Recent novelists writing about the Great War have been very fond of military executions. For popular moralists like Michael Morpurgo, the figure of the deserter shot at dawn is the perfect symbol of class oppression and an unjust war.
I am more interested in earlier novels containing executions, which are often given a very different meaning. I’ve just been re-reading C. E. Montague’s Rough Justice (1926) in which a demoralised soldier is separated from his unit, kidnapped by a French widow, and kept as a slave on her farm. When the military authorities find him, he is shot as a deserter. Montague presents the events as tragic, but the novel has clearly shown the man’s destruction as inevitable, and the result of fundamental weaknesses in his character. War is terrible, the book seems to be saying, but it is the ultimate test, and reveals the truth about those who are engaged in it.
Another execution comes in Stacy Aumonier’s The Querrils (1919). This is a book about a family of liberals with strong views about social questions. Throughout the novel their opinions are tested against tough reality, and often found wanting. When the war comes, they are initially opposed, but one by one come round to giving it their support.
When, in the winter of 1917, Rodney went out to the Great War, his departure revealed the Querril family at their best. The reasons which ultimately prompted him to forego the nimbus of a conscientious objector in favour of the uniform of a lieutenant in the Royal
Field Artillery were so involved as to baffle dissection. He quarreled with his wife over the matter.
The book shows the War offering a chance of redemption to unlikely characters. The family hear, for example, that “Young Stallard, the boy who stole,who could do nothing right, and of whom they had lost trace, had won a Victoria Cross at Gallipoli !” Even one of the book’s major villains is redeemed by his war service:
When the warrant was issued for the arrest of Jim Troon on a charge of perjury, he was nowhere to be found. Later it was learned that he was serving on a patrol boat. He had volunteered the day after war was declared. It was Decimus who heard the story of his death from the wife of a naval officer, who had survived a breezy and unreported little incident somewhere off the coast of Ireland. The patrol boat and the submarine had both been sunk. Jim Troon had last been seen in a death -grip with a German officer on the bow of the sinking boat.
The family of Querrils (querulous, quarrelsome) remain individualists, and this leads one of them to the firing squad:
For Rodney had been shot, by order of a court-martial, for acting culpably against the orders of his superior officers during action. The story was very confused. The little staff-captain with the piggy eyes had not explained it very well. He had demonstrated with salt-cellars and forks and napkins one evening at a dinner at the Cafe Royale. Decimus was too dazed and perturbed to follow it in detail. It amounted to the fact that during a retreat Rodney had acted deliberately against instructions. He believed his plan was better and he disobeyed. If it had been successful he would probably have been forgiven. Men have often disobeyed before and risen to great heights. But Rodney failed badly. It was a terrible mistake. He misunderstood the bigger idea. As a result a whole company – not his own – was almost annihilated. . . .
And so on a certain morning when the first flush of light crept over the eastern sky Rodney had paid the full penalty for interference, standing with his back to the ruined wall of an old farm. There must have come to him some moment when, as Tony said, ” he was all collected together.” All alone he had been. He had weighed his chance, taken his quick decision alone. And in that moment all the weaknesses and all the strength of the Querril creed must have been put to the test.
Decimus could almost see the drawn lines of Rodney’s thoughtful face as he walked between the guard. But would he falter? Not for one second […] Rodney would see the game through. His master-comfort at the end – that the others would not know. He would be tremendously casual, with his slightly twisted, slightly ironic, smile, and his great pride of soul. Peculiarly solicitous of the feelings of the guard,almost apologizing for giving them this early morning discomfort. And when he waited in the darkness for the greater darkness to envelop him, his attitude would be a gentle complacence that he faced this last disquieting experience alone. He would stand there with his heels together and his heard thrown back as though he were saying :
I don’t think this execution bears any relation to any that actually occurred during the war (the one officer executed was Lieutenant Dyett – as fictionalised in A.P.Herbert’s The Secret Battle.) Technically, though, I think that someone in Rodney’s position could indeed have been charged with “Disobeying in such a manner as to show a wilful defiance of authority, a lawful command given personally by his superior officer, in the execution of his office.” So at least it is more likely than the execution of Charlie Peaceful, for an offence for which the maximum punishment was penal servitude.