First World War volunteer Alexander Daley had a hard time from day one. He grew up an orphan without a close relative, never knew when his parents died or even exactly when he was born, and as a child went to school for only one month.
Little did he did he know when he signed up in Eastern Ontario’s Stormont County in 1916 that he might soon risk facing a firing squad.
Twenty-two Canadian soldiers were executed for desertion in the Great War, but contrary to popular belief, most who fled wound up being spared.
“The system was more flexible than it’s given credit for,” says Teresa Iacobelli, author of Death or Deliverance: Canadian Courts Martial in the Great War, released last year. Dr. Iacobelli first came across the executions in 2000 while working as a summer student at Library and Archives Canada.
Despite his hard-luck upbringing, Daley was among the fortunate ones, although it didn’t seem that way at first. He was shipped off to England with the 154th Battalion, and from there headed to France for duty, where life didn’t get any easier.
Not liked by any of his fellow soldiers, he left his battalion unannounced on Aug. 20, 1917, when it was time to head back to the trenches. He turned himself in one week later, and was charged with absence without leave and desertion.
“I am 22 years of age and all alone in the world,” Daley wrote in his defence statement.
“[The other soldiers] told me that I should have stayed at home and would have been better out of the battalion altogether,” he wrote. “I have always tried to be a soldier and keep out of trouble."
Two of three superiors recommended the death sentence be carried out. One officer even called his fighting “erratic and undependable.”
But he was spared, his death sentence reduced to a 15-year jail sentence, and even that was a mere formality – soon commuted so he could be sent back into battle. Soldiers were in short supply.
Daley wasn’t alone in escaping death: Of 222 Canadian soldiers facing execution in the Great War, 197 had their sentences commuted. In all, 25 Canadian soldiers were executed – 22 for desertion, two for murder and one for cowardice.
Decisions on executions weren’t necessarily determined by personal discipline records, Dr. Iacobelli says. Some were even repeated offenders. Their fate often came down to the morale and behaviour of that battalion: if it was experiencing an influx of desertions, one soldier would be executed as a warning to the others.
“It could be flexible, merciful, and also arbitrary at the same time,” she explains. Private Daley, who ultimately survived the war, was lucky to have been given mercy.
More than 2,200 charges of desertion were filed against Canadian soldiers in the First World War, according to Library and Archives’ Courts Martial data, making it one of the top offences. The most common offence was absence without leave, marked nearly 3,000 times. Desertion was reserved for soldiers who clearly intended not to come back. Absentee servicemen usually returned within 30 days, although the time away did not determine the charge.
Just behind desertion was drunkenness, which saw upwards of 2,100 charges. Dr. Iacobelli says Canadians had a reputation as a “rowdier bunch” but there is no evidence to back this up.
Regardless, of the nearly 12,000 instances where Canadian soldiers were court martialed in the Great War, 18 per cent included an imbibing offence. Punishments for offences like drunkenness included docked pay and time behind bars.
In 2001, the names of the 23 Canadians executed for desertion or cowardice were acknowledged by the Canadian government and added to the Book of Remembrance housed in Parliament. The British government, in 2006, pardoned more than 300 soldiers executed in the First World War, including the 23 Canadians, to acknowledge the soldiers as victims of war.