Soldiers executed in World War I will get pardons if British MP gets way

October 20, 1993|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,London Bureau

LONDON -- Three-quarters of a century later, it is the inglorious dead who trouble Britain.

Alexander MacKinlay asked the House of Commons yesterday to support a pardon for 307 soldiers executed during World War I for cowardice and desertion, for sleeping at their posts, throwing away their guns or hitting a superior officer.

"All 307 soldiers were, in my submission, denied rules of natural justice," the Labor member said in a vigorous speech, widely supported with the rumbled grunts of parliamentary assent.

He called the court-martial decisions unfair and said they took place often in abrupt and hurried trials with little defense. Many defendants, he said, were sick and traumatized from shell shock.

"When injustices are discovered, the men can't be brought back, but the degradation should be lifted and they should be exonerated," Mr. MacKinlay said in an earlier interview.

His pardon bill passed with only one dissenting vote. Because of the intricacies of the British parliamentary system, it will not become law. But it may help persuade a reluctant government to act.

Since his election 18 months ago, Mr. MacKinlay has been campaigning on behalf of families of the executed. Many families remain silent with a shame that Mr. MacKinlay feels is undeserved.

He finds extraordinary sympathy for these men today and notes a strong class bias to the executions. Only three officers faced the firing squads.

"Working-class kids were executed," he says. "The officers were shipped back home."

The issue was brought poignantly to life by a recent British Broadcasting Corp. radio documentary that included an interview with the widow of a soldier shot for cowardice. Helen Farr, who died at 99 before the interview was broadcast, was 22 and the mother of a young daughter when her husband, Harry, was executed in France in 1916.

"They sent me a letter from the War Office," Mrs. Farr recalled. "And all it said was: 'Dear Madame, We regret to inform you that your husband has died. He was sentenced for cowardice and shot at dawn on the 16th of October.' Those were the exact words.

"What did I do?" she said. "I got that letter and pushed it down in my blouse, so petrified I was that anybody saw it. And nobody did see it. My mother didn't know. I didn't want anybody to know what happened. And nobody knew. I wouldn't tell anybody."

Mrs. Farr spoke to Julian Putkowski, who with a fellow investigative historian, Julian Sykes, published a book called "Shot at Dawn," which for the first time gives the names of all the men executed for desertion or cowardice.

The case files were sealed under a 75-year secrecy rule, which had just began to be lifted as the two completed their research. Many of the records remain closed.

The authors scoured newspapers, diaries, unit records and histories for nearly 10 years. Their book has gone into five printings.

Mr. Putkowski and Mr. Sykes found that three Americans serving with the British army were shot for desertion. The United States itself did not execute anyone for either desertion or cowardice. Since the Civil War, Pvt. Eddie Slovik in World War II has been the only U.S. soldier shot for desertion. In World War I, the Germans executed just 48 of their men.

In World War II, no British soldiers were executed for the crimes; the regulations had been repealed in 1930.

Anthony Babington, a retired judge who remains the only person to have seen all the files of those executed, favors a commission consisting of a lawyer, a senior officer and a psychiatrist to weigh each case.

In a book Judge Babington wrote, he says: "Viewed by the standards of today few of the executed men received the most elementary form of justice."

"The trials were very short," he says. "I should say they were over in 20 minutes or a half-hour."

That included time for the president of the court to take down the gist of the evidence in longhand.

The accused was allowed a "friend," usually his platoon or company commander. Often he stood alone. Private Farr did.

Private Farr had reported sick and refused to go forward when ordered to at the Ypres salient, where 300,000 British soldiers died at Passchendaele in the month he was executed.

He had been taken off the line a year earlier with shell shock, but no medical examination was made at his trial.

"The cases for the accused were seldom presented adequately and sometimes never presented," Judge Babington says.

The often-stated Ministry of Defense position is that "one must accept the judgment made at the time in view of the circumstances and mores."

Prime Minister John Major has rejected posthumous pardons for much the same reasons.

"We cannot rewrite history by substituting our latter-day judgment for that of the contemporaries, whatever we may think," he says. "No evidence was found to lead us . . . to think the convictions were unsound or that the accused were treated unfairly."

"I'm asking that history be written with clarity and precision," Mr. MacKinlay said. "It's a matter of national shame these men were executed. It could be a matter of pride for our generation to exonerate them."

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