Civil servants block pardons for First World War deserters

MINISTRY of Defence officials are locked in battle with ministers over demands for pardons to be issued to more than 300 soldiers who were shot for desertion and cowardice in the First World War.

The Daily Mail newspaper reported yesterday that pro- pardon campaigners were "likely to have their hopes dashed".

But Andrew Mackinlay, the Labour MP for Thurrock who has been leading the pardon campaign, yesterday backed ministry denials that any decision had been reached by John Reid, the defence minister who has been reviewing the cases.

"I know that the minister will be meeting with lawyers and academics supporting the pardons campaign in the next few weeks," Mr Mackinlay said. "These meetings are being arranged at the request of the minister."

The Ministry of Defence said it was possible that ministers would announce their decision this summer. "But no timescale has been set," said a spokesman, who added that it was a complex matter.

Soon after last May's election, The Independent reported that the 307 British soldiers executed during the First World War for cowardice, desertion and other battlefield offences "could be pardoned by the end of the year".

It is a reflection of official tenacity and resistance that ministers have been unable to come to any conclusion since.

At every step of the way, officials have managed to come up with a stream of legal, administrative and other reasons for a rejection of the pardon campaign backed by ministers, MPs and the Royal British Legion.

Officials have argued that if a blanket pardon was given, some soldiers who were certainly guilty of cowardice would be included; and a review of First World War courts martial would open the "floodgates" to demands for more retrospective pardons - and possible claims for compensation.

The men from the ministry are trying to persuade Mr Reid that it would be more appropriate to issue a general expression of regret for the apparent injustice the men suffered - rather than the more formal process of pardon.

Mr Reid and more than one-third of the current Labour Cabinet voted for a pardon in the Commons in 1996, when the Conservative government successfully beat off a legislative amendment from Mr Mackinlay.

Last year, Mr Mackinlay tabled a Commons motion, arguing "that the vast majority of the 307 executed were as patriotic and brave as their million other compatriots who perished in the conflict".

It is argued that many of the executed soldiers - some of whom were just 19 when they were shot - were suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome.

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