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Firing Squad at Dawn - Executions in World War One (WWI)
'Shot at Dawn memorial'. Photo by NMAguide (Detail)
World War 1 Executions: Shot at Dawn
In the final, bitter-sweet, episode of the Blackadder series ~ 'Blackadder Goes Fo(u)rth' ~ the comedy suddenly, unexpectedly, but quite rightly and appropriately, turns very serious. It is 1917, in the trenches of France, and the team are about to go 'over the top'.
As they stand ready, awaiting orders, all becomes silent. Guns stop firing. The men hope that it is a permanent ceasefire ~ that the war is over.
But Captain Blackadder dashes their hopes, saying:
"The guns have stopped, because we are about to attack. Not even our generals are mad enough to shell their own men."
But that is not exactly true.
The allies did, indeed, kill their own men. Sometimes there may have been accidents, but that is not what I mean. From time to time, allied officers, quite deliberately, ordered the execution of their own men.
They were shot at dawn ~ or whatever hour was considered suitable ~ by firing squad ~ a squad made up, perhaps, of their own comrades; certainly of their fellow troops!
Over The Top Blackadder Goes Fourth Final Scene
Let us consider these executions in World War One ...
Copyright and Correctness
This is a very sad, but fascinating, topic.
I hope that I have done this important subject justice.
I apologise for any errors. Please let me know if you find any.
It is sometimes difficult to be sure that the information in secondary sources is correct.
There is a lot of data online and I have listed most of my sources in the 'Links' section or, where appropriate, with the text..
Copyright Tricia Mason. All Rights Reserved.
Over The Top - Blackadder - Final series, Final Episode, Final Scene
- Private Abigail J H
- Private Adamson J S
- Labourer Ahmed M M
- Private Ainley G
- Sergeant Alexander W
- Private Allsop A E
- Private Anderson J A
- Private Anderson W
- Private Ansted A T
- Private Archibald J
- Private Arnold F S
- Lance-Sergeant Ashton H
- Lance CorporalAtkinson A
- Private Auger F
- Private Baker W
- Private Ball J
- Private Barker W
- Private Barnes J E
- Rifleman Barratt F M
- Private Bateman F
- Private Bateman J
- Private Beaumont E A
- Sapper Beeby E
- Driver Bell J
- Rifleman Bellamy W
- Private Benham W
- Private Bennett J
- Private Black P
- Private Bladen F C H
- Private Blakemore D J
- Private Bolton E
- Private Botfield A
- Private Bowerman W
- Private Brennan J
- Private Briggs A
- Private Briggs J
- Private Brigham T
- Private Britton C
- Private Broadrick F
- Private Brown A
- Private Brown A
- Private Bryant E
- Private Burden H F
- Private Burrell W H
- Private Burton R
- Private Butcher F C
- Private Byers J
- Private Byrne S\Monaghan M
- Private Cairnie W
- Private Cameron J
- Private Card E A
- Private Carey J
- Private Carr J
- Private Carter H G
- Private Carter H
- Private Cassidy J
- Private Chase H
- Rifleman Cheeseman F W
- Private Clarke H A
- Private Clarke W
- Private Collins G
- Private Comte G
- Private Crampton J
- Private Crimmins H
- Private Crozier J
- Private Cummings T
- Private Cunnington S
- Private Cuthbert J
- Private Cutemore G
- Private Dalande H
- Private Davis R M
- Private Davis T
- Private Degasse A C
- Private DeLargey E
- Private DeLisle L
- Private Dennis J J
- Private Depper C
- Private Docherty J
- Private Docherty T
- Rifleman Donovan T
- Rifleman Donovan T
- Private Dossett W
- Private Downey P
- Private Downing T
- Sub Lt Dyett E (RNVR)
- Private Earl W
- Private Earp A G
- Private Elford L
- Private Evans A
- Private Eveleigh A
- Private Everill G
- Private Fairburn E
- Private Farr H
- Private Fatoma A
- Private Fellows E
- Private Ferguson J
- Private Flynn H
- Private Foulkes T
- Private Fowles S
- Private Fox J
- Lance CorporalFox J S V
- Private Frafra A
- Private Fraser E
- Private Fryer J
- Private Gawler R
- Private Gibson D
- Private Giles P
- Sergeant Gleadow G E
- Lance CorporalGoggins P
- Private Gore F C
- Private Graham J
- Private Haddock A J
- Driver Hamilton T G
- Private Hamilton/Blanchard A
- Private Hanna G
- Rifleman Harding F
- Private Harris E W
- Private Harris L
- Private Harris T
- Private Harris/Bevistein A
- Private Hart B
- Private Hartells H H
- Driver Hasemore J W
- Private Hawkins T
- Lance CorporalHawthorne F
- Private Hendricks H
- Private Higgins J
- Private Higgins J M
- Private Highgate T J
- Private Hodgetts O W
- Lance CorporalHolland J
- Private Holmes A
- Private Holt E
- Private Hope R
- Private Hope T
- Private Hopkins T
- Private Horler E
- Private Hughes F
- Lance CorporalHughes G E
- Private Hughes J
- Private Hunt W
- Private Hunter G
- Private Hunter W
- Rifleman Hyde J J
- Private Ingham A
- Rifleman Irish/Lee G
- Lance CorporalIrvine W J
- Corporal Ives F
- Private Jackson E
- Private Jeffries A L
- Private Jennings J
- Private Johnson F/Charlton J
- Private Jones J T
- Private Jones R M
- Private Jones W
- Gunner Jones/Fox W
- Private Kerr H H
- Private Kershaw J
- Private King J
- Private Kirk E
- Private Kirman C H
- Private Knight H J
- Private LaLancette J
- Private LaLiberte C
- Driver Lamb A
- Corporal Latham G
- Private Lawrence E A
- Corporal Lewis C
- Private Lewis G
- Private Lewis J
- Private Ling W N
- Private Loader F
- Private Lodge H E J
- Private Longshaw A
- Private Lowton G H
- Private MacDonald H
- Lance CorporalMacDonald J
- Private Mackness E
- Sapper Malyon F
- Lance CorporalMamprusi A
- Private Martin H
- Private Mayers J
- Rifleman McBride S
- Private McClair H/Rowland
- Private McColl C F
- Rifleman McCracken J E
- Private McCubbin B
- Private McFarlane J
- Private McGeehan B
- Private McQuade J
- Private Michael J S
- Private Milburn J B
- Private Milligan C M
- Private Mills G
- Private Mitchell A
- Private Mitchell L
- Private Moles T L
- Private Molyneaux J
- Lance CorporalMoon W A
- Private Morris H
- Driver Mullany J
- Private Murphy H T
- Private Murphy A
- Private Murphy P
- Private Murphy W
- Private Murray R
- Private Neave W
- Private Nelson W B
- Private Nicholson C B
- Private Nisbet J
- Private O'Connell B
- Private O'Neill F
- Private O'Neill A
- Private Palmer H
- Rifleman Parker A E
- Private Parry A
- Private Pattison R G
- Private Penn M
- Private Perry E
- Private Phillips L R
- Private Phillips W T H
- Private Pitts A
- 2nd. Lt Poole E S
- Private Poole H
- Corporal Povey G H
- Private Randle W H
- Corporal Reid J
- Private Reid I
- Private Reynolds E J
- Private Richmond M R
- Private Rickman A
- Private Rigby T H B
- Private Roberts J W
- Private Roberts W W
- Sergeant Robins J J
- Private Robinson A H
- Private Robinson J
- Private Robinson W
- Private Roe G E
- Private Rogers J
- Drummer Rose F
- Private Sabongida S
- Private Salter H
- Lance CorporalSands P
- Private Scholes W
- Private Scotton W
- Private Seymour J
- Private Sheffield F
- Private Simmonds W H
- Private Sims R W
- Private Siniski D
- Private Skilton C W F
- Private Slade F W
- Private Sloane J
- Private Smith J C
- Rifleman Smith J
- Private Smith W
- Private Smith W
- Private Smythe A
- Driver Spencer J
- Private Spencer V M
- Private Spry W T
- Private Stead F
- Private Steadman J B
- Private Stevenson D
- Private Stevenson R
- Private Stewart S
- Lance-Sergeant Stones J W
- Private Swain J
- Driver Swaine J W
- Trooper Sweeney J J
- Private Tanner E
- Private Taylor J
- Private Taylor J
- Private Taysum N H
- Rifleman Templeton J
- Private Thomas J
- Private Thompson A D
- Private Thompson W L
- Private Tite R T
- Private Tongue J
- Private Troughton A
- Private Turner F
- Private Turpie W J
- Sergeant Wall J T
- Lance-Sergeant Walton W
- Private Ward G
- Private Ward T
- Private Watkins G
- Private Watts T W
- Private Watts W
- Private Webb H J
- Private Welsh C
- Private Westwood A H
- Private Wild A
- Private Williams H
- Private Wilson J H
- Corporal Wilton J
- Private Wishard J
- Rifleman Woodhouse J
- Private Worsley E
- Private Wright F
- Private Wycherley W
- Rifleman Yeoman W
- Private Young E
- Private Young R.
