Orders of the Day — First World War (Executions)

– in the House of Commons at 10:45 am on 24th July 1998.

Alert me about debates like this

11 am

Photo of John Reid John Reid Minister of State (the Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence, The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

With permission, I will make a statement about executions of soldiers and others in the first world war.

I doubt whether anyone who has not gone through the awesome experience of war can ever truly imagine its effects on the emotions of human beings. Some 9 million troops from all sides died during the great war. Almost 1 million British and Empire soldiers fell, heroes to their nations and a testimony to the awfulness of war.

We rightly remember them still, not only on the 11th of November, but in ceremonies throughout the year and throughout the globe. Today, I am sure that I am joined by the whole House in once again paying tribute to the courage and fortitude of all who served from throughout Britain and the Empire.

For some of our soldiers and their families, however, there has been neither glory nor remembrance. Just over 300 of them died at the hands not of the enemy, but of firing squads from their own side. They were shot at dawn, stigmatised and condemned—a few as cowards, most as deserters. The nature of those deaths and the circumstances surrounding them have long been a matter of contention. Therefore, last May, I said that we would look again at their cases.

The review has been a long and complicated process, and I have today placed a summary in the Library of the House. I will outline some salient features.

Between 4 August 1914 and 31 March 1920, approximately 20,000 personnel were convicted of military offences under the British Army Act for which the death penalty could have been awarded. That does not include civilian capital offences such as murder. Of those 20,000, something over 3,000 were actually sentenced to death. Approximately 90 per cent. of them escaped execution. They had their sentences commuted by their commanders in chief.

The remainder, those executed for a military offence, number some 306 cases in all. That is just 1 per cent. of those tried for a capital offence, and 10 per cent. of those actually sentenced to death. Those 300 or so cases can be examined, because the records were preserved. In virtually all other cases, the records were destroyed. It is the cases of those 300 that many hon. Members, notably my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), and others outside the House, including the Royal British Legion, have asked us to reconsider with a view to some form of blanket pardon.

Let me make it plain that we cannot and do not condone cowardice, desertion, mutiny or assisting the enemy—then or now. They are all absolutely inimical to the very foundation of our armed forces. Without military discipline, the country could not be defended, and that is never more important than in times of war.

However, the circumstances of the first world war, and the long-standing controversy about the executions, justify particular consideration. We have therefore reviewed every aspect of the cases. We have considered the legal basis for the trials—field general courts martial. The review has confirmed that procedures for the courts martial were correct, given the law as it stood at the time. The review also considered medical evidence. Clearly, if those who were executed could be medically examined now, it might be judged that the effects of their trauma meant that some should not have been considered culpable; but we cannot examine them now. We are left with only the records, and in most cases there is no implicit or explicit reference in the records to nervous, or other psychological or medical, disorders. Moreover, while it seems reasonable to assume that medical considerations may have been taken into account in the 90 per cent. of cases where sentences were commuted, there is no direct evidence of that, either, as almost all the records of those commuted cases have long since been destroyed.

However frustrating, the passage of time means that the grounds for a blanket legal pardon on the basis of unsafe conviction just do not exist. We have therefore considered the cases individually.

A legal pardon, as envisaged by some, could take one of three forms: a free pardon, a conditional pardon, or a statutory pardon. We have given very serious consideration to this matter. However, the three types of pardon have one thing in common—for each individual case, there must be some concrete evidence for overturning the decision of a legally constituted court, which was charged with examining the evidence in those serious offences.

I have personally examined one third of the records—approximately 100 personal case files. It was a deeply moving experience. Regrettably, many of the records contain little more than the minimum prescribed for this type of court martial—a form recording administrative details and a summary—not a transcript—of the evidence. Sometimes it amounts only to one or two handwritten pages.

I have accepted legal advice that, in the vast majority of cases, there is little to be gleaned from the fragments of the stories that would provide serious grounds for a legal pardon. Eighty years ago, when witnesses were available and the events were fresh in their memories, that might have been a possibility, but the passage of time has rendered it well-nigh impossible in most cases.

So, if we were to pursue the option of formal, legal pardons, the vast majority, if not all, of the cases would be left condemned either by an accident of history which has left us with insufficient evidence to make a judgment, or, even where the evidence is more extensive, by a lack of sufficient evidence to overturn the original verdicts. In short, most would be left condemned, or in some cases re-condemned, 80 years after the event.

