Volume 39, Number 1, December 2000
WE were interested to note that this year's Remembrance Sunday Parade in Whitehall included groups hitherto excluded or overlooked from the commemoration. Part of this Labour Government's never-ending quest to make such events more "open", the new faces included relatives of many of the men shot for cowardice during World War I. Inevitably questions have been asked over the suitability of their presence amongst so many who did not desert and a debate has been joined that looks set to carry on and on. Relatives of the 306 men, many of them just teenagers, shot for "cowardice, desertion, disobedience or sleeping at their posts" have been petitioning successive Governments for a free pardon and their inclusion in this year's parade is seen as the first step towards the granting of such a pardon. Whether or not such action will be taken remains to be seen but it is certain that no matter what the outcome, there will be strong feelings on both sides with those on the "for" campaign stating, quite rightly, that the offences for which many of the death sentences were imposed would hardly be looked upon in the same light today and that many such sentences were carried out both without proper recourse to procedure and without taking into account the circumstances of the situation or individual at the time. Others on the "against" side of the debate will, again quite rightly, argue that cowardice and desertion, whilst understandable to us living in the comfort of the 21st century and looking back on the horrors of the "war to end wars" with an enlightened understanding of psychology and psychiatry, is unacceptable at any time and in a war situation it is unthinkable. They will argue that to allow soldiers to desert without punishment, to allow them to show signs of cowardice and "get away with it" would be to have invited others to follow suit and would have sent morale plummeting far faster than the sight of a firing squad despatching the deserter ever did. Certainly those of us who have never lived through war, and even those who have taken part in the relatively civilised conflicts of the latter part of the 20th century, cannot begin to imagine the horror faced by combatants in the trenches and many of us marvel that there were so few who deserted when faced with such carnage, or rather that so many stayed at their posts. Indeed it is that fact rather than anything else that seems to rally support against a pardon, after all everyone faced the same horrors and yet hundreds of thousands stayed loyally at their posts and followed the orders given no matter how suicidal they seemed-if they could stand firm why should others who fled be pardoned now? It is of course an emotive issue and undoubtedly many of those poor frightened individuals executed should not have had to face the firing squad, and perhaps some may have deserved their punishment and 82 years later how can we tell who was truly guilty and who was not? The answer is of course that we cannot, and thus either a full pardon for all, or none at all, must be forthcoming. A full pardon has always been ruled out before, but with the inclusion of relatives in the Cenotaph march-past this year, it seems that perhaps there is room to manoeuvre. Until a firm decision is made once and for all, this issue doesn't look like going away. Of course we always have the option of re-writing history h la Hollywood, from where news reaches us of a planned new production telling the tale of the infamous prison at Colditz castle, using only American actors depicting American POWS. This, coupled with Saving Private Ryan and a host of others emanating from the States these days, makes us wonder whether us Brits fought at all . . . ! John Mussell
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