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any right, entitlement or liability
Andrew Mackinlay: It is certainly not gesture politics to the late Gertie Farr or her daughter. They have made it clear time and time again that they want no remuneration or compensation. All that they want is to have the record put straight. That is the view of all the families involved.
Mr. Wallace: We have dealt with subsection (4)(b). The widow and daughter of Harry Farr will still be related to a convicted coward. The pardon would not remove that conviction. Is that not a blight on their family?
Andrew Mackinlay: That is not my reading of the legislation, and it is not theirs. They welcome the initiative of the Secretary of State. In any event, I remind the House that I would not start from here. We would have addressed the matter 14 years ago when I first introduced my early-day motion and my Bill. We would have looked at the cases in greater detail.
During world war one, attempts were made by people like myself in Parliament to raise these executions. They were slapped down and suppressed. There was no candour or debate. The argument was advancedit had some legitimacythat the country was in the middle of a conflict. Come the 1920s, the matter was raised by several hon. Members, one of whom was Ernest Thurtle, the Member for Shoreditch. He was slapped down and told that he was wrong.
The point that cannot be escaped is that for 75 years it suited the British establishment to suppress the documentation relating to these cases. Now that the documents have become available to families, jurors, politicians and journalists and we see how flawed the trials were, people say, It is too late; it is a matter of history. How very convenient.
Mr. Kevan Jones: Does my hon. Friend agree that it is remarkable that the amendment was not opposed in the other place and the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman has given half-hearted support to it tonight, yet numerous Conservative Members are clearly opposed to it? Does he believe that, if they feel so strongly, the Conservatives should have amended the Bill in another place or should vote against it tonight?
Andrew Mackinlay: Reference has been made to another place. It cannot be said loudly enough that, among the people who spoke so cogently and clearly in support was a person known to me as Sir Patrick Mayhew, a former Conservative Attorney-General, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, soldier and officer. Lord Campbell of Alloway, a veteran of Colditz, also spoke in favour. In my view, public opinion is overwhelmingly with us; in particular, people who have experienced combat and seen and endured stress support the measure.
It is perfectly legitimate for Members to question the wisdom of the provision, but it would be wrong if they continued to do so without calling a Division. I understand why they are probing the matter, but I shall welcome the Houses unanimous endorsement of the provision, which looks likely. If there is no Division, the decision will be unanimous and that will be the end of the matter. It would be reprehensible if Members who did not divide the House continued to raise objections after the debate, saying that it was wrong to pardon those people.
Mr. Bellingham: I respect and admire the hon. Gentleman as a campaigner. He has been absolutely tenacious in this campaign and we all respect that, but if we disagree with some of the detail of the provision we are entitled to probe it, and if the amendment is passed, there will be closure on the issue. During the Boer war, there was the famous case of Breaker Morant, an Australian officer who was shot in extremely controversial circumstances. His family apparently want him to be given a pardon. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with that?
Andrew Mackinlay: I am not briefed on Breaker Morant. However, I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman raised that case, because I am familiar with the consequences of his execution. After that controversy, 18 years later, the Australian Government made it a condition that none of their soldiers in units serving in the British Empire forces during world war one would be executed. None was, but nobody suggested that the Australian soldiers fought other than like tigersdespite the fact that they did not have the death penalty hanging over them, they still fought like tigers.
The hon. Gentleman also said, generously, fairly and legitimately, that this debate would be the end of the matter. That is all I ask. Members should by all means probe and argue, but I hope that if they do not divide the House they will acknowledge that they have concurred by their silence and approved the measure.
