Politics

Aum Shinryko: Japan’s largest execution since World War II?


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Japan, one of only two members of the G7 to retain capital punishment, the other is the US, has never liked publicity regarding its death penalty. Just as the British used to do until abolition, it’s shrouded in secrecy.

Even the condemned don’t know until shortly beforehand that their time has come. The public don’t know until after they’ve died and an official announcement is made. Until then, the condemned, the execution process and especially those who carry it out are hidden away, out of sight if not of mind.

Today’s mass execution has changed all that.

This morning Japan performed what is probably its largest mass execution since the war crimes trials after World War II. Seven members of the Aum Shinryko cult responsible for the Tokyo subway attack on March 20, 1995 were escorted from their cells one by one and dropped through the trapdoor at a Tokyo prison.

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One after another cult leader Shoko Asihara, Yoshihiro Inoue, Tomomitsu Niimi, Tomomasa Nakagawa, Kiyohie Hayakawa, Seiichi Endo and Masachi Tsuchiya were taken from their cells to the  trapdoor, strapped, hooded, noosed and dropped. Three prison officials pushed three buttons, only one of which released the trapdoor. Six more cult members are still awaiting the same fate.

Many, Japanese or not, would say it was justified. They’d littered Tokyo’s subway with packages of nerve agent Sarin, killing 13 people and injuring thousands. It wasn’t their first gas attack on their fellow citizens, they’d attempted a similar Sarin attack before and would try it with cyanide gas later. Even after today’s hanging of seven of them another six still remain on death row. All told, not prisoners likely to attract much, if any sympathy.

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Japan has long tried to keep its executions as secret as possible. Unlike the US where such criminals would attract more publicity than the biggest celebrities (at least around their executions), the Japanese like to keep it as discreet as possible. With a case like this, though, discretion is impossible. The attack was too notorious, the resulting executions were simply too big to hide.

Until recently Japan’s condemned were given no warning at all. They’d simply be roused if they were asleep, told it was time to go and within hours they’d be dead. Even Britain’s condemned knew their date and time beforehand. But Japan’s stance has softened a little in recent years. In 2010 Keiko Chiba, then Minister of Justice and an opponent of capital punishment, decided to stimulate debate by granting the media their first access to the death chamber itself. Traditionally, it’s also the Justice Minister’s responsibility to sign the death warrant formally beginning the execution process.

As in the US, capital justice moves slowly. Technically a prisoner should be hanged within six months of sentencing. In practice, prisoners have remained on death row for decades between sentencing and execution while appeals are heard, sometimes granted and  often dismissed. Once the Justice Minister puts pen to paper, however, it moves far more quickly.

For the remaining six cultists and the hundred or so other condemned inmates, every day could be their last. They just don’t know which day it will be.

 

On This Day in 1689; Judge Jeffreys, who gave them enough rope.


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It was on this day in 1689 that England marked the passing of former Lord Chief Justice and Lord Chancellor George Jeffreys, also the 1st Baron Jeffreys of Wem. The original ‘Hanging Judge,’ his name became a byword for bias, ruthlessness, callousness and cruelty.

Few would have mourned his passing.

Granted, he may have had the worst legacy of any English judge, but he  wasn’t quite as bad as he’s been painted. Before that, though, let’s look at his ‘finest (or darkest) hour, the notorious ‘Bloody Assizes.’

The Monmouth rebellion of 1685 had ended in failure and the destruction of the Duke of Monmouth’s ragtag army at the Battle of Sedgemoor in July, 1685. With the rebellion crushed and the threat with it, King James II could begin the backlash. It would prove a bloody backlash indeed.

The ‘Bloody Assizes’ were his response, a series of trials held in several towns in south-west England. With so many prisoners, James II’s vengeful desire to make examples and a mandatory death penalty for treason, they more than earned their name. Jeffreys was one of five judges appointed to preside at the assizes. With some 1400 prisoners condemned (of whom several hundred were actually executed), the assizes sent an unmistakable message to anyone who needed it;

Challenge the King’s right to rule and pay dearly for it.

