World War I Courts Martial

When the First World War broke out in 1914, no-one could have predicted the death and devastation that would follow, and certainly not the scale on which it happened. However, the deaths did not come only in battle and active service. Between August 1914 and March 1920, more than 3,000 members of the British Armed Forces were sentenced to death through courts martial because of misdemeanours committed during a time of war.

Although some of the crimes were relatively serious — desertion, murder, espionage and mutiny, for example — others were far less serious by today’s standards. Many men were sentenced to death for crimes as small as striking a superior officer — something which seems very extreme by the standards we have set for ourselves in the modern age.

It is worth noting that around 90% of those military court sentences were later commuted to penal servitude or hard labour, although many men still faced the firing squad for a number of military misdemeanours which might nowadays seem rather mild. In total, 346 men were executed, three for sleeping at their post, two for casting away arms and eighteen for cowardice. Although nowadays we might see these crimes as small and relatively insignificant, the names of these men still do not appear on official war memorials and they are largely forgotten and officially regarded as traitors to their country.

With so many men affected by seeing their friends killed and mutilated on a daily basis, it can hardly come as a surprise that so many soldiers were affected in ways which led them to run away from battle or hesitate when faced with the enemy. The military top brass, though, saw things differently. The firing squads were meant to be a deterrent to those considering any act of disobedience, and many see them as a necessary means to having won the war. Just over a decade after the end of the war, in 1930, the military death penalty was completely outlawed.

Although it is often argued that mental illness and distress symptoms have only recently been accepted and seen as real medical issues, this appears not to be a reasonable line of reason to take. The Ancient Greeks, for example, already recognised post-traumatic stress disorder, calling it ‘war exhaustion’.

In recent years, the British Legion and other groups have called for the executed men to be officially recognised on war memorials and to be given official military pardons. Many academics have argued against this, saying that we can’t impose our modern views on punishment on events which happened a century ago. Regardless, though, the tide is turning towards forgiveness and a growing number of people are seeking to see the soldiers officially pardoned, perhaps finally allowing them and their memories to lay to rest.

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    The most serious military law offences in the UK

    In uk military law, the sentences that can be imposed can vary wildly from dismissal from active service to life imprisonment. It can be surprising to the civilian population just which offences carry the harshest sentences, as it often does not necessarily reflect what might be considered to be a serious offence in the civilian world.

    For example, allowing fuel to overflow when filling a petrol tank is considered to be misapplying or wasting public or service property, a section 25 offence which carries a maximum sentence of dismissal with disgrace. The same punishment can be given to an officer who flies an aircraft in a manner which annoys someone else. These may seem like small, petty crimes to the civilian population — or perhaps not even crimes at all — but are seen as very serious in the Armed Forces – largely because of the significant danger of explosion that overflowing petrol can cause.

    Up to two years’ imprisonment can be given for a number of offences, including intentionally flying below 2,000 feet in a fixed-wing aircraft or 500 feet in a helicopter, resisting arrest, obstructing or failing to assist an officer when requested bullying a colleague or being unfit through alcohol or drugs. The sentence also applies to disclosure of information, failing to attend duty or perform a duty and disrespectful behaviour to a superior officer.

    Ten years’ imprisonment can be given for putting colleagues at risk, failing to escape or preventing others from escaping when it was reasonably possible, using violence against or threatening a superior officer or recklessly obeying a command. The most serious sentence which can be given by a military court is that of life imprisonment, which is applicable to quite a surprising number of offences.

    Military offences – what can lead to life imprisonment?

    Life imprisonment in a military prison can be the sentence that results from dangerous flying, giving false air signals to aircraft or interfering with the signals, recklessly hazarding a ship, being absent without leave (desertion), failing to suppress a mutiny with prior knowledge, attempting mutiny or disobeying lawful authority, taking property from killed or injured officers, surrendering or abandonment without reasonable excuse and assisting an enemy. Even providing an enemy with supplies or harbouring or protecting them can result in life imprisonment, and all of the above are viewed very seriously in the military world and the resultant punishment will depend on the extenuating circumstances and the views of the Judge Advocate and the Board.

    It is also worth remembering that civilians are liable to be prosecuted under military law should they be working as an MOD contractor or for any one of a number of other organisations, are on military grounds or are in a designated area with a spouse or acquaintance who is on active military duty. It is for this reason that it is important that the nuances of military law and its applicable sentences are known to all, as it is reasonably possible that they could apply to anyone — not just active service personnel.

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