Labour pardon for war `cowards'

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The Independent Online
More than 300 British soldiers executed during the First World War for cowardice, desertion and other battlefield offences could be pardoned by the end of the year in a Labour review of their cases.

John Reid, Minister for the Armed Forces, told The Independent that he was re-examining their cases in the light of strong evidence that many of the men were suffering from mental illness - primarily post-traumatic stress disorder - brought on by the horrors of the war.

That view was supported yesterday by the Royal British Legion which voted unanimously at its annual conference to pardon the soldiers shot for cowardice "in the light of current medical evidence". A spokesman said last night that the legion now planned to lobby the Government and the Ministry of Defence to pardon the men as soon as possible.

Dr Reid and more than one-third of the new Cabinet voted for the pardon process in the Commons a year ago, when the Conservative government beat off a legislative amendment moved by Andrew Mackinlay, Labour MP for Thurrock.

Mr Mackinlay has now tabled a Commons motion, which is expected to get the support of hundreds of MPs across the House, arguing "that the vast majority of the 307 executed were as patriotic and brave as their million other compatriots who perished in the conflict ... Their misfortune was brought about due to stress, or the stress of their accusers, during battle, and that even if the behaviour of a small minority may have fallen below that of the highest standards, then time, compassion and justice dictates that all these soldiers should now be treated as victims of the conflict."

The "Yes, Minister" argument being put against Mr Mackinlay's plea from within the Ministry of Defence is that if a blanket pardon were given, some soldiers who were guilty could be included; that a review of First World War courts martial could reopen demands for a review of other courts martial; and the Salerno Mutiny was cited as the next campaign to come.

But Mr Mackinlay told The Independent yesterday that the common denominator for the victims of the Great War was that they were all denied the rules of natural justice.

"None of them had an opportunity to prepare a defence, some of them were not legally represented, but the representation in many cases was limited, and none of them was given an opportunity to appeal against sentence of death. That is the justification for a blanket pardon."

Documents suppressed for 75 years reveal heart-rending cases, many involving soldiers as young as 19, being executed after cursory courts martial, often lasting just 20 minutes. One 19-year-old who complained of "feeling queer" on his way to the front, went missing for less than 20 hours before being found asleep in a barn. He was shot three weeks later.

One 26-year-old was executed for cowardice despite having spent five months in hospital recovering from shell-shock. The records of many appear to show that men who deserted were simply wandering around in terrible states of confusion. They also reveal tragedies such as that of Sgt Joe Stones who, caught in a German ambush while on patrol, wedged his non- functioning rifle across a narrow trench to slow down the pursuers; he was shot at dawn for "casting away his arms". Corporals John McDonald and Peter Goggins, enabled to escape by Sgt Stones' action, were later charged with quitting their posts.

Mr Mackinlay said the Salerno Mutiny argument was a red herring, as no pardon was being sought for mutineers, and none of the mutineers was actually executed.

When he moved an amendment to the Armed Forces Bill on 9 May 1996, opening the way for a pardon for the 307 executed soldiers, he was supported on a free vote by Dr Reid, eight members of the current Cabinet and Nick Brown, now Government Chief Whip.

The eight Cabinet Ministers are: Margaret Beckett, President of the Board of Trade; David Clark, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster; Alistair Darling, Chief Secretary to the Treasury; Donald Dewar, Secretary of State for Scotland; Frank Dobson, Secretary of State for Health; Clare Short, Secretary of State for International Development; Chris Smith, Secretary of State for National Heritage; and Jack Straw, the Home Secretary.

At its annual conference in Bournemouth, the Royal British Legion's 600 delegates passed a motion, already adopted by its National Council, to call for a pardon, and to "call upon the National Council to bring renewed pressure on Her Majesty's Government to take this action".

The scared young men, page 5