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The ‘Bloody Assizes weren’t, however, unusual for their time. Treason was a capital crime and exemplary justice the norm. Failed rebels could expect exile if they ere lucky and, more likely, execution if they weren’t. The only middle ground was transportation to forced labour in some colony far enough from England that they could never trouble England again. But those were the exceptions, and there weren’t many of them.

Jeffreys was really no different to any other judge of his era. He saw his role as being a guardian of the system as it then stood and the laws of the time were simply the rules of the game. Traitors were to be harshly punished. Threats were to be ruthlessly weeded out, hunted down and destroyed. Jeffreys was simply an instrument of state policy.

He set to work with a fury, as though he was personally outraged by the very idea of rebellion. Hundreds were hanged, some were hung drawn and quartered. All those who died did so in public, in full view of anyone and everyone who might aspire to a rebel’s fame died a traitor’s death.

Jeffreys, as judges do today, had to work within the system as it then stood. Death was mandatory for traitors and, after the rebellion, many hundreds were deemed guilty. King James II, a man known to possess a vengeful streak when roused, also had to send his message both at home and abroad. Lenin later remarked that ‘Mercy is for the weak.’ James couldn’t afford even being seen to be weak, let alone indulge in weakness itself. In the social, political and diplomatic culture of the time, compassion for one’s enemies was almost invariably regarded as weakness. Punishment, brutality and making examples were the norm.

The King’s retribution roadshow passed through several south-western towns, trying and condemning as it went. Jeffreys attracted particular loathing, seen as delivering law rather than justice and not even-handedly at that. He built a legacy that, perhaps unfairly, lasts to this day. It was a legacy of cruelty, vengefulness, naked bias and sadism, as though he revelled in mass executions and enjoyed taking centre-stage. Given the historical context, this isn’t entirely fair to him. As lawyer Brian Harris, QC later described his handling of Alice Lisle’s trial;

“Given that Jeffreys had to administer a largely inchoate criminal procedure and impose the bloody sentences that the law then required, a balanced judgement would regard Jeffreys as no worse, perhaps even a little better than most other judges of his era.”

Not perhaps, the cruellest, harshest, most severe judge ever to hold court, but certainly the best-known English judge of his or any other era.

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It’s perhaps ironic that Jeffreys, who had given his life to law and order, should die in a cell like a common criminal, but die in a cell he did. Still, as befits a senior public figure, he did at least find himself incarcerated in a place as notorious as Jeffreys himself. James II fled the county after the Glorious Revolution and defeat at the Battle of the Boyne among other places. With his master and protector in exile, a backlash erupted against those best known for enforcing his rule. Jeffreys, naturally, was one of them.

While fleeing England and hoping to join James II in exile, Reputedly having disguised himself as a sailor, he was still recognised. Worse, it was by a former defendant who, having seen him up close while standing in the dock, was unlikely to forget or forgive his erstwhile judge’s excesses. Arrested for his own safety, Jeffreys was sent to the Tower in which he would later die.

Chronically ill, Jeffreys finally succumbed to kidney disease on April 18, 1689. He wasn’t much missed, nor has history been kind to him, but the dreaded ‘Hanging Judge’ has never been forgotten.

 

Sparky’s Revenge; South Carolina considers reinstating the electric chair.


So, the State of South Carolina (previously responsible for executing then exonerating 14-year old George Stinney)   is considering dusting off Old Sparky. Difficulties in obtaining lethal injection drugs have caused a backlog on Death Row. South Carolina has numerous condemned inmates, wants to start executing them, but can’t obtain the legally-approved means to do it.

A number of drug companies (Pfizer among others), no longer sell drugs for the purpose of executing people. Negative publicity has affected their bottom line, so it’s simply unprofitable to keep doing so. European drug companies also face the European Union’s declared opposition to the death penalty and have felt pressured into withdrawing their supply.

