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18 September 2014
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The Soldier's Trade in a Changing World

By Professor Richard Holmes
The death penalty

Image of deserter being captured
A deserter is captured, 1884 ©
The infliction of the death penalty was to become even more controversial. During World War One, 3,076 death sentences were passed, resulting in 346 executions, most of them for desertion.

There is an ongoing attempt to have those executed for purely military offences pardoned, but in 1998 the government, after a painstaking review, decided that this would not be appropriate.

'Some were unquestionably victims of what was then termed shell shock ...'

Although the issue still generates as much heat as light, the best survey, 'Blindfold and Alone', by Cathryn Corns and John Hughes-Wilson, concludes that the government was right, and ‘the courage - and cowardice - of the Western Front and the lost world of our grandparents' should be left where it belongs, in the past.

Their survey does, however, show that those executed ran the whole gamut from the confused and unlucky to calculated repeat offenders. Some were unquestionably victims of what was then termed shell shock, and their cases have opened up complex issues of assessing the degree to which a soldier in combat is responsible for his own actions.

The army subsequently abolished the death penalty for offences that were not capital under civil law, and no British soldiers were shot for military offences in World War Two.

Published: 2005-02-28

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