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Shot at Dawn: Cowards, Traitors or Victims?
Transcript of Shot at Dawn: Cowards, Traitors or Victims?
The UK government has persistently refused to grant posthumous pardons to these men. The passage of time, declared Defense Secretary John Reid in September 1998, means that grounds for a pardon on the basis of unsafe conviction "just did not exist". Clearly he's not read the documents and has no intention of reading them.
Progress is being made. In the year 2000, relatives of the 306 murdered soldiers were allowed, for the first time, to march alongside World War 1 veterans on Remembrance Day and lay wreaths at the Cenotaph in London.
"COWARD" is a 28 minute film set during World War 1 that brings to light some of the brutal treatment soldiers received for suffering what would now be known as shell-shock. It follows two cousins, Andrew and James, from their home in Northern Ireland who join the British Army to fight for their Country and make their families proud. Through their eyes we see the reality of life on the front lines.
Never in the field of human conflict has so little been gained by the death of so many.
During the Great War of 1914-1918 around 9 million men lost their lives in one of the greatest acts of barbarity and futility the world has ever seen. This compares to an estimated 14 million deaths during all wars in the previous century. The heroism and sacrifice of troops in the trenches is probably without parallel. However, during the war, 306 British and Commonwealth soldiers were shot on the orders of military top brass and senior officers. In contrast, the Germans only executed 25 of their own. The Americans executed none of their soldiers.
Memorial to those executed, modelled on Herbert Burden who was shot aged 17
The reasons for execution for British soldiers had a common theme: many were suffering shell shock (now recognized as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD), and most were deliberately picked out and convicted "as a lesson to others". Charges included desertion (walking around dazed and confused suffering from PTSD), cowardice, or insubordination (disobedience). Some were simply obeying orders to carry information from one trench to another. Most of those shot were young, defenseless and vulnerable teenagers who had volunteered for duty. They were selected, charged, and subjected to a mock trial often without defense one day, convicted, then shot at dawn the following day. Eye-witness accounts suggest many faced their death heroically.
General Haig, when questioned, declared that all men accused of cowardice and desertion were examined by a Medical Officer (MO) and that no soldier was sentenced to death if there was any suspicion of him suffering shell shock. The Under-Secretary of State for War also and repeatedly misled the House of Commons on this matter. In fact, most soldiers accused of cowardice and desertion were not examined by an MO and in the few cases where a medical diagnosis of shell shock had been made, the medical evidence was rubbished or ignored and the man was convicted and shot anyway. General Haig not only signed all the death warrants but when questioned later on this issue lied repeatedly. General Haig's behavior in choosing to murder his own men places him in the category of war criminal.
General Douglas Haig
The generals' belief was that anyone suffering shell shock was malingering (exaggerating their illness to avoid work). In fact in the generals' minds, shell-shock and malingering was one and the same thing. Amongst the Western nations involved in World War 1, the British Military were the furthest behind in understanding trauma, and such steps as were taken by the British Forces towards dealing with trauma were for the sole purpose of returning men to the Front as quickly as possible.
Documentation on these atrocities was kept secret for 75 years and only recently have the circumstances become clear. In the intervening period, the families of these men have suffered shame, humiliation and embarrassment, compounded by the government's refusal to allow the families to mourn these men alongside their comrades. For these families, an awful guilty secret has blighted their lives and financial hardship has been heaped upon them through the actions of neighbors, landlords, employers and gossips exhibiting the prejudice of a misinformed public.
Books about desertion