Letter: Rejection of an amnesty for soldiers

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The Independent Online
Sir: Your defence correspondent, Christopher Bellamy, says ('Major refuses pardon for executed soldiers,' 20 February) that in my book For the Sake of Example, I expressed the opinion that many of the men who were executed for military offences during the First World War were troublemakers. May I correct this? I was merely referring to opinions about some of the condemned men that were put forward after their trials by their regimental officers.

None the less, I think that the Prime Minister was quite right in rejecting the appeal to grant posthumous pardons to soldiers who were executed for military offences during the First World War. In 1980, the Ministry of Defence allowed me privileged access to the files relating to all the soldiers who were condemned to death at courts martial between 1914 and 1919 and were subsequently executed. These files contained the notes of evidence taken at the trials and the comments of senior officers as to whether or not the death sentences should be carried out.

Out of the 346 soldiers who were executed, by far the greatest number, 266, had been convicted for desertion. Only 27 had been convicted for cowardice and offences associated with cowardice.

Mr Major said that it was impossible to rewrite history by substituting our latter-day judgement for that of contemporaries, whatever we might think. There are other factors that should be borne in mind as well.

Some, but by no means all, of the executed men were probably suffering from various nervous disorders, then referred to by the generic term 'shell shock'. Others deserted before they had even reached the front line; two of them absconded while they were still in England on drafts for the Western Front. Would the latter category be included in a general amnesty?

Further, 3,080 men were actually condemned to death at courts martial. Out of this number, 88.7 per cent had their sentences commuted to sentences of imprisonment, presumably because there were mitigating features in their cases. Would those who were spared from the death sentence be covered by an amnesty, or would their convictions still stand?

Finally, courts martial trying capital military offences had a complete discretion whether to pass a death sentence or to impose a lesser penalty. It would surely be illogical to exclude soldiers from an amnesty merely because at their trials they had been sentenced to imprisonment and not to death.

The terrible conditions and the indescribable strains to which soldiers were subjected in the First World War are now common knowledge. The passage of time has nullified the last vestiges of shame once attached to the names and the memories of the men who were shot at dawn. An artificial amnesty is unnecessary.

Yours faithfullly,


Chilham, Kent

21 February