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Symbol of red poppy, white marker and rifle Questions in the House

 

During World War One, awkward questions concerning allegations of executions of British and Empire soldiers on the Western Front and the unlawful recruitment of under-age boys into the army were raised in the House of Commons:-

 

22 September 1915

Sir A Markham asked the Under-Secretary for War (1) whether he is aware that Private G Jones, No 18731, 11 Devonshire Regiment, sailed for France on 6 October on his fourteenth birthday; will he say what steps the Secretary of State for war proposes taking, if any, to prevent boys of thirteen years of age enlisting against the wishes of their parents;

'There is one other point I want to mention. I do not know whether I shall be strictly in order in doing so. I should like to ask the Prime Minister a question upon the forms which have been circulated by the Local Government Board. In my own Constituency boys of fifteen and sixteen have been and are recruited and the Government are perfectly well aware of it. In fact a boy of sixteen was recruited in my Constituency and his father and mother went to the headquarters of the Sherwood Foresters and tried to get him back but the authorities refused to allow him to go back, although he is only sixteen years of age. He came from Kirkby-in-Ashfield. In the same village another boy of fifteen enlisted and his parents were unable to get him back. Are we to understand it is the policy of the Government to take immature boys of fifteen and sixteen when they have set down a definitive military age at which boys may be enlisted? The question has been raised time after time and we get no satisfaction from the Government. Surely no system of enlistment can be satisfactory which allows boys like that to be taken. The War Ofice well knows that the declarations made by these boys - made for patriotic reasons - are false. I am told that these young boys are unable to stand the fatigue of a campaign and many of them have to return from the War after the country has been put through the expense of training them.'

Mr Pringle:

'How old were they?'

Sir F Banbury:-

'I suppose they said they were over eighteen. There are many cases where recruits under age have been accepted. My hon. and gallant Friend (Captain Guest) tells me that the age limit already has been rescinded. Let me give another case, not within my personal knowledge but told to me by a friend who is a general in command of a division and whom I have known all my life. I should take what he told me as being a strict fact. He informed me that in his division a large number of young boys were being sent. These were passed by the civilian doctors and subsequently rejected by the miitary doctors. They had to be sent back home again. That, he said, was costing the nation a considerable amount of money. That I assert, is how the Army is being made up at the present time to a very great extent.

 

12 October 1915

RECRUITING

Sir Arthur Markham asked the Under-Secretary for War whether, seeing that under the present system of voluntary enlistment numbers of boys are being recruited, will he say why no steps have been taken by Lord Kitchener to see that the regulations that the Government has laid down as to age limits are adhered to; whether the facts, well known to the public, as to these false declarations of age are also known to the war office; and whether confidential instructions have been given by the military authorities that the regulations as to the age limit are to be ignored?

Mr Tennant:-

'Further instructions of a precise character were issued to all General Officers Commanding-in-Chief in June last, and my hon. Friend is mistaken in suggesting that these instructions have been ignored by the military authorities responsible. Since these instructions were issued, no cases of under-age enlistment have come to the notice of the War Office but if my hon. Friend knows of any and will furnish particulars, inquiry will, of course, be made.'

Sir A Markham asked the Under-Secretary for War why John William Flint, No 19,370, D Company of the 11 Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters, of East Kirby, Mansfield, has not been discharged from the Army, seeing that within a few days of the time this boy enlisted, the mother and father went to Derby barracks taking the birth certificate of their son, which showed that this boy was only sixteen years of age and asking for his discharge; and will he say whether it is the policy of the War Office to refuse to discharge boys of sixteen years of age who have entered the Army by making false declaration of their age unknown to their parents?

Mr Tennant:-

'Inquiries were instituted into this case and it appeared that Private Flint should have been discharged in November 1914, when his father first made applicatin. At the date when my hon. Friend brought this case to notice, namely in August last, Flint was serving Overseas and instructions were sent explaining the case and asking that Flint should be sent home for discharge, if there were no good grounds to the contrary. The answer to the last part of the question is in the negative.'

Mr Tennant:-

'The War Office has no knowledge of the policy of the Canadian Government as regards the enlistment of married men and men under age in the contingents. In this country no boys under the prescribed age, as laid down by Regulations, have been enlisted with the knowledge of the War Office and I regret the imputation of deliberate connivance, which is wholly unfounded. Boys under that age are not wanted, either with or without the consent of their parents. The last part of the question refers, I think, to the case of John Flint, about which I have already given an answer today.'

Sir A Markham:-

' Does my right hon. Friend seriously tell the House that the Government and the War Office do not know that boys under the prescribed age have been enlisted from the time of the outbreak of the War onwards? Does not the War Office know that? Does it not know anything?'

