Since the Armistice of 1918 and the passing from living memory of WW1 veterans, there have been attempts by Historians, Politicians and the Military to rewrite history. Slowly and stealthily WW1 is being reinvented as a noble war for freedom and liberty and not the mindless slaughter of the young and naïve, in order to establish which Royal Families would reign over the worlds Empires.
In just a few weeks time it will be the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. A point in history, where, concerning British forces, this slaughter reached it’s epic crescendo. Within a few short hours following the initial attack at 07:30hrs on the 1st of July 1916, sixty thousand British troops lay dead and dying on the River Somme flood plain, an area of only some six miles in length.
However, contrary to the history books and popular belief, this wasn’t hoards of local lads know as the Pals Battalions, happily strolling to their deaths. But the absolute obedience to their bloated Generals based in decadent Chateaux’s, some twenty miles behind the front line, by waves of conscripted hastily trained working class teenagers, lined up for slaughter, alongside Military Policemen who were under orders to shoot anyone showing dissent or anyone who wouldn’t go over the top.
This process of eliminating any unwillingness to fight, started many months before the Battle began, where so called ‘cowards’ were taken out at dawn, to face execution by firing squad. These squads comprised of members of the condemned mans unit, they were forced to shoot their own, and they were shot ‘FOR THE SAKE OF EXAMPLE.’
There is nothing new in these actions. Some 267 years before, on the 17 May 1649, three soldiers were executed on Oliver Cromwell’s orders in Burford churchyard, Oxfordshire. They belonged to a movement popularly known as the Levellers, with beliefs in civil rights and religious tolerance. During the Civil War, the Levellers fought on Parliament’s side, they had at first seen Cromwell as a liberator, but now saw him as a dictator. They were prepared to fight against him for their ideals and he was determined to crush them. Over 300 of them were captured by Cromwell’s troops and locked up in Burford church. Three were led out into the churchyard to be shot as ringleaders. For many years these actions were erased from the history books. In 1975, members of the Workers Educational Association Oxford Industrial Branch went to Burford to reclaim a piece of history. They held a meeting in remembrance of the Leveller soldiers. In each succeeding year, people have come to Burford on the Saturday nearest to 17 May, now known as levellers day.
With the above in mind three members from Veterans for Peace Birmingham made their way to Warwick on the evening of 11th May to attend a Western Front Association event titled ‘Unjustifiable or Justifiable? WW1 Executed Soldiers, by Dr John Sutton. The purpose of our attendance was to challenge, question and stand up to any rewriting of history and any notion that these executions were somehow justifiable. The argument is over, because in 2007 all 306 British and Commonwealth troops ‘Shot at Dawn’ were given posthumous pardons. In addition, elsewhere in the Shakespeare county of Warwickshire, a military monument has recently been erected with the inscription “BETTER TO DIE THAN TO BE A COWARD’. How does that statement fit in with the posthumous pardons? and why are local authorities telling any of their constituents, “that they are better off dead”? via public monuments. So we challenged and we questioned, and we made sure our message was heard. On the plus side Dr Sutton is a thorough researcher who is currently campaigning for pardons of a further three soldiers, who appear to has been omitted from the initial mass pardon. He concluded that the executions were unjustifiable and did nothing to aid the war effort.
In solidarity and with the cause of the Levellers, this coming Saturday May 14th, members of VFP Birmingham will make their way to Burford to meet up with other VFP members, in remembering the importance of holding on to ideals of justice, egalitarianism and democracy and to pay our respects to those who are willing to stand up for their own and other peoples rights, not by fighting in pointless wars created by the rich, but by challenging wealth, power and the established system. So, the executed of WW1 are inextricably linked to their Leveller forefathers and we must never forget their endeavour and vow that we will never let them do this to us again, NEVER!
A further report from ‘Levellers day’ to follow. Peace and happiness to all from VFP Birmingham.
The Thin Yellow Line: William Moore
For the Sake of Example: Capital Courts Martial 1914-18 – The Truth: Anthony Babbington
The Levellers Movement PDF
Goodbye to All that: Robert Graves
Blindfold and Alone: British Military Executions in the Great War: John Hughes Wilson
Shot at Dawn: Executions in World War1 Authority of the British Army Act: Julian Sykes & Julian Putkowski