Leading Article: Old injustices and contemporary duty

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The Independent Online
'DEAR MADAM, we regret to inform you that your husband has died. He was sentenced for cowardice, and was shot at dawn on 16 October.' Thus did the War Office reveal to the widows of 307 British soldiers the legal process by which they had been court-martialled and speedily executed during the First World War. Letters like this brought not merely pain but also hardship and humiliation to their families. Many widows were denied pensions, but felt obliged to keep secret the circumstances of their husbands' deaths. Yet (as the analysis on page 6 suggests) not all the verdicts delivered by courts martial were safe.

The offences for which the 307 soldiers were shot ranged from desertion to sleeping at their posts. There is room for debate today about whether it was right to execute even flagrant deserters. Some will say their flight was justified by the callous sacrifice of thousands of lives for every yard of territory won. Others will insist that despite its appalling cost, trench warfare was the only way to defeat the Germans and thus save France - and that in trench conditions, no sanction short of death was enough to stop deserters from infecting the morale of others.

But soldiers who were medically unfit to fight - because of either physical or mental wounds - are in a different category. It is hard to see any case for executing men suffering from shell-shock. Yet when a court martial recommended Douglas Haig, the commander-in-chief of the forces, to show mercy to a condemned man in 1916 because of 'the intense bombardment which the defendant had been subjected to', General Haig signed the man's death-warrant in red crayon with the words: 'How can we ever win if this plea is allowed?'

Replying to demands earlier this year for the 307 cases to be reopened, John Major wrote to a Labour MP that 30 sets of papers had been looked at, and that no evidence suggesting the executed men had been treated unfairly had been found. 'Where medical evidence was available to the court,' the prime minister added, 'it was taken into account in sentencing.'

Haig's note casts grave doubt on this claim. The Government has a moral obligation to examine one by one each case where the soldier's survivors want a review, and this it must do if it wishes to lay the matter to rest. Since the last of the widows of the executed men is thought to have died, many of the families involved may be willing to let the matter rest. So the cost of the exercise need not be prohibitive. But for those who wish, an inquiry should be convened, made up of a lawyer, an army officer and a psychiatrist, as recommended by Anthony Babington, a judge who has examined all the files.

The Government cannot be blamed for the destruction almost 50 years ago of all the papers on the 2,700 First World War soldiers whose death sentences were commuted. These might have offered useful comparisons. The continued use today of the '75-year rule' to keep secret some of the papers on the executions is inexcusable. John Major may disclaim responsibility for the actions of generals and politicians who died before he was born. But that does not absolve him of the obligation to take a small step to set right the injustices they may have perpetrated.