Historians express unease over WW I pardons (UK)

Historians in the News

THE decision by the Defence Secretary Des Browne to seek a blanket pardon for 306 men shot for battlefield offences during the Great War was greeted with unease by many historians and experts yesterday.

"In one sense it is justified because we know a lot more about the psychological effects of war now than we did then and it would have been treated differently if they had had that information,'' said Sir Lawrence Freedman, professor of war studies at King's College, London.

"But you do have to put it into the context of generals having to persuade large numbers of men to take extraordinary risks and in that context what was done would not constitute unreasonable action.''

But Ian Hislop, the editor of Private Eye and the presenter of a television series about the Great War, called Not Forgotten, said: "This is a recognition of a change of attitude, an acknowledgement that a lot of those who were shot were just boys suffering from shell-shock.

"I think it's a good gesture and a sensible thing to do.''

For Col John Hughes-Wilson, author of Blindfold and Alone, the move towards a pardon by Mr Browne was a political decision.

"What we are seeing here is an attempt to reinvent the past to suit today's political correctness,'' he said.

"I think this leaves military law with a big question mark over it because war is not a walk in the park and different rules apply.''

Martin Middlebrook, author of The First Day of the Somme, said: "I do not agree with a blanket pardon because there were some right villains among [those executed].''

His view was echoed by Dr Keith Lloyd, author of Loos 1915, who felt the decision would strengthen a distorted popular perception of the Great War derived from simplistic school lessons and images from the TV comedy Blackadder.

"It's also important to remember that not everyone was like Harry Farr,'' Dr Lloyd said. "Some of them simply were running away from the heat of battle and some were repeat offenders who were arrested in civilian clothes, often attempting to return to the United Kingdom....

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