HL Deb 04 November 1993 vol 549 cc1156-9

3.10 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have considered the request to reconsider the verdicts on soldiers executed for "cowardice" in the First World War; and, if so, what are their conclusions.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Viscount Cranborne)

My Lords, we have considered this matter with the utmost care but have concluded that it would not be appropriate to reconsider the verdicts.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, is the Minister aware that it is a matter of great regret that there has been no change in the Government's response since Andrew MacKinlay's splendid initiative in raising this issue in another place 18 months ago? We now know clearly what was not appreciated in the 1914 war, that there were irregularities in the courts martial. There was no legal representation or right of appeal for men on trial for their lives. We now know that violence does affect the minds of some men. If the Government still refuse to remove this badge of shame, it will be unjust to the memories of these men, unfair to the families and incomprehensible to the public.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, if I may say so to the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, and indeed to his honourable friend from the other place, I do not think anyone disputes the humanity that they have shown in considering this extremely difficult subject. I would point out to the noble Lord that from a close examination of a very strong cross-section of the files concerned—I must say, as someone who has read a number of these files, it is a very harrowing experience—it is perfectly clear that the irregularities he alleges are not supported by a reading of the files and that the regulations in operation at the time were not breached by the authorities. The noble Lord will know that a number of the people who are aware of the campaign that he and his honourable friend have been conducting were not aware of the circumstances of their husband's, father's or relation's death, and the campaign itself has raised questions in their minds which were not there before.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, although in the only war in which I served these unhappy folk would never have been convicted or executed at all, would it not be kinder to all concerned if we left their souls to rest in peace without disintering them from time to time for further discussion in this way?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I wholly agree with what my noble and learned friend says and with his proposition that circumstances have changed and that no one in the Second World War was shot for the reasons that these people were shot in the First World War. Our understanding of matters such as post-traumatic stress disorder has immeasurably improved. Indeed, our treatment of these matters has improved in the short time that has elapsed between the Falklands conflict and the Gulf conflict; and no doubt in the unfortunate event of another conflict taking place, our understanding will have improved still more.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that, since the Private Member's Bill on this subject was introduced, by leave, into the House of Commons a fortnight ago, there has been a sharp rise in public interest in the fate of these men? The noble Viscount must expect to hear further on this subject as that Bill makes progress, as I feel sure that it will. But one aspect of this great tragedy of the First World War is that people are still troubled in their conscience as to where these soldiers are buried. What identification, if any, marks the place where their remains have been buried? Are they under the auspices of the War Graves Commission? Are they identified as having suffered the fate that they did? Will this stain on the memory of men in the First World War continue forever? There are a number of questions on this subject which, now that the matter has been raised with increasing interest, will have to be answered. So will the noble Viscount prepare himself for further questions on the matter?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, when the noble Lord utters that kind of warning it behoves me to take careful note, particularly in view of his own experience in that dreadful conflict. I am all too aware of the public interest that this subject has rightly aroused if only because of the number of television interviews I have been constrained to give on the subject. In view of the noble Lord's question about where these people are buried, I would point out to him that, so far as I am aware, only one gravestone says that the victim was shot. That legend was put on the gravestone at the request of the family concerned. The authorities tried to show some consideration by not drawing attention to the eventual fate of the people concerned; and I think that does them great credit.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, would it be true to say that some of the people who were described as cowards were in fact conscientious objectors and that their Christian witness would not be an evidence of cowardice?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, the noble Lord will be as aware as I am that some of the bravest people in both world wars were conscientious objectors. I am also well aware that my own great grandfather was chairman of the board which considered the question of conscientious objectors. I certainly know from my own papers and indeed from public records on the subject that he and his colleagues took enormous trouble to try to ensure that conscientious objectors were properly looked after and were looked after with sympathy. Indeed, there are a number of letters to him on the subject paying tribute to his work. I would say to the noble Lord that, on the whole, the commission did its work well and it is something of which we can be proud.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware—

Lord Elton

My Lords, is it not the case that throughout history every generation has judged its contemporaries and every succeeding generation has judged the judgment itself? Is not our compassionate duty to look at the judgment as a whole; not to disinter individual cases but to let them, as my noble and learned friend Lord Hailsham suggested, rest in peace?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. I find it extremely difficult to be dogmatic about what I found to be one of the most difficult judgments I have ever been called to make; and certainly the most difficult judgment I have ever been called to make during the course of my 18 months at the Ministry of Defence. I have been much interested by the reaction of people with whom I have discussed this matter at length. Like me, they started by taking much the same view as the noble Lord, Lord Ashley. On longer consideration, we have all been constrained—not all, but most of us—to see that there are other considerations which we have to take into account, one of which was the consideration that my noble friend has just mentioned.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, with the leave of noble Lords opposite, perhaps the Opposition Front Bench may have its word. Is the noble Viscount aware that I was somewhat surprised when he said that he had read through the files? As I understand it, according to the Ministry of Defence, a number of files were no longer required for administrative use in 1947 and were thrown away. Is that the case? Is that true? Will the noble Viscount reconsider the matter of whether he has actually read through these files; whether he has read through the file of the man not yet 18 who was found lost after an artillery barrage and then shot? Has the Minister read the file of a 19 year-old volunteer who refused to put his cap on despite an officer's order and who was sentenced to death? In order that these souls may rest in peace—I say this in front of the most reverend Primate—is it not time that the Government showed a little Christian charity?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, as regards the files, I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, gives me an opportunity to put him right on his understanding of the facts. Perhaps the noble Lord is not aware that just over 10 per cent. of the soldiers condemned to death as a result of the court martials which we are discussing today were shot. Nearly 90 per cent. were reprieved and overwhelmingly at the insistence of the Commander-in-Chief, Lord Haig. It is all very well for the noble Lord to say what he did, but I suspect that he has not read the files. The files which survive—if the noble Lord would like to listen while I attempt to answer his question—are those of the soldiers who were shot. The files of the soldiers who were reprieved were burnt during an incendiary attack in 1941 on the Arnside Street repository.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, will the noble Viscount say how many files there are and what would be involved in going through them all? Does he agree that at that time and by our standards, terrible mistakes were made and terrible sentences passed? That was more than 70 years ago. Does the Minister further agree that it is too late to go through all those files and that we should let the matter rest?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am immensely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew. As I said, the majority of the files of the cases concerned were destroyed. The 300-odd files—there is a dispute about the ultimate number of files, even among those who are requesting what the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, has requested—which survive are those of the people who were shot.

Lord Richard

My Lords, the noble Lord says that he has read the files—

Viscount Cranborne

Some of them.

Lord Richard

He has had that opportunity which has been denied the rest of us. Will he make the files available to the rest of us so that we can judge, too?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, as the noble Lord knows, a number of books have been written on this subject. One in particular was written by Judge Babington, who had the advantage of looking at a number of the files. So they have been available.