The Irish Shot at Dawn Campaign to secure pardons for Irish born British soldiers executed for military offences 1914 -18

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Extract - Manual of Military Law - 1914-18

Part 1;  Discipline ( Crimes and Punishment ) 'Army Act'

S.4. Cowardice

Every person subject to military law who commits the following offence ; that is to say, misbehaves or induces others to misbehave before the enemy in such manner as to show cowardice, shall on conviction by court-martial be liable to suffer death, or such less penalty as is in this Act mentioned. See Officers Pardoned WW1

Shameful Conduct

Lt-Col JF Elkington and Lt-Col AE Mainwaring were both charged under Part 1 Section 4 of the Army Act which dealth with soldiers who shamefully delivered up 'any garrison, place, or post or guard' which it was their duty to defend.The maximum penalty for such a crime was death, but the court-martial sentenced both men to be cashiered

S. 11. Neglect to obey garrison or other orders

Every person subject to military law who commits the following offence ; that is to say, neglects to obey any general or garrison or other orders, shall, on conviction by court-martial, be liable, if an officer, to be cashiered, or to suffer such less punishment as is in this Act mentioned, and, if a soldier, to suffer imprisonment, or such less punishment as is in this Act mentioned. Provided that the expression "general orders " in this section shall not include His Majesty's regulations and orders for the army or any similar order in the nature of a regulation published for the general information and guidance of the army.

S.16. Scandalous conduct of officer

Every officer who, being subject to military law, commits the following offence ; that is to say, behaves in a scandalous manner, unbecoming the character of a officer and a gentleman, shall on conviction by court-martial be cashiered.

1. An act of neglect which amounts to any of the offences specified in the Act or which is to the prejudice of good order and military discipline, ought not, as a rule, to be tried under this section. Scandalous conduct may be either of a military or social character. But a charge of a social character is not to be preferred under this section, unless it is of so grave a nature as to render the officer deserving of being cashiered, and therefore scandalous in respect of his military character. Social misconduct which is not so grave as to bring scandal on the service, should not be made a ground of charge against an officer, but may well form the subject of reproof and advice on the part of his commanding officer or some other superior officer.

2. It will be noticed that there is no power to award any other punishment than cashiering on conviction for this offence.

S. 25.1a. Falsyfying official documents and false declarations

Every person subject to military law who commits the following offence ; that is to say, knowingly makes or is privy to the making of any false or fraudelent statement shall on conviction by court-martial, be liable to suffer imprisonment, or such less punishment as is in this Act mentioned

S. 40. Conduct to the prejudice of military discipline

Every person subject to military law who commits the following offences ; that is to say,  is guilty of any act, conduct, disorder, or neglect, to the prejudice of good order and military discipline, shall on conviction by court-martial be liable, if an officer, to be cashiered, or to suffer such less punishment as is in this Act mentioned, and if a soldier, to suffer imprisonment, or such less punishment as is in this Act mentioned. Provided that no person shall be charged under this section in respect of any offence for which special provision is made in any other part of this Act, and which is not a civil offence ; nevertheless the conviction of a person so charged shall not be invalid by reason only of the charge being in contravention of this proviso, unless it appears that injustice has been done to the person charged, by reason of such contravention; but the responsibility of any officer for that contravention shall not be removed by the validity of the conviction.

S. 41. Offences punishable by the ordinary law of England

Subject to such regulations for the purpose of preventing interference with the jurisdiction of the civil courts as are in this Act after mentioned, every person who, whilst he is subject law of to military law, shall commit any of the offences in this section mentioned, shall he deemed to he guilty of an offence against military law, and, if charged under this section with any such offence (in this Act referred to as a civil offence), shall he liable to be tried by court-martial, and on conviction to be punished as follows; that is to say,
(1.) If he is convicted of treason, he liable to suffer death, or such less punishment as is in this Act mentioned; and
(2.) If he is convicted of murder, be liable to suffer death; and
(3.) If he is convicted of manslaughter or treason-felony, be liable to suffer penal servitude, or such less punishment as is in this Act mentioned; and
(4.) If he is convicted of rape, be liable to suffer penal servitude or such less punishment as is in this Act mentioned; and
(5.) If he is convicted of any offence not before in this section particularly specified, which when committed in England is punishable by the law of England, be liable whether the offence is committed in England or elsewhere, either to suffer such punishment as might he awarded to him in pursuance of this Act in respect of an act to the prejudice of good order and military discipline, or to suffer any punishment assigned for such offence by the law of England


Part 1 of the Army Act, which was devoted to 'Discipline' with the sub-title 'Crime and Punishment' made it quite clear that all offenders would be dealt with swiftly and rigorously.The first seven offences listed carried the death penalty ('or such less punishment as is in this Act mentioned'). They applied to soldiers who:

  1. Shamefully abandoned or surrendered a garrison, place or post to the enemy, or compelled another soldier to do so.

  2. Shamefully cast away their arms, ammunition or tools in the presence of the enemy.

  3. Treacherously corresponded with the enemy or 'through cowardice' sent a flag of truce to him.

  4. Supplied the enemy with arms or ammunition or shielded an enemy who was not a prisoner.

  5. Took service with the enemy having been made prisoner.

  6. Knowingly, while on active service, committed any act calculated to imperil the success of His Majesty's forces or any part thereof.

