Discipline in the BEF
An analysis of executions in British Divisions 1914-1918
|'Death by being shot'. Order confirmed by D. Haig 6 December 1916|
Discipline in the BEF during the First World War
It is well recorded that despite a dubious disciplinary record, Australian troops were amongst the most effective of those available to Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig. (1) This observation is at odds with the example of the Guards Division which also had a favourable reputation, but whose discipline was strict. (2) It is therefore potentially useful to try to establish a link between divisional efficiency and divisional discipline, in order to see if conclusions can be drawn from the available data.
This article will endeavour to establish if there is any correlation between discipline and efficiency. Besides examining the British divisions that made up the B.E.F., it will also examine the comparative disciplinary records of the Regular, New Army and Territorial Force soldiers.
Whilst the aim of British military doctrine may have been to achieve the highest general level in each division, in reality some divisions must have been better than others. These differences may be partly put down to the amount of rest a division had received and training it had undertaken. (3) Besides rest and training, which Haig highlights, other factors influencing a division’s efficiency would include leadership, (4) planning and staff work, (5) cleanliness, (6) and morale. But discipline is also a factor in a division’s status. (7)
Should we expect to see a common theme of strict discipline applied to efficient divisions? Or alternatively, did these divisions only require a light touch as far as discipline was concerned? Conversely, are less elite divisions less elite because of lax discipline or is there evidence that they were less efficient despite (or because of) harsher discipline being applied?
The two major difficulties here are the identification of elite divisions, and the issue of measuring discipline. Discipline is a subjective concept and cannot in itself be quantified but an indicator of a division’s discipline may be suggested by the number of its soldiers being subject to a court martial. On the basis it is only possible to look at capital offences, it is pertinent to analyse such data that exists to see if this gives clues to divisional discipline, however, as the only surviving information kept en masse pertains to courts martial for capital offences, it is not now possible to look at offences for such crimes as drunkenness. Records of these other (non capital) offences may be found in the twenty per cent or so of individual soldiers’ records that have survived and are in the ‘burnt series’ at The National Archives; but clearly it is not possible to extract meaningful data from these surviving records
In the First World War, there were approximately 238,000 courts martial, of which 3,080 resulted in death sentences. (8) Corns and Hughes-Wilson detail the death sentences carried out. (9) Those between August 1914 and the Armistice can be summarised as follows:
Death Sentences carried out in the British Army during the First World War (Table 1)
|Quitting a post||7|
|Disobedience of a lawful order||5|
|Striking a senior officer||4|
|Sleeping at a post||2|
|Casting away arms||2|
It could be argued that the crime of murder has less to do with unit discipline than the other crimes, (10) so by disregarding executions for murder, we have 309 for ‘disciplinary’ offences. Of these, sixteen executions occurred in theatres other than on the Western Front. This leaves 293 executions on the Western Front. Of these 293, exactly thirty occurred in non-British units. (11) How the remaining 263 executions were divided between the British Army divisions will be examined shortly.
Elite Divisions of the British Army in the First World War
Although attempts have been made to nominate elite divisions, (12) such analysis is always going to be a source of disagreement, especially as divisional competence is likely to have varied during the war. (13) By limiting the elite and ‘non-elite’ divisions to six in each category, it may be suggested that for the majority of the war, the following divisions were amongst the most highly regarded: Guards, 3rd, 9th (Scottish), 18th (Eastern), 21st and 29th. Although not wishing to denigrate the achievements of the men who served in these units, the following may have had below average reputations: 31st, 35th, 40th, 46th (North Midland), 49th (West Riding) and 61st (South Midland). (14)
British Executions of the First World War
There are two methods of comparing capital courts martial - by condemnations whether or not promulgated and by executions actually carried out. Taking actual executions first, Putkowski and Sykes give details of executed soldiers’ divisions. (15) This can be summarised in the form of a table. (This table, by definition, excludes those troops serving outside France and Flanders, and those serving with other national contingents or who were foreign labourers. It also does not take into account those executed after the armistice or those executed for the crime of murder.)
Executions by Division in the British Army during the First World War (Table 2).
Discipline in the Regular Division of the British Army in the First World War
What is noticeable from this table is the high number of executions in Regular divisions during 1915; in particular, the 3rd Division may have had some difficulties with discipline in this year. With the exception of the 1st Division, this level of executions had reduced by 1916, and remained at a lower level for the remainder of the war. (As an aside, it is interesting to speculate if the general reduction in the rate of executions from 1916 is anything to do with Haig taking over from French at the end of 1915.)
