by Simon Webb
Barnsley, Eng.: Pen & Sword / Philadelphia: Casemate, 2021. Pp. xii,188+.
Illus., appends, biblio., index. $34.00. ISBN: 1526790955
Capital Punishment and American Forces in Britain
Webb is a British author of both non-fiction and westerns. Before Fighting, Webb’s most recent work is A History of Torture in Britain, published in 2019 by Pen & Sword Books. On the surface, Fighting for The United States, Executed in Britain, looks to explore those US servicemen who were court-martialed and sentenced to death during the Second World War. Distinctively, men who were stationed in Britain between 1942 and 1945. The prison where these sentences were carried out was Shepton Mallet Prison in Somerset, England. The difficulty in reviewing this book is the misleading title and back jacket. On the surface it seems that the main argument to be made will be about an often-forgotten aspect of the Second World War in which we find that 18 men were sentenced to death by hanging or firing squad. An argument that discusses the complex nature of standing an army in a foreign country while fighting a war across the English Channel. Instead, we find an entirely different book.
From the onset of the introduction, it becomes quite clear to the reader that the author intends to explore the mechanics and processes surrounding hanging in England, and how capital punishment is handled in general. Of the seventeen chapters in the book, chapter six is when the author finally gets around to discussing the servicemen mentioned in the title. The first five chapters of the book are broken down to discussing the beginnings of the United States and what the author claims is America’s distaste for Treaties and Agreements with other countries. He continues with this line of thinking in the second chapter, when he discusses the agreement made to have American soldiers who commit crimes in Britain be tried by court-marshal under the United States, not by British courts. A discussion is then had about the prison itself, and the mechanics of hanging both in America and Great Britain in chapters four and five respectively. On the surface the next ten chapters finally get around to discussing the men of the title. However, no real sub arguments are made, and the ten chapters could have been two or three. Chapters sixteen and seventeen fall in line with the actual main argument presented over the first five chapters of the book. It must be noted at this point that at no time does the author cite any sources regarding claims made in the book. Of the twenty-seven sources listed in the Bibliography, only one is a primary source.
Calling the book flawed would be putting it nicely. The reality is that it is the author continuing a previous work of his that is also listed as a source for this book. In 2012 the author published a book titled, Execution: A History of Capital Punishment in Britain. When reading Fighting, this book is just a continuation of Execution. The only cohesive argument made by the author is that Great Britain is better at hanging people than any country in the world. He devotes one chapter to this and half of a few more to remind the reader of this statement. Throughout the book the author makes wild and bizarre claims without citing any evidence or citations of where the author gathers information to support the claim. It reads more like an essay for a lecture than a historical account.
Despite the gargantuan number of flaws in Fighting, the author does provide a glimpse into a project for historians to explore. Whether or not this was the intention is unclear. Amidst all the chaos, the exploration of US servicemen, particularly those service members of color, being court-martialed during the Second World War is important. This exploration was presented to the reader on the back jacket of the book. It never came to fruition. The use of extreme caution is advised in reading this book. Webb presents a textbook case of what not to do as a historian. Citations and evidence are paramount to making an argument. Without, it just becomes a rambling lecture with a hint of conspiracy theory.
Our Reviewer: Zane A. Whitney, Jr., is an independent researcher and military historian who holds a BA in History, and an MA in World War II Studies from Arizona State University. He’s a member of the Society of Military History, New York Military Affairs Symposium, and The Second World War Research Group: North American Region. He currently resides in Colorado with his wife and twin sons. More information on his writings can be found on his site which can be found here: https://asu.digication.com/zane-whitney/home-1.
Note: Fighting for the United States, Executed in Britain is also available in several e-editions.
StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium