World War 1 History: Private William Hunter, 18, Executed at Dawn
Allies Executed Far More of Their Own Than Germany
During the First World War, the French executed more than 600 of their own soldiers, though this figure is almost certainly much lower than actuality. The British Army executed 346 British and Commonwealth soldiers for various reasons, though most were shot for desertion. Other reasons cited were murder, cowardice, disobeying a command, sleeping while on duty, striking a superior officer, mutiny, leaving their post or discarding their weapons. By comparison, the German Army executed 48 of their own.
This is the story of a young (very young) British soldier, 10710 Private William Hunter of the 1st Battalion of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment. It is a story of a callow youth who repeatedly and almost unbelievably failed to connect his actions with their consequences in the middle of a total war that had reduced its inhabitants to the whims and wishes of those in charge of that war.
Sixteen-Year-Old William Joins the British Army
William Hunter was born on December 27, 1897 in North Shields, on the coast just east of Newcastle in North East England. In 1912, at age fourteen, he left school and went to sea. He was a sailor for about two years before he jumped ship in Montreal, Canada because, as he said, he “started to get in trouble”. William then joined the British Army in 1914, lying about his age and saying he was eighteen instead of sixteen. Not wanting to meet up with anyone who might know him, he joined the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment. Private William Hunter soon regretted his decision, but by then there was nothing he could do about it.
William Goes Missing and Loses Heart
In December 1914 he was billeted near the port of Felixstowe, England on the North Sea. On December 12 William was reported missing and remained so until the regimental police found him in town fifteen days later and arrested him on December 27, his seventeenth birthday. He was deprived of five days pay and given fourteen days Field Punishment No. 2 (ankles fettered and wrists handcuffed, but otherwise mobile).
On January 4, 1915, William crossed the English Channel with others to reinforce the 1st Battalion of his regiment at the front. Assuming the sentence was carried out, he would either have been delivered in chains or would have been put in them after joining the battalion-- hardly a promising start either for him or his new comrades. By his own admission, he “did not get on well with the others in the regiment and... lost heart”.
Seven Months Proper Service Without Incident
For the next seven months, from January to August of 1915, seventeen-year-old Private William Hunter performed his duties without further incident. During that time, he was a bayonet man and performed properly on his tours of duty in the trenches. Among other actions, on May 9, 1915, his battalion went over the top near the village of Richebourg as part of the Battle of Aubers Ridge. On that single day the British suffered more than 11,000 casualties with no ground won. It was a complete and utter disaster. Like many other battalions that day, the 1st Loyals suffered heavy casualties, including many officers. After losing so many officers and other ranks and then dealing with an influx of fresh replacements, the 1st Battalion's cohesion was strained and discipline suffered overall.
William Goes Missing Again...
In July 1915, while the regiment was resting at Bethune, France, William ran into some old friends in another regiment and had a good time. Unfortunately for him, he couldn't resist getting together with them on August 6 instead of returning to the trenches with his regiment. He was charged with being absent from Battalion while moving to trenches. His sentence was forfeiture of three days pay and up to ten days Field Punishment No. 1 (tied across a gun wheel or fence; nicknamed “crucifixion”).
… And Again
Incredibly, nine days later on August 15, Private Hunter went missing again. For three days he caroused with his old friends in Bethune having a good old time before returning to his unit in the trenches and surrendering. He was found guilty of being absent without leave (but not desertion) and detained for a month awaiting sentencing. He was given two years in prison which was commuted to one year. Then, even that was suspended. At this point it would be difficult to make a case that Private William Hunter was the recipient of harsh punishment from the British Army.
… And Again
The final straw was when, almost immediately after his detention ended and having his sentence suspended, William was reported missing again on September 23, 1915, the day his unit went back to the trenches. His sergeant claimed William was present the day before when the troops were informed of the move, proving he deserted to avoid going to the front line. William's version was that he was still in custody from his previous adventure and was unaware of the order to move. This time he was gone for over two months, until November 30, 1915. Apparently he spent a lot of time once again with his old friends before taking up with a young woman. He later stated that “I did not like to leave her”.
Acting on information regarding a suspicious person at a nearby farm, Private Hunter was picked up on November 30 and taken to the battalion guard room.
Perhaps finally understanding the gravity of the situation, William panicked and managed to escape by smashing open the guard room door the next day. Three days later, on December 4, two privates and a Frenchman found and arrested him at another farm.
William Escapes Again
Unbelievably, neither William nor his captors had benefited from their experiences thus far and, during some confusion about who was in which room, he again managed to slip away the evening of January 5, 1916. And again he was apprehended in woods near a farm three days later, ending his last days of freedom for good.
