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Friday, July 24, 1998 Published at 14:40 GMT 15:40 UK


Talking Point


World War One deserters: Should they be pardoned? Your reaction

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Many people have exhibited an act of cowardice at one time in their life. But the normal person will, if given a chance, bust a gut to prove that it was an isolated occurrence and not his real nature, and many "heroes" have done just that, with extraordinary acts of total disregard to their person, when given a second chance. To legitimise, condone and perpetuate cowardice, in deference to helping the soldier to overcome it, by conveniently providing a medical diagnosis, ie, shell shock, combat fatigue, or post traumatic stress syndrome, to his act, is wrong, as it helps neither the soldier or his country. It does help politicians to pass such laws as it gives them a convenient "out" in case it may involve them at sometime in the future!
HT Huddleston, MD, USA

Many of these people were executed while suffering from extreme stress, shellshock and other mental disorders. Some were executed for apparently laying down their arms, when in fact they used their arms to block trenches and secure their comrades' escape. The way many of these soldiers were treated was a disgrace. It is time now to give a global pardon, even if this means a few genuine deserters get pardoned. Who cares - those who were innocent more than deserve it and it will set their relatives' minds at rest.
Martin, UK

Pardoning WWI deserters would only encourage deserters in the next war.
Bob Moser, USA

I am a WW2 vet also later serving in the UK during the Berlin Airlift at Burtonwood which was a repair adjunct for the lift. I never have met a single Brit who would sacrifice his life because some foreign royal was assassinated.
That war was the greatest catastrophe for western civilisation. It brought on Nazism, Fascism and Bolshevism and, not surprisingly, another conflict which was far worse. There were some at the time who thought it was great. Hitler finally found a purpose in his life and "elevated" himself from a drifting tramp to that of a soldier.
Far more significant was another war lover, Winston Churchill, who never lost his zest for the bloody encounter. After his disastrous Gallipoli campaign he asked for and got his officer's commission and served six months in France. He wrote his wife that this was like a vacation. While the Tommy grunts were wallowing in the muddy trenches he was at GHQ with the usual brandy and cigars.
The deserters should no longer be defamed or dishonoured but should be commended for having good sense. This was a rare commodity in gung-ho, jingoistic Britain at the time.
Stephen Block Jr, USA

I am amazed that 80 years on there can be no pardon for these men. There will always be those who find that they cannot face the enemy, but I would think that the majority of these soldiers were either suffering from combat trauma or were simply picked as scapegoats for the failure of some general's plans.
Graham Loft, UK

Of course all so-called offenders should have long ago been pardoned. Anyone who has read about the horrors of the 1st World War knows that it was amazing that many more did not desert. The horrors were more than any person should be subjected to. How can anyone have the right to pass judgement on those that were involved in it?
Ted Haslam, UK

I think the government's line on this is spot on. It has been so long since the court-martials took place that it is impossible to pardon more than a few of the soldiers shot for cowardice. By implication, any that are not pardoned because of lack of evidence to the contrary will therefore be even more damned.
The other alternative would be to pardon all unconditionally. Remember this was a volunteer army, all soldiers were there by choice and battlefield experiences are never simple situations.
Roy Matthews, England

I am not in favour of a blanket pardon for all the 300+ soldiers executed in WWI. Why? Simply because not all of them were shot for cowardice. There were cases of rape and murder in these numbers and even in civil life at the time they were capital crimes. I am in favour of an individual review of each man's case because, despite comments to the contrary, the evidenced number are suffering now identifiable disorders.
It is a pity that a similar amount of noise is not made about the other 987,000 British dead in that conflict. We should observe 2 minutes silence at 11 am on 11th November as a duty to these and others who gave their lives for us.
Ian Jones, UK

In a war that was spawned not by national security, but for the vain glory of the aristocrats, these individuals must be pardoned as a symbol to the futility of war. If the veterans can forgive, so can we, the public.
Michael Bertrand, Canada

Mr Reid claims that "80 years on, it is impossible to tell who deliberately let down his country and comrades, and who had not." What unfeeling rubbish!
The First World War was among the greatest criminal acts in history - and the major criminals were the governments involved on both sides. That War was unnecessary, and far from inevitable. That the amoral and mindless butchers who presided over and commanded such slaughter should be remembered with honour, while good, ordinary men who refused to fight (or, God help them, were afraid to fight on) should have their memory abused, is an affront to everything decent.
The actual fact that we DON'T have firm evidence in every case should be enough to suggest a blanket pardon. Mr Reid's attitude suggests that we have learned nothing from or since those tragic events.
John Luby, Scotland