These names can be found, published on other sites ~ notably http://ahoy.tk-jk.net/macslog/ShotatDawnWW1ArmyExecutio.html.
I trust that the owners will not mind me reproducing those names here.
Why Were They Executed?
Some soldiers were executed, apparently, because thay had committed genuine serious crimes.
Most were shot for desertion or related 'crimes'.
Many were suffering from what was then termed 'shell shock' ~ post traumatic stress.
The 306, for whom the 'Shot at Dawn' campaign worked, were those executed for desertion and cowardice ~ many of whom were, most probably, suffering physical and / or mental health issues, owing to the experiences of war.
British and Empire / Commonwealth soldiers were executed; but what about other nationalities?
First, we should note that not all members of the Commonwealth allowed their men to be shot. Australia's contingent were all volunteers and their government would not allow any of them to be executed. Furthermore, though 24 United States soldiers were sentenced to death for desertion, none were actually killed.
France allowed execution, and about 600 French soldiers were shot dead. Apparently, in December 1914, a French-Algerian Company disobeyed orders and refused to attack. In response to this, every 10th man in the unit was shot.
Germany also allowed execution, but, of the approximately 150,000 soldiers, who dled the battlefield, only 18 were captured and shot.
See links for source.
Who Were The Executed?
A list of the 306 British and Commonwealth men shot for desertion and cowardice is online ~ and I reproduce the names here.
They were living through hell on earth and some were very young.
It is possible to find some of their stories in newspapers and on websites ~ including the first and last to die ~ and the first officer to lose his life in this way.
Those executed included 22 Irishmen, 23 Canadians and 5 New Zealanders
[One source, which I consulted for Canadian numbers, is no longer available as a link. It was: List of Canadian soldiers executed during World War - Summary - BookRags.com]
The First 'British and Commonwealth' Execution - Thomas Highgate
The first British soldier to be executed for desertion, during the First World War, was Private Thomas Highgate.
Thomas James Highgate was born in 1895 and died on September 8th 1914 ~ very early in the war. Highgate was a Kent farm worker when he joined the Royal West Kent Regiment. He was tried (court martialled) and sentenced to death on 6 September 1914.
According to Wikipedia, Highgate claimed to be a 'straggler', seeking to rejoin his regiment, having become separated from his comrades, who had, anyway, been killed.
He was shot at dawn ~ 7.07am. He was 19.
According to Kate Watson-Smyth, writing in 'The Independent', in March 2000, Private Highgate was 'pardoned by the people of his birth town 86 years later'. However, she adds that the local branch of the British Legion say that their 'vote will count for nothing, and Pte Highgate should not be remembered with war heroes'.
The Last 'British and Commonwealth' Execution - Victor Manson
New Zealander, Victor Manson Spencer, was born in 1894 and died in February 1918.
Spencer, a volunteer member of the NZ Otago Regiment, was the last soldier to be executed during the First World War.
His official crime was desertion, but the reason, as with so many others, was probably 'shell-shock', since he had been involved in a number of battles.
In 2005, the New Zealand government granted him a posthumous pardon.
A Canadian Example - William Alexander
William Alexander was born in 1880 and died on 18 October 1917.
Alexander volunteered to join the Canadian Army when the First World War broke out. He was not a Canadian by birth, but he was born in the UK. He had served 8 years in the British Army, before emigrating to Canada.
He arrived in France in 1915. That year, as a sergeant with the 10th Battalion, he fought at the Battle of Ypres and the Battle of Festubert. The following year, he fought at the Battle of Mount Sorrel.
In 1917, he was treated for a knee problem and then sent back to his depleted battalion, where he was made a Platoon Sergeant. He was to be involved in diversionary tactics, to 'draw some of the German forces from the ongoing battles at Passchendaele' (as noted by Wikipedia). However, Alexander could not be found.
He was later discovered in a nearby village. He claimed to be 'sick', but had not reported it ~ simply disappeared.
His battalian had suffered around 400 casualties and it was ordered back from the front line while Alexander was missing.
Sergeant William Alexander was tried on 29 September 1917 and executed on 18 October 1917
Triple Execution - Stones, Goggins, McDonald
Peter Goggins, who was born in Durham, in 1894, became a miner.
When war broke out, in 1914, he was not supposed to sign up, because he was working in an 'essential', or 'reserved', occupation ~ ie work that was vital to the well-being of the country. However, in spite of this, men were expected to volunteer ~ and many were keen to do so.
Goggins joined up and became a member of the 19th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry.
He died on January 18th, 1917.
Many young men died that year, but few were killed deliberately, by their own side, as Goggins was.
What had happened?
According to various sources, available on the Internet, the event in question occurred on November 26th when Lance Corporal Peter Goggins and Corporal John McDonald were on duty together, in a dugout on the front line, close to the town of Arras. Goggins was in charge of six other men at the time. Suddenly, Sergeant Joseph Stones ~ an officer senior to them, who had been reconnoitring further ahead ~ ran by, shouting an order to them: "Run for your lives, the Huns are on top of you!" As commanded, the two men moved back ~ away from the reported ambush. They did not 'run away'; they simply retreated to a reserve trench, only about 18 metres away. In truth, the Germans were not 'on top of them' ~ Stones had made an error of judgement.
Goggins was later charged with deserting his post ~ as was McDonald. Both men were sentenced to death, at a Court Martial, on Christmas Eve, 1916 ~ despite the fact that they had only retreated, and did not run away, and that this retreat was a result of an order by a senior officer. Sergeant Joseph Stones confirmed that this was the case.
According to Wikipedia, 'The sentences were supported by Brigadier-General H O'Donnell, who wrote that he had doubts about the quality of the evidence, but felt that the executions were necessary to set an example to other men in the battalion'.
Lance Sergeant Joseph William (Will) Stones, Lance Corporal Peter Goggins and Corporal John McDonald were executed, together, on January 18th, 1917 ~ a unique triple execution. Wikipedia notes that 'The chaplain who prayed with them, before their deaths, remarked that he had never met three braver men'.
Like Goggins, Stones, born 1892, was also from County Durham, and had also been a miner before the war. He, too, volunteered to serve. In 1914 he was rejected because of his height, but he persevered, and was accepted in 1915. According to The Guardian, he 'had earned four bravery testimonials'.
