Pardon for Executed Soldiers

– in the Scottish Parliament at 4:48 pm on 11th November 1999.

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Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament 4:48 pm, 11th November 1999

The next item of business is the members' debate on motion S1M-223, in the name of Dr Elaine Murray. Following Mr McCabe's remarks, and in view of the number of people who wish to speak in this debate, I would be minded to accept a motion now that the debate be extended to the normal time of 5.30 pm, which will give us a few extra minutes. Would someone care to move that?

Photo of Tom McCabe Tom McCabe Labour

I move,

That the debate be extended until 5.30 pm.

Motion agreed to.

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

In that case, we have almost 40 minutes for the debate. Many people wish to speak, so short contributions will be appreciated. Before I call Dr Murray to speak to the motion, I remind the chamber that we are debating a reserved matter—as we are entitled to do—but members should avoid indicating otherwise in their speeches. We are here to give our opinions and that is all.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament believes that it is not too late to restore the names and reputations of the soldiers of the British empire forces court martialled and executed, mostly on the western front, in the four years 1914-18, following charges ranging across desertion, cowardice, quitting posts, sleeping at posts, disobedience, striking a superior officer and casting away arms; regrets deficiencies in their opportunity to prepare adequate defence and appeals; notes the marked and enlightened change in the army's attitude just over a score of years later to the consequences of soldiers enduring long periods of severe cold and damp, lack of food and sleep coupled with the stress and shock of constant shellfire with the result that not a single solider was executed on these charges throughout the six years from 1939-45; considers that the vast majority of the 307 executed were as patriotic and brave as their million other compatriots who perished in the conflict and that their misfortune was brought about due to stress, or the stress of their accusers, during battle, and that even if the behaviour of a small minority may have fallen below that of the highest standards then time, compassion and justice dictates that all of these soldiers should now be treated as victims of the conflict, and urges Her Majesty's Government to recommend a posthumous pardon, thus bringing to a close a deeply unhappy and controversial chapter in the history of the Great War.

Photo of Elaine Murray Elaine Murray Labour 4:49 pm, 11th November 1999

I thank everyone who has supported this motion. I am particularly pleased by the genuine cross-party support that it has received. I also thank the media for their interest, and those members of the public who contacted me to offer their support.

Our Parliament is not able to pardon the 39 Scottish soldiers shot by their own side during the first world war. That is reserved to the Ministry of Defence, as is the matter of the other 268 members of the British empire forces who were similarly executed. What we can do is express our view, using the knowledge and understanding that we have gained over this century, not to re-write history, but to add the final chapter to the history of the 1914 to 1918 war. In doing so, we remember the terrible suffering endured by the young men who offered their lives in the protection not of our freedom and democracy, but of the economic interests of the British empire.

I have been asked what can be achieved more than 80 years after the conflict. Those most immediately affected—the parents, siblings girlfriends, wives and children of those soldiers—are probably deceased by now. We cannot lessen their pain or comfort them with the restoration of their loved one's reputation. There are families of executed soldiers who continue to campaign to clear the names of their relatives, such as the niece of 22-year-old Private Bertie McCubbin, who was executed because he felt unable, owing to the physical effects of shelling, to carry out the duties demanded of him. We are not too late to bring comfort to those relatives. We are not too late to recognise that, during that war, the demands that our country exacted of its young soldiers—some little more than boys—were too much for some to endure.

Let us remember the conditions under which the private soldier at the western front existed. It was a pointless, static conflict over strips of earth, which achieved nothing other than the slaughter of millions of young men from both sides. The soldiers were condemned to existence in hell—floundering in mud in the winter, baking in the summer, rats and parasites their constant companions, never knowing whether today's sunrise would be their last, without respite, week after week, month after month, year after ghastly year.

The ordinary private soldiers in the trenches did not often, if ever, come home on leave. They were subjected to constant shelling—

"the monstrous anger of the guns" referred to by the war poet, Wilfred Owen, in "Anthem for Doomed Youth". They knew that they would be ordered to run towards that anger, witnessing the deaths of countless comrades in the futile exercise. Imagine the horror of sharing accommodation with the remains of other men, of seeking shelter from enemy fire to find it already occupied by the rotting carcases of fallen soldiers.

