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Scapegoats: Thirteen Victims of Military Injustice

Last updated: 28 April 2016

Recorded on 9 January 2014

Author and former British Army officer Michael Scott takes a fascinating look at victims of military injustice throughout history. He examines the stress faced by men under extraordinary circumstances, and what happens when the blame is laid on them, unfairly for the most part.


Michael Scott:

Well, good afternoon everybody. It's a real privilege to be allowed to give this talk at a museum in which I've spent many happy hours toiling away in the depths of the Templer Reading Room, like I suspect many of you in this audience.

My earliest contact was when, having completed my application form, it was rightly scrutinised by the curator who telephoned me. He said, 'I see you've put down your interest in writing a book about the Prince Imperial. You will, of course, be aware of Ian Knight's seminal work on the Prince, which is upstairs in the sales department.' My heart fell. Even I knew that Ian Knight was one of the world's experts in the Zulu Wars. The first of my many false starts.

But this is about a different book. What I want to talk about is: why the book; why these particular scapegoats; the research and sources; and, finally, editing. You will be relieved to hear that I'm not going to plough through chapter by chapter, but merely touch on each individual story. You will also be pleased that there are only two maps.

As was outlined in Robert's introduction, the aim of the book is to appeal to the general reader, not the military history buff. It's a book about the stress falling on men under extraordinary circumstances - mostly at war, although not all of them - and what happens when the blame is laid on them, unfairly for the most part.

I've tried to present an even balance and not reach my own conclusions - though I fear it's inevitable in some cases - but rather leave it to the reader to decide.

Briefly, my scapegoat criterion was where an individual has taken the blame for something not entirely his fault, and that others stood to benefit from passing the blame onto him and avoiding it themselves.

Magnus Linklater wrote:

'Scapegoats are usually sought when reputations are at stake and they tend to be found among the ranks of those who are closest to the action when disaster strikes. Not only are they the ones least capable of answering back, they are there on the front line, smoking gun in hand, while everyone else runs for cover. Time and again political or military leaders fail to connect with those whose responsibility it is to deliver the goods. Chains of command are weak or non-existent. Orders are imprecise or muddled. Even experienced statesmen and generals, insulated from the realities of the front, can make catastrophic mistakes. And when the worst happens, their instinct is almost always to blame those further down. This is history from the inside. Flawed, confused and frequently dysfunctional.'

Why the book? Well, it all started with this man - the statue of the Prince Imperial of France, son of Napoleon III, great nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. He stands outside what was my company office when I was a cadet at Sandhurst, about the middle of the last century.

What was this statue doing? A Frenchman from the 1870s, not an officer, despite having attended the Military Academy at Woolwich, and not even actually in the British Army.

With the idleness and arrogance of youth we took little notice, apart from daubing him with paint or placing inappropriate objects on his head on high days and holidays. The Zulu War in which he was involved? All we knew was from the movie with Michael Caine and Stanley Baker.

Many years later I wondered about him a little more and thought there might be a story here - and I've told you of my disappointing start at the museum. Nevertheless, undaunted, I did write a book with David Rooney on Harry and Juana Smith, called 'In Love And War'. But that, as they say, is another story. I do actually have a few copies here with me today, just in case!

However, after the Harry Smith book was published, I turned again to the Prince Imperial, more for my own interest than anything else. Once I got into it and realised how badly this man, Captain Jahleel Carey, how badly he'd been treated and clearly made the scapegoat for the Prince's killing by the Zulus, I then concluded that he could not possibly have been the only one in history to have been so victimised, and there must be others. But who?

My thoughts were pretty haywire when I first started. I knew of some obvious possibilities, like for instance Byng or Dreyfus, but little of the real detail. Incidentally, out of interest, I questioned a lady under the age of 30 what she knew of either. She'd never heard of Byng, and wasn't Dreyfus that actor? So, I asked around and some of my clever friends assembled a list of possible scapegoats.

Now, I don't expect you to read that slide - I've done it deliberately so you can't - but I just wanted to demonstrate the array of people that one might consider.

Interestingly, when I mentioned to people what I was doing, many had their own pet scapegoats and would make helpful suggestions. But I needed some form of theme or connection, I couldn't just cherrypick what I fancied. The difficulty is that they tend to stand alone and bear little relevance to each other, so a connection in that sense was out.

So, what I tried to do was select different ranks - remember, I was solely dealing with military men - nationality, various places where things happened, and across as wide a timeframe as I could. However, before I could even do that, I had to carry out some fairly basic research. For my stories I needed to be able to discover something about the man himself and his background, and to be able to set the scene in which the action took place without becoming purely a military history.

For instance, a man who it seemed to me had very interesting potential, was General Dmitri Pavlov. You wouldn't want to meet him on a dark night.

