In reality most suffered ‘Post Traumatic Stress Disorder’.
The soldiers in World War One were expected to fight to the death for their king and country. If danger should face their shores, they were expected to meet it head on, with no fear for their own lives. But what the propaganda didn’t take into account was the very real psychological threat of being ‘shell shocked’.
Imagine this, you’re a young man, only a teenager really. You’re proud to be a ‘Tommy’, and you are ready to fight ‘the Hun’ for your country. You complete your basic training for physical fitness, drill, march discipline, essential field craft, and so on. You make lifelong friends with the other Tommies, and swear to protect each other should you need it. Before you know it, you’re sent to the front. It’s not at all like you thought it would be. The trenches are just muddy piles of dirt and wood, the food consists of stale biscuits and whatever else you may have brought with you, the water is cloudy and smells funny. All around you is disease and death. You quickly get a bout of gastric from something you ate or drank, but there’s nowhere sanitary to relieve yourself. And on top of that, the guns and mortar shells are continually threatening your life.
As you run, you see your best friends cut down by gunfire. One is shot in the head. He drops instantly. The other receives two bullet wounds in the gut; you watch his intestines fall out around him. Suddenly there is an explosion next to you, you are thrown in the air and you remember no more.
You come to and you’re in a clean, sterile environment. All around you are injured soldiers, and beautiful nurses in pristine uniforms. They tell you that you had shrapnel removed from your buttocks. They keep telling you that in a few weeks, you’ll be as good as new. They assure you that before you know it, you’ll be back at the front, ready to fight another day.
The problem is you have already seen what can happen to people at the front. You watched your friends die horrible deaths. There’s no way you’re going to go back there. This starts to plague your every waking moment. Nothing prepared you for the carnage you witnessed. As you think about it, the horror becomes too much for you. You decide to run away in the dead of night, when everybody is asleep. But you get caught.....
Generals and Their Tea
The first recorded ‘military coward’ to be executed was Private Thomas Highgate. He watched the carnage of 7,800 British troops at the Battle of Mons. In stark terror he fled and hid in a barn, petrified that he would be next. He was captured and put on trial by his own countrymen. He had nobody to defend him, because everyone he knew had been killed, injured or captured. The war had only been raging for 35 days when Private Highgate was executed by firing squad. He was only 17 years old.
Another true story is that of Herbert Burden. Herbert lied about his age so he could join the Northumberland Fusiliers. He watched his friends massacred at the battlefield of Bellwaarde Ridge, and fled. He faced the firing squad, even though he was officially still too young to be in his regiment. He was only 16 years of age.
To the generals who were off in their tents, sipping tea, the executions of these ‘cowards’ served two purposes. It punished the deserters, and it served as an example to their comrades. It was indoctrinated in all soldiers, including those in the medical units who should’ve known better, that if you refuse to fight for your country, you were a coward. In the words of one doctor: “I went to the trial determined to give him no help, for I detest his type – I really hoped he would be shot.”
The medical officer would check for a heartbeat, and if one was present, the officer in charge would finish the job with a revolver.
So many of those 306 soldiers were just boys. Although the military death penalty was outlawed in 1930, should these men do today what they had done back then, there is no way they would be executed. The advancement in psychology now allows for the term ‘shell-shocked’, or post-traumatic stress disorder. Psychologist Dr Petra Boynton believes that, even 100 years ago, there was no excuse for killing soldiers who were so obviously under the most extreme stress. 'Letters home from the front line show soldiers in stages of mental collapse,' she says. 'Men were obviously breaking down as they wrote about the horrors they'd seen. Those who did survive were changed forever.'
In contrast, approximately 150,000 soldiers from the German Army fled to neutral countries such as the Netherlands, Denmark and Switzerland during World War One. Only 18 were caught and executed.
In 2006 all the British soldiers shot for cowardice were granted posthumous pardons.
Put together by Ashley Hall 2013