I have to admire the family of Private Harry Farr, who have kept on protesting for ninety years against his death sentence, and have finally secured him a pardon. Reading Farr’s story, you have to feel compassion for this young man thrust into a terrible war, and breaking under the pressure. Now it looks as though three hundred others are going to be rehabilitated at the same time.
A while ago I quoted from the diary of Gunner Ferguson Hamilton, when he heard of a nearby Canadian execution for desertion – “I refrain from comment: it is too awful to think about.”
These executions are indeed grim things to think about, but I can’t feel enthusiastic about the idea of posthumous pardons so long after the event. It’s gesture politics (costs nothing, achieves nothing tangible) and is importing modern values into a very different situation, as if our standards were automatically better. As an ironic correspondent asked a WW1 mailing list today, if these PC attitudes proliferate, can we soon expect a posthumous prosecution of “Woodbine Willie” for handing out cigarettes to the soldiers?
Our modern age romanticises the deseters. Frederic Manning didn’t. Her Privates We is the generally regarded as the most authentic novel of the Great War, and its serial deserter, Miller (whose death penalty has been commuted), is presented as a pathetic specimen.
So Bourne leaned against the doorpost and waited. He saw Miller crossing the yard, and looked curiously at that degenerate face. It had in it a cunning which might or might not be insane. He gave Bourne a meaningless grin, and went into one of the stables. Minton and Pritchard glanced at him as he passed.
“They ought to ‘ave shot that bugger,” said Minton indifferently…
The indifference of this judgment was its remarkable feature. Bourne found himself contrasting Miller with Weeper Smart, for no-one had a greater horror and dread of war than Weeper had. It was a continuous misery to him, and yet he endured it. Living with him, one felt instinctively that in any emergency he would not let one down, that he had in him, curiously enough, an heroic strain… Miller might be one of those people whose emotional instability was not far from madness… And then, from amusing his mind with the puzzle presented to it by Miller’s character, Bourne found himself probing anziously into his own…
I think Manning is psychologically very astute here. All soldiers knew fear; most managed, like Weeper, to endure it. Most must have felt the temptation to crack. The scorn that the other soldiers show for Miller is scorn for their own potential weakness. That’s what Bourne is probing anxiously.
The death penalty for cowards and deserters was the army’s way of maintaining the fiction that all other soldiers were brave – that there was a crucial distinction between the deserter and the rest. Often the passing of the sentence was a sign of ritual that was never fully enacted – over eighty per cent of such sentences were commuted by Haig or other generals.
Now, apparently, the three hundred who were shot are all going to be pardoned. There were definitely some hard cases among them – but there were definitely others who had let down their comrades, and by the standards of the time received justice.
Who will be covered by the proposed pardons? Those executed for cowardice and desertion, presumably, and those punished for sleeping at their post. But also those shot for mutiny, or for striking a superior officer? And what about the thirty-nine soldiers executed for murder – generally for killing fellow-soldiers? They too were punished in a way that we do not usually countenance today.