Deserters from the First World War – the Home Front

On Saturday 5th February Amanda Hetherington was our guest speaker. Her talk, based on her recently published book, resulted in a vivid insight into an aspect of the First World War that many of us were not aware of. Deserters were not just conscientious objectors based perhaps on religious grounds but covered a wide range of reasons

More than 80,000 cases of desertion were tried at a courts martial on the home front and of these 304 were shot at dawn. Many and varied were the reasons for absence or desertion from camps or barracks in Britain. Many couldn’t cope with what was thought as poor camp facilities. A number had led a life of crime some were mentally handicapped. Others had a problem with drink and a number were very young and immature. Being accused of cowardice was difficult to determine. Then there were parents or wives who were, perhaps, over protective. Sometimes the latter could be prosecuted if desertion could be proved.

Strategies employed by some deserters included pretending to be wounded and relying on charity. Others pretended to be officers and received goods by deceit. Other excuses for absences included having to attend gathering crops at harvest time if from an agricultural background others gave reasons such as boredom and the difficulties of responding to a more rigid discipline regime.

No deserters were executed for desertion on the Home Front but if they escaped from the Western Front and managed to reach home, then such could be shot at dawn. However, many absentees or deserters would face other punishments. These included detention, prison and a period of hard labour.

Reactions by many at Home when news of such behavior by enlisted men who went absent, was not criticism but often a subject of humour as depicted in cartoons and postcards that were circulated at the time. The ‘popular culture’ was one of acceptance quite often by the general public.

Andrea’s talk was an eye opener and one that helped to dispel the notion that all deserters were not shot; that not all deserters were cowards or simply scared but saw it as their right of freedom of choice. This was an intriguing examination of a hitherto overlooked aspect of the First World War.