Latest Book Review

Source: THE DAILY TELEGRAPH Sunday, December 23, 2001.


Review by Russell Davied.

 Silent Night: The Remarkable Christmas Truce of 1914 by Stanley Weintraub. Simon & Schuster (£12.99)

 The witnesses to the First World War, its participants and survivors, are almost gone. But vaguely, down the years, persists the vision of mud-caked men scrambling out of trenches at Christmas 1914 and stumbling into no man's land with disbelieving expressions on their faces, to greet the unarmed enemy equally baffled by a sudden truce.

Somebody produces a foot- ball, and these ghosts form up in teams (for there must always be competition, if not conflict) and they playa riotous and chaotic game. Somebody wins, the uniformed throng exchanges trophies, and the vision fades.

It has taken nearly 90 years to bring this event back into focus again. Professor Weintraub, whose list of sources is as long as the chapters in most people's books, has raided every memoir, newspaper, regimental history and hoard of correspondence he can find in order to present a picture of life - and for about 48 hours, it did at least resemble life- along the front line during that curious Christmas time.

The truce happened; and although there were precious few footballs available (why should there be?), that outbreak of comradeship was both more comprehensive and more fragile than legend relates.

The movement came from below, and largely, it seems, from the German side, which at that moment was winning the war. By the time senior commanding officers were aware if its upsurge, it was too big to stop. One impulse behind it was ancient and traditional: the wish to bury the dead, who lay littered across the disputed land. Had the corpses not been removed or interred, along with their stench and visible mutilations, the later festivities could not have occurred. Arrangements were easily made, as the opposing trenches lay within easy shouting distance of each other -easy singing distance, too, as it proved.

It was the Germans, with their better-developed Christmas traditions, who sang carols, often well enough to provoke applause from the listening British: Stifle Nacht was never less than moving. Often the best our side could offer by way of reply was a selection of the rough and piercingly satirical soldier- songs they might have sung anyway (this is not a book that flatters the British). The sometimes forgotten Indian regiments in the lines could not join in, and were puzzled, though not displeased, by the sudden outbreak of illuminated Christmas trees along the Ger- man trenches -a reminder of the Diwali festival, and home.

There were some breaches of the reciprocal trust on which the truce was based. Uncontrollable snipers, fanatically gung-ho officers, drunkenness and sheer misunderstanding all played a part, though frequently, when shots were fired, it was later explained by one set of riflemen or the other that they had thwarted the belligerence of the given orders by aiming into the air.

Soon, brave individuals took the decision to be the first to clamber out and meet in the middle. From that moment, fraternisation - a horror to the generals - was in progress. It was a frosty Christmas, and the mud churned up by the first months of war had frozen into a crust. Gifts of provisions were exchanged, toasts were The book is full of individual feats and eccentricities. On Christmas Eve, the Royal Flying Corps passed over the German airfield at Lille, and dropped a well-padded plum pudding. Lieutenant John Reith, future founder of the BBC, commandeered a chateau and laid on a candle-lit champagne dinner in its cellar.

In one bizarre incident, competition met conflict when a German soldier challenged anyone of his enemies "except an Irishman" to a single-handed bayonet fight. A Gordon Highlander lurched into no man's land and, after a tough contest, killed him.

But such frightfulness was rare. The truce straggled over into Boxing Day, and some units wanted to prolong it. One Saxon regiment (who hated the Prussians more than they hated the enemy) almost went on strike. But the ire of the generals prevailed, and no informal truce of such wide application was ever mounted again. The killing resumed and, as Weintraub remarks, "On both sides in 1915, there would be more dead on any single day than yards gained in the entire year."

It is typical of Weintraub's quirky thoroughness that he mentions the episode of the television comedy Blackadder which referred to these events. And he points out that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission lists six men called Blackadder among its dead.

Russell Davies is a writer and broadcaster.



Source: THE DAILY TELEGRAPH Sunday, July 22, 2001.

When the last day dawned

Geoffrey Wheatcroft on a dispassionate study of the soldiers who faced the firing squad during the Great War.

Blindfold and Alone: British Military Executions in the Great War. By Cathryn Corns and John Hughes-Wilson. Cassel £25.00, 543 pages.

 BETWEEN AUGUST 1914 and November 1918, more than 10 million men were killed on the battlefields of Europe. A million of the dead came from the armies of the British Empire, three quarters of those from the British Isles. The Great War conditioned our lives. It became an obsession, remembrance of the glorious dead a national cult.