Pavlov had been a Russian tank brigade commander on the Republican side on the Spanish Civil War and highly regarded, but was then blamed for failing in Operation BARBAROSSA, when the Germans invaded Russia in June 1941. He was promptly executed by Stalin and his background effectively wiped clean. So I had no access to his family, personal life, or any real detail about him. So he wasn't a starter.

Others I would have loved to have done, like my hero Scipio Africanus who beat Hannibal in 202BC and Liddell Hart thought a better general than Napoleon, but they didn't quite fit the scapegoat criteria.

Having, therefore, carried out initial research, I established the following framework.

Ranks: I didn't really achieve much of a spread here as you can see. This is mainly because inevitably the blame gets attached to those in command who are most visible. I did though manage to squeeze in a lance corporal.

Nationality: Again, I wasn't particularly successful as more than half of them were Englishmen, as you can see from that slide.

Parts of the world: I did do a little bit better here, and you can see how the spread goes from America right through the Continent, Africa, India, Burma, the Philippines and Korea. So I did a bit better there.

And then on the timeframe, I didn't do too badly there either, stretching from 1754 with Dupleix, through to 1994, Dallaire, so some 240 years. And so I got a good stretch there.

So you can see, when someone like the eminent historian Professor Sir Michael Howard told me he was disappointed that I hadn't included General Gough, who was sacked in 1918, I was able to reply that I had Lance Corporal Short for that time and place. Anyway, I had quite enough generals. I suspect, having read the book, he would have only given me a B-, although he was overall very complimentary.

What I'm going to do now is to run through the research I did. I'm going to resist telling you the actual story of each chapter because a) we'd be here to midnight, and b) you can read it for yourselves.

The real nugget for any researcher is to discover something that no one else has found, what I call 'the trunk in the attic' with family papers. Look at Charles Moore's latest book on Margaret Thatcher, when he discovered exactly that in her sister Muriel's house. For our Harry Smith book, we discovered Harry's great, great nephew alive and living in Essex. He had all Harry's medals and busts of Harry and Juana and a number of pictures that had not seen the light of day.

Of course, this doesn't happen that often, so the other key to go initially is for primary sources. For example, the original, or rather facsimile or photo of the original, of which there is no doubt about its legitimate provenance, like Emile Zola's letter 'J'accuse!' to the president of France, published in 'L'Aurore' in January 1898, naming the villains in the Dreyfus case.

Secondary sources are books, articles and journals written by others. Merely copying out chunks of other people's work of course is plagiarism but there is nothing wrong in putting ones own slant on it, providing one gives proper accreditation to the author in one's sources. In my case, for instance, over the sinking of the USS 'Indianapolis', I used accounts written by others, but concentrated on the scapegoat aspects of the captain's story.

Particular care must be taken over copying photos and images which are very often subject to copyright. Permission has to be sought and, sometimes rightly, a fee is charged. The painting on the book cover, for instance, showing Byng's execution belongs to the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich and cost us £175.

So, to the stories. The Prince Imperial - you can almost see the arrogance dripping from his nose can't you. There is much primary source material at the National Archives at Kew, and here at the [National Army] Museum, because the Zulu War is pretty well covered in the form of reports and dispatches.

One of the joys about Kew is that you can photograph documents. This saves an enormous amount of handwritten note-taking or expensive photocopying. Here for instance, when I can find it, is a patrol report written by the Prince, the original of which is in Kew.

But the jewels in Kew are the original papers of Carey's court martial in 1879. These were denied access to the public for 100 years. This is staggering when you think that nowadays even MI5 stuff is normally only blocked for 30 years. You can readily understand my suspicions that something had to be hidden by some very powerful people. Indeed, I was right.

Admiral Byng. The Byng story is quite special, owing to the determination of the present-day family to see him exonerated. Two powerful ladies lead the campaign, very ably supported by a number of others, including the head of the family, Viscount Torrington, who made letters available to me. So you would not be surprised that I have a close association with them. They've encouraged and helped me with a view to my chapter, assisting them of course in their fight. Sadly, the government has other things to do at the moment and is not going to bother with us too much.

Again, there is quite a lot at Kew and a considerable amount of contemporary stuff which is easily accessible with no copyright worries. This includes the log of the 'Monarch'. There we are. Now you can't read that, so I've blown up the bit that says, 'Admiral Byng was shot on the quarter deck,' and that's a piece out of the log.

I also took photographs at Wrotham Park. This is still owned by the family but now only really used for conferences and weddings. Sadly, although Byng had it built, he never actually lived in it.

Like Byng, Dreyfus was a name well known to many people, but not much of the detail beyond the fact that he was wrongly incarcerated in Devil's Island, which is associated of course with the novel 'Papillon'. Until I got into it, I had no idea of the depth of iniquity and criminal activity of the higher echelons of the French military political hierarchy in the 1890s.

