Saturday, November 12, 2011


Some ten million lives were lost in World War One. Among these countless casualties is a small group of about three hundred and fifty who are not remembered when the dignitaries lay their wreaths because they didn't die a "heroic" death at the hands of the enemy. They were shot by their own comrades because these unfortunate few had to be made examples of what happens to those who refuse to obey suicidal orders. They knew fear and possessed a sense of self-preservation. The army has a special term for people who respond rationally to this entirely natural emotion: they are known as "cowards".

Trench warfare essentially involved periodically massing thousands of men and then sending them like lemmings towards the enemy lines, resulting in catastrophic casualties, often for a gain of just mere yards of ground, if any. Given that such behaviour, except to the seriously mentally unbalanced or the suicidal, naturally appeared to be utter lunacy, the politicians had to provide some incentive to persuade the potentially sceptical recruits to act like madmen. The principal methods of course were propaganda and flattery. Conscripts were told that it was their duty and privilege to rid the world of the despicable Hun and then having preserved democracy and fair play, and saved Good Old England for all its decent, God-fearing citizens, the troops would then be welcomed home as heroes and be forever intoxicated by the eternal gratitude of their countrymen. Not surprisingly, the top brass in the army realised that this would fool the thoughtful few. And if only a few sceptics concluded that they were being duped, they might well persuade many others to lay down their arms and engage in some No-Mans-Land fraternalisation with the foe and play some friendly football. Therefore, an extra "incentive" was required. Either go over the top and face almost probable death, or refuse and face certain death.

It's difficult to imagine what must have gone through the minds of those conscripts as they huddled in their cold, damp, dirty trenches, waiting for the order to ascend into no-man's-land with only a tin hat and a rifle for protection against a phalanx of machine guns and mortars. It was a different world then, not only in the way wars were fought, but also in the way minds were moulded. It would seem likely that anyone who wishes to avoid almost certain death is in an absolutely sound state of mind but the naive and innocent victims of the firing squads of eighty years ago had the misfortune to be born into a very different stage of capitalism's destructive development, when daily casualties could wipe out entire regiments. The soldiers of the Great War were unfortunate to live in an era when courage, however you defined it, equalled death.

There were claims that the executions of soldiers was a class issue. James Crozier was found guilty of deserting his post and was shot. Two weeks earlier, 2nd Lieutenant Annandale was found guilty of the same but was not sentenced to death due to "technicalities". In the duration of the war, fifteen officers, sentenced to death, received a royal pardon. In the summer of 1916, all officers of the rank of captain and above were given an order that all cases of cowardice should be punished by death and that a medical excuse should not be tolerated. However, this was not the case if officers were found to be suffering from neurasthenia.

Private Thomas Highgate was the first to suffer such military justice. Unable to bear the carnage of 7,800 British troops at the Battle of Mons, he had fled and hidden in a barn. He was undefended at his trial because all his comrades from the Royal West Kents had been killed, injured or captured. Just 35 days into the war, Private Highgate was executed at the age of 17.

16-year-old Herbert Burden, who had lied that he was two years older so he could join the Northumberland Fusiliers. Ten months later, he was court-martialled for fleeing after seeing his friends massacred at the battlefield of Bellwarde Ridge. He faced the firing squad still officially too young to be in his regiment.

The French are thought to have killed about 600 (probably an under-estimate). The Germans, whose troops outnumbered the British by two to one, shot 48 of their own men, and the Belgians 13. In 2001, 23 executed Canadians were executed , and five troops killed by New Zealand's military command. No Australian soldier was executed because the Death Penalty in the Armed Forces was abolished with the 1903 Defence Act, following the execution ( by a British Court Martial ) of "Breaker" Morant and Hancock and the public outcry.

Cathryn Corns, co-author of Blindfold and Alone, which examines 306 courts martial "The number of rogues outnumbered those with mitigating circumstances by about six to one," she said.

The death sentence for desertion in the British forces was abolished in 1929.

Today, Britain has a professional volunteer army, and technical improvements in weaponry mean that modern warfare is a much more scientific affair. Remote-controlled unmanned drones have turned much combat into computer game style
slaughter. Now there are no poorly trained conscripts, and no need for battalions of troops to go "over the top", and so there is no need for summary executions to enforce discipline. To some, war is heroic yet one thing that can be said for definite about wars: they are never fought in the interest of those who die in them.

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