Did 1915’s disciplinary problems preclude divisions from service on the Somme in 1916?
It would seem not. For the period 21 December 1915 to 2 July 1916, (16) there were 39 executions (for crimes other than murder) in the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), (17) of which twelve were in the 1st Division. The surprising matter here is not so much the high number of executions in this division - although this is of course notable - but the fact that this did not stop it playing a part in the Battle of the Somme. (18) Four of the twelve were from 1/Loyal North Lancs. Corns and Hughes-Wilson have looked in detail at the second of this battalion’s four executions, stating the battalion’s commanding officer said discipline was good and an example was not needed. (19) Conversely, the General Office Commanding (GOC) of 2 Infantry Brigade said the battalion was unsatisfactory. (20)
Putkowski and Sykes suggest that sentences were confirmed in an arbitrary manner because so many men from one battalion were executed in a short period. (21) I would argue, however, that this shows that each case was dealt with on its merits, and that sentences were confirmed without saying ‘this battalion has had its quota of executions, it is therefore right to commute this sentence’.
Discipline in the New Army and Territorial Force Divisions during the First World War
Turning to the New Armies and Territorial Divisions, it is difficult to discern any pattern due to the low numbers of men executed. There are reasons to suggest that some executions may have been linked to battlefield performance: two of the 31st Division’s executions in 1916 were from one battalion, the soldiers deserting together on the eve of the Somme offensive. With this division having so comprehensively failed in its attack on 1 July, it is reasonable to speculate that the division’s failure was taken into account during the confirmation process of these executions.
Against this should be contrasted the example of the 49th (West Riding) Division. Prior to 10 April 1918, the division had not had any of its men executed despite its distinctly ‘average’ fighting record. (22) This suggests that up to this point there had not been any attempt to improve its discipline (if it is assumed that discipline was missing) via recourse to execution. (23)
The number of executions across all divisions is generally constant from 1916 to 1917 but show a reduction in 1918. Putkowski and Sykes state that ‘As the war drew to a close, the number of executions dropped dramatically, and in the final two months only two soldiers per month were shot’, (24) implying that as it was known the war was drawing to a close, it was decided to reduce the number of executions. Clearly it could not be certain that the Germans would sign the armistice so it is wrong to suggest that it was known the war was ending. Furthermore, if we take the final nine weeks of the war (that is the period 9 September to 11 November) seven British troops were executed (this excludes one non-British labourer and one execution for the crime of murder). This rate of execution is the equivalent of forty per year – a slightly higher rate than for 1918 taken as a whole. There was no reduction in the rate of execution at the very end of the war, as Putkowski and Sykes suggest, but rather there is a reduction for 1918 as a whole. This reduction cannot be put down to the perception that the Allies were about to win, but may be due to a greater sense that discipline had improved from 1917.
British men condemned to death during the First World War
The data from Table 1 cannot be taken to be conclusive, as the figures are low in absolute terms. It may, therefore, be helpful, via Table 2, to look at the number of men condemned to death (but not necessarily executed) from data supplied by Gerald Oram.(25) Due to the source material not providing the data, the following table cannot split the condemnations out by year. It is ordered by condemnations per month of active service, covering all theatres. The figure for ‘active months’ is the number of whole months the division served in an active theatre of war; thus August 1914 to the Armistice is fifty full months (1 September 1914 to 31 October 1918).
Condemnations per division in the British Army during the First World War (Table 3).
|Division||Condemnations||Active months||Condemnsations per month||Division type|
What is immediately noticeable is the presence of Regular divisions at the top of the table. It may be that the Regular divisions had a firmer stance on condemnations than did New Army divisions, which appear in the middle of the table. It is very obvious that Territorial divisions appear almost universally at the bottom of the table. What is also apparent is that service in an inactive theatre such as Salonika or less intense theatres such as Palestine reduces the condemnation rate. (26) Territorial divisions which served in Palestine are also placed low in the table. (27)
For the second time, the 3rd Division is at the top of the table, with 15th Division again the top New Army division (and 17th again close behind). None of the suggested elite divisions are at the bottom of the table. The 29th is near the top but the 9th is very near the statistical mean, with the 18th very close to the median. The 21st Division is above the ‘average’ and the Guards Division lower than the average.
The candidates for the label ‘poor’ divisions (viz. 31st, 35th, 40th, 46th, 49th and 61st) are all (except for the 35th) mid or lower-mid table. The 49th is the second highest Territorial division in Table 2, but none of its men were executed until April 1918.Does the suggestion that Territorial divisions were more disciplined bear further investigation? The next table, extracted from Oram’s work, suggests that Territorial divisions were indeed significantly more disciplined than other British divisions.
