1918: Louis Harris and Ernest Jackson, the last British soldiers shot at dawn

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On November 7, 1918, mere days before the end of World War I, British privates Louis Harris and Ernest Jackson were shot for desertion and cowardice. Jackson, of the 24th Battalion Royal Fusiliers, and Harris, of the 10th Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment, were the last British soldiers shot for military offenses in the First World War.

Jackson had been conscripted into the military in July 1916 and sent to France in November. He first ran into trouble in April 1917, when he went AWOL for 28 hours and was sentenced to two years in prison. In most cases the sentence would have been suspended, but for some reason that didn’t happen with Jackson and he spent sixteen months behind bars before he was released and returned to his battalion in August 1918.

A little over a month later, on September 29, he disappeared from his battalion transport lines near Flesquières, where he’d been sick and waiting to be sent to the field ambulance.

Arrested on October 3, Jackson got sent back to the to the 24th Battalion, which was then at Noyelles, 3,000 yards from the front lines. By mid-afternoon he had dropped out of sight again, but was arrested by the military police the next day at Douellens. On October 8, Jackson’s NCO found his arms and equipment in a shelter not far from where he’d gone missing.

Jackson faced a Field General Court Martial (FGCM) on three charges:

  1. Going AWOL on September 29
  2. Deserting on October 4
  3. “Shamefully casting away his arms, ammunition and equipment in the presence of the enemy” on October 4

When asked to explain himself before the tribunal, Jackson said, “I left because I could not stand the treatment I was receiving. I wanted to get away from everything … I have been looked down on by everyone and that is the cause of my being here today.” He added that both his parents had died in insane asylums and he himself suffered from “mental problems caused by worries.”

The FGCM would have none of it and sentenced Jackson to death. He was shot at St. Python in northern France at 6:10 a.m. He was 32 years old.

Nineteen minutes later and 25 kilometers away, at Locquignol, Private Louis Harris faced the firing squad.

Harris had volunteered for the Army in 1915, but was discharged as unfit. He got conscripted in 1916, however, and was sent to France in July, where he served as part of a Lewis gun team. On September 2, in the middle of an attack at Rocquigny, while there was “no firing and practically no opposition,” Harris ditched his kit and his comrades and vanished. He was arrested the next day and faced an FGCM for desertion and cowardice.

The book Blindfold and Alone: British Military Executions in the Great War notes,

Harris — surprisingly … was not defended at his trial and made no attempt to cross-examine any of the witnesses, nor did he make a statement in his own defence. It would appear that the 23-year-old soldier either did not understand the seriousness of his position, or was resigned to his fate.

He was found not guilty of cowardice, but guilty of desertion, and his bad record (which included repeated charges of insubordination) was held against him. His CO wrote, “Pte. Harris L. has not got a good record in this Battalion. His fighting value is NIL.” The Brigade Commander agreed, summing up his case thusly:

I recommend that the extreme penalty be carried out for the following reasons:

  1. Pte. Harris’s action was deliberate.
  2. He has previously attempted to desert unsuccessfully.
  3. He is worthless as a soldier.
  4. During an action he deliberately abandoned his comrades.
  5. His example is a disgraceful one.

Harris’s execution was, as previously stated, the last. Four days later on November 11, the war ended and all death sentences for military offenses were commuted to penal servitude. In 1929 the death penalty was abolished for desertion and other military crimes.

On this day..

4 thoughts on “1918: Louis Harris and Ernest Jackson, the last British soldiers shot at dawn

  1. The article is incorrect in stating these were the last men to be shot for crimes committed in World War One.

    Davids, Abraham
    Private 1239
    Age: 24

    Executed for murder on 26 Aug 1919

    Harris, Willie
    Private 49
    Age: 49

    Executed for murder on 26 Aug 1919

    • They were the last men executed for military offences, such as desertion, disobedience, cowardice etc. Murder wasn’t a military offence. It was a capital crime under civi law aswell.

  2. This is a very interesting entry, but some more background on the tradition of firing squad execution at dawn would have been nice.