  7. Behaved in a cowardly manner or induced others to behave like cowards

Notwithstanding the all-embracing clause dealing with acts 'calculated to imperil the success of His Majesty's forces', the act contained a further section which defined 'Offences punishable more severely on active service than at other times'. There were eleven of them for which offenders could be sentenced to death. A soldier might be executed for:

  1. Leaving his commanding officer to go in search of plunder.

  2. Leaving a post or patrol without orders.

  3. Breaking into a military store.

  4. Forcing an entry past a sentry or striking a sentry.

  5. Impeding the provost-marshal and his military police or refusing to assist them when called upon.

  6. Attacking anyone bringing up supplies or damaging property of the country in which he was serving.

  7. Housebreaking for plundering purposes.

  8. Deliberately discharging firearms, drawing swords, beating drums, making signals, using words, or by any means whatever to give a false alarm.

  9. Treacherously giving passwords to unauthorized people.

  10. Diverting to his own unit supplies meant for other formations.

  11. Being asleep or drunk on sentry duty or leaving a sentry post without being properly relieved.

Four more offences which could incur the death sentence were listed under the heading 'mutiny and insubordination'. In addition to these., it was declared to be a capital offence, while on active service, to disobey an order from an officer on duty, and to strike or threaten an officer on duty. Deserters and men who persuaded comrades to desert on active service were also in peril of their lives, as were soldiers guilty of treason.

General Orders affecting the conduct of Courtsmartial 1914-18

On the 19th of September 1914  the C in C of the B.E.F, Sir John French issued instructions to courts-martial that while their duty was to consider the weight of evidence, they were also to consider the effect of the offence on the discipline of the Army. He went on to state "that in the interest of discipline no matter how severe the sentence, no feeling of commiseration for the individual must deter them from their duty". French's instruction was an overt interference into the judicial discretion of a courts-martial and as a consequence his requirement inter alia as the ultimate confirming authority undermined from the outset  the entire military legal process during world war one.

General Routine Orders issued to the British Expeditionary Force from the 13th January 1915 - 27th January 1915  instructed courts-martial that  in cases of desertion the presumption of innocence was to be removed and the burden of proof reversed. This derogation from an established principle in English law required inter alia that an accused inarticulate soldier (without legal representation or an understanding of military law) had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the assumptions of his court-martial officers were incorrect. Soldiers subject to a death sentence would not have been aware or advised that they had a legal right enshrined in the English Bill of Rights (1689) and successor Acts to petition his Majesty the King. The abrogation of a soldier's right to a presumption of innocence and the failure to vindicate his inalienable right to petition the King was unlawful. Mr Justice Babington QC an acclaimed expert and the first to gain access to official records in the early eighties observed "that the courts hadn't the foggiest idea how to sentence and that their decisions were arbitrary, inconsistant and irregular". On the 30th November 2000 his honor publicly urged the British Government to look again at these cases. On the 18th of July 2002 in Regina V Boyd etc [2002] UKHL 31 the eminent Lord Bingham of Cornhill referring to disciplinary rules and procedures stated "whatever the practice in former times, a modern code of military discipline cannot depend on arbitrary decision-making or the infliction of savage punishments nor can it depend on inherited habits of deference or gradations of class distinction". His Lordship's criticism of past courts-martial practice is judicious, authoritative and noteworthy.

Presumption of innocence and reverse burdens of proof

Vicount Sankey LC in Woolmington v Director of Public Prosecutions [1935] AC at p 462 stated "throughout the web of English criminal law one golden thread is always to be seen, that is the duty of the prosecution to prove the prisoner's guilt". In R v Whyte (1988) 51 DLR (4th) 481,  Dickson CJC observed, at p 493: "The real concern is not whether the accused must disprove an element or prove an excuse, but that an accused may be convicted while a reasonable doubt exists. When that possibility exists, there is a breach of the presumption of innocence. The exact characterisation of a factor as an essential element, a collateral factor, an excuse, or a defence should not affect the analysis of the presumption of innocence. It is the final effect of a provision of the verdict that is decisive. If an accused is required to prove some fact on the balance of probabilities to avoid conviction, the provision violates the presumption of innocence because it permits a conviction in spite of a reasonable doubt in the mind of the trier of fact as to the guilt of the accused".

The Darling Committee

In 1919 a committee was set up under the chairmanship of Mr Justice Darling to enquire into the laws and rules of procedure regulating courts martial. The Darling committee sat for twenty-two days and took evidence from a variety of witnesses including senior members of the military. The most telling admission was their view regarding the state of ignorance of soldiers as to their rights pursuant to military law during the first world war. They concluded inter alia that:

  1. All men had the right to present a petition 'upon receipt of which the proceedings are again considered*

  2. It was possible that all soldiers are not aware that any petition  against the legality of conviction or the severity of sentence will be considered*

  3. We think a definite statement to this effect should be included in King's Regulations and in the case of death sentences added to Army Form 3996*

This last paragraph is a virtual confession that all those shot at dawn during the first world war had been executed without being given a chance to make a last desperate effort to save themselves.

* The Darling Committee was also satisfied that during the war some senior officers had gone so far as to issue circulars on the subject of sentences which were couched 'in terms which cannot be justified'. It was suggested that the Army Council should 'deal severely with any attempted interference with the judicial discretion of the courts. Report of the Committee constituted by the Army Council to enquire into the Law and Rules of Procedure regulating Military Courts Martial Published 1919 - copy held by War Office Library, Whitehall, London Hansard - Official Parliamentary Reports.

Officers Pardoned WW1


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Peter Mulvany 1986-2009