In recent decades there has grown up another obsession, with one very small group of dead. The number usually given of those British soldiers who died not in battle but in front of firing squads is 306. Cathryn Corns and John Hughes-Wilson count 346 executed before November 1920. Some were shot for murder, including several Chinese serving in labour corps, but most for military offences: mutiny, cowardice, striking an officer, sleeping on duty (in two particularly grim cases). The great majority, 266 men, were shot for desertion.

This is at least the fourth book on the subject to appear since William Moore's unattractively named The Thin Yellow Line in 1974, and is more notable for fair- mindedness than for profound scholarship. The authors review both military law and the social climate of 1914, and then numerous individual cases, from Private Thomas Highgate who was, on September 8,1914, the first soldier of the war to be executed (''as publicly as convenient"), to the last two, shot four days before the armistice even though in one case commutation of sentence had been recommended.

No one can read about these executions without a sense of horror. War is hell, and none was more hellish than on the Western Front. Any account of the first day on the Somme, when 20,000 British soldiers died on one day and whole battalions were destroyed, may make one wonder not why so many men broke but why any did not. Compassion and pity must be felt for the condemned men, even the obvious scoundrels, let alone the baffled and terrified boys of 18 who didn't understand what was happening to them.

But it is not the job of historians to pass retrospective judgment, and the authors are scrupulous in trying to understand the period in its own terms. Of course, courts martial did their business hastily, and their standards of forensic meticulousness were not those of the High Court.

Cases of desertion ranged from calculated attempts to escape France in disguise to disoriented young men wandering the wrong way in the fog of battle. All the same, the authors have not been able to find a single grave miscarriage of justice, where a man was obviously falsely condemned.

If senior officers in that war acquired a reputation for pigheadedness and hard-heartedness, it was not without reason. Their attitude to deserters was characteristic. One private deserved the "extreme penalty", Brigadier-General Harold Fergus wrote, since "he has no intention of fighting" and "is quite worthless, as a soldier or in any other capacity, and is better removed from this world".

Some hackneyed views of the "donkeys" are nevertheless wrong. Blind vindictiveness? General Haig commuted nine out of 10 death sentences. Class justice? In the well-known case of Sub- Lieutenant Edwin Dyett, General Gough recommended that the sentence should be carried out precisely because "if a private had behaved as he did in such circum- stances, it is highly probable that he would have been shot".

Incidentally, Gough's minute is quoted in the text, and on the page opposite its original appears in facsimile with distinctly different words, which does not inspire confidence in other sources cited. That apart, the book is too long, and sometimes repetitious.

During the Second World War, albeit to the displeasure of some generals, and with infantry morale sometimes very "sticky", the British Army got by without a single military execution. That was in some degree a legacy of earlier unhappy memories.

In the most trenchant part of their book, Corns and Hughes- Wilson discuss today's Pardons Campaign which has called, so far unsuccessfully, for a complete pardon for all those executed. The authors find it genuinely difficult to understand the aims and motives of the campaign, except in terms of "shroud waving" and a culture of victimhood. Nor are they impressed by the rather kitsch "shrine to the unlucky" recently opened in Staffordshire. The campaign's "claim to a monopoly of compassion is", they say, "deeply unfair both to the soldiers who did their duty and to the commanders of the Great War".

Although there should by now be a moratorium on quoting L. P Hartley's words with which this book opens, they do apply here, if ever: the past is a foreign country.


Source: THE DAILY MAIL Saturday, July 21, 2001.

The truth about the young men who died at dawn.

 An emotive campaign has been waged to exonerate the soldiers executed for cowardice in the Great War. Now a new study of all 346 deaths reveals that although harsh, justice WAS done.

 The image is one of the most poignant and disturbing of World War I: a forlorn, bareheaded, blindfolded figure pinioned to a post while a wintry dawn breaks over the battlefield. A scrap of white cloth pinned to his tunic flutters over his heart. A firing squad or his own comrades takes faltering aim.

Close by, hundreds of men are being randomly massacred in the trenches. But it is this ritual death behind the lines of a scared and lonely young man that diverts our compassion and rouses our indignation.

It is easy enough to understand why. Over the generations since that awesome conflict, the notion of some poor, bewildered youth being executed for showing a moment of human fear amid the inhuman horror all around him has come to symbolise everything the modem world finds most tragic about the Great War.

Inevitably, he has also come to be depicted as the victim of a heartless society in which the working classes did the fighting and the dying, while the officer classes sent them over the top and ruthlessly punished those whose nerve gave way.

Hence the clamour from those campaigning for a posthumous pardon for the executed men, the wreath in their memory placed at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Day and the moving statue of a boy-soldier awaiting execution erected at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire.

Yet the truth is that a mythology has grown up about the supposed injustice done to these young men which has more to do with modem sentimentality than contemporary reality.

