9 November 2011

A Week of Remembrance: Sharpening the killer instinct

The parachute was invented prior to the First World War.  The concept existed at least form the time of Da Vinci, yet pilots in the First World War were never given parachutes, until the Germans began to outfit their airmen with them late in the war.  The logic behind not giving the pilots parachutes was simple and chilling:  the British Generals felt that giving their pilots the ability to leap from their planes would encourage cowardice, as the pilots would simply leap at the first sign of trouble.  They believed that by not allowing pilots to have parachutes, they were encouraging a killer instinct in their fliers, a 'do or die' mentality.

Other than parachutes, the pilots of the war were fairly well equipped and, compared to the men in the trenches, well off.  They had clean beds with neat sheets.  Good meals, served to them in a clean mess hall.   Along with a fair amount of booze at the officers' club. With the exception of the time they spent flying, no one was shooting at them, and they could relax in relative peace.  They also had the shortest life expectancy of any unit in the war:  a mere two weeks on average.  This average is boosted by the presence of fliers like Billy Bishop or Billy Barker, who served for years and flew hundreds of missions.  Many pilots did not survive their first operation.

Their planes were glorified box kites, with engines that would be out powered by almost any half decent motorcycle engine today. The gas tank was typically under the pilots chair.  There was nothing in the plane design to aid the pilot to survive.  He either won, or he died.  Imagine driving down the highway in a sports car, with the top down.  Now imagine you are going at over a hundred miles and hour.  And it is winter and well below freezing.  And you have no windshield.  That was the easiest part of the experience of a World War One pilot. 

The efforts of harnessing and maintaining a killer instinct killed many pilots.  It also lead to the death of men on the ground, who were sometimes shot by their fellow soldiers.

No one signing up for the First World War knew what they were getting into.  Some men's nerves broke.  They ran from battle, and when given a choice between returning to the front line or a firing squad, several chose the certain death of the squad over spending another second at the front.

Among the Canadians, many men felt that, as an army of volunteers, they should not be subject to the ultimate punishment.  If a man found his nerves could not handle the prolonged stress of war, many of his comrades felt sympathy for him, as their own nerves were often stretched to the breaking point.  A man who volunteered, and found he could not do the task required, should not be punished any further, thought many Canadians.  The British believed executing cowards was essential to maintaining order and discipline. While they may sympathize with some cases, they felt letting one deserter go free would only encourage others to follow suit.  In order to maintain the maximum amount of discipline, soldiers would be executed by their fellow soldiers, as a lesson to all soldiers.

Soldiers were chosen from the condemned man's battalion.  Ten of them would be lead into a curtained off enclosure, while the rest of the battalion would be assembled outside.  Deward Barnes wrote of one such execution.

By this time the whole battalion was lined up outside so they could hear the shots and would learn a lesson about deserting. ... We got into position and were to fire straight, or we may have the same fate.  The prisoner was taken out of a car (we saw him get out, with a black cap over his head and guarded) and placed on the other side of the curtain.  After a while the provost marshall told us that the prisoner would not have anything to do with communion or the Church and all he asked is for us to shoot straight and make a good job of it.  We took our positions, five kneeling and five standing behind; the sergeant on one side, and the Officer on the other to give orders.  if we did not kill, the Officer would have to.  As soon as the curtain dropped (the prisoner was tied in a chair five paces away from us, with a black cap over his head and a big round disc over his heart) we got the order to fire.  One blank and nine live rounds.  It went off as one.  I did not have the blank.  The prisoner did not feel it.  His body moved when we fired, then the curtain went up.  That was the easiest way for an execution I had heard of.  The firing squad only saw him for a few minutes.  We went back to the Battalion Orderly Room and got a big tumbler of rum each, and went to our billets, ate, and went to bed.  We had the rest of the day off.  It was a job I never wanted.

Twenty three Canadians were executed for desertion or cowardice during the Great War, as an example to the other men.  The Australians, on the other hand, refused to allow any of their men to be shot and killed by decree.  The men at the time had little notion of what we today call Post Traumatic Stress disorder, and no treatment, only nine live rounds and a blank.  The executioners got some rum.

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