Penalty for desertion

My grandfather was born in 1865 (we have a long time between generations in our family) and was a Church of England clergyman. During the First World War he worked for a while as a volunteer in a reception centre for the walking wounded returning from the front. He left a diary of his experience there in which he noted some of his conversations with returning soldiers.

When we read the Iliad we enjoy the action and get caught up in the battles but despite all the Homer’s efforts we often miss the sheer horror of the war. We can feel this horror more when the war is closer at hand. The following is an extract from his dairy and then I have some quotes from Homer and Josephus.

Wednesday August 15 1917

A few days ago I was talking to a man about going over the top. He said the officer counted with a watch in his hand and a the right moment all had to go out together. If a man did not go he was regarded by the men and the officers as a coward and now cowardice and desertion are punishable by death.

The man had his helmet turned round back to front so that it could not be told who he was. He was clothed in a kind of black smock and there was a white patch over his heart. Six men had rifles, most of them loaded with blank cartridges so that it would not be known who hit the man. The soldier did not know whether it was right or not but it was done to maintain discipline. He said that when men go over the top they have “the name” on their lips and he was not ashamed to say that he had often gone down on his knees in the trenches to pray.

First harsh military discipline has always been a feature of war. The soldiers in the First World War would have had the dubious benefit of never knowing whether it was them who had actually shot someone who may have been a close comrade. Not so the Homeric soldiers who killed those shirking the war. Here Agamemnon speaks before the troops engage in battle.

ὃν δέ κ᾽ ἐγὼν ἀπάνευθε μάχης ἐθέλοντα νοήσω
μιμνάζειν παρὰ νηυσὶ κορωνίσιν, οὔ οἱ ἔπειτα
ἄρκιον ἐσσεῖται φυγέειν κύνας ἠδ᾽ οἰωνούς.

If I see any man loitering by the beaked ships away from the battle line, he will have no means to escape the dogs and birds.

Iliad 2.391

Again in time of war whether a man is a believer or not he will turn to the divine for help in the desperate situation of war.

ἄλλος δ᾽ ἄλλῳ ἔρεζε θεῶν αἰειγενετάων
εὐχόμενος θάνατόν τε φυγεῖν καὶ μῶλον Ἄρηος.

Each man made his sacrifices to one of the gods praying to escape death and the horrors of war.

Iliad 2.400

Another view of discipline is given when Titus states the Roman position in the Jewish War.

οἱ νόμοι δ᾽ ἀεὶ καὶ τοὺς βραχύ τι τῆς τάξεως παρακινήσαντας θανάτῳ κολάζουσιν, νῦν δ᾽ ὅλην στρατιὰν ἑωράκασι λιποτάκτην.

Our laws punish those who move even the slightest bit from their position with death, but now they have seen the whole army breaking ranks.

Josephus the Jewish war 5 (124)

(Titus did not carry out his threat of death against this army after intercession of the other legions)

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2 Responses to Penalty for desertion

  1. Very interesting diary extract. I think the ease with which killing deserters is described by the ancients is due to the fact that, for the Greek and the Roman, manliness was intrinsically tied in to courage on the battlefield. The men of Greco-Roman era defined their collective and individual masculinity by their martial valor. Whereas in modern times, we have become more accepting of fear in the face of death. I’m sure the ancient warrior would feel just as much shame as the man waiting for the order to go “over the top”, but the ancient soldier would have felt more shame at the idea of giving in to that fear. This is a generalization of course, but I think it illustrates the point.


  2. platosparks says:

    Nowadays we are more accepting and we have greater understanding of the trauma that can be suffered in war. Back in Homeric times and even in the First World War attack or defence was only successful if everybody held their ranks. In a line of soldiers if one broke rank then the men other side of him would be in danger and would naturally feel resentment. This is why I suppose there was so great a penalty for cowardice.


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