HC Deb 29 March 1927 vol 204 cc1084-126

For the purpose of abolishing death as a penalty for certain offences the following Amendments shall be made in the Army Act:

  1. (1) In Section four. paragraphs (1), (2), (6), and (7) shall be omitted;
  2. (2) In Section five the following paragraphs shall be inserted after paragraph (6):
  3. (3) In Sub-section (1) of Section six the words "if he commits any such offence on active service be liable to suffer death or such less punishment as is in this Act mentioned, and if he commits any such offence not on active service," shall be omitted;
  4. (4) In Section seven, for the word "death," there shall be substituted the words "penal servitude";
  5. 1085
  6. (5) Sub-section (1) of Section eight shall be omitted;
  7. (6) In Sub-section (1) of Section nine the words "if he commits such offence on active service, be liable to suffer death, or such less punishment, as is in this Act mentioned, and if he commits such offence not on active service," shall be omitted;
  8. (7) In Sub-section (1) of Section twelve the words "if he committed such offence on active service, or under orders for active service, be liable to suffer death or such less punishment as is in this Act mentioned; and if he committed such offence under any other circumstances," shall be omitted.—[Mr. R. Morrison.]

Brought up, and read the First time.


I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

The general purpose of the Clause is to abolish the death penalty for certain offences—those which involve cowardice and desertion on active service. In modern warfare, as has been pointed out not only from these benches but from every part of the House in previous Debates, it is exceedingly difficult, and indeed almost impossible on many occasions, to draw the line between cowardice and bravery; and we suggest that exactly the same considerations apply to desertion. In order that hon. Members in other parts of the House may not be under any misapprehension, may I emphasise that we do not propose to abolish the death penalty for cases which involve treachery or desertion to the enemy. I wish to make that clear, because sometimes our position is rather misunderstood. That case might be the subject of argument, but we do not propose to argue it this afternoon. In the Debate which took place last year, we were encouraged by the reception which this proposal met with from all parts of the House. Not only were there expressions in favour of it from the Government benches, but several hon. and right hon. Gentlemen on the other side of the House came into the lobby and voted with us. I know it will be said by the Secretary of State for War that that this is a hardy annual, and that is true, but it is only by pursuing our aims that we ultimately reach success. We are also encouraged to continue the discussion of this subject because of what happened in the case of Field Punishment No. I, which was discussed in this House for a number of years.

I am sure the Secretary of State does not wish me to recapitulate the arguments which have been used so often on this question, and it is difficult to find anything original to say on the subject, but I think I am right when I say that, after we have finished the presentation of our case, what he will say will be summed up in a single sentence, "Army opinion is against us." The Government say, "It may be all right, but Army opinion is against it; therefore we do not propose to accede to your request." But the statement that Army opinion is against it does not mean that the rank and file are against it. When they say, "Army opinion," they mean the opinion of the Generals, Lieutenant-Generals, Major-Generals and Colonels—those whom some of us used to call "brass hats" when we were in the Army. I think it is perfectly true that those people are against it, and I have no intention of endeavouring to persuade the Committee that any of them are on our side; so far as I know, none of them is on our side.

That may seem to be an unfortunate admission to make from a debating point of view, but the position I am going to take up, speaking for myself, and a great many hon. Members on this side, is that we are not prepared to take the opinions of those who arc commonly referred to as "Army opinion." The reason why we will not do so is that they have been proved to be wrong before, not only on one question, but on a number of questions. Take the question of Field Punishment No. 1, which used to be debated hotly. In 1921, only six years ago, the right hon. Gentleman for the Wells Division of Somerset (Sir R. Sanders), who at that time represented the War Office, said Army opinion was against the abolition of Field Punishment No. 1, and reinforced that statement by quoting opinions from Sir Douglas Haig, Sir William Robertson and other generals and high people in the Army. He said a Committee had been set up to go into this question, the Army and Air Force Acts Revision Committee, and that this was the Report of the Committee: The views of officers commanding in various theatres of war were obtained By the Army Council. These strongly support the retention of Field Punishment No. 1…In these circumstances the Committee do not feel that they are in a position to recommend the abolition of Field Punishment No. 1."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th April. 1921; col. 886, Vol. 140.] Thinking that that evidence was not strong enough, the right hon. Gentleman went on to quote General Macready when when he was Adjutant-General of the Army. He said: The abolition of field punishment No 1 would have disastrous and far-reaching consequences, and as a result calls for the death penalty would become more frequent. The evidence which was put before the House was overwhelmingly strong that the abolition of Field Punishment No. 1 would bring such a disastrous state of things that when the Division took place in 1921 on a proposal for the abolition of Field Punishment No. 1, 49 voted for it and 106 against. Exactly the same thing happened in 1922. In the following year, between 1922 and 1923, the representative of the Government who is at present Minister of Agriculture and who at that time represented the War Office got up, and after all the evidence of these generals had been quoted giving their overwhelming evidence, and after the Committee set up to consider this question had come to the unanimous opinion that they could not recommend the abolition of Field Punishment No. I, the right hon. Gentleman said: The position is that: that we believe that field punishment No. 1 is no longer necessary in view of the splendid discipline of the Army, and it is a punishment which, however useful it may have been formerly, may now be abolished. That was between 1922 and 1923. Last Session we induced seven Members sitting on the other side to vote against this punishment and in view of what happened on that occasion we are encouraged to go on with our educational propaganda. I imagine that this is not a case in regard to which anybody can say, "Army opinion is against it and so are the Generals and Colonels; that is the last word and it does not matter what ordinary Members of the House of Commons think." I do not accept that argument because Generals and Colonels have been proved to be wrong with regard to field punishment and a lot of other things in the past. Many of those old Generals—fireside Generals and arm-chair Colonels—were leaders in the early days of the War in the gospel of hate against Germany and they used to say, "Once a German always a German," and they declared that never again must any Germans come to this country. I remember when on foreign service reading in the "Continental Daily Mail" about one of them making an astounding speech in which he said: If any German tried to serve him with a plate of soup in Loudon, he would throw the soup in his face. Again they are wrong. A few short years have passed, and what has happened? According to a recent circular, we find that some of those fire-eating generals who were then preaching the gospel of hate in regard to the Germans are now boosting the "Come to Britain" movement, and have appointed a special representative to tabulate the reasons given by Germans for not visiting Britain. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Remer) is not here, because I notice that he has a letter in the "Morning Post" this morning. He seems to be a little concerned that there are so few Germans coming here and he wants us to do all we can to get them over here. Perhaps one of the reasons why more Germans are not showing signs of coming here is because they think that we have still some feelings of enmity against them, and they have to get that out of their minds. They may also think that our Sunday is not lively enough for them, because I notice that the hon. Member for Macclesfield wrote to them assuring them that they can have quite a lively time here on Sundays. I find that some of these people whose opinion we were told to take on this matter as if it were the last word have not been sufficiently reliable in the past. I suggest to the Committee that under the conditions of modern warfare, when a unit goes into action, it is often a mere chance as to whether a man is going to be decorated for bravery or shot for cowardice. I imagine that on active service a man might very well be a coward in the morning and a hero at night.

Perhaps I may be allowed to give an instance. I do not propose to relate a gruesome story. but I will give one story concerning a battery of Field Artillery which went into an engagement and did very well., and a fortnight afterwards the commanding officer received a notice from headquarters to the effect that the battery-had done so well in action that they had awarded one Military Cross and one Military Medal to this battery. The commanding officer was a somewhat unorthodox type of officer, and instead of doing what the ordinary type of Army officer would have done, that is, give the Military Medal to the sergeant-major, he called all the men on parade and explained to them exactly what had happened. He said that the battery had done very well in their last engagement, and it was more luck than anything else that they had done so well. He told them that he was going to be recommended for the Military Cross, and one other rank was going to get a Military Medal. He further said that the position was that they had all done their very best. He did not know whom to recommend for the medal and said that he had decided to leave them to settle it among themselves, and supply him with the name for him to send up to headquarters to receive the medal.

