Coward (2012) is a short film by David Roddham available on YouTube. It features two young Irishmen who volunteer to fight for the British army in the Great War. Most of the action is set in the Ypres Salient in 1917, and the trench environment is meticulously recreated to fully convey the relentless misery of trench warfare and the dangers it brought to the men who served on the front line. The quality of the production is outstanding. A huge team of specialists and creative artists collaborated to deliver one of the finest short war films of recent times.
The film begins with the two cousins, Andrew and James, joyously leaving the family farm and going to war in 1915. Special mention is deserved by Charlotte Bradley (Mrs Hill) who perfectly recreates the pain and the pride felt by millions of women across the world when they said goodbye to their husbands, brothers and sons.
At 24 minutes long, Coward is not so much a story as an illustration, a vehicle to make an important point. It projects a message of official injustice and the callous indifference to the bravery of individuals caught up in this titanic struggle. We see the petty cruelties officers and men inflicted upon each other in these atrocious conditions; spiky vendettas driven by boredom, fear, tension, discomfort and occasional horror. Little vignettes capture hideous realities such as being shot by a sniper when crawling back wounded in No Man’s Land, or plunging a shovel through a long-dead skull when repairing a trench: casual horrors. No one is very far from breaking down; in fact some already have but try to hide it by reckless exhibition.
The central premise is that Andrew is accused of desertion and cowardice by failing to obey an order to retreat after a massive German bombardment. There is a hint of stereotyping in the portrayal of the senior officers presiding over the subsequent court-martial, and we do not hear Andrew’s own defence – which is perhaps the film’s only significant flaw – but the pathos created by the trial itself and the reunion between the two men is profoundly emotive.
Coward is an elegant tragedy, simultaneously thought-provoking and enraging because of the senselessness of war. The film’s purpose is to draw attention to the plight of the 306 British soldiers executed for military ‘crimes’ that were mostly attributable to shell shock and not to dereliction of duty, all of whom were granted pardons under the United Kingdom Armed Forces Act (2006). This at least brought some closure to their descendants. However, under the terms of the Act, the original convictions were not overturned, and the pardon is more symbol than substance. Some contextual details regarding the passage of the legislation can be found here.
The movement towards a general pardon had been gathering pace for some years. In 1998, a BBC documentary, The Day The Guns Fell Silent, featured the stories of Harry Farr and Peter Goggins, both of whom had been executed in what has been widely perceived as gross miscarriages of justice. In 2001, a memorial statue entitled Shot at Dawn was unveiled at the National Memorial Arboretum near Lichfield, Staffordshire. Created by the British artist Andy DeComyn, it depicts a British soldier blindfolded and tied to a stake. The artist modelled the image on 17 year-old Herbert Burden, the youngest soldier to be shot by the British army in July 1915 having been convicted of desertion.
More information on the cases of Farr and Goggins can be found on The History Room YouTube channel by clicking here.