Mr Tennant:-

I have stated in answer to a previous question that it is the deliberate policy of the War Office only to take those who are of proper age. If boys under the proper age have been enlisted it is their fault for having made a false declaration. May I ask my hon. Friend if he will abstain from founding general charges upon individual cases?'

Sir A Markham:-

'Does the right hon. Gentleman speak for the Government that under the voluntary system of enlistment boys of fifteen, who are at present in hospitals in this country wounded, have been sent to the front and the War Office knows nothing about it? Has he taken steps to see that the patriotism of these boys has not been exploited?

 

14 August 1916

UNDER-AGE SOLDIERS

Mr Watt asked the Financial Secretary to the War Office whether he is aware that Private Neil M'Millan, No 3785, No 7 Platoon, B Company of the Glasgow Highlandars, is only 16 3/4 years of age, yet has been in the trenches in France; that the birth certificate of this boy was sent in a registerd letter on 12 July to the officer commanding; that a further registered letter was sent on 27 July and that the return of this soldier is still delayed or refused; and if so, will he see that promises are made in the House regarding such lads are adhered to by his Department?'

Mr Forster:-

'Orders were issued on 8th instant to the division to which this man belongs to send him to the base for return to England'

 

Since then, both houses of parliament have seen a number of questions, incorrect answers, debates and ministerial statements on the subject.

1929 marked the election of the first Labour government and the removal of the military death penalty for all but a few military offences through an amendment to the annual British Army Act. This followed a determined campaign by Ernest Thurtle MP and was a huge achievement.

As Ernest Thurtle vigorously campaigned in the parliament of the 1920s for the abolition of the military death penalty, so Andrew Mackinley, Labour MP for Thurrock, began a similar campaign in the 1990s for the granting of a blanket pardon for those executed. In mid-1997, the newly elected Labour Government began a promised review of cases, examining files of those court-martialled, with a view to that pardon being granted.

A year later, at 11am on 24 July 1998, the Armed Forces Minister, Dr John Reid, reported to the House of Commons:-

'With permission, I will make a statement about executions of soldiers and others in the first world war.

I doubt whether anyone who has not gone through the awesome experience of war can ever truly imagine its effects on the emotions of human beings. Some 9 million troops from all sides died during the great war. Almost 1 million British and Empire soldiers fell, heroes to their nations and a testimony to the awfulness of war.

We rightly remember them still, not only on the 11th of November, but in ceremonies throughout the year and throughout the globe. Today, I am sure that I am joined by the whole House in once again paying tribute to the courage and fortitude of all who served from throughout Britain and the Empire.

For some of our soldiers and their families, however, there has been neither glory nor remembrance. Just over 300 of them died at the hands not of the enemy, but of firing squads from their own side. They were shot at dawn, stigmatised and condemned - a few as cowards, most as deserters. The nature of those deaths and the circumstances surrounding them have long been a matter of contention. Therefore, last May, I said that we would look again at their cases.

The review has been a long and complicated process, and I have today placed a summary in the Library of the House. I will outline some salient features. Between 4 August 1914 and 31 March 1920, approximately 20,000 personnel were convicted of military offences under the British Army Act for which the death penalty could have been awarded. That does not include civilian capital offences such as murder. Of those 20,000, something over 3,000 were actually sentenced to death. Approximately 90 per cent. of them escaped execution. They had their sentences commuted by their commanders in chief.

The remainder, those executed for a military offence, number some 306 cases in all. That is just 1 per cent. of those tried for a capital offence, and 10 per cent. of those actually sentenced to death. Those 300 or so cases can be examined, because the records were preserved. In virtually all other cases, the records were destroyed.It is the cases of those 300 that many hon. Members, notably my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), and others outside the House, including the Royal British Legion, have asked us to reconsider with a view to some form of blanket pardon.

Let me make it plain that we cannot and do not condone cowardice, desertion, mutiny or assisting the enemy - then or now. They are all absolutely inimical to the very foundation of our armed forces. Without military discipline, the country could not be defended, and that is never more important than in times of war.

However, the circumstances of the first world war, and the long-standing controversy about the executions, justify particular consideration. We have therefore reviewed every aspect of the cases. We have considered the legal basis for the trials by field general courts martial. The review has confirmed that procedures for the courts martial were correct, given the law as it stood at the time.

