The adjutant, standing out in front of the parade with the accused abjectly facing them under guard, would read out that the accused had been sentenced to death by the court.
Cowardice merely causes that gust of pity or contempt which is the thing men fear from their comrades more than bullets.

By Gregory Clark, June 9, 1928.

Does Killing A Man Make His Comrades Brave?

What is a coward?

Where does cowardice begin or end?

These questions have recently been debated in the British House of Commons in connection with the matter of abolishing the death penalty for cowardice in time of war.

And some of the most interesting thoughts on cowardice that have ever been produced were advanced during this debate.

Are cowards born or made?

Isn’t a man who is cowardly born that way, with all the other miserable ingredients in him, part of him and his heritage, like the color of his hair and eyes, his size, his way of walking, or his ability to sing?

And if a man was made that way by God, why shoot him? Can the death penalty prevent cowards from enlisting?

Lord Hugh Cecil, speaking from the point of view of the born aristocrat, made the best plea for the death penalty.

“If,” said the noble lord, “you shoot a soldier for cowardice, that makes the whole army think that it is a shocking thing. The penalty of death has quite the unique quality of setting up a particular offence, and making people think that that is a thing which no one should do not mainly from the fear of the actual penalty but because It sets a stigma upon the offence which nothing else can do.”

Mr. Dutt Cooper, M.P., financial secretary to the War Office, if not an aristocrat himself, at least married to one, supported Lord Hugh Cecil’s view ingeniously:

“During the war,” said he, “at one time it was made a crime for which people could be sent to prison to take matches into a munitions factory. Some careless young employee, some girl perhaps under twenty, forgetting the importance of that rule, would take a box of matches into a munitions factory.

“No moral turpitude whatever was involved in it, and yet people were sent to prison for doing it, and rightly, because it was only by putting upon them some terrible penalty that you could make people realize the seriousness of the act they were carrying out.

“In the same way, in time of war, when one man’s action may betray so many others and may lead to such great disaster, you attach a penalty to it such as we are asking the committee to pass to-day.”

Whether for these or other reasons, and in spite of very strong objections expressed against the death penalty for cowardice and desertion – which is merely the effect of cowardice – the old fashioned and time-honored institution of death for the coward was preserved in the British army.

Opposing the Death Penalty

Australia went on record, at the outset of the last war, against the death penalty, and sent her contingent to the war on the understanding that the death penalty would not be inflicted – at least without reference to the government of Australia. But Canada abides by the king’s regulations and orders – therefore Canada still employs the death penalty for cowardice.

But since the war, nine other army crimes that were during the war punishable with death before a firing squad – looting, striking a sentry, sleeping on sentry post and so forth – have been deleted from the army regulations. Only two – cowardice and desertion, are left of the laws that have prevailed in the armies of the world since, you might say, Caesar’s time.

Those who were opposed to the death penalty for cowardice in the House of Commons were soldiers -not Labor members.

General Sir Frederick Hall was one.

“I do not know where cowardice starts or where it finishes,” said the general, “but I remember that during the war this point was brought home to me most vividly in the case of a schoolmaster upon whom devolved a rather difficult duty which required a certain amount of courage to be shown. I believe that that man had as much courage as many of those who did not show any fear under similar circumstances.

“I have yet to learn that there is any man, from the highest to the lowest degree, who served in the important danger zones during the war who did not experience some fear come upon him, not once or twice or thrice, but very often. It was not a question of the death penalty that kept men from showing fear. The men felt that they had a job to carry out. I do not think that fear of the death penalty affects the soldier at all; he does his job because he thinks it is his job, and I do not think any fear of the death penalty enters his head.

“When the schoolmaster I have alluded to came to me and told me the condition he was in, I saw the medical officer, and I got him sent back to the base. A week or two after he came back, and I am sure that man was no more desirous of showing cowardice than any other soldier, but fear was in his nervous system.

“He had been brought up in quite a different life, and he possessed the scholastic mind. I told this man what it meant if he acted nervously, and I pointed out to him that his actions might place others in a most difficult position. I want hon. members to realize that this kind of thing deflects upon the men themselves, although I cannot say where cowardice starts or where it finishes.”

There is a curious punch to the ideas Major Hills submitted to the debate. He said:

“You shoot a man for cowardice, but you do not make that man any braver, for he is dead. Do you make his comrades any braver?

