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since June 19, 2001


The execution of men who show cowardice in the face of the enemy

To Preserve and Protect — Examining a century of men and war and the 'changing' role of women in it

Preceding Page

This page:

  • Haig order 'to shoot officers who falter'
  • THE WIDOW'S PARTY, by Rudyard Kipling
  • My brother Hans, just prior to being taken a PoW, at age 17 (an excerpt from his diary)


Haig order 'to shoot officers who falter'
By York Membery

[Original Article]

FIRST World War court-martials were pressed to show no mercy to officers convicted of desertion and cowardice, according to new evidence.

The findings add weight to the argument backed by some military historians that a number of death sentences imposed by the British Army between 1914 and 1918 were flawed and should be reviewed. Previously unpublished diaries of Maj Gen Sir Aylmer Haldane record a conference presided over by Lt Gen Sir Edmund Allenby, the commander of the Third Army, in the autumn of 1916, as the disastrous Somme offensive was grinding to a halt.

Haldane writes in his private journal of how Allenby read out a confidential GHQ [General Headquarters] paper expressing concern that officers were being shown "too much leniency" for military offences "for which men [the ranks] were being shot".

The historian Lawrence James, who uncovered the diary entry while researching for a new book, Warrior Race: The British Experience of War, says in the forthcoming issue of BBC History Magazine: "The inference is unmistakable. [Earl] Haig, the Commander in Chief, wanted no mercy shown to officers who faltered - understandable, given that his strategy depended on an army suffused with offensive spirit.

"Officers were expected to set an example in the suppression of fear; if they flinched, their men would panic. Fear, like courage, was thought to be contagious. Top-level pressure for exemplary death sentences was transmitted downwards in an army where only officers with an aggressive spirit secured promotion. Arms were twisted in a denial of basic justice."

More than 300 British soldiers were executed during the First World War for military offences such as desertion and cowardice in the face of the enemy, although 10 times that many were sentenced to death. By contrast, the Germans executed only 18 of their own men for similar offences during the war, despite having an army twice the size of the British.[1]

The fact that only a handful of British officers were executed suggests that Allenby's directive was not widely enforced. However, news of the diary entry was welcomed by Shot at Dawn, an organisation which campaigns for posthumous pardons for "deserters" who were executed - many of whom are now believed to have been suffering from shell shock or to have been trying their best to carry out orders in the chaos of the trenches.

"This can only help our campaign to clear the names of officers shot by British soldiers during the war," said John Hipkin, the founder of Shot at Dawn. He is currently campaigning for a pardon to be given to two officers shot during the conflict: Sub-Lt Edwin Dyett (whose last words were: "For God's sake, shoot straight!") and 2nd Lieut Eric Poole. The organisation believes that both men were unjustly executed. "They were sacrificial lambs - shot simply to make it look as if the Army was being impartial," said Mr Hipkin.

In the case of Dyett, who was lost for 24 hours in the smoke and confusion of war before reappearing at his brigade HQ to be accused of desertion, the court martial recommended mercy owing to his age (21), inexperience of operations and the confusing circumstances. However, the general in charge of his case said Dyett should be killed because "if a private had behaved as he did in such circumstances it is highly probable that he would be shot".

Field Marshal Haig simply noted "Confirmed" on the file. "The irony is that it wasn't even an effective policy" said Niall Ferguson, a history professor at Oxford University and the author of The Pity of War. "In the Second World War, when there were no executions, desertion rates were actually lower." A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: "We cannot make any comment before examining the evidence."

Related articles:

5 January 2001: Public pays its respects to the First World War deserters
4 February 2000: Villagers against adding deserter's name to memorial
30 April 1998: No pardon for deserters shot in Great War
18 September 1997: Place of honour for true hero shot as coward
28 May 1997: Soldiers executed for cowardice could be pardoned 80 years on


By Rudyard Kipling

"Where have you been this while away, Johnnie, Johnnie?"
Out with the rest on a picnic lay.
                                       Johnnie, my Johnnie, aha!
They called us out from the barrack-yard
To Gawd knows where from Gosport Hard,
And you can't refuse when you get the card,
                                       And the Widow give the party.
                                             (Bugle: Ta-rara-ra-ra-rara!)

"What did you get to eat and drink, Johnnie, Johnnie?" '
Standing water as thick as ink,
                                       Johnnie, my Johnnie, aha!
A bit o' beef that were three year stored,
A bit o' mutton as tough as a board,
And a fowl we killed with a sergeant's sword,
                                       When the Widow give the party.

"What did you do for knives and forks, Johnnie, Johnnie?"
We carries 'em with us wherever we walks,
                                       Johnnie, my Johnnie, aha!
And some was sliced and some was halved,
And some was crimped and some was carved,
And some was gutted and some was starved,
                                       When the Widow give the party.

"What ha' you done with half your mess, Johnnie, Johnnie?"
They couldn't do more and they wouldn't do less.
                                       Johnnie, my Johnnie, aha!
They ate their whack and they drank their fill,
And I think the rations has made them ill,
For half my comp'ny's lying still,
                                       Where the Widow give the party.

"What was the end of all of the show, Johnnie, Johnnie?"
Ask my Colonel, for I don't know,
                                       Johnnie, my Johnnie, aha!
We broke a King and we built a road—
A court-house stands where the Reg'ment goed.
And the river's clean where the raw blood flowed.
                                       When the Widow give the party.
                                           (Bugle: Ta—rara-ra-ra-rara!)

