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Remembered Today:

What Happened To Men Who Refused


PhilB
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Not really an answer but closely related. I spoke to two men on separate occasions who had been on firing squads. They both said it was a job they would rather not have done but when detailed, they did it. Similar to being picked to go on a raid. Both were chosen individually by a Sergeant Major. They were told to report to the CSM and told what they were wanted for. They formed a guard on the prisoner overnight, then were drilled on what to do the next morning, carried out the duty, were told not to discuss it and dismissed back to duties. These men were both in the same regiment but different battalions, so that seems to have been a system applied at regimental level anyway. One of the men informed me that " The bu**er deserved all he got". I suspect, and it's only a suspicion, that a good CSM or Sergeant would be given the job of organising a firing squad and he would hand pick the men he knew he could rely on.

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Presumably this would count as refusing to obey a lawfuly constituted order and could be dealt with acordingly. As Truthergw has intimated a good NCO or Officer would follow the unwritten maxim 'never give an order you know wont be obeyed'

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QUOTE (Phil_B @ Nov 5 2009, 09:46 AM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
.... and how many did refuse?

Phil

The British Army had far better things to do in 1914-18 than to compile pointless statistics such as that!

Anyone who objected might render himself liable to the same punishment, since as centurion says, they would be disobeying a lawful order. The answer, for the squeamish, would have been to shoot to miss vital organs. There are cases where men were told that the prisoner was going to die anyway, and it would be a mercy to him to make it quick and clean.

Ron

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I suspect that, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, the attitide of the men concerned would have been akin to that of Harold Pierrepoint, the hangman. His autobiography is a fascinating, if macarbe, read, for he was opposed to the death penalty, but took the view that if someone was going to die, then it was best that it be done properly. Until reading the book, I hadn't realised that there is a right and a wrong way to hang someone. He took the view that it was better that it was all over in 15 seconds than that the poor soul took minutes to die. Thus those selected for firing squad duties could well have thought the same.....better to get it over with quickly than to aim for a non-fatal area of the body and inflict further pain and suffering, in the knowledge that the officer commanding the squad would then have to administer the coup de grace.

Bruce

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There is an unspoken assumption here, as in all the threads on executions. That the men would be against military executions and might refuse to take part. I never met a soldier who thought that executions should not take place. They nearly all felt sorry for the men who were shot and many felt ' there but for the grace of God, go I' but not one suggested that capital punishment was wrong in itself. Capital punishment was an integral part of life and the law as administered at the time. There would be several decades and another world war which culminated in the hanging of some war criminals before people as a whole started to reject the idea of capital punishment. It is still a contentious subject and we hear repeated calls for its re-introduction.

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Harold Pierrepoint, the hangman.

It sounds as if the man you are describing was Albert Pierrepoint, Bruce. I know his father and uncle were both executioners, but don't think either of them was Harold either.

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There is an unspoken assumption here, as in all the threads on executions. That the men would be against military executions and might refuse to take part.

320 odd executions means nearly 4000 men detailed for firing squads. Whilst I agree that most would think they were committing a humane act for someone who deserved it, that cannot have been universal. Without going into detail, there were some men who must have engendered sympathy from their fellows. The firing squad may have been from another battalion and not known the details of the alleged crime but, in that case, they wouldn`t know whether or not the victim "deserved what was coming to him".

No, Ron, I didn`t expect copious statistics to have been kept on the refusal rate. I did expect, though, that there may have been recorded instances, in memoirs, diaries etc, of the odd refusal. And, if there had been, I thought there would be a good chance of one of our eagle eyed members having seen it.

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QUOTE (Phil_B @ Nov 5 2009, 11:48 AM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
they wouldn`t know whether or not the victim "deserved what was coming to him".

Immaterial consideration: the man in front of them had been tried and convicted in a legally-binding case. No time to wonder about the rights or wrongs of execution - leave that to us, 90 years on.

Personally, I think you're looking at this situation through 21st-century eyes, not through early 20th-century ones. Why should anyone refuse? They'be been given an order to execute someone who potentially left his mates in the muck. Execution was a not-uncommon result of a lot of trials in civil courts, so why should Private Smith of the Blankshires spend too much time agonising over whether the bloke he was about to shoot 'deserved' it? Of course he deserved it: he'd been found guilty, hadn't he? Guilty of a Capital offence.