I repeat here what I said last May when I announced the review—that we did not wish, by addressing one perceived injustice, to create another. I wish to be fair to all, and, for that reason I do not believe that pursuing possible individual formal legal pardons for a small number, on the basis of impressions from the surviving evidence, will best serve the purpose of justice or the sentiment of Parliament. The point is that now, 80 years after the events and on the basis of the evidence, we cannot distinguish between those who deliberately let down their country and their comrades in arms and those who were not guilty of desertion or cowardice.

Current knowledge of the psychological effects of war, for example, means that we now accept that some injustices may have occurred. Suspicions cannot be completely allayed by examination of the sparse records. We have therefore decided also to reject the option of those who have urged us to leave well alone and to say nothing. To do nothing, in the circumstances, would be neither compassionate nor humane.

Today, there are four things that we can do in this House, which sanctioned and passed the laws under which these men were executed. First, with the knowledge now available to us, we can express our deep sense of regret at the loss of life. There remain only a very few of our fellow countrymen who have any real understanding or memory of life and death in the trenches and on the battlefields of the first world war. This year marks the 80th anniversary of the end of the war, and we are recalling and remembering the conditions of that war, and all those who endured them, both those who died at the hands of the enemy, and those who were executed. We remember, too, those who did their awful duty in the firing squads.

Secondly, in our regret, and as we approach a new century, let us remember that pardon implies more than legality and legal formality. Pardon involves understanding, forgiveness, tolerance and wisdom. I trust that hon. Members will agree that, while the passage of time has distanced us from the evidence and the possibility of distinguishing guilt from innocence, and has rendered the formality of pardon impossible, it has also cast great doubt on the stigma of condemnation.

If some men were found wanting, it was not because they all lacked courage, backbone or moral fibre. Among those executed were men who had bravely volunteered to serve their country. Many had given good and loyal service. In a sense, those who were executed were as much victims of the war as the soldiers and airmen who were killed in action, or who died of wounds or disease, like the civilians killed by aerial or naval bombardment, or like those who were lost at sea. As the 20th century draws to a close, they all deserve to have their sacrifice acknowledged afresh. I ask hon. Members to join me in recognising those who were executed for what they were—the victims, with millions of others, of a cataclysmic and ghastly war.

Thirdly, we hope that others outside the House will recognise all that, and that they will consider allowing the missing names to be added to books of remembrance and war memorials throughout the land.

Finally, there is one other thing that we can do as we look forward to a new millennium. The death penalty is still enshrined in our military law for five offences, including misconduct in action and mutiny. I can tell the House that Defence Ministers will invite Parliament to abolish the death penalty for military offences in the British armed forces in peace and in war. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]

There are deeply held feelings about the executions. Eighty years after those terrible events, we have tried to deal with a sensitive issue as fairly as possible for all those involved. In remembrance of those who died in the war, the poppy fields of Flanders became a symbol for the shattereds innocence and the shattered lives of a lost generation. May those who were executed, with the many, many others who were victims of war, finally rest in peace. Let all of us who have inherited the world that followed remember with solemn gratitude, the sacrifices of those who served that we might live in peace.

Photo of Keith Simpson Keith Simpson Shadow Spokesperson (Defence)

I thank the Minister for generously allowing me a copy of his statement and the background information well in advance. He spoke with great understanding and sensitivity about a war that took place 80 years ago. There is probably no man or woman in the House whose father, grandfather or great-grandfather did not serve in the first world war. Many will have been wounded or killed. I was in the minority; both my grandfathers came back from the war. We should remember that a generation of Members of Parliament also served in that war, with great suffering. I think in particular of both the Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee and the Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan.

The British soldiers who were executed during that war have been subject to great debate over the past 80 years. The Minister rightly pointed out that there have been numerous internal and external Government inquiries. Before 1994, all Governments refused to release the case files and other documentation for public access, thereby creating a suspicion in some people's minds of a cover-up. I hope that the Minister's statement will leave no suspicion of a conspiracy or cover-up on a highly sensitive issue.

The matter has recently been brought to a head by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), who has pursued it since 1992 with early-day motions and a private Member's Bill. All hon. Members recognise the hon. Gentleman's great interest in the matter. In February 1993, when he was Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) rejected the hon. Gentleman's call for a pardon for those who were executed. Members who were here will recall that my right hon. Friend spoke with a great deal of sensitivity, advancing arguments similar to those of the Minister for the Armed Forces.

