Tommy, p.63Richard Holmes
Field Punishment No. 1 was awarded on 60,210 occasions during the First World War, and was thus infinitely more common than the death penalty: an average of about one soldier in fifty serving in France received it, although this figure does not reflect the fact that several men received it more than once. There were 3,080 death sentences, of which 346 were actually carried out, all but 37 of them for offences which attracted the death penalty only under military law. We ought, perhaps, not to be surprised that Field Punishment No. l, so very visible, features far more frequently in letters and diaries than the death penalty. The latter aroused powerful emotions, though men were divided over it. Both Rowland Feilding and Julian Bickersteth were amongst the many who deplored it. However, Private Arthur Moss of 1/Royal Fusiliers thought it ‘very severe but it is done as an example to maintain discipline in the service’,207 and Frederic Manning’s comrades agreed that ‘Miller the deserter’ ought to be shot for leaving them in the lurch.
Field punishment, however, attracted almost as much resentment amongst officers, who were not subject to it, as amongst soldiers, who were. It was regarded as degrading, primitive and wholly out of place in a citizen army fighting a great war. Lieutenant F. P. Roe was amongst the many young officers shocked by their first encounter with it.
One of my early memories was the sight of a garrison artilleryman on a very hot day handcuffed to the gun wheels of his battery’s gun carriages, a heavy howitzer battery. He was sweating profusely and was covered with flies… The experience haunted me for a long time.208
Handcuffing to a wheel met the remit of regulations, but some units tied a man with his arms outstretched, earning the punishment the nickname ‘crucifixion’. In August 1916 Victor Archard, a tank gunner, noted that one of his comrades was given fourteen days’ Field Punishment No. 1 for ‘swearing about an officer in his absence and to his own fellow gunners,’ and soon afterwards:
I saw No. 1 Field Punishment being inflicted for the first time. The prisoner has been standing for hours against the railings of the main entrance to camp, with his arms tied to the rails about a foot above his shoulders. This is given to him every other day, and lasts two hours.209
In Arthur Moss’s regular battalion field punishment was made even more severe by ‘tying a man to a wheel & turning same round ever so long until the head is downwards. Shocking punishment & nasty to look at…’210
As we might expect, unit tolerance of field punishment varied.
Australians sometimes released British soldiers they encountered tied up, and threatened the regimental sergeant major or the regimental police if they tried to re-attach them to wheel or fence. Private Marshall of the Accrington Pals described an incident during the battalion’s brief sojourn in Egypt in 1915–16.
We were at Al Kantara and marching past a Regular Army camp. Two men were strung up on a gun-wheel in the sun… ‘Potty’ Ross, (Z Company Commander) said: ‘That’s what happens if you misbehave.’ The reply came back, ‘It won’t, tha’ knows. If you did that to any of us, t’others would cut him down.’211
He was scarcely exaggerating. In some units the practice was so universally abhorred that it was simply ritualised, and the culprit was shut in a hut with the handcuffs thrown in after him.
But there remained an argument that commanding officers needed a severe and immediate sanction at their disposal. Douglas Wimberley, reflecting on his time as machine-gun company commander, affirmed that:
Field Punishment No. 1 I never had to give, though in my judgement it is very valuable and necessary on active service. Field Punishment, in my opinion, if given should be carried out by the letter of the law. Some units, especially MG Companies and the like, without a provost Sergeant, carried it out very slackly. It was frequently given and treated almost as CB and meant little more than the pay forfeited and an ugly mark on the man’s [conduct] sheet. If I gave F. P.2, I always tried to ensure that it was properly carried out as it was meant to be, that is, as a severe punishment. And a severe punishment it is – the man loses pay, goes down any fixed number of places on the leave roster, is fed on bully and biscuits, gets no cigarettes or rum, and has those cigarettes he owns, and his money, kept from him during the punishment; and he is kept hard at work at manual labour or unpleasant sanitary duties. If it is carried out like this, it need seldom be given and does not lose its hold as an enforcer of discipline.212
And in 1917 the humane Rowland Feilding complained of:
A tendency to commute all sentences of imprisonment which, for obvious reasons, are served out of the line, to Field Punishment, which is served in it. But, in the latter case, the punishment falls so flat that the hardened offender cares nothing for it.213
Of the types of court martial prescribed by the Manual of Military Law the Field General Court Martial (FGCM) was that which applied on active service on the Western Front. It consisted of a president, an officer not below the rank of captain, although a major was preferable, and two other officers who had held commissions for at least a year. The officer who convened the trial could not sit on the court, nor could any witness or individual involved with the investigation of the case. The accused could object to the composition of the court, was entitled to speak in his own defence and could be assisted by a ‘prisoner’s friend’. When the court discussed its verdict the most junior officer voted first in an effort to prevent a dominant senior officer imposing his will. Sentences, including recommendations for mercy, were passed on up the chain of command for confirmation by the commander in chief. A FGCM could try officers, and had at its disposal the full range of penalties prescribed by the Army Act, but there had to be unanimity if the death penalty was to be imposed.214
This form of court martial had the stated aim of providing ‘for the speedy trial of offences committed abroad or on active service in cases where it is not practicable… to try such offences by an ordinary general court-martial’. The major difference between it and the general court martial was the absence of a legally-qualified judge advocate who advised the court. However, from early 1916 the post of court-martial officer was introduced. These personnel were drawn from experienced lawyers already serving in the army, and were expected to ‘keep the court straight on matters of law and procedure’. Despite assertions that these were ‘kangaroo courts’ it is evident that they were bound by strict rules of procedure, and abundant evidence suggests both that their members took their duties seriously, and that formation commanders and eventually the commander in chief looked hard at their proceedings. Nor is it true to say that courts martial were generally composed of officers without front-line experience sitting in judgment on men from the trenches.