“Many members of this House know what it is just before the zero hour – just before going over the top. I am perfectly certain that no man said to himself, ‘I must go forward, or else I shall be shot,’ and I rather mistrust the argument that you make men brave by that threat. … My experience of life, and such experience as I had in the war, have shown me that the greatest men are afraid of something, and that the greatest cowards are brave under some conditions.

“Cowardice is a matter of the greatest difficulty. Some people, fortunately, were not afraid of shells, but they might have been afraid of something else; and a man might be shot just because the special sort of danger of which he was afraid was one which he could not resist. Perhaps the greatest argument which I have against it is this:

“It is all very well to have a death penalty when you have a professional army, and men enlist on terms which they know, but if we were, unfortunately, at war again, our army would not be a professional army, but an army of all the manhood of the nation. What right have we to take a man from the shop or the office and, if his nerves failed under the strain of war, to shoot him? I do not think that we have that right, and I do not think that it would do any good, or make the army braver.

“Courage is something in the man himself, and is not put into him by the idea of any punishment such as death.”

Comically Amended Sentences

As far as Canadians are concerned, there is a point of view that was entirely overlooked by the Scotsmen and Englishmen who were arguing.

And that point is that not only does the death penalty or, as it might be called, the threat of execution, not deter men from being cowards, but it offends and hurts them in a curious way that has its reaction in the psychology of discipline.

Fortunately, I never had anything to do with an execution nor was any man I was ever acquainted with executed for any cause. But it has been my duty, more than once, as an adjutant of infantry, to call a parade and read out the sentence of the court martial on a man. We would muster a parade -deliberately. I would have it made as flimsy and weak a parade as the regulations permitted – the accused soldier would be paraded before the assembled companies, and in a voice about as clear and audible as a shy curate’s, I would mumble over the business of the court martial, reading the charge, the conviction, the sentence of the court.

It would go like this: automatically, a man found guilty of desertion – not an uncommon crime amongst the wilder Canadians – has to be sentenced by the ordinary field general’s court martial to death. But that was merely because the king’s regulations – dating back to hard-boiled days when soldiers were enlisted by the press gang for instance – demanded death as the penalty for desertion. But none of the officers of the court who made the conviction had the slightest expectation that the poor devil would be executed. The case would be passed from brigade to division and from division to corps, each general in turn taking a whack at paring the sentence, until after it had gone through the hands of Sir Arthur Currie, the thing would come back vastly, almost comically amended.

So that the adjutant; standing out in front of the parade, with the accused abjectly facing them under guard, would read out that the accused had been sentenced to death by the court, which sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by the brigade commander, which sentence was reduced to ten years penal servitude by the divisional commander, which sentence was reduced and confirmed by the corps commander to two years hard labor.

Aside from the fact that the accused, after spending a more or less hard-worked period of three or four months at some military prison down near the base, In total security and bomb-proofedness, would be restored to his regiment, looking hale and hearty and ready for another desertion if it offered enough excitement, the interesting feature of all this pomp and circumstance is this: that if the adjutant read the charges out loud enough for all the men to hear, there would be a most decided sense of embarrassment and resentment on the part of the men.

What had all this to do with them?

Were we trying to scare them? Them?

If so, we were a pretty poor lot. For was not the officer reading the papers himself a bomb-proof dug-out king? And were any of the officers on parade a bit better than the men, as far as courage went?

That sense of resentment and affront which manifested itself whenever occasion demanded what you might call an “example” being made was most apparent to myself, since my profession as a newspaper man calls for sensitiveness to public feeling of this sort.

Brave Men Experience Fear

It is perfectly safe to say that the death penalty, as far as the Canadians were concerned, created only pathos and bitterness wherever it appeared, and that as far as deterring men from being cowards, it had no effect whatever.

For we had our cowards like all other armies. And those of us who were cowardly were so despite deterrents far more powerful than the fear of death by firing squad.

What is cowardice?

Is it fear? It is not, because ninety-nine per cent of soldiers in the last war experienced fear, and they were not cowards.

Is it submitting to fear, surrendering to fear, so that one fails in one’s duty because of fear?

That is about it. One of the bravest officers I ever knew was walking across a grain field during the battle of Amiens when an unexpected machine gun opened on him. He was in full view of three or four hundred of his comrades. He ducked and lay down, ran and crawled in the most comic fashion that you could imagine. He slithered down banks, lay flattened to earth with his expression clearly visible as he glared back at us and used, we doubt not, profane language at this public reduction of himself to the absurd. At last he got out of range of the enemy gun and rejoined us, shaken and outraged and very crestfallen.

