The topic of military executions has dominated the study of discipline and punishment during the First World War. Considering the relatively small number of men who were executed, 361 in British and Dominion forces combined, it is startling how much attention the subject has garnered. The morality of the practice has been widely discussed and debated and it has spawned recent pardons campaigns in the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Canada. Yet, virtually ignored in these debates have been the stories of the 3,080 men of the British and Dominion forces who were also sentenced to death, but saw their sentences commuted. What was the fate of these men and what accounts for their salvation when the luck of others had run out?

The main focus of this article is a comparison between those death sentences confirmed and those commuted. The topic has been solely researched within a Canadian context in which 222 death sentences were passed during the course of the war, and 25 Canadians actually faced with a firing squad. Similar to British statistics as a whole, 89 per cent of all Canadian death sentences were commuted in the First World War.

For the purpose of this article, the court-martial and personnel records of 50 Canadian soldiers have been studied. An attempt has been made to find patterns and consistencies to explain why some death sentences were confirmed and others were not. Preliminary findings suggest that the timing of a particular offense, the disciplinary state of an accused soldier’s battalion and the opinions of divisional commanders were the most important influences acting upon the final decision of a military court martial. However, where an individual soldier’s personal disciplinary record was taken into account, the decisions of the courts-martial appear, more often than not, to have been quite random and arbitrary.