British media outlets announced Wednesday that British soldiers executed during the Great War (World War I) were about to be pardoned.
The worst war the world has ever seen was the Second World War. It could be argued, though, that from the standpoint of the common soldier — particularly with regard to British commonwealth soldiers, and definitely for French soldiers — that the First World War was worse.
It's hard for present day Westerners to understand the horror that was the Great War. We see casualties on television from Iraq and Afghanistan and shake our heads at the loss, and wonder when the killing will end. And yet on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1916, the British Commonwealth forces suffered 57,470 casualties, 19,240 of whom were killed. By the time the battle ended, four and a half months later on November 18, 1916, the British and French had 623,907 casualties (slightly less than a third were French casualties), of which 146,431 were killed or missing. The Germans suffered an estimated 465,000 to 600,000 casualties, of which 164,055 killed or missing. That's more than a million men hurt in a single (albeit large and lengthy) battle, of which 300,000 were killed or missing. Missing usually meant they were blown up and couldn't be identified; 90 years later, they are still regularly unearthing human remains from farm fields in the region.
The worst part of the war was the way it was fought. World War I was one of those confluences in history where tactics were horribly behind the technology. Now, it's fair to say that every war has this to some extent. Technological change requires tactical and strategic change. Often the tactics developed in training and in theory do not match those needed on the battlefield. Sometimes the change is small, like integrating flying drones into modern combat techniques. Sometimes it is great. It was perhaps never greater than in World War I, and no better example is the Battle of the Somme.
The battle opened with a British artillery barrage that lasted seven days. The intention was to destroy the German positions, wreck their barbed wire entanglements, disorient what men remained, and allow the British a fairly easy advance from their trenches to the German trench line. It did not work out that way. The Germans dug deep "bomb proofs", where they stayed underground, mostly unharmed. The artillery did nothing to destroy barbed wire, and served only to rip apart the ground. Once the barrage was over, British Commonwealth soldiers were ordered "over the top" of their trenches. They climbed out. Most aligned in orderly formations, and proceeded to walk across the battlefield at an orderly pace carrying 70 pounds of equipment. The Germans, once they'd recovered from the end of the bombardment, rushed for their machine guns. They mowed down the Commonwealth soldiers. High command had soldiers wear metal plates on their back, so they could see the progress of the advance from a distance, which gave German snipers an excellent target when the soldiers did go to ground. (Some in fact did crawl out of their trenches early on, in an attempt to sneak up on the lines just as the barrage lifted. They usually faired better than the regiments conducting more "traditional" tactics.) The 1st Newfoundland Regiment couldn't make it to the forward trenches, so they started their advance far back from the reserve trenches. They suffered a 91% casualty rate.
The problem was mainly one of outdated tactics versus modern technology. Machine guns made slow, orderly marches across "no man's land" suicidal. I saw a program about this on TV, using modern British soldiers to simulate the Somme attack. They set up a "machine gun" (with a laser firing system) and gave the soldiers the special laser sensitive vests they use while training; it's essentially high tech paintball. They had the soldiers march across a field at World War I rates. Ninety percent of the soldiers were hit. Then they had them do it at a run with their equipment. The rate dropped to something like 50%. Finally, they had them drop all but the essentials and take the field at a run. The rate dropped to around 30%. It's quite clear that the tactics used were wholly inadequate. It was more than just tactics, though. The artillery barrage was relied upon too much, in spite of earlier evidence suggesting it would not cut the wire. Due to inaccuracies in firing artillery, the shelling had to end before the men started their movement (something that was changed later in the war with a "walking barrage"). Communications were inadequate to the task of moving that many men in anything resembling a cohesive force. The secret was autonomous units without direct control from the higher ups, and communication tools to get the right information to the correct officers. The Germans began to develop this sort of thing late in the war, but it wasn't until World War II that it saw mass implementation.
As I mentioned above, there were more than 57,000 Commonwealth casualties on the first day of the battle. German losses are harder to estimate, as they only submitted casualty reports every 10 days. It is estimated that they lost 8,000 men, 2,200 of whom were prisoners.
It's not surprising that, with the large number of men in the theatre of operation and the meat grinder the war had become, that there would be a lot of cases of what was then called "shell shock" but which is now known as post traumatic stress disorder. Doctors at the time recognized that prolonged warfare could tear a person's mind apart, making them unfit to fight. They did not know how to adequately treat the condition. The high command capable of fighting a war that minimized it, nor did they particularly care for the plight of the soldier. Cowardice, in their mind, was the result of weak character or lack of morality. What the high command was capable of doing was trying to stop cowardice through coercion. The form of coercion chosen by British commander Field Marshal Douglas Haig was the firing squad.
