1 May 2022

Coward - Life, Death and Shell-Shock in the Trenches of World War One

During the First World War several hundred British soldiers were court martialed for cowardice. In the great majority of the cases the soldiers involved were conscripts who went on to be executed by firing squad.  Yet many of these soldiers were suffering from what we now call shell-shock.  It was many decades before this issue was finally confronted and the men were given pardons – much, much too late you might well say.

Coward is a short film which addresses the often brutal treatment meted out to those men.  It follows the journey of two cousins from Northern Ireland, Andrew and James, who enlist to fight in the trenches alongside their countrymen.  Like many young men at the time they joined up to both fight for their country and to make their families back home proud of them – they had no real idea of the hell of 1917 Ypres in to which they were about to march.

If you teach history or the poetry of World War One (Wilfred Owen suffered from shell-shock himself but as an officer was afforded much better treatment than the conscripted soldiers we see in this film) then I believe that Coward would make a great, short accompaniment to your lessons based around the Great War.  It is under half an hour in length and gives great visual insight in to the conditions in which the soldiers were expected to live and fight in the trench – the gruesome discovery of a body in the film is not for the faint hearted however!  In the UK I would imagine that this would be suitable for pupils preparing for their GCSE in either history of English but you should be warned that it does contain some strong language.

Yet Coward does provoke thought – and so discussion – about how ordinary soldiers were treated in World War One.  Their absolute disconnect from the natural world is extremely well portrayed here and Coward very ably shows the journey from young, well-scrubbed enlistees to battle weary troops to court martial to execution. 

Coward was directed by David Roddham and produced by Dave Komaroni with cinematography by Stephen Murphy.