According to Alexander Watson's Ring of Steel and other sources during the whole of the First World War the German army only executed 48 of its soldiers, compared to over 300 in the British and 600-800 in the French, Italian and Austro-Hungarian armies.

The mostly Prussian led German army was not, as far as I know weak on discipline, so why did it find it necessary to execute a fraction of the number of its soldiers as its opponents and principal ally?

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    "The mostly Prussian led German army was not, as far as I know weak on discipline" -- that might be a large part of the explanation. A better-disciplined army will have fewer cases of the sort of extreme indiscipline that would lead to execution. Jan 2, 2020 at 18:14
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    @JohnColeman True, but high professionalism also leads to indulgence in high places. If they had earlier in their careers cashiered leaders like Moltke and Ludendorff, who were prone to nervous breakdowns when the going got tough, the war might have turned out differently.
    – C Monsour
    Jan 2, 2020 at 18:30
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    Most common reason for execution is desertion. Since germans were most of the time in foreign territory, for them it was harder to flee from battlefield. Unless they surrender to the enemy, in which case they count as prisoners.
    – Santiago
    Jan 2, 2020 at 18:50
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    @Santiago This was however even more true of the British troops.
    – C Monsour
    Jan 3, 2020 at 1:02
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    @Santiago Unless his French was very good, a British deserter was not exactly going to blend in, but be an obvious deserter, with very little hope of seeing his family again before being caught. Also, it would be in the interest of French peasants to help German deserters, whereas the French needed all the Brits to keep fighting!
    – C Monsour
    Jan 3, 2020 at 21:59

2 Answers 2


Alexander Watson says more about this in chapter 7 of The Cambridge History of the First World War, Volume II: The State:

The Germans were most sparing in applying the death penalty because their justice system was staffed by professional legal personnel and influenced more than that of other forces by civilian norms. Their courts’ concern with justice for the individual was bitterly criticised after the war by conservatives, who claimed wrongly that it had damaged discipline and morale.

In Military Executions during World War I, Gerard Oram argues that the German military code, dating from 1872, was

arguably the most liberal of all the belligerents of the First World War. Without doubt the construction of the state governed by law, or Rechtsstaat, played a large part in this. The law was more tightly constructed than the British code. Desertion, for example, was not as loosely defined as it was in the British code. Sentencing and the rights of soldiers were also written into the law rather than being left to the whim of the commander-in-chief. This caused some consternation to General Ludendorff and his staff, who clearly felt constrained by the nature of German military law

The table below is from Walker (chapter 7 - Table 7.1 Military executions, 1914–18.)

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(asterisk in table) "America’s executions were all for non-military crimes (murder and rape). Ten soldiers were executed in France and twenty-five in the United States."

On the low percentage for US executions, Walker writes:

The lenience of the US military was solely due to President Wilson1, who commuted all death sentences for military crime; only murderers and rapists were executed. Other forces embraced the death penalty as a deterrent more wholeheartedly.

1 In US courts-martial, 24 death sentences for desertion were imposed. All were commuted by Wilson. See Charles Glass, 'The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II'

None of the aforementioned sources cite any figures for desertions, perhaps because such numbers can only be guessed at to a large extent. With reference to the British and German armies:

Both...had a rather difficult time defining desertion and devising effective deterrents for it. Often commanders were reluctant to report it, because a high desertion rate reflected badly on an officer's leadership.

Source: Robert Weldon Whalen, in a review of Christoph Jahr, 'Gewohnliche Soldaten: Desertion und Deserteure im deutschen und britischen Heer 1914-1918', The American Historical Review, Vol. 106, No. 5 (Dec., 2001)

This 1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War article does offer some figures, but they are too limited for us to draw any firm conclusions on comparative desertion rates among the belligerents. We may accept, though, that

For Britain, Germany and France, deserters - with all the caveats linked to judicial statistics that are difficult to interpret - appear never to have numbered more than 0.5 percent of men in uniform before 1918.

Although the number of German executions was low (despite the mass desertions - up to 180,000 - in the summer and autumn of 1918), those convicted were more likely than their British counterparts to have their sentences carried out: 48 soldiers executed out of 150 capital convictions, or 32%. The British, on the other hand, 'only' executed 11% of those convicted. Nonetheless, the relative leniency of the German military code during WWI is in stark contrast to that of WWII when, under the Nazis (who blamed deserters, among others, for Germany's WWI defeat), the

total number of death sentences handed down for desertion were about 22,750 with a probable 15,000 executions (65 percent) carried out.

