Monday, March 7, 2011

Spitting on a Soldier’s Grave by Robert Widders (Matador, 2010)

The subtitle of Robert Widders short book is ‘Court Martialed After Death, the Story of the Forgotten Irish and British Soldiers’. The focus is principally soldiers who deserted the Irish Army during World War II and crossed the border into Northern Ireland to join the allied services. 4,983 personnel deserted the Irish Army during the war, over 4,000 of whom joined the British services. Contrary to the belief that this was purely for financial gain, the interviews Widders conducted reveal a more complex set of reasons including boredom, political ideology, adventure, and moral justice.

If deserters returned home they could be jailed. For deserters with families, the consequence was children could be removed from the family home and placed in an industrial school through the 1941 Children’s Act that enable the state to do so if one parent was absent. At the end of the war those that served with the Allies were court martialed en masse and in absentia, with exception oddly of officers, and their names placed on a list that disbarred them from working for the state or state agencies for seven years (which was a major employer). This blanket court martial applied to those men that had fought and died fighting fascism. Not only were returning Irish soldiers disbarred from some kinds of work, they were ineligible for unemployment benefit and could not access their British demobilisation benefits, and they were publicly shunned. Those deserters that did not leave Ireland or went to Britain to work in its war factories did not face such penalties. In other words, desertion was only punished if the soldier went on to serve with the British Army, but not otherwise, clearly a highly politicised and partial decision.

Widders is clearly outraged with the discriminatory actions of the Irish state, given that those fighting the Nazis were fighting for democracy and Ireland’s future, given that Ireland would have undoubtedly been over-run and made a dominion like the rest of occupied Europe if not faced by the Allies. Whilst the book is interesting and informative, its shortcoming is depth and detail. It is relatively short at 142 pages. All of its chapters are short and partial. It reports on a number of interviews with Irish deserters who fought for the Allies, but the narrative lacks more historical context about Ireland during the war, the Irish services, Irish politics and the discourse and actions of the army and state in relation to deserters. Widders makes it clear that such historical detail is not his intention, rather wanting to get a populist book out as soon as feasible, but the argument and story does suffer as a result. Overall, a fascinating book that feels like a starter rather than the main course.

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