Shot at dawn – Remembering those who bravely died as cowards

November 11th is Armistice Day and I thought I would write about an aspect of WW1 which is often forgotten, the sad stories of those who were shot by their own side.

Over 300 Commonwealth soldiers were shot at dawn, a euphamism for being executed by their own side with 291 of them being British, 25 Canadian, 5 New Zealanders and 4 from the West Indies.

For decades there was a campaign to have these men pardoned.  Many of them were executed due to cowardice, this being decades before the concept of post traumatic stress disorder had even been thought-of let alone become generally accepted though some more liberal carers had coined the phrase ‘Shell-shock’.

Men who had become empty shells and gibbering wrecks would go through a trial where the conclusion was almost known in advance.  No sympathy was shown and the suffering and mental anguish they must have gone through was terrible.   Others would be executed for desertion over the flimsiest evidence or misdemeanour.

Being executed for cowardice of course not only affected the families at home for losing a loved one but brought on shame and exclusion from the local communities as everyone thought they knew that the man in question had tried to escape his duty whilst more patriotic men had died doing theirs.

Of course today we all know differently and it is never really right to impose modern morals and standards from our current evolved and peaceful society onto an Army that was fighting for its lives and where the notion of duty was so strong that almost every grown man fully expected to die serving their country.

Many thought as did Prime Minister John Major in 1993 that it would be wrong to pardon these men as it would be in some way wrong to the millions who died honourably on the fields of battle.  However by 2007 a more sympathetic Defence Secretary, Des Browne, decided to issue a pardon to 306 soldiers, leaving all but those executed for more recognisable crimes such as murder and mutiny which would have been punishable by death even in civilian courts.

The 306 are now seen to have been victims of war along with the millions of others in WW1 and personally this is something I very much agree with.   Many men could have been saved but evidence from medical officers were ignored.

It’s been said that the Army executed 10% of such cases as they thought this was the level needed to maintain discipline whilst being acceptable to those back home.  Many others who were guilty, were not executed and returned to the war and cruelly some who were executed had to give their evidence, return to the trenches and then be taken away and shot at a later time.

In the year 2000, a simple statue was created by artist Andy De Comyn.    The memorial portrays a young British soldier blindfolded and tied to a stake ready to be shot by a firing squad. The memorial was modelled on the likeness of 17-year-old Private Herbert Burden, who lied about his age to enlist in the armed forces and was later shot for desertion. It is surrounded by a semicircle of stakes on which are listed the names of every soldier executed in this fashion.

Shot at dawn memorial

Shot at dawn memorial

At 17, Private Herbert Burden was legally too young to be facing the German guns in the trenches of the Western front. However, his age did not save the teenager from facing a deadly volley of bullets on the morning of 21 July 1915 – fired by his own comrades.

An absence away from battle of little more than 48 hours saw Private Herbert Burden brought before a Field General Court Martial, pleading for his very life.

While stationed behind the lines, near the Ypres Salient, Burden had left his regiment, the Northumberland Fusiliers, with permission to visit a friend in a neighbouring unit.

“I heard he had lost a brother. I wanted to inquire if it was true or not,” the teenager told his military judges.

The officers considering Burden’s fate heard that the boy’s unit had been issued orders to make for the front just before he went missing.

“Burden was warned for duty with a working party. Their duty was to dig at night in the vicinity of the firing line… liable to the usual dangers to be met with in the vicinity of the trenches,” testified the boy’s officer Lieutenant Colonel Clement Yatman.

It seems that although Burden had been a soldier for some considerable time, possibly enlisting as a drummer boy prior to the outbreak of the war, he had not seen any major action.

Asked to comment on his subordinate’s character, Col. Yatman said neither he nor any of his officers knew the accused, but added that Burden was “of inferior physique, reported as untrustworthy.

It seems Burden was also sickly, having spent at least 11 days of his three months in France in hospital. Indeed, army doctors had only discharged him the day before he was ordered to the front lines.

On 2 July 1915, a guilty verdict was passed and Burden’s death sentence was sent up through the chain of command to be approved.

While admitting that the fighting spirit of his men was good, Brigadier General Douglas-Smith said a few other cases of desertion had occurred in the area and “the death penalty is the only means by which it can be stopped”.

It seems Private Burden was to be made an example of, says historian Julian Putkowski, co-author of Shot At Dawn.

“Only one in 10 of the 3,000 men sentenced to death were actually shot. The Army shot them to stiffen moral after a major cock-up or when they were about to launch a major attack.”

