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Thread: World War I, The Fratricidal 'Original Catastrophe'

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    World War I, The Fratricidal 'Original Catastrophe'

    Mark Weber – Podcast

    The global conflict of 1914-1918 was the most destructive military clash in history, surpassed only by World War II. The war that American historian George F. Kennan called "the original catastrophe" not only brought destruction, misery and death to millions, it shattered the seemingly secure Western world order. It broke the confidence of Europeans in themselves and their long-held values, brought down dynasties that had ruled for centuries in Russia, Austria-Hungary and Germany, and forced a drastic reassessment of cherished assumptions about life and society.

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  3. #2

    the Battle of the Somme, July 1916

    An Infantry Officer at the Battle of the Somme, July 1916

    The race was lost before it started. The barrage moved on, the infantry could not go on, the barrage could not be brought back and reinforcements were pushed in where no infantry could push on – a compound tragedy of errors. No scope was allowed for flexibility and initiative in exploiting penetration at particular weak spots, nor in adjusting the artillery arrangements. It is not surprising that the Fourth Army staff subsequently tried to recall and burn the booklet of tactical instructions – known as ‘the Llittle Red Book’ – which they had issued for the battle. I have one of the few surviving copies, as I became a casualty before they were recalled, and was thus able to preserve it.

    In the last stages of preparation for the attack, three cavalry divisions began to move up close to the front ready to pass through ‘the G in Gap’ – the current phase used to express their cherished aim and hope. In Haig’s optimistic instructions, they were to ride through on the first morning to Bapaume, a ten mile bound beyond the British front line. (Five months later, when the offensive petered out, Haig’s armies were still three miles short of Bapaume and over 400,000 had been lost.)

    The assault was originally planned for delivery on June 29, and our battalion marched up to the take-off trenches on the afternoon of the 27th. Before starting, the officers assembled at the headquarters mess, in a typical Picardy farmhouse. Recent strain between the commanding officer and some of the others led to an embarrassing pause when the senior company commander was called on to propose a toast to the CO. On a sudden inspiration, he raised his glass and gave the toast with the words: ‘Gentlemen: when the barrage lifts.’ That toast , unforgettable to those who were present, has been repeated ever since in a memorial notice that appears in the Times on each anniversary of the attack.

    Then the battalion set off, singing ‘Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag’, the principal marching song of that year. When on the way to the division’s assault sector, between Fricourt and La Boisselle, news came that ‘Z Day had been put off until July 1 because of a bad turn in the weather – which meant that the battalion had to wait for about sixty hours in trenches that were partially flooded by a torrential downpour, deafened by the noise of our own bombardment and under counter-shelling from the German batteries.

    In view of experience in 1915, it had been ordered that a small proportion of the officers and of the other ranks in the leading battalions should be held back as a nucleus on which to rebuild the units in case of severe casualties – although no such eventuality was expected. So officers who were second-in-command of companies, as I was, were kept in immediate reserve, along with the adjutant and a few others.

    ‘Zero hour’ on July 1 was 7.30 a.m. and the assaulting waves ‘went over the top’ in full daylight under a cloudless blue sky. The first vague rumours which came back were delusively optimistic, but before long we heard that the CO and all four company commanders had been killed before the enemy’s front trench had been reached, and that most of the other officers and men had been either killed or wounded. That brought a speedy call for us. After running the gauntlet of enemy snipers and other fire, with the moans and cries of many badly wounded men ringing in our ears, we reached a slightly sunken road half a mile beyond the enemy’s front trench, and there found what survived of the battalion. Only two officers were left, and one of them was wounded. Casualities went on increasing that evening and during the night, as the low bank beside the road provided little cover. The neighbouring battalion had no officers left, and I took charge of it temporarily until some fresh ones arrived. But the expected counter-attack did not come, and it became evident that the enemy were in as much confusion as we were.

    That night the leading troops of the division’s reserve brigade came up to strengthen the narrow wedge that had been driven into the German position, but did not attempt to push on farther. We wondered why there was no sign of the reserve divisions which we had been told beforehand, were coming through to carry on the advance. Some of us had the feeling that a strong fresh infusion that night would have been able to push forward with little difficulty, and achieve a breakthrough, before the enemy had recovered their balance. The second day passed without any such initiative by the Higher Command.

