Typically, the government decides to pardon 306 executed British soldiers from the First World War in the middle of confirmation and clearing week, when I am attempting to ensure that the History Department at QM has enough students for next year. So I missed the chance to be on CNN this morning.
Most of those reading this will be familiar with the long running saga of those ‘Shot at Dawn’ and the lengthy campaign to have them pardoned. In terms of law, you should read Catherine Corns and John Hughes-Wilson’s book Blindfold and Alone. In terms of medicine, you should look at Simon Wessely’s excellent KCL lecture right now.
I think the key question – as posed by Gary Sheffield on the BBC Today programme this morning, is what has changed since 1998?
The Labour Government promised to review all these cases when it came into power in 1997. The following year, the Minister of Defence, John Reid, announced that having reviewed the evidence, the MOD had found that the procedures under which these men were convicted and sentenced were correct under the law as it stood at the time. With particular regard to the medical evidence, it was impossible to say whether these men were suffering from psychological disorders at the time or not. It was also all but impossible to take a definite view of how much attention courts paid to their perception of such disorders in sentencing, given that the records of those whose sentences were commuted were all destroyed. In his statement to Parliament, Reid concluded: ‘However frustrating, the passage of time means that the grounds for a blanket legal pardon on the basis of unsafe conviction just do not exist.’ He went on to consider the cases individually. Again, the paucity of evidence from contemporary sources provided scant material for any legal pardon.
So, if we were to pursue the option of formal, legal pardons, the vast majority, if not all, of the cases would be condemned either by an accident of history which has left us with insufficient evidence to make a judgement, or, even where the evidence is more extensive, by a lack of sufficient evidence to overturn the original verdicts. In short, most would be left condemned, or in some cases re-condemned, 80 years after the event.
Reid concluded: ‘The point is that now, 80 years after the events and on the basis of the evidence, we cannot distinguish between those who deliberately let down their country and their comrades in arms and those who were not guilty of desertion or cowardice.’ (from Appendix 1 of C. Corns and J. Hughes-Wilson, Blindfold and Alone: British Military Executions in the Great War (London, Cassell, 2002), 466-67).
There has been no great disclosure of new files or a dramatic archival discovery. The basis of the law has not shifted. So why has the MOD changed its mind?
Des Browne, the Defence Secretary, stated this morning that: ‘Although this is a historical matter, I am conscious of how the families of these men feel today. They have had to endure a stigma for decades. That makes this a moral issue too, and having reviewed it, I believe it is appropriate to seek a statutory pardon.’ This is a convenient way of ignoring the previous MOD statements on the subject: it’s not a legal or historical issue, it’s about atoning for the wrong that was done to these families.
Well, not making old ladies cry seems like an appropriate moral stance to me, although this would seem to offer grounds for statutory pardons for pretty much any celebrated case where the criminals’ families are still with us. It must be pretty difficult being a member of the Kray family nowadays – lots of comments and jokes, possibly even some discrimination. Let’s pardon them so the family don’t suffer. After all, they did love their dear old mum.
Take Harry Farr as an example – because his is a case where there has been discussion about mitigating circumstances, and because his family seem to have the best publicists. In simple military terms, Harry Farr was guilty as charged. Despite repeated opportunities, he refused a legitimate order and absented himself from duty in the face of the enemy. He therefore put his comrades at risk. His battalion was marching up to an attack in which 150 men became casualties. Quite what their moral stance would have been towards one of their number who legged it is open to debate at this stage. There may or may not have been mitigating medical reasons for his crime, but it is not true to say that he was shot because the army refused to recognise shell shock. By the standards of the time, his treatment by the army was entirely legal and appropriate. His family were, by their own account, badly treated at the time and after. And we should probably apologise as a nation for that. On the other hand, maybe stigmatising cowards and deserters and mistreating their families was the flip side of the communality and Blitz spirit which we like to celebrate so much in other circumstances and which were part of our social resilience to the suffering of the two world wars.
But I’m not really sure how much the families have physically suffered since, say, the interest in Shot at Dawn cases revived in the 1970s. On the contrary, they’ve enjoyed a lot of media interest and the chance to air their grievances. They make good interviewees, and it’s a nice story for the media. Relatively few historians want to be seen to be making people miserable, so they don’t often get opposed when they appear on TV. As a result, it’s pretty much universally accepted that their relative was innocent, or wilfully mistreated. I’ve yet to see a report in the press which actually engages with what shell shock might have meant in 1916, let alone the moral issue of whether, if you want to achieve big aims like winning a war for national survival, you might need to shoot a few people to encourage the rest.
That still doesn’t mean the family would win a court case, however. And the interview I saw with Des Browne on Channel Four’s lunchtime news seemed to suggest that what the MOD didn’t want was the bad publicity that would come about if the families of soldiers kept launching legal challenges and kept getting knocked back – which on legal/historical grounds they would. In other words, this is not just a matter of contemporary moral concerns – after all, the MOD’s new policy of not making old ladies cry isn’t really much in evidence if their grandsons belong to the Taliban or Al Qaeda in Iraq – but rather with the need to avoid negative publicity.
Or perhaps more to get some positive publicity. This, after all, is a Ministry presiding over an army which is overstretched and appalling badly equipped. It is asking its soldiers to achieve the unattainable in Iraq and Afghanistan. It badly needs to demonstrate that it looks after its soldiers and their families, and this is a means of doing that. It’s bad history, I think, but at least Browne has tried to avoid that with his ‘moral issue’ explanation. And for all my bluster I don’t think that you should make people miserable if you can easily avoid it, and pardoning these soldiers seems an easy way to make some people less miserable. It’s bad history – in fact, this whole thing would be an excellent candidate for the Carnival of Bad History – but it might turn out to be an effective use of the past.