MPs urged to pardon victims of 'the biggest war crime': Stephen Ward talks to a veteran of the Western Front who wants a review of cases of soldiers shot for desertion in the First World War

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LORD Houghton of Sowerby speaks about the First World War as if he fought last year, not seven decades ago, the horror still suffusing his every word.

'To go in that show for 48 hours, and come out along duckboards all covered in shit and slime. To get back to base after no sleep for two nights to find half your platoon has gone,' he said. That was his baptism into war.

He now believes it was the biggest war crime ever, to make soldiers endure the horror which was the Western Front. That crime should be expunged now by pardoning the 300 soldiers who were shot at dawn for cowardice or desertion between 1914 and 1918. The death penalty, dropped before the Second World War, was a medieval survival, he said.

After 75 years, the Commons will vote today - for the first time - on whether to grant posthumous pardons or a review for British soldiers shot after courts-martial during the First World War, when Andrew Mackinlay, a Labour MP, introduces a 10-minute rule Bill. It will not become law, but, if approved, may persuade the Government to act.

Arthur Houghton was just 19 when he entered the war, and the 'show' he was pitched into in September 1917 was the Third Battle of Ypres, where the Allied forces suffered 300,000 casualties and the Germans 260,000. The Allied offensive followed a massive artillery bombardment, which had wrecked the network of streams and dykes on which the Flanders drainage network depended. There were not even trenches, it was too wet.

'We had to get from dry land to shell holes at the forward post along duckboards laid across tops of shell crater holes. Of course they soon got slimy and slippery.' The mud was so deep that many soldiers who fell into craters below suffocated. 'But we were told we must not stop to help if anybody slipped off the duckboards. It would have held everybody up, and the planes would have given word to the artillery to start shelling. We were told we had to leave them for stretcher bearers later.'

One of his friends had fallen into the mud. 'I was very upset. To hear his cries as we were moving on was pretty shocking. I thought he was finished,' he said. He heard no news of his friend for the rest of the war, but astonishingly he had survived. 'I saw him after the war. He was the conductor on a number 24 bus.'

Pardons for court-martialed First World War soldiers were ruled out by the Government six months ago, however unfair their trials had been.

After reviewing some of the cases of more than 300 British soldiers shot at dawn for cowardice, desertion, sleeping at their posts or throwing away their arms, John Major said: 'I have reached the conclusion that we cannot re-write history by substituting our latter-day judgement for that of contemporaries, whatever we might think.'

Lord Houghton, a Labour Minister in the 1960s, ennobled in 1974, and now 95, thinks the Prime Minister was wrong. 'We should be wiping the slate clean as far as possible. I can't see any justification for making their relatives endure the most shocking stain on their memories,' he said.

'I fought in Passchendaele, it was murder. We can't hold any grievances for what people did in World War One. We know more about human behaviour now . . '

(Photograph omitted)

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