Letter: Boy soldiers died to help morale

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Sir: Your excellent article ("Labour pardon for war 'cowards' ", 27 May) demonstrates unassailably the case for a general pardon for most of the 307 British soldiers executed for "cowardice" in the First World War.

However, it misses one underlying and crucial truth which is the key to a proper understanding of this shameful episode in our history. In a war which raged with such horrendous bitterness for so long, it was inevitable that the fighting morale of the front-line troops would become the primary objective of Army chiefs. It was both logical and essential that a number of men along the entire front should be sacrificed at times of greatest peril "pour encourager les autres".

"Cowardice in the face of the enemy" was never intended to be taken seriously as a moral or legal judgement against individual soldiers. It was merely a legal fiction - a socially acceptable formula to justify official brutality to avoid a greater evil, and concepts such as a fair trial, legal representation, and the weighing of evidence had nothing to do with the overall strategy. Indeed they would have been counter-productive and self-defeating. Any real court of justice would have been bound to acquit or postpone the execution of most or all of the men concerned. The consequences of that would have been catastrophic and could have lost the Allies the entire war.

We owe a debt of gratitude to the 307 who played their part in defeating German expansionism by making their sacrifice before a British firing squad just as bravely as those who died in the trenches.


Society of Advocates of Justice

Plymouth, Devon