A number of great poets and writers came from the experience gained in the trenches of WW-I, among them was Wilfred Owen. He happened to meet up with some others at the famous Craiglockhart Hospital. Having recovered sufficiently, he was returned to duty.
On November 4, 1918, he was killed, terminating a promising writing career. His mother received the telegram announcing his death in the afternoon of November 11, 1918.
Sgt. Henry Gunther, USA, is reported to be the last soldier from any of the belligerent armies to die on the battlefield (although many died later of their wounds). He died at 1059, November 11, 1918. He was the son of German immigrants to America. Thousands more soldiers, 1,100 of them in one unit, would die during the morning before the Armistice took effect. Augustin-Joseph Victorin Trébuchon, 15 minutes before the Armistice, appears to be the last poiuli to die.
I thought we might take a break from current disputes and remember the past.
Between August 1914 and 31 March 1920, just over 3,000 men were sentenced to death in British army courts martial. Offences included desertion (by far the most common capital crime), cowardice, murder, espionage, mutiny and striking a superior officer. In roughly 90% of cases, the sentence was commuted to hard labour or penal servitude. Recourse to this most extreme application of military discipline varied among First World War combatants. Britain seems to have fallen somewhere between France - whose much larger army suffered roughly 700 executions - and Germany, whose High Command seems to have deployed firing squads less regularly than its British counterpart. (Yes, sics everywhere.)
Th[e following] essay will survey some essential features of military justice in World War One and present some of the key evidence that has emerged from current research about judicial practices. The essay restricts itself to the impact of military justice on soldiers; it excludes any consideration of military justice applied to civilians or to prisoners of war (POWs). After a brief overview of the military codes and procedures in effect during the war, the essay describes the range of punishments available to military authorities, with special attention given to the most controversial aspect of military justice, the use of the death penalty and executions. This is followed by a section on desertion – one of the most frequently prosecuted serious military offences – which offers a convenient way of comparing and contrasting the military justice systems of several of the belligerent countries. Finally, the legacy of military justice in World War One, in particular with regard to the German case, is examined.
Steven R. Welch, Military Justice. International Encyclopedia of the First World War, October 8, 2014.
“Dans ce pays-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres.”
Votaire, Candide. Int'l Collectors Library at 61. You may be familiar with Admiral Byng's execution about which Voltaire gives us the memorable phrase. Voltaire had been present on the quarterdeck of Byng's flagship when the admiral was executed by his own Marines. There had been general displeasure at the admiral's lack of performance in relieving the British garrison on the island of Minorca, and it had been thought necessary to set an example for others.
Which brings us to World War I. Much modern writing about military justice during that time has focused on the executions and, ultimately successful, efforts to obtain pardons for many of those executed. The to "encourage others" theme is a common link. The Shot at Dawn Campaign was just one initiative in the UK. Pardon for Soldiers of the Great War Act 2000 was NZ's reaction. And I see there is at least one Shot at Dawn memorial in the UK.
We talk a lot about GoD, so I was struck by this comment.
“Discipline is a subjective concept and cannot in itself be quantified. However, an indicator of a division’s discipline may be suggested by the number of its soldiers being subject to a court martial.” The conclusion from the article is that tying discipline rates to military efficiency and effectiveness is not easy and any actual conclusion is ambiguous.
Discipline in the BEF: An analysis of executions in the British Divisions, 1914-1918. Western Front Association. The writer's conclusion might also extend to the effectiveness of the military justice system to affect discipline. The ANZACs were, allegedly, notoriously ill disciplined, but were considered amongst the most effective of units. See here, here, and here. (Interestingly, the British already had a similar experience with the Australians during the Second Boer War. See, e.g., Peter Fitzsimmons, Breaker Morant. Hachette, Aust. 2021.)
Finally, the executions were not justified because they had no deterrent impact. The practice and threat of executions did not prevent men from deserting. The practice was so arbitrarily applied that commanders could not use them as a credible threat. Soldiers did not consider the punishment when deserting, or if they did, they took a calculated risk and determined that if caught they would escape the firing post. With a commutation rate of 90 per cent, this was a wise gamble. Executions did not keep men in the field; this was achieved through sound leadership that balanced strength, kindness and creature comforts, including rations, cigarettes and a steady stream of mail from home.
Face to Face: Were the First World War executions of 25 CEF members justified? Legion, Military History Magazine (Canada).
Jospin’s reference to a system of military discipline as harsh as battle itself expresses what could be termed the conventional view of military justice in World War One, one well-represented in many scholarly and popular accounts of the war. According to this view, military justice was not only extraordinarily severe, but was often brutally inhumane and unjust, an essential element in a broader set of coercive disciplinary practices designed to intimidate the common soldier and force him to continue fighting in a war of attrition and mass slaughter to the bitter end. From this perspective, soldiers of the various belligerent countries appear as helpless victims of military justice systems that had little regard for the individual or for the principle of justice, but were instead instruments used primarily to maintain discipline and achieve deterrence through harsh and often arbitrary punishment.
Welch, who concludes,
Overall, the current state of research tends to validate the conventional view of generally harsh military justice in World War One. Revisionist studies have offered some useful qualifications (such as a more favourable evaluation of British and Canadian commanders as a result of examinations of their commutation practices) but have not succeeded in fundamentally undermining the conventional view. Previous research has been heavily concentrated on the highly charged issues of death sentences and executions. While these are very significant issues and do reveal much about the character of military justice, they represent only one aspect of military justice. Future research needs to focus more broadly on the ways in which the various military justice systems affected the overwhelming majority of soldiers who were not among the relatively small group condemned to death. Such studies would provide a much more solid basis for evaluating the role of military justice in maintaining or undermining obedience and morale.
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