- Death or Deliverance: Canadian Courts Martial in the Great War by Teresa Iacobelli
The general public’s perception of an innocent World War I conscript soldier being railroaded by an unfair military justice system and “shot at dawn” by a firing squad is indeed a misperception. “Rather than being meted out by unyielding and callous generals,” military law was flexible and even showed compassion for soldiers. This is the key theme of Teresa Iacobelli’s book. Having methodically analysed archived records of soldiers of the Canadian Expeditionary Force who were court-martialled and sentenced to death for desertion, the author found that about 90 per cent of those 203 offenders saw their obligatory death sentences commuted.
The author’s interest in this subject comes from recent campaigns in the United Kingdom and Canada advocating for retroactive pardons for these soldiers. Her methodology is to access primary sources, in particular court-martial records and personal files, in order to go beyond public history. In chapter one she reviews various representations in the popular media and academic literature on the subject. She identifies a trend depicting World War I military justice as egregious. She acknowledges in chapter two that, to our modern eyes, British military law was harsh as it was more concerned with “discipline, obedience and order” than justice. She points out, however, that in comparison with the existing civilian justice system, it was ahead of its time. In chapter three she explains that desertion was considered an offence serious enough to merit death sentences. The author found, however, that many desertions were not the result of poorly prepared conscripts panicking before going “over the top”; deserters were most of the time good, but mentally exhausted, volunteer soldiers taking a chance to avoid exposure to the slaughter of the trenches. In chapter four the author describes the court-martial process, which usually resulted in a conviction. That fact raises concerns, such as fairness, but these are not portrayed as negatively as in many modern critiques. In chapter five she explains the confirmation process following sentencing, during which senior commanders, taking into consideration overall battalion discipline and sometimes character and medical evidence, would usually commute the sentence. In the last chapter of her book, Iacobelli describes the pardon campaigns in the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Canada. She explains how activists based their actions on the negative view of World War I that developed during the 1960s. Beyond the various results they ultimately obtained after initially being rebuffed by authorities, those activists as well as some of their opponents exacerbated myths about the war.
Well written and documented, the book could be improved in some aspects. Researching the Judge Advocate General’s archives of that [End Page 383] period might have provided insights in areas where author herself admits that evidence is either absent or unclear, such as the pivotal factors considered in either commuting or confirming a sentence of death. In addition, the book would have benefited from a review by a jurist versed in military law, to better find and explain specific aspects of the military justice system at the time, in particular as opposed to its contemporaneous civilian counterpart. For example, although panel members and civilian jurors were non-lawyers, civilian trials by jury of accused persons facing a death sentence were always presided over by a judge who would manage evidence and provide instructions in law, whereas the presence of a legally trained judge advocate at field general courts martial was optional.
Overall, the author has provided a major contribution to Canadian military legal history, in particular from a methodological standpoint. Being mindful of public history misconceptions about Canadian military justice during World War I, she invites us to first look at law in the books by reading statutes, regulations, and manuals. Then she depicts an accurate view of law in the field by seeking all relevant and available records to determine the outcome of the legal processes. Such a methodological approach might not bring—as the author puts it—the...