Myths surrounding judicial executions in First World War

This year marks the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War.

Such plays as the forthcoming Peter Mortimer production, Death at Dawn – A Soldier’s Tale, suggests that one area of the conflict that seems of particular interest to the public is that of British Army judicial executions.

A recent feature in the Law Society Gazette contains an interesting legal perspective which discards some popularly held beliefs.

No British soldier of the Great War was condemned to be ‘shot at dawn’.

The capital sentence passed on 3,080 occasions by Field General Courts Marshall between 1914 and 1920 was “to suffer death by shooting”.

Of the 346 executions actually carried out, most indeed took place at dawn: not for any symbolic or legal reason, but according to one historian, “because it was a quiet time – casual bystanders were not welcome”.

Another myth is that the majority of victims were shot for cowardice.

In fact, two thirds of those shot were convicted of desertion, (an easier charge to prove in legal terms). Over four years only 18 British soldiers were shot for showing cowardice and two for the unique military crime of “sleeping on sentry”.

The next largest category of executions was murder, a crime which of course at that time carried the death penalty in civilian courts.

By and large, courts were properly constituted, comprising three officers, with the accused not being allowed to enter a guilty plea as he faced a capital charge.

Although the accused were not guaranteed legal representation, they could choose any individual available as defending officer, who had to accept the role unless there was a good reason for not doing so.

Legally qualified officers were often appointed, one such was Captain Louis Crispin Warmington, a London solicitor serving with the Durham Light Infantry, who acted as prisoner’s friend in at least three capital cases.

Sentences were not carried out immediately. Death sentences were reviewed at least four times up the chain of command, each stage having the power to ‘mitigate, remit, commute or suspend’.

Sentences could only be modified downward, which nine out of ten death sentences were.

The executed were not in the main part conscripts. Rather, the majority were either pre-war regulars or ‘New Army’ volunteers.

Conscripts did not account for a major part of the army until mid 1917, when the peak of death sentences had already passed.

Undoubtedly there were miscarriages of justice, most notoriously of those convicted that were suffering from post traumatic stress, or shell shock as it was then known, who were executed after trials that they were not mentally fit to stand.

However, military justice was exemplary and recommendations for mercy were frequently ignored where a unit’s discipline was thought to be bad and its victim judged of little value as a soldier.

In this respect, officers and NCOs seem to have been judged more harshly than private soldiers.

After confirmation, a sentence was ‘promulgated’ to the unit and the victim was given 12 hours for contemplation before the execution, to be used for prayer, letter writing or drinking rum if it was available.

The then view appeared to be that although it was harsh justice, it was generally justice in a harsh war.

For a cinematic representation of a General Court, readers may wish to revisit the film Breaker Morant, starring the late Edward Woodward, which although set in the earlier Boer War, gives an idea of how proceedings may have been conducted.

If any reader has any contemporary memoirs or letters from lawyers participating in the 238,000 wartime courts martial who acted as judge – advocates, court martial officers or prisoners friends, I would appreciate them contacting me through the News Guardian.

John Scott TD

North Shields