My right hon. Friend's Government's decision was based on a detailed, two-stage study of the files—first selective, then comprehensive—between 1992 and 1994 by the Army historical branch of the Ministry of Defence. I pay tribute to the men and women of that branch for their hard work in difficult circumstances. Their studies reached basically the same conclusions on legal and medical evidence that the Minister has outlined today.

On 16 September 1995, the office of the then Leader of the Opposition—now Prime Minister—announced that a future Labour Government would consider the matter sympathetically. The Minister, when in opposition, signed an early-day motion calling for a review. In May 1997, the Minister announced his review, and he has taken a personal interest in the matter, considering the cases himself and holding discussions with many legal and medical experts and historians.

The Minister's conclusions are virtually the same as those of the previous Government, but there are two differences. First, he has pushed for greater transparency. The previous Government began to move towards that, but he has continued it, and we should all welcome the move. Secondly, he has concluded, as he put to the House today, that, having reviewed the evidence, he faced three options. The first was a legal pardon, the second was the status quo and the third was an expression of regret.

Like previous Governments, the Minister has rejected the legal pardon. He finds the status quo unacceptable, and has opted for an expression of regret. I fear that the Minister may not satisfy two perhaps large groups of opinion. I may be assuming in advance the views of the hon. Member for Thurrock, who I hope, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will be lucky enough to catch your eye, but he has, of course, always argued for a pardon. Equally, there are those, including me and others, who believe that the status quo—leave history alone—is perhaps the option that we should still consider.

The status quo is not about indifference or callousness; I do not think that anyone who has looked at these questions can believe that. I have to declare a personal interest here: as a military historian 20 years ago, I interviewed dozens of surviving soldiers of the first world war on this issue and many others. There is a recognition of the impossibility of rewriting history. Among British soldiers at the time—I know that the Minister found this when he interviewed some of the very few surviving veterans—to say the least, there was an ambivalent attitude to the whole question of executing soldiers for desertion or mutiny.

Expressions of regret can become so generalised as to appear meaningless. I am not by any means implying that the Minister is trying to do that, but my fear is that we will end up setting a precedent. Last year, the Prime Minister expressed regret over the Irish potato famine, an action which many people agreed with. However, we have to consider: where does this begin and end?

I say in all seriousness: are we to consider giving expressions of regret for those people who were executed in the highlands after the battle of Culloden by forces of the Crown? Are we to express regret for those people who were executed by forces of the Crown after the Indian mutiny? Those are questions that involve our looking back into history and making value judgments. My fear is that the Minister's statement has not drawn a line under this issue.

Every hon. Member will stand in awe of those men and women who endured so much, so that we today can debate this issue. In particular, I stand in awe of all those hundreds of thousands of men and women who, in the face of the most appalling circumstances, controlled and conquered their fear and did their duty, so that we might live in a democracy, as we do today.

Photo of John Reid John Reid Minister of State (the Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence, The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

I thank the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) for what I think was a cautious, though at times cynical, welcome of the statement; perhaps I misinterpreted it. I join him in thanking the Army historical branch and the services for all their work. I want to put it on the record that, despite the rumours that accompany such reviews from time to time, there was no resistance whatever to a full and transparent, academic and compassionate review of these cases from the forces, which have been of immeasurable assistance to me in attempting, after all these years, to do justice to a complicated issue.

Of course I join the hon. Gentleman in recognising the sacrifices of all those who died, which I recognised at the top of my statement. We in the House owe an immeasurable debt of gratitude to those who went over the top, fought in the battlefields and made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. We promised at the end of that awful war that, through the generations, we would not forget them, and we have not done so. Today we pay tribute to them as well.

However, I did point out that there were certain people—306 people—whose families had suffered a stigma for eight decades. I feel that, in the light of what we know, it was the view of the House as a whole that I was expressing when I said that that stigma should be lifted, and that those people should be recognised as victims. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]

May I deal with the point that the hon. Gentleman raised about not rewriting history? I did not use that expression—it was used by the previous Government—because I do not believe it. History has two meanings. One is what actually happened. Of course we cannot help what actually happened, or change it, but history has another meaning, which, as an historian, I recognise and which I thought that he, as an historian, would recognise as well. It is the interpretation of what happened.

