DEATH and DUTY

First I want you to find a quiet place. No TV, no radio, no distractions. Just you and this page. I want you to picture what I am saying.
First you are in a long trench, edges greasy from the rain; it is about 6’ deep and maybe 2 ½’to 3’ wide. You have been in trench for over a week and it is well fortified.

Now, the sounds. You hear the whistling of bullets passing your head, grenades exploding in front and behind your trench. Bombs and artillery shells exploding. The steady thud of the explosions. The whistling of the bombs and the bullets has been unyielding for days. You look around you and you see your dead comrades. People you had your rations with last night, or the guy from the same home town as you and shared a smoke with last night or a billy can of coffee.      You hear screaming from all around, people shot and wounded or torn apart with the shrapnel from the bombs. Panic and chaos surround you. Your ears are ringing constantly. The trench is lined with the dead or dying. It is not just rain making the sides of the trench greasy, now blood is added. Now you get up the nerve and look over the side of the trench and you see a mist. Now, as we all know, all attacks happen either at first or last light. This mist could be just early morning mist. But you know the Germans are using poison gas, Phosgene and Muster. What do you do? Do you run? If you do you face one of two things. One is getting shot in the back by the Germans, or two, retreat and be shot for desertion. What choice would you make?

During World War 1, 23 Canadian Soldiers were executed for the crimes of desertion and cowardice. 2 were executed for murder. The number of officers executed was ridiculous. Only three were sentenced to death. Out of the 400 officers “cashiered” another 1000 found themselves dismissed. The term cashiered means to be kicked out of the service for dishonour, usually in a ceremony where they lost their cap badges , rank insignia and epaulettes. Also if the officer had a sword, it was broken.
As an officer, instead of cowardice, you were found guilty of “shameful conduct”, just another way of saying cowardice. Again, another point of view of the “educated class”.

It should be noted most of these men executed died like heroes. Declining blindfolds. Preferring to face their executioners in the eye. Some were given so much alcohol they had to be tied up like mummies and carried out to the stake to be shot. Does that sound to you like cowards?

The Canadian Expeditionary Force was a volunteer unit. Conscription did not happen until 1917. Being that Canada was still part of the Commonwealth, we should be there. The expectations were high of all the military. For King and Country, no matter the dangers; they should face it like men. World War 1 quickly became the most brutal war in history. Hundreds of soldiers either ran away or were driven insane. The number of executions was nothing that the governments wanted the people to know. It could cause a drop in the enrolment. A frightening number was the British with 306 soldiers executed, Germany 25, Belgians shot 13, the Americans none. The French are believed to have executed upwards of 600. The Australians set the bar high and refused to execute any of their own men.

The expectations of were high. You gave up all rights, even to all of your beliefs and soul, and were now part of the British Expeditionary Force. There were no exceptions. Only bravery can defeat evil. Does it sound a little crazy? But you must also remember that the laws and morality were very different then as it is now.

One of the biggest criminals was Gen Haig, or also known as Butcher Haig. Single handily, he almost lost the war for the allies and collected one of the largest body counts in history at the Battle of Somme. 60,000 causalities, 20,000 dead. 60% of the officers involved on the first day died. By the end of the battle, some 3 months later, the British suffered 420,000 causalities. He believed that horses, Calvary and horse drawn cannons could out match machine guns and rifles and the newest invention, tanks. He was pig headed and stubborn. His idea of tactics were learned in class room study only and he is noted as not being an original thinker. He used his troops as cannon fodder, leading British, Canadian and Australian troops into situations where they were mutilated and slaughtered, with no thought as for what they were going through. He expected uncalled for results in his military targets. He was self-obsessed and he didn’t care how many men died in his pursuit of glory. Although the men suffered in trenches, Haig and his staff stayed in a chateau far away from the battle. He should be remembered as a great German hero, as he killed so many Allied men.

Although Haig appreciated the “colonial and dominion troops’ prowess”, he also believed the British had moral superiority. In the spring of 1918, he was pissed at Canada for its determination that its divisions fight as a corps instead of reinforcements for the allies.

He stated that no soldier was executed if any suspicion of shell shock was present if examined by a M.O. (Medical Officer). Even the Undersecretary confirmed this. In truth, most were never examined, and if shell shock was diagnosed, it was either ignored or told it was rubbish. Most were picked out for lesser crimes to serve as an example. Some for simply being dazed and confused. In Haig’s mind, shell shock was the same as malingering. Even the Undersecretary lied and stated that the men executed were not found with shell shock. Most were not even examined, but sent to their deaths. Haig’s belief was the side whose male population was run down would be the loser, or more to the point, a battle of attrition. As the commander-in-chief of the troops, HE signed the death warrants. It was HIS choice to murder his own. Sad to say, Butcher Haig was granted an Earldom

Here is how trench warfare worked. Troops were sent over the top of the trenches and ordered across no man’s land towards the enemy. The men advanced anywhere from a few dozen yards to several hundred. The ground was usually flat with no cover and littered with barb wire and shrapnel and bodies. The enemy had this ground covered with machine guns and open fields of fire with aiming stakes and arcs of fire. Plain and simple, a killing ground. It is no wonder why so many suffered and resorted to desertion. Would you not crack too under the pressure of constant artillery fire and never knowing when you be ordered “over the top”, knowing that when the order was given, your life was over?