Apparently, Stones' senior officer, Lieutenant Mundy, had been shot and he sent Stones for help. There was a problem with the safety catch on his rifle, so he 'jammed it across the trench to slow down the advancing German soldiers'. Consequently, in spite of Mundy's protestations, Stones was convicted of 'shamefully casting away his rifle in the face of the enemy'.
The Guardian newspaper reported that a Private, named Albert Rochester, had witnessed the execution. He described it thus:
"A motor ambulance arrives carrying the doomed men. Manacled and blindfolded, they are helped out and tied up to the stakes. Over each man's heart is placed an envelope. At the sign of command, the firing parties, 12 for each, align their rifles on the envelopes. The officer in charge holds his stick aloft and, as it falls, 36 bullets usher the souls of three of Kitchener's men to the great unknown."
More of Rochester's story is given in The Independent:
"As a military prisoner, I helped clear the traces ... I helped carry those bodies towards their last resting place. I took the belongings from the dead men's tunics ...A few letters, a pipe, a photo. I could tell you of the silence of the military police after reading a letter from a little girl to 'Dear Daddy', of the blood-stained snow that horrified the French peasants, of the chaplain's confession that braver men he had never met than those three men he prayed with just before the fatal dawn. I could take you to the graves of the murdered."
Peter Goggins was only 22-year-old. His mother and his 19-year-old wife, of six months, were devastated. The former had a breakdown; the latter simply disappeared.
The families of these men were ashamed at what had happened to them.
Three Teenage Boys - Nelson, Bevistein, Crozier
William (Billy) Nelson, of the 14 Durham Light Infantry Battalion, was only 19. Dennis Ellam told his story, and that of Aby Bevistein, in the Sunday Mirror.
Billy had volunteered when he was only 17 and should not have been accepted because he was under-age. As he was about to go to war, his terrified mother had a heart attack and died. The boy was grief-stricken ~ and he had to find care for his younger siblings. That was the state of play when he was sent to France and soon found himself in battle ~ Ypres and Loos.
He was injured and spent several weeks in hospital. Still grieving for his mother on the anniversary of her death, he then heard that his father was losing his sight. Physically and emotionally exhausted, he simply wandered off. Punishment was followed by a return to the trenches.
A few months later, still battle-weary, and very hungry, he wandered off, again, and went into a small town, seeking food for himself and his fellow soldiers. Two officers saw him and he was jailed.
It was said that he "deliberately absented himself, with the sole object of avoiding duty in the trenches". He was later executed for going absent without leave.
According to The Guardian, an officer stated that "This is a bad case of deliberate desertion to avoid duty in the trenches by an old offender. Pte Nelson is not a good fighting soldier. I recommend that the sentence of death be carried out ... If [it] is commuted ... it will encourage others."
His niece said: "They used him as cannon fodder for two years and then just discarded him. Never in all these years has any of my family felt ashamed - the shame is with the officers".
Abraham (Aby) Bevistein was even younger than Billy Nelson.
He joined up when he was only 15 or 16 ~ definitely under age! ~ and he became a member of the 11th Battalion Middlesex Regiment.
His back was injured, and he suffered shock, on Christmas Eve, 1915, but was soon back in the trenches.
Within weeks, he was again traumatised, when a grenade exploded beside him. He told his Medical Officer how he felt, but was sent back to his position. In his shell-shocked confusion, he wandered off.
He was arrested, court-martialled and sentenced to death. This under-age boy should have been sent home, but he was executed at dawn on March 20, 1916. He was 16 or 17.
Included in letters sent home to his mother were the following lines:
After suffering back injury:
"Dear Mother, I know it will break your heart but don't get upset about it. I will be alright."
After his arrest:
"We were in the trenches and I was ill so I went out and they took me to prison and I am in a bit of trouble now and won't get any money for a long time. I will have to go in front of a court. I will try my best to get out of it, so don't worry. But, dear mother, try to send some money. From your loving son Aby."
Aby's story has been published:
'DIE HARD, ABY!: Abraham Bevistein - The Boy Soldier Shot to Encourage the Others' - By David Lister
Belfast boy, James Crozier, was only 16 when he was shot at dawn.
According to the 'historylearningsite', 'there was a very real fear that the men in the firing squad would disobey the order to shoot'.
Before being carried out to the post, the boy was given enough rum to make him barely conscious. He should not have been there. He was under-age. He was ordered to be shot dead, by his comrades, for desertion.
Crozier's story can be found on the website of militaryphotos.net
James Crozier enlisted very early in the war ~ September 1914. He was only 16 and, at the recruiting office, his mother begged him not to sign up. He was her only son, and too young to go to war. Apparently, Major Crozier was there, and he promised the anxious woman that he would look after her son. However, when James, cold, wet, dazed, confused, miserable and in pain, after spending the 1915-1916 winter in the Somme trenches, wandered off, this officer ~ the man who had promised to 'see that no harm came' to James ~ did not protect him, but stated that his was not a case of confusion and disorientation, but that James was a 'cunning deserter', who had chosen to sneak off in the dark, discarding his rifle and ammunition. Young Crozier was sentenced to death. Older Crozier (no relation) recommended that the execution be carried out.
See link below.
Re Bevistein, see also 'Shot At Dawn (From The Westmorland Gazette)' in sources / links.
The First Officer - Eric Poole,
Most of those men shot at dawn were non-commissioned. It was very unusual for an officer to be executed.
Eric Skeffington Poole, born 1885, was originally from Nova Scotia, but his family had settled in England. In Canada he had been in the 63rd Regiment of the Halifax Rifles. Settled in Britain, at the outbreak of war, he was a member of the Honourable Artillery Company ~ and he fought with the 11th Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment at the Battle of the Somme.
That is where he suffered shell shock. Though he returned to battle after leaving hospital ~ to lead a platoon ~ he remained confused and felt unable to take on the necessary responsibility.
On 5 October 1916, he simply wandered off from his platoon, instead of going with them to the front line. On 10th October, he was arrested. On 24 November 1916, he was Court Martialled. On 10 December 1916, he was executed by firing squad.
The website, chrishobbs.com, notes a number of young men from Sheffield, who were executed:
George Ernest Roe - 11th June 1915 - age 19
Ernest Walter Jack Harris - 3rd February 1917 - age 20
George Ainley - 30th July 1918 - age 20
Harry Poole - 9th December 1916 - age 22
Harry Poole - 9th December 1916 - age 22
Henry Hughes - 10th April 1918 - age 27
Frank Bateman - 10th September 1918 - age 28
James A. Haddock - 16th September 1916 - age 32
Books About Dyett
Welshman - Edwin Dyett,
Cardiff man, Royal Navy Reserve officer, Sub Lieutenant Edwin Dyett, felt too inexperienced to lead during wartime.
He was shot dead on Jan 4 1917, for desertion and cowardice, after a court martial on Boxing Day 1916.
His letter home:
"Dearest Mother Mine,
I hope by now you will have had the news.
Dearest, I am leaving you now because He has willed it. My sorrow tonight is for the trouble I have caused you and dad. Please excuse any mistakes, but if it were not for the kind support of the Rev. W.C. — who is with me tonight, I should not be able to write myself.
I should like you to write to him, as he has been my friend. I am leaving all my effects to you, dearest; will you give a little — half the sum you have of mine?
Give dear Dad my love and wish him luck. I feel for you so much and I am sorry for bringing dishonour upon you all.
Give — my love. She will, I expect, understand – and give her back the presents, photos, cards, etc., she has sent me, poor girl.
