Note shows fears over desertions

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DOUGLAS HAIG, the British Commander-in-Chief, was apparently worried during the Battle of the Somme in 1916 that the course of the war could be affected by British soldiers deserting or refusing to obey orders.

A note scrawled in his hand on a court martial document in the Public Record Office suggests he thought the need to make examples over-rode all other considerations.

The revealing note is scribbled by Haig on the papers of Pte A G Earp, who was sentenced to death on 8 July 1916 after deserting his trench with what would now be diagnosed as shell-shock. The court martial found him guilty but recommended mercy be shown 'owing to the intense bombardment which the accused had been subjected to and on account of his good character'.

But Haig, who had to rubber-stamp each court martial decision, has underlined the 12 words about the bombardment, and written in red crayon: 'How can we ever win if this plea is allowed?'

The Battle of the Somme had begun on 1 July, with 57,470 British and French casualties in a day, nearly 20,000 of them killed. The battle lasted 140 days, with little territorial gain, although it was much later found to have had a significant effect in wearing down the Germans. It cost 140,000 British casualties.

In July, August and September, 21 soldiers were sentenced to death by courts martial and executed: 13 for desertion, six for cowardice, and two for leaving their posts without orders.

Haig rejected pleas for mercy on two others among the 21. One had been in action for three weeks continuously, his father had been killed in action earlier in the war, and he was worried about his mother and six children at home. Haig wrote on his papers: 'If toleration be shown to private soldiers who deliberately decline to face danger, all the qualities which we desire would be debased and degraded.'

Haig became Commander-in-Chief of the British Army in France at the end of 1915, and was promoted from General to Field Marshal a year later. In 1919 he was created an earl. He died in 1928, aged 66.

(Photograph omitted)