Peter Bottomley: I do not want to take up time in the debate, but many who see more benefits than disbenefits in the proposal will not make speeches but will be wholeheartedly behind what the hon. Gentleman has been campaigning for and the Government have found a way of achieving.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. It has been a cross-party campaign. I regret that no Irish Members are in the Chamber, because the campaign united various sides in Ireland, if
only symbolically. Private Crozier from the Shankill and Private Sands from the Falls were both executed in similar circumstances. They were ordinary, poor, inarticulate soldiers, as my hon. Friend the Minister pointed out. They could not articulate their case and were not represented fairly at their trial. A soldier who was unable to advance when ordered to do so, or who ran awaywhether they came from Belfast, Dublin, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Manchester, Birmingham, London or elsewherewas likely to face a court martial and execution. Many officers suffered shell shock, too, but they were likely to be returned to the love and care of their family in England and the best medical attention available. There was unconscious discrimination in the treatment of shell shock.
The question of history has been raised. One of the consequences of the campaign is not the rewriting of history, but writing a chapter of history that has been suppressed. We spend millions of pounds each year teaching history to schoolchildren and university students, so we need to write it with clarity and precision, including the parts that we find uncomfortable. We are now writing that history. Until 1992, the matter was suppressed. It had been suppressed in Parliament; Ernest Thurtle had been refused access to the papers, which were restricted for 75 years. There were only the books by Judge Anthony Babington and Julian Putkowski.
Andrew Mackinlay: I would argue that point: some people who call themselves historians make it up as they go along. Some of us have been scratching away at this matter for some time to try to find the truth. That is what Ernest Thurtle did as a Back-Bench Member and it is what I and others have tried, and will continue, to do. We will make the information available for historians. In any event, Anthony Babingtona distinguished judgeand Julian Putkowski and Julian Sykes did their best, despite the fact that the establishment did not want the matter aired.
When the Secretary of State indicated to the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) that a service would be held when we believed that the last Great war veteran had passed on, it was suggested that the nation would draw a line. That is relevant to our debate. Such matters are still relevant to our age, not only because some veterans are still alive and some of their immediate dependants are very much alive, but because we have known and loved people who served in world war one.
Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con):
I am grateful to be allowed to address the House on this subject. I declare a number of interests. First, I am both a historian and a politician. About 30 years ago, when I was writing some books on the first world war I was lucky enough to interview several hundred first
world war veterans. I followed closely the work of Julian Putkowski; many years ago, he and I sat in the Imperial War Museum scrabbling away together. He continued as a postgraduate researcher for many years and produced a series of books.
Secondly, in 1998 I spoke from the Opposition Front Bench in response to the then Minister of State for the armed forces when we held the first parliamentary debate. After looking at the cases of the first world war soldiers who had been executed, he decided that all he could do was to issue a statement of regret. Finally, in January, I introduced a short debate in Westminster Hall on the subject, to which the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) replied.
Almost every Member in the Chamber is wearing a poppy, and the debate about the executed soldiers has much to do with our national consciousness of the first world warour guilt and our emotions. That war produced one of the highest numbers of casualties suffered by the British Army and the imperial armies. Our European neighbours had of course been only too conscious of such casualties; we had been fortunate enough never to have suffered to such a degree before.
From a British perspective, the first world war has somehow been seen as not such a good war as the second world war, which was demonstrably between good and evil. The publics interpretation of the first world war does not stem only from folk memories of their fathers and grandfathers. In many ways, the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) is correct; it is history, but near history rather than far. Both my grandfathers served in the first world war. Both were wounded, but they survived.
Certainly, 30 years ago, it was possible to speak to many such veterans. As much as anything else, it all comes down to the fact that the first world war is seen through the prism of the film Oh! What a Lovely War, and of Blackadder Goes Forth, which features the caricature figures of General Melchett, Baldrick and others. In its last, most evocative scene, the whole cast, except General Melchett, go out into no mans land, and the scene is then freeze-framed. There is a powerful emotional element to the subject.
It always struck me, when I talked to the highly professional members of the Army historical branchI give them great credit for the work that they have done over many yearsthat the problem is that the record is incomplete, as Ministers know. As the hon. Member for Thurrock says, access to the files was limited for most people, so it is inevitable that there were conspiracy theories about that. The record is incomplete not because it has been weeded, but because of the nature of the war and the nature of some of the field courts martial. Some of the files on individual cases are quite thick, running to 20, 30 or40 sheets of paper. On Private Farr, there are some half a dozen sheets.