The men held a meeting under the chairmanship of the sergeant-major, and after some discussion they came to the conclusion that there was nothing to pick and choose about so far as bravery was concerned, and the best thing to do was to put a lot of numbers in a hat and the lucky one which was drawn out first should be the one to receive the military medal. The man who was lucky enough to have his name drawn out first was the cook. As hon. Members who have been on active-service know, when a fellow is found to be very little use and is what is called "a bit windy," that man invariably gets a job as cook, and that was the reason why this man had been made cook in this case, and he was not a bit of good for anything else. Of course wild horses will not drag this man's name from me, but he is still swanking about the country wearing the Military Medal which he won in a raffle. After all this is a human question, but I want to protect myself by saying that I do not want to suggest that the people referred to representing Army opinion and those whom the Secretary of State for War consults before making a declaration at that Box are incompetent or that they are not competent to give a decision on this matter, but I feel that they have so many important questions to deal with at present that we ought to be careful not to overwork their brain power because they are working very hard. I notice that the "Morning Post" says that they are dealing with a tremendously important question, and I think the Secretary of State for War might relieve them of the strain by allow- ing the House of Commons to come to a decision on this point. I notice in the "Morning Post" a special article by their military correspondent dealing with the important question of whether the Guards are to be allowed to have rubber pads on their boots. This is what he says: A year ago I stated exclusively in the 'Morning Post' that Guardsmen of the Brigade of Guards quartered in the London District Command had been given freedom to attach rubber pads to the heels of their boots. This concession established a precedent of military interest and importance, and other Commands have since considered the utility of the rubber heel. Of course you could not expect them to solve a question like that in a year and quite a number of officers have been devoting a good deal of attention to this question. The same military correspondent writes: In fact, they say that the turning movements are impeded if the heel is 'cushioned' and that in the 'right-about turn' it occasions delay. These objections, however, are not taken too seriously.


The hon. Member is moving a new Clause in reference to the death penalty and the point he is now dealing with does not seem relevant to that question.


I was endeavouring to show that in previous years when this question has been raised the right hon. Gentleman has simply got up and said this punishment cannot be abolished because Army opinion is against it, and I have been trying to convince the right hon. Gentleman that the Army officers are so busy with such tremendous and far-reaching questions as to whether the soldiers should have rubber heels on their boots or not that perhaps on this occasion the right hon. Gentleman would decide this question for himself. May I appeal to the right hon. Gentleman for once to leave these people to their petty little discussions about whether troops are to wear rubber heels and settle this matter by public opinion instead of Army opinion. If the question of Field Punishment No. 1 had been left to be settled by public opinion, it would have been settled years before it was. It was only settled in the end by the pressure of public opinion. The Generals still resisted but finally the War Office saw their way to abolish it. I hope the right hon. Gentleman, if he is prepared to accept my comparison, will say what harm has been done to the Army by the abolition of Field Punishment No. 1. I have endeavoured to prove that Arm\ opinion was hopelessly wrong on Field Punishment No. 1 and public opinion was right. I have no doubt, and I do not think the right hon. Gentleman has, if he ever mixes with orderly people apart from Generals and Colonels, that on this matter public opinion is on the side of the abolition of capital punishment for the offences I have detailed.


The views I hold on this question I have expressed on other occasions and I have nothing particularly hew to say to-day. I am going to allow the case to rest very largely on the arguments which have already been advanced but there are one or two things I want to say. I suppose this death penalty can be fairly described as one of the many brutal by-products of war. War is a very horrible business and leads to very horrible consequences. I am inclined to think there is nothing more horrible in war than the spectacle of one of our own soldiers standing up blindfolded before a firing party of his own comrades, being shot in cold blood because his nerves have failed him. I know this is one of the things the House very naturally does not care to face. It is very unpleasant and very painful and it may be to the credit of the House that it wants to forget that such things ever happen. But I really think it is all to the good that the House should face an issue like this squarely. The more the Members of this place are made to face the ugliness and brutality of war, the less likely they are at any future time to involve the country in another war. We have discussed at great length on previous occasions as to what is cowardice. I believe we have so analysed this psychological problem in the past that we have arrived at a very large measure of agreement in all parts of the House. Many of us are now prepared to say that cowardice, however it is manifested, whether by actual cowardice on the field or by some form of desertion, is a form of nerve failure. Surely, if we have got to that point of agreement, we ought to be able to get a good deal further. There must be common agreement about the way in which nerve power varies. We know it by our experience in the ordinary affairs of life. We are all subjected to a certain amount of nervous strain. You find in ordinary civilian peacetime life some people cracking under the strain of some personal problem, some financial problem or some business problem. It may be that just excessive study makes certain individuals in our midst crack under the strain and they have a nervous breakdown. We treat them as being weak human beings. We do not attribute it to any fault at all. We apply curative measures to try to heal them.

If we go a step further, bearing in mind that there is this wide diversity of nervous strength amongst human beings, and consider what happens on the battlefield, where the nervous strain is tenfold what it is in civilian life, we are bound to see the possibility of a certain number of troops, through no fault of their own, cracking under that strain, and if that happens it seems to me the House ought to recognise that it is really a monstrous miscarriage of justice, because men do break down under that strain, to treat them in the way they are being treated now and apply the death penalty to them. There are all sorts of people who will support the point of view I am putting forward. There are very distinguished military men, men who have shown great gallantry in the field, who will themselves admit that this question of bravery or cowardice is a very subtle question indeed and that it is very difficult to draw a line between cowardice and, I was going to say, bravery, but I should like to develop the point made by my hon. Friend, that under a different set of circumstances a man may be brave on one occasion and may be a coward on another. As a matter of fact, from my own military experience, if I wished, I could give illustrations of that kind. Anyhow, I want to get this point fixed, that there is a great diversity of nervous strength amongst the troops and there is a tremendous strain upon that nervous strength in the field, and if that is so there is a case for us to reason about it might be said, even in the field of criminology, that people who commit crimes cannot be held to be strictly responsible for them. A man may commit even a murder because of some temperamental or intellectual defect You might say because of that you are not going to let this man off. If he commits a crime you have to protect society by punishing him I agree. But cowardice in a military sense is not a crime at all. It is a misuse of language to call it a crime. It is weakness pure and simple. There is nothing vicious or criminal about a man who fails in the battlefield. He is not intending or desiring in the least to injure his comrades. When a man became possessed of fear and acted accordingly he was not thinking in the slightest degree of injuring his comrades. When an exhausted soldier, worn out with fatigue and lack of sleep, slept at his, post, he had not the slightest intention of doing anything harmful to his comrades, and it is a misnomer, it is an utterly improper use of language to call this kind of thing a crime.

I believe on this issue military officers are prepared to meet us. They are prepared to concede the abstract injustice of the death penalty in many cases. They are prepared to say that there are cases where the innocent, in the ordinary sense of the word, are made to suffer this penalty, but having said that they go on to urge this. Dreadful though this penalty is, true though it may be that it is applied on occasions to the innocent, it is nevertheless essential for military purposes to retain this weapon for the purpose of maintaining the general discipline of the forces in the field, and even if in the course of maintaining that discipline certain innocent people have to suffer, this sanction is still necessary to us. That, I think, is a fair summary of the War Office position on this matter. It was the report that was given us by the Committee of Inquiry that sat some two or three years ago. I want to make one comment on that first of all. It throws a very lurid light indeed on the kind of ordeal that modern warfare is if the War Office is going to say it is necessary, in order to keep men enduring that ordeal, that they should have the threat of the death penalty hanging over their heads. That is really the legitimate inference we are to draw from the way the War Office insists upon this penalty. The Financial Secretary last year, in trying to rebut this point, said British troops did not need any stiffening of this kind.

Then why on earth does the War Office insist on retaining the penalty? If the War Office honestly and sincerely believes that the patriotism of the troops is sufficient in itself, why do they insist upon keeping the death penalty? As a matter of fact, it makes one cynical, this simultaneous talk about the patriotism of the troops by the War Office and the retention of the death penalty. It reminds me of the dictum of the Emperor Frederic: "Trust in the Lord but keep your powder dry." The War Office says, pay ample lip service to the patriotism of the troops but be very careful to keep the death penalty ready. That attitude of the War Office shows what exactly they think about the patriotism of the troops.

Now we come to this point, as to whether we accept the War Office view that it is necessary. I deny that the death penalty is necessary. I deny that the people of this country regard it as being necessary. In my view what you need in the Army is to rely upon the sense of duty of the troops, their sense of patriotism, their devotion to what they believe is right. If they are fighting in a cause which they believe to be right, you may depend upon it their sense of duty, except for a very small proportion, will keep them fighting. Further, if that does not suffice, if you have a situation which has arisen in which the majority of the troops are not impelled to keep in the firing line by a sense of duty, if you have a war-weary army, the bulk of whom are anxious to get back, you have no business by means of the death penalty to keep a war-weary army fighting against odds when their heart has gone out of the fight. There is no sense of justice whatever in the people at home, the people who are away from the horrors of war, applying these sanctions in order to keep the war-weary troops doing what they are not prepared to do themselves.