The review also considered medical evidence. Clearly, if those who were executed could be medically examined now, it might be judged that the effects of their trauma meant that some should not have been considered culpable; but we cannot examine them now. We are left with only the records, and in most cases there is no implicit or explicit reference in the records to nervous, or other psychological or medical, disorders. Moreover, while it seems reasonable to assume that medical considerations may have been taken into account in the 90 per cent. of cases where sentences were commuted, there is no direct evidence of that, either, as almost all the records of those commuted cases have long since been destroyed.

However frustrating, the passage of time means that the grounds for a blanket legal pardon on the basis of unsafe conviction just do not exist. We have therefore considered the cases individually.

A legal pardon, as envisaged by some, could take one of three forms: a free pardon, a conditional pardon, or a statutory pardon. We have given very serious consideration to this matter. However, the three types of pardon have one thing in common--for each individual case, there must be some concrete evidence for overturning the decision of a legally constituted court, which was charged with examining the evidence in those serious offences.

I have personally examined one third of the records--approximately 100 personal case files. It was a deeply moving experience. Regrettably, many of the records contain little more than the minimum prescribed for this type of court martial--a form recording administrative details and a summary--not a transcript--of the evidence. Sometimes it amounts only to one or two handwritten pages.

I have accepted legal advice that, in the vast majority of cases, there is little to be gleaned from the fragments of the stories that would provide serious grounds for a legal pardon. Eighty years ago, when witnesses were available and the events were fresh in their memories, that might have been a possibility, but the passage of time has rendered it well-nigh impossible in most cases.

So, if we were to pursue the option of formal, legal pardons, the vast majority, if not all, of the cases would be left condemned either by an accident of history which has left us with insufficient evidence to make a judgment, or, even where the evidence is more extensive, by a lack of sufficient evidence to overturn the original verdicts. In short, most would be left condemned, or in some cases re-condemned, 80 years after the event.

I repeat here what I said last May when I announced the review--that we did not wish, by addressing one perceived injustice, to create another. I wish to be fair to all, and, for that reason I do not believe that pursuing possible individual formal legal pardons for a small number, on the basis of impressions from the surviving evidence, will best serve the purpose of justice or the sentiment of Parliament. The point is that now, 80 years after the events and on the basis of the evidence, we cannot distinguish between those who deliberately let down their country and their comrades in arms and those who were not guilty of desertion or cowardice.

Current knowledge of the psychological effects of war, for example, means that we now accept that some injustices may have occurred. Suspicions cannot be completely allayed by examination of the sparse records. We have therefore decided also to reject the option of those who have urged us to leave well alone and to say nothing. To do nothing, in the circumstances, would be neither compassionate nor humane.

Today, there are four things that we can do in this House, which sanctioned and passed the laws under which these men were executed. First, with the knowledge now available to us, we can express our deep sense of regret at the loss of life. There remain only a very few of our fellow countrymen who have any real understanding or memory of life and death in the trenches and on the battlefields of the first world war. This year marks the 80th anniversary of the end of the war, and we are recalling and remembering the conditions of that war, and all those who endured them, both those who died at the hands of the enemy, and those who were executed. We remember, too, those who did their awful duty in the firing squads.

Secondly, in our regret, and as we approach a new century, let us remember that pardon implies more than legality and legal formality. Pardon involves understanding, forgiveness, tolerance and wisdom. I trust that hon. Members will agree that, while the passage of time has distanced us from the evidence and the possibility of distinguishing guilt from innocence, and has rendered the formality of pardon impossible, it has also cast great doubt on the stigma of condemnation.

If some men were found wanting, it was not because they all lacked courage, backbone or moral fibre. Among those executed were men who had bravely volunteered to serve their country. Many had given good and loyal service. In a sense, those who were executed were as much victims of the war as the soldiers and airmen who were killed in action, or who died of wounds or disease, like the civilians killed by aerial or naval bombardment, or like those who were lost at sea. As the 20th century draws to a close, they all deserve to have their sacrifice acknowledged afresh. I ask hon. Members to join me in recognising those who were executed for what they were--the victims, with millions of others, of a cataclysmic and ghastly war.

Thirdly, we hope that others outside the House will recognise all that, and that they will consider allowing the missing names to be added to books of remembrance and war memorials throughout the land.

Finally, there is one other thing that we can do as we look forward to a new millennium. The death penalty is still enshrined in our military law for five offences, including misconduct in action and mutiny. I can tell the House that Defence Ministers will invite Parliament to abolish the death penalty for military offences in the British armed forces in peace and in war.

There are deeply held feelings about the executions. Eighty years after those terrible events, we have tried to deal with a sensitive issue as fairly as possible for all those involved. In remembrance of those who died in the war, the poppy fields of Flanders became a symbol for the shattered innocence and the shattered lives of a lost generation. May those who were executed, with the many, many others who were victims of war, finally rest in peace.