So now dearest Mother, I must close. May God bless and protect you all now and for evermore. Amen."
Derry Man - Bernard McGeehan
Irishman Bernard McGeehan was a member of the of the Liverpool King's Regiment.
Apparently shell-shocked as a result of battle, McGeehan wandered off ~ only to wander back to his regiment a few days later. He was shot for desertion.
Acoustic Shock - Harry Farr
Harry Farr was born in 1891 and was executed for cowardice in 1916, while a Private in the British Expeditionary Force.
Wikipedia notes that, 'His position was repeatedly shelled, and in May 1915 he collapsed with strong convulsions'.
According to his wife, “he shook all the time. He couldn't stand the noise of the guns. We got a letter from him, but it was in a stranger's handwriting. He could write perfectly well, but couldn't hold the pen because his hand was shaking.” Farr was hospitalised with shell shock in 1915 and treated twice more for shell shock in 1916.
Wikipedia explains that his inability to cope with noise could have been the result of acoustic shock, where 'the olivocochlear bundle in the inner ear is damaged ... making loud noises physically unbearable'. In spite of this, he was sent back into battle and, when he said that he felt ill, he was either not allowed to see a medical officer, or did see him, but was considered fit.
Since he refused to go back to the front line, he was court-martialled and was shot at dawn on October 16th, 1916.
His commanding officer wrote:
‘I cannot say what has destroyed this man's nerves, but he has proved himself on many occasions incapable of keeping his head in action and likely to cause a panic. Apart from his behaviour under fire, his conduct and character are very good.’
Farr's story is told in jrsm.rsmjournals.com
(See video below.)
Blindfold and Alone
Dysentry - Edward Tanner
Thirty-three-year-old Private, Edward Tanner, was a member of the Wiltshire Regiment, when he was discovered in non-uniform, claiming that his nerves were shattered. He had fought at the Battle of Mons and had been ill with dysentry. On 27th October 1914 he was executed.
Information found on 'The Guardian' website ~ see links / sources.
Somme and Mons Veteran - Charles Kirman
Private Charles Kirman was injured at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. He was also injured at the Battle of Mons.
By September 1917 Kirman no longer felt able to bope. He went absent without leave. As a result, following court martial, he was executed, aged 32, on on 23rd September 1917.
Charles Nicholson was 19 when he was shot at dawn for desertion.
He had lied about his age and had joined up at 16.
Apparently, he was shell shocked.
He said: "When the bomb dropped, I got nervous. I can't say anything else."
He deserted in 1917.
I have heard different versions of the story; that Charles went AWOL, just 17 days after his twin brother was killed in action, and, alternatively, that his twin bother, John, was killed by German fire, just two days ~ or two weeks ~ after his brother's execution. Either way, their mother received the news of her teenage boys' deaths at the same time, resulting in a breakdown.
'Shot at Dawn'. National Memorial Arboretum. Staffordshire. England. Sculpture Based on Herbert Burden - Created by Andy De Comyn
Inspiring the 'Shot At Dawn' Campaign - Herbert Burden
In March 2006, The (Newcastle) Evening Chronicle reported on John Hipkin, who was leading the 'Shot At Dawn' campaign, in an attempt to get an official pardon for soldiers executed by their own comrades ~ for 'desertion' and 'cowardice'. (The newspapers notes, at that time, that 'MPs get a free vote on the issue later this month'.)
The article reports that 'Around 35 of those shot were teenagers, some as young as 17'.
Mr Hipkin commented "I still find it very difficult to believe that the British Army would order its officers to shoot boys of 17. Boys who were patriotic enough to fight for Britain and boys that should have been sent home. That's what I'm fighting for. I'm fighting for the boys".
The boy who first gained his attention was Private Herbert Burden.
The Chronicle records: 'Pte Burden was not represented at his court martial. No survivor from his depleted ranks could be found to provide a character reference and Pte Burden joined the ranks of soldiers killed by their own firing squads.'
John Hipkin's response to this was: "I was brought up to believe that officers were gentlemen. We were almost brainwashed to respect the Empire. But gentlemen do not shoot boy soldiers."
A French Execution
An execution by French soldiers is described on the 'historylearningsite':
“The two condemned were tied up from head to toe like sausages. A thick bandage hid their faces. And, a horrible thing, on their chests a square of fabric was placed over their hearts. The unfortunate duo could not move. They had to be carried like two dummies on the open-backed lorry, which bore them to the rifle range. It is impossible to articulate the sinister impression the sight of those two living parcels made on me.
"The padre mumbled some words and then went off to eat. Two six-strong platoons appeared, lined up with their backs to the firing posts. The guns lay on the ground. When the condemned had been attached, the men of the platoon who had not been able to see events, responding to a silent gesture, picked up their guns, abruptly turned about, aimed and opened fire. Then they turned their backs on the bodies and the sergeant ordered “Quick march!”
"The men marched right passed them, without inspecting their weapons, without turning a head. No military compliments, no parade, no music, no march past; a hideous death without drums or trumpets.”
The Belgian Way
Piet Chielens, on the 'Shot at Dawn' website, gives some details of Belgian Executions
Chielens indicates that only 13 cases of execution by firing squad are reported for Belgian soldiers in World War One.
A change in attitude, towards punishment and the death penalty, resulted in miscreants being removed from their own units, rather than executed, and transferred to penal units, where they were given the 'dirtiest and heaviest work' to carry out, until they were ready to be rehabilitated.
The 13 executed Belgian Soldiers:
1. Honour Doyen was sent home because he was considered unfit for duty, but was arrested, on 10 September 1914, on the assumption that he was behaving illegally. A court martial found him guilty of spying and he was executed. It was later realised that this was an error ~ and Doyen was posthumously rehabilitated.
2, 3, 4. Three soldiers were executed, on 21 September 1914, because they did not report for muster: Elie-Jean De Leeuw, Jean Raes, Alphonse Verdickt.
5, 6, 7, 8. Four soldiers were executed because they disobeyed orders, and deserted, at the Battle of Yser: Leopold Noel, Alphons Gielen, Louis De Vos, Victor-François Remy.
9, 10. Two soldiers, who went missing for a couple of days, because they were "were too afraid to go to the first line", were executed: Paul Vanden Bosch, Henri Reyns
11, 12, 13. The only others to be executed were three who committed murder:
François-Alphonse Van Herreweghe ~ a lancer, who shot and killed his lieutenant.
Aloïs Wulput ~ a volunteer, who killed his corporal 14 days previously in the prison of De Panne.
Emile Verfaille ~ a quartermaster, who murdered his his fiancée (guillotined).
'For Freedom and Honour? - The Story of 25 Canadians Executed During the Great War' (1998) By Andrew B. Godefroy
More Canadians - The 'Last Straw'?
During 'The Great War', of the twenty-eight members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, who were executed, twenty-six faced the firing squad for military offences ~ eg desertion or cowardice ~ and two were executed for murder.
Here are some brief details, garnered from 'Bookrags.com', about some of those executed for desertion. They happen to be Canadian, because the item is related to Andrew Godefroy's book: 'For Freedom and Honour? - The Story of 25 Canadians Executed During the Great War'.
Whatever the reasons for the absences and unacceptable behaviour, it seems clear that military operations, in times of war, cannot be properly conducted, if soldiers disappear when they are given orders to advance ~ nor can striking an officer be tolerated.
Given the small amount of data, one can only guess at the reasons for soldiers constantly going AWOL, when execution was always a possibility. If they were suffering from stress, panic attacks, etc, then they might not even be aware that they were wandering off ~ or able to prevent themselves. Given the choice between firing squad and German artillery ~ which was supposed to make them choose the latter, many probably couldn't even function under such duress.