I have concluded that it would be incredibly difficult to ensure a judicial review, in which judges consider each case in turn, although I know that the hon. Member for Thurrock and others were keen on that idea. Such a system would, ultimately, be unfair. I suspect that the judges would clear some people, but that in other cases they would say, Im afraid that
under the rules that existed at the time, which carried the death penalty, some people probably should have been executed. However, there would have been a great tranche of cases in the middle, on which they would have said, Im sorry, but theres insufficient evidence; if we could call witnesses, we could decide. I reluctantly decided that, however logical the suggestion, that was not the way to go about the matter.
I declare an interest: I have always believed, and still do, that the situation should be left as it is. I can understand why we politicians might want to take a view on past events; after all, the Prime Minister, very soon after taking office, issued a statement of regret about the Irish potato famine. To me, as a historian, that seemed a somewhat simplistic interpretation of what happened, but the Prime Minister had every right to do what he did, although I would have thought it best to leave the matter alone. I have sympathy for the families, and particularly for people who remember what went on, but although we have spent so much time and emotion on the subjectthe hon. Member for Thurrock might say, And so we shouldwe tend to forget, marginalise or take for granted the actions of hundreds of thousands of men. Most of those who fought in the first world war were civilians, and not all of them were youngmany were in their 30s and 40s; after all, incredibly, the overwhelming majority of soldiers who served in the first world war were volunteers. However, I shall not go down a discursive route and discuss the history of the amazing pals battalions, made up of volunteers.
A significant proportion of soldiers were pre-war regulars, but after 1917 large numbers were, of course, conscripts, so not all soldiers were fresh-faced youths. We should remember that most of them, at different periods in their service, were terrified. When I have talked to veterans of the first and second world wars and of Iraq, and to soldiers in Afghanistan, I have found that they were motivated by many things. Because they are British, they are embarrassed to say that they are fighting for Queen and country, but they will frequently talk about their regiment. Usually, howeverand there are hon. Members present who have experience of thisthey were motivated by small-group loyalty, which basically comes down to a soldiers sense of being part of a team. Soldiers rarely work as individuals; they are a team, and that is how they survive. They survive because they are part of a team in a mortar section, running a heavy machine gun, or in an armoured fighting vehicle. In normal, civilian life, those team members might not get on well together, but as soldiers they work, live and die together, and if one of them decides to leg it, not only do they let the others down, but somebody else has to take over their duties.
When I interviewed veterans of the first world war, I found that many were disgusted and horrified that soldiers had been executed by the authorities, but among others, I found a quiet anger that the well-known company shirker always managed to skive off at a difficult moment, which meant that somebody had to take his place on patrol and put their life at risk. That is a very fine balance, and I can only make the
following plea: we have spent a great deal of timeobviously, public opinion is that it is important that we shouldbearing in mind what happened to the men who were executed. Some of them did not deserve to be executed, some were traditional regimental bad hats, and some were frequent offenders; all were judged and executed under a law in operation at the time. We should also bear in mind the great mass of men who were frightened and frequently tempted to run away, but who, for many reasons, did not do so.
I remember editing a book 20-odd years ago called The War the Infantry Knew, which was largely written by a man called Captain J. C. Dunn. He was not a regular soldier; he had served in the yeomanry in the first world war, and won the distinguished conduct medal, then went back to being a doctor. He volunteered in 1915, when he was in his 40s, and served for nearly two years with the 2nd Battalion the Royal Welch Fusiliers. He won the distinguished service order and the military cross and bar. His DSO was the result of a failed Victoria cross application, and he had had both Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves as patients. His diaries document his eventual breakdown; he later found that he could no longer trust himself not to duck when a shell came overhead. His main worry and concern was about showing fear in front of others. He recognised that the way to deal with what they call shell shock was to try to rest soldiers as much as possible. He had a hard-nosed view of desertion. He was one of only two regimental medical officers to give evidence to what was called the shell shock committee. The written evidence that he produced, which is in the Royal Welch Fusiliers museum, is the only evidence submitted to that committee that is still extant, as the evidence was weeded at some stage.