I want to put this further point. It is old, I agree, but the Secretary for War ought to be reminded of it every time the matter is discussed. We have got the first-class illustration of the Australians, those who fought in the last War with magnificent courage That is denied by nobody. They were the finest troops we had, and the best shock troops in the whole of the British Army. They fought all that time with unexampled gallantry, and the death penalty was never applied against them. If you could get that kind of fighting from the Australian troops without the terrorising effect of the death penalty, this House ought to be prepared to say that, what was right and proper for the Australian troops, ought to be right and proper for other British troops. Those who support the death penalty cannot even maintain that it achieves its purpose. They cannot even maintain that it protects the weakling from failure. If the War Office could say that this death penalty protects the weakling from the effects of his weakness, there might be something to be said for it, but it fails to protect the weakling. The man whose nerves are weak will fail, and does fail, death penalty or no death penalty. There were, I think, 364 actual executions in the last War, but that does not represent the amount of failures. If I remember aright, there were over 3,000 cases which were tried and over 3,000 cases in which the death penalty was awarded. It was remitted later, but you have over 3,000 cases which occurred in spite of the existence of the death penalty, and there were over 300 executions. Although I argue this on grounds of justice and do not want to appeal to sentiment, I would remind hon. Members that over 30 of those executed were young lads under 21 years of age.

I will not say more. Our case has already been made on many other occasions and is to be found in the pages of the OFFICIAL REPORT. It has not been met, and it cannot be met, and we are appealing to the Government once more to accept the inevitable and to over-ride the narrow and the antiquated views of their professional advisers, and come into line with public opinion and say that this death penalty—because it is unnecessary and unjust and barbarous—has got to be abolished. Let me warn the right hon. Gentleman. If there be any credit attaching to the making of a humane change like this, his Government had better seize it while they have the opportunity. The Motion which has been moved from these benches is not one moved by a section of the Labour party; it is a Motion which has the support of the united Labour party, and, depend upon it, so soon as the next Government takes over the reins of office and the next Army (Annual) Bill is presented to this House, so soon will you find the change brought about for which we are pleading to-day. I therefore remind the right hon. Gentleman that forewarned is forearmed, and I advise him, while he may, to do this this which I am sure the country wants done, and get the Army death penalty done away with.

Lieut.-Colonel LAMBERT WARD

I was not my intention to intervene in this Debate, and I should not have done so except to express my disgust at the frivolous nature of the speech made by the hon. Member who moved this new Clause. To me, it is absolutely incredible that a subject like this can be dealt with in such a light-hearted, off-hand and frivolous way. The trouble is that the vast majority of hon. Members on that side of the Committee do not know what war is. They have not seen it at its worst, as I have. If they had, I am quite sure that a speech of the character made by the Mover of this new Clause would have received reproof from the Members of that side of the Committee, and it would not have been necessary for it to have come from a Member on this side. It was. perhaps, my misfortune to go into the War at what was, perhaps, the very worst time. It was in the early stages, in the winter of 1914. The brigade we joined had had most of its officers and most of its men killed or wounded, or sent home sick. They had been filled up by Special Reservists, men in whom the spirit of discipline was not as high as in the old Regular Army; and, if I had not seen it myself, I should never have believed the condition of discipline in that brigade. As the hon. Member for Shoreditch (Mr. Thurtle) said, they had cracked; the spirit of discipline had gone, and they were war-weary. What was to be done with that brigade? Had there been men available, they would have been sent back to the base to recover, but there were no troops to send in their place. To send them back to the base would simply have meant that the Germans would have been through to the Channel port3, round Paris and the War would have ended in the defeat of this country. From what I have seen of the countries that lost-the War, it is a very vital thing for the future of this- country that we should have won it. I tremble to think what would have been the fate of the millions of people in this country had the Germans won instead of us. How were these men to be kept to their posts? They had cracked to a man. You could not send them back to the base, and yet they were in such a state that they would willingly have taken 10 years' penal servitude to be allowed to stay out of the line. In these circumstances, it was only the fear of the death penalty that kept them at their posts. It is tragic, I admit. It is the worst tragedy I have ever seen, but it is a fact; and that is the reason why I support the death penalty. I believe that, in circumstances such as that, it is the only thing which will compel men to do what they owe to their country.

A great deal of capital has been made out of the fact that there was no death penalty in the Australian Forces. I was alongside the Australians for a very considerable time, and I know perfectly well what happened there. If any man was giving any trouble, he was put over the top to do wiring, night after night, until he stopped it. I have seen written orders issued to the Australian machine-gun posts to the effect that, if a man left his post, he was not to be tried by court-martial, but was to be shot on the spot. I yield to no one in my admiration for the Australians, but do not let us imagine that every man in the Australian Forces was ready to go over the top at any moment of day or night. They had their failures, just as we had, although they never published them, and this is the way they kept the weaklings to their duty. I said I did not intend to speak very long on this subject; to me it is much too tragic, and much too painful. I wish, as much as anyone on the other side of the Committee, that this death penalty could be done away with, but the way to do that is not to have any more wars. I, at any rate, was not responsible for the War, and the party to which I belong in this House was not responsible for the War. The Leader of the party on the other side was supporting the Government which declared War, and not the party on this side. He was a supporter of the Government, and supported them through the six years of power which brought those events on the country; so do not blame me and this party for the War. If you want to avoid the death penalty, the way to do it is to have no more war, but if we have war we must win it. If we are faced with a war again, and this country is to live, we shall again have to win it, but the way to avoid all these troubles is not to have another war.


I have spoken so many times on this question that I do not propose to occupy the time of the Committee very long. The Mover and Seconder of the New Clause are to-day adopting an attitude very different from the attitude they adopted two years ago when I followed them in this Debate. At that time, it was the pledged policy of the party which they represent to abolish capital punishment, not only in civil cases but in Army cases. To-day, as I understand it, the united party takes a different view. They accept the policy of the capital punishment in certain cases. That is a great step in advance. [Interruption.] One hon. Gentleman above the Gangway says he does not think so, but I understood the Mover and Seconder to say that it was the policy of the united party to accept the death penalty in certain cases.




My hon. Friend above the Gangway says "No," but I listened with great attention to the two hon. Gentlemen who moved and seconded the New Clause, and my recollection is that they said it was the policy of the united party to accept the death penalty in certain cases.


In certain cases of treason and treachery.


That was not contradicted, and, indeed, my hon. Friend above the Gangway reinforces his own speech in his interruption. He says in certain cases such as treason and treachery. That is a considerable 6tep in advance, and, really, it is a question of degree when we consider it from any corner of the House. It was my painful duty—there is other epithet to apply to it—during the War to have to defend, not only the death penalty, but Field Punishment No. 1. What I would put to hon. Gentlemen above the Gangway is this: What is the alternative?


Humanity and Christianity.

5.0 p.m.


Obviously, every single Member of the House would say that humanity and Christianity are a proper alternative. But if you are to have that as a proper alternative, you abolish war. Hon. Gentleman above the Gangway have not a monopoly of that aspiration. I believe there are hon. Gentlemen sitting on the other side of the House who, although they are often taunted by Members on this side, are just as sincerely anxious to abolish war as are hon. Gentlemen above the Gangway, but, if you do not have the ideal condition in which there is no war, you must have an alternative, because the moment you enter upon the dread arbitrament of war the ordinary civilised conditions of humanity cease to operate. These are the hard facts which nobody can doubt. A great deal was said about Field Punishment No. 1 and its abolition. It was part of my duty, along with very able officers in the War Office, to alter Field Punishment No. 1 in 1917, and it was altered very considerably. In 1921 it was decided to abolish Field Punishment No. 1. [An HON. MEMBER: "1923!"] Yea, 1923, but I believe that Field Punishment No. 2 still exists. There was very little to choose between Field Punishment No. 2 and the modified Field Punishment No. 1. What was the reason why it was altered? The real reason was that most men, after a time, thought it was not proper punishment. It was described in those days as the crucifixion. It was a loathsome term to apply to any punishment, but that punishment was pretty severe.

But I come back to the point from which I started, and I ask hon. Members above the Gangway, what is their alternative to the death penalty? During the course of the War a very sane and sound Act was introduced called the Suspension of Sentences Act, and the main basis of that Act was that if a man was sentenced to a term of imprisonment he was observed while in detention barracks—because there is no such thing as prison in the Army—and if his conduct improved he was given an opportunity of joining his unit or any other unit after a certain time. That was a very great step in advance in the amelioration of prison treatment. Tell the soldier to-day in very different circumstances that there is no death penalty, make him realise that the moment the war is over he will have the opportunity of benefiting by the general amnesty which always takes place after the war, and penal servitude, which is the only possible alternative to the death penalty, will have no effect upon him at all. That is an acknowledged fact. I regret it should be so, but those are the facts from careful observation.

