For Armistice Day 2003 ... for The Accused
It is a misconception that the executed servicemen were worthless shirkers who failed their comrades.
Court martial documentation demonstrates this was not the case; many of them had been involved in combat, had fought bravely and in some cases been wounded prior to to the incident which finally broke them; many were volunteers who answered the 'call to arms' and found themselves in an environment for which they were ill-equipped, mentally and physically.
The following extracts are from the court martial files of several servicemen tried for cowardice or desertion, the positive comments of whose seniors were not sufficient to save them from a firing squad.
'From a fighting point of view the man is absolutely useless, it appears that he is more or less all right as long as things stay quiet but as soon as any shelling starts or there are any signs of an attack he goes all to pieces and as far as I can gather seems to go practically off his head through sheer terror.
The man appears to be a very poor type of individual and has no stamina in him whatsoever.
His character from the point of view of ordinary behaviour since he has been with the Expeditionary Force has been fairly satisfactory but the greater part of this service has been spent in various hospitals and for some time he was kept back at the transports.
He has served with the expeditionary force nine months.
In my opinion the crime was not deliberately committed with the sole object of avoiding the particular service involved but rather through the fact that the man was in such a nervous state and so frightened that he really did not know what he was doing.'
'Pte Rickman joined the Battalion early in April of this year, and the action of July 1st was the first action he had taken part in with it - on that date all his Company Commanders were killed or wounded so it is not possible to get much information beyond that he went over the parapet with the rest of his company which suffered very heavily. He was with the 7 Batt at the SUVLA landing. His present platoon commander speaks highly of him. From inquiries I have made from Senior NCOs who know him, I find that he has a good reputation as a fighting soldier and I feel convinced that he would never have committed it, unless he had been temporarily bereft of his wits after the action of July 1st.'
Lt Col H Melor, Commanding 1 Royal Dublin Fusiliers
'I have known the accused from September 1914 to August 1915. He always had a very good character. He was willing, hard working and sober. He was wounded in Gallipoli in August 1915'.
'I cannot say what has destroyed this man's nerve but he has proved himself on many occasions incapable of keeping his head in action...
...Apart from his behaviour under fire, his conduct and character are very good'.
'I am unable to produce AFB122 as the Battalion has moved forward. I know that the accused has been a very good character previously.'
' Accused was in my platoon in the ......... sector. I have known him since December 1915. I have always found him a good soldier in the platoon. He never gave trouble in the trenches. On the Somme he did pretty well. He was in the fighting at Ypres in 1917.'
CQMS White, 8 Battalion Seaforth Highlanders
'In the trenches in 1915 and 1916 he always did well and in action on and after 31st July 1917 at Ypres he displayed marked gallantry. (He subsequently went to hospital suffering from supposed shellshock but no evidence could be obtained to prove or disprove it).'
'And there it rests. Autumn will become winter and winter spring, and years and decades move on to other centuries. Still the suspicion will remain, the canker still fester, the injustice stay unrighted. For our nation's history is stained by these court martials. The Mother of Parliaments, that self-styled defender of justice, is unmoved, deaf to the questions that will not be hushed. The nation that was later to stand alone against the oppressor, turns its back, content to sweep under the carpet the unsavoury fact that a number of its own were sacrificed to a greater good.
God help us if our children's children face such apathy and self-delusion, if they are ever called to serve in a future and unforseeable cataclysm, should the whole world ring again to the resonance of war.'
May those who could not stand the tumult of battle rest in eternal silence
We will speak for them
National Union of Journalists