It’s universally accepted that life in the trenches during World War One was incredibly hard, leaving many with physical and psychological injuries from which they would never recover.
However, during the course of the war, Britain executed 306 British and Commonwealth soldiers for crimes such as desertion and cowardice, which has subsequently caused controversy as many argue they were likely to be suffering from what is now known as ‘shell shock’.
Between the start of the war in 1914 and the end in 1918, the British Army labelled more than 80,000 soldiers has having symptoms that we now attribute to shell shock. All of those who were noted as having these symptoms had stated that they were unable to cope with returning to the Western Front and so had decided to desert their post. However, instead of being treated, they received a court martial and, when sentenced to death, would have to face a 12-man firing squad.
Historians and public alike often find the idea of sentencing a man to death for struggling to cope with the horrors of the trenches is horrific in itself. Arguably, anyone who had been left to deal with the constant artillery fire, poor conditions, fear of a surprise attack and poor nutrition would have been desperate to return home, particularly in light of the deaths they had to endure on a daily basis.
Victor Silvester wrote of his experiences in the trenches:
“We went up into the front line near Arras, through sodden and devastated countryside. As we were moving up to our sector along the communication trenches, a shell burst ahead of me and one of my platoon dropped. He was the first man I ever saw killed. Both his legs were blown off and the whole of his body and face was peppered with shrapnel. The sight turned my stomach. I was sick and terrified but even more frightened of showing it.”
Click on the links below to find out more about life in the trenches:
"Life in the Trenches". HistoryLearning.com. 2019. Web.