Source: David H. Kitterman, 'Review: The Justice of the Wehrmacht Legal System: Servant or Opponent of NationalSocialism?'. In 'Central European History, Vol. 24, No. 4' (1991), citing Manfred Messerschmidt and Fritz Wullne, 'Die Wehrmachtjustiz im Dienste des Nationalsozialismus: Zer- storung einer Legen' (1987)

The WWII British army, on the other hand, did not execute any soldiers for desertion.

Also worth noting is the WWI Italian execution rate, much higher than that of any of the other belligerents. This was due to the "harsh" military code and its strict implementation by the Chief of Staff of the Italian Army, Luigi Cadorna.

The Italian military code was passed in 1869 and was based on its Sardinian predecessor (1840). It was particularly harsh, particularly with its very broad definition of desertion. During the First World War, Cadorna, the Italian Commander-in-Chief, made ample use of this in imposing a brutal disciplinary regime on his troops. Military crimes, which included desertion and insubordination, were punishable by being shot in front, but so-called ‘dishonourable’ crimes such as treason or murder were punishable by being shot in the back. Sentences were normally carried out within twenty-four hours, but sentences passed by extraordinary drum-head courts – including death sentences – were carried out summarily and ‘ad modum belli’. This allowed Cadorna to apply strict discipline from the moment of Italy’s entry to the war. In July 1915 he warned that ‘every soldier . . . must be convinced that his superior has the sacred duty to shoot all cowards and recalcitrants immediately’.

Source: Oram

The Wikipedia article on Cardona notes that:

David Stevenson, Professor of International History at the London School of Economics, describes him as earning "opprobrium as one of the most callous and incompetent of First World War commanders."

  • This is a good answer to my question Lars, thank you. As a lawyer myself, I can see how different legal systems' varying definitions of crimes, rules of evidence and procedures, and the background, training and attitudes of judges would produce different results. If a Private is found asleep on a haystack way behind the frontline where his battalion had just been sent, claiming he could not keep up on the march because holes in his boots gave him blisters, some would shoot him for desertion; others give just give him better boots and a telling off and send him up to the line.
    – Timothy
    Oct 2, 2021 at 15:17
  • It is interesting in the chart that except for the French, the less an army executes,the more it was efficient Feb 11 at 14:50

A fact pertinent to this question is that many of the Brits shot at dawn are remembered at the National Memorial Arboretum where their ages are shown, if they were adults.

Many were in actual fact children who had signed up illegally, but were shot anyway when they realised their error and tried to escape the nightmare, and these are shown in the memorial as Age Unknown

It seems likely these might have been spared and UK numbers lower, had the process been as judicious as the German one. It's all a drop in the ocean of course, against the backdrop of 20 million men sent to pointless deaths in a squabble between three cousins about who would walk away with the rights to milk the most peasants for the wealth they generate.

According to The Guardian, as recently as 1999 The Ministry of Defence still defended the legality of the executions of children aged 14 and above in a letter to Shot At Dawn campaigner John Hipkin, writing "Anyone over the age of 14 was deemed legally responsible for his actions and Army regulations provided no immunity from Military Law for an under-age soldier."

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    Do you have any evidence that under-age soldiers formed a significantly higher percentage of the UK soldiers executed during the war than the percentage of under-age soldiers executed by the German or French armies? Jan 3, 2020 at 16:06
  • @sempaiscuba In respect of the Germans, yes. I've been to the NMA and I'd say if 100% of the 48 German executions were children, they would have executed around the same number of children as the number of UK executions shown "Age Unknown". Jan 3, 2020 at 17:34
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    I've also visited the National Memorial Arboretum, and I've researched the original records at the National Archives in Kew. However, I'm not asking about total numbers, but percentages. If you are arguing that the the execution of under-age soldiers is a factor that explains (at least in part) the difference in the numbers of soldiers executed by the various armies, then you can presumably show that the proportion of under-age soldiers executed was significantly lower in the German army, relative to the UK or French forces? Jan 3, 2020 at 17:54
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    @sempaiscuba I think you missed the point of my comment. no such assumption regarding the proportions is necessary, since the UK execution of minors alone probably exceeds the German execution of prisoners in total and therefore the conclusion UK minors were treated worse than their German counterparts stands alone as a conclusion without reference to either the absolute or relative treatment of their adult counterparts. Jan 3, 2020 at 19:56
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    On the contrary. Notwithstanding the fact that there were probably only between 20 & 30 under-age soldiers executed following a Court Martial (loss of service records as a result of bombing during WW2 makes it difficult to give an exact number), if a similar proportion of under-age soldiers were executed by German / French armies, that would simply show that contemporary military law made no allowance for the age of offenders in any of the armies engaged on the Western Front. Without that analysis, it is difficult to see that this actually addresses the question asked. Jan 3, 2020 at 21:02

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