Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, August 4, 2017

Executed for Cowardice

Rev Richard Griffiths served as a chaplain to the forces in the 24th Field Ambulance Eighth Division in France. He was 49. He wrote about his experiences in a detailed journal; the extract below describes the execution of a deserter. 

3 June 1915: I received the shocking confidential information that one of the men was condemned for repeated desertion and cowardice and is to be shot. The message came late last night and I have been with him most of the afternoon. I sat on the edge of the dug-out talking, with him crouched on the straw. The bullets and shells did not matter, as this lad pleaded with me to do all I could for him, and I tried to bring him to truth, honour and God. Many thoughts weighed up. 

Pro: His youth, not yet 20. His circumstances—an only son and his mother a widow. His health—he repeated that his head troubled him, and he did not know what he was doing. 

Con: The selfishness of a man wishing other people to face dangers for him and unwilling to take his share. What right has any man to ask that? The falseness of some of his statements. The need of discipline—on two battlefields he had run away, after being warned. The assurance that every consideration must have been weighed by the Court Martial, the Brigadier, the General, the Corps Commander, the Army Commander and the Field-Marshal—and yet one’s last lingering wonder is whether penal servitude would not have answered the offence. Those responsible have decided not. 

Film Depiction of a WWI Execution

4 June 1915, 4:30 a.m: It is all past—the hideous business. The actual agony was over in three minutes and the burial in another five. Everyone was assembled by 3:30 a.m. He was a man who had made many scenes, and it was thought I should not speak with him again, and I felt that that was right. The sandbag bank, the hollow in front of it with the stake. The long grass and oat stalks. The trench made for the purpose, along which were lined small detachments from other battalions. The firing party about 20 paces in front. The Provost Marshal, the Colonel, three or four officers, the doctor. I put on my black scarf and stood at the side, almost too stunned to pray. Behind came the prisoner, scarcely able to walk, pleading and groaning. As he turned the corner he suddenly dashed from his guard and ran wildly across the broken ground, stumbling, panting, able in his despair to reach an astonishing speed, and for the time, to outdistance the men, laden with their equipment. He was eventually caught, and as he came back facing us, he presented a pathetic figure. He was tied to the stake. His eyes were bandaged. "Past 4 o’clock," said the Colonel to the Provost Marshal. A sudden quick crack and the huddled earthly form was separated from the soul gone to the beyond. 

4 June 1915, later: The strain of this morning has been rather much. Other men have gone from us, so many now, good and gallant—known to be sinful, some of them, but redeeming so much by dying bravely. One likes to recall them at a time like this. That abject cry: "Can I have the bandage off, sir? I want to see the sky"—cut short with the sharp crack, the quiet thud, the absolute silence, the stillness. The quick "about turn" to the firing party. The swish of an enemy bullet in the long grass across the path—it was difficult to pray.

Published in The Guardian, 26 July 2014


  1. And what share of those dangers did the Generals, the Commanders, the Field Marshals partake of? Beribboned and medaled hypocrisy.

    1. Two comments for you to ponder ...
      (1) It wouldn't do an army any good if all its most highly trained and experienced planners were killed off in battle, would it?
      (2) Most of these "beribboned and medalled hypocrites" had seen active service leading troops on the battlefield in their younger days, and many of their medals were for valour in the field. Do the research.

    2. Yes, but you are ignoring class distinction particularly prevalent during this time period. How many junior officers where you know there was some "cowardice" were put up against the wall? An Oxford or Cambridge pedigree went a long way compared to some worthless "schlub" from East London.

  2. In reply to Nicole: It is wrong to judge those commanders and even the accused by today's standards. The story of this execution and others needs to be considered in the military, social, legal and medical context of the time. It is interesting to note that over 3,000 soldiers were sentenced to death by British courts marshal but 90% were commuted to other sentences. This suggests that those "beribboned & medaled" commanders meted out the death penalty with reluctance and when considered absolutly necessary.
    Having said that, it is interesting to note that the Germans who outnumbered the Brits significantly, only executed 48 of their own men. No Australian or American soldiers were executed.

    1. I know this is old, but the court martial/executions were often arbitrary, playing a game of roulette. Watch "Band of Brothers", the executions would put barriers between the enlisted and their officers/leaders. They served to break down moral and cause divisions between people who depended upon each other for their lives.

      I have seen that same mentality in the work force among ineffective/uninspiring management.

  3. ... it was done earlier during the Boer War for the Australians - Breaker Morant, and WWII for the Americans - Private Slovik...