    As the division’s left flank was ’in the air’ I took out a bombing party on the third morning to explore the situation and cover that flank. The worst difficulty in this expedition was to be sure of one’s location, as the German trenches had been flattened out and landmarks obliterated. Everywhere was an arid waste of tumbled earth, with here and there a limb or face protruding – of men who had been buried by our shells. During this reconnaissance I had a ‘grandstand’ view of a renewed attack that was launched by the 34th Division on the La Boisselle sector. It was strangely different from any picture of battle sketched by war artists in the illustrated Press. Instead of the dramatic charge of cheering troops which they depicted, one saw thin chains of khaki-clad dots plodding slowly forward, and becoming thinner under a hail of fire until they looked merely a few specks on the landscape.

    That night the division was relieved, and withdrawn to rest. The remains of our battalion, which had been more than eight hundred strong at the outset, set off back across no-mans-land in three small parties – in all less than seventy men, with four officers. We were so weary after six nights with scarcely any sleep that we moved in a stupor, stumbling along painfully until we reached ‘Happy Valley’ – a sheltered hollow filled with dumps – half a mile behind the old front line, where later our dead were buried. Here we were revived by tea laced with rum – and also rejoined by a number of ‘strays’ who had missed their way during these confused days. On reaching the road, the remnant of the battalion formed into column of route. We marched back singing ‘Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag.’

    Meeting survivors of other battalions in the days that followed, we found that our losses were not at all exceptional. On the first day the total causalties had been nearly 60,000 – the heaviest day’s loss in the whole history of Britain’s wars.

    Captain B. H. Liddell Hart Memoirs
    , 2 vols (London, Cassell & Co 1967 1, 20 -3 )

    World War I

    Following the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the German Army opened the Western Front by first invading Luxembourg and Belgium, then gaining military control of important industrial regions in France.

    The tide of the advance was dramatically turned with the Battle of the Marne
    . Following the race to the sea, both sides dug in along a meandering line of fortified trenches, stretching from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier with France. This line remained essentially unchanged for most of the war.

    Between 1915 and 1917 there were several major offensives along this front. The attacks employed massive artillery bombardments and massed infantry advances. However, a combination of entrenchments, machine gun nests, barbed wire, and artillery repeatedly inflicted severe casualties on the attackers and counter attacking defenders.

    As a result, no significant advances were made. Among the most costly of these offensives were the Battle of Verdun with a combined 700,000 dead, the Battle of the Somme with more than a million casualties, and the Battle of Passchendaele with roughly 600,000 casualties.

    In an effort to break the deadlock, this front saw the introduction of new military technology, including poison gas, aircraft and tanks. But it was only after the adoption of improved tactics that some degree of mobility was restored. The German Spring Offensive of 1918 was made possible by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk that marked the end of the conflict on the Eastern Front.

    Using the recently-introduced infiltration tactics, the German armies advanced nearly 60 miles (97 kilometres) to the west, which marked the deepest advance by either side since 1914 and very nearly succeeded in forcing a breakthrough.

    In spite of the generally stagnant nature of this front, this theatre would prove decisive. The inexorable advance of the Allied armies during the second half of 1918 persuaded the German commanders that defeat was inevitable, and the government was forced to sue for conditions of an armistice. The terms of peace were agreed upon with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.

    The Battle of the Somme

    The Battle of the Somme took place between July and November, 1916 with the aim of finally breaking the deadlock on the Western Front which had been in a stalemate since 1914. The British plan, coordinated by General Sir Douglas Haig, was to launch a major attack on German lines in the Somme River valley. The assault would begin with an intense artillery bombardment of German defences. Then, 1,200,000 soldiers would advance in wave formations along a 72 kilometre front. The aim was to cut the Germans off from behind and make them so demoralised that they would surrender.

    The Germans had weeks of forewarning through overheard field telephone messages, the movements of British reconnaissance aircraft and the observations of their own pilots. When the attack began on the 1st of July 1916, German defences were well prepared. British mines were timed to go off too early, and so alerted the Germans that the attack was due to start.

    British artillery fire also failed to destroy the barbed wire protecting the German trenches. When the soldiers took up the order to advance into no man’s land, they advanced into an unrelenting barrage of German machine gun fire.