Before looking at the other examples, I shall give the case of Private John William Roberts. The fact that he wandered off while still in Canada and was sent to a medical camp in France, may indicate that all was not well with this boy. And all may not have been well with the others.
Born 5th August 1895 ~ Newfoundland.
Four years in the Royal Navy Reserve
Enlisted, May 1915, Canadian Mounted Rifles.
Went AWOL in Canada ~ 28 days prison
September 1915 ~ deployed to France.
January 1916 ~ sent to a medical camp
February 1916 ~ released ~ and disappeared. AWOL again.
June 1916 ~ arrested by military police. He was not wearing uniform.
July 1916 ~ Court Martial ~ found guilty of desertion.
30 July 1916 executed by firing squad. Age 20 ~ Less than a week before his 21st birthday.
These are some of the soldiers, whose conduct was recorded as being unbecoming, or who are recorded as having gone AWOL a number of times:
Harold Edward James Lodge. Born 1897 ~ Toronto. Enlisted April 1915. Went AWOL twice. The second time he dressed in a Red Cross uniform and hid. He escaped twice. Private Lodge was court martialled in February 1918 and executed by firing squad on 13th March. Age 20.
Stephen McDermott Fowles. Born 1897 ~ Winnipeg, Canada. Enlisted 1916. Fowles deserted more than once. Private Fowles was finally sentenced to death and executed by firing squad in 1918. It was less than one week after his 21st birthday.
Wilson Norman Ling. Born 1896 ~ Toronto. Enlisted May 1915. After a number of absences without leave, and impersonating another soldier, Private Ling was was executed in August 1918. Age 22.
Harold Carter. Born 1894 ~ Toronto, Canada. Enlisted 1915. Went AWOL a number of times. One death 'sentence was commuted to 10 years' imprisonment', but a second one was carried out and Private Carter was executed for desertion in 1917. Age 23.
Fortunat Auger. Born 1890 ~ in Montreal, Canada. Enlisted September 1914. Fought at the Battles of Ypres and Festubert. Private Auger went AWOL a number of times, before being sentenced to death for desertion and executed in March 1916. Age 25.
Henry Hesey Kerr. Born 1891 ~ Montreal, Canada. From the beginning of his time in the army, Private Kerr repeatedly went AWOL and his conduct was unacceptable. He deserted his post and, when arrested, was court martialled and sentenced to death. In November 1916, Private Kerr was executed for desertion. Age 25.
John Maurice Higgins. Born 1891 ~ Prince Edward Island, Canada. He was involved in battles at Mount Sorrel and Courcelette. But Private Higgins also went AWOL a number of times. A court martial sentenced him to death by firing squad. This was carried out in December 1916. Age 25.
Thomas Lionel Moles. Born 1891 ~ Somerset, England. He moved to Canada after leaving the British Army, then re-enlisted in a Canadian battalion in 1915. A number of convictions are recorded against him ~ including drunkenness and going AWOL several times. Private Moles finally deserted and was executed by firing squad in October 1917. Age 25.
Léopold Delisle. Born 1893 ~ Montreal, Canada. He left for Europe in May 1915 ~ after three attempts to enlist. A catalogue of convictions ~ including absence, drunkenness, disobedience and 'Striking a superior officer' ~ finally resulted in Private Delisle's death ~ executed for desertion ~ by firing squad, in May 1918. Age 25.
Côme Laliberté. Born 1893 ~ Quebec, Canada. Enlisted March 1915 and went to Europe. Almost from the beginning of his time in the army, his conduct was a matter for concern ~ drunkenness, absence, etc. When he refused an order to advance, he was tried for desertion. Private Laliberté was executed in August 1916. Age 26.
Charles Welsh. Born 1887 ~ Chester, England. Emigrated to Canada. Enlisted February 1915. His 'Battalion was involved in a number of bloody skirmishes surrounding Passchendaele'. Went AWOL three times. After the third occasion Private Welsh was sentenced to death by firing squad. Executed March 1918. Age 30.
Arthur Charles Dagesse (Dagasse). Born 1886 ~ Massachusetts, USA. Enlisted September 1914 ~ Canadian Expeditionary Force. A catalogue of convictions ~ 13 in all ~ finally resulted in Private Dagesse's death, by firing squad, in March 1918. Age 33.
James Wilson. Born 1879 ~ Limerick, Ireland. After nine years in the Connaught Rangers, Wilson emigrated. Re-enlisted, Canada, August 1914. Discharged 1915 ~ 'undesirable for military service'. Allowed to re-enlist, but later found guilty of further 'infractions', including 'Kicking a non-commissioned officer', 'Using abusive language', 'Disobeying a lawful command'' and several counts of going 'Absent Without Leave'. At his court-martial, Private Wilson was sentenced to execution by firing squad. He was shot in July 1916. Age 37.
Shot At Dawn Memorial - Alrewas, Staffordshire, England
"It was a great shock when I opened the file listing details of executions in the Great War. What I found amazed and deeply troubled me. There were names, ages and details. I discovered that they were so young, so vulnerable and so alone.
"...In only three cases did the prisoner have the benefit of a prisoner's friend. These young men, on trial for their lives, went before their superiors without legal representations or assistance.
"The knowledge of this is horrific, and has deep implications."
Leonard Sellers, author of 'For God's Sake Shoot Straight' / 'Death for Desertion: the Story of the Court Martial and Execution of Sub Lt. Edwin Dyett'
Executed for Murder
Though many of those executed died as a result of panic, fear, stress, etc, etc, some were convicted of murder and other serious crimes. These men are not included in the 306, who were pardoned.
Some examples of men executed for murder:
John Hughes-Wilson, in his book 'Blindfold and Alone', describes soldiers executed, not for being afraid, but for committing serious crimes. One example is Lieutenant John Henry Patterson, who deserted to run off with a French girl. When challenged by a member of the Military Police, Patterson simply shot the officer dead.
Alexander Butler, a Londoner by birth, emigrated to Canada and enlisted in the Royal Canadian Dragoons. He was involved in a number of battles, before falling from his horse and injuring his head. He became mentally unstable, which resulted in him shooting and killing another soldier, in June 1916. Butler was executed by firing squad in July 1916.
Benjamin De Fehr, a driver in the Canadian Army, killed J.R. Scott, the Regimental Sergeant-Major, by shooting him in the back. He was court martialled and executed in August 1916.
We could argue for and against the death penalty, and whether these people may have been physically or mentally ill, but they are not in the same category as those who were killed for being afraid, or stressed, or confused.
The 'Shot at Dawn' campaigners were not advocating rehabilitation for criminals.
It is interesting to consider, however, how the mind looks at murder, when one is being shot at by young men and shooting at other young men; when one's colleagues are dead and dying all around; when comrades are shooting comrades for being ill; when soldiers are trained to bayonet the enemy by de-humanising them.
Capital Punishment in the United Kingdom
'Capital punishment in the United Kingdom was used from the creation of the state in 1707 until it was abolished in the twentieth century.'
And this has to be borne in mind, when considering military execution of British and Empire / Commonwealth troops. Capital Punishment was not an alien concept ~ it was acceptable for very serious civilian crimes ~ and it was also acceptable for serious military crimes. In war conditions, this could mean desertion ~ even if desertion was caused by combat stress, which was not fully understood at the time. Nothing like the First wotld war had ever been experienced before ~ either by officers, or by the men.
Horrors Described in Poetry
Is it any wonder that some soldiers ~ especially young boys ~ were devastated by their wartime experiences!
One of my great uncles cradled a friend, as he died. He attempted to staunch the bleeding from a huge wound in his chest, with mud.
* * * * * *
“We went up into the front line near Arras, through sodden and devastated countryside. As we were moving up to our sector along the communication trenches, a shell burst ahead of me and one of my platoon dropped. He was the first man I ever saw killed. Both his legs were blown off and the whole of his body and face was peppered with shrapnel. The sight turned my stomach. I was sick and terrified but even more frightened of showing it.”
* * * * * * *
A Nurse Remembers:
Nurse Mary Jolly, born 1896, cared for shell-shocked soldiers. She said that 'They couldn't forget'. One, in particular, was afraid to go to sleep, because of the nightmares that he had. He told her: "I saw wounded men on the ground and our tanks coming along and just mowing through the wounded men. It was very terrible."
They Witnessed Terrible Things
Collapse at the Front
Officer, Guy Botright, born 1898 ~ suddenly collapsed at the front.
Many years later, he explained:
"The legs would let you down. Yes, they would flop, quite easily. And you never quite knew when they were going to let you down ..... ~ when it was at its worst, I mean. And you didn't care what happened. Any desire to continue, or not to continue ~ if you could put it almost like that ~ didn't exist."
Pardon - 2006
On Wednesday 16 th August, 2006, newspapers reported that the 306 men and boys, shot at dawn for cowardice, in the First World War, were to be given an official pardon.
This had been announced by the then Defence Secretary, Des Browne.
Families had been campaigning for this for 90 years.
According to Wikipedia:
'The mass pardon of 306 British Empire soldiers executed for certain offences during the Great War was enacted in section 359 of the Armed Forces Act 2006, which came into effect on royal assent on 8 November 2006. This number included three from New Zealand, twenty three from Canada, two from the West Indies, two from Ghana and one each from Sierra Leone, Egypt and Nigeria
'Tom Watson, then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Ministry of Defence, was instrumental in including this in the Act. He was said to have acted having met the relatives of Private Farr.'
A 'Pardons Act' had already been passed, in New Zealand, in September 2000, to pardon the fine New Zealanders executed during World war One.
The Canadian Government has issued an apology for allowing Canadian solders to be executed during the war.
'Shot at Dawn', 'For the Sake of Example', 'Blindfold and Alone' and More!
By Julian Putkowski and Julian Sykes.
* * * * *
An interesting customer review was provided, on Amazon, by 'A Customer', who gave it 3 out of 5 stars, and noted, in February 2002, that it is 'Not the best book of its type'. There are two further reviews. One gives this book 5 stars out of 5. The other gives it only 2 stars.
Anthony Babington * * * * There are two Amazon customer reviews for this book. Both give it 4 stars out of 5.
John Hughes-Wilson and Cathryn M. Corns * * * * *There are two Amazon customer reviews for this book. One gives it 5 stars out of 5. One gives it 2 stars out of 5.
By Leonard Sellers
By Stephen Walker
By Michael Morpurgo
By A P Herbert
By John Wilson ***** Amazon: 'John Wilson explores life in the horrific trenches of WWI and the effect of battle on a shell-shocked soldier'.
'Shot At Dawn' by Julian Putkowski and Julian Sykes
In 2002, an Amazon customer gave a less than complimentary response to the book 'Shot at Dawn', by Julian Putkowski and Julian Sykes.
The main problem seems to have been the content itself!
In other words, the criticisms are not just of the book, but of the testimonies, concerning events surrounding the executions of WW1 soldiers, and the authors' responses to them.
'A Customer' writes:
"This book has many failings, among them:
-Reliance on secondary sources some of which have been shown to be unreliable
-An emotional rather than academic approach.
Effectively it is a polemic rather than a history book."
The 'customer' indicates that one reason for the book's unreliability is that 'at the time it was written the official documentation on the courts martial was still classified' and so 'it relies too much on memoirs'. S/He notes that a number of soldiers deserted early in 1914, before the horrors of trench warfare took their toll, and that some soldiers committed murders, so a blanket pardon was inappropriate, and 'The idea that all those executed for desertion were innocents "murdered" by the British Army is simply a myth'.
For the Sake of Example: Capital Courts-Martial 1914-1920
Anthony Babington studied the British Army's official records, before writing this book, about executions at dawn, by firing squad.
Acording to the 'pen-and-sword' website, Babington 'found that, although the majority of the executed men were guilty, or technically guilty, of the charges that had been laid against them, many of them were treated with considerable injustice and considerable inhumanity' and that 'There can be little doubt that a not insubstantial proportion of them had been suffering from emotional shock or nervous exhaustion at the time they had committed their 'offences'.'
BLINDFOLD AND ALONE - John Hughes-Wilson and Cathryn M. Corns
To read the article, Families' anger as author defends the execution of deserters 'shot at dawn', by Neil Mackay, See:
This item is a review, in the (Scottish) Sunday Herald, of 'Blindfold and Alone', by Colonel John Hughes-Wilson.
Quotes from article:
Until now it has been accepted that the shooting of more than 300 soldiers for cowardice was a terrible stain on the nation's record, as most of the men had been suffering from what would now be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder.
However, Colonel John Hughes-Wilson, a former Intelligence Corps officer and military historian, rubbishes this version of history in his new book, Blindfold And Alone.
"Those who died weren't all innocent men. Many were repeat deserters who weren't even shell-shocked", says Hughes-Wilson. "No pardons should be granted."
Apparently, Hughes-Wilson states that "We cannot judge the actions of our grandfathers by the standards of today" and he notes that some of the executed were guilty of serious crimes.
But the families and other campaigners consider this to be outrageous. As the article notes, 'the Shot at Dawn campaign ... has never asked for men executed for crimes such as murder or rape to be pardoned. It seeks pardons only for those killed for desertion and cowardice.'
John Hipkin, leader of the the Shot at Dawn campaign, scalled this book "a disgusting take on history".
The article also quote MP Andrew MacKinley, who said: "Hughes-Wilson is talking rubbish. Many of these men had no access to natural justice and were denied the right to call witnesses or have a lawyer."
Death for Desertion
'Death for Desertion'
'DEATH FOR DESERTION: the Story of the Court Martial and Execution of Sub Lt. Edwin Dyett'
Previously published as “For God’s Sake, Shoot Straight!”
By Leonard Sellers
Dick Pearson, who has reviewed this book for Amazon. co. uk describes it as 'A harrowing tale' but adds that it provides no information to substantiate 'the obvious belief of the author that the execution was an injustice'.
He recommends 'Blindfold and Alone' for a 'balanced, articulate description of the subject of WWI executions'.
'The Secret Battle' ~ by A. P. Herbert.
'The Secret Battle' ~ by A. P. Herbert.
A novel ~ first published 1919.
A. P. Herbert, the author of 'The Secret Battle', served as a junior infantry officer, during World War One ~ an experience, which helped him to make this a realistic novel of the war.
According to Wikipedia, this work 'has been praised for its accurate and truthful portrayal of the mental effects of the war on the participants' and 'it was one of the earliest novels to ..... challenge the Army's executions of soldiers for desertion'.
Wikipedia: 'In its portrayal of everyday life it is almost autobiographical'.
Herbert: 'This book is not an attack on any person, on the death penalty, or on anything else, though if it makes people think about these things, so much the better.'
Memorial Plaque - Around the edge are the words: 'died for freedom and honour'.
'For Freedom and Honour?'
' 'For Freedom and Honour? - The Story of 25 Canadians Executed During the Great War'.'
By Andrew B Godefroy
Published by Cef BOOKS ~ 5 Dec 1998
Not currently available from Amazon
This book was a development of Godefroy's undergraduate thesis.
According to Wikipedia, it 'received critical praise in both media and academia circles'.