Burden’s last day was scheduled to coincide with another assault on the German positions along the Ypres Salient.

“They would then be hauled off to a barn or out building. There a chaplain – often in a worse state than the condemned man – would come along for the ‘death watch’. A doctor might offer them a half grain of morphine to knock the man out.”

At sunrise on 21 July, Burden may well have been brought before a firing squad taken from the ranks of his own friends, says Mr Putkowski.

“Some of the condemned knew their executioners. One man even called out: ‘Make it a good one, Jim’.”

Facing certain death, soldiers such as Private Burden reacted in a number of ways.

“Some were hysterical, screeching, some seemed comatose. Others would take it fatalistically, knowing their comrades would possibly be dead soon anyway.”

The firing squad’s rifles would have been loaded by an NCO, with one of the weapons being primed with a blank round – the thinking being that the marksman could cling to the hope they had not fired a fatal shot.

“A blank round sounds completely different to a live one and because it’s not propelling anything there’s no ‘kick’ either,” says Mr Putkowski. “The firer would have known which was which. It was just intended as consolation.”

Although his age was officially recorded as 19 when he died, it seems Burden was only 17 and had presumably lied so he could see active service abroad.

Mr Putkowski says it’s likely the Army colluded in this deception, since Burden’s real age would have been known to recruits when he first signed up before the war.

“They must have known he was underage, but he was executed anyway.”

The following is an excellent account of another entirely different but equally tragic case that was published in the Daily Mail newspaper in 2014.

For the group of 11 soldiers and a junior officer, an order to stay some six miles behind the front line was most welcome. For several days before the order came, during late August and early September 1917, their unit, the 17th (Service) Battalion of the King’s (Liverpool Regiment) — known as the Liverpool Pals — had endured some of the most vicious fighting of World War I.

Their losses at the Battle of Pilckem Ridge at Passchendaele had been horrendous. Eighty-two officers and men had been killed and a further 155 had been wounded. As the group rested near a chateau at Kemmel in Flanders, some 30 miles south of Dunkirk, each man would have been thinking who might be the next to fall.

Late in the afternoon of Tuesday, September 4, they got their terrible answer. An officer informed the men that the reason they had been kept behind was to arrange for dawn the following day a firing squad whose duty it was to execute one of their comrades for desertion.

It was a job that not one man would have relished. They knew that the soldier they were being asked to shoot was no coward. Private Jimmy Smith had even received two Good Conduct Medals.

The following morning, the reluctant executioners found him bound to a chair set up next to the wall of a barn. Private Smith was blindfolded and a white disc had been placed over his heart as a target.

One of the members of the firing squad was Private Richard Blundell, a friend of Jimmy’s. What Blundell and his comrades knew was that Jimmy was not a deserter, but a brave soldier suffering from terrible shell shock.

When the order was given to fire, Blundell, along with the rest of the firing squad, deliberately tried to miss the target. Jimmy was not killed, but he was severely wounded.

In such circumstances, it is up to the officer in charge of the squad to draw his side-arm and administer the coup de grace.

However, as the pale sun rose that morning, the nervous subaltern was incapable of firing. A more senior officer therefore ordered one of the squad to take the fatal shot.

The duty fell, cruelly, on Blundell. He was given the junior officer’s Webley revolver and ordered to shoot his friend in the head.

Shot at dawn.

Shot at dawn.

Blundell walked forward and held the gun to Jimmy’s temple, struggling to keep it on target as his hand shook and his friend writhed in agony from the earlier bullet wounds.

At 5.51 that morning, Blundell pulled the trigger and Jimmy finally stopped moving.

As a ‘reward’, the men of the firing squad were given ten days’ leave.

Private Jimmy Smith was just one of 306 British and Commonwealth soldiers executed for cowardice and desertion during the World War I.

After nearly a century, the question of whether they should be treated as villains or victims was finally resolved when, in 2006, they were given a statutory pardon. Despite this widely welcomed move by the last government, the fates of many of these men are still little known.

Tonight, a new production of a 1998 play called Early One Morning, written by Les Smith and directed by David Thacker, will open at the Octagon Theatre in Bolton, telling the story of Jimmy Smith — and shedding light on the desertion and subsequent execution of the hundreds of other young men who were shot at dawn.

As with many private soldiers from the North of England who fought in World War I, Jimmy Smith was raised in poverty. Born in Bolton in 1891, he was cared for by an aunt and uncle after his mother died when he was young. Jimmy barely knew his father, who remarried.