    Thousands of soldiers became easy targets as their attempts to break through the German barbed wire only made them more entangled in it. The allied troops did not have the machine gun power that was needed to respond effectively. On the first day, over 20,000 allied troops were killed and 40,000 wounded.

    The Somme: Disaster from Day One

    Before the attack there was a seven-day artillery bombardment of the German Trenches which was so loud that it could be heard in London. For almost thirty kilometres, the British guns stood side by side firing over a million and a half shells into the German trenches. Two-thirds of the shells contained shrapnel in the form of small lead pellets. These shells were designed to destroy barbed wire in front of the German trenches. Haig doubted that there would even be ‘a rat’ alive in the German trenches.

    Yet for many of Haig’s men, the Somme would be their last battle. During the barrage, the Germans had been sheltering in specially reinforced dug-outs. When the shelling stopped, they raced to their normal trench positions. As one German soldier commented: ‘The British were coming – slowly’. As the British infantry advanced at a walking pace, the German machine guns opened fire on them with devastating effect. How could such a disaster have occurred?

    The attack failed to achieve the anticipated large scale breakthrough, and tactics focused instead on raids on specific enemy targets. One of these was the town of Pozieres. The task of capturing the German held town was given to the Australian First Division. This was achieved in a few hours on the 23rd of July 1916, but it took another seven weeks of horrific fighting against ongoing German artillery fire to consolidate the gain. By this time, three more Australian divisions had become involved, before being relieved by Canadians in early September.

    Secret Weapon - The Tank

    During the Battle of the Somme, the British launch a major offensive against the Germans, employing tanks for the first time in history. The tanks had been developed in Britain using American caterpillar tracks and a heavily armoured outer case with twin 6 pound cannons as its main armament. At Flers Courcelette, some of the 40 or so primitive tanks advanced over a mile into enemy lines but were too slow to hold their positions during the German counterattack and subject to mechanical breakdown. However, General Douglas Haig, commander of Allied forces at the Somme, saw the promise of this new instrument of war and ordered the war department to produce hundreds more.

    Australia's Involvement

    In July 1916, there were 90,000 AIF soldiers serving on the Western Front. The Australian soldiers’ reputation for reckless independence often resulted in their being chosen to lead the attacks. By the end of August 1916, there were 23,000 Australian casualties from the Somme battlefields – nearly as many as the entire eight months at Gallipoli. All this was for the gain of about 1.5 kilometres. By the end of the Somme campaign, the AIF had lost more than 32,000 soldiers, with an overall gain in land of about 10.5 kilometres. Neither the average Australian soldier nor the average British soldier had much faith in British military leadership after the battle. In April 1917, the Australian Second Division at Bullecourt (France) captured two lines of German trenches and later succeeded in establishing a new allied position nearby – despite the failure of the promised tank support from the British.

    The Final Months of the Battle

    By the start of August, Haig had accepted that the prospect of achieving a breakthrough was now unlikely; the Germans had "recovered to a great extent from the disorganisation" of July. For the next six weeks, the British would engage in a series of small-scale actions in preparation for the next major push. On the 29th of August the German Chief of the General Staff, Erich Falkenhayn, was replaced by General Paul von Hindenburg, with General Erich Ludendorff as his deputy. The immediate effect of this change was the introduction of a new defensive doctrine. On the 23rd of September, the Germans began constructing the Siegfried Stellung, called the Hindenburg Line by the British.

    On the Fourth Army's front, the struggle for High Wood, Delville Wood and the Switch Line dragged on. The boundary between the British and French armies lay south-east of Delville Wood, beyond the villages of Guillemont and Ginchy. Here the British line had not progressed significantly since the first day of the battle, and the two armies were in echelon, making progress impossible until the villages were captured. The first British effort to seize Guillemont on 8 August was a debacle. On the 18th of August a larger effort began, involving three British corps as well as the French, but it took until the 3rd of September before Guillemont was in British hands. Attention now turned to Ginchy, which was captured by the British 16th (Irish) Division on 9 September. The French had also made progress, and once Ginchy fell, the two armies were linked near Combles.

