103 Foresters: Mutinies and death sentences in the local regiment – 1914-18

INTRODUCING OUR CURRENT RESEARCH PROJECT…

Alternatively please see see our leaflet.

Since the start of 2014, we worked on a research project regarding those soldiers who served in the local regiment (then known as the Sherwood Foresters) and were either sentenced to death or sentenced on mutiny charges by courts martial during World War One.

We have so far identified 103 Foresters, two thirds convicted for their alleged involvement in mutinies, the others sentenced to death for various offences. Eight soldiers were executed by firing squad.

Over the course of the last century some of the stories of these people have been looked into, with researchers’ attentions focussing on those eight who were shot at dawn by their fellow soldiers. As the respective publications are usually looking into all executions of British troops, there are significant opportunities to further investigate the lives and deaths of these eight Foresters. With regards to the thirty soldiers condemned to death whose sentences were later commuted, very little information has been published so far.

Research concerning those convicted for mutiny had to literally start from scratch. This is even more surprising given that one of the events in question appears to be by far the largest (recorded) mutiny in the British Army during the first three years of the war, only being surpassed in spring 1918. However, it appears that only one of the numerous publications regarding the subject even mentions these events (occurring in Egypt in June 1917), providing but the most basic information.

As it is safe to assume that the stories of these 103 Foresters will play no role in the official commemorations due to be held over the next four years, it is up to us to research, contextualise and tell their stories.

Trying to avoid the usual clichés

Already all forms of media are full of tales of brave heroines and heroes doing their bit, pulling together in the face of unprecedented adversity, despair and suffering. This narrative seems to form the basis of almost all mainstream commemorations and debates, including both sides of the rather pitiful Gove vs. Baldrick spat. However, whilst attempting to avoid (or even undermine) such classic forms of heroine/hero worship, we also do not want to fall into the trap of telling equally glorified tales of radical heroines/heroes ending the war by mass dissent and mutiny, falling just ever so slightly short of achieving revolution.

Instead it appears as striking as disturbing that, despite WWI’s unprecedented horrors, the war machines of the respective great powers just kept on going. The collapse of the Russian Empire marks a notable (and events in Germany in winter 1918-19 a very much debatable) exception. It seems that the British Army was particularly successful in avoiding any serious breakdown of discipline (however many blunders lead to one bloodbath after another), at least before hostilities ended in most theatres of war in November 1918 (and even then unrest arguably proved to be quite manageable). Arguments that this was essentially due to the troops overseas as well as the vast majority of the population at home giving their (albeit ever more reluctant) consent to the war seem plausible, however depressing that angle may be.

Our research into the stories of the 103 Foresters who disobeyed their officers (out of very diverse motivations and in diverse forms) is therefore looking into exceptional events, not unique, but rare. That out of every 100,000 British soldiers stationed overseas, 99,999.7 did not mutiny, exemplifies this (though this statistic of course much simplifies a very complex issue). [1]

We would however argue that this makes the stories of those 103 Foresters not less important and fascinating, indeed quite the opposite. Staying with the example of the mutineers [2], their acts of disobedience did (consciously or not) undermine the war effort. As such they were a rare glimpse of sanity in a world that was expressing the in-built insanity of its social and economic system in the most murderous ways yet conceived.

We will furthermore try to avoid a persistent misconception that has shaped many debates regarding military law and its enforcement in general and the executions of deserters and ‘cowardly’ soldiers in particular, namely attacking the army’s actions as being unjust.

It quickly became very clear that military law and its enforcement had nothing to do with ‘justice’. Instead, the ‘… object of military law is to maintain discipline among the troops …’ [3], i.e. to uphold the troops’ obedience to their officers.

Therefore we decided not to follow the approach taken in a number of works, notably the prominent book Shot at Dawn [4], in which the actions of the army are apparently approached as injustices that must be unveiled and corrected. This appears to be missing the point that the actions of the army during WWI were motivated by a perverted but coherent logic aiming to keep the war machine going, whatever the cost. [5]

Although our analytical and methodological framework for studying the cases of the 103 Foresters is still very much work in progress, a number of assumptions and ideas are already shaping our work:

Regarding military law and its enforcement

Maintaining mass consent to four years of organised mass murder was not merely based on repression. However, enforcing military law was one important tool in a complex mix of measures utilised in order to maintain military discipline.

The ways in which discipline was enforced were shaped by Edwardian class-relations and constituted acts of top-down class struggle.

Although perceived to be a serious danger to military discipline, individual as well as collective acts of disobedience, however inspiring and courageous many may turn out to have been, were at no point a real threat to the British war machine. The chances to end the slaughter that may have occasionally existed (the Christmas/New Year truces of 1914-15, or the French Army mutinies of 1917 might arguably be described thus), were not acted upon.

Regarding WWI in general

Although we do not agree with their conclusions, many conservative historians, politicians etc. do have a point regarding the German Empire being a particularly nasty regime, even given the standards of the time. It was a society striving to enlarge its global power and dominating Europe. Germans had systematically perpetrated the first genocide of the century against the Herero and Namaqua people, while the Kaiser’s infamous ‘Hun speech’ (followed by brutal atrocities in China), or the long list of war crimes committed by German troops during their advance in Belgium and France (let alone on the Eastern Front) were all too real, foreshadowing many of the horrors to be committed by Germans in the following decades. Although the German soldiers of 1914 were not yet the race warriors of 1939, the foundations of German fascism had already been laid.

