Suspension of Sentences Act | 16 Apr 1915

Desertion continues to be a major problem in the BEF, a recently-arrived cavalryman has what the paper might call a “Thrilling Adventure” at Hill 60, and Sir Ian Hamilton continues being casually racist.

Suspension of Sentences Act

February had seen a peak of desertions, with over 3,000 men informally departing the Army. For the last couple of months, this has dropped back to about 2,600 per month. Someone back at HQ has had a bright idea, and emergency legislation has been rushed through Parliament. As we’ve mentioned earlier, most men sentenced to death for military crimes subsequently had their sentences commuted, and many more were never sentenced to death at all. In the early months of the war, a lot of them ended up being imprisoned, sometimes with hard labour. There’s an undercurrent of feeling that even hard labour on bread and water is far preferable to dying horribly in pain with your arm missing or your guts hanging out.

So we have the Suspension of Sentences Act. This provides that any sentence of imprisonment from now onwards will be automatically suspended for the duration of the war. Desertion and other military crimes will no longer be an either-way safe bet to get out of the trenches. There are also provisions in the Act that good and distinguished conduct will earn reductions or the quashing of a man’s sentence. As long as you’re comfortable with the idea of legislation that sends more people to the trenches, this is a good and effective idea.

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Hill 60

Trooper Mason belongs to the 1/1st Yorkshire Hussars, and has only recently arrived on the Continent. Even before getting near the Ypres salient, a stop for water at Hazebrouck gave him something to remember about war.

There were some taps in the station yard. Oh Christ! I started to walk among wounded soldiers on the ground. Bloody terrible. Some fellows with arms off – and the blood! All their clothes were soaked in blood. There were dozens of them waiting. I wanted to be sick, seeing all these poor buggers, some of them with their faces bashed and all. I’d never seen anything like it. It frightened me half to death, I don’t mind saying. … But, after a fortnight you got hardened to it, that’s the funny thing.

He’s since been moved up to the British line opposite Hill 60. Cavalrymen usually didn’t take stints in the trenches like the infantry did. They functioned as a combination of floating divisional reserve, emergency Polyfilla in case of a local attack, and adventurers whenever a difficult job needed doing in No Man’s Land. (In theory, they were also in constant readiness to exploit a breakthrough after an attack. In theory.)

There’s a difficult job needs doing. After dark for the last several nights, strange clanging and banging noises have been heard floating across No Man’s Land. Several cavalry patrols are being sent out tonight to investigate.

Our object was to get a prisoner, if possible. It was very, very nervous work, crawling about in No Man’s Land. Captain Foster said, “If anybody has the slightest suspicion that he has a cough, he’s not going.” Thank God he had that rule. One night he went out carelessly with a luminous wristwatch…

Their objective is to cross the Ypres to Poelcapelle road, and then listen.

Our password was “Yorkshire”, the answer was “Hussar”. No German of the highest intelligence would ever expect to meet a cavalryman in No Man’s Land, would they? … I didn’t even get across the road, because some bugger coughed! We knew it was a German. Immediately, one or two bombs went over from our lads. I knew what to do straight away, the arrangement was that if anybody coughs, throw a bomb where the sound came from. That was my first occasion where I had to kill people.

Captain Foster and Tommy Armond scurried back as quick as a flash to get away from it, and when the Very light went up there were about thirty buggers there waiting for us! It was the luckiest escape in the world. When you’re in a position like that, you lose all sense of direction. You’ve just got to lie quiet for a bit, and wonder which direction you should go in. We could easily have walked straight into the German trenches! As it was, we were lying near enough to hear that clanging. Plain as a pikestaff.

And about four or five days after that, they let the gas off.

Dramatic chords, shocked expressions, fade to black.

Gallipoli

Having come up with a concept for operations, Sir Ian Hamilton’s role in planning the details is now limited to signing off (or not) on the ideas of his staff. Over the last couple of days, this has left him with plenty of exciting opportunities to show us the thoughts expected of a man of Empire.

Colonel Dick, King’s Messenger, has arrived bringing letters up to 3rd instant. Or rather, he was supposed to have brought them, and it was hoped the abundance of his intelligence would have borne some relation to the cost of his journey,—about £80 it has been reckoned. As a matter of fact, apart from some rubbish, he brings one letter for me; none for any of the others. Not even a file of newspapers; not even a newspaper!

He does bring some complaints from London about how slowly everything is going, which annoys him. Incidentally, if the estimate of £80 is correct, that’d be about £8,250 in today’s terms. (A luxury cruise to Istanbul from London these days costs about £4,000-£6,000.) He has some justified responses about how ridiculous it is of the War Office to expect him to invade immediately after arriving in theatre. And then, once again, just in case you were in danger of feeling sympathy for the man…

Worked all day in my office like a nigger and by mid-day had got almost as black as my simile! We are coaling and life has grown dark and noisy. … After lunch went ashore and saw parties of Australians at embarking and disembarking drill. Colonel Paterson, the very man who bear-led me on tour during my Australian inspection, was keeping an eye on the “Boys.” The work of the Australians and Senegalese gave us a good object lesson of the relative brain capacities of the two races.

Of course, there are absolutely no other explanations for the Australians being better at all this. None at all. Perish the thought. Ahem. Today, Hamilton invites a civilian over so the Ottomans don’t miss their chance of being condescended at.

Spent the forenoon in interviews beginning at 10 a.m. with de Robeck and Mr. Fitzmaurice, late dragoman at the Embassy at Constantinople. Mr. Fitzmaurice says the Turks will put up a great fight at the Dardanelles. They had believed in the British Navy, and, a month ago, they were shaking in their shoes. But they had not believed in the British Army or that a body so infinitely small would be so saucy as to attack them on their own chosen ground. Even now, he says, they can hardly credit their spies, or their eyes, and it ought to be easy enough to make them think all this is a blind, and that we are really going to Smyrna or Adramiti. They are fond of saying, “If the English are fools enough to enter our mouth we only have to close it.”

Yeah, I wonder why they’re so confident about things? I surely cannot riddle it out in the slightest.

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Further Reading

I have a Twitter account, @makersley, which you can follow to be notified of updates and get all my retweets of weird and wonderful First World War things.

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. Worth a look. I’m reading the paper every day, and it’s where the content for Our Advertising Feature comes from.

(If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide.)

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