Condemnations in the British Army during the First World War per active division by division type. (Table 4) (28)
|Division||Condemnations||no. of divisions active||total no. of months these divisions active||
Condemnations per active divisional month
(i) Excluding cavalry divisions. Including 28th Division's post war active service
(ii) Including 63rd (RN) Division.
(iii) Does not include (various) mounted divisions. Also this excludes 43rd, 44th, 45th and 63rd (TF as opposed to RN) to 69th (although the 66th and 74th are included).
(iv) Home Service divisions, Garrison divisions.
(v) Condemnations include 11 in the 5th (Reserve) Division which did not go on active service If these 11 are excluded, the 220 condemnations become 209, and the ratio becomes 1.48
(vi) Including Gallipoli operations: condemnations in the Australian and New Zealand Division (when this operated as a single division in Gallipoli) are divided between the AIF and the New Zealand Division.
(vii) Indian Army, East African, West African, Labour, North Russian expedition.
As can be seen, the number of executions per active divisional month was significantly lower for Territorial divisions than Regular or New Army divisions. (29) It could be said that Territorials were ‘soft’ on discipline, but these formations were commanded by regular officers of similar outlook and presumably – subject to each individual GOC’s idiosyncrasies – the troops would have been treated the same as soldiers in other (non-Territorial) divisions.
Tables 2 and 3 have examined the type of division: however, as the war progressed the various categories of soldier were posted in an increasingly random manner, and the ‘type’ of division became less relevant. Putkowski and Sykes have usefully categorised the type of executed soldiers in six ways, namely: Regular, Reservist, Volunteer, Kitchener, Territorial and Conscript. Using their categories as a starting point, Table 4 demonstrates that it was not just Territorial Force divisions that had low numbers of men condemned and executed; but that the Territorial Force as a whole may have been more disciplined than other troops.
Type of British soldier executed in the First World War. (Table 4)
New Army troops were unused to harsh discipline, not being familiar with pre-war soldiering of either a regular or Territorial type, they may as a result have had difficulty coming to terms with army discipline.
The high command of 1916 was also learning how to handle its new citizen army and was still trying to treat these men in the same way it had dealt with the regulars in 1914 and 1915. Unsure of the quality of the new army and doubtful of its fighting skills, the senior commanders were nervous after the failure of the initial Somme offensive and an instinctive - but inappropriate - response was to reinforce discipline along pre-war lines, in an attempt to make the volunteers ‘proper’ soldiers. (30)
Were executions in the British Army during the First World War for ‘Sake of Example’?
It is recorded that the state of discipline in a division had a bearing on the sentence in the case of a court martial conviction, (31) indeed Putkowski and Sykes suggest that many executions were examples. (32) Unfortunately they seem to make this point rather often, which tends to undermine their argument. For example, they state two executions took place as examples in the 18th Division, (33) however this was a good division and it cannot be simply assumed that examples were needed. Similarly, they contend that an example was needed for the 30th Division, (34) on this occasion the assertion is backed up by an eyewitness, (35) so on this occasion there may be a basis for the claim that an example was needed.
The need for examples to be made is reiterated elsewhere. (36) However, on other occasions when - arguably - an example was needed, such as the admission by the Commanding Officer of the 16th Cheshires (35th Division) that his battalion could not be relied upon to hold the line, surprisingly there is no record of any execution having taken place. (37)
Notwithstanding the conflicting evidence examined above, it is clear that there was some attempt to link discipline to courts martial, as related by Charles Carrington in ’Soldier from the War Returning’,: A memory that disturbs me is the hint or warning that came down from above, … that morale needed a sharp jolt, or that a few severe sentences might have a good effect. It was expedient that some man who had deserted his post under fire was shot to encourage the others. Sometimes discipline would be screwed up a couple of turns: death sentences would be confirmed and executed. (38)
The relationship between ‘discipline’ and ‘fighting prowess’in the British Army during the First World War in relation to executions
Overall, it is difficult to argue either that firm discipline (evidenced by high condemnations and/or executions) routinely led to a high standard of fighting, or that discipline was harsh in poor divisions. The 35th Division is the only example backing up this assertion, but this division’s figures are distorted by one event: a total of twenty six men were condemned to death in the aftermath of one event in November 1916. (39)
The position of the 3rd Division at the top of Tables 2 and 3 suggests that hard fighting and strong discipline is inexorably connected. This thesis is challenged however by the position of the 62nd (West Riding) Division which is placed very near the bottom of the condemnations table. This was one of the most used divisions in the Hundred Days, and not just one of better Territorial divisions, but arguably also one of the best divisions by the end of the war. (40) The 35th Division certainly had disciplinary problems, but this resulted in only three men being executed.
