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Symbol of red poppy, white marker and rifle For Armistice Day 2000 - Words Across the Years


The Deserter  

I'm sorry I done it, Major.'
We bandaged the livid face;
And led him out, ere the wan sun rose,
To die his death of disgrace.  
The bolt-heads locked to the cartridge;
The rifles steadied to rest,
As cold stock nestled at colder cheek
And foresight lined on the breast.  
'Fire!' called the Sargeant-Major.
The muzzles flamed as he spoke;
And the shameless soul of a nameless man
Went up in the cordite-smoke.

Gilbert Frankau 1884 - 1952



And again, I say, that is all I have tried to do. This book is not an attack on any person, on the death penalty, or on anything else, although if it makes people think about these things, so much the better. I think I believe in the death penalty - I do not know. But I did not believe in Harry being shot.

That is the gist of it; that my friend Harry was shot for cowardice - and he was one of the bravest men I ever knew.

A P Herbert

The Secret Battle - 1919



Executions were frequent in France. I had my first direct experience of official lying when I arrived at Le Havre in May 1915 and read the back-files of army orders at the rest camp. They contained something like twenty reports of men shot for cowardice or desertion; yet a few days later the responsible minister in the House of Commons, answering a question from a pacifist, denied that sentence of death for a military offence had been carried out in France on any member of His Majesty's Forces.

Robert Graves

Goodbye to all That - 1929



Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose;
But young men think it is, and we were young.
A E Houseman 1859 - 1936



The victory of 1930 saw victory crown our protracted efforts......to abolish the Army death penalty for cowardice and desertion. It was, however, not achieved without a struggle, even with a Labour Government. The Secretary of Sate for War was Tom Shaw, and when we first approached him on the subject he suggested deferring a decision for a year, as he had not yet been able to persuade the Army Council to agree to abolition. This hardly seemed good enough, for there was no telling what the Parliamentary position would be in a year's time......When the Bill went to the House of Lords, that body, after speeches by various retired high military authorities, including Lord Allenby, re-inserted the death penalty. The Bill went back to the Lords in its original state, and was this time accepted and passed into law.'

Ernest Thurtle MP

'Time's Winged Chariot' - 1945



'......I couple that with thanks for the work of many people but particularly His Honour Judge Anthony Babington, Julian Putkowski, who did research work in this regard, which has assisted all of us and promoted our interest in this issue and, last but not least, Ernest Thurtle, who was a Labour Member of Parliament in the 1920s and 1930s and who, alone, raised this issue. We should remember him today, because he did a great deal in exposing the fact that the British establishment suppressed these documents for three quarters of a century......'

Andrew Mackinley MP

Westminster Parliament - 24 July 1998



Who made the Law that men should die in meadows?
Who spake the word that blood should splash in lanes?
Who gave it forth that gardens should be bone-yards?
Who spread the hills with flesh, and blood, and brains?
Who made the Law?

Leslie Coulson 1889 - 1916



'He died a hero. I say that every man who died in that great war was a hero, no matter how he died.'

Dorothy-Grace Elder MSP

Scottish Parliament - 11 November 1999



'The same yellow line which runs through us all shows in different ways at different times. To abandon the quest for truth under the smokescreen of false sentiment and before the parapets of bureaucracy is infinitely worse than desertion in the face of the enemy'.

William Moore

The Thin Yellow Line - 1974



When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you'll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.

Charles Hamilton Sorley 1895 - 1915


If soldiers accused of cowardice or of desertion in the face of the enemy had looked to the medical officers for assistance or compassion then they were likely to have looked in vain. The army doctors as a whole seem to have set themselves up as an extra branch of the provost corps, intent on securing the extreme penalty for such offenders whenever possible.

Undoubtedly the ministers responsible for military affairs were in a position to ameliorate these procedures, had they wished to do so. Instead, they frequently misled Parliament when they were pressed for information concerning executions which were taking place in the field.

Judge Anthony Babington

For the Sake of Example - 1983




-These are men whose minds the Dead have ravished.
Memory fingers in their hair of murders, multitudinous murders they once witnessed.
Wading sloughs of flesh these helpless wander,
Treading blood from lungs that have loved laughter.
Always they must see things and hear them,
Batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles,
Carnage incomparable, and human squander,
Rucked too thick for these men's extrication.
Wilfred Owen 1893 - 1918



'We believe that few will read Shot at Dawn and conclude that these men deserved their fate, or that their shamed relatives should continue to endure the associated disgrace. Surely, the Ministry of Defence cannot continue to reasonably maintain that there is sufficient evidence to uphold these cases as sound convictions. Accordingly, we repeat our call for the Ministry of Defence to have the courage to admit these injustices and to initiate procedures for exonerating all 351 men who were executed by the British Army during the First World War'.

Julian Putkowski and Julian Sykes

Shot at Dawn - 1989


I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.
In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.

Siegfried Sassoon 1886 - 1967



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