History re-invented?

September 2006, Volume 44 No. 8
The big news of the moment has to be the decision by Defence Secretary Des Browne to apply for pardons for the 306 men of the British Forces shot at dawn for cowardice or desertion during World War I. The debate was rejoined following further petitions by the family of Pte Harry Farr who was executed for cowardice in 1916 despite having been hospitalised for shell shock on numerous occasions. His family’s pleas had been previously rejected in the 1990s but they have now successfully overturned Geoff Hoon’s 2000 ruling that there was no case for a posthumous pardon. On the back of their success it was decided, as it was impossible to look into every individual case, that all 306 should be granted the same treatment as Pte Farr.
Inevitably this will cause huge controversy – and rightly so, it is a debate that needs to be aired. We are all aware of the horrors of war, particularly the bloody slaughter of 1914-18; and are all now aware of the affects of post-traumatic stress disorder. Certainly if those men were fighting today they would not have been so harshly treated however they aren’t, they were fighting almost a century ago when many things were different and yet now it seems those differences are to be forgotten and everything is to be viewed through the rose tinted spectacles of hindsight. Undoubtedly many of the men executed were suffering from shell shock, they were scared, worn down, at the absolute wits’ end of sanity and they, untrained conscripts as many were, simply couldn’t take it and buckled – to take them out and shoot them at dawn, blindfolded and alone seems desperately harsh coming as we do from a society that would have the psychiatrists and compensation lawyers swarming round them like flies. However it cannot be denied that many of those executed were not just terrified youngsters but were indeed full blown deserters, they didn’t simply get lost after a battle, or lie bewildered in a foxhole for days nor have a breakdown and refuse to pick up their guns again – they were cold and calculating, they’d had enough of the war and wanted no part of it, they ran and many were caught miles behind the lines often in civilian disguises. Do they too deserve to be pardoned? After all nearly a million men fought, and died, in the trenches and on other fronts, they didn’t desert, they didn’t buckle and run but stayed steadfastly by the sides’ of their comrades – they too suffered the horrors of war but they didn’t turn tail and let the others down, so why should we now pardon those who did?
That aspect of the argument is hugely emotive and there is no easy answer – there are those who feel that executions were the only way, regardless of circumstances, and others who feel such an action barbaric no matter what the crime, however of more concern to us as historians (and we all are in our small way) is this habit we now seem to have of trying to re-write the past. By pardoning these men our Government is, in effect, saying that none of them were cowards and that the commanders who ordered their executions were wrong. How on earth can that be said so long after the event from the comfortable standpoint of 21st century Britain by people who can only guess at the horrific circumstances under which such orders were made? The politicians today cannot begin to understand what was happening back then, cannot begin to realise the everyday horrors being faced on all sides, they cannot hope to put themselves in the shoes of an Officer commanding a hundred frightened men, under constant barrage and desperate to stop mutiny who is then confronted by one man who refuses to fight, his fear and refusal beginning to permeate all around him. And yet by granting this pardon that is exactly what is being done, the politicians are saying that despite everything, despite the pressures exerted at that terrible time, despite the fact that these commanders had to make snap decisions that in many cases meant the difference between life and death for not one but hundreds of men they were in fact wrong to allow anyone to be executed. Well sorry you can’t do that. No matter what your personal feelings on the executions are you cannot now turn round and say that the actions of the day, carried out as they were, were wrong. Certainly by today’s standards they are indefensible and such things would never happen in the army of 2006 but we can’t re-write history like that, we can’t claim the moral high ground and state that want went before is full of error – if we do then where will we stop? Will now the commanders who issued the orders be posthumously prosecuted? Will relatives of the shot claim damages from the relatives of the condemned man’s CO? Don’t misunderstand me, I am not saying that everything done in war is excusable, far from it, but when you have cases like this, actions carried out fairly, in accordance with the standards of the time (regardless of whether those standards are different now) isn’t it better, in some, cases just to let things lie? If we don’t, if we carry on rewriting the past as we are, then I fear we will be making a serious mistake – and one we won’t be able to change this time.

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