WW1 in particular was a class war with the working people of this country used as cannon fodder and sent into horrific situations by Eton/Oxbridge officers commanding operations from behind the lines. When one hears of the horrific situations men were expected to endure, then desertion was hardly a crime warranting the death penalty. Indeed I see it as an heroic statement against the futility of war and the British class system.
Barry Tregear, England

I would have thought that in a purely legal sense it's difficult to make after the fact judgements on the possible medical reasons for running away from the unnecessary slaughter of WWI. While it seems to me that there are good grounds for declaring anyone who didn't run away clinically insane, any judgement made today on what happened then, with respect to the executions, will be more of a comment about us and British society's judgement on WWI, than any statement on the facts of the matter. WWI was a waste of human life on a massive scale that was in no way justified, and of course laid the foundation for the necessary conflict of WWII. As such it seems not unreasonable to grant what honour we can to those who opposed it, no matter the circumstances of their opposition, as long as we remember that we are doing this for us, and not for them.
Therion Ware, Malaysia

I feel any man who was brave enough to go to war should be allowed a pardon. Anything less is a disservice to the people then and today that defend this country. For who can tell what pressure we would all suffer in those circumstances.
Nigel Ellis, UK

Deserters should never be pardoned!
Sumant Sathe, India

Let's stop trying to rewrite history. Let's try to learn from it for the future. Soldiers etc committing crimes today still face the farce of military trial. OK, it's better now than it was, but justice is still often miscarried. This area needs urgent reform.
Tim Pearce, UK

This affair makes me truly angry. The issue is not lack of evidence to clear those executed but breach of promise by the government. The government promised to give pardons as part of their raft of policies for the last election. They did this to gain electoral support. Once elected, they shrug their shoulders and say they won't issue pardons. They may be right that there is insufficient evidence to clear many of the executed men - although even this is more within the control of ministers than most government decisions.
What is wholly clear is that there is ample evidence of contempt for the electorate by the government. Shame on New Labour!
David Holdgate, UK

The government's response is the correct one. What happened is being judged using late 20th century values on events that happened 80 years ago. However distressing for the relatives, it would set precedents that in the current climate could lead to all sorts of petitions and claims.
Clive Richards, United Kingdom

Men from all belligerent nations had to fight a dreadful war that could have been prevented if their governments had wanted to do so. Unlike WWII, the Great War was fought because the ruling class felt that it was necessary to reshuffle the balance of power between the main European powers at that time. It was therefore predicted many years before 1914 by all parties that a war was inevitable.
I believe it was the great military thinker Von Clausewitz that once said that war was just another form of politics. Because of that the men in the trenches had every right to desert in my opinion. Why face the horrors of trench warfare when the only purpose was to defend the interests of the ruling classes?
Another justification is the incredible bloodshed caused by outdated and stubborn strategies of the military commanders at that time. In some cases, like with the French Army at the Chemin des Dames, the soldiers bluntly refused to be slaughtered like lambs after being sent out of the trenches over and over again only to be mowed down.
There's so much more to say about the causes of WWI and what made some men desert than I can write here.
It is only because of the heartfelt patriotism and naivety that not many more men deserted. It should be people like Kitchener, Haig, Foch, Petain and their German counterparts that should not be pardoned here.
Dino Arconada, Netherlands

It is a heartless fact, but deserters were shot for a good reason. Military units that break and run suffer more casualties that those that stand fast and fight. The panic and flight can be started by just one soldier breaking free and running.
As illogical as it sounds, shooting deserters or the real threat of being shot for cowardice, saves lives in the long run.
Bill Simpson, USA

Perhaps it is the generals that put these men (boys?) through such terrifying conditions, making desertion seem the only option, who should be called into question here.
Reg Ketteringham, UK

Pardons for the 1st World War? What next, the Boer War? Whatever their reasons for deserting, we cannot possibly expect to hold an objective enquiry today. Stop dwelling in the past. This constant insisting on apologies for long past events only serves to distract us from more important business, that is, to focus on our future as a species and a planet. I cannot imagine the horrors these men faced, but perhaps we should spend time honouring those who faced them, rather than devaluing their bravery by saying now that it is equal in value to desertion.
Fiona, UK

Pardon? Of course. Percy Shelley once said: "Man has no right to kill his brother." It is no excuse that he does so in uniform; he only adds the infamy of servitude to the crime of murder.
Joe Stern, USA

The fact these men were executed in the first place and the fact that your government can't see its way to pardon them after all these years proves that despite your trappings of democracy you had then and still have a feudal government. It is regrettable that WWI took place in the first place.
Geo Stanford, US