Two other New Army Divisions (the 22nd and the 26th) may have had disciplinary problems, but this was dealt with in a different way. Both the 22nd and the 26th Divisions suffered an insignificant number of fatalities during their brief service on the Western Front, but nevertheless were despatched to Salonika in October 1915. The reason for this has been suggested by Professor Simkins: both divisions had suffered from disciplinary problems whilst in the UK. (41)
The conclusion seems to be that neither condemnations nor executions were linked to a division’s fighting spirit. Executions and condemnations appear relatively random, which suggests that each case was assessed on its merits - which is how it should be - rather than on an assessment of a particular unit needing to have an example pour encourage les autres.
Pre-war Regular army discipline was carried into the war and applied to Regular divisions as evidenced by the condemnations (and executions) in these divisions. The New Army soldiers, although (in the early days) from society’s middle-classes, may have had some difficulty adjusting to army discipline. The pre-war Territorials were well aware of the army’s methods and seem to have been the most disciplined.
The high rate of executions can be seen to have reduced firstly, in 1916 (from a high rate in 1915 amongst the Regular divisions) and again in 1918. Had the rate of execution applied to the Regulars in 1915 been applied to the larger BEF of 1916-1918, it is likely that the number of executions would have been over a thousand. That the rate of executions reduced in 1918 is likely to be due to an improvement in discipline across the BEF. As in so many other ways, the BEF became, by 1918, a much more disciplined force than in its early days on the Western Front.
Readers who have found this of interest may like to read 'Executions under the Army Act during the First World War'.
(1) See Gary Sheffield and John Bourne, Douglas Haig War Diaries and Letters 1914-1918 (London: Orion, 2005), pp. 385-386. In his diary entry for 3 March 1918 Haig compares the rates at which soldiers under his command are in jail. Australians are many times more likely to be in custody than those from other contingents. See also S.F. Wise, ‘The Black Day of the German Army: Australians and Canadians at Amiens, August 1918’, in Peter Dennis and Jeffrey Grey, eds., Defining Victory, 1918 (Canberra: Army Historical Unit, Department of Defence, 1999), pp. 6-7.
(2) Lyn MacDonald, Somme, (London: Papermac, 1984), pp. 262-263
(3) Field Marshal Haig’s diary entry of 11 September 1917 confirms the need for the divisions to be rested and trained – see Sheffield and Bourne, Haig Diary, pp. 323-324
(4) Richard Holmes, Tommy (London: Harper Collins, 2004), pp.230-231 See also Sheffield and Bourne, Haig Diary, p. 249
(5) John Hussey, ‘The Deaths of Qualified Staff Officers in the Great War: “A Generation Missing”?’, Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, 75 (1997), pp. 246-259 refers to an appalling shortage of staff officers.
(6) Paddy Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Western Front: The British Army’s Art of Attack 1916-18 (London: Yale University Press, 1994), p. 79 refers to trench foot in less successful battalions. See also Sheffield and Bourne, Haig Diary, p. 342 for commentary from Haig about divisional cleanliness.
(7) John Terraine, General Jack’s Diary, (London, Cassell, 2003), p.215
(8) Cathryn Corns and John Hughes-Wilson, Blindfold and Alone: British Military Executions in the Great War (London: Cassell, 2002), p. 103. However, a different total of condemnations is given elsewhere: see Table 3.
(9) Corns and Hughes-Wilson, Blindfold and Alone, Appendix 2. This produces slightly different totals to that given on page 103. My base figure of 332 is different to the number given by Corns and Hughes-Wilson due to my using a cut-off of 11 November 1918.
(10) Although this proposition is not entirely safe: for example there is the case of 2/Lt. John Paterson who was convicted and executed for murder but not tried for the crime of desertion.
(11) 23 in the CEF; 5 in the NZEF, 1 in the British West Indies Regiment and 1 in the Egyptian Labour Corps – these are, of course, for crimes other than murder.
(12) See, for example, Peter Simkins, ‘Co-stars or Supporting Cast? British Divisions in the ‘Hundred Days’, 1918’, in Paddy Griffith, ed., British Fighting Methods in the Great War (London: Frank Cass, 1996); Griffith, Battle Tactics, p. 81; and David Tattersfield, ‘Divisional Usage in the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front 1916-1918’, Unpublished MA Dissertation, Birmingham, 2006.