During the war, 306 British troops were shot for "military offences". Of the 306, 266 were shot for desertion, 37 for murder, 18 for cowardice, seven for leaving their posts, six for striking an officer, five for disobedience, three for mutiny, two for sleeping on post, and two for casting away arms. This is out of about 20,000 soldiers convicted of a crime for which death was one of the potential punishments, and from over 3,000 soldiers who were sentenced to death, but had their punishments commuted.
Canada sentenced more than 700 men to death during the Great War, and carried out the execution of 25 (though some sources I found said 23). Interestingly, only one Canadian was executed in the Second World War, and he was found guilty of murder and was involved in the black market in Italy.
It seems that a lot of emphasis is being placed on a very small percentage of men actually convicted of cowardice. This is because of the nature of the executions. The "poster boy" for the Shot At Dawn (SAD) movement is Private Harry Farr. He fought on the Western Front for two years before being pulled off due to shell shock. He spent five months in hospital, at the end of which he was ordered back to his unit. His nerves gone, he refused. Farr was court martialed and executed soon after, shot by fire squad on the dawn of the day after his death warrant was signed, per British Army custom. What makes Farr an important case is that it is readily obvious that he suffered from post traumatic stress disorder. Farr's wife was not told right away that her husband was shot. After she was informed, her war widow's pension was stopped. Farr's children suffered at the hands of school mates as the children of a coward.
There are other tragic cases. A pair of 16 year olds, who had lied about their age to volunteer for the army, were shot as cowards. There is written evidence of men who were executed as an example, in spite of the fact that there was not enough evidence to properly convict them. One man, Private Robert Barker, may have been executed in part to hide the incompetence of a brigadier general.
It should be noted that regular soldiers were far more likely to be shot than officers. Only three officers were executed, one for murder. One of the remaining two was a naval officer, Sub-Lieutenant Edwin Dyett, fighting as part of the British Army. Dyett was innocent of his crime, but was killed in part because his lawyer acted incompetently, in part because the court acted incompetently, and in part due to bad luck. He is the rare executed officer who showed the problems facing most men convicted of cowardice.
Back in 1998 the British government declared that it would not pardon any of the soldiers shot for cowardice. More pressure was exerted, and last Wednesday the British government declared that it would pardon all 306 executed men. This follows similar pardons by New Zealand and Canada. Australia did not have any men executed, as the Australian government refused to authorize any executions during the Great War (where, like Canada, Australians operated under British high command).
Controversy surrounds the pardons. The 306 include men convicted of murder and mutiny, although the SAD organization did not seek pardons for murderers or mutineers. Some have suggested that the pardons are just political correctness, placing modern morality on a conflict 90 years old. Others point out that it makes the government susceptible to wrongful death law suits.
Those in favour of the pardons point to the fact that most "cowards" were afflicted with shell shock, that innocent men were killed in what they call state-sanctioned murder, and that boys — who shouldn't have been in the army in the first place — were also killed for cowardice. They argue that the punishment did not fit the crime, and that justice was not served. They are seeking to give peace to the families of these men, most of whom were wrongfully killed.
Personally, I'm against giving blanket pardons. I think those convicted of murder, and probably mutiny, should not be pardoned. Of the others, I could live with a pardon for them. I've heard conflicting testimony as to whether or not all the paperwork still exists to check into each conviction on a case-by-case basis. Even if you could check each case, we now see that most cases of "cowardice" or "loss of nerve" are not due to some character flaw, but due to the very nature of the human brain when put under stress. Undoubtedly there were those who shirked their duties while others performed there's. It's likely that some such "cowards" were shot and would thus be pardoned in this blanket decree. It's equally obvious that most "cowardice" was the result of stress brought on by combat conditions far more brutal than had ever been witnessed prior to the Great War, and which were matched in brutality only by the Second World War. Even then, combat soldiers in World War II (particularly for Westerners) were never as helpless and rarely as expendable as their counterparts from a generation before. Regardless of whether or not a "true coward" is pardoned, it is best to let all of the remaining "cowards" go. At best, they were victims of stress, at worst they were innocent men wrongly convicted.
For some more information about this, see the following sites:
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