The very phrase "death penalty" is one which conjures up all sorts of terrifying prospects and, as I said at the beginning, one would very gladly be without either those prospects or the penalty. But when you consider that, during the Great War, when our troops of all races, classes and creeds were fighting in every corner of the world, there were so few cases of actual execution, I think that points to one thing, or perhaps I should have said two things, first, the extraordinarily fine discipline of the Army as a whole, and, second, the merciful way in which each case was decided upon its merits. I believe, myself, that the actual percentage of executions was only 11 per cent., and that 89 per cent. of the cases which were submitted to the General Officer Commander-in-Chief were altered. The Committee must realise, in considering the case of a soldier tried by field general court-martial, there is a sense of discipline in every battalion. It is the last resort of a battalion commander to send anybody to be tried by field general court-martial. There is a pride in each battalion, and nobody in that battalion really desires any member of that battalion to be tried by field general court-martial. That is a well-known fact, and no hon. Member above the Gangway can deny that throughout the whole of that time the prisoner is treated with the greatest possible humanity. There is no prosecuting counsel in the ordinary sense of the term; he is not allowed in the Army. The prosecuting counsel is enjoined that he is to bring out in the course of the trial everything that could possibly be said for the prisoner. After that has been done, and the prisoner is tried by field general court-martial, the judgment of the Court has to go to the Divisional-General to the Corps Commander, to the Army Commander and then afterwards to General Headquarters. When it goes to General Headquarters, if my recollection is right, the Judge Advocate-General examines it for any flaw in the indictment—or whatever the phrase is— or for any legal difficulties and afterwards, in the very last resort, it is sent through the Adjutant-General to the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief. I think I have shown that, when a case goes through alt those channels the various examinations and investigations are not carried out in a slipshod or summary fashion. They are done with care, with anxiety and, in my judgment, they are done with sympathy. I believe that during the last two or three years of the War an alteration was made in the way in which the sentence was to be made known to the man, and everything humanly possible was done to see that the whole thing was carried out as humanely as possible. I do not suppose for a moment that hon. Gentlemen above the Gangway would deny that everything was humanely and sympathetically considered.

A comparison has been made with the Australian Forces. It is a well-known fact that officially the death penalty was not recognised in the Australian Army, and I am proud to think that it is equally well recognised that no two corps covered themselves with greater glory in the War than the two Australian corps. But I feel bound to say, in the interests of this discussion and in the interests of our own troops, and so that no unfavourable comparison shall be made of the Government, that the discipline in the Australian Army at the beginning of the War was far from being perfect. There were other ways of penalising deserters and of penalising cowardice adopted in the Australian Army, though not officially. In any case, there were a great many people connected with the Australian Army who very often desired to have a severe and exemplary punishment when the discipline of the Australian Corps was not as perfect as it ultimately became. Nobody desires with any enthusiasm to advocate the death penalty. I am sure that is the general view of everybody in this House, but when hon. Gentlemen above the Gangway say that we rely for the maintenance of the death penalty upon Army influence, then I must disagree with them. It was not one Committee, it was two Committees, that sat to consider the advisability of maintaining the death penalty, and it was not all Army opinion. One Committee, I remember distinctly, was presided over by a Judge of the High Court. I see my hon. Friend who was then Financial Secretary to the War Office (Mr. Lawson) in his place. I think he was a member of that Committee. I do not know whether he actually decided any of the points involved, but he was a member of that Committee.




He was chairman of that committee, and he had all the facts, and I am perfectly certain he could not stand up there and say that the committees did not investigate the situation thoroughly and sympathetically. I am perfectly certain that they did. I am perfectly certain that the hon. Gentleman would not allow himself to be a member or a chairman of a committee that looked without sympathy on any views of the private soldier. That Committee, mainly civilian, took the view that there was no alternative to the death penalty. They took that view with great regret, but they held it very firmly. We would like to see the entire abolition of war and the abolition of every necessity to consider a point of this kind, but facts being as they are, and the dread arbitrament of war always hanging over us, we have to consider first of all what is best in the interests of the Army fighting our battles and, in the long run, what will ultimately mean success to our arms and to our cause.


I would like to reinforce what has been said by the right hon. Gentleman about courts-martial. I myself sat on a court-martial for the death penalty and I prosecuted. I should like to say that in almost every case we did our best to get the man off if there was anything at all in his favour. The party opposite would allow the death penalty in the exceptional case of desertion to the enemy, but they are really giving away the whole of their case, because I cannot see that it is very much worse to be a deserter to the enemy—he may be carrying important information— than to desert and run away and expose a gap in our own line. That probably does more harm than is done in the case of a man who actually deserts to the enemy. The hon. Member for Shore-ditch (Mr. Thurtle) spoke of the great difference of opinion among the rank and file as regards the death penalty as compared with the "brass hats" at the War Office. I do not know if he is aware that, during the War, when volunteers were required for shooting parties, they were never lacking. I think the reason was that on the whole the men were keener on the death penalty than were the officers.

The hon. Member for Shoreditch referred to the case of men asleep at then-posts, but I would ask him if he knows of any case where a man was shot for being asleep at his post? I do not think there was one. What really happened was that, when one went round the line, if one found a man asleep, the officer simply kicked him up and got him awake again. I do not know of a single case of a man being reported for being asleep at his post. I think we must take the opinion of the Army on this question. I should like, however, to mention what always seemed to me to be a great injustice in the War, and that was the enforcement of the death penalty upon voluntary troops, like Irish troops, as well as on conscript troops. I know there were several cases among the Irish troop3 where men had crept away from Ireland to are and fight, getting away with great difficulty. Then, in the course of the War, their nerves went, and they were shot.

In time, I believe the Army will be more or less agreed on the question of abolishing the death penalty, but I believe the first step to take would be to abolish the death penalty while you have a voluntary Army. I believe that that is how the difficulty will be got over Should there be a big war again, and should conscription have to be brought in, I think the death penalty will be necessary, but I have always felt, and I always felt during the War, that it is very hard, especially at the beginning, that men who have volunteered should be shot, while there were people here staying behind who never joined up and never took any risks at all. I think, however, that all officers and men who were fighting in the late War felt very strongly that, when a man was shot, he was shot because we all knew it was for our own safety and for the safety of the Army. Although I believe that we have advanced in the abolition of brutal punishments, and that this step will be eventually taken, I think that at the present time we must take the opinion of the Army and the Army commanders. I am not thoroughly convinced that the death penalty is the guarantee of discipline which many people believe it is, but I believe, at the same time, that we cannot take the risk at present, and I shall vote against the Amendment.


I was very interested in the speeches delivered by the military representatives, the more so because I honestly admit that I was never a military man myself. I think the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Macpherson) merely emphasised the fact that the British Army carries out the present law in an orderly manner and in as humane a manner as possible. I do not think that any Members on these benches have inferred anything to the contrary. What we are concerned with is the actual barbarity of the act itself, and not the manner in which our people carry out the unpleasant work. There was a speech from an hon. Member opposite which I think will road well to-morrow in the eyes of any ex-privates who see it. The hon. Member's statement that usually men are driven to warlike operations by fear will be keenly interesting to them.

I am very pleased to associate myself with the appeal to the Secretary of State for War and the Cabinet to abolish the death penalty in the Army, and I was pleased to hear the remarks of the last speaker, because he believes, with us, that our nation has shed certain theories of barbarity. But we still retain this one, both in military and in civil life. I am very pleased with the march of events, because I believe that we are as a nation shedding many musty theories, and there is no shock—because it is a shock; I think this is the third year I have listened in this House to a discussion of this idea—there is no shock in a civilised nation like the shock of a new idea. I can quite well understand why people who pin their faith to an old and orthodox theory do not take keenly to any new suggestion; it is quite against the accepted principles of human beings. But I believe man's march through the great civilising agencies has been in the direction of progress from brute to brotherhood.

I am sure that other Members of this House have been as interested as I have been in measuring, in a very elementary way, the applications of the early laws of this country. As is the case with us here to-day, they all seem to be dependent upon personal vengeance. In the early days of this country, even in the Palace of Westminster, the whole theory of the working of the Court of Star Chamber was actuated by violence and lack of legality, which even our friends who speak as military authorities affirm permeates the whole of the work connected with a court-martial. In the early days of the law of this country, people had to protest against the decisions of the Court of Star Chamber being without a jury, and without any compulsion to state reasons for the judgment; and it was only abolished in 1640 because of its obvious cruelty and persecution. That shows how we have got on and evolved in this country, from the early days of persecutions and personal vengeance to a realisation that the effects of the birch, and even of flogging in the Army and Navy, were of no avail in creating loyalty and discipline among the ranks of the men there. Although I am neither old in years nor old as a Member of Parliament, I am old enough to have read the defences of the admirals in the Navy and the leaders in the Army of a hundred strokes with the birch in order to get men's obedience.