The real forger and traitor, Esterhazy - I don't think you'd buy a second-hand car from him - he was backed by some of the most senior and powerful men in France at the time and he's one of the nastier bits of work to come out of the story. His photograph here sadly wasn't good enough resolution for the book, and it portrays him very well. If you want to visit his grave, it's in Harpenden, but you will have to look very carefully because he's buried under the pseudonym Count de Voilemont.

So many books have been written about the case that I wasn't able to find any primary sources that no one else had, although I was offered lunch in Paris with Dreyfus's great niece. Robert Harris later wrote a novel based on the story, to be made into a movie by Roman Polanski, so I sent him a copy of the book in case he needed some help.

With Warren, I was lucky enough to have an enormous amount of material to work from, ranging from many books on the Boer War, and a number of them contemporary, to primary sources at Kew and the museum here. I was able, therefore, to ferret out the actual detail of how Warren had been treated by Buller, and hopefully not get too deflected by the rest of the goings on at the time.

As an aside, there were many maps of the Boer War operations, as indeed there were for the rest of the book, of very varying quality, including sketches of my own. I thought it important, therefore, to have a continuity of style and presentation, so they were all drafted by Barbara Taylor, a professional map maker, with the exception of a contemporary Étaples one, which I thought important to have in its original state.

Now, the one major story for you to puzzle over is the case of Brigadier George Taylor. Taylor was an outstanding battalion commander in the Second World War, with two DSOs [Distinguished Service Orders], and commanded the 28th Commonwealth Brigade in Korea in 1951. The brigade comprised three British infantry battalions, a tank regiment, and Australians and New Zealanders. And here are their commanding officers. The division was commanded by General Jim Cassels.

After the ferocious three-day battle of Maryang San, the brigade successfully achieved its objectives. It is barely mentioned in British military history, but for the Australian 3 RAR [3rd Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment], it's a major battle honour, and quite right too. The commanding officer, Frank Hassett, earned an immediate DSO and later became head of their army [the Australian Army]. But Taylor was sacked.

I won't tell you too much about it for fear of influencing you with my thoughts. Suffice it to say, I had access to the papers of Taylor's appeal to the Army Council, which was upheld. He was subsequently given command of another brigade and Cassels later became CGS [Chief of the General Staff]. So why was he removed from command? Was he a scapegoat? Over to you.

Colonel Charles Bevan was held to blame by Wellington for allowing the French to escape from Almeida in the Peninsular War in 1811. His battalion, the 4th of Foot, were too late to prevent much of the French crossing the bridge at Barba del Puerco. There is no doubt that he was given orders late by the useless General Erskine, but was he too slow in the uptake?

Luckily for historians, he was an avid letter writer and many of his letters to his wife survived. Sadly, he committed suicide shortly afterwards and his memorial is in the little British military cemetery in Elvas in Portugal. Interestingly, his suicide was successfully covered up for some 32 years. Did he deserve the blame? Some of it, undoubtedly. But should Wellington have taken a bit more interest and allowed Bevan to defend himself? What would you have done?

My earliest scapegoat is the Marquis Dupleix in India in 1754 - Clive's opposite number, but no soldier. He was an administrator and a wily entrepreneur, we would call him today. But did he play his own game to the detriment of the French East Indies Company? Or carve an empire for them to rival the British? In the end, the French scuttled out of India as best they could, dropping Dupleix in it. He died in penury and disgrace in France.

I had two wonderful sources, one published in 1890, and the other in 1910, both totally opposed to each other in their judgement of Dupleix. Amazingly, both these books are in the biographical department of the Kensington and Chelsea library.

The highly popular General 'Dado' Elazar was held to blame for the Israeli lack of preparedness for the Yom Kippur War in 1973. While some blame can be attached to him, he more than made up for it during the war when people like Moshe Dayan effectively folded. Golda Meir needed a scapegoat and the Agranat Commission after the war conveniently delivered Elazar. But the population wouldn't have it and Golda Meir and her government fell soon afterwards.

I was helped enormously by Hanokh Bartov in Tel Aviv, a great friend of Elazar's, who kindly gave me an inscribed copy of his book on Dado as the only one here in the British Library is in Hebrew. Dado died of a heart attack, some say a broken heart, aged 52. I was also in touch with Elazar's son, Yair, who kindly reviewed my chapter.

A man who was extraordinarily treated, whatever blame may have been attached to him, was Jackie Smyth. The disaster of the blowing of the Sittang Bridge in Burma in 1942 was, for many years, taught at the Staff College of how not to carry out a bridge demolition operation. Whatever the rights and wrongs, Smyth was sacked, not just from his command, but from the Army by Wavell.

Smyth was a man with a VC [Victoria Cross] from the First World War, sent out to grass in the middle of a world war. Incredible. He described himself as a scapegoat for the loss of Burma.