He was no coward. He was performing no duty when this occurred. He was merely strolling across what looked like an innocent field to get a look at some ground we were expecting to attack in an hour or two.

An hour later, that same officer, in the performance of his duty leading his men in battle, executed simple marvels of bravery and courage, exposing himself to fire, attacking strong points and hedges fearlessly, a very demon of courage, who, a short hour before, had been sliding like a scared rabbit from machine gun fire.

And both times he was doing his duty; first, in not getting needlessly killed; second, in risking his life in order to ensure dash and valor to the attack, which called for those very qualities first and above everything.

There are a great many of us who often think that, were it not for a certain occasion when we were cowardly for a moment, we would not be here.

It is that fact which makes us very careful about the use of the word coward even now long after the war. And certainly, during the war, I never heard the word coward used, nor the word cowardice, by any man, though something like two hundred officers and three thousand men passed through my regiment while I was with it. There were poor fellows, timid by nature, whose very shape and physical condition we that of rickety and nervous men, who were spared everything possible by their comrades, because, simply, they were “no good”. They were cowards. In the old meaning of the word, that’s what they were. They swung the lead: that is, they pretended they were sick on every occasion; they had sore feet, pains, they would malinger, which means that they would take steps to make themselves sick, by eating mildly poisonous matter, or by starving themselves, or by the reversal of Christian Science, deliberately thinking and willing themselves to be ill.

They did all duties badly. They were always complaining, grousing.

Cracking Up Under Strain

If you found anybody crouching down in the trenches during a strafe it would be one of them. They were well known in practically every platoon. Nobody minded them. They came in for a lot of unmerciful kidding from the rest of the platoon. And the worst part of their lives was the fact that they knew themselves that they were cowards. But they had reached that state of nerves, or they were naturally born with that state of mind, that they did not care, so long as they were spared.

The others did not revenge themselves on these chaps. In fact, they were rewarded. For they escaped all patrols and dirty Jobs. No officer or n.c.o. wanted them with them. And if any soft bombproof jobs came along, such as working at a divisional dump or helping at a laundry or bath house, or turning the crank at a movie tent, these abject, timid fellows and not the good brave men were rewarded. Not only could we not spare the good men, but there was more or less feeling about taking bombproof jobs. I have known men to refuse them indignantly.

I had a sergeant who had come in June, 1916, and who, after the Somme, Vimy and Passchendaele, was getting old at the game. Perfectly natural. He had seen much war, close up. He had seen scores of his men killed and mangled in every conceivable fashion. He had had dozens of his comrades and chums pass on to their doubtful reward. He had had his own hair breadth escapes from that indescribable destruction that modern machine warfare dishes up. He could recall them easily enough, I suppose, in those long night watches, where we drifted, lonely and alone, in a world of ghostly light and shadow. He began to crack up a little. He became irritable and his hair began to grow gray at the sides. He was in his late thirties. At home he had a wife and four little boys. One night we had a patrol. Before going out, the darkness did not conceal from me that he was nervous and trembling and that he had a little trouble with his voice. It was husky – ah, what a familiar symptom!

He was not, I venture to say, one-half as frightened as I was at that moment. But I was younger, greener and had a little more of what might either be intelligence or low cunning – I could hide my feelings better for those several reasons. We had a rotten time of it. No enemy was met. No shot was fired. But of all patrols I ever remember, that was the jumpiest, most nerve-racking, for I knew the sergeant was windy, which made me windy, and the sergeant sensed my condition and the men caught it, like a yawning fit, froze us. I was a rag when we re-entered the trench.

Two days later I had a chat with my old sergeant and put it up to him: would I try to wangle him a job somewhere? There were some splendid jobs to be had as an instructor at the divisional school, and I was sure the colonel would admit the sergeant had had a long siege and would appoint him to the next vacancy.

What do you suppose that sergeant did?

He flew into a rage.

What did I think he was? A shell-shock? Who was I to accuse him of being jumpy? Was there a man or officer in the regiment who had done more real fighting? He always thought I was his friend, and then I go and suggest a thing like this! Instructor at a school! Refuge for broken-down old women!

He stayed on a few weeks, getting rockier and rockier, until the men began to feel it, and all the splendid two years’ reputation of this valiant sergeant began to count for naught.

