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Executions for desertion in World War I

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The 302 British and Commonwealth soldiers executed for military offences committed while on active service on the Western Front cast a long shadow and their cases remain controversial to this day.

As shocking as that figure might be, it represents only 10 per cent of the 3,076 sentenced to death (in fact some 20,000 offences that could have attracted the death sentence were committed over this same period). These statistics show, therefore, that some of those executed were undoubtedly unlucky to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, when those further up the command chain saw a need to make an example of them, thereby making it something of a lottery for those concerned and therefore inherently unfair.

Those who volunteered for the army in August 1914, and those who joined afterwards, either as volunteers or as conscripts, left the civilian world behind them and found themselves in an alien environment, subject to what now seems, 100 years later, harsh military law which governed all aspects of the lives of the officers and soldiers in peace and in war, at home or overseas.

As a result of the outbreak of war, in September 1914 the normal system of military court martial was replaced by a system of summary court martial. Offences that carried the death penalty were then to be dealt with by a field general court martial presided over by a minimum of three officers, one of whom had to hold at least the rank of captain in order to act as president. All three had to be in agreement on any sentence passed. The recommended sentence was then passed up the chain of command, together with any mitigating circumstances and pleas for clemency.

The changes made in September 1914 are important because they allowed for the sentence, passed by the field general court martial, to be carried out within twenty-four hours – with no right of appeal. The reality for those sentenced to death was that the passage of time from sentence to its promulgation or announcement could be weeks if not months, whereas the time between promulgation and the actual execution was normally just a matter of a few hours.

On 8 September 1914 Private Thomas Highgate at the age of 17 became the first British soldier to be executed on the Western Front for desertion; just two days after sentence had been passed, proving that the process could be quick. In fact, the time between Private Highgate being informed of the confirmation of his sentence and his execution was just forty-five minutes.

Private Highgate served in the 1st Battalion of the Royal West Kents, which was one of the first elements of the British Expeditionary Force to land in France on 15 August 1914 and took part in the fighting at Mons. General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien decided when confirming the sentence to make a very public example of Highgate and ordered that he ‘should be killed as publicly as possible’. As a result, he was executed in front of two companies of his comrades. Smith-Dorrien later justified this by claiming that, as a result, there were no further charges of desertion brought in his division and, therefore, deterrence worked.

From 1915 onwards, uncomfortable questions about the army’s use of the death penalty began to be asked in Parliament. In 1915, Under Secretary of State for War Harold Tennant, in answer to a direct question, confirmed that executions had taken place, but in July of that year he refused to confirm the number of death sentences passed, on the grounds that it would not be in the public interest. Over the subsequent years the questions were to continue.

Extracted from Executed at Dawn by David Johnson

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