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Death or Deliverance: Canadian Courts Martial in the Great War

By Teresa Iacobelli

Review By Chris Madsen

April 23, 2014

BC Studies no. 182 Summer 2014  | p. 205-206

In the summer of 1919, newspapers in several communities in British Columbia printed special victory editions with honour rolls of soldiers and airmen who died or returned wounded from serving on the Western Front during the First World War. The province’s contribution to the war effort was significant. War industries produced shells and ships, while recruiting in British Columbia was the highest per capita in relation to other regions of Canada. One out of every eight eligible males enlisted for overseas service, the official count standing at 498,375 nation-wide by November 1918. Canada’s armed forces, until the controversial introduction of conscription in 1917, comprised volunteers drawn from cities, towns, and the rural countryside. Few men were prepared for the rigours and terror of combat that awaited them in France and Belgium, where horrible conditions and the threat of death abounded. In some cases, soldiers decided to run away from danger or fall out of the ranks at opportune times behind the frontlines. Such actions invited charges of desertion and cowardice that were tried before courts martial, an integral part of a military justice system that enforced discipline and good behaviour amongst troops within the Canadian Corps, in which many British Columbians served. Unlike today, death was an available punishment if convicted for these types of military service offences.

Teresa Iacobelli, a SSHRC postdoctoral fellow at Queen’s University, presents the rationale and background behind more than two hundred cases where death sentences were passed on Canadian soldiers, including twenty-five actually executed. The First World War has fascinated historians interested in social memory and public remembrance, and this book follows those approaches. Iacobelli skillfully sets the Canadian experience within broader political and historical debates about the justness of executing soldiers during wartime, and she considers subsequent pardons and attempts at redress. She challenges many assumptions that have been made about the working of military justice on the Western Front, especially concerning Canadians. She draws comparisons with the British, French, and Australian armed forces to show the relative commonality of Canadian military justice under war conditions. Whether a defaulting soldier was tried and executed was highly situational and depended on the operational context, the attitudes of superior officers, and perceptions of potential disciplinary breakdown within individual units and formations. Death sentences in the majority of cases were suspended or remitted by convening authorities to lesser terms of imprisonment or other punishment.

Court martial records offer a rich source of documentary evidence into the lives of common soldiers, including the charge sheet, a convening order listing the members of the military panel, a transcript of proceedings, any appeals in mitigation of sentence, and reviews by convening and superior authorities. The soldiers tried were typically lower in rank, and few other sources exist for them besides nominal rolls and personnel files giving basic dates of recruitment, training, wounds, and disciplinary offences. Many of these are now available on-line through the Library and Archives Canada. Iacobelli mines available records in Ottawa to build her argument and provide insights into the soldiers sentenced to death by military authorities. That said, records of courts martial have limitations and should be used carefully. The offenders were a self-selecting representative sample of a broader population that for the most part stayed out of disciplinary trouble. In fact, application of military justice usually says more about institutional responses than about the actual incidence of crime or criminal behaviour offending military norms. As well, court martial records take the serious researcher only so far before the trail runs cold. Iacobelli, on several occasions, merely notes that individual soldiers were released in 1919 and provides no further details as to their eventual fate or return to civilian life. With the passing of the last veterans, oral histories are no longer possible. While Iacobelli identifies soldiers from Ontario and Quebec, the number of British Columbians sentenced to death before courts martial remains unclear.

Iacobelli has produced a book that will interest general readers as the centenary of the First World War starts and engage specialists in the historical dimensions of military law in the Canadian context. The names of any soldiers from British Columbia who faced execution by the nation and military that sent them abroad to fight deserve a place on the honour rolls. They were ordinary men put into trying and exceptional circumstances.

Death or Deliverance: Canadian Courts Martial in the Great War
Teresa Iacobelli
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2013. 192 pp. $32.95 paper