The bronze 'Memorial Plaque' ~ Dead Man’s Penny ~ was given to the next-of-kin of British and Empire service personnel, who had lost their lives in the First World War. Around the edge are the words: 'died for freedom and honour'.
DIE HARD, ABY!
'DIE HARD, ABY!: Abraham Bevistein - The Boy Soldier Shot to Encourage the Others' by David Lister
Published by Pen and Sword ~ April 2005
From an Amazon. com editorial review:
'Aby was wounded, hospitalized and on (possibly premature) release did not return to his battalion immediately. The authorities arrested and tried him. ~ His execution was greeted with horror ...'
Amazon. co. uk has seven reviews for this book:
Out of five stars;
5 gave it the full 5; 1 gave it 4; 1 gave it 1.
From a 5-star review: '.. this book does much to reveal one soldiers story with dignity and well-informed evidence.'
From the 1-star review: '.. the story is badly told ... and appalling grammar. Aby deserved better.'
From 'The Telegraph':
'The family had not known that the teenager  had joined up until he came home in uniform. A few months later they received a telegram telling them that Pte Bevistein had been sentenced to death for desertion and shot on March 20, 1916.'
'Private Peaceful' by Michael Morpurgo
Amazon Editorial Review:
'Thomas Peaceful, like many other English soldiers in World War I, is too young to fight, but he lies about his age.
'... he describes how [his brother] Charlie disobeyed a direct order to stay with him after he was wounded in action ...
'Morpurgo has personalized the British tactic of executing their own soldiers "for cowardice or desertion," ....'
Copyright © Reed Business Information
'The author Michael Dobbs discussed Private Peaceful, his choice for BBC Radio 4’s A Good Read programme ... He described this moving story, set in the First World War, as “one of those rare books which has managed to bridge that gap between childhood books and adult books”.'
Booktrust describes Private Peaceful as 'an unflinching examination of the horrors of war and the injustice surrounding the execution of soldiers by firing squad, on the – often false – grounds of desertion or cowardice'.
From the book: 'Although the title was inspired by the name on a gravestone in Ypres, this novel is a work of fiction ...'
Private Peaceful - Michael Morpurgo
Shot at Dawn: World War I - by John Wilson
Fear and Death
'When the penalty for fear was death' ~ By Peter Taylor-Whiffen (The Independent) ~
'Sixteen-year-old Herbert Burden was so desperate to serve king and country that he lied about his age. When the First World War broke out he told the recruitment officer he was 18 and was accepted into the Northumberland Fusiliers.
'Ten months later he was dead, shot by his own comrades, on the orders of British officers. After witnessing the massacre of his friends on the battlefield of Bellwarde Ridge, he had turned and fled the unimaginable horror. A court martial followed and in July 1915 the willing recruit, still officially too young to be in his regiment, was executed by firing squad as a coward.'
The Firing Squad
According to www.historylearningsite.co.uk 'Few soldiers wanted to be in a firing squad'. This is unsurprising, since, theoretically, at least, it could mean killing a close friend ~ certainly a comrade-in-arms.
Apparently 'Many were soldiers at a base camp recovering from wounds that still stopped them from fighting at the front but did not preclude them from firing a Lee Enfield rifle'. It is particularly sad to read that 'Some of those in firing squads were under the age of sixteen ...'
Wikipedia notes that 'soldiers in the firing squad ... were often tormented by the experience for the rest of their lives'. It gives the example of John Laister, who, in 2006, described being 'marched into the woods and told they were to be part of a firing squad'. Laister remained 'haunted by the moment that he looked in the direction the rifles were pointed and saw a mere boy stood with his back to a tree'. He admitted, “There were tears in his eyes and tears in mine.”
Deward Barnes, of the Canadian army, was a member of the firing squad, which executed Canadian, Private Harold Lodge.
He described the event ~ "a job I never wanted" ~ thus:
"The officer had loaded the rifles and had left them laying on the ground at our position. We got into position and were warned to fire straight, or we may have to suffer the same fate.
"The prisoner was taken out of a car (we saw him get out, with a black cap over his head and guarded) and placed on the other side of the curtain. "If we did not kill him, the officer would have to.
"As soon as the curtain dropped (the prisoner was tied in a chair five paces away from us, a black cap over his heart) we got the order to fire. One blank and nine live rounds. It went off as one.
"I did not have the blank. The prisoner did not feel it. His body moved when we fired, then the curtain went up.
"That was the easiest way for an execution I had heard of. The firing squad only saw him for a few minutes.
"We went back to the Battalion Orderly Room and got a big tumbler of rum each, and we went back to our billets, ate, and went to bed. We had the rest of the day off."
*In 1916, Victor Silvester, born1900, was in a firing squad:
"The tears were rolling down my cheeks as he went on attempting to free himself from the ropes attaching him to the chair. I aimed blindly and when the gunsmoke had cleared away we were further horrified to see that, although wounded, the intended victim was still alive. Still blindfolded, he was attempting to make a run for it still strapped to the chair. The blood was running freely from a chest wound. An officer in charge stepped forward to put the finishing touch with a revolver held to the poor man's temple. He had only once cried out and that was when he shouted the one word mother. He could not have been much older than me. We were told later that he had in fact been suffering from shell-shock, a condition not recognised by the army at the time. Later I took part in four more such executions."
(Victor Silvester later had his own Ballroom Orchestra)
The Sunday Mirror said:
'These men were all waved off to war as heroes, only to later be condemned to die as cowards.'
'Their "crime" was to crack up amid the ceaseless slaughter all around.'
'They would be tethered to a stake and blindfolded while a firing squad made up of 12 of their comrades opened fire.'
'Thousand Yard Stare'
Shell Shock / Combat Stress / Post-traumatic Stress / Panic Attack / Fear
Combat stress reaction ~ World War I
According to Wikipedia, CSR is a military term, which describes the condition once called 'shell shock' or, alternatively, ' battle fatigue'.
Apparently, this ailment is usually temporary in nature, and is not the same as 'acute stress disorder', or 'post-traumatic stress disorder', etc. However, it may develop into one of these more serious conditions.
'The thousand yard stare' is a phenomenon that was probably first recorded during the second world war, but which was certainly noted during the first world war. It is observed in times of 'acute stress', particularly during warfare ~ combat stress ~ and it is described by Wikipedia as 'a symptom of severe psychological distress'.
Post-traumatic stress disorder
Wikipedia defines / describes this as 'a severe anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to any event that results in psychological trauma'.
Acute stress reaction
Wikipedia gives these alternate names for the 'psychological condition' called: 'Acute stress reaction': 'acute stress disorder', 'psychological shock', 'mental shock', 'shock'.
According to Simon Wessely, in 'The life and death of Private Harry Farr' (Journal of The Royal Society of Medicine ~ 2006):
Most of the men, who received the death sentence from a Court Martial, received a reprieve.
He gives the following details:
Between August 1914 and October 1918:
Approximately 240,000 Courts Martial
3080 death sentences
551 Court Martial death sentences for cowardice
18 executions for cowardice
Sir Douglas Haig had to confirm orders for execution
90% of the time these deathsentences were not confirmed
Wessely states that General 'Haig had reason to be worried'. This was because, by 1916, most regular soldiers had gone, to be replaced by an army of inexperienced and untrained recruits. These men needed discipline and they needed to follow trained men ~ regulars. Those regular soldiers who remained were expected to set an example.
As a deterrent to others, regular soldiers, who went AWOL, or showed signs of cowardice, might expect to be shot ~ as an example.
