Author: Andrea Hetherington
Editor: Pen and military sword, 2021
Review by Peter L. Belmonte
Editor’s summary: The story of World War I deserters shot at dawn and then pardoned almost a century later has often been told, but these 306 soldiers represent a tiny proportion of deserters. More than 80,000 cases of desertion and absence have been tried in courts martial on the home front, but these soldiers have been ignored. Andrea Hetherington, in this thought-provoking and meticulously researched tale, sets the record straight by describing the deserters who have disappeared from camps and barracks in Britain at an alarming rate. She reveals how they used a range of survival strategies, some shedding any connection to the military while others hid in plain sight. Their reasons for desertion varied. Some were already living a life of delinquency while others were conscientious objectors who refused to respond to their appeal papers. Boredom, protests, troubles in the home, or physical and mental disabilities all played their part in the men’s choice to run away. Andrea Hetherington’s timely book gives us a startling glimpse into a hitherto overlooked aspect of WWI.
Most of the stories of the Great War focus on campaigns, battles or personalities. Soldiers are generally described as men trying to do their duty to the best of their ability. However, there was another side to this story, and Andrea Hetherington, a freelance social history researcher and writer specializing in the social history of war, tells that story in this book. During World War I, âthe net loss to British and Dominion forcesâ by desertion was 70,189 (p. 2). According to the author, “[t]The truth is that desertion and absence were part of the daily life of the army and of the experience of several thousand British and Dominion soldiers â(p. 2). In this book, Hetherington examines only those men who deserted on the Home Front (Britain), or those who deserted and headed for the Home Front. The book is more than just a military story. Hetherington tackles the history of social, labor, legal and gender roles as she deftly examines these areas. In doing so, Hetherington gives us excellent examples and reasons for the motivations of men (and women) to desert in times of war.
The author organizes the chapters by topic, and each chapter is generously sprinkled with examples and case stories of varying depth. After an introduction to the subject, the author describes British military law relating to desertion and the less serious, but closely related, offense of absenteeism. There was a fuzzy, fine line between them, and Hetherington described how they were related. Not all of the deserters were cowards, although they were certainly very numerous. Hetherington points out that this is not “a book about cowardice, but about the conflict between military law and human nature” (p. 6).
Another chapter deals with the volunteer army and the problems in the training camps. Hetherington believes that many of the men who enlisted in 1914 and 1915 were laborers accustomed to “knocking down tools” and leaving the job site when conditions were not up to what had been promised. These men, many of whom were minors in civilian life, then followed this practice with the military equivalent of a civilian labor strike: desertion. In the next chapter, Hetherington examines the “types” of deserters classified by psychiatrists of the day. Interestingly, a new type of deserter appeared during the war: those men who deserted their unit to join another unit in order to get to the front more quickly. The author also devotes space to female soldiers who deserted during the war.
Another chapter examines the few cases where men have been arrested in Britain and “shot at dawn”. In it, Hetherington discusses the different circumstances that could result in a death sentence. In the end, she concludes that “it is the purely arbitrary nature of the application of the ultimate penalty that has been the true aid to military discipline” (p. 61).
In one chapter, the author explains how the law prohibiting the assistance and lodging of known deserters was enforced. Her examples highlight the actions of parents and wives, including some women who protected deserters while their own husbands were at the front lines. Another chapter concerns the attractiveness of more lucrative jobs for potential deserting soldiers. Yet another chapter is devoted to “Scamps in khaki”. The litany of crimes committed by these deserters stuns the imagination and would admire the heights of human imagination. In this case, however, it only confirms the misused creativity of some men. Some men posed as wounded veterans and thus received the sympathy and donations of grateful citizens. The scams included collecting money from poorer people as a ‘down payment’ for UK surplus coal to be issued at reduced rates for the needy, theft and resale of bicycles, obtaining loans or the issuing fraudulent checks, posing as an officer to lure women, posing as soldiers and even cheating on family members, etc. In this sense, the actions of some men can only be described as reprehensible.
Hetherington also addresses the separate issue of Irish soldiers and issues regarding conscription and men involuntarily enlisted in military service. In a chapter aptly titled “Wild Colonial Boys,” the author covers Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders. In addition to desertion, offenses such as bigamy and fraud appeared to be popular with Dominion troops who found a handy buffer from their homes a distance from their homes to avoid detection. The final chapter covers the post-war push for various plans of pardon or amnesty to men who had broken military law. It was not an easy task; apparently each plan had at least two sides and many influential supporters and detractors.
Twenty-one illustrations and photographs complete the story. There are contemporary postcards from the author’s collection that allow us to get an idea of ââthe time. Useful notes and a comprehensive bibliography complete the book. It is an interesting and very readable complement to the historiography of the soldiers of the Great War; it comes highly recommended for those interested in British forces and the social and military history of England during the war.
About the Examiner: Peter L. Belmonte is a retired US Air Force officer, author and historian. A veteran of Operation Desert Storm, he holds a master’s degree in history from California State University, Stanislaus. He has published articles, book chapters, reviews and articles on immigration and military history. Pete’s books include: Italian Americans in World War II (Arcadia, 2001), Days of Perfect Hell: The US 26th Infantry Regiment in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, October-November 1918 (Schiffer, 2015), Forgotten Soldiers of World War I: America’s Immigrant Doughboys (with Alexander F. Barnes, Schiffer, 2018), Play Ball! Doughboys and Baseball during the Great War (with co-authors Alexander F. Barnes and Samuel O. Barnes, Schiffer Books, 2019) and Chicago-Area Italians in World War I: A Case Study of Calabrians (Fonthill Media / Arcadia Publishing, 2019). He is also working on a multi-volume history of Italian-Americans during World War I. You can see his books on his web page: https://www.amazon.com/author/peter.belmonte