My nugget in this case were the papers of General Hutton, Smyth's immediate superior in Rangoon, which are in the Liddell Hart Centre in Kings College London. While understandably defensive, it's not difficult to see what a desperate job he had, particularly dealing with a taciturn Wavell from afar.

Jackie Smyth himself was no mean writer, and one can detect from the papers at Kew how the official historian of that campaign must have smarted under Smyth's criticism. I was also able to discuss it with Brigadier John Randle, who'd been a young company commander at the bridge and seen much of his company decimated the other side, after it had been blown. Unsurprisingly, he had little time for Smyth.

The chapter you must on no account read before you put your light out at night is the one on the Rwanda massacres, and Roméo Dallaire in 1994. You will all know the outlines of this disaster, but I suggest that many people, including me before I went down this road, had really little conception of how useless the UN [United Nations] had been, and how supine was the Security Council, including I'm afraid the United Kingdom. The French come out of it worst, followed closely by the Belgians, who had the effrontery to court-martial Dallaire's right-hand man.

Dallaire is not a scapegoat - he sent me this photo personally - but he says he felt like one, and had the UN managed it, he surely would have been. Now a senator in the Canadian parliament, he was gracious enough to carry out red ink corrections on my draft, something he would have been personally familiar with, having attended the British Higher Command and Staff Course.

My most junior scapegoat is a lance corporal, and I'm very pleased to be able to include Robert Jessie Short. That's his gravestone. They say that history is written by the victors. Well, no one wants to expose their dirty laundry unnecessarily, and this goes for the war diary of the Étaples reinforcement depot in northern France in 1917.

Here is a contemporary map of Étaples, which is a bit difficult to see, but I thought you'd like to see it. Close reading of the diary at Kew reveals really very little problem, when in fact the place was a badly run hotchpotch of receiving dead, dying and wounded from the front, and training reinforcements, and men returning from leave in England to go the other way.

Not in regimental formed units, men were without their trusted leaders. The staff were not the best in the Army - they were at the front fighting. So you had all the ingredients of low moral - bad officers and non-commissioned officers, men being unnecessarily buggered about and confined to camp with not much to do. A classic for going wrong. And it did.

Short was one of those soldiers who was probably a nightmare in barracks, with drink too readily available, but robust in the field. He must, for instance, have fought on the Somme and someone thought he was good enough to be promoted. He was charged with inciting mutiny on this bridge at Étaples, court-martialled and executed.

Some commentators say that that was the standard of the time - death being the mandatory sentence for mutiny. I accept that it is a weakness of historians to judge actions in the past by the standards of today. However, you can still judge something by the law at the time with a balanced and fair view. This was the view of others more qualified than me, because Short was pardoned in 2006. Did he deserve what he got by the standards of the time?

Lastly, let me turn to my two Americans. The Battle of Gettysburg is deeply embedded in the American psyche, for all the reasons that you will know well. I was a bit of a novice about the battle, but when I read accounts, it seemed to me that Longstreet, while not without criticism - look closely and you can see a button undone! - nevertheless was certainly not to blame for the loss of the battle, the war and the Confederacy, which Jubal Early and his cronies so desperately wanted to prove, thus maintaining the myth of their god, Robert E Lee.

I had no conception of how powerful the vitriol was, which came from the lost cause and their journal, the Southern Historical Society Papers. Did Longstreet sulk in his tent before day two of the battle because he couldn't get his way? Or did Lee fail to give him firm and crystal clear orders?

In the 1930s, eminent historians such as Douglas Freeman, were highly critical of Longstreet. But as time went on and people realised how badly he'd been treated, albeit some of it his own making, views changed. And I wonder what yours will be.

My final scapegoat today is Captain Charles McVay III, captain of the USS 'Indianapolis', which was torpedoed in the Philippines in 1945, having delivered parts of the atomic bomb for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Court-martialled and convicted for failing to take anti-submarine precautions with his ship, he later shot himself. But there were other people in the frame, as you can see in the book. It also has one of the rare happy endings, but sadly too late for McVay.

Let me finish by saying that there's an old adage that everyone has a book in them. Well, this may be true, but having written it, you have to get it on the shelves. Persuading a publisher in the days of e-books, Kindles and iPads of this world, and large discounts to the online booksellers such as Amazon, is not that easy.

Having secured your contract, however, it's not good enough to deliver the manuscript and retire to your garret. There is still much work to be done. Editing, I was on three emails a day with my editor, proof reading, source identification and photograph map accreditation and copyright permission and indexing.

Finally, you can write the best book in the world, but if it doesn't reach the public, what is the point? So good marketing is essential.

Well, I'm glad to say I was blessed with a marvellous publishing team, and I hope you enjoy reading the book as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Thank you all very much.

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