Whether volunteer or conscript, those soldiers cannot have had any notion of what they were to face when they signed up to serve their country.

This was not the modern, familiar Europe that we know through our holidays and television travel programmes. France would have been as alien and foreign to them as, 50 years later, Vietnam was to the young American soldiers who fought there. Communications were poor—in addition to their personal discomforts, the soldiers would have been anxious about loved ones back home.

The stress that the soldiers in the trenches—and their immediate superiors—suffered is difficult to imagine. That stress was physical and psychological, enduring and brutalising. We now recognise the effects of stress on the human body and psyche. Individuals who suffer traumatic events, over even a brief period, are now generally offered counselling and help towards recovering from the effects of their devastating experiences. There was no such knowledge at the beginning of the century. There were only vague references to something called shell-shock or loss of nerves—references that placed some blame on the individual, suggesting some weakness of character. Now, we know better.

The argument may be made that the deserters endangered the lives of their comrades. Most of the men who were executed were not deserters—they went absent without leave, got lost, showed violence towards officers or injured themselves to avoid having to go over the top. Even those men who deserted during combat would hardly have endangered their comrades, all of whom were being ordered into the paths of enemy guns. If endangering life was cause for execution, surely it was the generals, who so recklessly and pointlessly threw away hundreds of thousands of young lives, who should have been shot.

So far, the Ministry of Defence has refused to go as far as to offer a pardon to the executed soldiers. Dr John Reid, when he was Minister for the Armed Forces, recognised that those men should be regarded as victims of the war and should not be stigmatised. The ministry's advice was that there was insufficient evidence, because of the passage of time and the lack of contemporary records, to reassess each individual case. It was thought that a blanket pardon would be unsafe, as some of those executed would have deserved—by the standards of their time—the punishment that they received.

I urge Her Majesty's Government to reconsider. Pardon is not exoneration—pardon implies some guilt. Surely it would be more compassionate for a few men to receive an undeserved pardon than for many innocent men to remain convicted. Even in the cases of those who committed actual crimes, what contribution did the brutalising effects of their experiences have on their behaviour?

There is no suggestion in this motion of financial recompense. The soldiers' relatives are asking for something far more valuable than that—the restoration of the reputations and the good names of the soldiers, the inclusion of their names on war memorials and the return of their medals to those who survive them.

Today, on this last armistice day of the century, I ask members to remember those victims with understanding and compassion, as we remember all those who endured the horrors of war in the service of this country. May the coming century be kinder than that which closes.

I am honoured to have been able to speak to this motion. [Applause.]

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

We will have the usual four-minute limit on speeches, but if I am to have any hope of calling all those members who have asked to speak, members should be aiming for two minutes.

Photo of Dorothy-Grace Elder Dorothy-Grace Elder Independent 4:56 pm, 11th November 1999

Thank you, Elaine, very much indeed for raising this subject. I am sure that we all admire your sensitivity in doing so.

We are talking today of men who were condemned, unfairly, as cowards. Would their comrades—those who actually died in battle—condemn them? I think not.

I have brought along today some relics—they are the only ones left—of one of numerous members of my family to have died in battle. This medal is from the first world war. My grandmother and my grandfather sent to that war, most reluctantly, three of their sons. To this day, my family—like so many families in Scotland—are still haunted and shaped by the great war, more than by the second world war. Indeed, it was out of the great war that our socialism came. My family moved to Glasgow to follow Jimmy Maxton. This is all that families got—a bronze medal, or bronze medallion. Members can imagine how embarrassed I was to receive one after four month's service in this Parliament.

Families also got a wee letter from the King. This one has the name of the soldier—Robert Blackwood Stevenson of the Black Watch. My family also served in other regiments, such as the Highland Light Infantry and the Scottish Horse. The King wrote:

"I join with my grateful people in sending you this memorial of a brave life given for others in the Great War."

At the bottom is a facsimile signature: so many were being slaughtered that the King did not have time to sign all the letters. Or maybe he did not bother, I do not know.

