Murderous Tommies


The Manual of Military Law published by the War Office in 1914 explicitly stated:

The object of military law is to maintain discipline among the troops and other persons forming part of or following an army.

Inevitably there were occasions when this objective clashed with what today we think of as the human rights of soldiers. The executions of those found guilty of cowardice or desertion have caused a great deal of disquiet over the succeeding century, but when Defence Minister Des Browne got himself some easy political kudos in 2006 by issuing a blanket pardon to these victims of the military machine, he did not extend his gesture of historical mercy to include the soldiers who had been executed for murder.
In Murderous Tommies, Julian Putkowski and Mark Dunning examine court-martial records of thirteen men who were tried and executed for murder while serving in France or Belgium. I am grateful to Julain Putkowski for sending me a copy of the book, which I found absorbing.
Most of these cases were briefly discussed in Cathryn Corns and John Hughes-Wilson’s Blindfold and Alone, but the fuller accounts in this book give reason to question the judgement of Corns and Hughes-Wilson that:

If we review the trial transcripts of the men executed for murder, there seems little doubt that they received a fair trial and were guilty of the offence as charged.

In at least one case, that of Lance Sergeant Arthur Wickings, who was accused of murdering a French prostitute in Le Havre , there is definitely room for reasonable doubt. The evidence against Wickings was confused and circumstantial, depending upon not entirely dependable identifications.

Note in the medal roll, explaining Wickings’s ineligibility for decorations. Click for a larger image.


In the other cases there is little doubt that the accused shot his victim, but there is often considerable doubt whether the action should have been labelled murder or manslaughter. Most of the stories have the same pattern, based on the deadly mixture of  alcohol and easily available guns. Case after case is the story of a very drunk man firing off his rifle at someone whom he thinks has given him cause for grievance. Sometimes the reason is very obscure: Private Reid shot his best friend in the course of a drunken argument. The next day he had no memory of what had occurred. The Manual of Military Law states that;

Where intention is of the essence of the offence, drunkenness may justify a court martial in awarding a less punishment than the offence would otherwise have deserved, or reduce the offence to one of less serious character.

When Reid’s court-martial papers were passed up the chain of command, Major General Sir Richard Barnes noted that ‘malice aforethought is not established’, and that the offence had been committed in ‘a moment of anger’. The 5th Army Commander, Sir Herbert Gough, agreed with him that the sentence should be commuted, but Douglas Haig thought otherwise, and the death sentence stood. Where 90% of death sentences for desertion or cowardice were commuted, there seems to have been a much stronger unwillingness to reduce the punishment for murderers. One wonders how far this was to create a deterrent effect, and how far from a wish to purge the army of unstable characters.
In most cases described here, the murderer did not commit his act as the result of a rational process that might take considerations of possible penalties into account. Often the murderer seems to have been a weak and vulnerable person, finally turning on a tormentor (or someone he perceived as a tormentor) but doing so stupidly, while drunk. (Others may have got their own back on bullies more cleverly, during an attack, by unobtrusively adding yet another body to those strewn on a battlefield.)
The authors clearly prove their case that the standards of military justice during the Great War fell short of the standards of civilian justice, and that courts martial in the field were less attentive to the rights of the individual than the writers of the manual hoped they would be. Many officers had only a layman’s idea of the law, and the job of Prisoner’s Friend (being the defence counsel who might save a man’s life) was one that had to be squeezed in among an officer’s many other responsibilities. Most of these men were defended less robustly than they would have been in a civilian court.
The main interest of the book, though, is not its arraignment of military justice, but its picture of the life of soldiers in France and Belgium. This book is a cure for romanticism. The soldiers described here are not the steadfast heroes we imagine on Remembrance Day; nor are they the virtuous victims we find in Morpurgo-style weepie-fiction. They are very human. They get bored; they get drunk. They visit prostitutes twice their age. They bear grudges; they bully the weak. They chafe against the rules. They are frustrated by the lives they are made to lead.
Sometimes they seem very contemporary. While reading the book I came across this story in the local newspaper, One or more such story appears there every week, describing how some young man or other, very drunk, gets involved in fights or attacks, or domestic violence, or just makes a nuisance of himself,and does things he cannot even remember the next day. Luckily, most of the young men in the area do not have easy access to firearms.
The young man in Huddersfield won’t be shot, but ‘custody is an option’, and perhaps rightly so. His future life will be made more difficult by his criminal record, and we still haven’t really solved the problem of what do do with young men driven into stupidity by drink.
The oddest case in the book is that of the only officer shot for murder. Second Lieutenant John Paterson was heading with his men towards the line on the fifth day of Ludendorff’s Spring Offensive in 1918. He sipped away from them, and vanished. He reached Calais, where he managed to draw advances on his pay, and to cash fraudulent cheques at French banks. He was spotted at Pont-du-Coulogne and challenged by two military detectives. Later that day he shot at them, killing one and wounding the other. Eventually he was caught, tried and executed.
Julian Putkowski and Mark Dunning bring out the peculiar features of this case. Paterson had enlisted as a private in the Footballers’ Battalion, and had fought on the Somme where he received a serious head wound. In 1917 he was selected for training as an officer. This may have been a very mixed blessing, since his officer’s pay was not enough to support an officer’s lifestyle (especially as he had a wife to support at home). At the time of his death he still owed the tailor for his uniform and had large unpaid mess bills. The authors float the suggestion that financial anxiety, plus the instability caused by his head wound, may well have driven him into a course of action that was more or lass suicidal. ‘Unsound mind’ could have been an option here, but this is not the kind of argument that courts martial were eager to consider, and there were strong reasons for ensuring that the court was not seen to be softer on an officer than on an enlisted man.