Where does cowardice enter in here? Not by a thousand miles was this man a coward. Yet if we had had a jam of some kind about that time, I am perfectly sure the old sergeant would have failed, not from cowardice, but from nervous exhaustion. For he ended up in tears, asking to be relieved, and sent to some place to recover his old fire.

Oh, it has a thousand aspects. I have known timid, nervous men who were the scariest mortals imaginable at the start, but who, as time went on, and experience stiffened them, became bolder and gamer every month. It is a fact.

We had an officer join us and the minute he came in we smiled secretly at one another. For he was so obviously the raw material of shell-shock, as we termed all limitations as to courage. He was a mamma’s boy, by the look of him. He was assigned to one of the companies and plans were made to get rid of him at the first opportunity to some command job away from the regiment where he wouldn’t have much rough work to do. Yes, that’s the way it worked. For we were hanged if we wanted our jobs made more difficult by the shortcomings of junior officers.

For month or two he was the perspiring image of alarm and fear. He could change color from red to white and red again quicker than any man I knew, to the sound of an incoming shell.

One night there was a rumpus on our left front, a German patrol unquestionably came close to our front, either to raid us or to bring us gifts of some kind, we didn’t know. But a Lewis gun that mysteriously and unexpectedly appeared some distance out in No Man’s Land and raked flank-wise along the raiding party’s course, put it all to an end.

A Hero of Fiction Type

When the hero was sought, he was found in very perspiring and nervously giggling lieutenant, who said:

“My sergeant and I distinctly saw, from the side, against a distant flare a mile or so north of us, a group of Germans walking about in No Man’s Land, up opposite the next company. So I ordered out a Lewis gun and just as we got into a position to fire, their barrage came down. So we caught them, curiously enough, exactly at the moment their raid started.”

“Did you take the sergeant with you?” we demanded, expecting to get at the secret of this dandy stunt.

“How could I?” cried the nervous lieutenant. “I could not leave the trench without one of us in charge, could I?”

No. He did it alone. And when we cautiously inquired of the number one of the gun crew, it transpired that the lieutenant, from his superior position, had insisted on firing the gun himself.

“I took quite a good mark in machine gunnery at school in England,” blushed the lieutenant unhappily when the accusation was made in the mess, later.

That was the start of the most curious evolution I encountered overseas: a man who actually got better and bolder as time and experience went on. This chap ended up with a reputation for daring – soft, polite daring, that belongs in fiction rather than in fact.

“Once you get the hang of the thing …” he used to say.

There were some of us who were what civilians call cowards all the time; and all of us were cowards upon occasion, except, of course, those blood-in-the-eye lads who worked back of the line, or at the bakeries at the base. For it was curious how bloodthirsty people got as the distance increased from the front line. Why, we poor fellows in the front line were nambly-pamby compared to the gallant bayonet instructors over on the far side of England.

No official facts have ever been produced respecting the number of Canadians who were executed during the great war. It has been a carefully guarded secret, to spare the kin of those few who were victims of a quite meaningless institution. But it is supposed that there were twenty-two executions amongst Canadians, most of them in the early part of the war, before there had crystallized that quite distinct and characteristic Canadian discipline which was as noble a thing as any other kind of discipline history recounts. Most of these executions would have been for desertion. A few were certainly for looting. Outrageous cases of looting, where men simply went amuck and neglected important duties to loot – cases where example would really count, since the men appeared to be getting something out of it.

But as for the example of a coward – in modern warfare, so slowly does it move, and on such machine made scale, the example of a coward can rarely be seen.

And when seen, it merely causes that twinge or gust of pity or contempt which is the thing men fear from their comrades more than bullets –

Bullets fired at twenty paces, at a white sheet, on which is marked a round, red circle.

There are a great many of us who often think that were it not for a certain occasion when we were cowardly for a moment we would not be here now.
It was curious how bloodthirsty people got as the distance increased from the front line.

Editor’s Note: This was a very controversial aspect of the First World War in Canada, as can been seen by the content of the article at the time, as well as subsequent debates in the decades since. A total of 25 Canadians were executed during World War One, 22 for desertion, 1 for cowardice, and 2 for murder. The ones not charged with murder were posthumously pardoned on 16 August 2006. The concept of PTSD (“shell-shock” in WW1, and “battle fatigue” in WW2) was not understood at the time.