Deaths sentences imposed at Gallipoli

At Gallipoli, sleeping on sentry duty could get you shot - by your own side.

On three occasions, starting on July 6, 1915, exhausted soldiers were found asleep in frontline positions, charged, court-martialled and sentenced to death by firing squad.

The sentences were ordered by Australian officers in makeshift, open-air proceedings and passed up to British General Sir Ian Hamilton, commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, for confirmation.

Ashley Ekins, head of the Australian War Memorial's military history section, says Hamilton - somewhat surprisingly, given contemporary perceptions of British officers at the time - took a different view.

Hamilton confirmed court-martial findings but promptly commuted the death sentence to five years jail, suspended immediately.

So the soldiers returned to the line, although jail sentences could be reimposed if they misbehaved again.

A New Zealand soldier also faced death for sleeping at his post on July 18. His sentence was also remitted. Had it not been, he might have survived longer - he was killed in action three days later.

Ekins says that was a consequence of the exhaustion felt by soldiers who hadn't slept for days.

"The stresses of continuous exposure to combat clearly pushed all men to the very limits of their endurance, especially in frontline positions where rifle fire, sniping, bombing duels and artillery were almost continuous for days on end," he says.

In three months - July, August and September 1915 - 199 British and dominion soldiers were court-martialled for sleeping on duty.

The British Army Act, which covered Australian and New Zealand soldiers on active duty, could impose death for a wide range of offences. During the Gallipoli campaign, 101 men were sentenced to die, but in only three cases was the punishment confirmed and carried out - all for British soldiers.

One was shot for leaving his guard post at Cape Helles in June, another for deserting at Suvla Bay in November, and the third in December for refusing go on patrol at Helles.

During World War I, 121 Australian soldiers were sentenced to death, but the punishment was not carried out.

That wasn't because of the case of Australians Harry Morant and Peter Handcock, who were shot for war crimes in South Africa in 1902. Ekins says that case produced little controversy at the time.

Rather, at the start of the war, the government insisted on the primacy of the Australian Defence Act where Australian soldiers served under British command.

Unlike British legislation, in which numerous offences could attract the death sentence, Australia's law permitted execution for a limited range of serious crimes, including mutiny and desertion to the enemy, and only when approved by the governor-general.

As the war progressed, senior British and Australian officers urged enforcement of the death sentence to deter rampant desertion.

For a number of reasons, the Australian government resisted. There was strong community sentiment against executing volunteer soldiers. In the heated campaigns to introduce conscription, the government appreciated it would fail if there was the slightest prospect that non-volunteers could be executed.

"The AIF remains unique throughout the war in that it was composed solely of volunteers and no death sentences were carried out," Ekins says.

Still, the AIF was happy to impose military justice on errant soldiers for offences including refusing to obey orders, quitting positions and the growing epidemic of self-inflicted wounds. In eight months, there were more than 350 courts-martial.

Commanding officers stipulated that convicted soldiers would not be sent to prison and instead undergo field punishment; that is, remain with their units but perform extra duties.

Considering the workload soldiers already had, field punishment wasn't trivial. Correspondent Charles Bean describes miscreants pumping water from barges on the foreshore under enemy fire.

"They were determined to keep men with their units," Ekins says.

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