Going Over The Top: Shot at Dawn

By David Flin

I could not look on Death, which being known Men led me to him, blindfold and alone.

Kipling: Epitaphs of War. The Coward.

Amid the carnage of the Western Front, many myths became accepted as fact. Shocking facts, and shocking myths, and some a combination of both. One of these accepted truisms is that shellshock was barely understood, and not recognised, and that thousands of soldiers were executed for cowardice, when they were suffering from shellshock.

For example, the website History Learning (www.historylearningsite.co.uk) has this to say:

“Between 1914 and 1918, the British Army identified 80,000 men with what would now be defined as the symptoms of shellshock. There were those who suffered from severe shell shock. They could not stand the thought of being on the front line any longer and deserted. Once caught, they received a court martial and, if sentenced to death, shot by a twelve-man firing squad.”

The implication is quite clear, and it is quite wrong in terms of the numbers. The British Army executed, over the course of the war, a total of 306 soldiers.

Executions in the British Army: 1914-1918

Of these 306, the vast majority – 286 – were from the Western Front.

Many more men were sentenced to death by courts martial than were executed (3080 were sentenced; 306 executions took place). Most sentences were commuted to lengthy terms in prison.

Of course, numbers don’t tell the whole story. Not all offences were officially sentenced to death, but alternative means found. George Coppard, in With A Machine Gun to Cambrai, describes one such alternative.

“I believe that an important modification of the death sentence also took place in 1917. It appeared that the military authorities were compelled to take heed of the clamour against the death sentences imposed by courts martial. There had been too many of them. As a result, a man who would otherwise have been executed was instead compelled to take part in the forefront of the first available raid or assault on the enemy. He was purposely placed in the first wave to cross No Man’s Land and it was left to the Almighty to decide his fate. This was the situation as we Tommies understood it, but nothing official reached our ears.”

Also not covered by the figures is any indication of how many men simply couldn’t take any more and committed suicide.

One thing that the figures do show is that desertion was by far the single biggest crime punished by execution, at over 80% of the cases. The reason why there were so many more cases of desertion being found guilty than cowardice lay in the standard of proof required. The necessary proof for desertion was for the soldier not to be at their post of duty without permission to be absent. Proof of guilt or innocence was a clear-cut matter. They were either at their post of duty, or they weren’t. They either had permission to be absent, or they didn’t.

By contrast, proof of cowardice required at least one eye witness to the specific act of cowardice. By the very nature of the situation, it was quite possible for there to be no surviving eye witnesses.

Not all cases of desertion were due to shellshock. There was one case of desertion which involved the perpetrator absconding with army equipment with considerable resale value (and the report of the trial doesn’t specify what that equipment was), and he was caught boarding a ship to what was then neutral USA. There was another similar case of a deserter being picked up on a ship, this time with a large quantity of explosives. This was in the aftermath of the Easter Rising, and the ship was bound for Ireland.

As a result, it’s difficult to know with any certainty just how many soldiers suffering from shellshock were called cowards and shot.

The other aspect is the assumption that shellshock wasn’t understood. That is a subject I looked at in an earlier article, and while it wasn’t well understood, its existence was known. It was often attributed to nervous exhaustion, although a lot of people in high positions assumed that a lot of cases were the result of malingering.

There was some question over the status of courts martial. The accused did not have access to a formal legal representative. Some got a prisoner’s friend to help them with their defence, some did not. Normal procedures were cut short, and the result determined very quickly.

One factor the becomes evident when looking at the cases where the soldier was sentenced to death, but the sentence was not carried out, is that a class factor was in operation. Junior officers frequently had charges dismissed if the court was convinced that they were sensitive and had been suffering from nervous exhaustion. The court would often decide that the officer needed a break to recover his nervous strength.

The same courts generally didn’t believe that an ordinary soldier from the working classes suffered from nervous exhaustion. They “don’t have nerve-inducing decisions to make,” and “they are of a class not accustomed to use of the higher brain functions, and they are less affected by nervous stress.”

And if you were an Irish working-class soldier, forget any prospect of sympathy from the court. James Crozier, a 16-year-old Irishman from Belfast was found guilty of deserting his post and was shot. Two weeks earlier, Second Lieutenant Annandale was found guilty of the same offence, but he was not sentenced to death due to unspecified “technicalities”.

Over the course of the war, fifteen officers, sentenced to death, received a royal pardon. In the summer of 1916, all officers of the rank of Captain and above were given an order that all cases of cowardice should be punished by death, and that a medical excuse should not be tolerated. However, this was not the case for officers found to be suffering from neurasthenia; otherwise known as nervous exhaustion, or shellshock.

Some of the individual cases are shocking. There were, in some cases, egregious levels of a miscarriage of justice.

There were a total of 306, from Private TJ Highgate of the 1st Royal West Kent Regiment, executed for desertion on the 8th September, 1914, the first of the 306, through Private R Flynn of the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers, executed for murder on the 6th November, 1918, the last of the 306.

Discuss this article

David Flin is the author of the SLP books How to Write Alternate History, Six East End Boys, Tales from Section D, The Return of King Arthur and Other Alternate Myths, and Bring Me My Bow