Social Death

I’ve been looking at the 1925 House of Commons debate about military executions, which gives some good insights into how the war was seen at the time.  The Labour M.P. Ernest Thurtle moved the amendment, making some very strong arguments, and citing some persuasive cases in evidence:

Case No. 1 is that of a private soldier and the charge against him, was that the accused, when proceeding with a party for work in the trenches, ran away owing to the bursting of a shell and did not afterwards rejoin his party. He was executed. Another private soldier, after going over the parapet with his company in an attack, absented himself while the attack was in progress, and remained absent until the following day. In a third case the accused, from motives of cowardice, left the trenches during a gas attack. The fourth case is that of a lad of 18½ years of age, who ran away from a trench which had been subjected to bombardment for six days. The battalion holding the trench had suffered heavy casualties. This boy, I am informed by one of his comrades, was known to the whole company as a bundle of nerves. He was executed. He enlisted in August, 1914, when he was only 17 years of age. I want to say, in fairness to the War Office, that they probably did not know his exact age. The lad, in his enthusiasm and his desire to serve his country, had deliberately over-stated his age, so probably they were not aware that he was only 17 when he enlisted.

One of Thurtle’s arguments is that different standards were applied to officers and to enlisted men:

I think I can best establish that point by citing one given case. Section 6 of the Army Act provides that if a soldier sleeps on his post, or is drunk, he is liable, on conviction, to suffer death. I have been at pains to go through the general routine orders in connection with the various campaigns during the late War, and I will give the Committee the case of an officer charged with an offence of this kind. A temporary captain who was serving in the Salonika campaign was tried for drunkenness when in command of a post in the front line. He was an educated man, or he would not have been a temporary captain, and he was in a position of great responsibility, because he was in charge of this post in the front line. He was charged with the offence of drunkenness, which is not an offence which could arise from any weakness of his, but is something which would be contributed to wilfully and deliberately. He was found guilty and he was sentenced. The penalty for a private soldier drunk on his post—not being in charge of the post, but being drunk on his post—is death. The sentence on this officer was that he should be dismissed from His Majesty’s Service. There was a certain amount of ignominy attached to it, I admit, but he was sent home safely out of the danger zone for having committed this very serious offence of being drunk in charge of a post in the front line.

The response to this from Lieut-Colonel Dalrymple-White, M.P.,says much about the world-view of the pre-1914 army, and the puzzlement of traditionalists at the social changes accelerated by the War:

I think there is no doubt that the penalty of cashiering, perhaps, does not for every-one carry quite the same amount of terrible disgrace and stigma as it did many years ago when the penalties were first imposed. Many years ago officers came chiefly from what you may call the rank of the county families, and if any officer was cashiered it was equivalent to a death sentence. He could hardly live in the county at all and it was a most terrible stain. Nowadays I have heard of one or two cases where officers were cashiered in the late War and those who met them afterwards could only say that they did not seem to show much signs of having undergone a stigma.

So the social death of cashiering is actually presented as equivalent to actual death in front of a firing squad. This brings home (to me at least) how much the Army of 1914 was still governed by a military code (written and unwritten) developed in the eighteenth century for disciplining an army composed on the one hand of the aristocracy and on the other, according to  Wellington, of: ‘men escaping justice, with bastard children, or seeking cheap wine — the scum of the earth.’   For the traditional officer cashiering was indeed the end of social life, and ‘a most terrible stain’.  At a loss about how to cope with a world in which this was no longer true, Lieut-Colonel Dalrymple-White can only suggest a levelling-up, ensuring that  the officers were as liable to execution as the men.


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