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.