....Up at the front a heavy artillery barrage is in progress. Our advanced observer and his buddy came back wounded. We have enormous luck. The edge of the barrage is about 400m in front of us.

This morning, it must have been about 5:00am, the order from the battalion command post came: The six flag-ensigns of the mortar platoon are to report immediately at the battalion command post. We knew what that meant; a number of men had been called off a few days ago in the same manner. That means, we will be distributed to the other paratrooper companies and will come into service as infantry....

Shortly before our departure we met Hüter, who had remained with Rummenhöller, Trimborn and Baum as messengers with the staff. Trimborn has been killed, Rummenhöller and Baum missing in action, Wittpennig lost an arm. All flag-ensigns of inspection group Frieda, with one exception, captured, dead or wounded. It felt as if I was being choked: Rummenhöller, Trimborn, Wittpennig, the good Wittpennig who had always enjoyed life so much. It all sounded so strange, so improbable....

— Hans Schneider, in Italy,
from his diary entry for 1945 04 19
(A few days before he was taken POW.
He was a few months short of turning 18


Aditional Reading

An Exclusive and Insightful Interview with Angry Harry!, by Angry Harry, (2001 10 16)

What a Piece of Shit is Man, by Angry Harry (2001 12 14)


  1. In Terrible Judges — Criminal Death-Sentences by German Military Courts (1998), Otto Gritschneder states the following:

Accused: The Judge

More precisely, the German Military Courts that operated during the second world war.   During those six years the USA pronounced one death sentence by a military court, other allies two to four, Great Britain not a single one.  Judges of the German Armed Forces, it is estimated, pronounced 50,000 death sentences, of which about 20,000 were executed.  One of the last ones was against 20-year-old Navy radio operator Alfred Gail, even two days after the capitulation, on May 10, 1945, on board of a ship: 

In total there were three death-candidates that were executed through a salvo of shots, after they had been bound together and their eyes had been tied; their corpses were sunk into the sea.  The decision of the Nazi Military Court is not available anymore.   However, a 121-page type-written transcript of [a] Feb. 27, 1953 court decision ([50]15/52) describes the case in extensive detail.  The three Nazi military judges and Chief Justice Petersen were exonerated.  The reasoning for absolving the judges is unfathomable for normal minds, but it fits the German judicial practices of that time...

Translated from an excerpt at
Die Gazette Nr. 8, November 1998

Terrible Judges — Criminal Death-Sentences by German Military Courts, by Otto Gritschneder, recounts the case histories of 28 military death sentences during the Nazi regime. 
   Otto Gritschneder describes the German post-war judicial system – which welcomed the former Nazi judges with open arms – by stating "The black-white-red swastika-poisoning of the federal German justice system resulted in scandalous decisions that the Nazis acknowledge with derisive sneers in each case." (Translated from an interview.)

Who falls asleep in a democracy will wake up in a dictatorship.

— Otto Gritschneder,
(when asked why he wants to publicize the system of terror in German military justice under the Nazis)

  1. The two statements were derived from data made available at the International Database of  the U.S. Bureau of the Census.  The numbers are relative to what men's loss of life would have been if the risks they were exposed to would have been equal to those experienced by women.

  2. Hilary Clinton: "Women have always been the primary victims of war. Women lose their husbands, their fathers, their sons in combat. Women often have to flee from the only homes they have ever known. Women are often the refugees from conflict and sometimes, more frequently in today’s warfare, victims. Women are often left with the responsibility, alone, of raising the children." — in a speech at the First Ladies’ Conference on Domestic Violence, San Salvador, El Salvador, November 17, 1998
       A question arises out of that.  If Hilary Clinton is so terribly concerned about all the poor women who have to raise children all by themselves, how come she does so much to fuel the war against the family, a war that deprives far greater numbers of women and children of husbands and fathers now and each year than any war during the last century ever did?
       Well, things could be worse.  Let's be grateful she's only a junior senator and not a military justice.

    The point made by Hillary Clinton was made even more forcefully by Louise Arbour, former Canadian Surpreme Court Justice, now involved in the persecution of Bosnian war criminals at the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, when she commented on the mass murder of Croatian men:

    "My mental image of a mass grave was that it would be more of a trench, where the bodies would be lined up almost in file," she recalled last week. "But these bodies were thrown together indiscriminately in a hole. Then I noticed their clothes. They were young men, and the first thing I thought about was their mothers." Arbour is a mother of three herself, although "it would be too corny, too sentimental, to suggest that you go back to work suddenly fired up. But it made the tragedy very human, and that's not something you get here in the office every day. I watched the bodies come out of the ground and it was like they were coming alive again. They were demanding to be identified. They were demanding," she said, and there was not even a hint of sentimentality in her voice, "that their mothers be told." (Full Story)

    See how that works?  We must not mourn the men who lost their lives.  We must not have concern about the tortures they experienced and their killing.  We must mourn the pain of the mothers who lost their sons, for the simple reason that the primary victims of that war were the mothers who lost their children.  The children, especially given that they were almost exclusively men who were killed, are not what matters as much as does the pain of their mothers who survived and are therefore the primary victims of the Bosnian War.

Back to Ideology in Art

Posted 2001 02 11
2003 04 09 (reformatted to break page up into several pages)
2007 06 30 (reformatted page to comply with standard layout)
2007 11 05 (reformatted and made minor edits)
2013 02 20 (added page index table and corresponding bookmarks)