I don’t agree with all the authors’ criticisms of the military authorities, but they certainly make their case that sometimes justice and military justice were very different things.  And for its glimpses of the seedy underside of military life, this book is well worth reading.


  1. Bill
    Posted February 18, 2015 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    I am always uncertain about how much “political kudos” any politician got from supporting the pardons campaign. It didn’t do Tom Watson much good, after all. As I understood it, the legal argument for the restricted nature of the pardon was that its basis was the harshness of the sentence, rather than anything else (which is why only those shot were pardoned, not all those convicted or sentenced to death). The model was the NZ pardon to their 5 men in 2000 where it was declared that “execution was not a fate that they deserved but was one that resulted from … the harsh discipline that was believed at the time to be required…”.

    Murderers were excluded because execution was at the time the civil penalty for murder, as well as the military one. All Des Browne really did cut short the process of individual case review when he realised, as a lawyer, it was impossible to do it properly, and push through the “blanket” pardon. I always felt that perhaps they could have still reviewed the cases of the murderers on an individual basis, but it may be that there was not enough left of those records either.

    • Posted February 18, 2015 at 9:56 am | Permalink

      The campaign led by descendants and other relatives was becoming an embarrassment, and there was the strong possibility of a long string of court cases, in which the Ministry of Defence would have been represented in the press and elsewhere as justifying punishments indefensible by modern standards.
      Des Browne put an end to the agitation by offering a blanket pardon (which was not quite what most of the descendants wanted, but stopped the court cases). By this act he also contrived to make a contrast between the Army of the Great War (old-fashioned, rigid, bad) and the Army currently involved in Iraq (much more civilised and sensitive to human rights). He benefited from the publicity given to his (rather easy and inexpensive) gesture, while, in the view of the British Legion,at least, not actually doing enough to support the troops currently engaged in military actions. (See )
      Des Browne’s statement about the pardons can be found here:

      • Bill
        Posted February 18, 2015 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

        Again, I’m not sure it was “easy”. The services themselves resented it, and he had to deal with them on a regular basis. I don’t believe the contrast was that contrived; I think, in fact, that dubious military involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan etc led rather to a resurgence of sentimentality towards “our boys”, who are now “heroes” again. If anything, that should have increased resentment against “cowards”.

        It was, of course, inexpensive. Cutting out the potential expense of long enquiries (let alone legal action) could save money to spend on the things the Legion wanted. I am sure ministers took that into account.

        All apologies involve a financial calculation, which is why they are such a questionable thing. Lawyers hate apologies because other lawyers see them as openings for claims against the government et al (which, of course, takes money away from the present “heroes”).

        Dick the butcher had a point (Henry VI, Part II).

  2. Alan Allport
    Posted February 18, 2015 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    Implicit in the arguments of those seeking these pardons was the idea that the majority of WWI soldiers would have approved the decision. I’m not so certain that they would have.

  3. Annie Romero
    Posted February 19, 2015 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

    Looking for a book for the hubs, he loves military and political fiction. He’d like this one I think. He’s been reading Robert Marcus’ The Far Side of Silence, it’s pretty parallel to current events in the world and he says it’s a good read.

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