I found that uncle's grave at Ypres a couple of years ago with my children. It was in a great city of the dead. We do not know quite how they died, do we? But I know, from the tales of my grandparents, what their son Robert, who died, told them when he was home on leave, or wrote to them in some of the letters that managed to escape the censors. He wrote of men shooting themselves in the foot, hoping that the injury would be just bad enough for them to be sent home. He wrote of brave soldiers, his friends, going crazy in the trenches. He did not regard himself as superior to them in any way whatever. They prayed for death sometimes. That boy told his parents:

"We only hope it will come quickly, because we know we are not going to come out of it alive."

He died a hero. I say that every man who died in that great war was a hero, no matter how he died.

Some went to war for reasons that we do not like to discuss today. Silly people were going round the streets of Scotland handing out white feathers to men who were not in uniform. I regret very much to say that they were mainly women. That is a deadly form of sexism—sending a young man out to his death simply because it was thought that it was all a big picnic. We know that it was far from that.

Eventually, this unknown uncle of mine was mown down by German machine-gunners. I have the original letter from the padre who sat with him as he died. He told my grandmother:

"Your son . . . at the end . . . managed to say the Lord's prayer."

I am sure that my uncle, who would be counted among the glorious dead, would not for one moment condemn those who were executed for a variety of different reasons.

The Australians refused to execute anyone, and yet the British executed even 10 Chinese. Those poor men probably came all the way from Hong Kong to die on Flanders field, not in battle, but through execution, probably because they fell asleep at their posts.

Today the British Army loses more young men to suicide than to terrorism. Those young men are very often bullied in barracks. I fought a campaign on that issue and thankfully the Ministry of Defence gave £400,000 towards the helpline that I sought for young troops. If those fine young soldiers die because they cannot take some of the pressures, imagine what it was like for my uncle to lie in a trench with his best friend in a dozen pieces alongside him because, as he wrote to his father Paul, it was too dangerous for the orderlies to remove the bodies.

We are unpardonable if we do not pardon these men. We are also unpardonable for our treatment of war widows and for the fact that Erskine hospital needs £2 million. That money should be given now.

We will have learned little in this blood-stained century if we still support weapons of mass destruction. In the name of decency and pity, I ask members to back the motion and to move that these men take their rightful place in the legion of the glorious dead.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Conservative 5:01 pm, 11th November 1999

My speech is in no way a challenge to the tragedy of the first world war or to the horrific waste of life that all war and conflict lead to, whether 80 years ago or just this year in Kosovo. Although I do not oppose the fact that it was a travesty that these young men were executed, I disagree with the concept of a pardon for something that happened in history. Today we should remember all the men and women who have died in every war fighting for our freedom, just as we should remember the members of the armed forces who are serving all over the world today.

Although I understand the tragedies and personal losses created by the first world war, I fear that the motion before us is naive. Dr Murray is asking us to judge events by modern-day standards and values. As a soldier who served in Northern Ireland and central America, I know what it is like to be scared, cold and underfed. I know what it is like to patrol in areas not knowing where the next sniper's bullet will come from. I have carried men who have shot themselves through their stomachs because of fear of marriage break-up or of their duties. I also know what it is like to be separated from someone I love very much. That was something about which I could do nothing; I could not go home because I had to do my duty.

Perhaps Dr Murray could tell us which of the 307 soldiers who were tried quit their posts, deserted or were wrongly convicted. I am afraid to say that, like her colleague Dr Reid when in the Ministry of Defence, she cannot. The evidence is simply not available. Even at the time, the evidence was basic and crude because men and peers judged one another from their contemporary experience of the situation. It is extremely hard for us to go back and discover which of those men deserted their colleagues and left the rest of their company to be massacred by an enemy or which of them was wrongly convicted.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Conservative

I am not taking any interventions—this issue is not for banter.

The tragedy of the first world war, the Boer war and the conflicts of the centuries before is that today's procedures for taking evidence did not exist.

Is Dr Murray saying that offences such as desertion or quitting one's post are not as serious today? They are still incredibly serious. Indeed, in an operational environment, a soldier found sleeping on sentry duty will go to jail for 28 days. His duty—to guard his comrades—is as serious as it ever was. However, the punishment that those men receive comes from today's different values and standards.