    This intermediate phase of the Battle of the Somme had been costly for the Fourth Army, despite there being no major offensive. Between 15 July and 14 September (the eve of the next battle), the Fourth Army made around 90 attacks of battalion strength or more with only four being general attacks across the length of the army's five miles (8 km) of front. The result was 82,000 casualties and an advance of approximately 1,000 yards (910 m)—a performance even worse than on 1 July.

    Opening on 1 October, the Battle of Le Transloy became bogged down as the weather broke, and heavy rain turned the churned battlefield into a quagmire. Le Sars was captured on 7 October, but elsewhere there was little progress and a continual flow of casualties. The final throe came on 5 November with a failed attack on the Butte de Warlencourt. On the Fourth Army's front, major operations in the Battle of the Somme had now ceased.

    The final act of the Battle of the Somme was played out between 13 and 18 November along the Ancre River, north of Thiepval. Haig's purpose for the attack was more political than military - with winter setting in, there was no longer any prospect of a breakthrough. Instead, with another conference at Chantilly starting on 15 November, he hoped to be able to report a success to his French counterparts.

    Haig was satisfied with the result, but Gough argued for a final effort, which was made on 18 November with an attack on the Munich and Frankfurt Trenches and a push towards Grandcourt. Ninety men of the 16th Battalion, Highland Light Infantry (the "Glasgow Boys Brigade" Pals battalion) were cut off in Frankfurt Trench, where they held out until 21 November when the 45 survivors— thirty of them wounded—surrendered. So ended the Battle of the Ancre, and with it the Battle of the Somme until ground conditions improved in January 1917.

    The Battle of the Somme - World War One - The Western Front
    05 May 2019.

  4. #3

    Gun that brought about first world war goes on show.

    Gun that brought about first world war goes on show

    Thu 25 Sep 2008

    An artist's impression of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which precipitated World War I.

    A gun that toppled the world into war, used in the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28 1914, will be unveiled today at the Imperial War Museum.

    The gun and a homemade grenade, on display for the first time in the UK, were part of the evidence gathered by police after they were used by a small group of Serbian nationalists who wanted to attract attention to their cause.

    The consequences of the bullets fired from the small black pistol by a sickly teenager would cost the lives not just of Franz Ferdinand and his wife but of millions of people across Europe, scar the lives of millions more, and sow the seeds of the second world war.

    The exhibition, marking the 90th anniversary of the Armistice, ends with the ominous words of the French Marshal Foch after the Treaty of Versailles: "This is not peace, it is an armistice for 20 years."
    "If there is a moral in our story, it is that a relatively minor event within weeks brought about the first truly total war, the first war in history genuinely to overwhelm the world," curator Terry Charman said yesterday.

    As the exhibition was being completed he showed the US defence secretary, Robert Gates, around on a private visit. Struck by the conviction of the British soldiers - and some of their leaders - that they would be "home before Christmas", Gates said: "We said the same about Iraq."

    The exhibition - which includes a letter on the brink of war from the prime minister, Herbert Asquith - focuses on the lives of 90 individuals, including Winston Churchill and Lloyd George, and features the mess-tin and spoon of future American president Harry Truman and poignant personal possessions of ordinary people.

    The gun and bomb are a rare loan from the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum in Vienna. They were collected by police after the archduke was killed by Gavrilo Princip, an 18-year-old Bosnian Serb.

    The pistol which was used in the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand will go on display for the first time in Britain.

    One reason for mounting the exhibition now, Charman said, is that of the 5 million people who enlisted in the British forces in the war, just three remain alive: Bill Stone, Harry Patch, and Henry Allingham.

    "Despite the enormous loss of life, and the promise never to forget the fallen, it is now completely overshadowed by the second world war," he said. "We need to remind people."

    Gun that brought about first world war goes on show. The exhibition, marking the 90th anniversary of the Armistice, ends with the ominous words of the French Marshal Foch after the Treaty of Versailles: "This is not peace, it is an armistice for 20 years.".

    Gun that brought about first world war goes on show ...

    05 X 2019.

  5. #4

    Why are Brits called Tommies?

    Strictly it only British soldiers who are called Tommies. It’s short for Thomas Atkins which has been used as a generic name for British Soldiers since the early 18th century. It was possibly coined by the 1st Duke of Wellington in memory of a soldier who died just after telling the Duke ‘It’s alright Sir. It’s all in a day’s work.

