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Blighty wounds and deserters

George Lee was among the later reinforcements to join the war, arriving in the trenches near Antwerp in April 1918. By this time, conditions at the front line were intolerable. There were only two ways out; death or injury. In this excerpt, Lee remembers the different methods men employed to be invalided out of the trenches.

Year:1918 (Recorded 1981)

Location:Western Front

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Blighty wounds and deserters

George Lee was among the later reinforcements to join the war, arriving in the trenches near Antwerp in April 1918. By this time, conditions at the front line were intolerable. There were only two ways out; death or injury. In this excerpt, Lee remembers the different methods men employed to be invalided out of the trenches.


Year: 1918 (Recorded 1981)

Length: 1:25

Production Company: Radio New Zealand

Credits: Producer: Jack Perkins

Source: Radio New Zealand Collection, Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision

Catalogue Reference: Spectrum 383/384, Career by the King’s shilling


People: George Lee, Jack Perkins

Location: Western Front


Image Title: Injured soldiers are loaded on to an ambulance for evacuation to a Dressing Station.

Image Source: Screengrab from Work of the New Zealand Medical Corps, 1917 (Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision, Film Collection F4310)


Although desertion was not common in the Commonwealth Armies, many hoped for a ‘Blighty wound’- a wound which was severe enough to require repatriation to England (nick-named “Blighty”) for a lengthy recovery, but which would not cause death or life-long disfigurement or disability.

A Canadian by birth, George Lee served with the British Army and later migrated to New Zealand. In this excerpt from a hour-long radio documentary, he describes men shooting their hands, or holding them up during machine gun fire hoping to be shot. A wound to the hand meant a soldier was unable to hold or fire a gun and was therefore not much use on the battlefield. Such an injury would result in the soldier being sent away from the fighting.

The consequences for a self-inflicted wound (SIW) were severe if discovered. The official punishment was execution, but in reality, no soldier received this sentence; all 3,894 British soldiers convicted of SIW[1] did receive lengthy prison sentences.

Execution was carried out for desertion, however. 346 British and Commonwealth soldiers were executed for crimes such as desertion and cowardice during the war. Five of those were from the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. The New Zealanders received an official pardon in 2000 when the New Zealand government passed the Pardon for Soldiers of the Great War Act.[2]

Interestingly, the Australian Army did not execute anyone as it followed the Commonwealth Defence Act 1903 rather than the British Army Act 1881, which stated that a death sentence should only be passed for mutiny, treachery or desertion to the enemy.[3]  

[1] ‘Blighty wounds’, URL: http://spartacus-educational.com/FWWblighty.htm, (Spartacus Educational), updated January 2015

[2] 'New Zealand soldier executed', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/page/first-new-zealand-soldier-executed, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 27-Jul-2017

[3] ‘Desertion and the death penalty’, URL: https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/encyclopedia/desertion, (Australian War Memorial), 2017.