The case of Private James Haddock of 12/York and Lancaster is not untypical. When he was court-martialled for desertion in September 1916 two members of the court had gallantry awards and the third, also with front-line experience, was later killed in action. The court sentenced him to death and he was shot. The case is doubly informative because Private Haddock had deserted on his first day with the battalion. His CO, to whom he was a stranger, would have had no compunction in sending him for trial, and the fact that all three members of the court were in his regiment would have been more likely to harm than to help him.215 And it was not a good time to desert at the end of a long battle, when formation commanders and the commander in chief, all aware of the need to buttress discipline, were more likely to favour a more draconian approach than might have been the case in quieter times.
None of this meant, however, that courts martial did not sometimes commit injustices. Firstly, their members were all too well aware that they were small but important cogs in the disciplinary machine. Charles Carrington remembered that when he was being instructed on courts martial he was taught that ‘the first duty of the court was to ensure that the prisoner had every advantage to which he was legally entitled’, but that ‘the court should not hesitate to pronounce a heavy sentence if the case was proved…’. Although Carrington retained a genera
A memory that disturbs me is the hint or warning that came down from above… that morale needed a sharp jolt, or that a few severe sentences might have as good effect. It was expedient that some man who had deserted his post under fire was shot to encourage the others. Sometimes discipline would be screwed up a couple of turns: death sentences would be confirmed and executed.216
Frank Crozier rebuked a major for excessive leniency as court martial president. When he began to say: ‘I thought a life sentence sufficient…’ Crozier snapped that ‘you are merely there to do justice, not only to the prisoner but to discipline. It is not for you to judge the prevalence of a particular crime.’217
The experience and resolution of court-martial members varied immensely: some prosecuting officers were good at their jobs while others were not; some defendants were well represented while others simply threw themselves on the mercy of the court. Guy Chapman first sat on a court martial in 1916:
The accused was an elderly pioneer sergeant of the 60th [Rifles]; the charge ‘drunk in trenches’. He was duly found guilty. As he was marched out, I hurriedly turned the pages of the Manual of Military Law and found to my horror that the punishment was death, tout court. So when Major the Hon George Keppel turned to me as junior member of the court and demanded my sentence, I replied, ‘Oh death, sir, I suppose.’ Major Keppel blanched and turned to my opposite number, Gwinnell. Gwinnell, who was as young and unlearned in experience as myself, answered, as I had, ‘Death, I suppose.’ Our good president looked across from the top of his six feet and groaned:
‘But my boys, you can’t do it.’
‘But, sir,’ we protested in unison, anxious to justify ourselves, ‘it says so here.’
It was only after a moving appeal by the president that we allowed ourselves to be overborne and to punish the old ruffian by reduction to the rank of corporal in the place of executing him; but we both felt that Major Keppel had somehow failed in his duty. Perhaps as a retribution for this bloodthirsty exhibition, I was thrown on my way home.218
Bombardier Bill Sugden also had reason to be grateful to a wise president. He had ‘gone a bit potty’ when sent round to the sergeants’ mess with a message.
They were all drunk and started saying things. They were all regulars and jealous of Kitcheners. What possessed me I don’t know. I flew into the most intense rage and went for the whole lot. About six of them put me in the clink with a soldier with a fixed bayonet over me.