We know little about Jimmy’s childhood, but we can assume his education was basic. When he left school, work was scarce and as an 18-year-old he joined the Army.

He enlisted in the 1st Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers, and before the outbreak of war he and his unit served in Egypt and India.

The first time Jimmy saw combat was during the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign in 1915.

Devised by the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, the aim of the campaign was for the British to help their Russian allies by wrestling the Dardanelles Strait from the Turks — thus allowing Russia’s navy a secure route to the Mediterranean.

It was here that Jimmy took part in one of the bloodiest amphibious landings in history — the assault on a small cove codenamed ‘W’ beach on April 25, 1915.

The 1st Lancashire Fusiliers were among the first to row towards the shore using small boats. When they were just over 50 yards away, hidden Turkish positions opened up with a murderous criss-cross of machine-gun fire.

‘The timing of the ambush was perfect,’ Captain Richard Willis from C Company later recalled. ‘We were completely exposed and helpless in our slow-moving boats, just target practice for the concealed Turks, and within a few minutes only half of the 30 men in my boat were left alive.’

In desperation, men jumped into sea, where the massacre continued. Officers and soldiers were drowned under the weight of their equipment or shot as they struggled ashore through the bloodied waters.

Among them was Jimmy, who managed to cross a beach littered with mines. Many of the men found their rifles clogged with sand and seawater and were unable to fire back at the Turks.

Despite the odds, the Lancashires persisted with the attack and by late afternoon, after being reinforced, the regiment won the day.

In honour of their victory, the beach was renamed ‘Lancashire Landing’ and six Victoria Crosses were awarded. But the assault came at a terrible cost. Just 300 of an original 1,000 men were left standing. Eleven out of 27 officers had been killed.

Jimmy’s survival was a miracle and he knew it. But the horrors of that day — comrades mown down in the water, limbs sheared off by landmines, friends drowning in the churning waters — could not easily be forgotten.

Jimmy survived the rest of the Gallipoli campaign and was posted to the trenches of Northern France in 1916. After Gallipoli, he might have thought that war could not get any worse — but that was before July 1 that year, the start of the infamous Battle of the Somme.

Now fighting with the 15th Battalion of the Lancashires (also known as the Salford Pals), Jimmy’s luck appeared to hold.

But on October 11, while fighting at Le Transloy Ridge, he was caught in a massive explosion during a barrage. Jimmy was buried alive and had to scrabble his way to the surface through the body parts of his comrades. He had sustained a wound the size of a fist in his right shoulder.

Repatriated to a hospital in Bolton, Jimmy made a recovery.

There was no doubt, though, that he was deeply traumatised. Gallipoli or the Somme alone would have been enough for many men. Jimmy had endured the horrors of both. When he returned to the frontline later that year with a new regiment, the 17th Battalion of the King’s, Private Jimmy Smith was scarred by what he had seen.

On December 29, 1916, Jimmy found himself in front of his first court martial. His offence was to have left his post and he was sentenced to 90 days of Field Punishment Number One. This involved the humiliation of being cuffed to a fixed object for two hours each day.

Although the regulations prohibited the guilty man being placed in a stress position — in which particular strain is put on certain body parts such as the hands or shins — this stipulation was often ignored. Indeed, the punishment often amounted to torture.

The following July, he was court-martialled again. On this occasion, the offence was going absent without leave. Once again, Jimmy was sentenced to 90 days of Field Punishment Number One.

A few days later, Jimmy’s unit was preparing to take part in the Battle of Pilckem Ridge, part of the Third Battle of Ypres.

By now he was undoubtedly incapable of going into combat, haunted by the Somme and Gallipoli and humiliated and distressed by the successive Field Punishments.

Of the 30,000 men who could have received the death penalty for desertion and cowardice, only ten per cent received such a sentence and, of those 3,000, 90 per cent of sentences were commuted. Jimmy, though, was not among them. He was sentenced to death and the order was carried out on September 5.

Today, Jimmy lies in Kemmel Chateau Military Cemetery. His gravestone bears the inscription ‘Gone, but not forgotten’.

One man who never forgot Jimmy was the soldier who had to shoot him — Private Richard Blundell.

In the weeks before his own death, in February 1989, Blundell was often heard by his son, William, to murmur deliriously: ‘What a way to get leave, what a way to get leave.’

According to historian Graham Maddocks, in his book Liverpool Pals, William Blundell asked his father in a more lucid moment what he meant.

Still desperately upset seven decades after the incident, the dying Richard told his son what had happened. It was clear, that as he faced his own death, Richard had never forgiven himself.