If we had a British Army that was lacking in esprit de corps, that was lacking in loyalty to this nation, that was lacking in discipline, I think there would be some legitimate military reason for maintaining capital punishment in the Army; but this nation not only boasts of its voluntary system of recruitment, but, even in the terrible carnage of the last War, the figures proved that the loyalty of the men fighting in the British Army was undoubted. The figures were stated last year in this House by the Secretary of State for War himself, and there were only about 3,000 members of the British Army who were tried by court-martial. In only 11 per cent. of the cases were sentences of death actually executed— 264 members of the British Army; and my reply to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Ross and Cromarty, who asked us what is our alternative, is that this 11 per cent.—264 lives—would have been saved if, instead of resorting to the old application of barbarism, the tem perament and psychology of these men had been analysed and understood. We have the right, as a nation of Christian, civilised people, to insist that our medical men should understand the psychology of these men, and, rather than murdering them—I am serious on this question— rather than taking their lives, it was our duty to send them home and treat them as far as we possibly could in order to cure them of their nervous disability and make strong virile men of them. That is our alternative.

I know that, under war-time conditions, men and nations do things that they never would or could do in the coolness of sober hours and normal economic conditions, but I myself am against the death penalty in the Army because I think it is in contradiction to all known English law. In English law, anyone indicted for such an offence and tried would certainly not be condemned without its being proven by the prosecution that there was a definite and deliberate intention to commit a crime. That is the elementary principle of English law. With regard to the military service, my sincere and human objection to capital punishment in the Army is that it was inflicted on men who were not guilty in the sense of doing deliberately in the face of the enemy something to endanger the lives of their comrades. Men are entitled, if I may use that word, to this penalty for being asleep on duty, but I cannot imagine a British soldier deliberately neglecting his obligation of duty to his comrades, and deliberately putting them in danger in any circumstances, either in face of the enemy or otherwise. I cannot imagine a British soldier deliberately acting in such a way. It is because I believe that, that I do not think the British nation should deliberately impose upon a British soldier something that we would not impose upon the ordinary British citizen.

I have said that, if we had an Army which was lacking in discipline, in esprit de corps, in loyalty to this country, I could understand there being some military necessity for what we call to-day the death penalty in the Army. I speak as one who is not a military man, but is in a sense anti-military, but I have an admiration for the keen sense of the loyalty of the men who serve this country. I quite agree that we do not profess, on these benches, to have a monopoly either of humanitarian principles or of loyalty. On the other hand, I believe that people who think differently from us may be earnest, may be sincere, and sometimes may be right. I pay my tribute to the men in the Army when I say that to-day there is no necessity to retain the punishment called the death penalty. I say that the figures issued by the Secretary of State for War himself prove that the circumstances do not justify it, and I say that the penalty itself is too strong for the circumstances. I say that, like the death penalty in civil life, it has not achieved the purpose that it set out to achieve, and I believe that anything in our life, whether in our civic life or in our military life, that fails to achieve its purpose, has no right to be retained. I have said that in our advance in civilisation we have shed many things. but one of the most wicked types of things that we have not shed is hypocrisy as nations. Years ago, when nations went to war, they had the honesty to declare that they went for conquest. Now, when civilised nations go to war, they have a slogan. They disown any desire to collar territory—


I think this is getting rather wide of the question of capital punishment.


I was merely setting out to prove that the object which we set out to achieve IS not achieved in our national aspirations. When we went to war, we set out to achieve certain principles, so we say. With regard to the use of the death penalty in the Army, I only want to strengthen the point that we cannot achieve the object that we pursued, and I venture to submit to the Committee that the death penalty has failed in its purpose,, just as the use of the stocks in this country years ago in order to hinder, shall I say, civic crime, failed in its purpose, just as the birch in the Army failed, just as the persecution of pioneers of real thought in this country failed. Coming to this House to-day, I stood with a degree of respect in Stratford Parish Churchyard looking at the monument erected to the eight men who were burned there for preaching the Christian religion. The only point I want to make is that, in addition to being burned, it is stated on that monument that before being burned they were tortured. In the early days of this country that was quite a popular thing, but we have outgrown that. What I want to urge upon the British Parliament is that the death penalty is a remnant of a barbaric practice. We have no right to use it. War itself is a remnant of barbarity. I was pleased to hear speeches from all quarters to-day showing that hon. Members are anxious to do all they can in order that war shall be no more. I was prompted to speak to-day because a constituent of mine has suffered through the death penalty being executed upon a soldier. I have endeavoured to obtain a military pension for the widow and her children, who are suffering to-day. He was one of the men who volunteered to fight, so that he was no coward in that respect; but during the War he got into some circumstances which resulted in his being one of the 264 men shot, and his widow and children are now living on Poor Law relief in the County Borough of West Ham. That is a case in my own neighbourhood, and it proves to me the real barbarity of such a sentence. Some 264 soldiers were shot in this way, and we do not know where they were buried. I am acquainted with the circumstances of a French soldier, Private Santerre, who was shot in France for disobeying the order of a superior officer. He was shot in the early days of 1918, but in 1920 the authorities sent to his home the military medal for glory, with the statement that it was Awarded because Santerre had given his life gloriously. The father wrote back, My son did not die gloriously. He was murdered in a cowardly way. I want no medal. I demand justice. It pleased him to know that the French military final appeal court, the Douai Court of Military Appeal, after thorough examination and inquiry into the whole circumstances of the death of the lad rehabilitated him as a soldier. After his death they inquired into the circumstances of his brutal murder and rehabilitated him as a glorious soldier. We talk of the courts-martial and of the 264 men who were shot. Here is the case of a man shot in France. Hon. Members can have the circumstances, the date of the military inquiry and the date of the rehabilitation. The whole circumstances are brutal. Such brutal practices should have been shared by any civilised nation, and they will be shed when the brutality of war has been shed. There is one consolation for the father of the French soldier who was shot and for the widow in my constituency. I often try to console her by saying: "You do not know where your husband was shot or buried, but God knows. He may lie in the grave of the Unknown Warrior."


I would not have intervened in the Debate but for the remarks of hon. Members opposite. It has been suggested that the death penalty is wanted by the Army and that the Army merely means Generals, Colonels and brass hats. As a Colonel, I should like to say a few words in that respect. I think all my colleagues in the Army will agree with me that this penalty is not wanted in the Army in the least, but it is considered necessary for reasons which were ably explained by the right hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Macpherson), who has had great experience. It is not fair to say that it is simply wanted by Generals, Colonels and a clique of senior officers. I would like to mention a case which came to my knowledge after the last Debate. I was speaking with my chauffeur who, like many of us, served throughout the War, and he told me that he was driving an ambulance and on one occasion he had to drive a man who met the death punishment. He had a chance of speaking to the man, who told him that he had already been tried five times for the same thing. He admitted, quite frankly, that he had been guilty of cowardice and had let down his comrades, which was a very serious matter.

He admitted that he had been very fairly treated, that he had been let off lightly by those on the spot who were able to do it, and that he had been treated leniently by the various courts before which he had been charged.

I am glad that hon. Members opposite recognise that fairness and humanity is shown in the treatment of these cases. Here is the case of a man who admitted that he had failed five times and who cheerfully admitted that his sentence was perfectly fair, and he went to his death like a man. It may help hon. Members opposite to realise the fairness of courts-martial, when even a man who is about to suffer the death penalty recognises the justice of the penalty. That supports the view that has been put forward that although a large number of cases were tried, the humane view was taken. The system has been humanely administered. Although the death penalty is a necessity and one which none of us who have Army experience likes yet, as the right hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty says, there is nothing at present which could be put in its place. For that reason. much as I dislike the death penalty, I realise that it is part of the necessity of warfare in serious offences and I feel it to be my duty to support the Government.


Those of us on this side who have taken part in this discussion have a peculiar satisfaction in the fact that some of the other speakers have shown appreciation of our point of view and realise that "no more war" is a great ideal. I should like to say in connection with an interruption which I made when the right hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Macpherson) was speaking that pressing this proposal our ultimate goal is the abolition of the death penalty not only in the Army but in civil affairs. We are not impugning the administration of this matter; it is the code we object to and not its administration. We recognise that there is a wide hierarchy of appeal from the court-martial right up to the Judge Advocate-General, and up to the Commander-in-Chief; but I would like to say, with all respect, that we have to consider the mentality of these various courts and of the men. As one poet puts it, "They live with death." Their hand is subdued to that it works in. They have feelings which run back to the traditions of the Army which are very far removed from what we advocate. Nor do we impugn their humanity.

