Crimson Field: self-inflicted wounds

I quite enjoyed the first episode of The Crimson Field,   but by the third helping it was getting a bit ridiculous. So many issues – cowardice, Ireland, homosexuals, class conflicts… And most of the characters more interested in the issues (and their personal lives) than in healing the casualties…

But the big topic yesterday evening was the poor guy who may or may not have deliberately shot himself in the hand.  The officer in charge of the hospital opined: ‘He may be shot.’

Might he? I looked up the offence in the Field Service Pocket Book issued by the war office, designed to give officers a handy summary of most regulations relating to soldiering, including those about military crimes and punishments. In the list of offences,  I found this (click on it to enlarge):


So self harm was indeed a serious misdemeanour, but it was not a capital one.

This mistake is very much in line with the treatment of the War by popular writers. The climax of  Michael Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful rests on a similar error. Charlie is prosecuted and condemned because he stopped in the middle of an attack to assist his wounded brother. Here’s the regulation he breached:

taking wounded

Once again – not a capital offence. Does this sort of mistake matter? A writer on Twitter yesterday, fed up with pedants pointing out inaccuracies, wrote: ‘It’s a drama, for God’s sake, not a history lesson.’

Point taken, yet the BBC is claiming authenticity for The Crimson Field in a way that they don’t for, for example, the recent pleasantly silly Musketeers series.

And the pattern of these things is so often the same – aiming to show how dreadful the First World War was, which is a reasonable intention, but doing so by falsifying the account to make it seem even worse.

I looked up self-harm in Corns and Hughes-Wilson’s authoritative Blindfold and Alone, which lists all British military executions during the Great War and comments on many in detail. The only capital case where it was a relevant factor was that of a a Private Nelson, a serial deserter condemned to death on his third offence. The fact that he had been wounded in the hand aroused suspicion, but the authors suggest that ‘it is unlikely that this influenced the eventual outcome, given the soldier’s bad record.’



  1. Bill
    Posted April 21, 2014 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

    As I recalled Private Peaceful, the offence for which Charlie was condemned is said to be “cowardice in the face of the enemy” (which I don’t think was an offence as such under military law). More specifically, it was disobeying the direct order of his superior officer (the malevolent Sergeant) to take part in an attack on enemy lines. As I read the Pocket Book whether or not this is a potential capital offence seems to turn on whether “wilful defiance” is shown – which Charlie seems to admit. Remaining with his wounded brother is presented more as a mitigating factor then the offence with which he is charged. And, oddly enough, a previous foot wound of Charlie’s is said to be cited at the court martial as it was “suspicious” and could have been self-inflicted (rather like Private Nelson’s).

    • Posted April 22, 2014 at 8:59 am | Permalink

      Yes, Morpurgo’s as confused about military law as he is about history in general.

      • Bill
        Posted April 22, 2014 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

        Yet Charlie being shot for wilful disobedience or “misbehaving in such manner as to show cowardice” (which seems to be how the offence was phrased) is, whilst perhaps unlikely, not impossible. More likely, for instance, than the general levels of homicide and adultery in much mainstream popular fiction.

  2. Posted April 22, 2014 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    Most people – and I include myself – get a great deal of their sense of history from drama and fiction, so it does matter, I think, that these pivotal facts are correct. I was wondering if you would post on the the Crimson Field. I agree that it was getting very silly! Such a proliferation of Issues.

  3. Alan Allport
    Posted April 22, 2014 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    Self-inflicted wounds were still a disciplinary issue in the Second World War (and punished, in the same manner as in the First, by imprisonment). The Sten gun, notorious for its tendency to misfire, was the favorite tool of the SIW-inclined.

    • Roger Allen
      Posted April 24, 2014 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

      One of Lewis Grassic Gibbon/John Leslie Mitchell’s novels contains a description of how to deliberately close the bolt of a Lee-Enfield rifle so that it will misfire and maim the rifleman’s hand. This is after the war, and if I remember rightly it’s hinted that it’s recognised and half-accepted as a desperate resort to get a discharge from the army.

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