Time to pardon soldiers who left to fight Hitler
OPINION:There was no heroes’ welcome for those who returned after deserting from the Irish Army to fight the Nazis, writes JOSEPH QUINN
OVER THE past year efforts to exonerate some 5,700 Irish Army deserters, the vast majority of whom joined the British forces during the second World War and were condemned by post-war legislation, have made a quantum leap due to growing public and media interest.
This debate has arisen as a result of the recent book, Spitting on a Soldier’s Grave, by Robert Widders, who has written extensively about this band of Irish soldiers that constituted an eighth of the estimated 40,000 strong Irish Army and who voluntarily traded uniforms and allegiances to fight with the British.
Many took part in some of the most brutal and hard-fought campaigns and a significant number were either killed in battle, and in some cases through starvation and torture, or survived narrowly by enduring unspeakable horrors only to return home to a cruel and bitter welcome.
John Waite’s BBC Radio 4 documentary, The Disowned Army, threw down the gauntlet in little less than half an hour, with harrowing accounts of the treatment of deserters on their arrival home in Ireland and, in particular, the stories of the children of deserters who were interned in some of the most notorious industrial schools in the country as an act of retribution.
The story can count itself as another sad chapter in the history of the State, but an important question remains unanswered. How does one define desertion if it takes place in a country whose government’s stated position is a policy of strict neutrality, while almost every nation in the same hemisphere is at war?
The courts-martial of Privates Patrick Shannon and Patrick Kehoe in June of 1945 possibly provide the best answer. Having both been liberated from German prisoner of war camps a month earlier, they were among many ex-servicemen arrested by gardaí and Army military police spotters on arriving home and then tried for desertion by the military authorities. Their trial would become a public display of national resolve on the issue. Kehoe, formerly of the Irish 22nd Infantry Battalion, had deserted to join RAF Bomber Command in order to “have a crack at Germany” because of the suffering of relatives in England during the Blitz.
Shannon, who had served with the 2nd Infantry Battalion since 1940, deserted his post a year later for another reason; better wages. He joined the British army and fought in North Africa, Sicily, at Anzio, and through Italy until captured in Florence, and all because he could not support his mother on the 14 shillings he was being paid by the Irish Army.
Both men’s cases epitomise the two principal motives for desertion. Some were simply fed up with life in a peacetime army, and wanted to fight with the British forces, either to satisfy a thirst for adventure or to play a part in the struggle against Nazism. But, it appears that most deserted out of economic necessity. Single men may have complained about the meagre wages, but married soldiers with families or dependent relatives could not support their loved ones on their weekly allowance. Intelligence officers in Army G2 section compiled a report based on a study of deserters caught while on leave home from their units in Britain. They concede that the allowance paid to the wives was considerably less than what was paid in the British forces. Those who joined the British forces received better wages, decent allowances were paid to their families, and even hardship money was available. It was suggested that “domestic pressure” might have been applied by disgruntled wives to get their soldier husbands to desert and the report concluded that there was “little inducement for single men to desert to the British army”, whereas for married men, there was a “strong temptation”.
Throughout their courts-martial, Shannon and Kehoe were defended by Capt Peadar Cowan, who made a passionate plea on their behalf. He quoted the definition of “desertion” as “leaving a post of danger for a post of safety”. He singled out Kehoe for his extraordinary heroism, stating that “in many countries, the accused would . . . be considered a hero that deserves honour and deserved reward”. Kehoe had left the safety of the Army to face the dangers of fighting the Nazis which, “in any civilised country, was not a case for punishment at all”. Sadly, the trial’s outcome was dictated by the political dogma that had reigned in neutral Ireland and that would unfortunately come to define the state of the country at that time. The Emergency Powers (No 362) Order, which became enshrined in Irish statute law at the stroke of Taoiseach Éamon de Valera’s pen as section 13 of the Defence Forces (Temporary Provisions) Act 1946, formally dismissed deserters from the Defence Forces, stripping them of pay and gratuity rights. It deprived them of the right to make claims under the Unemployment Insurance Act or from obtaining any State or public employment for seven years.
Condemned in the Dáil by then Fine Gael deputy leader, Dr Thomas O’Higgins, as “an order stimulated by malice, seething with hatred, oozing with venom”, it came into effect on April Fool’s Day, 1946. An infamous list of more than 5,700 names and addresses was produced and circulated throughout government departments and public bodies.
Soldiers such as Shannon and Kehoe, who, for whatever motive, contrary to the precise definition of desertion, abandoned a post of safety for a post of extreme danger, suffered consequences that were not only harsh, but entirely unnecessary – the danger to Ireland, and the wider world had long receded.
The Kehoe and Shannon cases became little more than show trials, representing the trend of countless arrests and incarcerations of returning deserters who had fought in the war, and the publication of the “list” become a monument for the collective branding of traitors, condemning them for the remainder of their lives.
Would it not have been more honourable and humane for the government that guided the nation safely through the cataclysm of the second World War to have shown clemency and forgiveness, and to have pardoned these men for the “crime” of having exchanged the uniform of neutral for that of a belligerent? It is a question that the Government must now answer, almost 70 years later, even if only for the sake of those few condemned men who are still alive.
Joseph Quinn is a doctoral student in Trinity College Dublin researching Irish personnel in the British forces during the second World War