complex than mere cowardice. The "cure", like falling off a horse, was to return the man to the front as soon as possible. The condition was divided into two types: commotional, with a physical cause such as a huge shell exploding near the victim (classed as a wound) or emotional (regarded as "funking"). Shell-shock was seen by high command against the aim of maintaining discipline, so more men labelled shell-shocked may have been singled out for execution, by way of example.


In Peronne's l'Historial de la Grande Guerre museum, a film clip entitled "Shell-shock" shows a French psychiatrist asking a patient to walk towards him. The soldier's wrists shake in violent jerking movements from the elbow. His right leg swings out from the knee, like a patient with cerebral palsy. The doctor makes him turn, walk back, and repeat the process. The movements are reflex, automatic, at no stage do they alter, as they might have, had the soldier been "funking". This man could not have climbed out of a trench and run, let alone hold a rifle and fire it. During World War II, a flying officer stationed in Britain, who made 31trips, and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, noted that shortly after he started, whenever the officers adjourned for coffee after dinner, he heard the unmistakable rattle of cups in saucers, as men's hands shook. After a while, the same thing happened to him and so as to stop the shaking when he wrote home, he had to hold his elbow and press down hard. Shell-shock in World WarI, became "combat-fatigue" in World WarII and is now "post traumatic stress disorder", not a politically correct euphemism, but a term describing a medical condition recognised and accepted in both military and non-military circles. There is nothing derogatory about it, no sense of a man dropping his bundle, or not doing his bit. The term shell-shock was first coined when the number of men leaving the trenches with no bodily wound increased. Hospitals were choked with them, but doctors could find nothing wrong, although one neurologist, with a Somme field ambulance, referring to the massive sick parades, said the men were in a state of nervous and physical exhaustion. Some had been over the top 11 times in a fortnight and couldn't do it again, but few could explain their condition. Many men facing medical boards had had minimal education and had come from poor, socio-economic backgrounds.


It's easy to attribute decisions enforcing the death penalty to a climate of ignorance, but how ignorant were the generals? A confidential order sent to all captains and above stated cases of cowardice were always to be punished by death, and no medical excuses were to be accepted. This surely implies acknowledgement that there could be medical reasons for what had been dismissed as cowardice.


Yet, Haig had the power to make exceptions when it suited. A week after the 1916 November offensive, Major-General Landon was sent home to a training job, and Haig wrote: "The strain and hard work had begun to tell on him. He has certainly had a very hard time, nerve-racking to a degree, being for many weeks constantly under shell-fire."


He could recognise the effects on an officer, but not on the men, many of whom had been in France for 18months without a break. Lord Moran, a medical officer during the war, who later wrote The Anatomy of Courage, distinguished between cowardice and fear as the cold choice between two alternatives, the fixed resolve not to quit. For him the acid test was high explosive. Men were prepared to die swiftly and cleanly, but were traumatised at the thought of a huge shell. Those most likely to desert were either late recruits, immature and often lacking the mental and physical stamina needed for the army. He had no time for these "plainly worthless fellows". On the other hand, he had more pity for seasoned campaigners, often non-commissioned officers who'd served for years but were worn out. Moran likened courage to a bank account slowly ebbing away, and felt all men needed rest and recreation, to replenish their "funds". As one soldier said, "Everybody was afraid. If any man says he never felt fear, I don't care who he is, he's a liar. You all tried not to show it, but everybody felt the same. But when the whistle blew and you went over the top, your fears all went. You never thought about the danger once you were out there in among it, but it was that waiting, waiting, waiting in the trenches to go over that got your wind up." "Windiness" was almost universal, but men still did their job. "Funkiness" meant shirking the job, and was held in contempt. A funky man was an outcast, a pariah, but a highly strung temperament didn't always exclude courage. It took courage to shoot off a trigger-finger, blast a hole in one's foot, or commit suicide rather than face going over the top. Everyone knew the consequences, evacuation to a special hospital (Passchendaele No 61 Casualty Clearing Station at "Mendingham"), to be nursed under guard until able to face court-martial.


When a chaplain found a young officer well back from his unit the day before it went into battle and asked what he was doing, the officer broke down and said he couldn't face it. The padre talked him through it, pointing out the alternative, court-martial and execution, then walked him back. The next day, the officer was killed and the padre wrote: "How does the average man, in the heat of battle, tell the difference between a real nervous breakdown and cowardice?"


Not all clergy were so sensitive. A padre visiting a condemned man on the night before his execution, told him he deserved to die. Furious, the man's sergeant kicked the padre out of the cell and at the burial, with no parson was present, the sergeant muttered "Ashes to ashes" as they covered him.


No psychological study had been done of the ordinary soldier before World War I. There was an element of predictability to war, but massive shelling now brought uncertainty; death could strike at any time, even behind the lines. The next shell might have one's name on it. Men could feign mental or physical illness, so medical officers were constantly on guard, but a cursory examination didn't always reveal an neuropathic disorder, or psychological damage. Psychiatry was still in its infancy, but when a man claimed loss of memory, a proper examination should have established this, but it rarely did. Medical boards reporting on soldiers under sentence of death usually spent only an hour or two investigating. Perversely, men who were psychologically impaired lied about their condition, because of the shame of being classed unfit to remain in the army, or worse, being accused of "funking".