    Tommy Atkins (often just Tommy) is slang for a common
    soldier in the British Army. It was certainly well established during the nineteenth century, but is particularly associated with the First World War. It can be used as a term of reference, or as a form of address. German soldiers would call out to "Tommy" across no man's land if they wished to speak to a British soldier. French and Commonwealth troops would also call British soldiers "Tommies". In more recent times, the term Tommy Atkins has been used less frequently, although the name "Tom" is occasionally still heard; private soldiers in the British Army's Parachute Regimentare still referred to as "Toms".

    Popular references

    Front cover of sheet music, pub 1893, for song "Private Tommy Atkins" composed by Samuel Potter (1851–1934) and Henry Hamilton (c. 1854 – 1918). Signed by baritone C. Hayden Coffin.

    Rudyard Kipling published the poem "Tommy" (part of the Barrack-Room Ballads, which were dedicated "To T.A.") in 1892. In reply, William McGonagall wrote "Lines in Praise of Tommy Atkins" in 1898, which was an attack on what McGonagall saw as the disparaging portrayal of Tommy in Kipling's poem.[3]

    In 1893, for the musical play A Gaiety Girl, Henry Hamilton (lyrics) and Samuel Potter (music) wrote the song Private Tommy Atkins for the baritone C. Hayden Coffin. It was immediately published by Willcocks & Co. Ltd. in London[7] and published by T. B. Harms & Co. in New York the next year.[8] The song was also reintroduced into later performances of San Toy for Hayden Coffin. He recalled singing it on Ladysmith Night (1 March 1900) where "the audience were roused to such a pitch of enthusiasm, that they rose to their feet, and commenced to shower money on to the stage".[9]

    Following the British defeat by the Boers at the Battle of Magersfontein in December 1899, Private Smith of the Black Watch wrote the following poem:[10]

    Such was the day for our regiment
    Dread the revenge we will take.
    Dearly we paid for the blunder
    A drawing-room General's mistake.
    Why weren't we told of the trenches?
    Why weren't we told of the wire?
    Why were we marched up in column,
    May Tommy Atkins enquire…

    "Tommy cooker" was a nickname for a British soldier's portable stove, which was fuelled by something referred to as solidified alcohol, making it smokeless though very inefficient.[11]

    In the 1995 film The Indian in the Cupboard, Omri brings a tiny British toy soldier to life and the soldier says his name is 'Tommy Atkins.'

    Other nicknames

    Present day English soldiers are often referred to as 'Toms' or just 'Tom' (the Scots equivalent being 'Jock'). Outside the services soldiers are generally known as 'Squaddies' by the British popular press. The British Army magazine Soldier has a regular cartoon strip, 'Tom', featuring the everyday life of a British soldier.
    Junior officers in the army are generally known as 'Ruperts' by the other ranks. This nickname is believed to be derived from the children's comic book character Rupert Bear who epitomises traditional public school values (see "Inside the British Army" by Antony Beevor ISBN9780552138185)

    The term 'Pongo' or 'Perce' is often used by Sailors and Royal Marines to refer to soldiers. It is considered complimentary.

    The last Tommy

    On 25 July 2009, the death of the last "Tommy" from the First World War, Harry Patch(at 111 the oldest man in the United Kingdomand also in Europe), left Claude Choules as the last serviceman of the British forces in the war.[12]

    There was a growing opinion that the passing of the last of them should be marked in an appropriate manner. This was the subject of a cross-party campaign led by the politician Iain Duncan Smith. It was originally proposed that the last veteran to die should be given a state funeral. This met with opposition from the veterans themselves, few of whom wanted to be singled out in this way.[13] As of 28 June 2006, it was decided that a service at Westminster Abbey would be held upon the death of the last veteran.[14] However, the funeral of Harry Patch took place at Wells Cathedral, close to his home.


    Tommy Atkins - Wikipedia
    en.wikipedia.orgTommy Atkins
    Tommy Atkins (often just Tommy) is slang for a common soldier in the British Army. It was certainly well established during the nineteenth century, but is particularly associated with the First World War. It can be used as a term of reference, or as .

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  7. #5

  8. #6

    Executions for desertion in World War I

    The 302 British and Commonwealth soldiers executed for military offences committed while on active service on the Western Front cast a long shadow and their cases remain controversial to this day.