Viewing past actions through the prism of present values can have a distorting effect, and few aspects of the 1914-18 war have been distorted more than this one, according to a persuasive new book, Blindfold And Alone: British Military Executions In The Great War.

The authors, Cathryn Corns and John Hughes-Wilson, have done an immensely thorough job researching the cases. What emerges is far from a slaughter of the innocents, nonchalantly sentenced to death by moustachioed ex-public schoolboys.

WHAT is clear is that these capital courts-martial were not some form of oppressive class warfare, or some deadly form of social control by brutal officers,' say the authors.

'In an organisation that prided itself on paternalism and care for its soldiers, the idea that regimental officers would "oppress" their soldiers reveals only ignorance and prejudice.

'In the stem world of The Regiment, everyone lived by a tough set of rules and understood uncompromising standards demanded.'

Yet despite those tough rules, which were common to every army of the day, the number of British wartime executions was, in fact, surprisingly small. From August 1914 to October 1918 there were approximately 238,000 courts-martial, resulting in 3,076 death sentences. But, of these, only 346 were carried out and 37 of them were for murder, which, at the time, would of also have been punished by death in civilian Britain.

To put this in context, no fewer than 5,250,000 men served in the British Army in World War I. Some 750,000 were killed and 1,500,000 wounded. What this means is that not far from the bleak barns, abattoirs, quarries and embankments where just over 300 military offenders were put to death, some 400 equally frightened men were being slaughtered every day for doing their duty without abandoning their comrades. Discipline in battle is not imposed just from the top. In war, deserters are looked on no more kindly by their peers than by their officers. In 1914-18 courts-martial, the most damning evidence nearly came. from NCOs .and ordinary soldiers who witnessed the offence first- hand, not from their superiors.

One Great War veteran, former Private Frederick Manning, described the typical reaction of the troops. 'When Miller disappeared just before the Hun attack, many of the men were bitter and summary in their judgment of him.

'The fact that he had deserted his commanding officer was as nothing to the fact that he had deserted them.

'They were to go through it while he saved his skin. It was about as bad as could be, and if one were to ask any man who had been through that spell of fighting what ought to have been done in the case of Miller, there would have been only one answer. Shoot the bugger!'

Fortunately for the large numbers who were found not guilty or had their death sentences commuted, the officers conducting courts-martial in the field were not so hasty.

Though often young (especially as officer casualties mounted) and completely inexperienced in legal procedure, they were usually scrupulous about going 'by the book' - the formidable, red-covered, 908-page, 1914 edition of the Manual Of Military Law.

Defendants could cross-examine prosecution witnesses, produce defence witnesses and ask for an officer, known as 'the prisoner's friend', to represent them. Any previous offences were scrutinised only after a guilty verdict, when the court came to consider sentence.

AN ESPECIALLY heavy sentence, such as death, had to be unanimous, with the most junior officer giving his opinion first, so that he should not be influenced by his superiors. After a death sentence was passed, it was reviewed at each higher level of command, collecting pleas for mercy or otherwise, all the way up to the commander-in-chief who had to give the final confirmation.

In France and Flanders, that meant Sir John French or, later, Sir Douglas Haig. Far from showing any gusto for the firing squad, these two famously formidable men actually refused to confirm nine out of ten of the 3,000 death sentences placed before them. In other words, the grim business that led to a wartime execution was never lightly undertaken

Even in the heat of battle with justice conducted I swiftly as possible in some shell ravaged French farmhouse by exhausted officers, it is telling that there is not a single example of a man wrong convicted of the offence with which he was charged.

Where there is room for argument is not over the verdicts but the sentences. Judged by today's standards, there were some disturbing decisions.

The chief difficulty lay in judging a man's mental state when he committed a capital offence such as desertion or cowardice. Military psychiatry had not been invented in 1914 A man was considered either sane or incurably mad. There was no grey area.

By the end of that year, when the British Expeditionary Force of 100,000 professional soldiers had suffered 96,000 casualties and experienced the mind-shattering hell of incessant shelling, fear, mud, cold, rats and the stench of rotting bodies 24 hours a day, the authorities reluctantly began to recognise there was such a condition as stress-induced 'hysteria' or shell-shock.'

But even-well-into the war, there was still a firm view that those affected simply needed to 'pull themselves together'.

Private George Lawton was a Nottinghamshire man who had responded to Kitchener's plea for volunteers when the bulk of the regular Army had been virtually annihilated.

He had a good record as a soldier. But one July night in 1916, he repeatedly refused to go on a sortie into no-man's land and was charged with cowardice.

At his court martial, his defence was that since being buried and wounded in a shell explosion in February, he was still 'suffering from the effects'.