WWI can be seen as a total failure for (almost[6]) everyone involved. The ruling classes of the Allied nations failed to construct a stable post-war settlement, which in turn contributed to the near-destruction of bourgeois liberalism during the fascist onslaught of the 1930s and 1940s. The British ruling classes in particular failed in their attempt to safeguard their Empire. The working classes and the labour movement not only failed in averting the war, without their active support it would never have been possible to drag it out for more than four years. Much blame must be put to the various Social Democratic parties and unions, which, although long having abandoned any revolutionary intent, showed their true colours in 1914 (and in Germany openly collaborated with proto-fascist paramilitaries in order to smash the revolution of 1918-19). But regardless how much blame the SPD and their international counterparts deserve, WWI marked a collective failure of the working classes who readily took up arms to slaughter each other.

The words of George Bernhard Shaw, commenting on the British Army in the early stages of the war, sum up the tragedy of WWI like nothing else we have yet encountered:

‘No doubt the heroic remedy for this tragic misunderstanding is that both armies should shoot their officers and go home to gather in their harvests in the villages and make a revolution in the towns; and though this is not at present a practicable solution, it must be frankly mentioned, because it … is always a possibility … when [an army’s] eyes are opening to the fact that in murdering its neighbours it is biting off its nose to vex its face, besides riveting the intolerable yoke of Militarism … more tightly than ever on its own neck. But there is no chance … of our soldiers yielding to such an ecstasy of common sense. They have enlisted voluntarily; they are not defeated nor likely to be; their communications are intact and their meals reasonably punctual; they are as pugnacious as their officers; and in fighting Prussia they are fighting a more … tyrannical, personally insolent, and dangerous Militarism than their own.’[7]

Tackling this project

The main focus of this research project will simply be on telling and contextualising the stories of 103 people who soldiered with the Sherwood Foresters, putting these individuals and an account of their experiences at the centre of a gradually built up narrative.

Although this will not be possible in every case, we will strive to establish the following information about each of the soldiers (as always drawing on as much primary evidence as possible and generating numerous footnotes!):

  • full name, date and place of birth, regimental/soldier number, unit(s), etc.;
  • their profession;
  • names and professions of parents (and possibly siblings);
  • date when they signed up/were drafted;
  • finding out whether other close family members became soldiers/casualties;
  • outlining their army experiences (e.g. drawing on the history of their respective units);
  • the circumstances of their respective cases and their aftermath.

Given the relatively large number of 103 individuals, we approached this from the outset as a long term project. We are currently aiming to take the centenaries of key events of the 103 individual cases (usually the trial dates) to be our deadlines by which principal research regarding these cases should be completed and some information can be published:

Date Cases*
Feb-15 1 death sentence (commuted)
Jul-15 3 death sentences (commuted)
Oct-15 1 death sentence (commuted)
Nov-15 1 death sentence (commuted)
Dec-15 1 tried and convicted for mutiny
Feb-16 2 death sentences (commuted)
Jul-16 4 death sentences (two executions)
Aug-16 2 death sentences (one execution)
Nov-16 3 death sentences (one execution)
Dec-16 2 death sentences (commuted)
Feb-17 1 death sentence (commuted)
Mar-17 1 death sentence (one execution)
Apr-17 1 death sentence (commuted)
Jun-17 64 tried and convicted for mutiny; two death sentences (unrelated cases/commuted)
Jul-17 3 death sentences (commuted)
Oct-17 3 death sentences (one execution)
Nov-17 1 death sentence (commuted)
Dec-17 1 death sentence (commuted)
Jan-18 1 death sentence (commuted)
Apr-18 1 death sentence (one execution)
May-18 2 death sentences (commuted)
Jun-18 1 death sentence (commuted)
Jul-18 1 death sentence (one execution)
Sep-18 1 death sentence (commuted)

* total number of cases = 104 as one soldier was given two death sentences

As we get closer to September 2018 (the last death sentence in our sample was handed out on the 19th September 1918), the findings of all our research efforts will hopefully be brought together in a final, by that time possibly quite substantial, publication. In the years leading up to 2018, there are of course plenty of opportunities for events to be held, shorter or longer leaflets and/or pamphlets to be published, etc., providing alternatives and/or contributions to the official calendar of commemorations.

We have already undertaken extensive research into the first case involving a soldier who was sentenced to death following his alleged desertion on the Western Front in February 1915. We are currently busy writing up our findings and will soon be able to publish the first two issues in what will become a series of pamphlets. Please keep an eye on our blog for these publications and other news and updates. Please contact us with comments, ideas, criticism etc.

[1]   Own calculations, based on the number of troops prosecuted on mutiny charges, see e.g.: The War Office (1922): Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire During the Great War; London. Even if it is assumed that there were a number of occasions when troops engaged in (organised) acts of mass disobedience that were not reported/prosecuted as mutinies, this statistic exemplifies the high level of compliance amongst the rank and file of the British Army.

[2]   Given the information available at present, the following statement is not applicable with regards to at least one of the soldiers sentenced to death, as his (commuted) death sentence was handed out at a court martial apparently held following an act of (possibly sexual) violence against a French or Belgian civilian.

[3]   The War Office (1907): Manual of Military Law; London; p.6.

[4]   Putkowski, Julian; Sykes, Julian (1992): Shot at Dawn – Executions in World War One under the Authority of the British Army Act; Pen and Sword; Barnsley.

[5]   Choosing such an approach will hopefully allow us to hold up two fingers to the army and the social system in which it operated on a broader basis than mere moral outrage.

[6]   There were of course a number of individuals and companies who did very well out of e.g. weapons production.

[7]   Shaw, George Bernard: ‘Common Sense about the War’; in: The New York Times (1915): Current History – A monthly magazine – The European War – From the Beginning to March, 1915; Volume 1.

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