Final Court Martial
On February 4, 1916, his third-- and final-- court martial was held. He was charged with desertion in the field and two counts of escaping confinement. He pleaded not guilty to all charges. Prosecution witnesses gave evidence of his desertion, his escapes and apprehensions. During the trial, William's prior activities were also presented. Speaking on his own behalf, he maintained he had performed his duties properly from January to August 1915, including participation in the Battle of Aubers Ridge. He stated that he had lied about his age when joining up and that he had been just seventeen during the time of his actions. He said it wasn't until he was held in the guard room and hearing that others had been shot for similar offenses that he became terrified and that drove him to break out. He apologized and asked for leniency and a final chance to redeem himself.
Under cross examination, William maintained that he was not afraid of the trenches, but that he wanted to have a good time. He noted that he had surrendered himself during his previous escapades, but that his last adventure had dragged on so long he was afraid of the consequences.
Verdict Guilty, Mercy Recommended
Private William Hunter was found guilty on all counts and sentenced to be shot. But then the court, alluding to his “extreme youth”, service in the field during January to August and the likelihood of becoming a good fighting man, strongly recommended mercy. From that point, William's fate would depend on his superiors' recommendations as the court's decision made its way up the chain of command from his Lt. Colonel all the way up to the Commander-in-Chief of the BEF, Douglas Haig.
Lt. Colonel M. Sanderson, 1st Battalion Commander (Feb 6): He “did not know the man himself” but believed Private Hunter would not change and his value as a fighting man was “nil”.
Brigadier General A. McWilliam, 2nd Brigade Commander (Feb 6): After hearing from other officers and N.C.O.s, the general opinion was that Private Hunter did not intend to fight and had the history to back that up. The general was also troubled with the battalion's frequent cases of desertion, sleeping on duty and other crimes and was therefore “unable to endorse the recommendation to mercy recorded by the court”.
Major General A. Holland, 1st Division Commander (Feb 6): After reading his battalion and brigade commander's recommendations, recommended the death sentence.
Lt. General Henry Wilson, 4th Corps Commander (Feb 9): He thought Private Hunter deserved to be shot, but for the fact that William had been only seventeen. He recommended five years penal servitude, not to be suspended.
General C. Munro, 1st Army Commander (Feb 12): “I recommend that the death sentence be put into execution. The man is very young but his Commanding Officer says he is no good as a fighting soldier.”
Final Verdict: Execute
General Douglas Haig, Commander-in-Chief (Feb 16): “Confirmed.”
February 21, 1916 Private William Hunter Executed
The 1st Battalion of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment was ordered to provide one officer and ten men for the firing squad. A medical officer with the appropriate certificates was present, as well as a chaplain. The officer personally loaded all ten rifles with nine live rounds and one blank, the theory being that members of the firing squad would be more reliable if they could console themselves in the belief that they might have fired the blank cartridge. In reality, the presence or absence of recoil would have been glaringly obvious to experienced riflemen.
There are no records of William's demeanor, whether he cried or begged for mercy or went quietly, or whether he was blindfolded or hooded or tied to a post or tied to a chair. Dawn was at 6:50 that morning and all that was recorded is that at 6:58 am on February 21st, 1916, Private William Hunter, aged eighteen, was declared dead, “death being instantaneous”, so at least his comrades had shot true and the officer was not obliged to put a revolver to his skull and finish him off.
The Case For Leniency
There is little doubt that William Hunter deserved severe punishment for his actions. There are those who say his punishment was fitting and that we cannot apply our notion of fairness to a time and place that was so different than the world we inhabit. So let's go back to Private Hunter's world, where the court probably had little leeway in giving him the death penalty, but in the next breath strongly recommended mercy. There was the recommendation of Corps Commander General Wilson, hardly a lenient or inconsequential military leader (he would later be promoted to Field Marshal), who would have had him shot save for the fact that William was seventeen when he committed his crimes. There was definitely bad blood between Haig and Wilson, but whether or not that entered into their deliberations is not known. In any case, it all boiled down to Haig's final, terse “Confirmed”.
Ninety years later the Armed Forces Act of 2006 pardoned 306 of the 346 executed during World War One, acknowledging that injustices had occurred in some cases, especially as related to “Shell Shock” or, as we now call it, “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder”. The remaining 40 executed for murder or mutiny were not pardoned. As late as 1993, Prime Minister John Major had spoken against pardons, saying all those executed had had fair trials and that pardoning any would be an insult to those who had died in battle.
In the Shot at Dawn Memorial in Staffordshire, England, are 306 wooden stakes; one is for Private William Hunter. The stakes are arranged in a semicircle around a statue of 17-year-old Private Herbert Burden who was shot for desertion several months after William Hunter was executed.
Dramatization of an Execution at Dawn
© 2016 David Hunt