He was remanded for court martial and warned that ‘you are liable to be sentenced to death’. However, the president declared that a sober man with his excellent record must have been unreasonably provoked, and dismissed the case. ‘Then he ordered me outside and talked like a father to me,’ wrote Sugden. ‘I was absolutely flattened out.’219
Striking a superior officer could indeed get a man shot. Two members of 72nd Battery RFA were shot on the same day, 3 October 1916, for unrelated acts of striking superiors, in one case a subaltern and in the other the battery sergeant major. Lord Cavan, the corps commander, wrote tellingly on documents on the case that: ‘I recommend that the death sentence be carried out as discipline in this battery is bad.’220 But the overwhelming majority of soldiers executed (266 out of 346) were shot for desertion, a crime which the army regarded particularly seriously. During the war the overall desertion rate ran at 10.26 per 1,000 men, more than a division of troops for the average size of the army on the Western Front. Circulars were issued warning officers against excessive leniency. Nonetheless, in order to convict the court had to be certain that the defendant was not simply absent without leave but had formed the intention of never returning to his unit. Walter Guinness found himself president of a Field General Court Martial in October 1916, and although there was ‘palpable desertion’ the ‘half-witted youth prosecuting… never attempted to produce the necessary evidence’. In consequence, ‘we came to the conclusion that as the prosecution did not attempt to deal with the question of intention we could only find the man guilty of absence without leave’. He added that he was ‘particularly grateful’ not to have to sentence the man to death.221 Not everyone was pleased at such even-handedness. On 25 January 1915 Gerald Burgoyne wrote ‘the man I ran in for sleeping at his post has just been remanded for a Field General Court Martial. I fear he will be shot… I fear this fellow will have to be made an example of.’ But not long afterwards he added that the man: ‘got off with three months owing to a technicality. He was very lucky.’222
Early in 1915 it became clear that many men regarded a sentence of imprisonment, either in a military prison in France or Britain, as preferable to repeated tours of trench duty, and in April Parliament agreed that military sentences could be suspended: capital sentences by the commander in chief, others by army commanders. Many men sentenced to imprisonment were returned to their units, and an increasing number of those sentenced to death had the sentence commuted to a suspended sentence of five years. Feilding thought that suspended sentences were a good idea:
First, the soldier had a sword of Damocles hanging over his head, and secondly, the better man, whose trouble had come upon him from some momentary lapse (an ever-present possibility in war, as in peace) had a chance of atoning for his delinquency, and often, by good behaviour or a gallant act on the battlefield, he earned a complete reprieve.223
Many capital sentences inflicted in the second half of the war were on men already under suspended sentence for a previous offence. For instance, Private Evan Fraser of 2/Royal Scots deserted within a month of his first conviction, escaped from custody to desert again, was duly sentenced to death and was shot – becoming the first man under suspended sentence to be executed for reoffending.
A further area of controversy was the mental state of men tried for capital offences. The diagnosis of psychiatric illness caused by the war was in its infancy, and it was still a matter of some chance as to whether a soldier displaying a severe reaction to his experiences was treated as a patient or a criminal. Even in 1914 a man could be examined by a sympathetic doctor who diagnosed psychiatric breakdown. Private William Dunbar of the London Scottish ‘became a casualty with a complete collapse of my nervous system’ in the autumn of 1914. He was evacuated to England, and recovered well enough to be commissioned into the Royal Field Artillery.224 But medical officers were under great pressure to report men as being fit for duty for as long as possible. Lord Moran described how a man reported sick for the second day running, saying: ‘It’s no good, sir… I can’t stand it no longer.’ Moran examined him, found that ‘there was nothing wrong with him physically and he was sane enough. He was simply tired – but so were others. Once more I sent him back and the next day he was killed.’ Here Moran felt that there was little choice. But he was critical of a colleague who went off to do a brief examination of a man facing a death sentence. ‘There’s a fellow over there run away from the trenches,’ said the doctor briskly, ‘they are going to shoot him and want me to say that he’s responsible. I shan’t be long.’225
Several soldiers were shot after pleading that they had been suffering from what was then termed ‘shell shock’. Lance Corporal William Moon of 11/Cheshires had been traumatised by what his company sergeant major described in court as ‘an incident that occurred on 31st December 1915 when a shell burst close to him and blew part of a comrade’s head and brains into his face’. He went into hospital, but was ‘nervous’ when he came back to the battalion, and deserted shortly afterwards. The defence did not call evidence from the doctors who had treated him in hospital, and his regimental medical officer told the court, not unreasonably, that he could offer no evidence on his mental state as he had not seen him since the incident. Although the brigadier recommended clemency, other formation commanders were not as benevolent, and William Moon was shot.226 Private John Docherty of the Black Watch, a veteran of Loos, tried for a second offence of desertion, was examined by two medical officers whose report stated: ‘Altho
Three officers were executed during the war. One, Second Lieutenant John Patterson of the Essex Regiment shot a military policeman who was attempting to arrest him for desertion. Sub-Lieutenant Edwin Dyett of the Royal Naval Division was shot for desertion, as was Second Lieutenant Eric Poole of the West Yorkshires. The latter’s brigadier wrote that he had previously been in hospital for shell shock, and was ‘of nervous temperament, useless in action, and dangerous as an example to the men’. An RAMC officer concluded that he was ‘of a highly-strung, neurotic temperament, and I am of the opinion that excitement may bring on a condition which would make him not responsible for his actions at the time’. At his court-martial the battalion’s quartermaster declared that Second Lieutenant Poole was ‘very confused indeed’ when apprehended, and his regimental medical officer also testified that he was ‘more liable to shell shock that a normal man’. Brigade, divisional and corps commanders recommended leniency, but Plumer, the army commander, wrote that he would have recommended Poole’s execution had he been a private, and ‘in view of the inherent seriousness of the offence when committed by an officer’ he supported the death penalty. Haig took precisely the same view, adding that all ranks must realise that the law applied to officers as well as privates, and confirmed the sentence. The adjutant general told 2nd Army that the promulgation of sentence of death did not involve cashiering. Eric Poole was accordingly dressed as an officer when he was shot at Poperinghe on 10 December 1916.
Tommy by Richard Holmes / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes