The Pity of War

John Crossland uncovers a conspiracy of silence from the records of Britain's First World War court-martial victims.

'I just wanted to get away from the sound of the guns'. Private Hamp's disarmingly simple explanation for quitting his post in King and Country, is the response of a man of average intelligence and total lack of sophistication, to an act of mass insanity. The frontline poets spoke more eloquently of the pity of war but the fictional private soldier from Islington fired the indignation of a later generation to whom the true extent of the horrors of the First World War was a revelation.

The furore caused on the film's release in 1965 led to it being banned by at least one local authority, Bedfordshire County Council. Asked his reason, the clerk replied, 'it would give an unfortunate impression of Britain to immigrant workers'. Britons were unable to judge for themselves, as the facts on which the film was based were censored, and identities hidden, for seventy-five years.

A quarter of a century after King and Country went out on the circuits the drapes have come off this last unsavoury secret of the war to end wars and the names and records of the first two dozen real Private Hamps, condemned to death by general field court martial in 1915, have now been released at the Public Record Office at Kew. Dozens more covering the year of the Somme will be released next year.

Voltaire satirised the British for shooting their admirals, 'pour encourager les autres'. By the time Europe turned itself into a Vorticists' nightmare, in 1914, examples were being made of private soldiers instead of commanders. Army officers could use the whisky bottle as a prop for shattered nerves; flyers no longer able to stand the strain of playing hide and seek with the Red Baron in their flying coffins could beg off a patrol and not be accounted cowards. But God help Tommy Atkins if he cracked. Wilfred Owen captured the prevailing mood of boorish indifference to mental pain in his poem about a 'stout lad' who became a malingerer after the last strafe:

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