Firing Squads (World War I)

Even the most seasoned of veterans were unprepared for the horrors of The First World War. The British Army used execution by firing squad like no other combatants, as a method to maintain order on the battlefield. This controversial method of execution was used for crimes of cowardice, desertion, espionage, murder or mutiny. Senior commanders took a soldier’s refusal to return to the frontline as desertion and used this harsh disciplinary punishment as a way of deterring others from doing so. Many of these soldiers would’ve been suffering from shell shock, the sustained psychological and physical stress of being in the trenches. At the time, commanders and medical officers were not sympathetic and saw this mental breakdown as an attempt to escape their duty. Those that were caught deserting, received court martial. If they were sentenced to death, they would be blindfolded with a white paper target on their chests and stood tied to a pole or sat in a chair, where a firing squad of 12 men would shoot them at dawn. Some prisoners even refused to wear a blindfold, preferring to look at their executioners. Executioners in a firing squad often couldn’t pull the trigger, and most did not want to be in the role. Often they were soldiers that were recovering from wounds, but could still fire a rifle. One method to avoid execution is hesitating to shoot was to issue blank cartridges to one random member or all but one member of the firing squad. In the squad, no one was told who had the live or blank firing weapon. This way, a diffusion of responsibility was reinforced onto the firing squad. The first soldier in the BEF to be executed during The First World War was Private Thomas Highgate, during the retreat at Mons in 1914. He deserted his battalion after two weeks of action, and was discovered wearing civilian clothes, hiding in a barn, by a gatekeeper. His uniform was concealed nearby. He was tried by court martial and was undefended at his trial because all of his comrades had been killed, injured or captured. He was found guilty of desertion and died by firing squad on the 8th of September, 1914. at the age of 19. 306 British and Commonwealth soldiers were executed by firing squad in The First World War, and their names were left off war memorials. Watch our other videos to learn more. Get your copy of “Simple History: World War 1” available on Amazon NOW! Thank you guys for all your support on the Simple History Youtube channel! If you enjoyed, please consider visting our Patreon page. There, you can show us your support for the channel by donating and make a huge difference in what we’re able to create for you! Plus, you can get early access on upcoming videos. So, let’s keep it growing, and thank you for being a part of this amazing community!

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