At 11 o’Clock at the 11th hour of the 11th month in 1918, WW1 finally ended and at this time tomorrow (or today for those who read this in the morning) will stop for 2 minutes to remember everyone who died including those like Herbert Burden and Jimmy Smith.

You can see our short village memorial service which was held on Sunday on the video below.

I hope everyone has found this small series of blogs interesting and I hope it keeps the memory of everyone involved alive.

Please also see my previous posts including some of my favourites:

https://stephenliddell.co.uk/2013/11/09/poetry-from-the-trenches/

https://stephenliddell.co.uk/2014/11/11/ps-thanks-for-being-my-hero/

https://stephenliddell.co.uk/2013/11/11/armistice-day-remembrance-sunday-2/

If you’re interested in WW1 then why not look at my history book which was recently published in paperback and Kindle formats by Endeavour Press.  It details the history and events of all the countries which took part in WW1 as well as related issues such as social changes, women and the war and technology.     You can order Lest We Forget: A Concise Companion to the First World War from Amazon.com in Kindle for $4.58and paperback for $9.99 and Amazon.co.uk in Kindle for £2.99 and paperback for £6.99 and other Amazons around the world.  I am also happy to write a dedication to anyone who wants one, just let me know,  though I’d have to charge shipping fee for that.  Please, do leave a review if you buy a copy.  They are like gold dust to independent authors.

Lest We Forget

If you’d like to see more imagery of the Western Front then why not look at my new photo book In The Footsteps of Heroes available on Kindle and Paperback.

In The Footsteps of Heroes on Kindle and paperback.

In The Footsteps of Heroes can be purchased from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk in Kindle and Paperback.

My books are also available direct from their respective publishers and also through Barnes and NobleKoboSmashwords and Createspace.  You can also purchase this book through Apple iBooks store by clicking on the logo below.

In The Footsteps of Heroes

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About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including a #1 seller, I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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13 Responses to Shot at dawn – Remembering those who bravely died as cowards

  1. Grandtrines says:

    Reblogged this on Debatable News: Mainstream to Tinfoil Hat and more and commented:
    A rather ugly piece of history.

    Like

  2. Malla Duncan says:

    Difficult to ‘like’ this really – although beautifully written and presented. I do sometimes wonder why not even a modicum of humanity seemed to touch the men who made these decisions to kill these people without compunction – no empathy, no fairness,no sense of justice, no compassion. So odd. It seems these emotions have only found greater development since WW2. And then we have to wonder. I think ‘Lord of the Flies’ by William Golding is the most brilliant book of 20th century and encapsulates the human condition more succinctly and clearly than anyone else. I do sometimes and unfortunately, think we’re the worst species on the planet.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, instead of ‘like’ it should say ‘sympathise’. It really is awful what they endured especially as the officers in charge themselves knew how casualties had never been greater.

      Militarily it couldn’t have hurt to have them imprisoned or even severely punished. I guess it underlines how bad the situation was that the near certainty of death in battle had to be enforced by a certainty of death for not whole heartedly fighting.

      There are so many stories like the above but I feel badly for the poor boy who died under age and the war-hero but equally for his friend, that must be about the worst thing possible.

      I agree about us being the worst species on this planet 😦 we can only hope to redeem humanity through our small individual acts of kindness and good deeds.

      Many thanks for commenting Malla.

      Like

    • Oh, I forgot, ‘Lord of the Flies’ is an incredible story and all too accurately sizes up our species.

      Like

  3. Great post. So much of history can be reinterpreted with knowledge gained but hat hell did they go through?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. A superb fictionalized portrayal of this treatment of soldiers can be seen in the 1957 Stanley Kubrick film “Paths of Glory” which was banned in France for many years.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. thank you for this reminder of the inhumanity of war

    Liked by 1 person

  6. lbeth1950 says:

    What a tragedy for everyone!

    Like

  7. Thank you for bringing this to our attention. My dad, born in 1897, was in the U.S. Navy during and after WWI. His experience was one of being on a troop transport ship during the war, and was much different than the soldiers in the trenches. He used to tell me about his experiences. I knew of that penalty, but didn’t know all the details. This was long ago and far away so, as you say, we can’t accurately judge the decisions, but we can remember them as heroes right along with the ones who came back and were thought of as heroes at the time. I feel just as sorry for the families of those who were shot. They must have gone through a hell of their own. — Suzanne Joshi

    Like

  8. Pingback: The Battle of Verdun 100 years on. | Stephen Liddell

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