In all fields of life, we constantly revise our interpretation of what happened. I argue, as a human being as well as a politician, and partly as an historian, that not only is it open to us to reinterpret the events, but, in a decent civilised society, we have an obligation to reinterpret those events. That is what have I tried to do.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned various other executions throughout history. I think that there is a difference. These events occurred within living memory—this century. I think that I am right in saying that, in the period before 1914, as far back as the Napoleonic wars, there were no more than two executions under these same Acts. From 1918 until today, I do not think that there have been any more than three. In the whole of the second world war, I think that there were three executions for mutiny and one for a capital offence which was not a military offence. Therefore, these events are specific—I think that they are ring-fenced. The conditions and nature of the first world war distinguish it from all other wars.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has read of the awful conditions, the extremes of cold and heat, the mud, the vermin, the lice, the cacophony of shellfire, the amazing barrage under which human beings were put, whose batteries of courage were constantly being tested to the limit. The conditions of that war do make it somewhat different.

On the question of the individuals versus the group, I was asked to review these cases as a whole, and I have done so. I said, not only last May but in the debate in the House, which I have here, that that would not necessarily mean a legal formal pardon, but, where there are apparent or possible injustices within living memory, it is the obligation of Government, particularly when people were involved in a life-and-death struggle, to do their best to express the sentiment of the House and the will of the nation.

If I have one wish, it is that, whatever the legal formality today, we do indeed create the conditions in which, as a nation, we can say to all those who died, including the executed soldiers and others, "May you rest in peace now." May this case also rest in peace: after all these decades, I believe that we have now finally done justice to the obligation to examine it and to dispense our view, and the public view, as fully as we possibly could.

Hon Members:

Hear, hear.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

I sincerely thank the Minister for all his efforts in this regard, the attention that he has given to this matter, and his statement today. I couple that with thanks for the work of many people, but particularly His Honour Judge Anthony Babington, Julian Putkowski, who did research work in this regard, which has assisted all of us and promoted our interest in this issue, and, last but not least, Ernest Thurthle, who was a Labour Member of Parliament in the 1920s and 1930s and who alone raised this issue. We should remember him today, because he did a great deal in exposing the fact that the British establishment suppressed these documents for three quarters of a century.

I hope that the Minister will understand if I reserve my position in one regard. I think that there could have been a formal legal pardon, but there may be a legislative opportunity for me or others to raise the matter in future. However, it would be churlish and unrealistic not to acknowledge that what the Minister has said is a major statement by the Government, which I deeply appreciate and which I know will be appreciated by the families of the men involved, the people who have campaigned for them and the few remaining veterans of the great war. They, late in the evening of life, will know that not only do the people support the pardons—I think that they have done so all along—but that Parliament has now reflected the fact that they should be acknowledged as victims of the great war along with the many other millions.

In response to the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), there was not an option to leave the matter alone. That is precisely what the British establishment wanted to do for 75 years. History needs to be written with clarity and precision, and I hope that the Minister feels that, with his statement, he has written a chapter of history with clarity and precision this morning.

With your indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to point out that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) nudged me to draw attention to the fact that, at the very moment when the Minister was expressing regret, it was 11 minutes past 11. I thought that that added to a profoundly moving statement.

This certainly closes a chapter on a very unhappy episode. As we come to the end of a troubled century, when we teach our schoolchildren about the miscalculations and selfishness of politicians in general, we can at least take some pride this morning in the fact that the ordinary British soldier and the other victims of the great war have been given the long overdue acknowledgement that they were victims of the decisions of selfish people. I hope that we can salute them this morning.

Photo of John Reid John Reid Minister of State (the Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence, The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

I thank my hon. Friend for his welcome and his kind words. I take this opportunity to thank Judge Anthony Babington, not only for his pioneering work in this generation but for the assistance that he gave me when I mets him. I also thank others, including Julian Putkowski for assisting me to clarify my own thoughts on this matter. Of course, I did not meet Ernest Thurthle, but I became very familiar with his thoughts and works as I worked through the review. To that list I would add my hon. Friend himself, who has played a pioneering role in the last decade. He has taken an interest in all things military in the House, as well as in the soldiers and others who were executed.

There is not much that I can add, other than to say that, as I read the case files, I appreciated the nature of war. No one could remain unmoved who reads about the conditions endured by the soldiers who died in the first world war, who went over the top and made the sacrifice, and who had what Napoleon regarded as the main characteristic of a good soldier—not courage, but endurance. I certainly did not. Some of the words come back to haunt me. The last words of one young man who was executed were, "What will my mother say?" Such instances cannot leave us unmarked.

