Coffee House

Why does the army still refuse to see any wrong in the execution of soldiers during WWI?

30 June 2014

9:41 AM

30 June 2014

9:41 AM

Will the military ever see any wrong in the execution of 306 soldiers for cowardice and desertion in World War One? I ask only because I have tried and failed to stage a new musical drama on the subject in a military museum. The Imperial War Museum said straight away that it had organised its own programme of events, but the events directors at the National Army Museum and the Royal Artillery Museum in Woolwich initially showed enthusiasm. They invited in the director and I to see what spaces were available. We discussed whether we would pay a hire charge or enter a revenue-sharing agreement where we paid the museum so much for every ticket. We had scripts and recordings ready to send in, a director with an impressive CV on board – and we weren’t asking for a penny of their funds.

Then something odd happened. Enthusiasm turned to outright rejection, with no reason offered. The decision, it transpired, had had to go upstairs to the director and trustees. We then tried the National Arboretum in Stafford – where there is a memorial to the executed soldiers. Much the same happened there, although this time the events department did let slip the suggestion that it was too controversial a subject.


After a long campaign, the 306 men were pardoned by the then Labour defence secretary Des Browne in 2006.  But like the last Japanese soldier to be left fighting the Second World War ­– who refused to surrender until 1974 – there still seems to be some military brass who are intent on resisting until the last. They cling desperately to the argument that history must not be rewritten – which if taken to its logical conclusion would mean no legal case could ever be reviewed because of course a verdict becomes history the moment it is made.

To assert that executing your own men was just what armies did in those days is disingenuous. More than 150 years before the First World War Voltaire famously derided the English practice of executing naval officers pour encourager les autres – based on the horror generated by the death of Admiral John Byng, condemned for failing to prevent the fall on Minorca in 1757. If it seemed a barbaric practice in the rough old 18th century, how much more of an affront to justice it must have seemed in the 20th century. At least it only took the Japanese soldier 29 years to give in.

Shot at Dawn is on at the Gatehouse on 1-3 July and the Mumford Theatre, Cambridge, on the 4 and 5th July.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.

Show comments
  • Dougie

    Dear Ross, The military is quite clear that shooting soldiers for cowardice is wrong – that’s why it doesn’t happen any more. However, I can well understand the reluctance of the NAM and RAM to put on your show. Unfortunately, similar productions have all too often been shallow vehicles for attacking the military of today rather than throwing a light on historical events.
    Personally, I think your idea is a good one, though something similar has been done before. Breaker Morant ring any bells? But I don’t agree with attempts to judge historical events by present day standards.

  • andagain

    Will the military ever see any wrong in the execution of 306 soldiers for cowardice and desertion in World War One?

    Will the military ever see anything wrong in the execution of soldiers for murder and rape in World War One?

    After all, we no longer execute people for those crimes either, and they were tried in the same courts martial. Those conviction should be just as safe or unsafe as the convictions for desertion.

    So where are the pardons for all the rapists and murderers?

  • Jack1066

    Ross – Whatever the reasons the National Army Museum, the Arboretum or the Gunners didn’t want to stage this play, it’s nothing to do with the Army and ‘Top Brass’, which don’t run any of those organisations. Much more likely to be the museum staff mindful of the ear-bashing they’d get from trustees and donors for focussing on the few who were shot for cowardice, rather than the many who were shot for bravery.

  • ADW

    “At least it only took the Japanese soldier 29 years to give in.”

    You can’t even get that right – he didn’t “give in”, he withdrew from the jungle after he received an order from his commanding officer (who, fortunately, was still alive at the time and could be found).

  • Guest

    “Conditions in WW1 were at times extremely harsh”

    And the understatement prize of the week goes to……

  • ADW

    1. Only about 10% of those sentenced were executed; most had their sentence commuted.

    2. Clark can’t even get his own facts right – not all 306 were pardoned, and it wasn’t a full pardon either. Some weren’t executed for cowardice but for murder etc wholly unrelated to serving at the front.

    3. In addition to the 90% who received lesser punishments in the end, think of how many tens of thousands who were diagnosed with shell shock formally, and how many thousands of others would have suffered to some extent without a diagnosis. Now think how many must have been separated from their units for a time, or wandered off in confusion. They must have been picked up by sympathetic soldiers/officers, and returned to their unit without too many questions. Hardly the sort of unthinking and uncaring treatment bien pensants like Clarke wish to imagine.

    4. The death penalty was mandatory for murder at the time, and was available for dozens of other civilian crimes too. They didn’t think of it as we do. Hence the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. Of course we think our ways are better, but in a century or two hence people might say the same about us. There is something faintly absurd about us trying to impose our values retrospectively on a now dead generation.

  • Paul

    They called them Cowards but brought them up to obey the commandments to control the people. Soldiers with Post Traumatic Stress, all were shot on the orders of the Monarchy who were too cowardly to go to the front themselves.