I just think that, yet again, we're looking at the SAD question from the wrong angle - what would I have done. It's irrelevant - I wasn't there, and I wasn't alive in those times, so I can't say. Asking what would have happened to someone who refused to take part presupposes that someone would refuse to take part. And I suspect no-one did or could (or, possibly, would).

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It sounds as if the man you are describing was Albert Pierrepoint, Bruce. I know his father and uncle were both executioners, but don't think either of them was Harold either.

Quite correct..I sit corrected!

:wub:

Bruce

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There were certainly some men at the time who 'bucked the trend' and opposed capital punishment often from a religious point of view. However I suspect that most of these would be likely to be COs and not in the forces. However there is a difference between being in favour in principle and having to take part oneself! I'm sure there would be some queasyness and a desire to avoid the duty but probably not strong enough to make a down right refusal.

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Personally, I think you're looking at this situation through 21st-century eyes, not through early 20th-century ones. Why should anyone refuse?

You may be right but maybe not. Is it safe to assume that WW1 men had a different attitude to shooting their own men to that of a modern soldier? They certainly had a different attitude towards authority but that`s not the same thing.

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No problem, Bruce - fortunately getting a name slightly wrong isn't a hanging offence ...

... but men have been shot for less.

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One of my grandfathers absolutely detested deserters and said 'shooting was too good for them'. I think he would have preferred something less quick.

He served at and around Mazingarbe for nearly 18 months and may have been involved in the many executions held at the abbatoir there, even if only as a sapper organising graves to be dug. I don't know if he ever witnessed an execution.

Many accounts from the time show a good number of soldiers thought deserters got what they deserved. Others were more sympathetic but I'm sure even those men would have carried out the duty asked of them. I think the key here is that a good NCO knows his men and what they can and can't do easily or willingly. Some could face this duty without losing a minutes sleep, others would have done it but carried a guilt to their graves.

John

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How many men made up a firing squad? The shooters I mean, not counting the NCO or Officer.

Is there an instruction for it?

Mick

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Immaterial consideration: the man in front of them had been tried and convicted in a legally-binding case. No time to wonder about the rights or wrongs of execution - leave that to us, 90 years on.

Why should anyone refuse?

Because Pte Smith is a human being !!!!! Sure, people, God bless them , were tried and sentenced to death. Some probably deserved it. They didn't only act in a way that threatened the well-being of those they served with, they committed heinous acts that would turn everyone who knew them against them. There were many though whose only crime was that they were human beings with all the weaknesses of mind and spirit that that term implies. Their only "crime" was that they broke down when faced by a situation that we, today, can only conceptualise in the most banal way.

Of course people would refuse. They joined up, many of them as volunteers, to "kill the Hun", not to take the lives of those who, like themselves had tried their best and failed. They had probably said "but for the grace of God, there go I.

One final point and I add this addendum not because I have "been there" but because I know, or - after 26 years service- I think I know, that for every firing squad that was assembled without anyone "crying off sick" there would have been a dozen or more where the officer or NCO in charge would have some difficulty finding men willing to take part.

Harry

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Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire shows 163 officers and 11,439 men were tried by Courts Martial for disobedience at home and abroad, between 4th August 1914 and 31st March 1920.

TR

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In your 26 years service, how many times did you refuse to obey a direct order?

I was never, thank God, in a position that in any way paralleled that of those poor souls we are discussing here. One of the things that has always guided me in my postings on the Forum is the need to put myself, when needed and whenever possible, into the situation that soldiers during the Great War experienced.

We are looking back from a perspective of almost a century and if we are not careful, we will try to analyse events and behavioural patterns that might be appropriate today but are alien to those who served nearly a hundred years ago. This was a time of collective suffering. Men had signed up for a variety of reasons but for most the reality was way beyond their wildest expectations. It is my belief that the level of comradeship and understanding that characterised the relationships between soldiers faced with the horrors of that time would be a whole lot different to the period I spent in HM Forces. For that reason, I find your question pointless.

