In his First World War memoir Good-Bye to All That, the British poet and former infantry officer Robert Graves wrote, “I had my first experience of official lying when I arrived at Le Havre in May 1915 and read the back-files of army orders at the rest camp. They contained something like twenty reports of men shot for cowardice or desertion. Yet a few days later the responsible minister in the House of Commons, answering a question from a pacifist, denied that sentence of death for a military offence had been carried out in France on any member of His Majesty’s forces.”

It was indeed a lie. Between the beginning of the war in 1914 and the Armistice in 1918, 307 British and Commonwealth soldiers were executed by firing squad after courts-martial convicted them of cowardice or desertion, the latter charge described in very military language as “fleeing in the face of the enemy.” Included in that tally were 25 Canadian soldiers, 22 Irish servicemen, and five New Zealanders. How many Indian soldiers in British service were executed on the same charges is uncertain, but if their names were added to that grim tally the numbers would certainly be even larger.

Killed By Their Own Comrades

Numerous histories of the First World War have told how several of the belligerent nations executed men who were mentally and emotionally broken by the strain of frontline conditions, and who could endure the horrors of war no longer.

Whether because of an unwillingness to recognize the very real debilitating effects of shellshock and combat stress, or because the sheer scale and duration of that war overwhelmed military justice systems designed for shorter, smaller conflicts, the results were clear—some soldiers died not under the enemy’s guns, but in front of firing squads formed of their own comrades.

It would be too great a generalization to declare that every soldier executed on charges of desertion or cowardice was a traumatized combat casualty rather than a malingerer, but an examination of existing records suggests that at least as far as the British were concerned, it was true in a majority of cases.

The frequency with which the British Army applied the death penalty to accused deserters has garnered a great deal of literary attention since 1918, but it was never a uniquely British problem. Nor was the British Army unusually draconian in its use of capital punishment, when we compare its record to that of other nations fighting in the same war. In purely statistical terms, British soldiers who were convicted by courts-martial on charges of desertion or cowardice were actually at less risk of being executed than were soldiers of other armies.

Military Justice?

A comparison of military executions carried out by the British, French, Italian, Austro-Hungarian, and German armies reveals that the British shot 12% of men who were condemned to death, whereas the Italians shot 750 men out of the 4,028 who were condemned by their courts-martial, an execution rate of 19%. The French sentenced 2,500 men to death and shot 650 of them, or 26%. The Austro-Hungarians far exceeded every other combatant nation of that war. Out of 1,175 military death sentences, the Austro-Hungarians executed 1,148 men, a staggering 98% of those condemned.

In some armies the application of the death penalty was strictly a matter of military justice—harsh and punitive in nature, but at least enforced within the structure of law. Other nations executed men in a much more capricious fashion. Drumhead courts-martial were the most cursory form of military justice, but some commanders believed that even those headlong rushes to the ultimate punishment were an unnecessary indulgence.

As some historians have noted, the Italian army of the First World War was marked by a “regime of unremitting harshness,” a culture which owed everything to the attitude of its commander-in-chief, Gen. Luigi Cadorna.

Back to Ancient Rome

Cadorna held a very poor opinion of his army’s conscripted soldiers, and he believed that only the frequent use of the harshest punishment could enforce discipline in their ranks. Italian courts-martial were already encouraged to use the death penalty with great frequency, but for Cadorna even that was too lenient. He preferred summary executions without trial. In a 1917 report to his government in which he laid out his efforts to correct morale problems among frontline units, he wrote, “It has been necessary to resort to immediate executions, on a vast scale, and to renounce forms of judicial proceedings, because it is vital to cut off evil at its roots, and it is to be hoped that we have done so in time.”

In 1916, Cadorna went so far as to implement the ancient Roman practice of decimation, applying it to Italian regiments that gave up ground or failed to press their attacks vigorously enough. First described by the Roman historian Polybius in the 3rd century bce, and used to brutal effect by Marcus Licinius Crassus during the Third Servile War in 71 bce, decimation was the horrific practice of disciplining a disgraced unit by having one man out of ten executed, usually by his comrades.

Drawing on that historic example, Cadorna ordered that soldiers be selected at random and immediately shot as a cautionary example to their comrades. As one might expect, this exacerbated the Italian army’s morale problems rather than fixed them.

“It never seemed to occur to Cadorna,” one historian notes, “that such executions had a profoundly demoralizing effect on the junior officers and men ordered to arrange and perform them, and that the apparent absence of justice or reason in such affairs shook men’s faith in their superiors.”

This state of affairs continued to bedevil the Italians until Cadorna was finally relieved of command in late 1917 and belated reforms finally overhauled that army’s attitudes toward military discipline. By then, hundreds of men had been shot in Cadorna’s unremitting campaign of draconian injustice.

ww1-italy-general-luigi-cadornaItalian general Luigi Cadorna was notorious for his willingness to have men killed at random and without trial.

