Another war

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The Army of the Potomac: Execution of Deserters, 1863

The image of the deserter shot at dawn is one of the commonest in  popular representations of the First World War. From Michael Morpurgo to Elvis Costello to Downton Abbey, the figure of the hapless victim of the military machine has been a potent symbol of the cruelty of war.
So linked is this trope to representations of the Great War that we might sometimes forget that such executions were common in other wars, too.
Stephen Spielberg included such an execution (a German one) in his Great War War Horse. In Lincoln, however, he shows the opposite. Warm humane Abe (and yes, Daniel Day-Lewis is very good indeed in the part) is going through his despatches and refuses to endorse the execution of a boy-soldier. He says something like: ‘I’m not in the business of shooting sixteen-year-olds for being frightened.’ Abe is thus established as a caring commander. We are never told what the boy’s punishment was commuted to. (Hard labour, maybe – or sometimes in that war deserters were branded with a ‘D’.)
What struck me while watching the film that there is a scene you never see in Great War literature or cinema – Douglas Haig refusing to endorse a sentence (though he rejected about 90% of the requests for endorsement that came to him.)
I’m not sure how many deserters were executed during the American Civil War. The South, I gather, shot more of their own soldiers, because they had a constant problem of men sloping off back to their farms, especially when the war was going badly.
The North too had its executions, though I gather that Lincoln, like Haig, did try to limit these. When they happened they could be very public affairs. Click on the picture above for a larger version, and you’ll see an execution designed as a spectacle. It’s in September 1863, and what looks like the entire Fifth Corps has been gathered to watch the exemplary execution of five unfortunate men. The drawing is by Alfred Waud, a noted war artist, who also wrote this article explaining and describing the execution:

Potomac executions 2



  1. Posted March 3, 2013 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

    Three books come to mind on this subject. The first is the nonfiction, Blindfolded and Alone: British Military Executions in the Great War by Corns and Hughes-Wilson. The book gives you the “who shot John” (pardon the pun) involving military executions in great detail. Two novels however give you a better understanding of military executions. The Secret Battle by Herbert and A Soldier of the Great War by Helprin give the reader an almost personal experience due to his or her attachment to the protagonist. Both novels are highly effective treatments of military executions.

  2. Posted March 3, 2013 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

    I hadn’t heard of Helprin’s book, so I googled it. I found a review, which included a quotation him I think that this would probably not be a book that I’d care for:
    ‘”Research kills a book. It makes a book like a historical romance,” he said in a telephone interview from his home in Seattle. “An Italian who fought in the First World War or was a historian of the period” who reads his novel, “A Soldier of the Great War,” “would probably become apoplectic,” Mr. Helprin said.’

    • Posted March 3, 2013 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

      A Soldier of the Great War is a great book! It is the best description of the warfare along the Isonzo River and the Alpini who fought high up in the Alps. This is not a romance novel but a beautifully done work of literature. I have read some 350 novels about WW1 over the past five years. This is my favorite! i think Helprin was being humble in the quotations mentioned. He thoroughly researches his books. He creates engaging characters who are lifelike and real. You get a tremendous flavor of the Italian soldier during the Great War. The execution scenes at Stella Maris are haunting. As a former career naval officer, I think Helprin captured the essence of the soldier in war.

      • Posted March 3, 2013 at 10:16 pm | Permalink

        Helprin’s novel confirms the letter and the spirit of the Italian soldier. Thompson’s The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915-1919 and Evans’ Forgotten Battlefronts of the First World War (Chapters 5-7 the Italian Fronts)contain the facts in a rather dry, historical way. Helprin captures the true flavor by providing a more understandable context that hands the reader an unforgettable experience.

  3. Jon Lighter
    Posted April 3, 2013 at 12:54 am | Permalink

    The Union army executed about 150 deserters during the Civil War, almost all of them in 1864 and ’65. The majority appear to have been “bounty jumpers,” men who would desert, then re-enlist elsewhere under a false name to collect the cash bonus that was often offered to volunteers in the latter part of the war.

    The number of Confederate executions for desertion appears to be unknown. As in the North, such executions appear to have been rare.

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