One of the reasons for introducing lethal injection in the first place was, its supporters claimed, to provide a more humane (or less inhumane) method to replace the gas chambers, gallows, firing squads and electric chairs once so popular in dispensing death on demand. This also helped sidestep legal challenges to executions, particularly those citing the 8th Amendment outlawing cruel and unusual punishment. That wasn’t a problem for the pro-execution lobby, either.

That discussing more humane methods allows some legislators and supporters to evade discussing executions per se is no great secret. From the pro lobby point of view it’s often easier to avoid debating abolition simply by diverting attention to killing them nicely instead. A debatable concept if ever there was one, but a useful dodge when needed.

Despite lethal injection being introduced (allegedly) to make death more humane, it seems several states are quite willing to discuss reinstating the same methods they cited as outdated and passe. As its boosters claimed at the time, lethal injection would do away with horrific spectacles like those of James Wells in Arkansas’s electric chair or Donald Harding in Arizona’s gas chamber. Botches like that of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma have already proved it every bit as unreliable a method as any other. Prisoners still die, granted, but not always quickly, cleanly or humanely.

Part of South Carolina’s problem (aside from the drug boycott) lies in its own execution laws. Lethal injection is the norm unless an inmate specifically chooses electrocution and (rather inconveniently) inmates aren’t choosing to ride the lightning. Unless they do, lethal injection is the only available method under State law.

The  combination of the drug shortage and intransigent inmates has led Republican State Senator William Timmons to champion a return to Sparky’s revenge instead. The idea is currently in committee at the State Senate and will be discussed further. Timmons is also pushing for a ‘shield law’ to stop identification of drug companies supplying lethal injection drugs in an effort to encourage new suppliers.

South Carolina is the latest in a long line of States to reinstate defunct methods or consider doing so. Virginia’s Governor vetoed restoring the electric chair, but allowed secretly importing execution drugs instead. Tennessee has already returned Old Sparky to active service. One Missouri legislator called for a return to their gas chamber. Oklahoma is considering using a nitrogen gas chamber instead of cyanide.

Nebraska was caught trying import generic drugs not approved by the Federal Drug Administration, as was Arizona. Other States including Ohio and Texas have been warned about similar efforts.The thought of an inmate giggling their way into the grave does seem off-putting at best. The irony of killing to protect the sanctity of human life and uphold the law by breaking it seems lost on them. By cloaking drug suppliers in anonymity the ‘shield law’ makes such abuses easier.

The attitude of the pro-death lobby seems to be hardening under pressure from abolitionists and increasing public opposition. From once touting lethal injection as more  humane than electrocution, gas, shooting or hanging,  the new attitude is blunter and more hard-line;

‘If we can’t kill in the way we touted as better, we’ll simply kill with something worse.’

 

 

 

 

Albert Pierrepoint – Master Hangman.


 Albert Pierrepoint, King of the swingers.


Albert Pierrepoint, King of the swingers.

.Public Executioner. It’s not what you’d call an everyday profession. Unusual? Certainly. Skilled? Absolutely. Dark and scary? Well, it depends on why you fancy the job, really. But it’s certainly not the sort of work that most people would consider a life’s ambition or the family business unless you happen to be Albert Pierrepoint. Albert really wanted the job and even wrote a school essay on how much he fancied doing it, possibly because his uncle and father were hangmen as well and he ended up working with his uncle quite a few times. Albert ended up having legally killed more people (at least 435 men and 17 women) than any half-dozen British serial killers combined and then, having ‘topped’ that many people (as he so quaintly put it) the ‘Master Hangman’ (as he so modestly called himself) had a sudden revelation that killing people to demonstrate that killing is wrong slightly failed any semblance of logic or common sense. Which was bit late for him (after 25 years in the job) and ever so slightly late for the 450 or so people that dear Albert referred to as his ‘customers’ (although the complaints department phone never rang, for some reason utterly unrelated to their all being dead).

 The 'Execution Box' containing the tools of Albert's grisly trade.


The ‘Execution Box’ containing the tools of Albert’s grisly trade.

