Review: Deserters of the First World War: The Home Front, Yorkshire, UK

Author: Andrea Hetherington

Publisher: Pen & Sword Military, 2021

Review by Peter L. Belmonte

Publisher’s summary: The story of First World War deserters who were shot at dawn, then pardoned nearly a century later has often been told, but these 306 soldiers represent a tiny proportion of deserters. More than 80,000 cases of desertion and absence were tried at courts martial on the home front but these soldiers have been ignored. Andrea Hetherington, in this thought-provoking and meticulously researched account, sets the record straight by describing the deserters who disappeared from camps and barracks within Great Britain at an alarming rate. She reveals how they employed a range of survival strategies, some ridding themselves of all connection with the military while others hid in plain sight. Their reasons for desertion varied. Some were already living a life of crime whilst others were conscientious objectors who refused to respond to their call-up papers. Boredom, protest, troubles at home or physical and mental disabilities all played their part in men deciding to go on the run. Andrea Hetherington’s timely book gives us a vivid insight into a hitherto overlooked aspect of the First World War.

Most histories of the Great War concentrate on campaigns, battles, or personalities. Soldiers are portrayed, generally, as men trying to do their duty to the best of their ability. However, there was another side to that story, and Andrea Hetherington, an independent researcher and writer who specializes in the social history of the war, tells that story in this book. During World War I “the net loss to the British and Dominion forces” through desertion was 70,189 (p. 2). According to the author, “[t]he truth is that desertion and absence were an everyday part of army life and of the experience of many thousands of British and Dominion soldiers” (p. 2). In this book, Hetherington examines only those men who deserted on the home front (Britain), or those who deserted and made their way to the home front. The book is more than simply military history. Hetherington touches on social, labor, legal, and gender role history as she skillfully brings those areas into scrutiny. By doing so, Hetherington gives us excellent examples and reasons behind the motivations for men (and women) to desert in time of war.

The author arranges the chapters topically, and each chapter is liberally sprinkled with examples and case histories of varying depth. Following an introduction to the topic the author describes British military law regarding desertion and the less serious, but closely related, offense of absenteeism. There was a blurry, fine line between them, and Hetherington describes how they were related. Not all deserters were cowards, although certainly very many were. Hetherington stresses that this is not “a book about cowardice, but about the conflict between military law and human nature” (p. 6).

Another chapter covers the volunteer army and troubles at training camps. Hetherington feels that many of the men who enlisted in 1914 and 1915 were laborers who were used to “downing tools” and walking off the worksite when conditions did not measure up to what was promised. Such men, many of whom were miners in civilian life, then followed this practice with the military equivalent of a civilian labor strike: desertion. In the next chapter, Hetherington examines the “types” of deserters as categorized by psychiatrists of the time. Interestingly, a new type of deserter emerged during the war: those men who deserted their unit to join a different unit in order to get to the front more quickly. The author also devotes space to women soldiers who deserted during the war.

Another chapter looks at the few cases where men were arrested in Britain and “shot at dawn.” In it, Hetherington discusses the differing circumstances that might result in a death sentence. In the end, she concludes that “it was the sheer arbitrary nature of the application of the ultimate punishment which acted as the real aid to military discipline” (p. 61).

In one chapter, the author discusses how the law against aiding and harboring known deserters was enforced. Her examples shed light on the actions of parents and wives, including some women who shielded deserters while their own husbands were at the front. Another chapter concerns the lure of more lucrative employment for potential soldier-deserters. Still another chapter is devoted to “Scamps in Khaki.” The litany of offenses committed by these deserters staggers the imagination and would otherwise cause one to admire the heights of human imagination. In this case, however, it merely confirms the ill-used creativity of some men. Some men posed as wounded veterans and thereby received sympathy and donations from grateful citizens. Scams included collecting money from poorer people as a “down payment” for British surplus coal to be issued at discounted rates for the needy, stealing and reselling bicycles, obtaining loans or issuing fraudulent checks, posing as an officer to attract women, impersonating soldiers and deceiving even family members, etc. Along these lines, the actions of some men can be described only as reprehensible

Hetherington also discusses the separate issue of Irish soldiers and the issues concerning conscription and men involuntarily drafted into military service. In a chapter aptly titled “Wild Colonial Boys,” the author covers Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders. In addition to desertion, offenses such as bigamy and fraud seemed to be popular with the Dominion troops who found distance from their home a convenient buffer to avoid detection. The final chapter covers the postwar push for various schemes to pardon or grant amnesty to men in who had run afoul of military law. This was no easy task; seemingly every plan had at least two sides and numerous influential supporters and detractors.

Twenty-one illustrations and photographs compliment the narrative. Included in these are contemporary postcards from the author’s collection that allow us to get a feel for the times. Helpful endnotes and an extensive bibliography round out the book. This is an interesting and very readable addition to the historiography of the soldiers of the Great War; it is highly recommended to those interested in the British forces and in the social and military history of England during the war.

About the Reviewer: Peter L. Belmonte is a retired U.S. Air Force officer, author, and historian. A veteran of Operation Desert Storm, he holds a master’s degree in history from California State University, Stanislaus. He has published articles, book chapters, reviews, and papers about immigration and military history. Pete’s books include: Italian Americans in World War II (Arcadia, 2001), Days of Perfect Hell: The U.S. 26th Infantry Regiment in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, October-November, 1918 (Schiffer, 2015), Forgotten Soldiers of World War I: America’s Immigrant Doughboys (with Alexander F. Barnes, Schiffer, 2018), Play Ball! Doughboys and Baseball during the Great War (with co-authors Alexander F. Barnes and Samuel O. Barnes, Schiffer Books, 2019), and Chicago-Area Italians in World War I: A Case Study of Calabrians (Fonthill Media/Arcadia Publishing, 2019). He is also working on a multi-volume history of Italian Americans in World War I. You may see his books at his webpage: https://www.amazon.com/author/peter.belmonte

Leave a Comment

You have to agree to the comment policy.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.