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Home - British Courts Martial - Desertion in both World Wars

Introduction

This article compares the figures for desertion during the two world wars: 1914-18 and 1939-45. It then discusses the difference between the two figures.

Desertion in both world wars

The following figures illustrate the different levels of desertion during the two world wars.

Year Event Desertions per 1,000 men under arms   Year Event Desertions per 1,000 men under arms
1914-5 First & Second Ypres, Loos & Gallipoli 20.7   1940 Norway, Dunkirk 4.48
1916 Somme 9.19   1941 Fall of Greece, Crete 10.05
1917 Late Somme, Arras, Messines, Start of 3rd Ypres 7.41   1942 Gazala, Tobruk, Burma defeats 8.49
1918 Passchendale, Cambrai 7.41   1943 Alamein, Tunis, Sicily 5.90
1919 Victory Offensive, Army of Occupation 7.99   1944 D-Day, Kohima, Falaise 6.19
        1945 Battle for Germany, Defeat of Japan 6.24

Table from "The Thin Yellow Line" by William More.

It can be seen that the figures for the First World War are substantially higher than for the years of the Second World War (except for 1941 which is the only 1939-45 figure higher than any 1914-19 figure).

Desertion during World War One had a maximum sentence of death, as did numerous other offences such as cowardice, sleeping at your post and striking a superior officer (click here for a list of all WWI offences which produced death sentences). During World War Two, the only military offence which carried the death sentence was Mutiny.

Also the understanding and treatment of psychological problems, and the basic recognition that a person could be mentally ill, and seriously so, had a greater understanding in the Second World War than in the 1914-18 war. Although this was still far short of our understanding today of mental illness and its effects on the sufferer.

The man-management (to use a modern phrase) was far better during the Second World War. Two of the 1939-45 leading Generals: Bernard Law Montgomery and William Slim both served during the First World War and their experiences in this conflict shaped their attitudes to their troops in their Second World War commands.

Montgomery served in France, and his experiences of trench warfare shaped his thinking and management of the 7th Army. William Slim, or Uncle Bill to his troops, was very badly wounded while serving in Mesopotamia. He took over the newly formed 14th Army, which was in a dreadful state, and turned it around so it pushed the previously-invincible Japanese back from the India-Burma border, and out of this area of Asia.

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