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Court martials during the First World War
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Courts martial during the First World War

During the First World War, many thousands of members of the British armed forces - as well as a smaller number of soldiers in the Dominion and Imperial forces and several civilians - were tried by courts martial for a variety of offences ranging from murder to sleeping on duty.

In comparison to the overall number of men who saw service, they constituted a tiny minority of the British army. Nonetheless, particularly in the last 30 years, the punishments meted out by army courts martial during the war - most notably the death sentences carried out in more than 300 cases - have triggered an emotive debate. The question of whether or not these men should be posthumously 'rehabilitated' remains controversial.

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Courts martial

Between August 1914 and 31 March 1920, just over 3,000 men were sentenced to death in British army courts martial. Offences included desertion (by far the most common capital crime), cowardice, murder, espionage, mutiny and striking a superior officer. In roughly 90% of cases, the sentence was commuted to hard labour or penal servitude.

Recourse to this most extreme application of military discipline varied among First World War combatants. Britain seems to have fallen somewhere between France - whose much larger army suffered roughly 700 executions - and Germany, whose High Command seems to have deployed firing squads less regularly than its British counterpart.

Field general court martial - opens new window
Field general court martial

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In the British army, there were four types of courts martial. Only two of them - the general court martial (GCM) and the field general court martial (FGCM) - were invested with the authority to sanction the death penalty. The district court martial and the regimental court martial tried minor offences and could only impose limited terms of punishment that excluded the death penalty.


The records

The surviving records of army courts martial came to The National Archives via the office of the Judge Advocate General (JAG) and reside in the WO series. Records of trial proceedings for the most serious military crimes (involving sentences carrying the death penalty) are located in WO 71 - see, for example, the record of the general court martial of PeopleEric Skeffington Poole.

District courts martial - opens new window
District courts martial

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The JAG's office also compiled registers of both general and field courts martial that provide information about each defendant's name, rank, regiment and place of trial, as well as the charge, finding and sentence passed against him. These can be found in WO 90 (for general courts martial abroad), WO 92 (for general courts martial at home) and WO 213 (for field general courts martial abroad). A register of district courts martial, containing similar information but for lesser offences, is located in WO 86.

Records of regimental courts martial are altogether harder to find, as they were not sent to the JAG's office. Some information might be found in either war diaries (WO 95) or regimental records. The only other significant records held at The National Archives - in WO 93 - are the registers for Australian and Canadian soldiers tried by courts martial.

For further information on such subjects as death sentences passed, British army mutineers (of which there were more than 2,000 during the First World War) and officers court martialled by the British army, there are a number of important books, all of which are held in The National Archives library. Also, see Courts martial and desertion in the British Army.

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