Considering the time of year, it seemed appropriate to remember those who went to war but never came back. That and this isn’t yet another extended plug for my new book.
During the First World War the British Army passed over 3000 death sentences and carried out over 300 executions by firing squad. Around 10% of those British servicemen who were condemned for crimes such as desertion, cowardice, striking a superior officer, casting away their arms, being caught asleep at their posts and mutiny among other capital offences actually faced a firing squad.
This is the story of the last two British soldiers to be shot at dawn during the First World War. They died on November 7, 1918, four days later the war was over. With the Armistice beginning at 11am on November 11, only days later, all other military death sentences were commuted.
Private Ernest Jackson went first. He’d been conscripted in 1916, arriving in France that November. In April 1917 he went AWOL, Absent Without Leave, for 28 hours. The court martial sentenced him to two years hard labour, a non-capital sentence that was often commuted to a lesser punishment. Jackson’s sentence wasn’t commuted. He didn’t return to active service until August, 1918 when he was returned to his battalion after sixteen months behind bars.
It wasn’t long before he was facing another court martial, this time for a much more serious crime with fatal consequences. On September 29 he reported sick and was sent to Flesquieres to wait for transport to a military hospital. Instead, Jackson disappeared. He was arrested by military police and returned to his unit at Noyelles, some 3000 yards behind the British front line trenches. On October 3 he vanished again and was arrested near Douellen. On October 8 his weapons and equipment were found stashed away, not far from where he’d gone absent for the second time.
Jackson faced a Field General Court Martial on charges of going AWOL, desertion and ‘Shamefully casting away his arms, ammunition and equipment in the presence of the enemy.’ Going AWOL wasn’t a shooting offence, desertion and casting away arms both were. The court martial showed him no leniency and nor did his superior officers when they considered his appeal. He was taken to the town of St. Python and shot at 6:10am on November 7, 1918. He was 32 years old.
Private Louis Harris was shot 19 minutes later and 25 kilometres away at Locquignol. Harris wasn’t originally a conscript. He’d volunteered in 1915, but been discharged as medically unfit. With mounting casualties and a constant need for replacements the Army relaxed its medical criteria to admit more recruits. Harris, despite having been previously medically discharged, was now considered fit for duty. By peacetime military standards Harris wasn’t fit for service. In wartime and desperately needing more men, the Army decided he was still fit enough.
He arrived on the Western Front in July, 1916 and it wasn’t long before he began getting into difficulties with higher authority. On September 2 he disappeared from his unit during a skirmish at Rocquigny. Not a major battle, but a small action where witnesses reported there being “No firing and practically no opposition.”
Harris had simply deserted, thrown away his weapons and equipment and vanished. He was arrested the next day and brought before a Field General Court Martial on capital charges of desertion and cowardice. He put up almost no defence before the court and it seemed to some who were there that he either didn’t understand or didn’t care how much trouble he was in. Acquitted of cowardice but convicted of desertion, Harris was condemned and his case went to appeal.
It did no good. Harris’s commanding officer recommended execution, not commutation. He described Harris as having a bad record and his military value as being ‘Nil.’ The Brigade Commander was equally firm in denying clemency. He wrote:
‘I recommend that the extreme penalty be carried out for the following reasons:
a. Pte. Harris’s action was deliberate.b. He has previously attempted to desert unsuccessfully.c. He is worthless as a soldier.d. During an action he deliberately abandoned his comrades.e. His example is a disgraceful one.’Private Harris was shot at Locquignol at 6:29am on November 7, 1918. He was the last British soldier shot during the First World War. The bitter irony for both Private Jackson and Private Harris was that, with the Armistice starting at 11am on November 11, 1918, the well-known ‘eleventh hour’, all existing military death sentences were then commuted. Had these men been sentenced a few days later they wouldn’t have returned home as conquering heroes, but wouldn’t have been shot either.
In 2006 all those shot at dawn during the First World War were pardoned. A permanent memorial now stands at the National Memorial Arboretum in the county of Staffordshire. Rudyard Kipling, whose son died during the Battle of Loos, immortalied them long before it was fashionable to fight their corner. His poem ‘The Coward’ best sums up their fates:
‘I could not look on Death, which being known, men led me to him, blindfold and alone.’
Whether all those who were shot deserved it will always be open to question. So too will the blanket pardon. Just as some of them undoubtedly were victims of harsh military law and the Army’s refusal to acknowledge the severity of ‘shellshock,’ others were far less deserving of sympathy. It remains an emotive issue even today.