(13) For a discussion on how elite divisions may be identified, see John Lee, ‘The SHLM Project - Assessing the Battle Performance of British Divisions’, in Paddy Griffith, ed., British Fighting Methods in the Great War (London: Frank Cass, 1996), pp. 175-181
(14) Griffith, Battle Tactics, p. 81 and Tattersfield, ‘Divisional Usage in the British Expeditionary Force’.
(15) Julian Putkowski and Julian Sykes, Shot at Dawn: Executions in World War One By Authority of the British Army Act, (new and revised edition, Barnsley: Leo Cooper, 1992), pp. 286-291. This excellent reference source is, however, not immune from error, for example Private John Duncan is placed in the 1st Division instead of the 6th Division. Additionally, as Corns and Hughes-Wilson have pointed out on p.21 of their book there are some classification errors. Corns and Hughes-Wilson have, by the same token, replicated some of Putkowski and Sykes’ errors such as continuing the confusion over the East and West Surrey Regiments and the London Regiment.
(16) Putkowski and Sykes, Shot at Dawn, p. 242 detail the last execution of 1916 in the 1st Division as being on 2 July.
(17) Only one of these 39 was in a non British Army division
(18) Graves refers to the pessimism of the 1st Division during the summer of 1915: Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That (revised edition, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975), p.101
(19) Corns and Hughes-Wilson, Blindfold and Alone, pp. 233-234
(20) This was during the confirmation process of the first of the four. Corns and Hughes-Wilson, Blindfold and Alone, p. 303
(21) Putkowski and Sykes, Shot at Dawn, p. 93
(22) Although this may not be entirely fair: see Derek Clayton, ‘The 49th (West Riding) Division. A comparative study of the Division in offensive action on three specific days during the First World War’, Unpublished MA Dissertation, Birmingham, 2006.
(23) Of the four men executed in 1918, one was under a suspended death sentence for a previous offence, and two of the others had, between them, deserted five times and had each been found with a self-inflicted wound.
(24) Putkowski and Sykes, Shot at Dawn, p. 261
(25) Gerald Oram, Death sentences passed by military courts of the British Army, 1914-1924 (London: Francis Boutle, 2005), pp 122-123. The usage of a different period should be noted. This covers condemnations in all theatres.
(26) The 22nd and 26th Divisions were in Salonika for most of their war service, spending less than two months on the Western Front. The 27th and 28th (both Regular Divisions) were also in Salonika for most of their war service; they did, however, spend most of 1915 on the Western Front.The 28th Division is unique. Its high number of condemnations is explained by the fact that the divisions remained on active service until 1923.The 13th Division and, to a lesser extent the 10th Division, buck the trend and appear higher in the table than other divisions in quiet sectors. These divisions served in Mesopotamia and Salonika respectively.
(27) The 52nd, 53rd, 54th, 60th and 74th Divisions all appear towards the bottom of the table.
(28) The table is extracted from the full period that Oram has used.
(29) The low rate amongst Cavalry divisions is notable and may be explained by their active service being at a lower intensity to infantry divisions. The Australian, New Zealand and Canadian figures are outside the terms of this paper but are remarkable enough to bear further investigation.
(30) Corns and Hughes-Wilson, Blindfold and Alone, p. 213
(31) Corns and Hughes-Wilson, Blindfold and Alone, p. 99
(32) Putkowski and Sykes, Shot at Dawn, p. 11
(33) Putkowski and Sykes, Shot at Dawn, p. 73 (34) Putkowski and Sykes, Shot at Dawn, p. 132
(35) Martin Middlebrook, The First Day on the Somme (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984), pp. 294-295
(36) See John Peaty, ‘Capital Courts-Martial During the Great War’ in Brian Bond, et al. Look to Your Front: Studies in the First World War by The Commission for British Military History (Staplehurst: Spellmount, 1999), pp. 94-95.
(37) Corns and Hughes-Wilson, Blindfold and Alone, p. 154 and p. 310
(38) Corns and Hughes-Wilson, Blindfold and Alone, p. 97
(39) See Corns and Hughes-Wilson, Blindfold and Alone, pp. 149-175.
(40) Tattersfield, ‘Divisional Usage in the British Expeditionary Force’.
(41) See Peter Simkins, Kitchener’s Army: The Raising of the New Armies 1914-1916 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988), p. 243.