If men in the trenches couldn't articulate their feelings, poets like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon spoke for them. Sassoon in his Declaration in The Times railed against the war, saying it was being prolonged by those with the power to end it. Instead of facing court-martial, he was persuaded by the poet, Robert Graves, to accept a medical board report that he was suffering mental breakdown. He was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital, Edinburgh, under the care of W.H.R.Rivers, a distinguished neurologist. Rivers believed a man's normal reaction to danger was self-preservation, the innate desire to escape life-threatening situations. If this instinct were blocked, some form of neurosis, even dissociation, could occur and by facing experiences rather than repressing them, healing could begin. What we'd call catharsis, or debriefing, but Rivers was expected to return men to the front. It was not so much as a debriefing, as a patching-up. In the end, Sassoon felt it his duty to return and share the suffering of his men. Owen also returned, but was killed on November 4, 1918.


The British condemned more than 3000 men, executing over 300. These included 26 Canadians, 26 Irishmen and five New Zealanders. After the 1916 Easter uprising, Irish prisoners in particular, were suspected of disloyalty, and as Celts were regarded as inferior by the military establishment, and probably more prone to shell-shock. Colonials, black troops and native labourers were all considered inferior and Orientals experienced outright racism.


The 129 Australians sentenced to death were spared, thanks to the 1903 Australian Defence Act. The governor-general had to confirm sentences but they were never endorsed, despite Haig's representations. The only executions were unofficial. At Reningelst camp for Australian prisoners, at least one was shot in the head for having deserted from trenches three times. The Official Australian War History claimed the constant reading out of death penalties on British soldiers inspired Australians with a sullen sympathy and fierce pride that their army refused the practice. Despite its military disposition, Germany condemned only 150 men and executed 48 during the whole course of the war. France sentenced 2000, executing 600, but this figure included one incident of decimation; shooting every tenth man in a company of Algerians who refused to attack. They were shot at Zillebeeke, Flanders, on December 15, 1914.


From July 1918 until the Armistice, there were 25 executions; 10 for desertion and six for murder. Five murderers were Chinese coolies, three of whom had killed other coolies in private quarrels. Two who had murdered a French woman while committing a robbery should perhaps have been turned over to French authorities. Fourteen Chinese labour corps were executed, the last on May 3, 1919. But if execution was a disciplinary measure, what possible deterrent was this, given most troops had returned home?


We'd all like to feel that if tested we'd stand firm under any circumstances, but that's not always possible.


In an English court case of 1884, Regina v Dudley and Stephens, Captain Dudley, First Mate Stephens, the Second Mate and a cabin boy were cast adrift having been shipwrecked. After 20 days with virtually no food or water, Dudley and Stephens killed the boy (who was close to death) but all three ate him. In sentencing the murderers to death, the judge said, "Necessity, other than self-defence, is no defence in English law. War is full of instances in which it is a man's duty, not to live, but to die." The men appealed and the sentence was commuted to six months, after which the home secretary acquitted them on the grounds that the law of the ordinary man should apply, the "man on the Clapham Junction bus", that no one could tell how they'd have acted in the same circumstances. The same should apply to the Western Front. No one knew how long the war would last, nor how it would erode men's willingness to fight. In one court-martial a guilty verdict for sleeping at his post almost ended one prisoner's life, until an officer insisted on calling witnesses. A doctor admitted having prescribed chlorodyne, a combination of chloroform and morphine and had effectively "doped" the soldier. The major presiding thanked the officer for preventing him from making a fatal mistake. Such instances were rare, but how many mistakes were made?


It's been suggested that only those suffering shell-shock, not murderers, should be pardoned, but the whole area is more than grey. Seventeen executed men lie buried in Poperinge New Military Cemetery, more than in any other. Belgian citizens, including schoolchildren, who witnessed the executions were horrified, and there is strong feeling in Belgium today that these men and others should be pardoned. Some families were never told, others received a letter: "I am directed to inform you that a report has been received from the War Office to the effect that [number, rank, name, battalion, regiment] was sentenced after being tried by court-martial to suffer death by being shot, and his sentence was duly executed on [the date]."


Relatives sometimes added epitaphs: "Shot at Dawn. One of the First to enlist. A Worthy son of his father. Lest we forget."


Second Lieutenant Eric Skeffington Poole, West Yorkshire Regt, aged 31, was one of only three officers executed. A clear case of shell shock, he wasn't in control of his actions under fire, and had been previously treated for the condition. Fellow officers and a doctor described him as "eccentric", lacking in decision, mentally confused, more liable to shell-shock than most. Yet despite a recommendation he be sent home, he was shot on December 10, 1916. His epitaph reads: "Grant him Eternal Rest O Lord Jesu Mercy."


On October 29, 2004, Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern asked Prime Minister Tony Blair to consider granting posthumous pardons to 26Irishmen. Blair refused. Presumably he agrees with John Major, that even if attitudes and values change, you can't rewrite history.


Many men who fought alongside those executed might disagree. The last soldier executed at Dickebusch Huts was Evan Fraser, 2nd Royal Scots. In 1998, a veteran of that battalion claimed he and others mounted a guard of honour over Fraser's grave in the weeks following his execution.


Men executed during World War I should be pardoned, not because we accept that the state no longer has the right to take a man's life. That would be applying today's values to the circumstances of then.


It's not a case of rewriting history, but to acknowledge a terrible wrong. The military hierarchy knew desertions were for the most part not simply due to cowardice. The fact that evidence was often circumstantial and prisoners were denied the basic tenet of our legal system, the right to fair representation and appeal, only makes it worse.


"Shell-shock" was not merely a politically correct term for cowardice, but described a real and devastating condition. British generals knew it, but chose to ignore it - in the public interest.



© Vashti Farrer

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