As the centenary of the outbreak of World War One is commemorated across Britain, people remember relatives that gave their lives. Perhaps the most compelling of these memorials contains 888,246 red, ceramic poppies filling the moat of the Tower of London, one for each British and colonial soldier who died in action. However, the men who were killed by court martial for desertion or cowardice across the British armed forces are largely ignored; these men, many younger than 19 years of age, also fought and died for the future of Britain. Shockingly, between August 1914 and March 1920, over 3000 men were given a death sentence in British Army Court Martial (though 89% of these were reprieved), due to desertion, cowardice, murder, espionage, mutiny or striking a superior officer, as defined in the British Army Act. The question remains over whether the death penalty was necessary, how the armed forces dealt with question of so-called disloyalty and ‘unnationalistic’ behaviour, and whether, of course, it was fair or ethical under the premise of wartime.


The court martial system included different levels of crime with corresponding levels of punishment. Small s

The Deserter by Boardman Robinson. Anti-war cartoon depicting Jesus facing a firing squad made up of soldiers from five different European countries First published in The Masses in 1916.

cale misdemeanours included matters of individual presentation and tardiness, punishable with extra exercise or loss of pay for a day or two. Moderately serious offences were punishable by forfeit of all pay for 28 days or- in the case of drunkenness- a fine up to 10 shillings. Finally, serious matters came under two categories: firstly, military offences such as discharging firearms intentionally occasioning false alarms on the march or misbehaving before the enemy in such a manner as to show cowardice; secondly, matters that would have been tried in ordinary court if in the UK such as murder or destroying another person’s property. Both of these counts would regularly have been punishable by death.
The importance and maintenance of discipline in the army has and will always be considered a very serious affair. Although there was much ill-discipline during World War 1, much of it was of a non-serious nature; as a proportion of the army as a whole, serious punishment was tiny and instances of failures to obey orders few. The British use of such penalties fell between France, whose large army suffered around 700 executions, and Germany, who did not regularly deploy firing squads. Only 346 men, or 1.1% of those convicted in total were executed, from a majority desertion, murder and cowardice in the face of the enemy crimes. This accounts for only 0.0003% of the British army.

Life in the trenches was difficult for all involved, however whilst some reacted with religion or indifference, a large number failed to cope at all and suffered from ‘cowardice’. For this the penalty was death. It has since been acknowledged that many of those suffering with ‘cowardice’ were suffering from what we now know as ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’ (PTSD). At the time, there was acknowledgement of mental trauma, referred to as ‘hysteria’ or ‘neurasthenia, but the attitudes were very different. To the 21st century person, it seems shocking that execution could be the reaction to such a mental disorder, but the forces needed to utilise a tough system to prevent mass exodus.

If you were to look through the thousands of web pages, newspaper articles or books about the First World War, you would be hard-pressed to find anything of these men or of the harsh punishments for sometimes undeserving provocation. World War 1 was glorified in the media in order to keep national morale high, but on the front line many men were terrified of losing their lives. Many men also played down these fears in correspondence with home, to maintain a strong image and reduce worry.

The memorialisation of war means that the ‘ordinary’ people and their actions are heroised, whilst the less glamorous, less publicly acceptable actions are ignored as a matter of national pride. The British armed forces are seen to ‘do what they have to do’ and abide by their own military code. Although I fully understand the need for organisation I do, however, find it difficult to comprehend how it could ever be acceptable to kill a 16 year old boy for being too scared to face a war for which he was conscripted.