A little over a century ago, in the cold winter darkness of a Belgian morning two weeks before Christmas, a young man from Belfast, my namesake, was shot dead by his comrades.
Amuel McBride’s body crumbled under the gunfire of the Irish with whom he had lived, laughed and fought on the Western Front, one of countless unknown victims of what HG Wells had predicted with hopeless optimism, “the war that would end all wars”.
It’s a function of human self-centeredness that the distant horrific can sweep past us, but what raises questions about our own lives is inevitably unsettling. Two weeks ago I first read the story of Samuel McBride in Stephen Walker’s harrowing book Forgotten Soldiers: The Irishmen Shot at Dawn. It is a response both to the mindless jingoism of those who idolize their side’s exploits in the war and to the bigoted ignorance of the sort of people who painted black on the door of the Dublin offices of the Royal British Legion a little over a week ago have thrown.
McBride, the 26-year-old son of a laborer, joined the Royal Irish Rifles in January 1915. He quickly deserted, was arrested and sentenced to two years in prison – only to escape but was arrested again and returned to prison for eight months.
Then came a second chance. He was allowed to rejoin his unit in January 1916, noting his bravery in an attack on German lines. Another member of the 2nd Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles, described him as “a good and willing worker both in and out of the trenches” and recounted how he “worked very hard” carrying bombs to the front.
By May he was engaged in fierce fighting, which took place under intense German fire. Missing again, McBride later said: “I was very tired and my feet were very sore. I had a headache and felt bad all over my body.”
After four months away from his unit, he was spotted. At a court-martial two months later, two NCOs in his battalion gave him good references, one of whom said he had always volunteered for dangerous work
Without legal representation, McBride gave his own defense, but to no avail. Authorities had commuted the death sentences for most of the deserters, but wanted to give examples of what they saw as egregious dereliction of duty.
He was sentenced to death and shot dead two days later in the dark before dawn by his comrades at Hope Farm near Ploegsteert Wood.
As Walker points out, the court-martial did not consider the effect on the soldier of a disease that was well understood today but little known at the time. Foreign Office officials who investigated his case in 2004 told the UK government that “the symptoms described by the defendant in his defense are consistent with what we know of shell shock”.
War is the scene of some of the most heroic acts in human history, but anyone who thinks that war is glorious in itself hasn’t given it very much thought.
A terrified young man who had witnessed unspeakable carnage and was probably medically unfit was shot in the brain by his friends to discourage others from following their rational instincts to flee.
Even in World War II, one of the noblest wars in which Adolf Hitler’s diabolical onslaught was repulsed, there were atrocities by the Allies.
When the dead of these wars are honored at the Cenotaph in London, at the War Memorial in Belfast, at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin and at hundreds of Sunday services around the world, the most important aspect of the ceremonies is educational indeed.
It’s a moment each year to face what happened and to warn both ourselves and our descendants of the terrible evil of our species is capable of
For most of us alive now, the prospect of conscription in an all-out war is unfathomable; so unfathomable that few of us have considered how we would react. Most of us like to think that in an existential war like the one against Nazism, we would have gone into battle to save our loved ones from darkness.
But no one can really know how they would react in such a moment of personal and societal trauma. In 1916 I might have run away from the front and been shot for cowardice. In 1939 I might have used my education to secure a desk job far from where people stabbed each other with bayonets.
Today, generations of middle-class Russians and Ukrainians face that choice as conscription forces men – and societal attitudes force women – to join the killing.
Our world is deeply imperfect, but we should cherish the normality we have been blessed with while we have it. It is a modern conceit to believe that such total war is unthinkable today. It is not.
The fallen of two world wars deserve our respect. But we respect them best by telling the truth about the hellish reality of war.
As soldier poet Wilfred Owen wrote 10 months after McBride’s execution, the inhumanity of humanity as expressed in industrial warfare is “as obscene as cancer”. Owen, whose pen was cruelly silenced a week before the armistice, revealed his unthinking admiration for military adventure and ridiculed the Roman poet Horace’s claim “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” – “it is sweet and fitting, for his country.” to die”.
There was nothing sweet or fitting about the death of Samuel McBride, just as there was little warmth in revolutionary Ireland for the Irish returning war-scarred – whether they had gone there in 1914 in hopes of self-government, or to fight fascism in 1939, or simply because it was a job.
Long after her death, there grows a more mature understanding of her courage, extending even to many of those who still object to what they did — and that’s appropriate.
https://www.independent.ie/news/shot-for-desertion-the-forgotten-story-of-my-namesake-samuel-mcbride-42140364.html Shot for Deserting: The Forgotten Story of My Namesake, Samuel McBride