For our diminutive death merchant (he was a little chap, only about five feet and six inches tall) stringing people up wasn’t a sordid, grim, depressing affair that most people wouldn’t touch with a bargepole. It was a skilled and potentially dangerous ‘craft’ at which he liked to excel with his speed and skill. British hangmen had an unofficial competition to hold unofficial records for the fastest and cleanest killings possible. Sort of a ‘Death Race’ if you like. Albert managed to ‘top’ his rivals (not literally) when he executed a prisoner and took only 7 seconds from start to finish. 7 seconds. Not even long enough to say ‘Good Morning, Mr. Pierrepoint’ before his latest dance partner was doing the hangman’s hornpipe before a bevy of (somewhat stunned) local dignitaries. Still, it was Albert’s job to make things go with a swing, when you think about it.

 Where the bottom fell out of their world.


Where the bottom fell out of their world.

Albert was always somewhat irked by the miserly pay for what he considered a skilled and potentially dangerous profession. The pay for the job was, frankly, lousy. It was a small amount that was only paid half before a job and half after and if a prisoner’s sentence was commuted then the executioners weren’t paid anything at all, not even travel expenses. Albert often went from one end of the UK to another and came home penniless and that was why he quit the job in 1956, leaving the authorities to go hang, as it were. It didn’t matter to the powers-that-be that their master butcher ended up out of pocket, just as long as they saved some cash as well as saving a prisoner’s neck (literally).

 You weren't paid a thing if they didn't have to swing.


You weren’t paid a thing if they didn’t have to swing.

Still, Albert’s job did have its lighter side. He owned a pub when he wasn’t travelling round the country performing his famous rope trick and it had an amusingly appropriate name all things considered. His pub was named ‘Help the Poor Struggler’, something Albert had made a career out of. It’s even said there was an appropriate sign dangling over the beer pumps, presumably for the benefit of more tardy customers, which read ‘No Hanging Round the Bar.’

 Albert was a professional until the last drop.


Albert was a professional until the last drop.

Albert even found time to become an unwilling celebrity. He’d always kept his ‘craft’ a secret from anybody who didn’t absolutely need to know (it tends to invite a certain amount of unhealthy curiosity when you say you kill people for a living, after all). But his best efforts to stay out of the limelight ended courtesy of World War Two when it was publicly announced that he’d be popping over to Germany to perform his rope trick on over 200 Nazis. Not surprisingly in 1945 this made him a pretty popular chap all round. His amusingly-named pub did more business than ever as voyeurs turned up in droves just to look at him, get their photos taken with him, buy him pints of beer (which he kept behind the bar and sold back to other customers) and simply so they could say they’d shaken hands with the ‘Genial hangman’ as he became known.

Albert resigned in 1956 in a dispute over money. As usual, he’d been engaged to execute Thomas Bancroft, a murderer of no particular note, gone to Walton Prison at his own expense and then Bancroft was reprieved with only 12 hours to spare. Albert, tired of being stuck with travel and hotel bills, demanded that his superiors pay his expenses and they refused. So he quit as he’d rather be dropping convicts than dropping cash every time an inmate’s lawyer managed to get them off. His bosses begged and pleaded (they didn’t have anyone else who could do the job as well as Albert and you could call him ‘Top of the drops’ really) but he held firm and even refused their oh-so-kind invitation to go back on their list and continue providing cut-price carnage on their behalf. He finally turned against his former occupation (a bit late for himself and certainly far too late for 450 convicts) and later said that the death penalty achieved nothing but revenge.

Which was nice…

The Brits Who Fought For Hitler.


Insignia of the ‘British Free Corps’, former prisoners-of-war who enlisted in the infamous Waffen SS.

The SS motto – ‘My honour is loyalty.’

 

As a freelance scribbler and long-time student of military history I love finding the more overlooked or forgotten aspects of the subject. For instance, the popular narrative of the Second World War holds that the British people pulled together, fighting as one for a common cause.

Erm, not exactly.

