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Deserters of the First World War (Hardback)

The Home Front

Military WWI

By Andrea Hetherington
Imprint: Pen & Sword Military
Pages: 240
ISBN: 9781526747990
Published: 2nd June 2021



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The story of First World War deserters who were shot at dawn, then pardoned nearly a century later has often been told, but these 306 soldiers represent a tiny proportion of deserters. More than 80,000 cases of desertion and absence were tried at courts martial on the home front but these soldiers have been ignored. Andrea Hetherington, in this thought-provoking and meticulously researched account, sets the record straight by describing the deserters who disappeared from camps and barracks within Great Britain at an alarming rate.

She reveals how they employed a range of survival strategies, some ridding themselves of all connection with the military while others hid in plain sight. Their reasons for desertion varied. Some were already living a life of crime whilst others were conscientious objectors who refused to respond to their call-up papers. Boredom, protest, troubles at home or physical and mental disabilities all played their part in men deciding to go on the run.

Andrea Hetherington’s timely book gives us a vivid insight into a hitherto overlooked aspect of the First World War.

Overall, this book gives a fresh perspective on a further sub-story from the Great War which has been somewhat ignored. It has meticulously researched and no stone is left unturned by the author in this important element of the Great War. The depth and breadth of research is clear, and moreover the extent of coverage. 

Jon Sandison

Review as featured in

Highlight: 'A thought-provoking and well-researched read.'

Family Tree, Jan 23

As featured in

The Western Front Association Journal

As featured in

Family Tree

"For those interested in the ‘hearts and souls’ as much as the ‘blood and guts’ of the Western Front and other theatres, this is a ‘must have’ book which I believe will soon establish itself as the leading academic work on this subject."

Graham Woodall - Western Front Association

I was looking forward to Andrea’s new book after enjoying ‘British Widows of the First World War’ (2018) and having seen her presentation to the Western Front Association about this book. I am glad to say I was not disappointed.

Andrea approaches this subject in a sensitive manner and seeks to explain the context and motivations for desertion in the Great War and its wider impact not only on the military but on society more widely. Her writing style is clear and easy to follow making this an easy book to read and enjoy for all readers, be they new to the Great War in general or more experienced.

The structure of the chapters is logical and straight forward. They naturally flow from the pre war situation through the early volunteers and on to conscription. The reasons for desertion are explained and examined with plenty of examples, especially impressive given the noted lack of original sources available to todays researchers. The use of examples gives a real feel for the human story behind each case. I was particularly struck by the examination of the work attitudes of the citizen army and how these were applied to military service. Highlighted also is the inconsistency in the treatment of cases and the almost random nature of punishments imposed upon those deserters charged.

In summary this book is a worthy addition to anyone’s library and one that I will definitely be rereading in the future.

Western Front Association - Hampshire & Isle of Wight Branch

5 stars: A useful study
Read the full review here

Amazon Customer

Hetherington has produced a well-researched and highly readable examination of British deserters of the First World War. Although it's an often emotional and difficult subject, her title should greatly appeal to those with ancestors who, for their own reasons, defaulted on their military service obligations.

WDYTYA? Magazine, October 2021

What a thoroughly good book. I had kind of heard about deserters in WWI but the same stuff seems to be dragged out about it. This excellent book expanded on desertion and gave far more brilliant knowledge on the subject. The usual line thrown out is usually someone is suffering from shock from bomb blast and this is why they have deserted, but there were a lot more reasons for people deserting from reading this book. But I enjoyed reading how certain people got up to other fraudulent/malicious ways and reasons for deserting. The numbers of desertions are huge and it’s important for that to be revealed. This is a very well-written book by the author Andrea Hetherington, it has opened up a whole new light to the various causes of desertion that rarely gets talked about.

Read the full review here

UK Historian

This is a very well researched and highly readable work dealing as it does with a neglected topic in the historiography of the Great War and that in it’s way illuminates aspects of the relationship between the military and society.

