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Debate: Pardoning soldiers executed for offences during World War I

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Should soldiers who were executed for military offenses during WWI be pardoned?

Background and context

During the First World War (1914-1918), 306 British soldiers were executed for military offences. The most common charges were desertion or cowardice. Their names were omitted from war memorials and their relatives did not receive military pensions. For many, the execution of a relative was a source of shame. The circumstances surrounding British military executions were kept secret for 75 years. In contrast, French tribunals reconsidered executions in the 1920s on a case-by-case basis. Many executed French soldiers were cleared. The relatives of some executed soldiers have campaigned for pardons. The descendants of Private Harry Farr, who was executed in 1916, have been especially active in this campaign. Both the Conservatives and Labour consistently refused their requests until August 2006. Then the Labour government announced its intention to pardon the 306 men who were executed for military offences. Those executed for other offences, such as murder and rape, will not be pardoned. There has been no significant campaign for pardons for those convicted of such offences. Britain scrapped the death penalty for all military offences in 1930. It abolished the death penalty for all offences, military and civilian, in 1998.

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Argument #1

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Yes

The men executed during the First World War experienced conditions unlike anything that most people in the developed world now could imagine. Their ability to endure such conditions was further diminished by the fact that they were very young. The youngest British soldier to be executed was just sixteen – he was shot when he was still officially too young to be a member of his regiment. To desert was not cowardice – it was natural human behaviour. Those executed, and their descendants, have suffered shame for natural behaviour. A pardon does not deny that they deserted, but recognises that death was a disproportionate punishment.

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No

It is wrong to apply the standards of the present to the past. According to the morals of the early-twentieth century, execution was an entirely appropriate and legal punishment for serious offences. Again according to the morals of the day, desertion and cowardice were serious offences. The debate therefore can only concern cases where soldiers were wrongly convicted under the law of the time. This can only be examined on a case-by-case basis. A blanket pardon is inappropriate.

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Argument #2

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Yes

Many men were improperly convicted, even by the standards of the day. Legal safeguards were often not observed. Many soldiers faced their court martial without the ‘prisoner’s friend’ who was supposed to advise them. Often, there was no real opportunity for appeal. Educated, upper-class officers stood a far better chance of getting clemency – only two British officers were executed during the First World War. Many men probably suffered from what is now known as ‘shell shock’ or post-traumatic stress disorder. This was not recognised as a medical condition at the time. They were mentally incapable of continuing to fight. Some army doctors are quoted as saying that they did not want to help those being court martialled, since they believed that they were cowards. Many soldiers therefore did not have their medical circumstances considered. For all these reasons, it was grossly unjust that they were executed. Insufficient evidence survives for a case-by-case review. A blanket pardon is therefore the only way to recognise that there were miscarriages of justice.

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No

There is considerable evidence that legal safeguards were applied in most cases. The charges were not just made up – many of those who were executed had already deserted before (one had been convicted sixteen times). Field Marshal Douglas Haig reviewed every sentence before it was carried out. He refused to confirm about 90% of the death sentences that were passed. Shell shock was recognised as a medical condition then – a psychologist called Dr Charles Meyers wrote about it in 1915 and it was discussed in the House of Commons in 1916. If it can be established that due process was not followed or medical evidence was disregarded, an appeal about an individual case can be made through the courts. There is no reason to grant a blanket pardon when most of those executed were treated entirely properly, in accordance with the standards of the day. In cases where insufficient evidence survives to re-examine a case, there should not be a presumption that the conviction and sentence were inappropriate.

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Argument #3

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Yes

It is unjust to argue that it was acceptable to execute soldiers to discourage desertion. The fact that soldiers still deserted shows how insufferable their situation was. The American army did not execute deserters, and did not experience mass desertion. Similarly, Britain did not have a problem with desertion in the Second World War, when those found guilty of military offences were not executed.

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No

Had there been mass desertions, Britain’s national interest would have been jeopardized. The number of desertions would have been far greater if there had not been the deterrent of execution. In the appalling circumstances of trench warfare in the First World War, strict military discipline was essential to ensure that a few weak individuals did not put the rest of their units in grave danger.

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Argument #4

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Yes

Ex-soldiers and their descendants would not feel insulted by the pardoning of those executed. Many soldiers felt great sympathy for them. Some firing squads were in tears when they were forced to shoot their comrade. The Royal British Legion, the main charity for ex-soldiers, supports the campaign for pardons. Indeed, it has invited members of the ‘Shot at Dawn’ campaign to participate in the Remembrance Day parade past the Cenotaph in London.

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No

Pardoning those executed would be an insult to the brave soldiers who did not desert. Despite the terrible conditions, millions of men fought bravely. Their courage and devotion to duty is cheapened if it is suggested that it was acceptable for others to desert.

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Argument #5

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Yes

There are no grounds to think that military discipline today would be affected. Pardons do not say that desertion was or is acceptable – they simply say that those who were convicted should not have been punished in the way they were.

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No

The suggestion that cowardice in the past should be pardoned might undermine military discipline today. It would send out the message that soldiers who dislike their situation can legitimately desert or ignore orders. The efficient functioning of the armed forces is dependent upon legal orders being obeyed at all times.

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Argument #6

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Yes

Those campaigning for pardons have never demanded compensation. They are seeking to restore their relatives’ reputations – it is an insult to suggest that they are trying to get cash.

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No

Granting pardons could make the British government vulnerable to claims for compensation from the relatives of those executed. They might claim for financial loss, since they were denied war pensions. They might also claim for distress.

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Argument #7

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Yes

The relatives of those who were executed are content that their relatives should receive pardons. In most cases, there is insufficient evidence to overturn individual convictions. A blanket pardon is the best way to give a fair outcome to all executed soldiers and their descendents. If descendants wish to try to overturn convictions in the courts, a pardon does not stop them doing so.

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No

Pardons do not go far enough. A pardon implies that the punishment was wrong but does not say that the conviction was wrong. Soldiers like Harry Farr (who had shell shock) should never have been convicted, let alone executed. Granting pardons to such men is a distraction. The convictions themselves should be overturned. NB This argument is valid but it wholly contradicts all the other opposition arguments presented above. The opposition must choose the grounds upon which it wishes to base its case and make sure its arguments are consistent.

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