While British troops and the vast majority of the British public did rally round, a tiny handful didn’t. Some turned traitor for money. The notorious ‘£18 traitor’ Duncan Scott-Ford (not one of Plymouth’s favourite sons), was hanged at Wandsworth Prison in November, 1942 for selling convoy information to German Intelligence at a bargain discount. For others the shift was ideological. They were in it for the cause, such as Wiliam Joyce (AKA ‘Lord HAW Haw’ and star of Nazi propaganda broadcast) and John Amery, founder of the ‘British Free Corps.’

The BFC were British troops, former prisoners-of-war, recruited in their camps by the Waffen SS. The BFC was originally Amery’s idea but, given his recruitment efforts were farcically unsuccessful, the unit was turned over to the Waffen SS in the hope that they would run it better than Amery (not difficult). Amery’s original idea was to recruit thousands of British prisoners ranging from committed Nazis and Fascists to disaffected soldiers, those whose anti-Communism outweighed their patriotism and so on.

Recruiting foreigners into the SS wasn’t nearly as rare as you might think. Scandanavia produced the ‘Viking’ Division, there were several thousand Indians possibly motivated by Indian nationalism, a Muslim division active in the former Yugoslavia and even Russian prisoners choosing to enlist. Far from an entirely Nazi unit with strict racial and religious selection criteria, the SS were far more flexible than many might believe.

With their previous success at recruiting foreigners, the SS thought that recruiting British traitors would be equally fruitful. It wasn’t. The BFC never had more than 27 members at any time and only 60 or so ever joined at all. Many who did claimed later that they joined either to escape or to gather intelligence and desert at the earliest opportunity. Throughout its (mercifully brief) existence the BFC never numbered a platoon, let alone a corps.

The BFC didn’t last long, either. Originally named the ‘Legion of Saint George’, recruitment started under Amery in 1943. Thousands of leaflets were delivered to POW camps all over the crumbling Third Reich. Recruiters like Amery visited camps, dishing out gifts accompanied by their sales pitch. The sales pitch appealed more to anti-Communism than outright Nazi or Fascist sympathies and, like the BFC itself, recruitment never really achieved anything. It achieved so little that Amery was replaced as recruiter in late 1943 and the unit handed over to the Waffen SS. By 1944 it was obvious to any British prisoner that the war was already lost and it was only months before the ‘Thousand Year Reich’ would collapse. Even if there were many receptive prisoners they were highly unlikely to join an already-defeated side when they could simply wait for liberation, rather than risk being killed in action or captured and hanged as traitors.

Enduring the POW camps was painful. Albert Pierrepoint’s rope was worse.

Recruitment wasn’t confined solely to British prisoners. Canadians, New Zealanders, Australians and others were approached. Only a handful ever enlisted, many who enlisted didn’t stay for more than a few days before returning to their camps. Very often, they simply signed up for a few days of forbidden pleasures (beer and prostitutes being the most popular) before deciding it wasn’t for them. The supposed Corps never even reached platoon strength at its largest.

Nazi and traitor John Amery, founder of the British Free Corps.

John Amery, like the ‘Cambridge Spies’ after the war, was an unlikely traitor. He was the son of one of Churchill’s War Cabinet, Leo Amery (then Secretary of State for India). His brother Julian did excellent wartime service in the British Army and, after John was condemned, did his best to secure clemency. Decades afterward he still refused to discuss his brother. John Amery was an arch-imperialist, a raving anti-Semite, an equally raving anti-Communist and a traitor. His far-right beliefs led him to claim he’d run guns to General Franco during the Spanish Civil War (this was a lie, but gained widespread belief). After bankruptcy in 1936 he moved to France, briefly visited Spain, became further embroiled in Nazi collaboration while living in Vichy France and made propaganda broadcasts for Nazi radio during the Second World War. His final treachery was forming the British Free Corps. He was, according to British upper-class stereotypes, the last person expected to turn traitor.

But his family connections, his fictional gun-running for Franco (still ruling Spain at the time) and his brother’s efforts to gain clemency didn’t save him. Amery was captured by Italian partisans weeks before the German surrender and handed over to the British for trial on a charge of high treason. High treason carried a mandatory sentence, death by hanging. At first Amery tried to claim Spanish citizenship, arguing that as a naturalised Spaniard he was no longer British so couldn’t be tried for treason. His lies caught up with him. The Spanish government denied Amery had smuggled them weapons during the civil war. They also confirmed that Amery had taken some steps towards Spanish citizenship, but not all of them. Legally, Amery was still British. His defence simply didn’t exist.

