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Shot at Dawn: Battlefield Executions

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A French witness attended the execution of two soldiers: “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 two men were carried from the truck that brought them to the firing range and they were tied to posts. Twelve soldiers in two groups of six were given the order to aim and fire. The observer said this was “a hideous death.” The names of the dead men were never made public nor were their “crimes,” which were probably either desertion or cowardice.

As Peter Taylor-Whiffen notes for the BBC the conflict was “the most brutal war in history and not even the most seasoned serviceman was prepared for the scale of carnage that unfolded before him. For many the horror proved too much. Hundreds were unable to cope, many were driven insane and several simply ran away.”

The French deal with a soldier involved in a mutiny in Verdun, 1917.
The French deal with a soldier involved in a mutiny in Verdun, 1917. | Source

Private Harry Farr

Having volunteered in 1914, Private Harry Farr, 23, was soon in the trenches and facing frequent shellfire. By May 1915, the nearly constant explosions and danger caused him to collapse and have strong convulsions.

Pte. Farr’s wife, Gertrude, later recalled that “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.”

He was hospitalized three times and treated for shell shock; today, we call it post-traumatic stress disorder.

But, boots on the ground were needed at the front line and after each spell in hospital Pte. Harry Farr was sent back to the trenches. On September 17, 1916, he finally cracked. His unit was ordered back to the front line from rear positions. Farr refused to go, and told Regimental Sergeant Major Haking, that he “could not stand it.”

RSM Haking unloaded a tirade at Farr that was laced with profanities and included the warning that if he didn’t go he would be shot. Farr wouldn’t budge and two weeks later a court martial was held in which he faced a charge of “showing cowardice in the face of the enemy.”

The hearing was short and the verdict and sentence inevitable; guilty and execution by firing squad. Private Harry Farr was put to death at dawn on October 18, 1916.

World War I trench misery and mud; they can't even manage a brave smile for the camera.
World War I trench misery and mud; they can't even manage a brave smile for the camera. | Source

Execution to Stiffen Resolve

A total of 306 men from British and Commonwealth forces were executed during the Great War.

A small number of those killed committed criminal offences, but the overwhelming majority were executed because their mental balance was destroyed by the terrible conditions under which they were forced to live.

The French military was much harsher, executing about 600 men. In contrast, the German Army only executed 48 soldiers, and the Americans and Australians none.

The Allied high command became greatly concerned at the number of men who were falling to pieces under the tension of trench warfare.

Executed Today notes that “Generals with no strategy but to make mincemeat of their countrymen could not well abide the meat’s reluctance to be minced. Examples must be made …” As Peter Taylor-Whiffen puts it, the soldiers quickly learned that “if they ran from German guns, they would be shot by British ones.”

The French had a phrase to sum up the philosophy that came from Voltaire’s novel “Candide.” In describing the execution of an admiral on the deck of his ship, Voltaire wrote “Dans ce pays-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres” – “In this country, it is wise to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others.”

Victims of Military Justice

Herbert Burden lied about his age in order to join the Northumberland Fusiliers. At 16, he was two years below the necessary age to be recruited, but a nod and a wink from officialdom took care of that troublesome detail.

Ten months later, in May 1915, young Herbert was in action at the battlefield of Bellwarde Ridge. A ferocious German bombardment and the release of chlorine gas slaughtered many of his friends and comrades. Pte. Burden fled the battle, was court-martialled and sentenced to death.

On July 21, 1915, 17-year-old Herbert Burden was executed by firing squad, still not old enough to officially join his regiment. He has since been immortalized in a statue at the Shot at Dawn Memorial near Lichfield, Staffordshire.

Others even younger were shot for desertion; Private James Crozier from Belfast was just 16. The History Learning Site reports that “Crozier was given so much rum that he passed out. He had to be carried, semi-conscious, to the place of execution.”

