Michael Morpurgo: Young men betrayed by war

From the Royal Society of Arts lecture, given by the Children's Laureate
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The Independent Online

The First World War more than any other is a monument to the futility and the folly of war. It is in my most recent book Private Peaceful that I came as close as I ever have to living the war in the fiction I write.

On a visit to Ypres to speak at a conference on writing about war for young people, I discovered that about 300 British and Empire soldiers had been executed, mostly for desertion and cowardice. Court marshals were brief, some less than half an hour. Often the soldiers were not legally represented. In all 3,000 were condemned to death and 300 executed. Most of these young men, some still teenagers, were traumatised by their ordeal and in deep shock.

One case I read was of a soldier who fought through the Somme, then one day in rest camp decided that he couldn't stand the sound of the guns any more and was going home. He did not get far. Arrested and court martialed, he was shot six weeks later by a firing squad made up of men of his own company. I saw the telegram sent to the mother informing her that her son had been shot for cowardice. I knew that the British government had recently decided not to acknowledge these injustices, not to pardon these men. I felt outraged. A country that does not acknowledge its faults and deal with its shame cannot be called civilised.

Private Peaceful follows the lives of two brothers brought up in my village in deepest Devon, farm boys, who find themselves in the trenches enduring the horror and the hardships. The novel is told in the first person by one of the brothers sitting in a barn outside Ypres, waiting for dawn and the execution.