Amery knew it. In an almost-unheard of move he stood before Justice Humphries at the Old Bailey on November 28, 1945 and pled guilty. Humphries warned Amery of the mandatory death sentence before accepting the plea. Amery refused to change his mind. The trial lasted only 8 minutes before Humphries donned the ‘black cap’, a square of black silk traditionally placed on a judge’s wig before a death sentence.

Humphries spoke briefly and bluntly:

“John Amery… I am satisfied that you knew what you did and that you did it intentionally and deliberately after you had received warning from your fellow countrymen that the course you were pursuing amounted to high treason. They called you a traitor and you heard them; but in spite of that you continued in that course. You now stand a self-confessed traitor to your King and country, and you have forfeited your right to live.”

“The sentence of this Court is that you will be taken from this place to a lawful prison and then to a place of execution where you shall be hanged by the neck until you are dead and that afterward your body will be cut down and buried withing the precincts of the prison in which you were last confined before execution. And may the Lord have mercy upon your soul.”

“Remove the prisoner…”

Final Destination: The gallows at Wandsworth Prison where Amery met his end

Amery’s brother Julian did his best for a reprieve. There was no chance of that. In 1945 the public mood was vengeful, especially towards homegrown traitors. At 9am on December 19, 1945, John Amery took his final walk. It was brief, seven steps from condemned cell to gallows. He walked firmly, unaided, as the prison clock started chiming the hour. By the time the chimes stopped, Amery was dead. It took only seconds. Chief executioner Albert Pierrepoint and his assistant Henry Critchell had achieved their usual speed and precision. After hanging for the traditional hour to absolutely ensure death, Amery was cut down. A post-mortem was performed and he was buried, as was traditional, in an unmarked grave within Wandsworth Prison.

Oddly enough, it was Albert Pierrepoint who complimented Amery’s courage at the end. In an article written for the ‘Empire News and Sunday Chronicle’ but not published after official pressure, Pierrepoint described Amery as ‘The bravest man I ever hanged.’ Considering Amery’s Nazi beliefs, his treachery and that Pierrepoint hanged 433 men and 17 women in his career, perhaps the most positive thing about John Amery’s life was the manner in which he met his death.

Armistice Day: Triumphant For Some, Tragedy For Others.


Wilfred Owen, best-known of the ‘war poets.’

At 11am on November 11, 1918 the ‘War to end all wars’ was finally over. The guns ceased fire, the men in the trenches could, if they wanted, walk around in No-Man’s-and without fear of death or injury and the British people could finally celebrate the end of what was at the time the most destructive conflict in human history. In England the church bells, silent since August 4, 1914, began to ring all over the country. Anybody who didn’t absolutely have to be doing anything else was out celebrating. The nightmare was finally over.

But not everybody had reason to celebrate. Those who had lost relatives and friends were still in mourning, many houses were still decorated in black as a mark of respect to family members killed in action. Some, including the family of celebrated war poet Wilfred Owen, would answer the door to a Post Office messenger bearing a telegram sent by the War Office informing them that, on this day of all days, a relative had been killed in action. For these families November 11 would forever be a day for mourning, not for celebrating.

Wilfred Owen volunteered in 1915 for the ‘Artist’s Rifle Officer Training Corps’ for seven months of training and was commissioned in 1916 into the Manchester Regiment with the rank of 2nd Lieutenant (probationary). There was nothing unusual about that, newly-commissioned 2nd Lieutenants were in plentiful supply by then and there were always new ones joining the British Army. There had to be, the life expectancy of a new 2nd Lieutenant on the Western Front usually averaged a few weeks. Owen was luckier than many of them, he survived three years. But he wasn’t lucky enough to survive the First World War.

