Aug 17, 2006

Summary justice on the Somme

The UK Ministry of Defense will pardon 306 World War I soldiers convicted of cowardice--a decision not withour controversy.
The Ministry of Defence's decision will have a strange effect on the writing of history since it will not be possible to ignore or obliterate the verdicts even though they no longer stand. How much better it would have been had the Ministry of Defence said: "We believe that the sentences were over-harsh and in the light of today's knowledge of combat stress and post-traumatic disorders, would probably not have been handed down today. However we cannot interfere with historical fact. We are therefore going to issue a statement regretting that these executions took place but we are going to let the verdicts on which they were passed stand."

There would be protests from those who dislike unpleasantness in any form - but these people are too tender to expose to the past. It was nastier than anything on reality TV, which is now thought to be the strongest meat the television-watching public can stand. It would be impossible to expose the real facts of the First World War on mainstream television, or even in the tabloid press, which requires truth to be sanitised for public consumption. That is what the 'shot-at-dawn' campaigners are really demanding: a sanitised version of the past.

Here's an unsanitized view.
A French military observer reported on one unknown double execution: "The two condemned. . . were tied up from head to toe like sausages. A thick bandage hid their faces. And, a horrible thing, on their chests a square of fabric was placed over their hearts. . .

"The unfortunate duo could not move. They had to be carried like two dummies on the open-backed lorry, which bore them to the rifle range. It is impossible to articulate the sinister impression the sight of those two living parcels made on me. The padre mumbled some words and then went off to eat!

"Two six-strong platoons appeared, lined up with their backs to the firing posts. The guns lay on the ground.

"When the condemned had been attached, the men of the platoon who had not been able to see events, responding to a silent gesture, picked up their guns, abruptly turned about, aimed and opened fire.

"They then turned their backs on the bodies and the sergeant ordered 'Quick march!' The men marched right past them, without inspecting their weapons, without turning a head. No military compliments, no parade, no music, no march past; a hideous death without drums or trumpets."

As the last linked article points out, the comrades of the condemned men more likely than not agreed with the verdicts--and the sentences. It was a different time. And there seems very little point in trying to rewrite history using current values as our yardstick.

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