I was fascinated by the fact that that man, who was in many ways very sensitive, and who was greatly admired by Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon, firmly believed that the execution of men convicted of desertion was necessary, not only pour encourager les autres, but because those people had let down their friends, and that was the most important element.
The only option other than leaving well alone or judicial review is a blanket pardon. I do not agree with taking that course, but I understand why the Minister has done so. I use my words carefully: it is a political decisionI do not mean a party political decisionsuch as that made by the New Zealand and Canadian Governments. I have no intention of voting against the Lords amendment, as it represents the will of the other place, but I must say that I do not think that it will bring closure, other than in a parliamentary sense. Debate on the subject will continue. On Remembrance Sunday, at least, we should all remember not only those men who were killed, but those who, like our grandfathers, survived, and did things that most of us would find incredibly difficult to endure.
Mr. Mike Hall (Weaver Vale) (Lab):
May I begin by adding my condolences to those sent by other right hon. and hon. Members to the family of the soldier from the 2nd Battalion of the Duke of Lancasters Regiment who was killed in Iraq today? I wish to put on the record my personal thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay). Several years ago, I was returning from France when I
bumped into him. He had just been on a tour of the battle sites, and he told me about his campaign for men shot at dawn in the first world war. I am delighted that an amendment has been tabled that brings to fruition the work that he and other parliamentarians have undertaken.
My grandfather, Private PW443 Thomas McBride, served with the 18th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment in the first world war. On the night of24 May 1917, together with Sergeants Till, Matthews and Ward, he went into no mans land in front of the Hindenburg line to dig a communication trench to the German front positions. They worked in full moonlight for three and a half hours under heavy machine gun fire from the enemy. Fortunately, no one was injured and those soldiers were awarded the military medal for their gallantry and service. Their commanding officer, Second Lieutenant Cecil Harold Wight, was awarded the military cross for supervising the work, and received a pension of five shillings a week.
Fortunately, no one in the 18th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment was shot at dawn, so my grandfather did not face the prospect of being called to serve on a firing squad to dispatch summary justice. Of the 306 soldiers shot at dawn in the first world war who are the subject of the Lords amendment, 254 were privates, 15 were riflemen, five were drivers, one was a gunner, one was a drummer, one a labourer, two were sappers, one was a trooper, 4 were sergeants, three were lance sergeants, six were corporals, 11 were lance corporals, one was a second lieutenant and one a first lieutenant. All but two of the 306 soldiers shot at dawn were other ranks and non-commissioned officers. The most senior officer shot at dawn was Lieutenant Edwin Leopold Arthur Dyett, who was a volunteer reserve with the Nelson Battalion of the Royal Navy Division. He was the son of May Constance andW. H. R. Dyett of Rock Ferry; his father, too, was a Royal Navy reserve.
Lieutenant Dyett was executed on 5 January 1917 at the age of 21, and he was buried in the Le Crotoy communal cemetery. In many cases, as has been said, the soldiers who were shot at dawn were suffering from shell shock. I was interested to hear about the shell shock committee in the speech by the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson). In a war diary by a member of the 18th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, the first mention of the condition appears in June 1916, when it is recorded that men were suffering from shell shockthe diary does not elaborate further. Officers who suffered from shell shock were deemed to be not fit for duty, and were returned home, but that was not the case for other ranks. That is an important point.
We are not close to understanding the full effects of shell shock, but soldiers who suffered from it were subjected to summary justice. They were not properly represented and they were not given leave to appeal. The morning after their court martial, they were bound, blindfolded and had a marker placed overtheir heart. They were tied to a stake and shot by12 members of a firing squad, usually from their own battalion. One soldier was given a blank to fire, so that no one could be sure that they had fired the fatal shot.
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