It is dangerous to go back 80 years and say that by the standards of the time the punishment was too severe. It was, as flogging was too severe under Nelson in the Napoleonic era, but it is not for us to delve into the past and judge the punishments decided on by people at that time. Dr Murray should realise that we must consider the first world war as a whole. I believe that we dishonour everyone if we pick and choose the situations in which we forgive or forget or brand some people perpetrators and others victims.

The first world war was a tragedy for Scotland. I doubt that there is anyone in the chamber or in the public galleries who is not touched by the loss of a relation or a member of their direct family. I would be happy for the names of some—or all—of the 307 men to be put on war memorials and for their loss to be remembered for the tragedy that it was. However, I do not believe that it is for us to judge people for acting on the medical knowledge that was available at the time and not on the knowledge of how to treat shell-shock that we have today. Are we to say that to chop off someone's leg to prevent gangrene was wrong medical practice before antibiotics? The medical treatments were not understood then. Today, they are.

While we register the regret and the horrors of the first world war, I ask the chamber to remember that that is history. Let us learn from that history and never again repeat the tragedy that caused those 307 men to be executed, for right or for wrong.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat 5:06 pm, 11th November 1999

I commend Dr Elaine Murray for bringing this most worthwhile motion to the chamber. Although it is on a reserved matter, we in the Scottish Parliament can and should send a clear message to the Ministry of Defence. John Reid, while Minister for the Armed Forces, refused to recommend a pardon on the ground that it was too late to go over each individual case. That does not mean that there were no grounds for a pardon. The whole point of the motion is not to go over each individual case, but to give a posthumous pardon to all 307 men.

I disagree entirely with the stance taken by Ben Wallace. We are not attempting to rewrite history. We are not pitting our values against the values of 1914 to 1918. Ben Wallace should understand that we are trying to give some comfort to the families of those men. Mr Wallace does not have the monopoly in this chamber on experience of active service. I know from the 15 years that I spent in the Army that attitudes have changed, despite what Mr Wallace may think. Those men would not have been executed in today's Army. Indeed, Ben, it is significant that even in world war two the Army recognised that it had got it wrong. Not one soldier was executed for such offences between 1939 and 1945.

It is fitting that we are discussing this motion on this day of remembrance. Those 307 men are the forgotten victims of world war one. It would not be good enough simply to add their names to the war memorials. Today, we remember those men—and, as important, their relatives, who are still affected by the executions—by backing the motion and asking the Government to think again and to recommend a posthumous pardon.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour 5:09 pm, 11th November 1999

I welcome Elaine Murray's motion, which I hope has the unanimous support of the chamber.

Matters relating to the armed forces are reserved to Westminster. Nevertheless, it is fitting that this Parliament should speak out on behalf of the Scottish soldiers who were executed following courts martial conducted by officers who never gave the accused a fair hearing. Of the soldiers executed for so-called cowardice—among them English, Canadian, Irish and, as Dorothy-Grace Elder said, Chinese—43 were Scots. Their convictions should be dismissed and the soldiers given a posthumous pardon.

In 1983, an English judge, Anthony Babington, was given access to the transcripts of the courts martial. He stated that military procedures had seriously prejudiced the possibility of fair trials, and, following conviction, the accused had no hope of being treated with sympathy. He criticised the complete absence of informed medical opinion, which worsened the prospects of justice being done. Those soldiers, 26 of whom were under 21 years of age when they were executed, were treated with contempt and were denied a fair hearing.

Some of the Scottish soldiers were not represented at the courts martial. Those who were there had a "soldier friend", often an officer untrained and unskilled in legal matters and advocacy. To those who say that those men were cowards who deserted their comrades in their hour of need, let me point out that some of the soldiers who were executed had a distinguished service record. One young Canadian who was executed had been given the medal of bravery for valour in the field.

Andrew Mackinlay, MP for Thurrock, has campaigned long and hard for the families of the soldiers. He said in a recent House of Commons debate that the men were denied the right of justice and were not given an opportunity to prepare a defence. In many cases, they did not have proper advocates. None was given the opportunity to collect evidence, particularly medical evidence, in support of their defence. Each and every one of them was denied an appeal against the death sentence. That is surely—then and now—contrary to the rules of natural justice. Pardons are long overdue, and I believe that that is the view of the overwhelming majority of the people of the United Kingdom.