I do not believe that it is a sign of fortitude or strength to ignore compassion. Compassion, as exemplified by millions of soldiers throughout the centuries and throughout this nation, is an integral part of fortitude. We are all the stronger for having compassion—defiance in defeat, certainly, but, as Churchill once said, magnanimity in victory. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to have the victory of life, and those who were fortunate enough, despite all their sacrifices, to come back, will share with the House the magnanimity and understanding of those who were executed during that terrible war.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I echo the sentiments of the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), and thank the Minister for his courtesy in making this statement. I doubt whether a single hon. Member who heard the Minister's words could fail to be moved by what he had to say and the sincerity with which he said it. From the tone he used, I suspect that he was greatly disappointed in the words that he had to utter.

The statement contained the phrase that "formality of pardon" was impossible. I am sure that the Minister will agree that, when he replied to the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), he used the words of compassion. I am sure that most men, women and children will think that compassion could have been shown to the 300 men and their families, and that the formality of pardon was not an impossibility. They will think that a society which, with the ability to look back and say that things would have been so different today, could have shown the compassion necessary to ensure that the pardon was not an impossibility. I am sure the Minister will agree that countless millions of people will not understand why it is impossible for the House to grant the pardon.

I am sure that every voice in the land will echo the sentiments that the Minister expressed in going over what these men went through. He recognised that the majority of them were volunteers and had been in action for a long time. He eloquently exposed the fear experienced by anyone placed in real danger, but these men were in danger day in and day out, week in and week out, for years in some instances.

The nation owes it to those men to show the compassion that is needed. Perhaps, just perhaps, some were guilty of the offences in question, but pardoning them in order to pardon them all is a price that the nation would willingly pay in order, once and for all, to lift this stain from our nation's military history. I hope that, even now, the words of the hon. Member for Thurrock will be taken up by other hon. Members, and that we shall introduce legislation that will finally remove this stain from our history.

It gives me great pleasure on behalf of my party to thank the Minister for his honest endeavours and determination in bringing us to this stage today, but please do not let this be the end of the story.

Photo of John Reid John Reid Minister of State (the Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence, The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

The hon. Gentleman raised three points to which I shall respond. To pardon a few, or one or two—I have not said that, in my view, the evidence would have been sufficient for such a pardon; it might have been sufficient to consider it—thus in effect condemning 300, or 290, would not have been the compassionate response.

Photo of John Reid John Reid Minister of State (the Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence, The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

As the hon. Gentleman's hon. and learned Friend says, it is all or none.

Secondly, the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) believes that some people will not understand. I think that they will understand perfectly, and I shall explain it in simple terms to the hon. Gentleman.

The people who died throughout this century in the British armed forces died fighting to preserve democracy. The basis of democracy is the rule of law. If any politician were to overturn not only several hundred years of precedent but the basis of that democracy by setting aside the belief that there has to be evidence for a conviction; or if he did so on a political whim or prejudice or on a suspicion, no matter how sincere, it would undermine the very basis of law and democracy for which so many millions have fought and died.

Therefore, I do not believe that it would have been open to me, without transgressing the very values for which so many service men have fought and died, to throw aside all legal precedent and make a judgment on the basis of what I believed rather than on the evidence. I think that that will be understood—it is understood in the House, and I think that it is understood across the country. But, short of that, I believe that I have done what the House would think is right.

The Government have not taken action and said what we said only because we thought that the House would think that it right to do so or because of this or that pressure group, but because we think it is the right thing to do. We have expressed regret and the view that—like all those who died—those people were victims of that terrible, terrible war. We have asked that the stigma of the executions be lifted and that those names be added to books of remembrance and memorials. We have also on this day announced that we will be inviting the House to abolish the death penalty. I think that those measures will be warmly welcomed by hon. Members and by the public.

I hope—for the benefit of the families and those who were executed—that we can now genuinely say, "Let them rest in peace". If individuals wish to petition on individual cases, I have not debarred anyone from doing so. My own belief is that they would not do a service for the whole or, I suspect, for the individual case—which, because of a lack of evidence, could end up with a re-condemnation. Such an outcome is what I tried to avoid, and I think—and hope—that the generality of the statement of regret will be warmly welcomed by the public.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. We are considering a deeply moving matter, but the House will appreciate that I must protect the main business of the House. I shall call other hon. Members, but remind them that they must put a question to the Minister. That question should be brief. I shall try to call as many hon. Members as I can before we return to the main business of the House.

