A death sentence had to be passed unanimously, and confirmed in writing by various officers as the verdict passed up the chain of command. A man’s battalion and brigade commander tended to comment on his own record, but senior generals tended to be more concerned with the type of offence and the state of discipline in that unit. The Judge Advocate General at GHQ also checked the records for irregularities, before final confirmation (or otherwise) by the Commander-in-Chief of the relevant theatre.
Of the 3,080 men sentenced to death, 346 men were actually executed, the vast majority of these (266) for desertion, the next largest reasons for execution being murder (37 - these men would probably have been hanged under civilian law at the time) and cowardice (18). Convictions for mutiny were rare — only one man was shot for the Etaples disturbances in 1917. Of the men shot, 91 were already under a previous suspended sentence, and nine under two sentences. Of the 91, 40 were already under a suspended death sentence, 38 of them for desertion, and one man had already been “sentenced to death” twice for desertion.
It was felt at the time that — precisely because most soldiers in combat were afraid - an example needed to be made of men who deserted. Front line soldiers also sometimes felt that those who left their mates "in the lurch" by deserting "deserved to be shot". One historian writes that there is “virtually no evidence” that soldiers thought the death penalty unjust, although another writes that some soldiers deplored the death penalty, whilst others thought it justified. Desertion normally meant an absence of 21 days or other evidence to indicate intent of not returning, e.g. wearing civilian clothes or failing to report for a key deployment. Those executed were normally not boys – the average age was in the mid-twenties and 40 per cent had been in serious trouble before. Thirty per cent were regulars or reservists, 40 per cent were Kitchener volunteers, 19 per cent were Irish, Canadian or New Zealand volunteers, but only nine per cent were conscripts, suggesting indulgence to the conscripts – many of them under 21 - who made up the bulk of the army by late in the war. Only executed men's records survive, so it is hard to comment on the reasons why men were reprieved, but it has been suggested that the policy of commuting 90 per cent of death sentences may well have been deliberate mercy in the application of military law designed for a small regular army recruited from the rougher elements of society. Only 7,361 of the 38,630 desertions were in the field. Most were away from the front line - 14 of the executed deserters were arrested in the United Kingdom – many deserters had never served in the front line at all.
In the latter part of the war executed men's families were usually told white lies by the authorities – their families received pensions and were buried in the same graves as other dead soldiers.
Death for desertion was abolished in 1930 over objections in the House of Lords from Lords Allenby and Plumer, two of the most distinguished British commanders of World War One; calls for its restoration in World War Two were vetoed on political grounds.
By contrast, of 393 men sentenced to death for falling asleep on sentry duty in all theatres in World War One, only two were executed (sentries were usually posted in pairs to keep one another awake — these two – in Mesopotamia — were made an example of because they were found sitting asleep together, suggesting that they had colluded).
Australians made up seven per cent of the BEF but 25 per cent of deserters, whilst an Australian was nine times more likely to be imprisoned than a British soldier. Haig asked for permission to shoot Australians, but their government refused.
British First World War discipline was not especially severe compared to other most other armies of the time (e.g. the Russians and Italians). The French admitted to only 133 executions, the Germans 48, but these figures may not be reliable as both armies had problems with discipline.
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“[Asserting] important First Amendment rights ... why should [executions] be the one area that is conducted behind closed doors?... Why shouldnt executions be public?”
—Phil Donahue (b. 1935)