    As shocking as that figure might be, it represents only 10% of the 3,076 sentenced to death (in fact some 20,000 offences that could have attracted the death sentence were committed over this same period). These statistics show, therefore, that some of those executed were undoubtedly unlucky to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, when those further up the command chain saw a need to make an example of them, thereby making it something of a lottery for those concerned and therefore inherently unfair.

    Those who volunteered for the army in August 1914, and those who joined afterwards, either as volunteers or as conscripts, left the civilian world behind them and found themselves in an alien environment, subject to what now seems, 100 years later, harsh military law which governed all aspects of the lives of the officers and soldiers in peace and in war, at home or overseas.

    As a result of the outbreak of war, in September 1914 the normal system of military court martial was replaced by a system of summary court martial. Offences that carried the death penalty were then to be dealt with by a field general court martial presided over by a minimum of three officers, one of whom had to hold at least the rank of captain in order to act as president. All three had to be in agreement on any sentence passed. The recommended sentence was then passed up the chain of command, together with any mitigating circumstances and pleas for clemency.

    The changes made in September 1914 are important because they allowed for the sentence, passed by the field general court martial, to be carried out within twenty-four hours – with no right of appeal. The reality for those sentenced to death was that the passage of time from sentence to its promulgation or announcement could be weeks if not months, whereas the time between promulgation and the actual execution was normally just a matter of a few hours.

    Private Thomas Highgate

    On 8 September 1914 Private Thomas Highgate at the age of 17 became the first British soldier to be executed on the Western Front for desertion; just two days after sentence had been passed, proving that the process could be quick. In fact, the time between Private Highgate being informed of the confirmation of his sentence and his execution was just forty-five minutes.

    Private Highgate served in the 1st Battalion of the Royal West Kents, which was one of the first elements of the British Expeditionary Force to land in France on 15 August 1914 and took part in the fighting at Mons. General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien decided when confirming the sentence to make a very public example of Highgate and ordered that he ‘should be killed as publicly as possible’. As a result, he was executed in front of two companies of his comrades. Smith-Dorrien later justified this by claiming that, as a result, there were no further charges of desertion brought in his division and, therefore, deterrence worked.

    From 1915 onwards, uncomfortable questions about the army’s use of the death penalty began to be asked in Parliament. In 1915, Under Secretary of State for War Harold Tennant, in answer to a direct question, confirmed that executions had taken place, but in July of that year he refused to confirm the number of death sentences passed, on the grounds that it would not be in the public interest. Over the subsequent years the questions were to continue.

    Executions for desertion in World War I
    09 X 2020.

    Lest we forget: the 306 'cowards' we executed in the first world war

    From 2006: Executed WW1 soldiers to be given pardons

    From 2014: Remembrance isn't only about those who fought

    The piper had not finished his lament yesterday when the dragon's roar of London's traffic drowned out the unofficial Cenotaph service for those shot at dawn.

    Eight decades on from the end of the First World War, the 306 British soldiers shot for desertion are still dishonoured, still shamed, still the subject of the official disapproval of Her Majesty's Government.

    The microphone at the Cenotaph had been turned off, and the traffic kept at bay for only a brief moment by the police. The homage of Labour MP Andrew MacKinlay - 'We shall remember them' - was all but sabotaged as a silver Saab revved up and the exhaust of a souped-up superbike echoed across Whitehall.

    We shall not remember them. We shall not remember Herbert Morrison, who was the youngest soldier in the West India Regiment when he was led in front of the firing squad and gunned down for desertion. A 'coward' at just 17.

    We shall not remember the moment when Gertrude Farr went to the local post office in 1916 and was told: 'We don't give pensions to the widows of cowards.' She was left destitute, with a three-year-old and a four-month-old to feed.

    We shall not remember the poor soldier who confessed: 'I haven't been the same since I scraped my best friend's brains from my face.' He, too, was shot at dawn.
    To this day, the Ministry of Defence refuses to give a pardon to the 306, convicted of cowardice, though even in 1914 people knew all about 'shell shock' - what the modern world calls Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

    The daughter of Harry and Gertrude Farr was at the Cenotaph yesterday to hear the piper. Still fit and spry at 86 years, Gertrude Harris told of the agony of her father. He went over the top countless times from the day he joined up with the British Expeditionary Force in 1914. He was shelled repeatedly, collapsed with the shakes in May 1915 and was sent to hospital. 'He shook all the time. He couldn't stand the noise of the guns. We got a letter from him, but it was in a stranger's handwriting. He could write perfectly well, but couldn't hold the pen because his hand was shaking.'