His written statement ended pathetically with the words: 'Indeed, Sir, when our officer warned me to go out on a Fatigue Party, I felt shocking nervous.'

Today, a medical officer might recognise behind this piteous understatement signs of battlefield trauma. But Lawton displayed none of the accepted physical signs of shell-shock, such as shaking or twitching uncontrollably, and was pronounced 'in good health in every way'.

He was sentenced to death, but , with a recommendation from his commander that it be commuted. Unfortunately General Monro, the fierce disciplinarian commanding First Army, disagreed. Lawton was executed with another member of his battalion, Bertie McCubbin.

McCubbin, too, had disobeyed orders to man a listening post in no-man's land. 'I cannot do so,' he told the officer. 'My nerves won't let me; if I go over I shall be a danger to the other man who is out there, as well as to myself.'

HOWEVER reasonable that may sound to our ears, in 1916 it was considered even more reasonable - by soldier and civilian alike to charge the man with cowardice in the face of the enemy.

At the court martial Pte McCubbin presented his defence in the form of a touching letter. 'During my stay in the Annequin trenches,' he wrote, 'I had my nerves shattered by a shell which burst on the railway which runs above our trenches, 'bursting three yards away. I have never been right since, my nerves being completely ruined.

'This being the case, I put the plea--forward that-my case not being a blank refusal to an officer but as nervousness on my part being made worse by the incessant bombardment which has been going on here lately.

'I have never been up before my company officer or colonel before until now, this being the first time, and I have always tried to play my part while I have been in the Army.

'I have also a father somewhere in France, leaving my mother at home with six brothers and sisters, and always thinking if anything had to happen to us two what would become of them, which does not help me to get on a deal. 'So I also put forward a plea that if you deal leniently with me in this case, I will try and do my bit and keep up a good reputation.' Like Lawton, McCubbin was found guilty and sentenced to death, with a strong recommendation for mercy on account of his previous good character and the state of his health. This view was echoed by other senior commanders, but once again Monro proved unbending. 'If toleration be shown to private soldiers who deliberately decline to face danger, all the qualities which we desire will become debased and degraded. He ruled. 'I recommend the sentence of the court be inflicted.

The two volunteer’s were shot at Lone Farm on July 30, 1916, at 5am. McCubbin's death certificate contained the chilling statement 'death was not instantaneous' - which suggests he would have been finished off with a coup de grace from the officer's revolver.

By comparison with the case histories of most of the other men executed during the war, these two were treated harshly.

What swung the decisions against them, apart from the bad luck of having General Monro review their sentences, was that their offences happened so soon after the catastrophic first day of the Battle of the Somme, when the British suffered 60,000 casualties. The high command was desperately worried that what was by then a largely volunteer army would crack under the strain, or even mutiny.

Leniency towards those who disobeyed orders at that critical time would have sent the wrong signal to thousands of jittery men, barely clinging to their sanity and courage in the trenches. In other words, Lawton and McCubbin were made examples of.

Some other offenders had the balance of justice tipped against them for the same reason, especially if they were NCOs or officers, or had the misfortune to come from units whose moral fibre was thought to need stiffening.

If a man was a poor soldier, his case was weakened. It also seemed logical to make examples of the expendable, such as multiple deserter, William Bowerman.

Approving the court's death sentence, Pte Bowerman's brigade commander wrote bluntly that he was 'quite worthless, as a soldier or in any other capacity and is better removed from this world'.

That must have seemed a shocking remark, even then. But it was only an extreme example of a general tendency by senior officers to judge barely trained volunteers and, after 1916, conscripts by the same rigid standards as had applied to the regulars. This was harsh but understandable.


PERHAPS this knowledge helped some of them accept their fate. The condemned man usually spent his last night writing letters and talking to a chaplain. A merciful Medical Officer would give him alcohol or opiates. At any rate, it is a fact that most showed remarkable stoicism in the face of the firing squad.

A cavalry captain who witnessed an execution described the scene.

'Before the prisoner arrived, the firing party had its rifles mixed up and some of them unloaded so no one could be sure he had fired a fatal shot. Then the 12 men were drawn up opposite a chair under a railway embankment. The condemned man had spent the night in a nearby house.

'He walked from there blindfolded with the doctor, the parson and the escort. He walked quite steadily onto parade, sat down in the chair, and told them not to tie him too tight. A white disc was pinned over his heart. He was the calmest man on the ground.

'The firing party was 15 paces distant. The officer commanding the firing party did everything by signal, only speaking the word "Fire!" the man's head fell back and the firing party about-turned at once.

'The doctor said the man was not quite dead, but before the OC [officer commanding] the firing party could finish him 

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