Martin Willoughby, Chairman of the Wessex Branch of the Western Front Association

Superb account of the 80,000 deserters of the First World War from Andrea Hetherington.

Books Monthly

"This book is a worthy addition to anyone’s library and one that I will definitely be rereading in the future."

Western Front Association - Hampshire & Isle of Wight Branch

Much has been written about the 306 soldiers who executed during the First World War but this new book by Andrea Hetherington provides a timely study of the more than 80,000 cases of desertion and absence tried in the UK. We discover a wide range of motivations for desertion, from principal to protest. Links with criminality are explored - both the impact of criminals entering the Army and the criminality associated with deserters who were without other means of support. Throughout this well researched book the links to policy and the approach of local communities, the Army and legal system are well explained. However, the rich and sometimes dark nature of the personal stories of people involved bring human interest and certainly help to make this a great read. While some cases seem straightforward many more bring shades of grey, and sometimes lead to tragic consequences for those involved.

This book is a must read for those with any interest in the home front in Britain during the First World War. Highly Recommended.

David Barras, Secretary of the Northumberland Branch of the Western Front Association

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Brilliant book, well researched and very well written. I didn’t know that many men abandoned their original units to get to the front faster. This really helps with my family research.

NetGalley, Emma Albery

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

So this book is very much an eye opening read, taking things that most people who are interested in either war or family history and expanding the vistas behind it to the incredibly personal and giving real meaning to the ideas of the “impact” of this war on so many people. This together with both established class privilege and further the seeming randomness of the legal process for ordinary people (no doubt matching that of the military experience for so many men) makes this quite a painful read at times. The impact of the establishment of minutiae of military requirements on people (often those who didn’t even volunteer for this life) on top of the daily financial difficulties of life for so many are especially poignant for readers who might experience something similar. Hetherington has produced an impressive melding of facts and reactions and the impact on ordinary people, so this is a very humane and important book even for the non specialists.

NetGalley, Hilary WHITE

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this book. Having already read a lot of books about the First World War, this book was refreshing and a very enjoyable read, I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the war and social history.

NetGalley, Gemma Allen

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This book was such an emotive read. I really enjoyed the read and would so recommend it but be prepared to have tumbling emotions.

NetGalley, Sue Sykes

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I enjoyed this book as it gave me insight not only into the war, but the challenges the everyday men faced in fighting it, or not. Good historical account and seems as well researched as it could be considering the shelling Britain took during either world war. I am aware of records be lost due to bombings in Europe, so London's losses don;t surprise me. I am glad the author has worked to gather the info into the this book. It needs to to told. Kudos to Andrea Hetherington. I was also glad to learn those who were executed were exonerated.

NetGalley, Catherine Hankins

The author has succeeded in delivering the story of desertion on the home front that rightly adjusts the focus from the ‘shot at dawn’ story at the battle front. Putting aside that many of the 307 who were subsequently ‘pardoned’ in a time when the judicial system and social structures had changed, the story of home desertion follows a similar pattern but without the fatal consequences. In general the home deserter (or absentee) followed a similar pattern of men ill fitted to serve in the military. Many were petty criminals, social misfits and men conditioned by a growing change in social values that some took as a basis to confront military and civil authority. Many were serial offenders, absconding on several occasions. No doubt many just didn’t want to serve in the military and preferred civilian life.
This book brings together many sources and accounts that illustrate the matter and explains the context in which a minority of men let down their comrades. The occasions when their actions were prompted by a form of altruism are depressingly few.

Michael McCarthy. Battlefield Guide

Michael McCarthy
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About Andrea Hetherington

Andrea Hetherington is an independent researcher and writer with a particular interest in the social history of the First World War. She has provided research for BBC programming during the Centenary period and has acted as a consultant on several community projects on the conflict. Her publications include British Widows of the First World War: The Forgotten Legion.

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