    • “Shot At Dawn” Pardon on Medical Grounds Unsound

      After researching this most emotive aspect of the First World War, it has struck me how many widely accepted truths about these executions are simply wrong.

      Among fallacies that need to be cleared up:

      “The victims were shot for cowardice”. In fact, two-thirds of those shot were convicted of desertion, objectively easier to prove. (One example in the 900-page 1914 Manual of Military Law is of a soldier who while on leave is found on a steamship with a ticket to New York.) The next largest category was murder, which of course carried the death penalty in civilian courts; over four years only 18 British soldiers were shot for showing cowardice and two for the archetypal military crime of sleeping on sentry.

      “They were sentenced by kangaroo courts”. By the rules and standards of their time, most field general courts martial seem to have been properly constituted, with three presiding officers and the accused not allowed to enter a guilty plea on a capital charge. True, the accused were not guaranteed legal representation, but they could pick any individual they liked as defending officer, who had to take the job unless there was good reason. Legally qualified officers were often available: one such was Captain Louis Crispin Warmington, a 40-year-old London solicitor serving in the Durham Light Infantry, who acted as prisoner’s friend in at least three capital cases.

      Condemned men were shot the next morning, with no right of appeal. In fact, death sentences were reviewed at least four times up the chain of command, each stage having the power to ‘mitigate, remit, commute or suspend’. Sentences could be modified only downward, and nine out of 10 death sentences were.

      The executed were mainly conscripts. Rather, the majority were either pre-war regulars or new army volunteers. Conscripts did not account for a major part of the army until mid-1917, when the peak of death sentences had already passed. (Statistics are from the authoritative study Blindfold and Alone, by Cathryn Corns and John Hughes-Wilson (Cassell, 2001)).

      After confirmation, a sentence was ‘promulgated’ to the unit and the victim, who was given 12 hours for prayers, letters or rum. One victim had a stay of 75 minutes because of ‘thick fog at 4am’.

      Court martial officers would not have been required to attend the final act, but probably some did. They would have seen a firing squad of 12 men paraded and ordered to load a single round. It seems to have been usual for the officer in charge to unload one or more rifles while the men’s backs were turned. The condemned man was brought out blindfolded and tied to a chair or a post. One participant’s account notes that the condemned man was the calmest one present.

      To make life easier for presiding medical officers, a death certificate was pre-typed: the only detail that needed to be added was whether death was instantaneous or not. On one such document, dated 24 March 1917, the doctor has heavily underlined the word ‘not’.

      Afterwards, the squad was marched away to clean their rifles and, a fatigue party buried the victim along with other casualties.

      In 2006 after many years of persistent protests, the British government was finally forced to rehabilitate those British soldiers (many) and officers (a few) who, because of cowardice in the face of the enemy or desertion, were executed during The Great War, or in some cases even afterwards.

      It is a fact is that the decision who was shot at dawn, and who was not, was highly arbitrary. But even this is not the main problem. That is, that a general pardon on psychological grounds is medically unsound, historically incorrect, and, in so far as the term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is mentioned, even completely anachronistic.

      Of course, it is the historian’s job to point at ‘other times and other values’, at ‘different circumstances’. And in his work, his main and probably only job is to describe and explain, not to judge. But this does not imply that as a private person he is not entitled to have opinions on what is being described and explained. All this, however, does not imply that the reason behind the pardon – to wit, those involved were all ‘disturbed’ – is sound. Of course, this reason fits perfectly well in the current medicalisation of social problems: let’s call it a disease, and everybody is happy.

      For a start: 38,630 British and Dominion solders were convicted for desertion, not 306 soldiers were condemned to death, but 361 (2) soldiers were brought to death. 3,118 soldiers heard the sentence ‘death penalty’. The 306 are ‘just’ the ones who were actually executed because of desertion or cowardice. And even this is questionable. For desertion 268 were shot, for cowardice: 18, leaving post: 7, disobedience: 5, hitting a superior officer: 5, mutiny: 4, sleeping on duty: 2, throwing down arms: 2, violence: 1. (Putkowski and Sykes, Shot at dawn.). But how to get from these figures to a total of 306, I honestly do not know as the figure if to be believed is 313 not 306. But that is not the main point. That point is reached when answering questions like: who decided who was actually brought to death, and why? Where all those other 2600 convicted soldiers mad as well?