If we watch the television programmes about these matters, we see the Scottish veterans who fought alongside the young men who were killed. If they give an opinion, they agree that their young comrades should not have been executed and that they deserve to be pardoned. I hope that this debate will show the families that we in this Scottish Parliament firmly support that position. The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence should, I believe, show humility and compassion on this important issue. The families of the soldiers deserve no less from us all.

Photo of Colin Campbell Colin Campbell Scottish National Party 5:12 pm, 11th November 1999

I belong to a generation that wakes up every morning and thanks God that it has never had to go through what people went through in that war. I feel enormously privileged for that. Were I not in this place, I would be studying that war—I have studied it for a long time. I have a deep interest in it, and I have difficulty dealing with this subject.

Soldiers who were killed by shellfire or gunfire while deserting their posts and surrendering are on the rolls of honour.

In "Goodbye to All That", Robert Graves wrote of the drunken sergeant carrying the rum ration up the line to the men, falling over and spilling the last remnants of the rum on the ground. The officer put his foot on the back of the sergeant's neck and drowned him in the mud for the rum which his men had been deprived of. I am sure that the sergeant is on the roll of honour as well.

In 1953 or 1954, I spoke to an old man while I was cutting a hedge. He had been in the King's Own Scottish Borderers at the battle of Loos on 25 September 1915. He spoke of a young man who was in tears through the agony of apprehension and fear in not wanting to go over the top. The officer came along, drunk out of his mind, and offered the boy alcohol. The boy said, "If I am going to die, I am going to die sober." He was in a state of extreme cowardice; the officer was drunk on duty. They should probably both have been taken out and sorted. Because their colleagues were around, they went over. They were both killed. They will be on a roll of honour somewhere.

Officers on the ground tolerated soldiers committing suicide, understood it and did not write letters home telling their relatives that that was happening. They all knew that they were living in hell, living through hell, hoping to get through hell. Their names—the people who committed suicide and "got away with it"—will also be on the rolls of honour and the war memorials.

I feel the hand of history stretching down over the years, touching us all. That war has affected us in ways that many of us never know and will never know. It has affected the psyche of the nation in many ways.

The boys we are talking about were unlucky enough to come up against officers who took a stronger and less compassionate line than others. I researched a particular Highland officer who, in all his work, recognised officers and men cracking up—that is tolerated by the people at the front line.

These boys were unlucky and paid the price of a disciplinary system that was too severe for the time. For their relatives and friends, for those who were innocent, to ease the pain of their relatives and to recognise the enormously credible job that those boys did before they met their fate at the hands of their own side, I support the motion.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour 5:16 pm, 11th November 1999

I, too, wish to commend Elaine Murray for bringing this motion to the chamber today.

My interest in this subject came about when I was studying art therapy. I learnt that many of the quite young people who returned from the first world war were either shell-shocked or hospitalised. After looking at some of the artwork, poetry and writings that were produced, I became aware that none of us can honestly say we understand just how traumatic a time they had.

When we examine now what happened then, it is clear that some of the people who were executed by their own side were suffering from what would be seen now as clinical disorders such as post-traumatic stress syndrome.

I wish to speak about a particular case that Elaine has already alluded to. She mentioned the campaign by Private McCubbin's niece, a constituent of mine who lives in Girvan. Aged 70, she has been campaigning for a number of years and recently tried to highlight some of the issues and how they affect her family. She talked in the local press about the trauma that her family faced: being misled about the circumstances in which her uncle died and not being given proper information until much later.

My constituent believes that her uncle's death should not have happened and that the people who made the decision to take his life had no right to do so because he was not able to make proper representation. She argues that he volunteered to fight for his country in the first place. She said that

"He was a very sensitive man" and explains that he appealed for clemency on the basis that his nerves were shattered—that was his expression at the time—which is exactly the kind of trauma that would be recognised now. Unfortunately, his appeal for clemency was not successful and, tragically, like so many others, he was executed.

I do not think that it is too much to ask, today of all days, for a unanimous view from this Parliament to give hope to Grace Sloan and others like her who have campaigned on their families' behalf over the years. I give a commitment that I will continue to support her campaign and I ask members to support the motion.

