Open Eye: Men who paid the ultimate price

Lawrence Pollock looks at the work of an OU tutor who has uncovered some of the British Army's darkest secrets from the trenches of World War I

Lawrence Pollock
Thursday 04 March 1999 00:02

When 11 year old Gerry Oram, armed with cardboard sword and shield, climbed on a float to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Tewkesbury (1471) he couldn't see the future.

But the past came alive for him that day even though study and research only followed as a mature student, two decades later.

His second book Worthless Men, part funded by the OU, deals with the tragic military executions of more than 300 British servicemen during the First World War.

It began as an undergraduate dissertation at the University of Hertfordshire, an academic exercise in the true sense. Yet the cases of shell-shocked, traumatised servicemen shot at dawn after sometimes perfunctory courts martial, have returned to haunt us.

The issue has been raised repeatedly in Parliament, prompting a Private Member's Bill and a painstaking review by the Ministry of Defence. Key campaigners have sought Gerry Oram's counsel and expertise and he has had many moving contacts from relatives, anxious to see a grandfather or great uncle pardoned. Pleas for official pardons have been turned down, but the issue will not subside and the topic has snowballed for Gerry, an OU summer school tutor.

"I'm a social, not a military, historian. I saw the military executions as a sub-topic for a dissertation which would not get out of control."

Six years on, the 'sub-topic' became a PhD thesis and a book and is well out of control as interest in all aspects of World War One mounts. The recent 80th anniversary and the televised recollections of survivors have emphasised the war's place in the public's imagination.

Today the atmosphere is one of remembrance and commemoration. But Gerry Oram argues that families whose forebears were shot for "cowardice" or "desertion" however unjustly, are excluded from this process and suffer as a result.

"I started receiving letters from relatives and I couldn't help being moved. There are families who can't come to terms with it and feel an awful lot of shame. This is not an historical debate but a contemporary issue."

Last year Armed Forces' Minister John Reid announced there would be no pardons. But an alternative - a request for a Royal Pardon - is still being pursued by Lord Carlisle and others.

Worthless Men also considers the question of race and class bias in the selection of men for execution. This required the author to move beyond the 300 executions to the 3,000 death sentences pronounced - 90 per cent of which were commuted. His research showed much higher proportions of non-English soldiers - Irish, Indians or "Blacks" - being sentenced to death.

"This racism of course, was not restricted to the army, it was a mere reflection of Edwardian society generally", says Gerry Oram. "There was an unspoken assumption that the Irish, for example, were undisciplined and inferior - and therefore needing 'firmer handling'."

But while racial assumptions were in-built, further evidence suggests that some men were explicitly selected for the death sentence on eugenic grounds. This saw them as weak, socially degenerate, "worthless men".

"Eugenics was widely supported across the political boundaries among professional and educated classes. Some officers appended remarks along these lines to the court martial files."

Gerry Oram has had to straddle the divide between scholarship and commitment to the emotive questions. In recent correspondence he advised the Earl of Carlisle on how to respond to further refusals to consider pardons. Research on the subject was possible only because 10 years ago the government made court martial records, previously closed for 100 years, available after 75. Only four cases emerged at first - the handful of executions that took place in the early months of the war. But as 75 years elapsed from 1915, 1916, 1917... the floodgates opened. "A lot of people did not realise they had relatives who died in this way," he said.

"Eric Skeffington-Poole, a lieutenant from the West Yorkshires, was executed in 1916. When his case was featured in a television documentary this was the first his relatives were aware of his fate. Another relative only discovered his ancestor's death when he visited the regimental museum. The curator assumed he wanted to know about the execution.

John Reid told the House of Commons: 'There is little to be gleaned from fragments of stories that would provide serious grounds for a legal pardon."

Through research and writing, with Worthless Men in the forefront, these "fragments" are swelling into a mighty record of a terrible and tragic period in military and social history. Decisions taken 80 years ago are still echoing through many lives and Gerry Oram's work has moved centre stage.

Worthless Men: Race, eugenics and the death penalty in the British Army during the First World War. Francis Boutle Publishers. ISBN 0953238830.

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