GWCA Third Lecture – Death or Deliverance: Canadian Courts Martial in the Great War


Teresa Iacobelli, PhD. specializes in Canadian military history, public history and social memory. She is the author of Death or Deliverance: Canadian Courts Martial in the Great War (Winner, 2013 C.P. Stacey Prize, Canadian Commission for Military History and the Canadian Committee on the History of the Second World War) and currently is an historian and curator for the Brooklyn Historical Society.

Lecture Summary

 Please note that these notes are from the lecture and the author has added content from his own experience and perspective.


Screen shot from the movie “King and Country” (1964) staring Dirk Bogarde and Tom Courtenay. In the foreground stands Private Hamp played by Courtenay in front of the officers of the Field General Courts Martial. He has been charged with desertion.

The conventional view of military discipline is one of brutality and cruelty towards soldiers. If this was the case, why were so many death sentences of Imperial soldiers commuted? 222 men were sentenced to death and out of that number 25 were executed, 23 of which were for desertion. 89% of all sentences were commuted.

The presenter was first introduced to this issue when working for the Library and Archives Canada preserving the service records of Canadian First World War soldiers who were executed. A movement, Shot at Dawn, was actively working at that time to recognize the soldiers of the Imperial Forces under British military authority who were executed. Of these troops the following executions for desertion took place:

Nationality[i] Number Charge Number
British 291 Desertion 266
Canada 25 Murder 37
New Zealand 5 Cowardice 18
British West Indies 4 Mutiny 3
Australia nil Striking or using violence to a superior officer 6
civilians subject to military law 21 Disobedience to a lawful command 5
(inc. Chinese labour) Quitting a post without authority 7
Sleeping at post 2
Casting away arms 2

A British member of parliament, Andrew MacKinlay[ii], wanted to pardon these convictions but the then Prime Minister, John Major, felt that to do so would dishonour and insult the military personnel who died in the field. Eventually an online movement and pressure to the British and other governments led international recognition of this issue and the Canadian Minister of Defence made a speech in the House of Commons expressing sorrow on behalf of the Canadian Government and that the men executed for desertion would be included in the official war dead and the Books of Remembrance at the House of Parliament.[iii]

Part of the momentum for this was related to the efforts of the Farr family in England to grant a pardon to Private Harry Farr who was executed for desertion on October 18, 1916. They contended he was suffering from shell shock and such circumstances should have led to a commutation of his sentence. This effort created the necessary public and political awareness to lead to the group pardon of Imperial soldiers shot for desertion.[iv]

In Canada the case of Steven Folls [spelling – reg. no. unknown] was an example of the injustice of executions but his case was not the best example or necessarily representative of the other soldier’s experience. Family lore as to his final desertion did not help his case.

The Shot at Dawn movement used emotive quotes and examples to establish its case but was this representative of the experience of soldiers involved in military justice, especially when so many of these convictions were commuted? Was there any particular circumstances that mitigated the desertion and led to a commuted sentence?

Sources: Personnel Files

  • Attestation papers,
  • Disciplinary records in service files,
  • Medical records.
Charged with Desertion Entry in Service record for Joseph Ellison 53673

Example of service record of 18th Battalion soldier, Private Joseph Ellison, reg. no. 53673, who was charged with desertion and convicted of said crime. As can be seen from this image his sentence was commuted and he was released under the “Suspension of Sentences Act”.

Courts Martial Transcripts

  • Verbatim accounts,
  • Transcripts of the executed were destroyed in 1920s.
    • Bureaucratic destruction – i.e. the rules of keeping records required the destruction of certain records after a time. The records of the commuted soldiers were not destroyed because they were needed for other reason such as pension inquiries.

Example: Harry Townsend. A letter he wrote a family member references his desire to commit suicide. Brings questions to his mental state but was not examined medically during his trial. His sentence was commuted.

Three Letters of Confirmation were required to invoke the death penalty and were written from the lowest ranking officer first to the highest to prevent influence from a superior officer is the letters were written in a different order.

  • Battalion Commander: the most influential letter as the soldier in question served with the battalion and there would be numerous character references and examples of the subject soldier’s behavior and service.
  • Brigade Commander: In charge of the brigade in which the battalion served. He would have a sense of the battalion’s overall condition and fitness and of there battalion was having issues with discipline may want to endorse to make an example to effect discipline.
  • Divisional Commander: Commanded the brigade.

The sentence would either be endorsed or commuted by the Commander in Chief of the Imperial Forces.

Effects: Shell Shock

  • Under-aged and inexperience men. The lack of maturity leading to behavior.
  • Needs to be a medical exam every day of a FGCM (Field General Courts Martial).
    • Not always adhered to as the medical system during this time was under stress and the availability of MOs (medical officers) was low.
  • Example of Harry Sandlin [spelling – reg. no. unknown]
    • Statement indicated he was suffering from shell shock and this was affirmed by MO. Example of “insanity”.
    • Officers recommended commutation of sentence and this recommendation was affirmed by higher authority.

Relationship of Officers and Men

  • Was it adversarial?
  • Not likely since the clear majority of sentences were commuted.
  • Arthur Thorne, reg. no. 700870example.
    • Entered army later when there was a lower standard of medical exam.
    • His use of opium was excuse for commutation and letters explained extenuating circumstances.

Fair Trials

  • There is no evidence that any proceeding was biased against the soldiers nor were there any procedural issues.
  • Overview of the trial procedure as a point of reference.
  • Term: defendant’s friend used for the soldier, usually an officer, who defended the accused.
  • All crimes with the death penalty require a “not guilty” plea impelling the introduction of evidence in the case.
  • Junior officers on the FGCM board speak first to prevent higher ranking officer influence to vote.
  • Guilty soldier can plead extenuating circumstances.
    • Case of Private Ruben Smith, reg. no. 8378 showed a record of good service and he pleaded to the court: “Allow me to redeem myself…”
    • He disappears after being allowed back to serve and is never heard from again.
  • 89% of trials ended up with convictions indicating that there were trials in which the soldier was not guilty.


Flexibility of military discipline in the CEF was evident and that authority can be expressed and used at all levels in the unit. Military justice and discipline could be handed at the platoon, company, battalion level first before being referred to a higher authority. Opinions of the battalion commanders were most influential and power was diffused in the army and this was expressed by the value given to the opinions and judgement of officers which would often lead to the Commander in Chief commuting the sentence.

As to the sentences not commuted and carried out there is no clear pattern as far as the circumstances of the desertion and the service records of the accused. More possibly co-related to the state of battalion discipline; the beginning of a major offensive and whether the offence occurred before or after a major military operation.

[i] From

[ii] See

[iii] Note that only men executed for desertion would be included. Soldiers executed for murder were not eligible under the act. The Books of Remembrance comprises of 7 books displayed in the House of Commons and each day a page is turned to reveal the names of the dead. The Canadian Virtual Book of Remembrance is a digital adaptation of these books.

[iv] From


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