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SHOT AT DAWN - INTRODUCTION

Updated: May 22, 2022


In the First World War between 4 August 1914 and 31 March 1920, 3,080 men had been sentenced to death under the British Army Act, with 302, which was one in ten of those condemned to death at Military court martials, executed for offences under the British Army Act while on active service on the Western Front.


Those executed in the Salient

The ‘Shot at Dawn’ section of my site https://www.theypressalient.com/home/categories/shot-at-dawn

details the 76 men who were executed in the Salient and are buried or commemorated in twenty eight cemeteries and memorials across the Salient with the highest number buried at Poperinghe New Military Cemetery. One of those included in the 76 executed was serving with the Chinese Labour Corps.


Types of Court Martial

While the minor infractions of the men could be dealt with by their commanding officer the more serious capital crimes were dealt with by trial at a court martial. The court martial took four forms, the Regimental dealt with the minor offences, District could only impose a prison sentence of up to two years, both the General and Field General dealt with the cases where a sentence of death could be imposed. A General Courts Martial was less frequently convened than a Field General, as the Field General Courts Martial was a type of General Courts Martial that allowed for a simplification of the procedures in the interest of military convenience. The Army Act stipulated that a Field General Courts Martial was to consist of three officers one of whom, not be below the rank of Captain, was to act as president. The death sentence could not be passed without the agreement of all the officers making up the FGCM. The soldier was offered the assistance of an officer to act as a ‘prisoner’s friend’ at his trial. The officer was in effect his defending counsel. A plea of not guilty was always entered in the case of capital trials. At the conclusion of the prosecution’s case the defendant could call witnesses or give evidence themselves. However, you don’t need much imagination to envisage the scene of the ill-educated Tommy on trial for his life, being cross examined and being led into making statements that could incriminate him in the eyes of those who were both his prosecutors and judges.


The army could also convene a Court of Inquiry and these were used to investigate virtually any matter from stolen battalion property to the failure of an attack and the absence of a soldier. A Court of Inquiry could be convened after 21 days of the absence of the soldier and at the hearing evidence would be heard from witnesses with knowledge of the last known siting of the absentee. The court would then conclude, more often than not, that the absentee was a deserter. Attempting to desert was also considered a capital offence and four men were shot for this offence.


Details of Deserters

The details of deserters were circulated in the UK via the Police Gazette and it included a photograph of the man and details of his habits and associates. In the early war years deserters, who are arrested in the UK, were brought before a Magistrates Court, Sherriff Court in Scotland, before being returned to their unit under escort for trial. This was procedure was abandoned in 1917.


Convictions

The greatest number of capital convictions were for desertion with 260 men being executed for this offence. This, despite there being 114,670 instances of desertion. As this was the most common form of contravention of the Army Act the army became well accustomed to dealing with these cases.


Sentence is confirmed

When a death sentence was passed the file was passed up the chain of command to confirm the sentence with the final decision taken by the Commander-in-Chief Sir Douglas Haig. In the view of Putkowski and Sykes it would be wrong to suggest that Sir Douglas Haig was responsible for the demise of these men and that it was that the men had become ensnared by an ‘unforgiving military judicial system.’ Certainly Canon Scott in his attempt to save the life on one unfortunate came up against the unforgiving system.


The selected use of the death sentence was employed as a deterrent by the Army aimed at the victims fellow soldiers. In the opinion of Putkowski and Sykes the men selected were ‘..often unfortunate helpless victims, least able to help themselves. Often in poor physical health these ill-educated, inarticulate individuals were frequently exhausted though the strains of constant horrific trench warfare which drained their resolve – and ultimately their life blood.’


By todays’ standards very few of those men that were executed received even the most basic form of justice. The justice handed down was from courts that merely saw themselves as a ‘component of the penal process’ (Babington) and carried out their function without any form of legal guidance. The accused very rarely had their case presented to the court and the courts never investigated evidence that could have established the accused innocence. The capital sentences handed out, and later sanctioned by senior officers in the chain of command, were done with no proper enquiries or background checks into those men being condemned or even into factors that might have mitigated their sentence. Those condemned to death only found out their sentence a few hours before they were to be taken out and shot and worse, to be shot in front of an enforced audience. There was no right of appeal against the decision of a court martial. Those accused men looking to the medical officer for support or compassion were to be disappointed. The medical officers acted as an extension of the Provost Marshal and made sure that the accused man received his punishment.


Conclusion

In a statement to Parliament in 1998, Dr John Reid, then Armed Forces Minister, in response to an investigation called for by the Shot at Dawn Campaign, said that he could not agree to a blanket pardon for all those men executed. The Campaign had never asked for that. He expressed his regret for all those killed in the First World War, whether by the enemy or by execution. His decision, he said, was based on concerns that the passage of time caused the grounds for a blanket pardon, on the basis of their unsafe conviction, to be non-existent because no new evidence could be presented and no new witnesses could be forthcoming. He concluded that, as a result; any review would leave a significant number of men re-condemned again because any judgement made had to be based on evidence rather than belief.


The last British soldier to be shot by a firing squad was in Germany in 1946. He had been convicted of murder.


Sources and Reading List

Set out below are my sources and reading list:

· Julian Putkowski and Julian Sykes ‘Shot at Dawn’ (published in 1989) and remains the most authoritative on this subject.


· Cathryn Corns and John Hughes-Wilson in ‘Blindfold and Alone’ (published in 2001). From their research we know the names and the details of all these executions.


· William Moore ‘The Thin Yellow Line’ (published 1974) this was the first book to raise this uncomfortable subject and was produced against the wishes of the MoD.


· Anthony Babington ‘For the Sake of Example’ (published 1983) This book revealed for the first time the grim and sometimes horrific details of these trials and executions.


· David Johnson ‘Executed at Dawn’(published in 2015) this book explores the stories of the men forced to shoot their fellow Tommies.


· Canon F G Scott, senior chaplain to the 1st Canadian Division tried to stop an execution and this is recalled in his memoir ‘The Great War as I Saw It’



SHOT AT DAWN

Cemetery or Memorial


Aeroplane Cemetery

2

Bedford House Cemetery

1

(Royal) Berkshire Corner Extension & Memorial

3

(Royal) Berkshire Cemetery Hyde Park Corner

1

Bleuet Farm Military Cemetery

3

Dickebusch New Military Cemetery

1

Dranoutre Military Cemetery

1

Duhallow ADS Cemetery

1

Ferme Olivier Cemetery

2

Hagle Dump Cemetery

2

Kemmel Chateau Military Cemetery

2

La Clytte Military Cemetery

1

Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery

1

Locre Churchyard

3

Locre Hospice Cemetery

2

Mendinghem British Cemetery

3

Menin Gate Memorial

4

Nine Elms British Cemetery

2

Perth Cemetery (China Wall)

7

Poperinghe Old Military Cemetery

1

Poperinghe New Military Cemetery

17

Reninghelst Military Cemetery

3

The Huts Cemetery

2

Vlamertinghe Military Cemetery

2

Vlamertinghe New Military Cemetery

1

Westhof Farm Cemetery

1

White House Cemetery

4

Ypres Reservoir Cemetery

3


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