      PTSD is not older than 35 years and can only be diagnosed after a prolonged examination of a living patient. Hence, diagnosing PTSD in a group of executed soldiers from the beginning of the twentieth century solely because they were accused of desertion or cowardice, and of whom, moreover, hardly any medical records or even none at all exist, in fact is utterly ridiculous.

      Even in the case of Harry Farr, who supposedly was clearly shell-shocked and for this reason never should have been send back to the front – even though sometimes this was part of the treatment –, it is doubtful if he really was shell shocked.(2)

      But even if he was, then it is of course a very sad, but not a typical case. Some of the soldiers involved will have suffered from some kind of neurosis, but they were never diagnosed neurotic before their execution, let alone treated. Officially, medical inspection was indeed part of the trial, but in practice very often there was no doctor present. And if there was one, seldom did he have any knowledge of psychological problems at all. Or he was, in view of his military career, more interested in supporting the judicial officers rather than the soldier on trial.

      But there were many soldiers too, who had no psychological or neurological problems at all. Some of them simply were too scared to go over the top, but anxiety – and certainly the perfectly justified and understandable anxiety of soldiers in the trenches of Belgium and France – is not the same as cowardice. And it certainly is something else than madness; quite the contrary, I would say.

      Others, again fully understandable, thought obeying a given order was nothing but a kind of suicide, be it in a heroic jacket. They jumped into the very first protecting shell hole they could find, which mostly did not take very long. Next, there were those who refused to obey orders because it would bring not only themselves, but also others in mortal danger, without any chance of military success.

      And, of course, there were those who were picked out of their group more or less ad random because this group had failed to reach its objective, an objective pointed out on a map miles behind the front. They had fought, but were shot nonetheless, as an example, ‘pour encourager les autres’, as the French put it. ‘More or less’ ad random, because some men were accused of cowardice, solely because the officers did not like him. Again: no cowardice, no madness.

      And last but not least, of course, there were those who, completely of sound mind, began to see the war or the way it was fought, as unjustified or inhuman. They as well were convicted because of cowardice and sentenced to death – unless they were decorated officers like Siegfried Sassoon. He was – how ironic – not disturbed at all, but nevertheless sentenced to an involuntary stay in a psychiatric hospital, to save his life. Again: this had nothing to do with madness. Quite the contrary.

      The truth of the matter is, that all these hundreds of executed men have hundreds of different stories, and because all those different stories can never be retold again in all their details, a general pardon is justified. The medical reasoning behind it, however, is idiotic.

      But although the political reasons behind the pardon are perfectly understandable, a general pardon on psychological grounds is not justified. It does an injustice to those who were indeed neurotic. It does an injustice to those who were of completely sound mind.

      However over century later, it is easy to understand why these dawn executions have such a hold. It was, after all, the British army, and, down the decades, it is easier for many to put themselves in the shoes of the condemned men rather than the generals.

      For the moment, I will go along with Corrigan’s verdict: “it was harsh justice, but it was generally justice, in a very harsh war.”.


      (1) The figures cited here should not be regarded as definitive but rather as indicative. Note: The figures for Canada, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa are included in the totals for Great Britain.

      (2) Edgar Jones, Professor of the History of Medicine and Psychiatry, Institute of Psychiatry and King’s Centre for Military Health Research.


      Shot at dawn: time to look at the truth. By Michael Cross – The Law Society Gazette – https://www.lawgazette.co.uk/

      Dr. Leo van Bergen – Medical historian of the VUmc-Amsterdam, Netherlands, department of Medical Humanities (Metamedica). http://www.wereldoorlog1418.nl/shell-shock/pardon.html

      Great Britain War Office (ed.): Statistics of the military effort of the British Empire during the Great War, 1914-1920, London 1922: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.

      Mud, Blood and Poppycock” by Gordon Corrigan

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