Minister Ahern announces the submission of a Report to the British Government on the twenty-six Irish soldiers ‘Shot at Dawn’ during World War 1
The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Dermot Ahern, T.D., today announced that a Report into the courts-martial and execution of twenty-six Irish soldiers by the British Army during World War 1 has been formally submitted to the British Government through the Embassy of Ireland, London. In making this announcement, the Minister said in particular that:
“Although concerns have been publicly raised by the families of the victims, notable military historians, and many members of Parliament and the public on this sensitive issue for many years, this Report is the first instance in which the courts-martial and execution of the twenty-six Irish soldiers has been extensively evaluated”.
“The files describe a military system of justice that ignored clear evidence of medical afflictions and extenuating circumstances in favour of the need of the upper ranks to impose an exemplary disciplinarian regime on the rank and file in an effort to deter others from contemplating a similar crime. Executing a soldier in such circumstances must be seen as clearly unjust, and not deserving of the ultimate penalty”.
The Minister also drew attention to the apparent disparity in the treatment of Irish soldiers. “For so many of those recruited in Ireland to be condemned to death indicates a disciplinary approach markedly harsher than that faced by men from other countries. In fact, the number of Irish soldiers condemned to death by courts-martial during WW1 represents 8% of the total number of condemnations, while the number of Irish troops corresponds to only approximately 2% of the British Army numbers at the time”.
The Minister concluded by asking the British Government to revisit the issue in a humanitarian and compassionate manner. “As we approach the 90th anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War, and the world prepares to once again remember those who sacrificed so much during those terrible years of trench warfare, a retrospective action by the British Government to redress the condemnation of those ‘shot at dawn’ would be widely welcomed, both in Ireland and further afield”.
“The overwhelming level of support in Ireland, across political and religious divides North and South, has convinced me that a resolution to this matter would not only be of great comfort to the families of the men involved – which is our priority – but would also reflect positively on the already close relationship between Ireland and Great Britain, especially in the context of the respective attitudes toward the First World War”.
Note for Editors
1. The Shot at Dawn (Ireland) Campaign, coordinated by Mr Peter Mulvany, lobbied the Irish Government to support their call to the British Government to pardon retrospectively 306 British soldiers executed during World War 1 for military offences. Twenty-six of these soldiers are believed to be from Ireland, and the offences under which they were sentenced to death and subsequently executed were repealed in 1928 and 1930.
2. A thorough review of the issue identified a number of supportive points for the objectives of the Shot at Dawn Campaign. The then Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Brian Cowen, T.D., announced Government support for the Campaign on 14 November 2003. A meeting at official level with the British Ministry of Defence subsequently took place in London on 6 February 2004 to discuss the matter with a view to finding a satisfactory resolution.
3. It was agreed at this meeting that the British side would forward the courts-martial files of the twenty five Irish soldiers in their possession (the other courts-martial file is in the possession of the Canadian authorities), and the Irish side would review these documents and submit an official paper on the matter. The review of these files corroborate the argument in favour of retrospective pardons for the men in question on a number of fronts:
- The offences under which each soldier was executed, such as desertion, striking an officer and disobedience, were the subject of much parliamentary discourse as early as 1915, and intensified until 1928 and 1930 when the Government repealed the death penalty for these particular offences. This indicates the level of parliamentary and public uneasiness surrounding these executions at the time of the war, and dispels the notion that today’s standards are being used to judge the past. The closure of the case files of those shot at dawn for 75 years by the British military also indicates an awareness of the sensitivity which was afforded the matter in the aftermath of the war.
- The courts-martial files indicate a trend among the accused of a lack of even a rudimentary understanding of their rights under military law. The absence of a ‘prisoner’s friend’ in the majority of cases, to safeguard those rights, further undermines the assertion that those facing courts-martial were afforded their legally entitled rights.
- A comparison of recruitment figures and subsequent death sentences suggests a disparity in the treatment of Irish soldiers in comparison with those from other countries in the British army. For example, the number of men recruited in Ireland was similar to that of New Zealand, however there were ten times the level of condemnations in the Irish Regiments despite the New Zealand regiments being notoriously harsh with discipline.
- The treatment of the lower ranks at courts-martial, in comparison to officers and higher ranks, indicates a degree of class bias that is incompatible with an impartial system of justice. The treatments meted out to officers and upper echelons tended to be at the lower end of the disciplinary scale, whereas lower ranks were often afforded little, if any, leniency.
- The revelation that King George V retrospectively pardoned those in the higher ranks both during and after the war following petitions and appeals signed by military personnel with significant influence, further demonstrates this partiality.
- The case files include some shocking omissions by those presiding at courts-martial with regard to medical ailments and extenuating circumstances. In a number of cases there is clear evidence of ignoring medical conditions and personal circumstances that may have accounted for the actions of the accused, and could reasonably have been interpreted as mitigating factors.
- The confirmation process presents clear evidence that some soldiers were executed for example, to deter others from committing a similar crime, and not because they deserved their fate. Frequent character references as to the fighting qualities of the accused, although not always recorded, were sufficiently common to assume they hindered the possibility of receiving leniency from those in a position to confirm, or commute, the sentence.
4. The cross community Bill in the House of Commons in 1999, sponsored by Ian Paisley and John Hume, demonstrates the depth of feeling of both sides of the community in Ireland, north and south, with regard to the treatment of those executed.