After punishing the enemy, we must forget and forgive the insanity of war. Why would we not forgive our own, after this much time has passed? Even after death comes forgiveness.
George Edward Mills, USA

I think that people can't go into the past and change history, where would it all end? WW1 is passed and deserters are also just a small part of it. There were probably some innocent people killed. In history there were many and you can't change it.
Igor Rankovic, Yugoslavia

My grandfather is a WWII vet that served in the Pacific theatre. My father is a Vietnam vet. I believe that there is nothing that compares with the horrors of the First World War, and it is hard for me to imagine that there weren't more men that 'broke' and couldn't fight. I believe that they should be pardoned unless their action resulted in British soldiers losing their lives.
Jon Van Amber, United States of America

Why on earth can they not sweep aside pompous military convention and pardon those poor, brutalised young men who for the most part were either shell shocked or just petrified? After all, they did not choose to be there, they were conscripted. It is yet another reason why I feel compelled to give up on this nation with its hang ups, prejudices, inequalities and over-inflated sense of itself. Just to remind you all we are now 23rd and slipping in the world prosperity league. So why don't we concentrate less on how things were and more on becoming a prosperous forward-thinking democracy which can adapt to change, even if it means dispensing with or bending the old rules in order to make life a little better for the relatives of these poor people, whose suffering none of us can surely imagine?
Carl, UK

Mr Reid indicates that time has eroded any substantial testimonial evidence that would be the justification for a full pardon. While this standard may be applicable to contemporary circumstances in modern warfare, it should not apply to the situation at hand. We do know that the soldiers were involved in combat and that their level of commitment may have been questionable for various reasons. However, they did answer the call to defend their country. The anecdotal evidence in context to the event should be enough to justify a full pardon. Let these brave men and their families finally have the respect they deserve.
James Sullivan, USA

These deserters did not betray their country. They simply walked away from carnage and bloodshed.
Pradeep Navaratnam, Canada

Yes, they should be pardoned. Forgive my seeming arrogance, but those who refuse to pardon the deserters would do well to read Barbara Tuchman's "The March of Folly." Government intransigence in the face of reality is what cost Britain the American colonies. If Lord North had had a modicum of intelligence, America would still be British. The present authorities that will not pardon the deserters are a modern version of North. And then there was Haig, but that is another form of obtuseness.
Robert Harper, Canada

At the time, those soldiers had full knowledge of what they were individually doing but had limited knowledge of the international politics. We have to admit that this was a dirty war with all its tests being done on the battlefields (gas, new weapons, etc). As with any war, it was used by the industry and mainly governments, to test new weapons. Years went by but the behaviour of the government has not changed. It is worse today with the way we do international trade. Clausewitch has mentioned that military power is the extension of political power. Therefore, let's behave as good citizens and forgive what was done at the time. When they joined up, they didn't know in what type of adventure they were going to live for several years. Today, in the information age, every citizen (in the western world) is aware of what is going on in the international forum. The factors have changed. Let's forgive.
Lemieux, Canada

Do the duty your nation asks you to do. If you pardon these men, that is a slap in the face to those brave men who gave their lives to ensure a free world.
Steve, USA

I have reservations about a blanket pardon. Not all were shellshock sufferers, and I have always felt that a case by case review should be done. This is now impossible. A blanket pardon would be, I gather, 'bad law'. Commemorate them certainly. But do not judge by the standards of today. It would be interesting to see the reactions of veterans had this been raised in the 30s.
P J Mc Carty, UK

Of course they should. No question about it. The people who should NOT be pardoned for ALL WW1 deaths are the backroom generals, officers and gentlemen(?) who never saw the front lines but nevertheless sent these and millions more into battles which should never have been fought in the first place. May we always remember those who died for us!
Roy, Canada

Of course they should be pardoned. If anyone should have been executed it should have been the incompetent British generals whose appallingly poor leadership led to the slaughter of tens of thousands of young men. It was sheer bloody murder.
Michael Childs, Australia

They let down their comrades by deserting them on the battlefield. Their comrades stayed, fought and died - why should the deserters now get special treatment? Let us rather remember those who did their duty and paid the price. This seems to be another example of "political correctness" gone mad - why glorify the wrongdoers and criminals all the time, and forget those who paid the price with their lives - no doubt in some cases because of those who deserted? Absolute madness!!!
D van 't Hof, South Africa

If the civil legal system can admit that people were wrongly executed for crimes they did not commit and extend a pardon, then the defence establishment can do the same. Most of the men executed in WWI were guilty of nothing more than shell shock and can therefore be forgiven without the honour of military courts being impugned. And as someone else notes in this Talking Point: if we can forgive our enemies then we can forgive our friends. It would also be an excellent opportunity to review due process in military courts, which because of unnecessary secrecy and a Colonel Blimp mentality has been responsible for some pretty shocking travesties of justice down the years.
Peter Tallon, Geneva, Switzerland