We have been told that these soldiers are treated with the greatest humanity and the greatest sympathy; and that the announcement was made to them in the most agreeable way that they would be shot in cold blood. The hon. Member who has just spoken told us of one man who went with considerable satisfaction to his doom. I would remind the hon. and gallant Member of an instance in Scottish history during the days which were known as the great persecution. The Government said that they would be most clement and kindly to the women; they would not burn them at the stake; they would not behead or shoot them but they would give them a gentle form of exit from this world in that they would drown them in the Solway sands. There we had a kind of clemency and humanity exercised, but we still think in Scotland that they were martyrs—although it was done so humanely—and that they suffered a great wrong.

Let mo pass to some of the methods in which this penalty is exercised and some of the offences to which it is applied. The hon. and gallant Member for the Thornbury Division of Gloucester (Captain Gunston) said he was not aware that there had been any case of a man suffering the death penalty for sleeping at his post. If he looks up the records he will find that few suffered in that way, but there are two instances, at least, which are given of those who suffered for what was counted an aggravated offence. Even in the most aggravated case, it may be the example of a man being completely worn and unable to resist the incessant demands of nature. Every shepherd in Scotland knows that if he sleeps in the snow in a storm it means certain death, but that does not prevent shepherds sleeping at their posts in snow storms and meeting their doom in that way. Therefore, regard should be paid in the Army to the demands of nature, and this penalty should be ruled out. It is emphasised that by sleeping at his post a man may be giving away his comrades; he may be exposing the whole line to attack from the enemy and may be sacrificing many lives. That may be- true. The General who makes a false move in a battle is guilty in exactly the same way, but I have not heard that in the list of 264 soldiers who were shot there was included any General who was put through that discipline. I would go further and say that a statesman who makes a false move in diplomacy, either in this country or in any country, and thereby initiates war has a similar toll to his charge.

Take the question of desertion. In Scotland, in the old days, we had a different way of dealing with cowards, if we believe what is handed down to us as history. An address was given to them before the battle, and they were told: What can fill a cowardis grave, Let him turn and flee That is said to have been the address given at Bannockburn. I do not think that even Englishmen will say that Scotsmen fought less bravely because we do not first shoot down the cowards, but allowed them to turn and flee.

It is not given to every man to have courage which rises with danger. It may be a physical and mental breakdown, and it may come after a long struggle on the part of the man himself, a long mental and physical struggle. We do not know what the man is resisting, and 30 of those who suffered the. death penalty were men under 21 years of age. Some of them had falsified their age in order to join the Army and get to the front. That was an evidence of their patriotism and their loyalty, and, although I have no doubt that this was considered to some extent in their case, I do not think it is sufficiently considered so long as the death penalty exists. I believe in many cases that the light which led them astray was a light from heaven, the thought of home and the desire to return to home. This led them to desert in some cases. There was a case in my own congregation of a lad charged with desertion, not in the face of the enemy but while in this country. It was the desire to get home once again that led him to do it. He hid himself in the train, and, when it stopped before it got to the main station in Glasgow, he got out simply because his attachment to home led him to desert. I have no doubt that in other cases there were very mixed feelings which made men take this course.

There was another case in which I was interested—the case of a man whose views in regard to war itself changed when he was at the Front. [Laughter.] The views of a good many changed when they were at the front. This is not a laughing matter. It was not a laughing matter for this man, because he was condemned to suffer the death penalty. But I am proud to think that not only representatives on this side of the House but representatives of the other side of the House, and ladies and gentlemen of high degree, took a special interest in cases of this kind, and, partly through their exertions as well as the humanity of those who had to administer the law, that death penalty was not carried out. The first thing he did on coming into this country was to call upon me and thank me for the small part I had taken in his deliverance. There will be more cases like that should, unhappily, war break out again. This death penalty is justified on the plea of military necessity. We are told that when war breaks out the ordinary civilising thoughts and traditions do not operate, that in the stress and strain of war such things as this must be done. There are limits, in my opinion, even to military necessity,, and the outraging of justice and elementary humanity constitutes such limits. We have been asked, what can be done by way of an alternative? The hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Groves) touched upon the most important point. The whole idea is changing as regards the discipline at home and in the Army as well. In the old days, it was terrorism, and the hon. and gallant Member for North West Hull (Lieut.-Colonel Lambert Ward) used some remarkable words when he said: This death penalty is the only thing that will compel men to do what they owe to their country. If that be so, where is the patriotism of which we hear so much? I am sorry the hon. and gallant Member is not in his place, because I want to ask him, after this remark, how it was that he voted for our Motion last year. I am prepared to put his statement to-day and have it cancelled by his vote last year. In all our public schools we are recognising that it is not the fear of punishment that is the real inspiration of discipline. The old idea in the industrial schools of this country was that you should whip boys in order to make them attend school. In Glasgow we have established an industrial school for truants, based on entirely new principles. We did not apply to them the whip and corporal discipline, we appealed to what is \best in their nature, and the result was that the attendance of these boys at once rose from 40 per cent. to 80. That is our real alternative; that is the real incentive to discipline. If I may alter one word in our greatest national poet: The fear of death's a hangman's whip, Tae haud the wretch in order; But where ye feel your honour grip, Let that aye be your border. That is the real ground for any true discipline either in the Army or elsewhere. There is a great saying of a great preacher, Dr. Robertson of Brighton: If you would make men trustworthy, trust them; if you would make men true, believe them. If you want to build up an army you must build on this kind of discipline and not on the fear of the death penalty. We have been told that unless there be such a deterrent the Army will go to pieces. This has been disproved by the fact that many forms of punishment which were once thought to be most necessary have passed away, and the discipline is as good now as ever it was. I object to the death penalty because it is used as a threat. Take an example from my own knowledge. A large number of men. serving in Egypt in the Royal Army Medical Corps were compelled under the threat of the death penalty to join the infantry and the fighting forces. I object to this weapon being put into the hands of the military authorities enabling them to do what this House itself recognises should not be done. The very fact that you have this deterrent constitutes its injustice. In the Debate last year an hon Member said that it was not to punish the unfortunate man who had committed this offence that the death sentence was imposed, but because it was an example. What comfort is that to the man who has to suffer the death penalty? What comfort is it for him to be told that it is not inflicted as a due punishment for his misdeeds, but as an example? It is the old expedient, that one should die for the people; to make an example and terrorise the troops.

It is also a capricious method, and if the House will allow me I will read the words applied to capital punishment generally, but which are equally applicable to the death penalty in the Army, by Earl Russell, who was Prime Minister of this country. He said in this House: When I consider how difficult it is for any Judge to separate the case, which requires inflexible justice, from that which admits the force of mitigating circumstances, how invidious the task of the Secretary of State in dispensing the mercy of the Crown, how critical the comments made by the public, how soon the object of general horror becomes the theme of pity, how narrow and how limited the examples given by this condign and awful punishment, how brutal the scene of execution, I come to the conclusion that nothing would be lost to justice, nothing lost in the preservation of innocent life, if the punishment of death were altogether abolished. Think of the effect of this on all concerned. In one of the reports of the Departmental Committee it is said that the infliction of the death penalty had had a beneficial effect on the troops, including the firing party. I cannot think that the effect on the firing parties was good. What does one of His Majesty's Scottish Prison Commissioners, Dr. Devon, say about it? He says: I have never seen anyone who had anything to do with the death penalty who was not the worse for it. I look at it from the point of view of the parents themselves. In my own district, there was a lad who suffered in this way. He incurred the death penalty. When he was first under trial and still had a hope that he would be spared, he wrote home a beautiful letter to his mother, in my own native town, saying that he was awaiting trial, but that he believed he would be all right, and he desired her to send on the parcels as usual. Some hon. Members may say, this is sentimental sob-stuff. I make no apology for sob-stuff of this kind in relation to a question like this, and I say that war itself is the greatest purveyor of sorrow and sob-stuff I think what views that parent must have had of the Army and her country's law. I know something of the daily agony, the living death, which parents went through during the War when they thought of their young people at the Front. In my own congregatin. I had 350 at the Front, of whom 72 fell. The hon. and gallant Member for North-West Hull said that some of us did not know what war was. I know something about war, and I know something about its injustice. May I mention a little case like this? Two of my own sons served in the Royal Army Medical Corps, and they were compulsorily transferred to the fighting forces. It rankles in my mind, but I do not dwell upon it. A third son, whose memory is dear, specially dear, had to undergo severe punishment for a petty offence in the Navy. He was taken from us, but I recall his name at all times with sorrow and with great pride in his character and conduct, and when I wrote a little book I put upon the frontispiece: In continual remembrance of my son James who stood for justice and equality. 6.0 p.m.

