World War I Courts Martial

When the First World War broke out in 1914, no-one could have predicted the death and devastation that would follow, and certainly not the scale on which it happened. However, the deaths did not come only in battle and active service. Between August 1914 and March 1920, more than 3,000 members of the British Armed Forces were sentenced to death through courts martial because of misdemeanours committed during a time of war.

Although some of the crimes were relatively serious — desertion, murder, espionage and mutiny, for example — others were far less serious by today’s standards. Many men were sentenced to death for crimes as small as striking a superior officer — something which seems very extreme by the standards we have set for ourselves in the modern age.

It is worth noting that around 90% of those military court sentences were later commuted to penal servitude or hard labour, although many men still faced the firing squad for a number of military misdemeanours which might nowadays seem rather mild. In total, 346 men were executed, three for sleeping at their post, two for casting away arms and eighteen for cowardice. Although nowadays we might see these crimes as small and relatively insignificant, the names of these men still do not appear on official war memorials and they are largely forgotten and officially regarded as traitors to their country.

With so many men affected by seeing their friends killed and mutilated on a daily basis, it can hardly come as a surprise that so many soldiers were affected in ways which led them to run away from battle or hesitate when faced with the enemy. The military top brass, though, saw things differently. The firing squads were meant to be a deterrent to those considering any act of disobedience, and many see them as a necessary means to having won the war. Just over a decade after the end of the war, in 1930, the military death penalty was completely outlawed.

Although it is often argued that mental illness and distress symptoms have only recently been accepted and seen as real medical issues, this appears not to be a reasonable line of reason to take. The Ancient Greeks, for example, already recognised post-traumatic stress disorder, calling it ‘war exhaustion’.

In recent years, the British Legion and other groups have called for the executed men to be officially recognised on war memorials and to be given official military pardons. Many academics have argued against this, saying that we can’t impose our modern views on punishment on events which happened a century ago. Regardless, though, the tide is turning towards forgiveness and a growing number of people are seeking to see the soldiers officially pardoned, perhaps finally allowing them and their memories to lay to rest.

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