In the British Army alone, 302 British and Commonwealth soldiers were executed while serving on the Western Front. Though only a small percentage of the many that appeared in front of a court-martial, it’s still a high number, especially considering armies often used these deaths to set an example against desertion.
In the trenches warfare of WWI, going “over the top” was one of the most horrible experiences for a soldier.
Attacks were synchronised. In all trenches, an officer would call the countdown and then give the order to jump ‘over the top’. Those few minutes before the actual attack were the worst. It is not unheard of soldiers who killed themselves rather than jump over the top.
But even the ones who could do it were forever marked. Fear was a constant companion in the front trenches. Fear of the battle, fear of diseases, fear of going over the top, fear of seeing one’s comrades being blown to shreds – fear of showing fear.
Many snapped. And some of those who did sometimes didn’t show up.
Today, the great majority of these ‘deserters’ are thought to have suffered from shell shock, but back then, they were considered cowards – at least by the high brasses of the army.
Failing to show up equated desertion, but many of these men didn’t flee. They simply needed shelter for a time, a moment of peace and rest. They were not fleeing. They were trying to regain a balance.
But this posed a problem for the military.
In many European armies, corporal punishment hadn’t existed since the previous century. Without this, army leaders were at a loss as to how effectively discipline their men. Fatally, all the armies on the Western Front turned to the death penalty as the only way to control men and discipline.Desertion (The Great War #AtoZChallenge 2021) Today, the great majority of the soldier who were #shotatdawn are thought to have suffered from shell shock, but back then, they were considered cowards #WWI #history Click To Tweet
Field Court Martial
In the emergency of war, summary court-martials replaced the normal military court-martial system in 1914 already. In the British army, these courts were presided over by a minimum of three officers, one of whom had to hold at least the rank of captain in order to act as president. All three had to agree on any sentence passed.
A ‘prisoner’s friend’ usually acted in the role now knows as defence lawyer, but whatever the accused or his friend could say, when one failed to show up at his post, it was hard to escape the accusation of cowardice.
Even sentences of death were carried out very swiftly, normally in a matter of a few days, if not even of few hours.
In the Italian army, officers were granted the possibility to execute a soldier who showed cowardice on the spot (these were called summary executions) to maintain discipline. Such impromptu executions often didn’t leave any traces, if not in the memory of the soldiers who witnessed it. It exacted a terrible emotional toll on both the officers and the soldiers.
Nobody wanted to be on a Firing Squad, but soldiers at base camps recovering from wounds often ended up in them. They may be not fit for battle yet, but they could certainly still fire a rifle. The first soldier to be shot at dawn for cowardice in the British Army, Thomas James Highgate, was seventeen. Not an unusual age neither for the accused or the members of the firing squad.
Many precautions made sure that the soldiers in the firing squad could not see their ‘victim’. The sentenced soldiers were taken to the firing ground all tied up and with their faces bandaged so that they were almost entirely covered. Often, they were sedated or drunk, and they barely stood. The soldiers in the firing squad would turn their backs to them. At the officer’s command, they turn, fired very quickly and then turn again so that they barely ever saw the executed. Soon, the army introduced the practice to give out one gun loaded with blank rounds (or to say it was) so that all men in a firing squad could hope they didn’t actually kill a comrade.
Enzo Travero, A ferro e fuoco. La guerra civile europea (1914-1945), Il Mulino, Bologna, 2008
World War I Centennary – Shot at Dawn
History Learning Site – World War One Executions
Canadian War Museum – Discipline and Punishment
The Statistics of Tragedy (pdf)
Equal Time – A remembrance they’d rather forget: WWI’s executed soldiers
The History Press – Executions for desertion in World War I