We have heard today about the tragedy of war and all the horrors that go with it. Many members have been wearing peace poppies over the past few days and have come under criticism for that. The wearing of the white poppy was promoted by none other than the Co-operative Women's Guild, which was not a radical, loony organisation. Its members were women who were at home, doing the work, while the men, many of whom did not return, were serving in the war.

Members will note that I am wearing both poppies. I want to remember the tragedy of what happened before. Equally, many years ago, I made a commitment to become involved in the peace movement to ensure that such things never happen again. I have a 13-year-old son. I want never to have to do what many members of my family did: watch their young men going off to war, never to return.

Please understand that the peace process is not just about an absence of war; it is about taking positive steps to resolve conflict. Please show a bit of tolerance and understanding for those of us who try to make our point by wearing the white poppy.

Photo of Kay Ullrich Kay Ullrich Scottish National Party 5:20 pm, 11th November 1999

One of my most lasting memories is of standing in the main hall in Ayr Academy with my father. I must have been in fifth or sixth year at the time. My father was born in 1905 and had been just too young for the first world war. He, too, had gone to Ayr Academy and as he looked at the names on the war memorial, he said, "All those boys were commissioned straight out of sixth year. That one enlisted from fifth year." As a schoolgirl in 1960 or 1961, I could not for the life of me imagine the boys in my class being mature enough to fight and die for their country. The fact that most of the boys whose names were listed on that memorial had done so as volunteers was completely beyond my ken.

Of course, I lived in a different time and we live in different times today. Wars are covered, dissected and debated in the media, but to address this motion we have to consider how it was in 1914 to 1918. Make no mistake, the war was glamourised. Kitchener's poster read, "Your country needs you". Music halls were the main source of entertainment for working-class people and well-known female music hall stars vamped their way—I will spare members my singing—through

"If you're ready and you're willing

And you want to take the shilling

I'll make a British soldier out of you."

As if that were not enough, in every village, town and city, volunteers were marched up to the local railway station behind either a brass band or the local pipe band. Is it any wonder that impressionable young boys took the shilling to be part of this glamorous, patriotic event? Those young men included the boy soldier Fusilier Herbert Burden, who lied about his age to join up at 16, only to be executed at 17 for desertion, and the 19-year-old Edinburgh bantam soldier—that meant he was under 5 ft 3 in tall—Private James Archibald. Private Archibald was described by his platoon commander as a typical slum product and of a low level of intelligence. Even though his commander wrote that he doubted whether Archibald realised the gravity of his offence, he was shot at dawn on 4 June 1916.

Those executions were the result of a policy recommended by General Haig, who thought it necessary to make examples and—as he put it—to prevent cowardice in the face of the enemy. True to his word, General Haig signed an all-time record number of death sentences during his tenure. Those death sentences also meant that more than 1,000 British soldiers were ordered to shoot their comrades. I often wonder whether any of the young officers whose names are listed on the Ayr Academy war memorial had to use their pistol to finish off the victim, as so often happened.

Today, as we remember those who died in the two world wars, let us also remember the young men who were shot at dawn simply because we did not recognise battle fatigue or, indeed, because it was done pour encourager les autres.

The Government's excuse is that too many files have been lost or destroyed for individual cases to be re-examined at this late stage. That is probably true, but what is needed is a general amnesty or pardon to mark the new millennium and to remove the burden of shame, guilt and resentment from the families of those who were executed.

That is the recommendation of the Royal British Legion. Let it also be the recommendation of the Scottish Parliament.

Photo of Tom McCabe Tom McCabe Labour 5:25 pm, 11th November 1999

This has been a thoughtful and sensitive debate that shows respect for the memory of the soldiers. That says much for our Parliament.

At the start of the debate you reminded us, Presiding Officer, that defence is a wholly reserved matter under the terms of the Scotland Act 1998 and that the right of final decision on the matters covered by today's motion is reserved to the United Kingdom Government.

I think it is fair to say that both Parliaments would guard their own areas of responsibility. It would be wise for our Parliament here in Edinburgh to judge with caution the subjects that are outwith our legislative competence that we choose to debate.

Having said that, it is extremely important that our colleagues in the UK Parliament are aware of the views expressed in this Parliament. I am happy to assure the chamber that I will forward a copy of today's proceedings to the United Kingdom minister with responsibility for this area.