A body count of 50 to 1 was an acceptable loss. That means that while ordered to attack, running from your trench to the enemies, through open unprotected ground, if 50 men died and you survived long enough to kill one of the enemy, that was an acceptable loss. The officers usually involved were a safe distance away, the top brass even further away and government officials and ministers in a different country.

Court Martial’s were the order of the day. They served two purposes. First they dealt with crimes quickly. Secondly, and more importantly, they set an example. This was done to get the men back to the front as quickly as possible. Usually the executions happened the day after conviction. Some of the executions for desertion were for simply following orders, such as relaying orders from one trench to another. Others were singled out for being dazed and confused. Most of these executions would not have taken place if they had paid attention to the ancient Greeks or even medical officers from the civil war. The ancients knew of this condition, states Dr Boynton of the Royal Free and University Medical School. “War exhaustion, whether it was physical or mental”. During the civil war it was referred to as“DaCostas’s Syndrome” or even called “war neurosis”. Even a British Psychological Society journal printed the term “Shell Shock” in 1915. It was a phrase used to describe soldiers in stages of mental exhaustion. But still the executions continued. Medical Officers gave little or no support.                                                          One doctor’s statement was “I went to the trial determined to give him no help; for I detest his type- I really hoped he would be shot.” Military executions were outlawed in the 1930’s, but the term of “malingering” continues to this day in all military forces. Here is how an execution took place. After being found guilty of a punishable crime, a firing squad would be selected.
The night before the execution, the accused had the right to petition the king for clemency but none ever did. Were they ever informed of this right? NO!

Why were they never informed? What example would be set if convictions were overturned!
On January 15, 1915 General Routine Order 585 was issued, which now stated that a “soldier was guilty until enough evidence was gathered to prove him innocent”. So much for the innocent until proven guilty point of view.
In 1916, all officers, captain and above were given the order that all cases of cowardice be punished with death and no medical excuse would be tolerated.

Many of the firing squads were members from the same unit, still in the hospital. They were selected on the grounds that if unable to return to the field, but still able to hold a rifle, you were selected. The prisoner was tied to a post upright. The Padre would be sent out and a white cloth and it was placed over the prisoner’s heart. Six men were marched out, and the rifles were laid out. Half were loaded and the rest were blanks, so no man knew who fired the fatal shot, but in reality they did. They were soldiers and knew the weight and recoil of the weapons. Prior to the execution the men were reminded that failure to follow orders would result in the same punishment. Some incentive right? The Padre stayed with the prisoner until the shots were fired and continued to pray. After, a medical officer came out to confirm the death. If the prisoner was still alive, the officer in charge would come out and with a revolver finish the execution.

Being selected for the firing squad was a severe form of bullying. Ordered to kill a friend and companion, sent a powerful message. YOU COULD BE NEXT.

Field Punishment was another powerful tool used for discipline and humiliation. This punishment was used for lesser crimes, such as drunkenness, being unshaven, dirty boots, etc. This punishment was still cruel and inhumane.
The offender was marched in front of several officers, who usually had their minds set, and the punishment was quickly dealt with. The accused hardly spoke and his “attorney” was someone of equal rank. So rarely were they found not guilty. All the men found guilty were never tried by their equals, as they were just working class men. They were tried by different social class, the educated class, many from well to do families, who could afford to stay clear of any real danger.

The “Orders Parade” started with what they called the accused, witness and escort. We, in the military, who have been on orders parade, know it stands for “guilty, witness and escort”. In W.W. 1, if found guilty, the punishment could include loss of pay and up to 28 days of being chained to a wheel or post sometimes called the Crucifix, for periods of two hours a day, one hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon. The weather had nothing to do with it; you were there regardless of snow, rain or heat. While chained, all members of your unit could see you and you had time to think. You had time to think about how you let down your family with the loss of pay. You had time to think of how you let your friends down and how you let yourself down. Could this help contribute to desertion, AWOL? Most definitely.

One thought on “DEATH and DUTY

  1. It’s unthinkable that people could be so heartless back then. To treat their own kind with no regard for their thoughts and feelings. To kill so many people, for absolutely no sound reason. It was senseless. It’s my hope that everyone gets to read this, and truly understand the realities of World War 1; or any other war for that matter. We never really hear about these types of things. War is often glamourized, and viewed as an opportunity to be someone – and see the world. Let us remember all of those who died, no matter what it is that took them at the end of the day. They all mattered.
    Thank you Gerald.

    Liked by 1 person

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