Harry

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It is my belief that the level of comradeship and understanding that characterised the relationships between soldiers faced with the horrors of that time would be a whole lot different to the period I spent in HM Forces. For that reason, I find your question pointless.

Harry

And for those reasons, Harry, surely your comments in response to my earlier post are equally pointless. Whatever you say, I think you are putting late 20th-, early 21st-century feelings into this. Yes, some of the men executed shouldn't have been, but in a ghastly war I don't believe many men would have pondered too long or too hard over individual cases.

No, they probably wouldn't have liked to do it, any more than they would have liked to go over the top ... but both acts were, i would say, things they had little choice in.

Whatever your 26 years of service brought, it didn't bring being a late Victorian or an Edwardian into it. A totally different mindset on authority, duty and right and wrong.

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I was never, thank God, in a position that in any way paralleled that of those poor souls we are discussing here.

...............

I find your question pointless.

Harry

That'll be a no then? Same as the guys who were there at the time. The condemned man was going to be shot whether a particular soldier was in the squad or not. 26 years should have taught you that you do as you are told. EVERY time. Not just when you think that it is right and proper. I think, like others, that most of the time, men were told off for the duty because they were steady dependable soldiers who would not let their emotions get in the way of getting the job done. Given a company to choose from, it would have been easy for an experienced, senior NCO to pick a squad of a dozen men who would do just what they were told and then put it behind them. In the same way that they would have picked the same guy out of a shell hole, put as much of him as they could find in a sandbag or two and buried him. All part of the job.

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I think you are putting late 20th-, early 21st-century feelings into this.

How could it be otherwise ? I live in the 20th century. That is my perspective. Having said that the horrors of war that I never experienced and that are today being, to some real extent, experienced by the lads in Afghanistan are in many ways nothing compared to those of 1914-18.

Yes, some of the men executed shouldn't have been, but in a ghastly war I don't believe many men would have pondered too long or too hard over individual cases.

I'm sorry but I find this a sombre indictment of the human psyche. The whole purpose of military training is to create a unit that supports and trusts each other. Now, before you jump on the bandwagon on this statement, let me say that this rapport is focused on mutual trust and support. Each man suffered. Not necessarily in silence and invariably they had the support of those who stood to next to them at first light. Everyone was frightened to death, everyone tried their damndest to act like a man, to live up to the reputation of the regiment they served with but each and every one of them shared at least one thing in common: a comraderie that understood, yes understood, that sometimes the horrors would be too much for some. This was something it took The Army per se a long time to understand (hence the tragic list of people who had served gallantly and when their resilience finally let them down, where shot at dawn).

As I've said already, there were many whose actions were so alien to the military ethic and so reprehensible that the ultimate penalty was appropriate. In these cases, the attitude of those chosen to man a firing squad might well have been somewhat different. I say "might" because executing one's "brother in arms" immaterial of the court's findings would not have been easy for many.

No, they probably wouldn't have welcomed being involved any more than they would have liked to go over the top ... but both acts were, I suppose, things they had little choice in.

Whatever your 26 years of service brought, it didn't bring being a late Victorian or an Edwardian into it. A totally different mindset on authority, duty and right and wrong.

B-lls--t !

Harry

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Whatever your 26 years of service brought, it didn't bring being a late Victorian or an Edwardian into it. A totally different mindset on authority, duty and right and wrong.

B-lls--t !

Harry

That's an informed response, I take it?

My father was born in 1917. My mother in 1915. Although a lot of my views I inherited from them, I suspect a lot of my outlook is hugely different: my attitude to homosexuality, my attitude to foreigners, my attitude to authority.

I also certainly wouldn't have finished a friendly discussion with such a pathetic comment.

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That's an informed response, I take it?

absolutely.

My father was born in 1917. My mother in 1915. Although a lot of my views I inherited from them, I suspect a lot of my outlook is hugely different: my attitude to homosexuality, my attitude to foreigners, my attitude to authority.

Yes, I think you and I would differ on many things.

I also certainly wouldn't have finished a friendly discussion with such a pathetic comment.

Well, there you go. that's one of the ways we differ.

harry

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