They Shoot Cowards, Don’t They?

Eighty years ago, some ten million lives were lost in World War One. Among these countless casualties was a small group of about three hundred and fifty who are not remembered each November when the dignitaries assemble at the Cenotaph and lay their patronising wreaths of poppies.

Recently, this select few have been in the news, and not for the first time; their deaths were, and still are, the subject of controversy. Readers of the Socialist Standard would no doubt consider the death of any human being in the pursuit of property and resources highly controversial. However, the reason the fate of this tiny proportion of those who died so long ago continues to be debated today is because they didn’t die a “heroic” death at the hands of the enemy. They were shot by their own comrades.

To the uninitiated, or the naive, or just the logically-minded, this may come as a shock. Surely the job of an army is to slaughter marauding foreigners, not its own troops? Wrong. The job of an army is to do the state’s dirty work, that is to plunder land, wealth and raw materials, as well as secure routes for international trade, or to prevent another state from doing same. This definition of any army’s role does not preclude murder within the ranks. Granted, killing your own chaps doesn’t sound like an efficient way to run an army, but the legally-sanctioned execution of comrades-in-arms during World War One was not only efficient, it was absolutely necessary.

Those who died by the bullets of their fellow troops were not ordinary soldiers, not normal men. They were of that rare perverted persuasion which knew fear and a sense of self-preservation. It may sound obtuse to suggest that a soldier who is afraid of going into battle is some sort of oddity, but that is precisely what the army wanted the average Tommy to think. If you suppose that fear probably comes as naturally to a soldier as brown paper bags to a Tory MP, you’d surely be right. But the army has a special term for people who respond rationally to this entirely natural emotion: they are known as “cowards”.

The issue of those who were branded and shamed with this term during the First World War has come to the fore once again presumably because of the election of the new Labour government; there is apparently new hope for campaigners of obtaining pardons for their relatives. They have reiterated that there is evidence and expert opinion which now points to the likelihood that the majority of “cowards” were in fact suffering from some form of mental illness, and not in full command of their senses. It would seem more likely however that anyone who wishes to avoid almost certain death is in an absolutely sound state of mind.

Irrevocable punishment

The fact that advocates for these men are relying on the “shell shock” defence suggests one of two things. Either they genuinely believe that anyone in his or her right mind should willingly and dutifully have gone into battle in a war which took senseless carnage and breathtaking incompetence to new pinnacles; or they simply believe that this is the only chance of restoring the tarnished reputation of the family name. It’s interesting that nobody seems to have questioned the morality of executing a man for refusing to endanger his own life; or recognising that he may have been averse to murdering his “enemies”, who were terrified soldiers like himself, strangers against whom he had no grudge. That, surely, is justification in itself for laying down arms.

It seems astonishing now, in slightly more lenient times, that the government of the day could have permitted such summary and irrevocable punishment for its own servicemen, especially as the accused had no representation and no right of appeal. However, the practice has to be viewed in the light of the circumstances in which much of World War One was fought, particularly in the trenches. This essentially involved massing thousands of men and then sending them like lemmings towards the enemy lines, resulting in catastrophic casualties, often in order to gain just a few yards of ground, if any. Given that such behaviour, except to the seriously mentally unbalanced or the suicidal, naturally appeared to be utter lunacy, the politicians had to provide some incentive to persuade the potentially sceptical recruits to act like madmen. The principal methods of course were propaganda and flattery. After character defamation of the enemy, using easily understood terms such as “evil Bosch” or “filthy Hun”, conscripts were told that it was their duty and privilege to rid the world of such despicable degenerates. Having preserved democracy and fair play, and saved England for all decent, God-fearing citizens, the troops would then be welcomed home as heroes and be forever intoxicated by the eternal gratitude of their countrymen.

Not surprisingly, it occurred to the top brass in the army that such shameless patronising might not wash with a few who cared to examine even cursorily their justification for mass slaughter of innocent human beings. And if only a few sceptics concluded that they were being duped, they might well persuade many others to lay down their arms and take up flower pressing instead. Therefore, an extra “incentive” was required, and this was where the ruthless efficiency of the military came into its own. It would have done no good to tell a dissenter that he was a naughty boy and to sit in the corner for the rest of the day; nor would there have been any point in threatening to send him to prison for life. After all, he would still have his life. No, the only way to ensure that insanity prevailed was to offer a Hobson’s Choice: either go over the top and face almost certain death, or refuse and face certain death.

Madness of war

The fact that some three hundred or more soldiers, who were presumably aware of the penalties for cowardice, still refused to fight begs an important question. As the punishment was the ultimate penalty of death, and given that actually going into battle at least provided a chance of survival, doesn’t it seem likely that these men were, as the campaigners claim, suffering from severe psychological trauma, be it shell-shock, or just the horror of seeing the gruesome demise of their comrades? In that case there would have been grounds for clemency, because these men were clearly not “cowards”, but were deeply disturbed. Alas, such a distinction would have been irrelevant, because these unfortunate few had to be made examples to all the others of what happens to those who refuse to obey suicidal orders. Little surprise then that there was no right of appeal.

To some, war is heroic; to others, it is anathema. There is only one thing that can be said for certain about wars: they are never fought in the interest of those who die in them. Today, Britain has a professional volunteer army, and technical advances mean that modern warfare is a much more scientific affair. The Gulf War was a high profile example of how ever more sophisticated weapons are able to accurately target enemy weaknesses. Now there are no poorly trained conscripts, and no need for battalions of troops to go “over the top”, and so there is no need for summary executions to enforce discipline. The naive and innocent victims of the firing squads of eighty years ago had the misfortune to be born into a very different stage of capitalism’s destructive development, when daily casualties could wipe out entire regiments.

It’s difficult to imagine what must have gone through the minds of those conscripts as they huddled in their cold, damp, dirty trenches, waiting for the order to ascend into no-man’s-land with only a tin hat and a rifle for protection against a phalanx of machine guns and mortars. It was a different world then, not only in the way wars were fought, but also in the way minds were moulded. Many men were no doubt torn between the love for “their” country and the love for their families. Perhaps some thought of the men on the other side of the lines whom they would be required to massacre–men with the same fears and hopes, with families waiting anxiously at home; ordinary men, no different except that they just happened to be born under another flag. Perhaps some even entertained the idea that one day the world might be free of artificial economic divisions, when co-operation would replace conflict. Alas, such fanciful ideas were for future generations to enjoy. The soldiers of the Great War were unfortunate to live in an era when courage, however you defined it, equalled death.

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