1980s >> 1985 >> no-976-december-1985

Book Review: ‘For the Sake of Example’

Shot at dawn

For the Sake of Example, Anthony Babington (Paladin £3.95)

A festival of glory greeted the First World War. All over Europe young men scrambled and wheedled to enlist in the armies and young women to give them a rousing send off. It did not take long for the dream to die—in the mud, the shellfire, the machine guns raking the wire, the indescribable deaths. It was, to be sure, more than human bodies and minds could bear; those who did stick it out managed through some trick of stoicism or more murderous frenzy called courage. A few did not have the knack and tried to opt out of the carnage. Which could be very serious for them; if they were caught they were liable under military law to execution, as happened to 346 British soldiers.

Their “crime: was, in the vast majority of cases, “desertion”, with other offences such as “cowardice” much less common. Some of these men were reservists who had been recalled to the Army in 1914. Others were enthusiastic volunteers in Kitchener’s New Army, which was all but liquidated on the Somme in 1916. Some were described by their commanding officer as “worthless” because of their consistent inability to strait-jacket themselves into military routine. One or two had been vagrant before joining the army, for them, at least, the outdoor life presumably held no problems but the repressive disciple did.

In many case, however, the executed men could not, even by British military standards (which in 1914/18 were particularly fierce, compared to those of other countries and to those imposed as recently as the Boer War) be described as cowards or slackers. They had endured years of trench warfare without cracking, until an especially horrible experience like being buried alive or having a companion’s brains shell-splattered over their face. But the concept of shell shock was not popular. Medical examinations of the “offenders” were not an automatic part of the proceedings and in any case they could be contemptuously cursory: “There’s a fellow here who ran away from the trenches. They are going to shoot him and they want me to say of he’s responsible. I shan’t be long” was how one doctor put it.

The field courts martial were hurried and incomplete affairs, for the defendant rarely had any adequate representation, such as might have been allowed in any magistrates court, and it was not unusual for no defence at all to be offered. A particularly inhuman procedure prevented the court announcing a guilty verdict straight away; instead it was passed up through the various layers of command, each one making  a recommendation even though they might have no direct experience or knowledge of the man. The final decision rested with the commander-in-chief who very often sent the soldier to execution, not on the circumstances of the case, but on his perceived need for a deterrent example.

Anthony Babington is a circuit judge; during the last war he was twice wounded and obviously sees no reason for fundamentally questioning a social system which requires workers to fight and kill each other to settle a dispute concerning the interests of their ruling class. What worries Babington are the peripheral issues, such as the long-distance bellicosity of those staff officers and the bigotry of doctors who ignored their Hippocratic oath in the interests of the war machine.

Babington’s reasoning is flawed by the fact that war is not humane. By no rational process does a person attack and kill someone they have no contact with nor knowledge of. The discipline of a military life is designed to stamp out rationality under the boots on the parade ground, the uniforms, the saluting, the “regimental traditions”. To deviate from that can be a threat to the whole grisly edifice, in the past often leading to the firing squad. Nowadays it is more likely to bring down a barrage of mental conditioning into an acceptance of the inhuman demands of capitalism.

For the Sake of Example is an unrelievedly gruesome illustration of the inherent madness of 1914/18, which should not persuade anyone to think that the subsequent wars have been any more sane or acceptable. Perhaps one of the unhappiest aspects of it is that all people at such times are under orders to behave as they do. They are—and what, under capitalism, could be more absolving?—only doing their job.

Ivan

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