Another 16-year-old to face the firing squad was Private Abe Bevistein, found guilty of deserting his post. Just prior to his court martial Bevistein wrote to his mother: “We were in the trenches. I was so cold I went out (and took shelter in a farm house). They took me to prison so I will have to go in front of the court. I will try my best to get out of it, so don’t worry.”

Dramatization of Herbert Burden’s Life

Soldiers Hated Being Part of Firing Squad

While many soldiers harboured ill feelings towards those who “shirked their duty” very few relished the job of being part of a firing squad.

The execution team was often drawn from men at base camps who were recovering from wounds but still able to operate a Lee-Enfield rifle. One of the rifles was loaded with a blank round so each soldier could reason there was a chance he had not fired a fatal shot.

John Laister was drafted into a firing squad and the experience haunted him for the rest of his long life. Here’s a report from The Observer shortly after Laister’s death in 1999 at the age of 101: “He raised his rifle and, on the command, opened fire. The victim was a boy soldier who had been arrested for cowardice. Laister told BBC’s Omnibus …‘There were tears in his eyes and tears in mine. I don’t know what they told the parents.’ ”

Arthur Savage was part of a firing squad in 1917. He later recalled: “My hands were shaking so much. So I aimed about a foot to his left. Then we fired. There were nine of us and only one shot caught him in the side. He slumped forward wounded. So I was not the only one firing wide deliberately. The captain walked up to him and put a bullet into his head. Some of the men were sick, others were crying.”

Memorial to Herbert Burden and the other British and Commonwealth soldiers executed during WWI.
Memorial to Herbert Burden and the other British and Commonwealth soldiers executed during WWI. | Source

Was Execution Really Necessary?

From the comfort of a century away it’s easy to judge the high command harshly for the execution of men who had suffered psychiatric trauma.

Historian Richard Holmes counsels caution about condemning the generals. In his 2005 book Tommy he writes that “… like so much else about the war, the issue divides head from heart and if my head applauds the logic of capital sentences, they still break my heart.”

Not all those executed were underage soldiers guilty only of being scared witless in a scene of unimaginable butchery. Some were habitual deserters who showed no signs of shell shock and were content to let their comrades face the guns.

Albert “Smiler” Marshall, who died in 2005 at the age of 108, told BBC History “I didn’t know anyone who was executed or who had anything to do with a firing squad but we all knew about the penalty. But it didn’t occur to you not to fight. You didn’t think about it, you just did it. And you just took what came your way.”

In 2006, the British government posthumously pardoned all the men who had been shot at dawn for desertion and cowardice.

Bonus Factoids

Those who escaped the firing squad were often subjected to Field Punishment Number One. The offender would be tied to a fixed object such as a wagon wheel or fence for up to two hours a day and for as long as three months. Sometimes, the punishment was carried out within the range of enemy artillery.

King & Country is a 1964 movie about a fictional character called Arthur Hamp, starring Dirk Bogarde and Tom Courtney. Hamp is a simple-minded private soldier who decides to walk home, is arrested by the military police, and court-martialled for desertion. The story is based on a novel by James Lansdale Hodson.

Sources

  • “Shot at Dawn: Cowards, Traitors or Victims?” Peter Taylor-Whiffen, BBC History, March 3, 2011.
  • “1915: Four French Corporals, for Cowardice.” Executed Today, March 17, 2008.
  • “World War I Executions.” The History Learning Site, undated.
  • “British Soldiers Executed in First World War Denied Official Pardon.” Harvey Thompson, World Socialist Web Site, November 16, 1999.
  • “Lest We Forget the 306 ‘Cowards’ We Executed.” John Sweeney, The Observer, November 14, 1999.
  • “Arthur Savage.” Spartacus Educational, undated.
  • “Shot at Dawn: ‘A Hideous Death Without Drums or Trumpets.’ ” Ben Fenton, The Telegraph, August 17, 2006.
  • “The Life and Death of Private Harry Farr.” Simon Wessely, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, September 2006.

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