Wikipedia gives these reasons for the execution of British soldiers:
266 were executed for 'Desertion'
18 were executed for 'Cowardice'
7 were executed for 'Quitting a post without authority'
5 were executed for 'Disobedience to a lawful command'
2 were executed for 'Casting away arms'
'... desertion, murder, cowardice and other offences ... ' are mentioned, here, as reasons for execution by firing squad, during the First World War:
Military Executions First World War:
British: 346 [Includes Commonwealth troops]
United States: 10 [For non-military offences - e.g. murder and rape]
New Zealand: 5
'No pardon is being sought for the other 40 men executed for either murder, treason or mutiny.'
'There has been little controversy for those executed for murder or mutiny but for the remaining 306 who were shot at dawn for other military offences, great public disquiet has persisted for eighty years. Even during the was, protests emerged in Parliament and the war-censored press about the execution of shell-shocked men and soldiers who were too young for overseas service.'
Quotes from: 'Royal pardon - Officers Only' by Peter Day
'The mourners included a brigadier-general, four colonels, a lieutenant colonel, a major ..... nobody mentioned ... that this former commanding officer ... had been accused of cowardice on the Western Front and subsequently court-martialled.
'So too ... were more than 346 ordinary soldiers, including 26 Irishmen .......
'Men like 20-year-old ... James Templeton from Belfast, convicted of running away from the front on February 10, 1916 .... it was important to provide ‘a deterrent to other men’.
'But, whereas rank-and-file soldiers ... met just one inevitable fate – blindfolded. Tied to a post and shot dead at dawn by a firing squad ... officers ... met a very different form of justice.
'Despite being found guilty ... Mainwaring was cleared of cowardice. ... convicted of the lesser charge of scandalous conduct. Cashiered out of the army in disgrace, he was .. allowed to quietly rebuild his life .....
'.. at least 15 officers were spared ... Some even received a Royal pardon and were reinstated with full military honours.'
Executed at Dawn
'Cowards', who proved themselves brave
'Many of these men proved they were brave by refusing to be blindfolded for their executions. They stared down the barrels of the guns which were about to kill them. That's not cowardice. That's courage.'
'Shot at Dawn'. National Memorial Arboretum. Staffordshire. England. Sculpture Created by Andy De Comyn. Based on Herbert Burden
'Shot at Dawn' Memorial
There is a memorial, at the National Memorial Arboretum, unveiled in June 2001, which, once, would never have been considered.
It is a memorial to British soldiers, executed while on duty, overseas, during the First World War.
The Arboretum is situated in the UK county of Staffordshire ~ near Alrewas.
The memorial is a statue of a young soldier ~ blind-folded and tied to a stake ~ ready to be shot at dawn, by a firing squad, made up of his fellow soldiers.
The model for the statue was Private Herbert Burden, aged only 17, when he was executed.
Around the statue is a number of named stakes ~ one for each executed soldier, 'Shot at Dawn'.
The artist is Andy De Comyn.
'Shot at Dawn - Named Memorial Stakes
The BBC Asks: Were They Cowards, Traitors or Victims?
Shot at Dawn ~ The BBC Asks: Were They Cowards, Traitors or Victims?
By Peter Taylor-Whiffen
And the International Debate Education Association asks:
'Should soldiers who were executed for military offences during the First World War be pardoned?'
Debatepedia also asks: 'Should soldiers who were executed for military offenses during WWI be pardoned?'
'Historians express unease over pardons' ~ By Ben Fenton ~ Telegraph ~ Aug 2006
Sir Lawrence Freedman, professor of war studies at King's College, London: " ... you do have to put it into the context of generals having to persuade large numbers of men to take extraordinary risks and in that context what was done would not constitute unreasonable action."
Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye: "This is a recognition of a change of attitude, an acknowledgement that a lot of those who were shot were just boys suffering from shell-shock."
'For pity's sake, don't sanitise the past' ~ By John Keegan, Defence Editor ~ Telegraph ~ Aug 2006
'The soldiers themselves certainly will not benefit, since they are long in their graves. Their families may think that they will benefit but surely all that the pardoning will do is draw attention once again to an unfortunate past .....
'These men, rightly or wrongly, were shot .... To decide now that they were wrongly judged or wrongly executed does not alter the facts. ....'
Chairman of Canada's National Council of Veteran Associations
We have already noted that not all people are in favour of the pardon for executed soldiers ~ not even members of the British Legion:
For example, the British Legion said that Private Highgate "should not be remembered with war heroes'".
Here is a quote from a CTV news article: 'Executed WW1 soldiers to be pardoned by Britain'
Cliff Chadderton, chairman of Canada's National Council of Veteran Associations, told The Globe and Mail that while executing a soldier for desertion "sounds very brutal in today's world," it was critical for military leaders to ensure soldiers were prepared to sacrifice their lives for their fellow soldiers. Deserters, he said, were "bad role models for other troops."
Some Conclusions - What Should Have Happened?
The under-18s should have been sent home.
Minors ~ under 21s ~ should not have been executed.
Other possibilities existed.
Belgium arranged for such 'criminals' to do the really dirty work.
Australia would not allow her men to be executed.
Officers tended to avoid serious punishment
Several men avoided death.
But ~ it is easy to judge with the benefit of hindsight.
We should not do it ~ we were not there.
This was a war like no other before it.
Thousands of men were killed and officers were leading untrained and inexperienced troops.
Emotional and mental illness was not understood.
They did not realise that, for some men, the threat of execution would not frighten them into obeying orders to go over the top, but would put so much pressure on them, that they would be too confused and afraid to know what they were doing ~ and might wander off in a daze.
But we cannot judge the past ~ even the recent past ~ through modern eyes. They did what seemed right at the time.
Edit: There was criticism, even at the time, of this barbaric behaviour.
The posthumous pardon seems fair ~ and it helps the families, but it does not change what happened.
It does not bring those men and boys ~ some very young boys ~ back to life!
Nowadays, we see how some people might become stressed and unable to function ~ suicidal even ~ for reasons that might be incomprehensible to others, yet these young people were experiencing unbelievable horrors, day after day. I have read nurses' memoirs, which say that those in hospital often just wanted their mothers.
Yet some of these lads, totally shell-shocked and war-weary, were returned to the trenches, to choose between going 'over the top', and facing German artillery, or refusing, and facing a firing squad, made up of one's own colleagues. It was a living nightmare.
How many people were shot for cowardice in WW1? ~ Too many! Too many, by far!
Pat Barker Books:
By Richard Van Emden
History Channel: 'Britain's Boy Soldiers'
'Ninety years ago, Britain's teenage boys volunteered en masse to fight for their King and country. Such was their will to fight that a number of enthusiastic boys joined-up below the legal age to enlist. Now, new research reveals that these boy soldiers were not just a passionate handful but a significant proportion of Britain's army. Additionally, the government has been found to have deliberately turned a blind eye to their enlistment.'
'.. among the ranks of the British army were as many as 250,000 underage boys, some as young as 14 ..'
'Dick Trafford, a miner from Lancashire, was just 15 when he joined up. "I got home and I told my parents - my mother played hell, " he remembers.'
'.. Abraham Bevistein, who lied about his name, age and nationality in order to fight for Britain. After being injured, treated and then returned to the front, his resolve cracked under bombardment, and he fled .... He was found and court martialled for desertion ... and subsequently executed. He was 17 years old'
Many Boys Served At The Front. Some Died In Action. Some Survived. Some Were Executed
World War One Articles by Trish_M (Tricia Mason)
'Shot At Dawn' Website:
'Shot At Dawn' Home Page:
'Song For Harry Farr'
By: Huw Pudner and Chris Hastings
Recorded by 'Stray' on their 'Valhalla' album ~ 2009