After enlistment in 1915 Owen was deployed to the Western Front with the Manchesters. At first Owen heartily disliked the men under his command. He despised what he considered their loutish, boorish, obnoxious behaviour and attitudes. What changed his mind was serving with those men in the tranches. Owen was traumatised by his first tour of duty. He was horrified by the casualties and narrowly escaped death several times, eading to his being diagnosed with what doctors of the time called ‘neurasthenia.’ The troops gave the condition a name that has passed into the English language. They called it ‘shell shock.’

Owen was transferred back to Britain for treatment and spent months recovering at Craiglockhart military hospital in Scotland. Craiglockhart was a stately home with beautiful gardens, constant peace and quiet and dedicated staff and facilities to treat traumatised soldiers. Psychiatry and psychology being relatively new medical specialities (repairing the human mind is never an exact science anyway) the treatments may sometimes have seemed primitive or rough and ready. But the staff did their best and the surroundings were perfect for trying to soothe the nerves and repair the mental damage of front line service. It was at Craiglockhart that Owen met his literary mentor and fellow war poet Siegried Sassoon, himself being treated for ‘shell shock.’ It was an encounter that would change Owen’s life and legacy forever.

Sassoon realised that Owen was a talented poet and encouraged him to write poetry centred around the war, its effect on human being generally and on Owen himself. Owen had been a poet before the war, but it was at Craiglockhart, with Sassoon’s advice and guidance, that his literary legacy began. Owen also made a number of friends in the literary and artistic scene in the nearby city of Glasgow which helped shape and mature his talent. By November 1916 he was passed fit enough to return to light duty, spending the winter of 1916 in the northern English town of Scarborough before being posted in march 1918 to the Northern Command Depot at Ripon. His time at Scarborough and Ripon was perhaps the most creative of his life and he either wrote or revised some of his best work during that period. But Owen felt a pressing need to return to front line action. He abhorred war, but felt terrible guilt at being in a safe posting while men died in their thousands each day on the Western Front. So, at the end of August, 1918, he finally secured a posting as a platoon commander with the Manchester Regiment and arrived in France to finish out the war. From his arrival in France Wilfred Owen had just nine weeks to live.

Owen fought with the Manchesters right through until his death. He distinguished himself as a brave and, equally important, competent officer who never expected his men to do things that he himself wouldn’t do and had the military skill to carry out orders with the minimum casualties among his men. He was the kind of officer who could always be found in the thick of the fighting alongside the men he commanded which, during heavy fighting around Joncourt in October, 1918, saw him awarded the Military Cross although he didn’t live to collect it. On November 4, 1918, one week before the Armistice, his bravery and loyalty to his men would prove fatal.

The Manchesters had been ordered to cross the Sambre-Oise Canal and Owen, as usual, was in the thick of the fighting, leading his men by example. On November 4, 1918, almost one week to the very hour before the Armistice began, 2nd Lieutenant Wilfred Owen (posthumously promoted to Lieutenant Wilfred Owen, MC) was cut down by a burst of machine gun fire as he was rallying his men. He was only 25 years old. According to his nephew Peter Owen, Wilfred’s mother received the dreaded telegram as church bells rang in celebration on on the morning of November 11, 1918.

It was Armistice Day.

 

 

 

War, Remembrance And Puerile Politicians


B Company of the 8th Battalion, Royal East Surrey Regiment, making their ‘Football Charge’ on July 1, 1916, beginning the Battle of the Somme.

 

At 7:30am on July 1, 1916, Captain Wilfred Nevill led his company ‘over the top’ to start the Battle of the Somme. July 1, 1916 is still the darkest day in British military history, the British Army sustaining 57,000 casualties that day alone. The Somme was only one of many horrendous battles while the war itself became a byword for all that is dreadful about warfare in general. Captain Nevill became an overnight celebrity, but never lived to enjoy it. Like so many others he was killed in action.

I chose the image because the First World War spawned Remembrance Day, what we British now often call ‘Poppy Day’ as its symbol is the red poppy, about the only plant that still grew on the quagmires of the Western Front. Unfortunately, ‘Poppy Day’ is increasingly a political football. Should people wear a poppy or not? Should people make a special effort on Remembrance Day or not? Should doing either be obligatory or optional?

