Legally murdered 'in the interests of discipline'


Blindfold and Alone: British Military Executions in the Great War
By Cathryn Corns &
John Hughes-Wilson
Cassell & Co, 2001
543 pages, $59.95 (hb)


"I think an example is necessary in the interests of discipline", wrote Brigadier-General O'Donnell recommending execution of Private James Archibald in June 1916 for desertion.

Archibald, blindfolded and with a white disc of paper pinned over his heart as a target, was shot at dawn by a nervous firing squad of his fellow soldiers in France. Private Archibald joined 345 other British soldiers, executed by their own side as "examples" to motivate the others to stay at their post as cannon fodder in the 1914-18 war.

As the armies of Europe fought ferociously over a few hundred metres of land between the trenches of the Western Front, the military brass of all belligerents desperately sought to keep their working-class soldiers at the job of slaughter for empire, as the first surge of patriotic enthusiasm petered out in the mud and blood of a horrific war.

In their book, Corns and Hughes-Wilson present case studies of the British soldiers shot by the British Army for desertion, cowardice, quitting post, casting away arms, striking or disobeying a superior officer, insubordination and mutiny. A total of 238,000 courts martial for these offences were held amidst a war of unprecedented carnage.

Human flesh and mind were pitted against massed artillery, gas attacks and the misery and danger of trench life where "going over the top" meant suicidal frontal charges into machine gun fire. On average, more British soldiers (400) were killed every day of the war than metres were gained in an entire year. It was a war of death and mutilation that ripped men's lives brutally apart.

It is no surprise that many soldiers just wanted to run away from the horror of it all. Those who did, found themselves facing the gun barrels of their own army.

British military law specified the death penalty to make soldiers fear running away more than they feared facing the enemy. One court martial officer recalled how the top military hierarchy let it be known "by hint or warning" that "morale needed a sharp jolt, or that a few severe sentences might have a good effect" and that "it was expedient that some man who had deserted his post under fire was shot to discourage the others".

No matter that the confusion and panic of war caused many to flee in haste. No matter that psychological breakdown drove traumatised men, unnerved by constant shelling or the terrors of the battlefield, to run.

"Shell-shock" (what would now be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder) was only officially recognised if a soldier was visibly twitching or shaking. Examined away from the guns, they would appear relatively normal, their psychological wounds invisible and inadmissible as a reprieve from the death sentence.

Lieutenant-Corporal William Moon was one of many shell-shocked soldiers to face the firing squad, the explosion of his mate's head and brains into his face putting him, as he wrote with some understatement, "in a queer state". Other deserters had simply seen enough horror and decided to vote with their feet before they, too, lost their lives or their senses.

Non-commissioned officers promoted from the ranks could not afford to fail the discipline they were expected to uphold. For a momentary lapse, corporals and sergeants with impeccable records were shot. Among the privates, it was advisable not to be from the most disadvantaged of the proletariat. With pseudo-scientific eugenics popular among the born-to-command officer class, "weaklings and degenerates" were seen as ideal for genetic "culling".

The unlucky Private Archibald was a "criminal degenerate, a typical slum product of low intelligence", in the eyes of his lieutenant-colonel. Another private shot for desertion, William Bowerman, was, to his brigadier-general, "quite worthless as a soldier or in any other capacity, and is better removed from this world".

Desertion was chronic, with 127,000 courts martial accounting for over half the total, however less serious offences were also punishable by death. Disobedience or insubordination, no matter how trivial and far from the front line, could, where discipline needed tightening, be "highly desirable of exemplary punishment", as a lieutenant-general wrote of Private Patrick Downey.

So for refusing to fall in for fatigues, and for refusing to put on his cap when ordered to, Downey, 19 years old and fed up with soldiering, was shot. Soldiers, goaded, humiliated and abused into assaulting their bullying officer also paid the price.

Obedience to authority was at the core of the army — how else could officers get men to kill and die for a cause they no longer believed in — and any individual disobedience had to be stamped out if it was not to lead to collective disobedience, or mutiny, the army's greatest fear.

The British Army faced three major mutinies on the Western Front — two in the Bhargies military prison camp in 1916 over the intolerable conditions and punishing work regime, and one in the Etaples base depot in 1917 over authoritarian training instructors. In each case, one mutineer was selected for execution.

Australian soldiers were particularly mutinous, 129 of them sentenced to death for their role in these three mutinies and for the separate mass mutiny of the 1st Battalion, Australian Expeditionary Force, in protest at always being used as shock troops by British commanders. None were executed, however.

Unlike the British Army where the commanding general in France was the confirming officer for death sentences, the governor-general of Australia had the ultimate say over condemned Australians and no deaths were approved because of the fear that such military executions would spark social and political upheaval on the home front where there was already turmoil over conscription.

One might think that the 346 executed British soldiers are a damning indictment of the British Army and the politicians who made the military law. Not so, apparently. Corns and Hughes-Wilson believe that the executions were a tragic necessity, "unfortunate consequences of war".

We should not apply today's enlightened moral standards to the realities of the past, they argue, much as white supremacists might hanker for the days when slavery (or stealing Aboriginal children from their families) was accepted and legal.

While the authors' apologetics for the executions are unconvincing, their concern with the imperfect legal process is warranted. Many trials were speedy and superficial, they lacked legal expertise and the accused often did not have any legal counsel or even an untrained "prisoner's friend" to defend them.

There was no trial by jury (officers did the judging and sentencing) and no appeal. The character references on a condemned soldier, and medical examinations, that were made after sentencing and up the chain of command were not subject to cross-examination. The legal travesty surrounding "a frightened young man on trial for his life in a farmhouse in France by his commanding officers" is, indeed, "worrying", as the authors say. The capital court-martial was essentially "a swift instrument of punishment".

Campaigning led by the left eventually forced the abolition of the military death penalty (other than for mutiny and treason) in 1929. However, successive governments were involved in decades of bureaucratic secrecy to hush up the awful truth of the executions. Further campaigning forced the minister for the armed forces to release a public report in 1998, but Tony Blair's Labour government rejected any pardons for the executed working-class men in uniform.

Their "crimes" stood. What they (and the 48 German, 1000 French, 750 Italian and 12 Belgian soldiers) were legally murdered for stood — brutal disciplinary examples to force the working class to fight and die for the rich man's war. They were the salt in the wound of the 10 million butchered in the capitalists' "war to end all wars".

From Green Left Weekly, March 27, 2002.
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