Updated 05 December 2008

Shot by their own army

Cowards, or sufferers from severe PTSD? Whatever the case, 306 British soldiers were shot by their own army during World War I. Here's their story.


A decision by British officialdom in 2006 was a response to an injustice dating back to World War 1. CyberShrink shares his views.

A few years ago, a high court action led to an official decision to pardon a young man who was shot, way back during the First World War. He was accused of cowardice. The British Government, which has through many administrations refused to reconsider this issue, announced a decision to pardon all those who were shot by their own army for reasons mostly listed as 'cowardice'.

These days, after years of hard work by many specialists in trauma, we understand better that PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is a common and serious problem arising in war and serious conflicts. And we know that this is an illness, not a personal weakness, nor fault of the victim, who suffers a very normal response to a highly abnormal situation.

It became clear during World War I, though such problems had been seen before and given a variety of names, that something significant and serious was going wrong with men trapped in the ongoing appalling conditions of the war. The nature and the cause of the problem were not clear at the time, and there was little agreement on how to manage it.

Shell shock
Some called it "Shell Shock" and speculated that it was physically caused in some way by the concussion of being shelled and bombed. Some thought it was a variety of heart disorder, and called it Effort Syndrome, or Soldier's Heart.

(Read more about a new treatment for PTSD, called tremor therapy.)

Others, notably senior military men, who were seldom in the heat of battle, saw it as merely a lack of moral fibre and simple cowardice. So they condemned the men who were thus afflicted, and, in many cases, had them shot.

There has been a campaign in the UK since around 1993, seeking pardons for these men, who were victims of the ignorance of their officers. At least 306 British soldiers were shot by their own army during that war - four of them only 17 years old, and one was reported as being probably only 14, having lied about his age in his keenness to fight for his country.

A few years ago, the Ministry of Defence wrote to a campaigner: “You also state that a number of soldiers who were under-age were illegally tried and executed. This is not the case. Anyone over the age of 14 was deemed legally responsible for his actions and army regulations provided no immunity from Military Law for an under-age soldier.”

Although they were in most cases almost certainly suffering from the then current variant of PTSD, they were executed for desertion, cowardice, or other insulting reasons. Evidence emerged as some documents, kept carefully sealed for 75 years, showed that these men did not receive a fair or properly informed trial.

Some 600 men were shot by the French, perhaps 500 by the Italians, and only 48 by the Germans, with the British apparently shooting some 40 more Commonwealth troops.

Callous leaders
In retrospect, the callousness of many of the military leaders of that time would have more reasonably deserved condemnation and prosecution, as they were directly and indirectly responsible for the deaths of millions of men - but this was not to be. They were heaped with honours and riches.

There's still a statue in Whitehall of Field Marshal Douglas Haig. It is said that his military decisions caused the deaths of so many men, that if these dead could march down the road past his statue, shoulder to shoulder, it'd take them four days and nights to pass him.

Harry Farr
Private Harry Farr was 25 when he was killed for refusing to fight further. His daughter Gertrude Harris (93 in 2006), said she has always believed that his refusal to return to the front line, condemned as due to cowardice, was a result of shell shock. He had already fought for almost two years with hardly a break, in the frontline trenches. He was a volunteer who had already served in the horrific and bloody fighting at Neuve-Chappelle, and in the murderous Battle of the Somme.

In 1915, he was briefly evacuated to Boulogne suffering from shell shock, which should have saved him. He had collapsed under heavy fire, with strong convulsions, and shook continuously.

But he was ordered back to the front, where he continued to fight. He asked to see a medical orderly, but was refused. Eventually he refused to fight any longer, and was hurriedly tried and executed. The court martial took a mere 20 minutes.

Evidence given by a medical officer clarified that he should have been excused, but this was ignored by the court. In his court martial papers, the sergeant major is quoted as saying “If you don't go up to the f*****g front, I'm going to f*****g blow your brains out” to which Farr simply replied “I just can't go on.” General Haig signed his death warrant, and he was shot at dawn.

He was one of many men shot for cowardice, almost all the others were condemned for desertion. His military pension was stopped, irrespective of his long and brave military service before this, and his wife and daughter were evicted from their home, suffering shame, stigma and severe financial hardship.

The daughter and granddaughter had been fighting in court to overturn a ruling in 2000 by the British former Defense Secretary, Geoff Hoon, who had insisted that there was no basis for a posthumous pardon; and later refused by the current British Home Secretary John Reid, when he too was Defence Secretary.

No medical examination
A further 2 700 men were sentenced to death and later reprieved and spared execution, but their records were peculiarly destroyed in the interim, so we do not know why they were spared. They have not been considered eligible for pardon, rather than reprieve.

Many of those who were tried seem to have had no medical examination before court martial or sentence. Typical of the attitude of the time, an officer was quoted as saying: "If a man lets his comrades down, he ought to be shot. If he's a loony, so much the better".

The Germans shot fewer of their soldiers suffering from PTSD, but instead they used a savage form of treatment involving painful electric shocks, which either drove the men to return to battle to avoid further such torture, or resulted in their deaths from the treatment or by suicide.

In South Africa, a wide range of severe post-traumatic reactions and disorders were seen during the Struggle days, both in political detainees, and in conscripts sent to fight in Namibia. Ironically, these very relevant and severe reactions to the decisions and actions of the political establishment, were also minimised or ignored, and the victims also neglected.

It has been a recurrent tragedy that whatever may be gained during each major war, in terms of understanding the effects of trauma on humans, has been forgotten with the onset of peace - only to be learned again, during the next conflict, at a cost of great and avoidable extra suffering.

(Prof M.A. Simpson, Health24's CyberShrink, updated 2012)


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2013-02-09 07:27



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