IN his book Somme: Into the Breach, published in paperback this month, renowned historian Hugh Sebag-Montefiore

examines the Somme offensive from start to its finish in November 1916.

He attempts to explain why the Big Push was a failure: "The main reason why it failed was that the generals were inexperienced and didn’t use common sense. But I also wanted to show the human heartbreak behind the statistics."

For the families of two Bradford soldiers, shot by their own men, the heartbreak was particularly painful.

Writes Hugh: "In June 1916 Privates Herbert Crimmins, 32, and Arthur Wild, 24, were ration carriers in the 18th Battalion, the West Yorkshire Regiment (2nd Bradford Pals) on the Somme.

At midday on the eve of the battle, ration carriers were warned not to leave the camp at Bus les Artois. Unwisely, Crimmins and Wild disobeyed, creeping out to a local estaminet at about 2pm. They hadn’t returned by 4pm, when their officer had the order to march to the front line.

After leaving the estaminet, they slept in a cornfield till dusk. Too frightened to return, they moved around the Somme rear area, finally handing themselves in on July 4.

They missed the attack, and were charged with desertion, their court martial taking place on August 21, 1916. It’s not clear whether they were represented, of whether two crucial pieces of evidence were challenged.

An NCO testified that he told them to be ready to go to the front line trench area at 5.45pm. If true, it could be argued they had intended to avoid impending action.

General Sir Douglas Haig, commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force, subsequently stated that notwithstanding the rule permitting the absolute penalty for any man absent without leave,

men would only be executed if they deserted deliberately.

But had they? It seems unlikely that a corporal would have known about the plan to move to the trenches before his superior officer. And Arthur Wild claimed he was fearful of the consequences of giving himself in and he couldn’t

stand the noise of the guns.

If Wild meant that neither he nor Crimmins had been told about the imminent move, but merely wanted to be temporarily free of the fear of being sent to the front, that might have fallen outside Haig’s definition

of what was inexcusable. If the court martial’s recommendations had been presented to their brigadier and the

intervening commanders up to Haig without further comment, it’s probable that the men would have escaped serious punishment. Although the court condemned them to death, it unanimously recommended clemency because

Crimmins had a good character and Wild had been suffering from shell shock. However, when their commanding officer sent the court martial papers, he added derogatory comments about both men.

What cannot be justified is the way he reached his verdict, depriving the men of the chance to argue their case.

The two men were shot by firing squads on September 5, 1916, and buried nearby.

"I feel very said that these men were treated so harshly," says Hugh. "Apart from anything else Private Arthur Wild had been suffering from shell shock before he went to the estaminet, thereby avoiding going up to the front line with his pals. One cannot imagine anything more unfair than to then execute him for being frightened of the guns. Both men had volunteered and had done their duty until this one breach of discipline led to their downfall. It was one of the most terrible stories I heard in all the time I was researching the book."