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Shot at dawn

Back in the day when I was working on my masters thesis, which was about the Great War, I uised to hang out on a mailing list for historians discussing matters concerning the war. There was this pommie historian there called Julian Putkowski. He was the author of a number of works about the war, like Shot at Dawn: Executions in World War One by Authority of the British Army Act (1996) and British Army Mutineers 1914-1922 (1998).

Julian's cause célèbre was executions by the British Army for desertion during the Great War. He campaigned for some years for a pardon for these soldiers. His Campaign for soldiers shot at dawn was eventually successful. The British government allowed for the pardon of soldiers shot for cowardice and desertion, and eventually, in 2006 blanket pardoned those convicted of military offences other than murder or mutiny. They even raised a monument to cowards, the Shot at Dawn Memorial.

Julian's posts were often quite interesting trivia, but in the context of a mailing list on the internet where you are talking to an international audience, there was varying degrees of comprehension. After all, it was a long time ago and everyone involved was dead. Some people came from countries where the death penalty was still in use. Others, like myself, came from countries where betraying one's closest friends is regarded as a more heinous crime than murder.

Just to annoy Julian, I brought up the subject of Breaker Morant one day. For non-Australians, Harry "Breaker" Morant and his mate Peter Handcock are a pair of folk-heroes who, as officers of an irregular British Army unit known as the Bushveldt Carbineers during the South African War (1899-1902), famously lined up a dozen Boer prisoners and shot them and a missionary. They were convicted by a British court martial and executed. Because the British army often used colonial troops and units composed of colonial troops like the Bushveldt Carbineers for distasteful duties, the expression "scapegoats of the Empire" came into vogue. The Breaker's story was made into a well-known movie in 1980.

A major logical flaw in Julian's logic was always his claim that the convictions for cowardice and desertion were legally flawed; yet there was no evidence that they were any more so than those of murderers. If you're opposed to capital punishment, it should be that of guilty people. Personally, I'm against any punishment whatsoever for people who are not guilty.

Inevitably, given the British government's attitude, the push is now on to win 'Breaker' a pardon, and Attorney-General Robert McClelland has sent a petition to the British government for Harry "Breaker" Morant and Handcock to be pardoned from their conviction for killing 13 people in the final days of the South African conflict.

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