    It is possible that Farr was suffering from hypacusis, when the ear drums are so damaged that the auditory nerve is exposed and the victim cannot physically bear loud noises. This is a condition familiar to people in Northern Ireland caught up in bomb explosions. Whatever his precise ailment, Farr was sent back to the front line.

    He struggled on for months, and went through the Somme unscathed. But then something snapped within him. He was in a ration party, moving towards the front line, and he couldn't go on. He went to a dressing station and asked to see a medical orderly. He was told that he couldn't see an MO because he wasn't wounded. The sergeant-major was quoted in Farr's court martial papers saying: 'If you don't go up to the fucking front, I'm going to fucking blow your brains out.' Farr replied: 'I just can't go on.'

    The court martial lasted 20 minutes. Farr defended himself. The decent doctor who had first got him to hospital had been injured and could not defend him. General Sir John Haig - one of the donkeys who led the lions - signed his death warrant. Farr was shot at dawn on 16 October 1916.

    And that is not the worst. There was no war pension, only shame. Gertrude said yesterday: 'I only knew the truth about what happened to my father when I was 40. My mother never, ever spoke about it. She was destitute, and we both went into service.'

    The agony did not end with the executions. John Laister died two months ago at the age of 101. All his life he was tortured by the moment he was dragooned into a firing squad. He raised his rifle and, on the command, opened fire. The victim was a boy soldier who had been arrested for cowardice. Laister told BBC's Omnibus, to be broadcast tonight: 'There were tears in his eyes and tears in mine. I don't know what they told the parents.'

    The historic shaming of men - and, consequentially, their women and children - happened in other countries too. In France and Germany men were shot for cowardice and desertion. But in the case of Germany, only 25, not 306. And in both countries that shame was lifted within a decade of the end of the war when official memorials were built.

    Only in Britain do we continue to dishonour the victims of shell shock. The Government's argument echoes the one first set out by John Major. He told the Commons that pardoning the 'deserters' would be an insult to those who died honourably on the battlefield and that everyone was tried fairly.

    Documents released under the 75-year-rule give the lie to the last point. Soldiers accused of cowardice were not given fair trials; they were often not properly defended. The evidence against them was often contradictory. Tom Stones's great uncle, Sgt Will Stones of the Durham Light Infantry, was shot for desertion, but any reading of the case papers shows that no court today would have convicted him. Instead, he would probably have got a medal. He blocked the trench with a rifle, which had been sheathed on the orders of Major Bernard Montgomery. For this he was convicted of 'shamefully casting away his weapon in the face of the enemy'.

    Thus far the Government has resisted appeals to give a Millennium Pardon for those shot at dawn. Mackinlay told The Observer yesterday: 'It appears there are still some Bufton Tuftons in the Ministry of Defence who resist this. None of the relatives want compensation, only justice and the return of the good name of their loved ones.'

    Some of the executed were clearly under age. The Ministry of Defence defended this last barbarity in a letter dated 24 March 1999 to Shot At Dawn campaigner John Hipkin from MoD historian A. J. Ward. She wrote: 'You also state that a number of soldiers who were under-age were illegally tried and executed. This is not the case. Anyone over the age of 14 was deemed legally responsible for his actions and Army regulations provided no immunity from Military Law for an under-age soldier.'

    That may have washed in 1918. For the Government to continue that defence of bureaucratic inertia in 1999 is as plain a disgrace as the silent microphone.

    Lest we forget: the 306 'cowards' we executed in the first ...

    During the First World War, only 18
    Germans who deserted were executed.

    Desertion - Wikipedia

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    Quote Originally Posted by jagdmesser View Post
    During the fighting on the Western Front, 1914 - 18 the British and Empire armies lost 118,941 officers and 2,571,113 men as battle casualties. Others became casualties through illness. More than half of all British and Empire soldiers on the Western Front suffered some kind of wound in battle.
    I presume that isn't only killed-in-action, but also wounded.

    On the background of World War One:

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