I try to picture to myself what my feelings would have been if I had been in the position of those parents whose boys had suffered the death penalty. I should have cherished their names with no less sorrow and no less pride and affection, but I should also have cherished a great sense of wrong and a deep-seated animus against my country. Were it not for the fact that I am wedded for life to constitutional and pacific methods, I do not know where my feelings might have led me. But many are not under that restraint. I say to the governing powers of this country that so long as they maintain barbarous regulations like these, although they may talk about peace and good-will, they are, more than any Communists in the country, stirring up hatred and vengeance and feelings of rebellion against a social order of which these injustices, inhumanities, and enormities are most unsettling and most horrible excrescences.


The Debate has wandered rather far from the subject which we should be discussing. That is-no fault of the hon. Member who began the Debate. We have since then gone as far to have attacks on the Court of Star Chamber—rather prejudiced attacks, despite the fact that it was abolished in 1640. The speech of the hon. Member who has just spoken might have been a speech not only against capital punishment in general, but against any form of punishment. It took us back to the Battle of Bannockburn, which has a way of recurring in the speeches of Members of the hon. Gentleman's nationality. The hon. Member assured us that upon that occasion anyone not inclined to take part in the battle was allowed to go away. He did not say whether advantage was taken of that offer. I would remind him that according to tradition, if not his- tory, a similar thing occurred before the Battle of Agincourt, when King Henry V said: That he which hath no stomach to this fight, Let him depart; his passport shall be made, And crowns for convoy put into his purse: We would not die in that man's company That fears his fellowship to die with us. I do not know whether any advantage was taken of that offer. I think it doubtful, because as a matter of fact the occasion of that battle was that the retreat of the British Army to the coast was cut off by the French, so that it was not as good an offer as it appeared to be at first sight. I wish to deal with the Clause in this Bill for abolishing the death penalty in the Army. I say at once that I am in favour of that Clause. I am not going to support it on any reason of sentiment, but on reasons of policy which hitherto have not been put forward sufficiently in its support. Behind the reason of policy there is the consideration of public conscience. The law that has not the public conscience behind it is a bad law, partly because it is never carried out. The strongest argument in favour of the abolition of the death penalty are the facts stated by the right hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Macpherson) who spoke from the Liberal Benches, and by my hon. and gallant Friend on this side of the House, who reminded us of the fact that over 3,000 cases which were carefully tried—cases deserving of the death penalty—were recommended to headquarters, and that after they had gone through all the processes that they to go through, of these 3,000 in only 11 per cent. of the cases was the death penalty finally awarded. In my opinion that proves that the law is wrong. There is no law worse than the law that is in existence and is not carried out.

Personally, I am in favour of the death penalty for certain crimes. Experience differs as to the effect of the abolition of the death penalty in different countries; it is a moot point. The one thing generally agreed is that the worst effect that has ever been obtained was when in France the death penalty still remained upon the Statute Book but criminals were aware that owing to the soft heart of President Fallieres no death penalty was ever carried out. There was the greatest outbreak of crime in that country during that time that there ever had been. It has been proved by the statement of the right hon. Member for Boss and Cromarty, who was formerly Secretary of State for War, that this is a law which people hesitate to carry out, to such an extent that only in 11 per cent. of the cases in the late War— there must have been a tremendous case against a man before he was brought to the Court—was the sentence carried out.

I know how this law has worked in the field. An hon. and gallant Member said that there had not been a single case of a man executed for sleeping on sentry duty. That may or may not be the case. An hon. Gentleman opposite said that there were two cases. Sleeping on sentry duty is a terribly serious offence, and it should be very severely punished. It should not, in my opinion, be punished by the death penalty, but it should be very severely punished. It is an offence which does not involve any great moral obliquity, but it may have terrible consequences to large numbers of people. If a girl merely takes a box of matches into a munitions factory that is not a great moral crime on her part, but it was a crime for which people were sent to prison during the War, quite rightly, because it involved terrible consequences upon so many people. I know that as a matter of fact in the War officers were warned against reporting men for being asleep on sentry duty, because it involved a trial by court-martial, and involved either an acquittal, which would have been wrong, or the death penalty, which no one wished to inflict. It is better to have a severe penalty and one that people will not hesitate to carry out, than to have a more severe penalty which people will refuse to carry out.

Desertion is another offence to be severely punished, but it is not an offence which really deserves the death penalty. A few days ago an hon. and gallant Gentleman upon this side of the House confessed that during the War he frequently left the post of duty and flown to this country without permission. Suppose that he had had the misfortune to meet with an accident while foxhunting—I believe that accidents do occur in that sport—and had been unable to return, what would have been his offence? Might it not have been interpreted as desertion? Would anyone have wished him to be executed for it? Of course they would not. The offence would have been smoothed over; some other charge would have been preferred. Therefore, upon those grounds I say it is a mistake in policy to have a penalty for an offence which the public opinion, not only of the country at large, but of the people who have to administer the law, the officers in charge, does not wish to have inflicted for this offence. Most of the Army Regulations were drawn up in days when armies were very different from what they are to-day. There have been questions about the abolition of war, and many hon. Members have spoken on that subject. It has nothing to do with the question before us. Unless there is to be war there is no good talking about this Clause at all. The wars of to-day are fought by citizen armies, by armies made up largely of volunteers. The armies which the Duke of Wellington commanded were armies of a very different sort. They were composed of riff raff. He said so himself, or I would not say it. For those people there was need of different kinds of laws from the kind that you need for the armies of to-day.

The position with regard to cowardice has changed enormously, because you are dealing with a different type of man. You have to judge by different standards. It was acknowledged at the end of the War that there were known cases where men's nerve was beginning to fail. When it was known to be failing those men were sent home; advantage was taken at the time of the opportnuity to put them out of the way. If they were officers or men who had done their duty and done it well in the past, they were quite rightly not left in positions where they might have been responsible for great failure. That was the right policy. There was great difficulty in deciding what was shell-shock and what was cowardice, but I do not agree that there is no such thing as cowardice. There is such a thing as cowardice and there is such a thing as a breakdown of nerves. To judge between the two is very difficult for a medical man or anyone. To judge between the brave man and the coward is extremely difficult. Further, the bravest men of all are the men who are most frightened. But to say that there is no such thing as cowardice is as absurd as to say that there is no difference between spring and winter.

It is very difficult for us at this time of year to say what is a spring day and what is a winter day, but there is a real difference, and there are such things as cowards, and they deserve all that they get. Fortunately there is no vice which meets with such general condemnation from humanity as cowardice. Perhaps it meets with more condemnation than it deserves in comparison with other vices. The coward is the most universally condemned and the most shrunk from of all human beings. That is a strong sanction for the law against cowards. A great many of them undoubtedly did join the Army. When you have an army of 4,000,000 I refuse to believe that there are no cowards amongst them. But the cowards will suffer and should suffer. For myself I would rather a thousand cowards went free than that one brave man should suffer the shameful death of a coward at the hands of his fellow soldiers.


I rise to reinforce the very powerful argument that has been addressed to the House by the last speaker. He has drawn attention to what is a very important point. I agree with every word said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Boss and Cromarty (Mr. Macpherson) in regard to the justice of court-martial procedure and the businesslike care with which the evidence is reviewed, and reviewed not only by the court-martial, but at varying stages afterwards, that every care is taken to see that the law is fairly-administered by the members of the court and by all responsible, and that not for one moment could he utter one word of protest against the administration of the work of the court-martial. But in view of the fact that the last speaker called attention to, namely, that warfare is carried on under very different conditions to-day and carried on by a citizen army, one asks oneself not only whether the law is properly administered, but whether it is equitable as between one citizen and another. During the Great War we had in the Army about 4,000,000 men. Those who were the real cowards of the country during that period either used the advantage given them by the Military Service Act, and probably the great bulk kept out of the Army-altogether. The position resulting is that real cowardice is not dealt with at all. What is called cowardice and what may, in fact, in certain circumstances be cowardice in the field of battle, is met by sentence of death. When the law stands in that position it is little wonder that those responsible for carrying out the sentence of death or responsible for setting the military law in motion, should hesitate to make reports that will bring men to trial. I can understand that every officer and man responsible during the Great War hesitated before preferring a charge against another man for cowardice or desertion. I can well understand that only 11 per cent. of those charged were sentenced to death.