Photo of Mr Tony Benn Mr Tony Benn Labour, Chesterfield

May I join in thanking the Secretary of State—and particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay)—for the very sensitive and imaginative way in which he has dealt with the matter? However, are we not speaking about a little bit more than the victims of war? Are we not speaking about the victims of the law, passed by Parliament, that conscripted young men and women who did not wish to fight and told them—under the then military code—"If you do not kill under orders, we will execute you"? They were victims of Parliament and of war, although the two were interconnected in that case. May I ask him also to recognise that the real victims today—for those who were shot have gone—are the families who have the anguish of knowing that their fathers, grandfathers, uncles and great-uncles died as convicted of cowardice?

In the light of Archbishop Tutu's institution of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to bring out the truth and allow the past to rest in peace, could not the word "pardon" be used to recognise that—for the benefit of the families—those people really were not guilty of the military offence for which they were sentenced to death? I ask the Secretary of State to consider that proposal in the light of the families who suffer, still to this day, for what happened to those who went before.

Photo of John Reid John Reid Minister of State (the Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence, The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

I thank my right hon. Friend, especially for referring to me as the Secretary of State—but the reshuffle is not until next week.

My right hon. Friend raised some very serious points. I did use the word "pardon"—I used it several times, both in my statement and subsequently—and explained that it is more than a legal formality: it also means compassion and forgiveness. I hope that that has been noted by the families themselves.

Many of those who were executed were not conscripts but volunteers. I specifically drew attention to that fact. I specifically drew attention also to the House's role, by saying that it was appropriate that the Government are making the statement in the House that sanctioned the legislation—the Army Act 1914—under which the people were executed. I made that point because, ultimately, responsibility rests in this place. It is therefore appropriate that we should have made our expression of regret here.

Photo of Martin Smyth Martin Smyth UUP, Belfast South

I join, on behalf of my colleagues, in thanking the Minister for his clear statement and for underlining in his last reply the fact that many of those people were volunteers—among whom were the men of Ulster. I suggest that, in compassion, the House should reflect on the difference between calm debates in this place—where we sometimes use passion—and the battlefield. When we think of the victims of those days, perhaps we should remember that their officers also were victims, having to uphold military discipline in extreme circumstances. Does the Minister share my belief—it is also my plea—that those who have been so treated in the past will now be restored, even in books of remembrance and war memorials, so that, across the nation, no one may withhold recognition of the pardon that we are seeking to make?

Photo of John Reid John Reid Minister of State (the Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence, The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

Yes, indeed. The hon. Gentleman speaks for a part of the United Kingdom that suffered and sacrificed on a par with any in our history. Ulstermen stood in the vanguard of the efforts of the British armed forces in the first world war—not only at the Somme but at other horrific events in that war. It is not in my power to direct or to dictate, but I do hope that their names will be added to war memorials and books of remembrance, as that will be a symbol of the lifting of the stigma of execution.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the officers—some of whom, too, were executed. The sentences of 89 per cent. of those who were sentenced to death were commuted by the higher chain of command—which should give pause for thought to those who claim that executions were merely a rubber-stamp process performed by a bloodthirsty officer corps. That is not borne out by reality. Although evidence from the files is missing, there are sufficient grounds for us to believe that great consideration was given to executions, and that—despite the need for discipline and to ensure that, for the benefit of the many, there were executions when such offences occurred—a great deal of compassion was shown throughout the chain of command.

Photo of Mrs Llin Golding Mrs Llin Golding Labour, Newcastle-under-Lyme

With one other hon. Member, I represent the House on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. As I walk up and down those rows of graves—many of 16, 17, 18, 19-year-olds—I try to imagine the horror that must have gone through their minds at what they saw. It is not surprising that many of them deserted. Perhaps many more did not do so only because they died so quickly that they did not have a chance to appreciate the situation from which they would never escape.

I thank the Minister for his statement. On behalf of all those who now rest in Commonwealth war graves, I ask him whether he will now write to other Commonwealth countries and ask them to include the names of the comrades of those who died in that dreadful war on war memorials and war graves.

