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Gentlemen, Your Verdict | Summary and Analysis

Summary of Gentlemen, Your Verdict by Michael Bruce

Not widely known or acclaimed as a writer, his story, “Gentlemen, Your Verdict” was written during one of his postings, being inspired by a barrack argument over an issue that mirrors the central question of the story – is a commander entitled to kill some of his men in order to save others? The story is set inside the frame narrative of a courtroom trial, with the witnesses describing the events of the story. The story is narrated in a limited third-person narrative. 

Michael Bruce was an officer in the Canadian Army in the Second World War. 

Gentlemen, Your Verdict | Summary

The story begins in medias res, with the next witness, Torpedoman Preece, being summoned to the witness box. As he goes forward, we see Lieutenant Paull having a traumatic flashback of the bodies of fifteen dead men lying in front, and five of them standing in stunned, heavy silence, the clatter of the cups of the dead still echoing in his ears. As Preece begins narrating his version of the events that led to the death of the fifteen, Lt. Paull put fingers in his ears, not wanting to relive the trauma, having already heard four versions of it, Preece being the fifth. While all the events matched, ‘each sentence struck the lieutenant like the lash of a whip.’ 

We are informed that the lieutenant and the other crew members were in a submarine when a mine exploded against it, damaging the submarine. The explosion happens around 2;30 in the afternoon and the submarine partially rolls over and rose, flinging the crew members on top of each other. The captain of the crew, Lt. Commander Oram immediately instructs the crew to turn off the engines and blow the ballast tanks in order to lighten their weight and rise rapidly to the surface. While the engines stop, preventing the sub from colliding with the ocean floor and crumbling, the ship still continues to dive deeper. Its steering gears are jammed, and no scope of performing an emergency ballast tank blow is left to the captain and the crew. At this moment, the sub touches the ocean floor, the impact throwing its members off the ground again. As the Lt. Commander asks them to report their instruments, they realize that the bow planes are trapped in sand and are immovable, while their radio is damaged, although still working. Their propellers are gone, tanks flooded and the steering and hatches jammed. Miraculously, the submarine does not appear to have a leak, saving the crew from the immediate danger of drowning. The entire crew is injured, two severely, and one member is found dead.

Upon the Commander’s orders, they call up the shore station, informing them their tender i.e., a depot ship that supplies submarines and provides emergency care and support, caught a whiff of the explosion. As Captain Oram takes over the call, he informs the station officer about the extent of damage that the submarine has suffered, giving him their approximate location, assuring that they have oxygen enough to survive about two days, assuming that it would be plenty of time for the crew to arrive. The caller on the other side, however, is not so hopeful. After his conversation with the shore station, Captain Oram informs Lieutenant Paull that the tender has caught some of the explosion, followed by a storm that has drifted her far way, while the second nearest one is in a dry dock, four hundred miles away, not close enough to rescue them in time. The rescue planes are laid off till the end of the storm and would be unable to carry the required equipment to rescue the crew trapped inside the sub, making rescue impossible for the next five to seven days. The realization that they only have oxygen enough for two days dawns upon them. 

Getting a grip on himself, the captain orders the Lieutenant to get drinks served to all the crewmen, with instructions to send the married crew members to him following the drink. A puzzled Paull obeys, as the narrative is wrenched back to the present, with Torpedoman Preece testifying in front of the court, startling the reader. Preece continues with the story, informing that he and the other four other married men go to the captain after gulping their drinks, as instructed. They are informed that four of them are to carry out a ‘special’ task, one that could only be done by men with families, and they draw lots to decide which ones will be assigned. As the men join their crewmates, Captain Oram calls the shore station again, seeking an update on the rescue situation. A pause is followed by him asking the caller if he is ‘absolutely certain’ about the situation, which the reader knows is the hopelessness of them being rescued on time. 

With a pale face, the captain orders the crew to assemble, serving them drinks and instructing the married men to drink from five white cups while he takes the sixth one. As the drinks are served, Captain Oram thanks his crew for their cooperation, support, and courage, declaring that they are the finest that he has commanded. Asking them to collect their drinks one by one, married ones last, he proposes a toast to his crew, all of them drinking together. As soon as the men drink, they die, choking and falling, leaving only the Captain, the Lieutenant, and four others behind. The Captain informs the remaining crew members about the existing rescue situation, which previously stood at two days oxygen supply for fifteen days, but for five men, the oxygen will be enough for seven days until help arrives. He hands over the command to Lt. Paull and calls up the shore station again, informing them of his decision to murder fifteen of his crew members to save at least five. Claiming all responsibility, he informs the officer about his decision to join the other crew members in death by committing suicide. At the threat of being court-marshaled, he defiantly asserts that he could either let all of them die or save as many as possible. 

As Preece ends his testimony, the president of the court leaves the verdict to the officers around to decide whether the surviving crew is guilty or not.

Gentlemen, Your Verdict | Analysis

The story is written in deceptively simple language, surrounding a central moral question, whether the captain’s decision is justifiable. The author seems to direct the readers to a positive answer, suggesting that the answer is yes. The captain sacrificed not only his crew members but also himself in order to save the five men with families, whose deaths will arguably impact more people as compared to bachelors. The lack of timely decision-making will ensure that all of them die, so the captain adopts the best possible alternative. At the end of the testimony, the president’s decision of leaving the judgment to the officers around him seems to symbolize the author’s act of ultimately leaving the verdict on his reader. 

Gentlemen, Your Verdict | Themes

Leadership– Captain Oram is portrayed as a capable and courageous call, being able to take an incredibly difficult decision in a very short span of time that enabled him to save at least five members of his crew, sacrificing his own life in the process. He also makes sure that none of the other men know about his intentions, clearing them of all potential blame and responsibility.

Justice/Judgement– The theme of justice is intrinsic to this story, which seems to suggest that not all actions can be judged in a black-and-white binary of good and bad. The captain’s actions of poisoning fifteen crew members can certainly be termed murder. However, the entirety of the context justifies the sheer necessity of his actions without which, not even a single man would have survived.

 

 

 

 

 

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