It is an impossible position. You cannot determine what cowardice is. Everyone who had experience of the last War would say this—that when you found it necessary to detail men for a particularly dangerous task and asked for volunteers, you got all the men you wanted inside a few minutes. Many men, if they did feel any sense of cowardice, only felt it when they were comparatively out of danger, when they were back at rest and when their imaginations were given free play. Then they thought over the danger which they had passed through or which they might have to pass through at some future time. It is largely a question of imagination and temperament. Actually, when face to face with the enemy, they were so occupied with their duties that their imaginations were given little play. They were engaged in a task which they had to perform, and many valiant acts were done—as the doers themselves were the first to say—merely because those concerned were carrying out their duty. They had no thought of bravery at all. On the other hand, one saw cases of men going out for the first time—faced for the first time with the dangers of war, totally unaccustomed to war, seeing the carnage that was to be witnessed there without any previous knowledge—entirely losing their heads. They ran away in some cases. I can understand that an officer who knew the circumstances would not wish to prefer a charge in those cases, and if a charge were preferred, no court-martial would convict. I know of no court-martial which ever did. The circumstances were inquired into under the Act as it stands. If the Act were literally carried out, the death penalty would have been executed, but, apart from the question of humanity, the question of justice arises, and, in the present state of modern warfare, it demands that the death penalty shall not be executed at all.

I fully agree that these penalties were framed at a time when warfare and armies were totally different from what they are to-day, and when we knew a great deal less about the mentality of the soldier and about human psychology than we know to-day. Men in the mass do their duty from a sense of loyalty to one another and to their country. All ranks in the last War did their duty, not so much because of the fear of death, but for other reasons. The fear of death is not a very great deterrent. If the fear of death were a great deterrent, you would not have men ready to face danger for their country with the readiness which was shown in the late War. In the other case, there is always added the hope of escaping detection. If you are to avoid that, and if you want a real deterrent, then I say adopt the course suggested by the hon. Member for Oldham (Mr. Duff Cooper) and put on a severe penalty which no one will hesitate about executing. It will be far more effective and far more in consonance with what we know of modern warfare, modern armies and modern psychology. It will be far more in keeping with the modern outlook than the present state of the law.

The FINANCIAL SECRETARY to the WAR OFFICE (Captain Douglas King)

I think it may be convenient if I now reply to some of the points which have been raised in connection with this matter. I should like to point out, in the first place, that the proposed new Clause seeks to amend the Section of the Act dealing with active service conditions. It seeks to remove certain cases from the possibility of the death penalty and subject them to such lesser punishment as may be laid down. I wish to emphasise that all these paragraphs refer to acts in the presence of the enemy. We have heard from the Mover and Seconder and other speakers on the Opposition benches that they agree that the death penalty is necessary and ought to be carried out in certain circumstances, but they say there are exceptions which they have inserted here. The exceptions which they make, however, accentuate the difficulty of administering these disciplinary laws and also show some confusion of thought. We find in one of the paragraphs that hon. Gentlemen opposite apparently are quite willing to allow such an act as "through cowardice sending a flag of truce to the enemy" to remain punishable by death, and yet they wish to remove from the death penalty such an offence as "knowingly doing, when on active service, any act calculated to imperil the success of His Majesty's forces or any part thereof." Any act knowingly done which would imperil the success of His Majesty's forces would not only imperil that success, but of necessity would also imperil the lives of the comrades of the soldier concerned. He is placing his fellow-soldiers in a worse position. That case is to be exempted from the death penalty, according to the suggestion of this proposed new Clause, and yet offences which are to my mind, if anything, less serious are allowed to remain subject to the death penalty. That, as I say, shows a certain confusion of thought in dealing with this whole question.

The hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. R. Morrison), who moved this proposed new Clause, said the War Office, if asked why they insisted on the death penalty, would reply that it was Army opinion, and he went on to indicate that that Army opinion was formed entirely by those to whom he referred as "brass hats." I am sorry that his memory was shorter that that of some hon. Members who spoke after him. He apparently has forgotten the committee which was set up when the Socialist Government were in power by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Ince (Mr. Walsh) to consider an Amendment, very similar to this proposal. That committee was far from being entirely composed of "brass hats," and it had the privilege, during the greater part of its existence, of having as chairman the hon. Member for Chester-le-Street (Mr. Lawson), my predecessor at the War Office.


Was he the only civilian?

Captain KING

He was not the only civilian. There were only three active service executive officers on that committee. There were three other civilians, in addition to the hon. Member for Chester-le-Street, and there was a paymaster and, therefore, the proportion of "brass hate" to civilians was not overpowering. In fact the "brass hats" were in the minority. The hon. Member went further and said that when opinions were being collected on the subject of the death penalty it was always general officers commanding and senior officers who expressed those opinions. I would remind the hon. member that the committee to which I refer, during the period when the hon. Member for Chester-le-Street was presiding over it, had the benefit of the views of the hon. Member for Shoreditch (Mr. Thurtle) for one; they also had the views at their seventh meeting of three soldiers of the Regular Army, and at their eighth meeting of three more soldiers of the Regular Army, and at a subsequent meeting they had the evidence of an airman, and, later on, they had evidence from a soldier of the Territorial Army. So that it was not merely the opinions of "brass hats" and not only the evidence of general officers commanding that were considered by that Committee. I have had the honour on two occasions now of dealing with this question, and therefore, instead of putting forward my own views, I am going to quote the report of this committee which many hon. Members seem to have forgotten. I am basing my reply entirely on the opinions expressed in the report of what we call the Lawson Committee.

Dealing with the death penalty the committee say: The officers, non-commissioned officers and men with whom we discussed the question agreed that the effect was good, especially because it enforced on the troops the lesson that complete self-sacrifice is demanded by military duty in war. They also say: On this point there was a concensus of opinion on the part of all service witnesses of all ranks, who were not professed advocates of abolition, that penal servitude or imprisonment would have little, if any, deterrent effect, and, indeed, looking to the conditions of modern war and to the fact that the offender concerned ex-hyptothesi found those conditions almost beyond his endurance, it is hard to see how a measure which removes him into safety with the certain prospect of an amnesty at the end of the War can in many cases be anything but attractive to him.


Is that in the Report?

Captain KING

Yes, that is the Report of the Committee set up by the Socialist Government when it was in office.


Was it published?

Captain KING

It was issued as a Parliamentary Paper. I would advise hon. Members opposite to read it. It is a most informative and very interesting document, and it will convince them that the War Office are not standing merely on the opinions of "brass hats," but on the carefully considered opinion of a Committee set up by a Socialist Government after hearing evidence not only from senior officers but from all ranks of the Army. I also wish to remind hon. Members opposite and the Committee generally that the Lawson Committee removed certain offences, even those committed on active service, from the possibility of the death penalty. They removed from that possibility all offences in times of peace with the exception of the crime of mutiny. I also remind the Committee that in every case where the death penalty can be imposed a lesser punishment maybe substituted. Wherever the words "death penalty" occur, they are always followed by the words "or such lesser punishment as may be set out in the Act, etc." So it is not the case, because the death penalty is laid down as a possible punishment, that it is imposed on every occasion. In that connection I should like to refer to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham (Mr. Duff Cooper). He seems to think that because only 11 per cent. of the men who were sentenced were actually executed it shows the failure of the system. So far from that being the. case, it only shows the care with which all these cases were revised and reviewed after the sentence had been imposed.

Personally, I agree with him that cowardice deserves punishment. I also agree with the Lawson Committee that the death penalty is necessary as a final deterrent. I think all of us who served during the War experienced fear. I do not think there is a man who would boast that he had never experienced fear. Under war-time conditions it is merely a question of a man's strength of will. It is his own will-power which has to overcome his fear. He may use many methods to accomplish that victory. He may disdain to show his fear in the presence of an enemy. He may be sustained by the traditions of his regiment. He might have many aids to his courage, but there, at the back of everything, is the death penalty, that means to him that, if he seeks to evade death in the field, he has the possibility of death for cowardice when he has run away. I will not further detain the Committee, because there are other Clauses to follow, but I will conclude by saying that it is not merely on the opinion of senior military officers that we wish to retain this death penalty, but after the careful consideration given to the subject by the Committee set up by the Socialist Government.


I believe the time has come for a reconsideration of the death penalty. I do not want to traverse the ground that has been gone over already, but I will confine myself to the single case of inflicting the penalty for cowardice. Human nature is a very strange thing, and so very complex that men may be afraid of quite different things.

Whereupon the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod being come with a Message, the Chairman left the Chair.

Mr. SPEAKER resumed the Chair.

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