Remembrance Sunday this year was a good one for the Shot at Dawn campaigners. Since 1990 they have sought pardons for more than three hundred servicemen executed during World War One for ‘military offences’: desertion, cowardice and disobedience. The pardons, announced by the MoD in August, were largely the result of growing press coverage, discreet encouragement from the Irish government and the fact that the case of Private Harry Farr, shot in 1916 for cowardice, was due to return to the High Court, with a reasonable chance of success for his descendants – including his daughter, who’s now in her nineties. The pardons, which are included in a new Armed Forces Act, received royal assent four days before the ceremony at the Cenotaph.

The original hope of SAD campaigners in several countries had been to obtain ‘millennium pardons’ – a deadline that was met in New Zealand with an act of parliament in September 2000. Westminster proved more cautious: SAD’s UK organiser, John Hipkin, was rebuffed by the first Blair administration, after meeting with the then armed forces minister, John Reid.

The figures for military executions are puzzling. The French were the most enthusiastic executioners of the Great War, with about six hundred, followed by the Italians, with about five hundred. The Germans were more moderate, with fewer than fifty. Does that translate as fewer desertions and acts of ‘cowardice’ in the German ranks or a more temperate military culture? More or less happy as they were to assemble firing squads, the British found it easier to shoot an Irish serviceman than one of their own. An ethnic/national breakdown of the dead shows that as an Irish soldier, you were four times more likely to be executed than your English counterpart.

My uncle Stephen, originally from Limerick and now in Staines, came across his own uncle’s name in a newspaper many years ago. The man in question was Private Patrick Downey, also of Limerick, who was shot the day after Boxing Day 1915, near Salonica. Officially he was 19, but he may well have lied about his age to get into the forces. He was shot for refusing to fall in for a fatigue and then to put on his hat. The fatigue, apparently, was part of Field Punishment No 1, visited on Downey for ‘insubordination’. Field Punishment No 1 also involved being tied in a fixed position for two hours a day, for up to three months. Often it was to the wheel of a limber, the severity of the ordeal determined by the weather and the tightness of the bindings. In Goodbye to All That, Robert Graves remembers seeing his faithful servant, Private Fahy, spreadeagled on a wheel. ‘Tottie’, as he was known, got ‘28 days of it’ for drunkenness.

Downey had been clobbered with the full ‘84 days’ on 25 November, a few weeks before he was executed. How many of those he served, if any, is a mystery, since his refusal to comply came on the following day. It’s possible that he spent the remainder of his life, barring the brief court martial, in a guardhouse. Was anything he endured in the way of military discipline worse than serving with the 10th (Irish) Division in Gallipoli? He and his fellow survivors among the Leinsters had been transferred away from there in the autumn.

Soldiers who lost the plot, as Downey did, present hard men like John Reid with a conundrum: why excuse cowards, deserters and insubordinates when so many others, including under-age recruits (nowadays ‘child soldiers’), managed to live with the drudgery and horror? But this question leaves most of the stones unturned. It’s obvious from Downey’s record that he, like many, was shot pour encourager les autres. As for ‘cowards’, there is physical exhaustion to consider, as well as post-hoc diagnoses of PTSD and mental illness. Harry Farr withstood two years on the Western Front, much of this time with PTSD, and was shot as the Battle of the Somme ended. At his death, Farr refused a blindfold.

Punishing the boot because you’d worn the sole through was the order of the day. There have been mutterings against the SAD campaign: ‘rewriting history’ and judging the past by the standards of the present are common charges, not wholly unfounded. But in the great majority soldiers and ex-soldiers have backed the campaign and the fifty or sixty Shot at Dawn supporters waiting to march past the Cenotaph this month must have been among the very few in Whitehall to read the occasion as some sort of victory.

I stood for an hour with Stephen and his wife, Betty, and another uncle, Christy, between the Wales Office and Hardiman’s statue of Haig. Christy had his campaign medals – the Second World War Star and the Burma Star – pinned to his waterproof and a packet of Murray Mints to tide us over. Everyone we spoke to in the SAD contingent felt a strong sense of relief: names cleared, injustices set right.

The first round from the cannon in Horseguards Parade sounded for the two-minute silence and ill-mannered gulls shrieked above Banqueting House, then all you could hear was the wind gusting in the plane trees and the lofty drone of the air traffic crossing east to west in the clear sky somewhere beyond Westminster. In that immense and powerful interval, even longer than it seemed in my childhood, a police spotter on the roof of the Wales Office adjusted his bulletproof vest, a Home Guard veteran in a motorised buggy suppressed a cough and I found myself dreaming about Ivor Gurney, how he’d chosen to sleep out on the Embankment a few months after he’d been discharged. When the second round broke the silence, it set off a car alarm, moments before the ‘Last Post’. The dignitaries laid their wreaths. Then we were singing ‘O God our help in ages past’ and listening to the bishop of London: ‘Teach us, good Lord, to serve thee as thou deservest; to give and not to count the cost; to fight and not to heed the wounds …’

It’s a translation from Loyola, sometimes called the ‘prayer for generosity’. You’d think it would suit our adversaries – the handful we had at the turn of the millennium, and the many we’ve acquired since – much better than it suits us. We’ve learned to keep track of every injury. Others find it easier to accept the discipline of not counting, which in turn makes it easier to fight. So does faith. In his early life, Loyola survived a direct hit from enemy artillery with severe leg injuries; he decided, on recovering, to abandon home and live in a remote cave communing with God about the next best move.

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Vol. 29 No. 3 · 8 February 2007

Jeremy Harding says the French executed more of their own soldiers than any other army in the Great War, followed by the Italians (LRB, 30 November 2006). But the Italians executed 729 soldiers after courts martial, not five hundred, as Harding has it. The number of summary executions cannot be established; there were at least three hundred, but – in the vengeful chaos following the Caporetto defeat in November 1917 – the total may have reached several thousand. Therefore the Italian army killed, at a minimum, well over a thousand of its own men: almost twice the French total, though the French army was twice the size of the Italian.

Mark Thompson

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