“To Prevent Cowardice in Face of the Enemy.”

At the Aisne, Stalemate

Special to The Great War Project

(16-17 September) By these days a century ago, thousands of British troops manage to establish positions on the northern ridge of the Aisne River, but the Germans still occupy the higher ground there. And as the British attempt to push further on the north bank of the river, German machine-guns backed by heavy guns and mortar ravage the British attackers.

French soldier apparently executed by firing squad with officers looking on, date unknown

French soldier apparently executed by firing squad with officers looking on, date unknown

The Germans do not budge from their superior positions. But they cannot dislodge the British forces. It is stalemate.

Historian Max Hastings writes that by these days a century ago, “thousands of British troops were established on the northern bank of the Aisne – but in a wretched predicament. Soaking wet, exhausted and mostly unfed for many hours, they clung to positions just above the woods.”

One soldier writes in a letter home: “It is a terrible place out yonder – nothing but heaps of bodies and plenty of blood.

It appears the stalemate at the Aisne could last a long time.

A century ago, the British army begins to confront another challenge that comes from within its own ranks. Writes historian Max Hastings….

There were individual soldiers in all the warring parties who could not face the intensity of battle.

Private George Ward is one. He leaves the battlefield on September 16th during only his third day of deployment on the frontline. He tells his commander he is wounded. When he returns to his unit a few days later, it is determined that he was not wounded.

As a result he is court-martialed. According to Gilbert, his commanding officer, General Sir Douglas Haig, decides to make an example of Ward “to prevent cowardice in the face of the enemy as far as possible.”

Shot at Dawn, a memorial in Great Britain.

Shot at Dawn, a memorial in Great Britain.

Private Ward is shot. His case is one of the first of its kind in the war, reports Gilbert, of more than 300 British soldiers who are shot for cowardice or desertion. In France more than 600 soldiers are shot for cowardice or desertion.

These men are buried on the battlefield.Their names are not permitted to be included in cemeteries or the memorials to the fallen.

The practice comes to be highly controversial, and many years later a movement arises to recognize their shell-shock and pardon them posthumously.

The British government “rejected the plea for pardon” as late as 1993. But in 2006 the British parliament adopted a law pardoning the British soldiers. In some cases, their names have been added to cemeteries in France and Belgium and to memorials to the fallen.