    • Whyshouldihavetoregister

      Another fool.

      • John Byde

        Good constructive comment that adds greatly to the debate. What’s the secret?

      • Paul

        I’m sorry to hear you are a fool but you can re-educate yourself.

  • Ringstone

    And this infomercial for “Shot at Dawn” has been brought to you by the author Ross Clark – tickets available at all prices.
    Is it just me that feels a bit queezy?

  • Gregory Mason

    Take this nonsense back to the Guardian!

  • Mr Grumpy

    Mr Clark’s historical analogy is as dubious as his grammar (“They invited in the director and I”, dear oh dear).

    The hanging of Admiral Byng was already controversial at the time, not because he had PTSD but because he’d done absolutely nothing wrong and was the scapegoat for a humiliating c*ck-up. So it has minimal relevance to the question of the moral responsibility of a shell-shocked soldier for behaviour that would be genuinely culpable were he in his right mind.

  • anyfool

    They cling desperately to the argument that history must not be rewritten
    If you rewrite history it becomes a lie, as opposed to history, that you cannot see the fallacy of your argument beggars belief.
    That some of the men shot might have been suffering from mental problems does not change the facts as seen at the time.
    They were executed because the prevailing consensus at that time, that cannot be changed because 100 years later a small group of people decree otherwise to suit their political position.

  • HookesLaw

    Very few people were executed and many many more had their sentences commuted. By the standards of the time some of the executions may have been harsh but some may have been justified, many executed were repeat offenders and were not simply young terrified soldiers or suffering from shellshock.

    But on the basis of what the Army has actually said I do not think the official position is that they ‘see no wrong’. My impression and understanding is they see it all as regrettable.

    Conditions in WW1 were at times extremely harsh. But in reality the time spent actually in the front line and under fire for a soldier were relatively short. Troops were properly rotated and rested. This was it’s true less likely when there was a pitched battle going on.

    I can think of better subjects for a musical than executing soldiers.

  • wycombewanderer

    There were 30,000 field general ourts martial during which 3000 death sentences were handed out and 306 carried out.

    Many of those executed had already had a previous death sentence commuted and some were guilty of killing their colleagues in order to prevent capture.

    The review process went to the very highest level the general commanding that army, this was at a time when in the civilian courts the appeal courts barely existed and capital trials resulted in a far higher percentage of those tried actually being executed.

    So not only is it wrong to judge the actions of the army by todays standards it’s also wrong to judge them by the standards of the civilian judiciary at the time.

    Yes some mistakes were probably made , but the author conveniently forgets that 80,000 servicemen officers and enlisted were treated for mental trauma a science in its infancy at that time.

  • Bonkim

    They were judged by the standards prevailing at the time. The Army today does not have to apologize for that. You don’t judge history in retrospect or the past by today’s standards.

    • William_Brown

      Well said. I thought that only the Guardian would publish this kind of hand-wringing, guilt fest article.

  • swatnan

    Because those were the times, and an Army only works on orders.
    Think of the many who chose to die knowing full well they would be mown down as soon as they rushed out over the trenches and barbed wire. And think of these soldiers who opted to be shot at the stake or against a wall.
    Little choice in either case. But those were the times.

  • jmjm208

    A complete and utter waste of life, and further proof that the most courageous people of that time were the conscientious objectors.

    • Whyshouldihavetoregister


      • jmjm208

        Why do you call me a fool because I object to war?

        If I wanted to be unkind I could say that the fools were the poor creatures who signed up to join the army and then went to their deaths in a senseless slaughter.

  • Kitty MLB

    Well obviously now we know most of those young chaps who
    fought in the WW1 carnage and deserted were either too young
    to accept the realities of war or they were shell shocked( if that’s
    the correct term)
    But No the army shouldn’t appologise it makes a mockery of those
    who remained and suffered absolute terror to the very end.
    Also why must we be a world full of apologists, and judge everything by our standards today.
    We behaved differently in the past, should the ancestors
    of the Romans, Vikings etc vote..This is all Leftie, soggy nonsense.

    • SimonToo

      I am not sure that we obviously know anything of the sort. Shell-shock was a known condition. Sentences were reviewed and many were reprieved. It is not practical to review the cases now almost a century has passed. We cannot say that there were no miscarriages of justice, but it would appear that (by the standards of the time) for the most part it was the most deserving who were executed.

      In terms of apologies, though, were one to apologise to the families of those executed, should one not also apologise to those whose sentence was commuted to a lesser punishment. If there was an injustice, the apology should be for the conviction, regardless of the sentence.

  • rapscallion

    “To assert that executing your own men was just what armies did in those days is disingenuous.”

    No it isn’t disingenuous. Those were the rules at the time (whether you like it or not), and if you broke those rules then you suffered the consequences.

    However I do recognise that there were soldiers who were heavily shell-shocked and the Army could and should have looked at this more closely.

    What you are trying to do is to visit the mores of yesteryear on today. It doesn’t work.

