Shot at dawn: the scared young men who lied to fight in Flanders
They were sick, cold, hungry, tired and terrified. They saw their friends bombed, gassed and cut to pieces in spectacular numbers and they were reduced to trembling wrecks by relentless shellfire and the imminence of their own demise.
Many had lied about their age to fight for King and Country. But 307 of them were executed by their comrades, often for little more than being frightened, confused young men.
Between 1914 and 1920, more than 3,000 British soldiers were sentenced to death by courts martial for desertion, cowardice, striking an officer, disobedience, falling asleep on duty or casting away arms. Although only 11 per cent of the sentences were carried out, those who were shot at dawn were denied legal representation and the right of appeal. Medical evidence which showed that many were suffering from shell-shock – or post traumatic stress disorder – was either not submitted to the courts or was ignored. Most hearings lasted no more than 20 minutes.
Transcripts made public 75 years after the events suggest that some of the men were underage. Others appeared to have wandered away from the battlefield in states of extreme distress and confusion, yet they were charged with desertion.
One 19-year-old, Pte George Roe of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, was executed for desertion, even though one witness told his court martial: “[Roe] came up to me and asked if I was a policeman. He told me that he had lost his way and had been wandering about for two days.”
Another 19-year-old, Pte James Archibald of the 17th Royal Scots, told his comrades he “felt queer” while en route to the trenches at 6.30pm on 14 May 1916. At 3pm the next day, he was found asleep in a barn. He was shot by firing squad three weeks later.
Sgt Joe Stones of the Durham Light Infantry was arrested in January 1917 after an ambush in which his commanding officer was killed. Stones, whose previous bravery had been acknowledged by officers, had wedged his non- functioning rifle across a narrow trench to slow down Germans who were pursuing him. He was deemed to have “cast away his arms” and was executed.
Pte Joseph Byers was underage when he enlisted in 1914. By January 1915, the war had ground the young man down and he went absent without leave. After being caught, he admitted attempting to desert in the naive belief that his honesty and contrition would earn him a prison sentence. He was shot at dawn two weeks later.
Andrew Mackinlay, the Labour MP for Thurrock who has been campaigning for pardons for the men for five years, said: “When the suppressed documents relating to these courts martial were released, they showed that these men were demonstrably shell-shocked.”
“Even where we can’t prove the men were ill, we can say that there was one common denomi- nator – they were all denied natural justice. None was given access to legal representation or the right of appeal. Most of them were not given proper medical examinations and so their conditions were ignored.”
Mr Mackinlay would like to see either a blanket pardon by royal prerogative – which would not require legislation – or each case to be examined on its merits by High Court judges. None of the cases he is concerned with involves treason or mutiny.
Julian Putkowski, co-author of Shot at Dawn (Pen & Sword), said: “The function of these executions was to intimidate and frighten soldiers in the battlefield to get them to take part in pointless exercises in which thousands were slaughtered.”
“The composite soldier in the trenches would be suffering from chronic insomnia and anxiety attacks. He would be wet and cold in wind-chill factors that dragged temperatures as low as minus-18.
“It was enough to drive anyone crazy. To say that all these men who were shot were bad and deserved their punishment is to ignore all these factors. Most just couldn’t take any more.”
By 1930, Parliament had introduced legislation banning the death sentence for the offences for which the 307 were shot.
Sgt Joe Stones stood at just 5ft 2ins tall, but he was promoted over the heads of stronger men because of his acknowledged bravery and leadership qualities.
Time and again he led barbed-wire parties out into No Man’s Land, risking his life while caring for the men in his charge. But he was executed for “casting away his arms” in one of the most bizarre tragedies of the war.
Stones, 25, of the 19th Durham Light Infantry, had been in the trenches of northern France for a year when, one cold morning in January 1917, he went on patrol with his commanding officer. The men were ambushed by Germans and the officer was killed, but Stones couldn’t to return fire because he had not removed a protective cover from the breach of his rifle.
The young sergeant turned and ran but had the presence of mind to wedge his rifle across a narrow trench to slow the Germans. He reached his comrades in the rear, shouting: “The Hun are upon us,” and gave them enough time to escape.
However, he was charged with casting away his arms and two corporals, John McDonald and Peter Goggins, were charged with quitting their posts as they made their escape.
At Stones’s court martial, one officer, Lt J.Rider, wrote: “I have personally been out with him in No Man’s Land and always found him keen and bold. In the trenches, he never showed the least sign of funk. …I have had countless opportunities of seeing him under bad circumstances. I can safely say that he was the last man I would have thought capable of any cowardly action.”
But Stones, along with the corporals, was executed anyway.
Like many families whose sons were shot at dawn, Stones’s never spoke of him again. His great nephew, Tom Stones, 56, found out about him only last year.
“My grandfather was a lay preacher and he kept a bible with details of family members, the war and battles written inside – but there was no mention of my great uncle Joe,” he said.
“What they did to him makes me very angry. They shot him like a rat. It’s clear that the poor bugger was no coward. I don’t want a medal for him, but I do think he should get a pardon and an apology.”
Pte Harry Farr of the West Yorkshire Regiment had been in hospital for five months recovering from shell shock before they sent him back to the trenches.
For two years, the 26-year-old married man from Kensington, west London, had been through some of the worst action of the war before he cracked up in 1916. And, four months after sending him back into the fray, he cracked up again.
The transcript of his court martial at Ville-sur-Ancre records that Farr failed to report for duty on 17 September. He fell out without permission, intending to find an officer to report sick to. However, his pleas fell on deaf ears and he was dragged, kicking and screaming, towards the front before being charged with cowardice.
He told the court martial: “I returned to the 1st Line Transport hoping to report sick to some medical officer there. On the sergeant major’s return I reported to him and said I was sick and I could not stand it.
“He then said: `You are a fucking coward and you will go to the trenches. I give fuck all for my life and I give fuck all for yours and I’ll get you fucking well shot.’” He was shot at dawn on 18 October.