• Sun
  • Dec 28, 2014
  • Updated: 7:12pm

Dangers in attempts to rewrite history

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 31 May, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 May, 1997, 12:00am

There are real dangers in one period of history making value judgments on another, so when the Ministry of Defence this week announced it would review the cases of 307 soldiers executed for cowardice during World War I it prompted mixed feelings.

They queued up to go off to war as volunteers, as heroes fighting for their country. Yet these men were taken in front of a firing squad and shot at dawn for a range of crimes from desertion to refusing to fire their weapons or simply objecting to climb over the top of a trench, placing themselves in the line of fire.

Campaigners want a pardon for all cowardice cases saying they should be granted because the men were given little right to defend themselves and there was little understanding or appreciation of the psychological damage caused by life in the trenches.

The Royal British Legion is in favour of a blanket pardon but other veteran groups are not so sure. Yes, they welcome a review but they don't want a blanket pardon to ensure that genuine cowardice cases were not overlooked.

But how do we compare the punishments of today across the barriers of time? Such comparisons are meaningless.

Eighty years is not a long time in history to the families of those who were shot at dawn and some families still feel a sense of anger rather than shame.

Britain's Armed Forces Minister John Reid said: 'From where we stand today we can only imagine the horrors of life in the trenches then and seek to understand what those who experienced it went through.' Hindsight would show us that many of the men who were seen to be deserters were shattered wrecks, quite insane from the constant shelling.

There have been more recent wars involving Britain, where military leaders were thought of as wise, effective men. The Falklands War may have begun out of a foreign policy blunder but the victory was brought by excellent military planning and, it cannot be denied, a good dose of luck. The Gulf War was won by the allies because of overwhelming military strength and some brilliant surprise tactics from the likes of General Norman Schwarzkopf.

But history views World War I commanders as incompetent, arrogant buffoons willing to despatch men to their deaths by the hundred thousand.

Doubtless the description fits some individuals but the majority of commanders were doing their duty in what they genuinely believed was a threat to civilisation as they knew it. That history may have proved that view wrong is beside the point.

If in those circumstances they delivered short-sighted judgments on those they considered to be cowards then they were only following the norm.

There were total travesties though. In one case a sergeant jammed an empty rifle across a trench to block the advance of attackers. He was shot later for 'needlessly casting away his arms'.

Curiously, the figures for the number of British soldiers placed before a firing squad were much higher than for Germans. Apparently German commanders took the view that it would be difficult to instil in conscripts the sort of discipline they had expected of a smaller peacetime army.

In time British officers, who took the contrary view and were terrified that indiscipline might bring defeat, began to understand some of the symptoms the stress of being in the trenches could bring. The result was that the number of executions for cowardice fell rapidly later in the war.

A review should be welcomed because of the glaring examples of injustice. But the danger is that history may start to be rewritten.


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