    • Makroon

      That is all true, but performing a musical at the national arboretum ?
      Pure luvvie self-indulgence. The opportunist buggers will climb on any bandwagon.

  • Terry Field

    War has a function. To destroy the enemy.
    The enemy is anyone and everyone who gets in the way of that.

    • Dodgy Geezer

      That would be the Treasury, and the two other branches of the Armed Services, then…

  • Colonel Mustard

    Perhaps you should focus on the other British soldiers who were shot at dawn. The ones doing their duty and going over the top, facing the enemy in their hundreds of thousands rather than the tiny minority of cowards and deserters who you are attempting to re-cast as victim-heroes. There were over a million British Empire military deaths so trying to stage a mawkfest for 0.03% of them in a military museum during the centenary of the conflict should probably win a raspberry award for crass insensitivity. Sure their relatives were upset. So were the relatives of all those who died on the battlefields with their faces to the enemy and their rifles in their hands.

    • Terry Field

      You sound gutless – an armchair soldier who would run at the smell of cordite

      • William_Brown

        …a bit harsh since Col. Mustard seems to take a similar viewpoint to you. Are you very angry this morning?

        • Terry Field

          Yes – I have apologised to him.

      • Colonel Mustard

        Gutless are the two cowards who up-ticked you for that abuse.

        The smell of cordite has never bothered me and I bet I’ve smelled plenty more of it than you ever have as a “professor of history at prestigious universities”.

        • Terry Field

          I apologise for my ratty note – I have not succeeded in converting evil socialists in my inspired observations on New Statesman and they have had the impudence to disagree with me!
          You are a good sort, and do not deserve my unjust whipping.
          This subject is an emotional one, and I was suppressing my sympathy for those poor people shot at dawn because they gave in to terror and a desire to survive.
          I suspect I would not have tolerated the shelling any better than they did.
          I to would not have seen the sun rise.
          I pity all those who died, and grieve for their relatives who suffered for so many decades afterwards.
          Why do we love death, and killing, so much?

          • Colonel Mustard

            Happy to accept your apology, thank you.

          • logdon

            Ask the Islamists. They seem to have the franchise right now.

    • mdj

      Having observed at close hand for many years a church for which I did work it became plain how demoralisation can be a very effective tool of social control.
      The age-old ‘We are unworthy’ routines that kept the pews docile seem to have been instinctively secularised by those who seek power but lack the guts to seize it by force into ‘We are guilty’.

      Reading many Guardian articles and comments threads on slavery, business, these executions or even nowadays the weather makes one wonder whether a saddening project akin to the reported FaceBook exercise is permanently under way.

  • Ricky Strong

    Why are we so obsessed these days with with apologising for the actions of people who more often than not are no longer here? War, slavery, military interventions, laws, social differences – it seems any former action or inaction is now up for grabs.

    I’m paraphrasing but Lord Denning once said you cannot look at the 1940’s through 1950’s glasses. We need to stop judging historic events by our current moral standards. Too many people hold onto historic events therefore emerging themselves in suffering and hatred, they should let go and focus more on the now and the future.

    • Blindsideflanker

      I am afraid our establishment have become obsessed with the inconsequential and irrelevant as a form of displacement activity to avoid doing what needs to be done to sort out what effects our lives now.

    • Count Dooku

      I call it apology p*rn. The left are obsessed with it.
      Perhaps they get a kick from abasing themselves to the permanently outraged.

      • Kitty MLB

        Indeed Count, according to The Left, we have no responsibility, are victims, the disadvantaged but
        as English responsible for every past event where
        someone else has ‘suffered’. I am waiting for the Left
        to start thrashing themselves with leather belts
        like Jesuits.

    • Makroon

      I often wonder how the fierce, adventurous and rapacious vikings turned into today’s milquetoast Scandis.
      I guess we are on the same path

    • Bonkim

      Spot on – we can’t judge the past by today’s standards.

    • In2minds

      Ricky Strong mentions Lord Denning. Let’s not forget that he gave us the
      ‘appalling vista’ remark, when hearing an appeal from the Birmingham
      Six. Thus Denning endorsed the lying and corruption of the West
      Midlands police as he could not face up to the facts. Denning, like
      many public servants, was good at that sort of thing. However, some
      years later Denning admitted his mistake, so perhaps all Ross Clark
      has to do is wait?

  • Swiss Bob

    I doubt that in a war of survival we wouldn’t be shooting those that refused to fight.

  • Blindsideflanker

    I am waiting for the Vikings to apologise for their blood eagle executions.

  • Martin Adamson

    The whole point of the Admiral Byng episode was that it worked – for 200 years afterwards every British naval officer knew that in case of doubt or ambiguous orders their first duty was always to give battle to the enemy.

    • rapscallion

      Exactly. It was Nelson who said that no Captain could do wrong if he lay alongside the enemy.

      • SimonToo

        Wasn’t that Mata Hari’s mistake ?