Photo of John Reid John Reid Minister of State (the Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence, The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

I thank my hon. Friend, and pay tribute to the work done by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Upkeep of those graves—particularly in France and Belgium, but elsewhere on the globe—is a tribute to the depth of feeling that we still have for all those who died in that war. She will know that no one who has walked through France and Belgium and seen the acres of white crosses around Arras, the Somme and the Ypres salient can come away without being profoundly affected by the experience.

As for the wider implications for the Commonwealth, I assure my hon. Friend that we have kept in touch with our Commonwealth colleagues as this issue has progressed. It is not within my power to direct other sovereign nations, but the remarks I have made today and the sentiments I have expressed were for all those who served in the British and Empire forces, and I have no doubt that they will be noted by our Commonwealth colleagues. I am sure that the whole House would welcome it if they decided that a similar course of action was appropriate in their case.

Photo of Margaret Ewing Margaret Ewing Scottish National Party, Moray

I, too, welcome today's statement by the Minister. I note the dignified manner in which he presented it, and the sombre mood in which the whole House has responded.

In thanking the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) for his tireless work on this case, may I say, also as an historian, that I do not believe that we can leave history alone? As an historian specialising in the history of the first world war, when teaching that history to youngsters who are far more accustomed to the virtual reality of Hollywood, I have discovered that the reality of man's inhumanity to man was something that they found extremely emotional. Perhaps in the process they recognised that we have to consider all our actions in society, and what they mean to all of us.

On the question of names being added to books of remembrance and war memorials, is it anticipated that that will happen by Remembrance Sunday this year? As a Scottish Member of Parliament, I am sure that the Minister will be keen to ensure that action is taken in respect of the Scottish national war memorial at Edinburgh castle.

Photo of John Reid John Reid Minister of State (the Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence, The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

I thank the hon. Lady. I cannot add anything to her comments about the first world war. The matter of war memorials and books of remembrance is not within my power to dictate, but I hope that the sentiments expressed in the House today are shared by those who do have power in such matters. I was pleased to read recently, as no doubt did the hon. Lady, that those responsible for the book of remembrance in Edinburgh castle have already decided to take action. I hope that their action is adopted as a more widespread practice.

I should add that, although we are concentrating on one aspect today, as I said in my statement and as I know the House feels, we remember and will never, ever forget the sacrifices made by those who died from the bullets or the bayonets of the enemy—those who found within themselves, in those awful conditions, the fortitude and courage to overcome fear, which afflicts all of us, and to go forward, sometimes into a hail of fire. We remember them today, as we shall on 11 November.

Photo of Mr Kevin McNamara Mr Kevin McNamara Labour, Kingston upon Hull North

In welcoming my hon. Friend's statement, and acknowledging the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock, I should like also to recall the work of our former right hon. Friend and Member for Mansfield, Don Concannon. When he was first elected, he tried, desperately banging his head against the wall of the Ministry of Defence, to resurrect even the idea of re-examining these cases.

The most important and significant thing that my hon. Friend the Minister said today came in those few sentences at the end of his statement, when he ensured that this would never happen again. May I say how much I welcome his statement that no longer will capital punishment be seen as a punishment within the British military code? By that decision, we shall never again make any of the sort of mistakes that may well have been made in the past.

Photo of John Reid John Reid Minister of State (the Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence, The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the endurance over a long period of Don Concannon, who, if I remember correctly, was a former guardsman and who took a great personal as well as academic interest in these matters.

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments about the abolition of the death penalty. Lest there be any doubt, let me make it plain that that has not been imposed on the armed forces; they have been working on this matter and have given it their full consideration, and they are at one with Ministers on that point—indeed, the recommendation came from the armed forces themselves. I am pleased to have been able to make that announcement today. It is appropriate in the context of the subject that we are discussing and hon. Members' interest in it.

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party

I thank the Minister for his words today. This has been a moving time in the House. I thank him also for the tribute he paid to Ulstermen, especially those who fought at the battle of the Somme, after which there was hardly a home in the locality in which I work in which there were not victims. I thank him also for the way he put his remarks today; I want to assure him of that.

There is one note I want to strike—that it will appear strange to many people in Northern Ireland that the House can find a way to let terrorists out of prison by law, through a political act, whereas we cannot have a political pardon for the cases being discussed today. Why can there not be complete coverage, so that all can say that those men will rest in peace? I was touched when the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) spoke of the awesomeness of visiting the cemeteries, and by the Minister's words, echoing those of a victim: "What will my mother say?" I think that we will do good to everyone if we find a political way completely to lift the stigma through a pardon.