The French also resorted to decimation on rare occasions in that war, most notably in an incident involving colonial troops from North Africa. When the German offensive drove the Allied armies back at the beginning of the war, 10e Compagnie of 8 Battalion, a battered unit of French-African soldiers from Algeria, disobeyed an order to counterattack the Germans in their sector of the lines. In punishment, one man in ten was selected at random and executed by firing squad on Dec. 15, 1914.

Differences In Legal Codes

Except for the instances noted above, and those that followed the widespread mutinies of French units in 1917, the application of military justice in the armies of France, Germany, and the United States was usually not as severe as those of Russia, Austria-Hungary, Italy, and Great Britain.

Of all nations in that conflict, the Germans attempted perhaps the most deliberate form of wartime courts-martial. In 1918, barely 17% of German military tribunals—363 trials out of a total of 2,138—actually completed their proceedings and returned a verdict. By comparison British tribunals advanced at a much quicker pace, averaging two to three weeks between conviction and execution in those cases when the death sentence was approved by the commander-in-chief, a role held first by Field Marshal Sir John French until he was replaced by Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig at the end of 1915.

But military justice was never more precipitous and hurried than it was in the Austro-Hungarian army. Austrian military regulations required their drumhead courts-martial to return a verdict within seventy-two hours, and the only choices allowed were a complete acquittal or the death sentence. If an Austrian soldier was sentenced to death, the execution was to be carried out within two hours. There was no possibility of appeal.

Differences between the legal codes also played a part in how each army prosecuted and punished soldiers accused of desertion. In the German army, the death penalty was limited to repeat offenders, and German military law required proof of a soldier’s actual intent to desert. Italian prosecutors, in contrast, only had to prove that a soldier was absent from his regiment to convict him of desertion. The French distinguished between desertion to the enemy and desertion to the interior of their own lines in their determination of whether or not the death penalty was applicable.

Why Did This Happen?

Every examination of historical events should pause long enough to ask the question: “Why was this so?” In the matter of soldiers shot for desertion in the First World War, the answer to that question is simple enough, if ultimately unsatisfactory.

Military doctrine in most armies of that era insisted that capital punishment was an effective deterrent to the problems of desertion and poor discipline. Taking that view, senior commanders of the British, French, Italian, and Austro-Hungarian armies were among the most ardent believers in the use of the death penalty as an indispensable element of military justice. Approximately two-thirds of death sentences handed down by British tribunals were for the charge of desertion, and most of the men shot by British firing squads were condemned for that offense.

It was no coincidence that the British carried out more executions on the eve of major offensives, in an apparent effort to shore up the resolve of other troops about to climb out of their trenches into the fire of German machineguns. As one historian describes it, this almost amounted to a “bureaucratic decimation,” and that “the execution of one in ten was regarded as a ‘safe’ level politically speaking, satisfying both military and judicial concerns.”

Other armies were much more reluctant to execute men who failed in the clinch, particularly when those men were volunteers and not reluctant conscripts. No Australian troops of that war were executed for desertion or cowardice, because even though 129 Australian soldiers were sentenced to death (all but 10 of them for desertion) the Australian government refused to countenance the British Army’s use of firing squads on its personnel. As the official historian of Australian forces noted, “there was an abhorrence to the seeming injustice of shooting a man who had volunteered to fight in a distant land in a quarrel not particularly Australian.”

American courts-martial in the First World War sentenced 24 U.S. Army soldiers to death for desertion, but none of those men were actually executed. The only American soldiers put to death in France were convicted of other capital crimes such as simple murder. The Germans, who would execute at least 10,000 men for desertion during the Second World War, shot no more than 18 soldiers for that crime during the First World War, even though nearly 150,000 German soldiers deserted their units between 1914 and 1918.

Combat Stress and Demoralization

The human toll of military insensitivity to combat stress of that war impacted more than just the men who faced firing squads at dawn. The men ordered to form those firing squads carried the trauma of those moments for the rest of their lives, as is clear in the recollections of men such as Victor Silvester, a British soldier who recounted his experience when he was ordered to serve on a firing squad to execute a fellow soldier condemned for desertion:

“The victim was brought out from a shed and led struggling to a chair to which he was then bound and a white handkerchief placed over his heart as our target area,” Silvester remembered. “He was said to have fled in the face of the enemy. Mortified by the sight of the poor wretch tugging at his bonds, twelve of us, on the order raised our rifles unsteadily. Some of the men, unable to face the ordeal, had got themselves drunk overnight. They could not have aimed straight if they tried, and, contrary to popular belief, all twelve rifles were loaded. The condemned man had also been plied with whisky during the night, but I remained sober through fear.” Silvester carried the weight of that moment to his death in 1978.

The passage of time has permitted a reconsideration of these cases, and most of the nations that executed men during that war have since taken a more informed view of their cases. In 2000 the New Zealand government issued a pardon for its five soldiers executed during the war, and in 2001 the Canadian government offered an “expression of regret” for its soldiers who were shot for desertion. In August 2006 the British government issued a conditional pardon to all British soldiers shot for desertion in the First World War.