Irish lance corporal Peter Sands was shot as a deserter one hundred years ago today at Fleurbaix, near Armentières.
Sands, a nine-year veteran age 26 or 27, left the Royal Irish Rifles with another soldier on a home leave pass in February 1915 and returned to his family in Belfast.
Sands had a pass for four days. Instead, he stayed for five months — openly living with his wife, and wearing his military uniform, until some unknown busybody turned him in as a deserter that July.
He would tell his court-martial that he had lost his travel documents to return to the horrible front, and had been blown off when he visited a Belfast barracks to see about a replacement. He did not aim to desert, he insisted; “Had I intended to desert I would have worn plain clothes, but up to that time I was arrested I always wore uniform.” It is not so hard to reach Corporal Sands, psychologically — a man perhaps indulging a lethal opiate of denial. Suppose his “desertion” began with a good-faith mishap and thereafter did not last for five months, but just for one day more … day upon day.
He had no pass, so what was he to do next? He stayed in Belfast with his wife and daughter wearing his service duds while he contemplated that question. (Who can say whether he contemplated it in bemusement or terror.) He stayed every day in March, and it became every day in April, and every day in May and June, too. Nobody came for him on any of those days.
Had his war ended, then? Had he somehow slipped the toils of the machine back to a domestic idyll?
Maybe he truly had … but for that anonymous snitch.
Even if it had to be reminded of its prodigal corporal’s absence, His Majesty’s royal meatgrinder expected a little more hustle from its meat than one barracks call in five months: while Sands was at home, his mates had gone out of the trenches in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle (11,000+ British casualties), and the disastrous* Battle of Aubers Ridge (another 11,000+).
His commanding officer “consider[ed] this a bad case of desertion and I recommend that the sentence be carried out.” And it was.
Sands was buried at a nearby churchyard, but his resting-place was lost during the war. He has a marker at Cabaret-Rouge Military Cemetery at Souchez.
* The report of the Times from Aubers Ridge — headlined “Need for shells: British attacks checked: Limited supply the cause: A Lesson From France” — precipitated the “Shell Crisis of 1915”.