Photo of John Reid John Reid Minister of State (the Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence, The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his words. He has, for many years now, been a staunch supporter of the idea of the rule of law, and I believe that, when he thinks the matter through, he will not want me to dispense with the rule of law in coming to a political judgment. There is a clear distinction between the expression of regret and the sentiments that we have expressed today, and anything that has ever been expressed in respect of those convicted of terrorist offences. In addition, those men have not been pardoned in any way. The comparison is not a fair one; nor do I believe that it is one which the House would want to pursue, because it is not in accord with the sentiments expressed today.

I have no difficulty in reiterating, and joining the hon. Gentleman in acknowledging, the vast sacrifices made by the men of Ulster—it was men—during the first world war. The loyalty they showed to the United Kingdom throughout that period should not and will not be forgotten. I am sure that it is at the back of our minds as we deal with contemporary developments, and that it occasionally comes to the forefront of our minds when we consider the role of Ulster and the north of Ireland within the United Kingdom.

Photo of Mr Bill Michie Mr Bill Michie Labour, Sheffield, Heeley

I thank my hon. Friend for his statement. I share the view that none of us can understand the trauma that those soldiers experienced. I learned of that at second hand from my father when I was a child. He was in uniform throughout the war, and lost many of his comrades and two of his brothers. I am sure that, if he were alive today, he would be overjoyed by the statement. Will the Minister explain what communication will take place between his Department and the families concerned?

Photo of John Reid John Reid Minister of State (the Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence, The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

I thank my hon. Friend for his words. The number of families that have been in correspondence with me is relatively small—only 12—and I am writing to them today enclosing a copy of the review and my statement to the House. I shall express the hope that, by extending our feelings of regret, by asking that the names be added to war memorials and books of remembrance, by recognising that those men were, like many others, the victims of a terrible war, and by announcing the abolition of the death penalty, we shave left to rest in peace the relatives about whom they feel so deeply, and lifted the stigma of execution.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Conservative, Harborough

With considerable diffidence, I join other hon. Members in congratulating the Minister on his statement and the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) on raising the subject so forcefully over the past year or so. I use the word "diffidence", because, among hon. Members here this morning, only the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) has served in the second world war. He may be the only person who understands to some extent what the soldiers we are discussing went through in the first world war.

I thank the Minister for recognising the context in which the executions took place: 20,000 people were convicted of offences for which they could have been sentenced to death, but only a tiny proportion of them received the death penalty. I congratulate the Minister on recognising that the command structure were not the brutish, thoughtless, careless creature that so many people think it was.

I ask the Minister to bear in mind what others at the time may have thought, rather than what we now think at this distance. I think of my grandfathers, both of whom were decorated in the first world war and returned wounded, and one of whom was a founder of the Royal

British Legion. I think also of my parents, one of whom has just, thanks to the Under-Secretary, received her war medals, and their contemporaries in the last war.

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. The hon. and learned Gentleman must be brief.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Conservative, Harborough

I shall be. Does not granting a pardon imply guilt of the offence for which someone is pardoned? Pardoning may therefore not be the answer that many people want. Will the legislation to remove the death penalty for military offences, to which the Minister referred, be a Government Bill and a discrete Bill dealing only with that measure, or a private Member's Bill for which the Government will give time?

Photo of John Reid John Reid Minister of State (the Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence, The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

I do not want to test your patience, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. and learned Gentleman asked a list of questions, and I shall answer a couple of them.

I made known my views on the chain of command. Like the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), I have spoken to several veterans. There are different views among those who served in the first world war, and I have tried to place them in context today. Without punishment of some nature for desertion, many more people might have died because of the collapse of military discipline. That certainly happened in the forces of some of our allies which did not use the death penalty.

It would be normal to use the Armed Forces Bill to abolish the death penalty. As the hon. and learned Gentleman knows, that comes before the House every five years. That is when that provision will be incorporated into military law. It has not been used in peace for many years. We have said today that Defence Ministers will be inviting the House to decide that. As it is an issue of life and death, there will presumably be a free vote, although I cannot prejudge that. All Defence Ministers will certainly vote to abolish the death penalty, and will invite our colleagues to do so.

If legislation is required to sign protocol 6, which relates to the death penalty in peace or other than in war or the imminent threat of war, that will be introduced as an amendment to legislation that will introduced long before the Armed Forces Bill is introduced. That will allow us to ratify protocol 6.