Today, we mark the 81st anniversary of the armistice that brought the first world war to an end. We remember with humility and gratitude the debt that we owe to those who lost their lives, in whatever circumstances.

No one can remain unmoved by the study of the conditions that those who fought in that war had to face. I appreciate the depth of feeling that motivates the continuing calls for a pardon for those who were executed for military offences.

Between 1914 and 1920, approximately 20,000 men were convicted of military offences for which the death penalty could have been imposed. Approximately 3,000 were sentenced to death, but the vast majority of sentences were commuted.

More than 300 men were executed for military offences. I agree that it is not too late to bring comfort to the families of those soldiers.

When John Reid was Minister for the Armed Forces, he undertook a careful and sympathetic review of this complex subject. That study was preceded by numerous internal and external inquiries initiated by previous Governments. They all have two things in common. First, all reached similar conclusions based on legal and medical evidence. Secondly, they reflected the long-standing concern surrounding the trials and their outcome.

The review considered all aspects of the matter. The cases were examined individually and, to set the work in context, John Reid personally looked into more than 100 of the case files. The review also examined the law and procedures in force at the time and under which the trials, sentence, confirmation and implementation were conducted.

With regard to the law, and to set this question of pardon in its proper context, it is important to remember that the sentences were delivered from a properly constituted legal court. The review also examined the present legal position on the consideration of pardons. Pardon is an exceptional and rare legal remedy that is recommended only when there is clear evidence to suggest that either the findings or the sentence in a case were wrong.

It is realised that very little evidence in relation to these cases has survived. From the papers that remain, the review found that it was unlikely that any of the cases would be found wanting on procedural grounds.

Of more fundamental importance was the lack of medical evidence on the condition of the men at the time of their offences. It would not be possible for a modern psychiatrist to form a proper judgement retrospectively on the state of any of the individuals concerned. It was, therefore, concluded that the consideration of formal legal pardons would, in effect, leave most—and probably all—of those who were executed re-condemned by an accident of history. However, it was not felt that leaving the matter there was an outcome that was compassionate or humane.

I wholeheartedly support the view expressed in the review—that in addressing one perceived injustice, John Reid did not wish to create another. Rather, he wanted to be fair to all. I am confident that members of this Parliament wholly support that view.

Fairness for all those who were executed is the principle that lay behind the most recent review, and I have no doubt that it is what lies behind today's debate. Although we accept the real difficulties that lie in the path of considering legal pardons, we seek, as the review sought, to place this matter in its true, broader perspective—the suffering and sacrifice of so many during the first world war.

During the debate last year in the House of Commons, John Reid said that the passage of time had distanced us from the evidence and rendered impossible the formality of pardon. He also added a few critical words. He expressed the view that

"the passage of time . . . has also cast great doubt on the stigma of condemnation."—[Official Report, House of Commons, 24 July 1998; Vol 316, c 1374.]

We should acknowledge that those who were executed had given good and loyal service and that they were victims of a ghastly war. We should remember them along with, and in the same way as, all those who died. We are approaching the end of a war-torn century, and it is appropriate that all those who have made the ultimate sacrifice are acknowledged afresh. It is particularly appropriate that we do so today. Colin Campbell's remarks about recognition were most appropriate.

Two very important initiatives were announced as a result of the review. The first was the Government's insistence on adding the names of those who were executed to the war memorials and the books of remembrance. The second, and perhaps most important, was the Government's signalled intention to abolish the death penalty for military offences, which has now been done. I have no doubt that the Government would have wanted a more comprehensive outcome. Equally, I have no doubt that previous Governments would have wanted to reach a different conclusion.

However, although we may want that, it would be dangerous to throw aside legal precedent and decide on the basis of good intention rather than hard evidence. No matter how much any minister or Government may want that evidence to exist, if it does not it would be wrong to cast aside the basic tenets of democracy and the rule of law for which all those men fought and died.

For the reasons that I have outlined tonight, I believe that the place of those victims in the wider national remembrance has been secured for perpetuity. I express the view that I believe reflects that of all members: that those men should finally rest in peace.

Meeting closed at 17:32.