Let all of us who have inherited the world that followed remember with solemn gratitude, the sacrifices of those who served that we might live in peace'.

Since that statement a number of questions have been asked in the House by Members of Parliament in response to representations by constituents:-

 

17 July 2001

PARDONS

Mr. Jim Cunningham:

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement regarding the granting of pardons to those who were executed for cowardice during the First World War.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr Lewis Moonie):

The question of granting pardons to those executed during the First World War, mostly for desertion, was the subject of a detailed review by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, then Minister of State for the Armed Forces. The legal difficulties in considering pardons, particularly the lack of evidence available today, were explained in his statement to this House on 24 July 1998. Those executed have been publicly recognised as victims of a terrible war and their commemoration by the new memorial in the National Memorial Arboretum is particularly fitting.

 

Thursday 17 January 2002

 

Mr Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland):

'May I tell the Leader of the House that I have recently received a number of representations from constituents who support a campaign to ensure that posthumous pardons are given to many of those who were shot for cowardice in the first world war, when it was apparent to just about every right-thinking person outside this House that they were guilty of no such thing? I am aware that this matter has come before the House on previous occasions, but I say to him that it is not an issue that will go away. Can we have an early opportunity to bring it back to the Floor of the House'?

Mr Cook:

'I am well aware of the strength of feeling of the relatives of those who were shot. I think that everybody in the House would express great sympathy with their position and concern about the action that was taken at the start of the last century. It is plain now, in retrospect, that many of those who were sentenced and executed at the time would never have been sentenced or executed under modern law or standards. However, as the hon Gentleman will know from previous exchanges, there is a bona fide issue as to whether it is credible to apply a legal pardon posthumously in very different circumstances - including the state of the law - from those that applied at the time. Nor would this be the only occasion when we might be invited to do so. Therefore, what I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that he should offer comfort to relatives by telling them of the very strong sympathy and regrets of all of us who are alive today about what happened. However, it is not really for us to make legal judgements by today's standards about what happened 100 years ago'.

 

18 March 2002

FIRST WORLD WAR SOLDIERS (PARDONS)

Vera Baird :

If she will take steps to obtain pardons for soldiers executed during the first world war.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr Lewis Moonie):

The question of granting pardons to those executed during the first world war was the subject of a careful and detailed review by my Right Hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, North and Bellshill (Dr. Reid), the then Minister for the Armed Forces. The legal difficulties in considering pardons were fully explained in his statement to the House on 24 July 1998. The position has not changed but that should not obscure the important and very positive steps taken to recognise those men as victims of the war and to remember them among their fallen comrades. Their public commemoration in the new memorial in the national memorial arboretum is very fitting.

Vera Baird (Redcar):

I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful reply. I ask him to consider two factors that have reignited the issue for some of my Redcar constituents. The first is that New Zealand passed the Pardon for Soldiers of the Great War Act in 2000, which pardoned the few people that it had executed in the first world war, thus showing that it can still be done. The second is that the independent Criminal Cases Review Commission routinely reviews convictions that are more than 50 years old, including executions, and makes sensible suggestions. Do not those two factors together suggest that a short independent inquiry might be able to give at least some people more satisfaction?

Dr. Moonie: Again, I should refer my hon. Friend to the careful and well-researched statement that the Minister made in 1998. The whole subject has been considered with great sympathy and care. The review took a wide range of expert legal, medical and historical advice from within and from outside the MOD, including from those who seek pardons. The representations from the families of those who were executed and the views of surviving veterans of the war were of course fully considered, as was surviving evidence on the individual cases. We understand that many people still seek pardons for the executed men, but pardons are an exceptional legal remedy requiring a level of evidence that, particularly in relation to medical matters, no longer survives. However, the difficulties over considering pardons should not obscure the important measures that have been taken publicly to recognise those who were executed as victims of the war.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield):

The Minister is right to say that this subject is far from simple. He may recall from the history books that when many of the executions took place there were mass desertions from the French army and that, rightly or wrongly, it was feared that similar events might occur in the British Army. He is also right to mention the national memorial arboretum at Alrewas in my constituency. If he has not already visited it, may I invite him and his colleagues to see that fitting memorial to those who tragically lost their lives?

Dr. Moonie:

Yes. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I have every intention of visiting the national memorial arboretum in the near future, and I shall of course inform him, as a local Member, when that visit is to take place.

 

The subject of pardons will continue to be raised in the House of Commons by Members of Parliament acting either on their own concern, or as a result of letters received from constituents.