WW1 Heritage / Shot at Dawn - 14-18 NOW
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Chloe Dewe Mathews

Shot at Dawn

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Image credit: © Guardian News and Media Limited 2014

WW1 Heritage / Shot at Dawn

When the British Army went to war in 1914 a number of offences were punishable by death. Foremost among them were offences against military discipline, like desertion and cowardice in the face of the enemy, and crimes like murder. Between 1914 and 1918, more than 300 British and Commonwealth soldiers were executed after being found guilty of serious offences.

During the war, the death penalty was understood by military hierarchy as a necessary means of maintaining discipline among the ranks, particularly due to the huge size of wartime armies. Men accused of serious offences were tried at a court martial and if found guilty, could be sentenced to death. The British armed forces sentenced 3,000 men to death during the war, but 89% of these men were reprieved and given a different sentence. 346 British and Commonwealth soldiers were executed in the First World War out of a total of around 8.7 million men in the armed forces. Those whose death sentences stood were executed by being tied to a post, blindfolded and shot by firing squad.

Some soldiers proved unable to cope with the frequently hellish conditions and extreme stress of life on the front line, and chose to abandon their posts despite the consequences of being caught. Acts of desertion from the Front have, with the benefit of hindsight, often been attributed to what would now be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder, then known as ‘shell shock’.

In Britain, the military death penalty was outlawed in 1930 and capital punishment abolished in 1965, meaning that none of the soldiers would be shot today. In 2006, the men executed for offences against military discipline were granted formal pardons after decades of campaigning by their families. Many believe that the death penalty was an unnecessarily harsh punishment for offences against military discipline and that the label of ‘cowardice’ was unfair. Others contend that it is impossible to judge the military justice system of the First World War period from the moral standpoint of today.

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