I believe that considering the horror of trench warfare and of the 1st World War in general 'deserters' should be pardoned. I do not believe that it is possible for humans to withstand a constant exposure to horror, terror and brutality for any period of time. In our more 'enlightened' age we accept that we cannot expect soldiers to undertake operations that are near suicidal. The real question surrounding the 1st World War is, should we not pay more attention to unmasking the stupidity and inhumanity of the High Command who saw fit to send so many of their own men to a useless death in a futile war.
Themba Linden, South Africa

We cannot bring back the dead. The least we can do is to make it bearable for the families of the soldiers. Why should they still be "punished" after 80 years. Please pardon them!
Francois Theron, South Africa

How could we possibly forgive our enemies and not forgive our own people? Besides that the standards for what constituted deserting were more harsh in those times and things like battle fatigue were not understood. Forgive and forget. Wars should be fought by politicians then perhaps we'd have less.
Chris Hann, USA (British)

Is there a statute of limitations on pardons? The year 1066 perhaps. That should keep the government occupied for some time.
Carl Boddy, Hong Kong

Decisions are made and have to be lived with. Deep regret is enough. Every case is not the same and one can't judge 1917 values with 1998 values.
Gavin Bledsoe, USA

It's time to forgive and to forget.
Reinhard Baumgarten, Germany

Today we know and understand more about the trauma and terrible conditions that a soldier must face in combat. The conditions of the First World War were appalling. testing the bravest of men. All men are not created equal in times of stress. Some panic, some run and some stand and fight. When men are faced with certain death, the instinct to survive arises. We will never know what these men thought and how they felt, but as an ex military person, I feel that their sins should be forgiven and their names and honor restored.
Ambrose R. McErlane, USA

If we knew then what we know now, then this situation would not have arisen.
PJ Hughes, UK

If the MoD cannot correct past mistakes, how can we expect them to look after the youngsters of today, who are joining the Armed Forces? If the Goverment can take just a week to send forces to the Falkands (1982), then I suspect it could pardon these men in a day!
Phillip Rhodes, UK

If the Legion want them pardoned then why not?

D Barrett, UK

I think that we should look at the basic reasons why they were there: at that time the Government encouraged men to enlist under the banner of being cowards if they didn't and in any event they would have been conscripted.The officer class at the turn of the century were still in the Boer War mentality and had no experience of 'modern' warfare. Soldiers were expendable and their lives used to gain ground on the basis that most of them would be mown down within a few paces of the trench. Add to that the newly created nerve gasses and the hopelessness of their situation, it's no wonder that they either became unbalanced or deserted. The cold hearted and uncaring officers should have been shot instead.
Mike Hobson, UK

I reckon that in view of all the doubts and dreadful conditions of World War One battlefields, we should grant a blanket pardon. This in no way reflects guilt towards the Arny authorities of that era. We know more now about battle fatigue etc and also our views now are changed. Let's give these brave men, and their surviving families, the peace and respect they deserve. All who went to fight were often drafted under duress and in the knowledge that they were supposed to be fighting for a strong cause. History has now proved the futility of it all. They went out blind brave, afraid into the unknown. How dare we judge them again today?
John Collier, UK

It is not only unpardonable that these executions were carried out so many years ago, but that the same sort of idiocy is inhabiting the brains of those that can do something about it. I wonder if the thought has ever struck their minor minds: there,but for the grace of God go I.
Derek Baker, Canada

Today they would be shipped out as medical casualties. After 80 years it is time to forgive and move on.
W.H.Pienkoss, USA

To all those who write to say that these men should not be pardoned, how many do you think have ever been under fire for so long in such terrible conditions? It's so easy for armchair commentators to pass comment.
Steve Drewett, UK

Even those young men or boys who deliberately turned from the front were not cowards. Who can blame them? The real cowards were the men who ordered them to the slaughter.
Joe, Canada

In the Nuremburg trials the victors over Nazi German made it abundantly clear that in their opinion it was not good enough, was no excuse, for soldiers to follow orders. That soldiers have to follow their moral judgement as well. Somewhat incongruous, don't you think, with the practice of shooting people for not following orders - well well, so that was before! But then, shouldn't the current powers that be at least take into account the principles set out by their own 53 years ago? Did not those 'deserters' make the decision that their orders were futile/stupid/immoral ("Thou shalt not kill"). And did they hence not commit the morally superior act? Are they not martyrs to moral conscience? I think your government's stance looks little more than pathetic.
Peter Huebner, New Zealand