It seems to depend as much on political persuasion as personal choice. Some publicly burn poppies, some are furious if you don’t wear one, others are furious if you do. To some the poppy glorifies warfare, to others it’s simply a mark of remembrance and respect. Every year the argument grows deeper, more bitter.

Opinion varies from one extreme to the other. At one end you have ‘Muslims Against Crusades’ burning poppies near the Albert Hall on November 11, 2010. They didn’t quite grasp the idea that an event recognising the horrors of war isn’t the best place to try picking a fight. Either that or their leading political thinkers have the collective intelligence of a boiled potato.

The far-left are a little more subtle, if no less disingenuous. The best-known Trotskyite group, the Socialist Workers Party, adoringly praise British left-wingers fighting for the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Their party hacks wear Che Guevara T-shirts, banging on endlessly about the need for a revolution (despite revolutions usually involving violence) but, according to a piece on their own website ‘The poppy is tainted by the hypocrisy of warmongers and imperialists. It is better to wear an anti-war badge, representing a struggle to end war by challenging the rulers and the system that cause it.’

So, if you believe that, then you’ll support some soldiers and some wars, but only when they happen to fit the party line. Boiled down (Trot-shop verbiage and convoluted logical acrobatics aside) it’s OK to have been to war as long as they liked that particular war and you fought on the ‘right’ side. Their side. Any other former soldier is, by default, an enemy of the working class despite the fact that most soldiers actually are working-class, often considerably more working-class than your average SWP member.

The more liberally-inclined seem pretty uninterested in the debate generally. I doubt it makes much difference to many liberals as, for liberals with a small ‘l’, it’s rarely anybody else’s business whether or not you wear a poppy or attend a Remembrance Day event, provided you’re not forcing others to attend that event or turning out to picket it.

British right-wingers seem more entrenched (no pun intended). They generally prefer people unquestioningly following the flag. They aren’t usually as fond of people checking out whoever’s waving it before deciding whether to fall in line and march to the sound of the guns. And, the less unquestioningly tub-thumping you are in agreeing with them, the more likely they’ll treat you like the enemy within. Accusations of being disrespectful/unpatriotic/ungrateful/insert random slur here often fly like Maxim bursts at anybody questioning their perspective and right-wingers are often as choosy as Trots about their heroes and villains. Left-wing veterans of Spain deserve no respect for backing their politics with their lives. Nor do Irish veterans of the 1916 Easter Rising. If, on the other hand, you blindly praise British military and foreign policy then they’ll probably buy you a pint. Just don’t mention the Amritsar Massacre or that concentration camps are a British invention dating from the Boer War. And avoid mentioning that ‘dum dum’ bullets are a British invention as well.

Last, least articulate and most odious are the far-right. To British boneheads you’re either white, native-born and despise everybody who isn’t, or you’re probably a Communist who needs shooting. The ever-lovely British National Party and English Defence League (definitely no neo-Nazi’s or Fascists crawling around in their woodwork, wink wink) love Remembrance Day. For the BNP it’s a perfect platform to espouse their brand of ‘If it’s foreign, it’s inferior and suspect’ patriotism. The EDL will probably display national pride and patriotic virtue by drinking themselves cross-eyed before hospitalising anybody resembling a foreigner. ‘Muslims Against Crusades’ don’t have a monopoly on hate-fuelled rabble rousing.

There’s the rub. Something intended to recognise the horrors of war (war being so often born of divisive, cynical political game-playing) is becoming another battlefield used ruthlessly by party hacks of all shades for divisive, cynical political game-playing. And, like so many conflicts, tub-thumping political hacks keep one eye on feeding the fire and the other on their approval ratings.  The very concept of Remembrance is increasingly being lost in the political football being played around it.

I’ll leave you with the words of the distinguished First World War poet Siegfried Sassoon (Military Cross, recommended for the Victoria Cross):

“I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.”