We seem to have pardoned the agressors so why not the victims, which these kids were?
Richard Arnott, Singapore

Of course they should be pardoned. The whole thing is very sick.
Steve Nicholls, UK

I think only these men's peers can judge them. If the British Legion thinks they should be pardoned that's good enough for me. It's more important that we learn how to stop this lunacy recurring.
Rod Butcher, Australia

It is the politcians and the senior officers who should have been shot for incompetence.
Harry H. Cross, USA

I think they should be pardoned because those who deserted simply abhorred violence or were afraid of it. There is a big difference between having these feelings and the act of betraying your country. Those who deserted cannot be accused of the latter.
Pradeep Navaratnam, Canada

The extremely arduous conditions and total lack of understanding of the human brain and emotions at the time should be taken into account. If a mild mannered peaceful man is called up to fight and kill without choice, should we be suprised that occasionaly we find somebody that is not up to it, or indeed rebels? Thank God the days of goverments deciding to send millions of people to their deaths without choice have passed.
G.A.Fleming, UK

A pardon would be an affront to the heroes living and dead.
C. Canaday, USA

Definitely they should be pardoned. It was hell they were asked to get into. No man should be blamed for refusing to go.
Johnny Suidan, USA

There is absolutely no question about it; of course we should pardon them. What they had to endure was unendurable. We recognise that now, so let us equally absolve these men of any wrongdoing, either real or imaginary. They deserve that much, at least.
Mary J. Watson, Canada

It is stupid to re-write history. Decisions taken at the time and made in good faith should be respected. It follows that you would have to pardon those who shot the deserters. I'm sure that I speak for my father who was awarded the Croix de Guerre with palm and was gassed twice and died at an early age as a result. Discipline is what holds an army together.
Paul Goasdoue, Australia

Pardon them all. So much time has passed, and it is universally known now just how futile trench warfare really was. By granting this amnesty, it will actually discourage future like behavior as well. Hopefully no war like the First World War ever need be fought again.
M Hackett, USA

Our generation has no right to judge these men. We should only forgive them. How can we judge them if we have never felt the horror that these poor men lived and died with?
Gary Blinco, USA

I feel that these soldiers were braver, as were their counterparts during Vietnam, to go against the wishes of the majority and their peer groups. All should be pardoned, especially now when we know so much of the World War horrors: the crime if any is that they were shot.
Pamela Asher Cobia, US

As always, the British establishment shows the same callous disregard as they did in the First World War. They killed millions by incompetence and they can't even forgive a few hundred men. Why? Because they cannot sort out the true cowards from those that were not. Shame, shame, shame.
Ronald Smith, USA

Reflecting on the daily body count numbers from the First World War, it amazes me that more soldiers didn't refuse to "go over the top". The enlightened thinking of British generals who thought that the tactics of Waterloo and Balaclava would work in the age of the machine gun was little short of criminal. It was unfortunate that some 300 men and boys had to die in order to excuse such poor leadership.
John R. Morrish, Canada

Under extreme conditions, rash decisions can easily be made. Considering the terrible circumstances these men had to endure, I feel, on reflection over 80 years later, death by execution was not the correct form of punishment.
Michael Connolly, Spain

Only God forgives. Who is the politician who can take His place. After all, so many young men just died to shore up a crazy capitalist system. Anyone who refused to fight in The First World War should be given prime time space in Westminster Abbey.
David Turner, Greece

They were lions led by donkeys. A blanket pardon is the only answer for 80 years of nightmares.
Peter J Hood, UK

We keep trying to rewrite the past. We issue apologies and regrets, or we insult Emperors who choose not to do so. The past cannot be rewritten. Only our perception of it can. Let's at least be clear that if we issue pardons and apologies for something that happened seventy years ago, we are mainly doing so for the sake of our own feelings. What's worse, we are confiscating from these particular dead the one thing that makes them remarkable, and which in turn makes them into lessons of history. We should mourn over the executed dead, and teach our children about them, not attempt to sterilise them with a 'pardon'. All we are, doing in effect, is to exploit the dead once more, this time to send the message that the Great War was nothing to do with us. But it wasn't anyway, so what's the point?
Jon Livesey, USA

Why should the families of soldiers who were murdered under an insane regime continue to be burdened with the stigma of cowardice?
Philip Hall, UK

Time should heal all wounds. Having them executed was a harsh enough punishment for their failing their country. But prolonging the suffering to their families shows lack of compassion.
Michael A. Caruana, Malta




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