Posts filed under 'England'

1738: George Whalley and Dean Briant, wife-murderers

Add comment November 8th, 2020 Headsman

At a hanging-day at Tyburn on this date in 1738, 11 men (no women) were executed en masse.

Nine committed different varieties of malappropriation: burglaries, highway robberies, horse-thefts, even a charge of coining, all of whom can be read about in thumbnail at that date’s account by the Newgate Ordinary.

The other two were men who murdered their wives. While the prelate here does single them out for committing the elevated crime of homicide, he does not especially dwell on the domestic and gendered nature of these men’s attacks upon their wives. The excerpts below from the mouths of neighbors who were privy to the relationships in question open a terrifyingly intimate window on a pair of violent relationships.

These of course are far from the only domestic murders in the voluminous archives of the Old Bailey. However, most violence by husbands against wives obviously fell short of the criminal annals, and the nature and extent of that violence is difficult to reckon. From the perspective of decades and centuries, historians perceive a long-term — too long-term — decline in “everyday” wife-battering.

“It has been noted that even by the mid-eighteenth century the physical violence alleged in marriage separation suits was not necessarily life threatening, and tended to be less serious than that described in the seventeenth century,” notes the topical volume Marital Violence: An English Family History, 1660-1857. (Review.) Yet “while all historians of violence agreed with Stone* that there was a decline in the number of recorded [conjugal] homicides, and that this was particularly marked for the period between the Restoration and the start of the nineteenth century, it took further research for historians to conclude that there was little change over time in the proportion of homicides that were domestic.” So that suggests less a special abhorrence of violence in the home, and more a wider social evolution making masculine personal violence ever less routine — the same trend that, for instance, gradually saw off the formerly ubiquitous practice of dueling.

All this falls into the active space of historians far wiser than any mere headsman. And all, of course, was cold comfort to Hannah Harding and Mary Briant.


George Whalley, a 60-year-old carpenter, knifed his wife Hannah Harding in the head on June 10th. She languished with the wound for nearly a month before succumbing on July 6. It was his second marriage, and while he had seemingly lived amicably with his late first spouse, George had furious rows with Hannah over money. Testimony from his trial:

Eliz. Dur. The Yard that belongs to the Prisoner’s House and our Yard join together, they are parted by a thin Wainscoat Partition, and there is a loose Board that lifts up between the 2 Yards. On the 10th of June I was in our own Yard, and heard the Deceased say, she would not be lock’d into the Kitchen. I listened, and heard the Prisoner curse and swear at her in a violent Manner, then he shut her and himself into the Yard, and told her she had robb’d him of all he had, and that he had not a Farthing to help himself with. She told him she had not, and the Quarrel encreasing, I lifted up the loose Board, and saw him take Hold of her Shoulder, and pull off a Handkerchief which she had upon her Neck; then she cry’d out Murder, and I observed a large Clasp Knife in his Hand upon her Shoulder. This is the Knife, and the Blood is still upon it. I was not above a Yard from him, and saw him plainly cut her across the Shoulder; then he moved his Hand higher, and cut her in the Neck; and then he moved it again, and cut her nearer her Ear. After he had cut her in this Manner, he open’d the Kitchen Door, and push’d her into the Kitchen. Our Sink likewise is parted from theirs by some slight Boards, and when I ran to alarm our Family, I saw her leaning over the Sink, and bleeding into it in a very violent Manner. When the Neighbours came in, he open’d the Door and ran away. I have often heard him abuse and curse her, and never heard her give him any Provocation. This was the 10th of June between 5 and 6 in the Afternoon.

Nathaniel Harris. On the 10th of June, when I came Home to Dinner, (I live in the same House) the Prisoner was cursing and swearing at his Wife, because a Gentleman that had got his Money, would not let him have it again, but had told him he would make him knuckle down to his Taw. The Prisoner told her, the Gentleman wanted him to go into the Country, away from his Wife, but he said he would not go, for they shou’d not live together long, and she would die first. He very frequently cursed and abused her, – the House was never at Peace for him. He has been in the Counter before, for abusing her. I told him I would hang myself if I was he, no, (he said) he wou’d not; so I went from Dinner between 1 and 2, and saw no more of it.

Prisoner. I was overcome by her aggravating me.

Mary Hignal. I liv’d on the same Floor with the Deceased, (Mrs. Harding) she chose that Name, and did not care to be called by the Prisoner’s. The Morning this happen’d, I went into the Kitchen, and heard him call the Deceased a great many Bitches. I reprov’d him, and he call’d me Bitch, and told me, if I did not be gone, he would murder me. Upon this, I went to the Door of my own Room, and heard him continue to abuse her; after some Time, she went up two or three Stairs, toward another Apartment; he got hold of her to pull her down, and she clung to the Bannisters of the Stairs; but he kick’d her under the Arm, tore her down Stairs, and kick’d her again on the Breast. While she stood in the Passage, he went into the Kitchen, and bid her come in; she refused, and said he had got a Knife, and had some ill Design against her. He said he had none, but I heard a Knife clasp. Then he went down Stairs, and was in and out all Day. But about six in the Evening, he came into the Kitchen again, and spit in my Face, and I spit in his Face, and went out. Immediately the Prisoner shut himself in, with his Wife, and I run up to Harris’s Room, and said, I believ’d the Man was going to kill his Wife. Upon this, Mrs. Harris and I, came down, and heard the Deceased cry

Murder

in the Yard but I could neither get to them, nor see them; and being in a very great Fright, I ran down, and went into a Chandler’s Shop, and told the People, the Prisoner had murder’d his Wife. They said, perhaps I might be mistaken; I ran up Stairs again, to see if I could get into the Kitchen, and I met the Prisoner coming down Stairs into the Alley, with one Hand bloody, and the other in his Pocket. When I got into the Kitchen, I found Mrs. Harding (the Deceased) leaning upon her Hand, and bleeding very much. I believe I saw a Gallon of Blood which she had lost.


Dean Briant or Bryant stabbed his wife Mary in the back with a clasp knife, killing her. Testimony from his trial:

Lydia Cole. On the 7th of July in the Night, I was very ill with the Tooth-Ach, and an Ague in my Head, and not being able to sleep, I walked about my Chamber, which is a Ground Room, and joins to the Prisoner’s. About half an Hour after One, I heard somebody knock at his Door once or twice, and cry softly in a Man’s Voice,

Molly! Molly! Molly!

three Times. The Door was immediately open’d, and he was let into the Room that joins with mine. No sooner was he got in, but Words arose; then I heard a Blow given. Then Words, — then a Blow. At last I heard a Woman in a soft Voice cry,

don’t! don’t! don’t hurt me!

And the Man’s Voice answer’d,

then d-mn your Blood you Bitch, don’t follow me.

After this there were many Words pass’d; and the Woman talk’d to him in a very moving Manner. When the Watchman came Two o’Clock, I heard no Noise, so I lay’d myself down on my Bed; but I had not lain long, before I heard the Woman either crying or squeeling. I jump’d from the Bed again, and heard her groan, for a Quarter of an Hour, and every groan, grew fainter and fainter, ’till I could not hear it at all. From this Time, I heard no Noise, but only a dragging of something along the Floor, and then I imagin’d the Man went out of the House again.

Margaret Carter. I know nothing of the Murder; but I can speak to the Prisoner’s Behaviour to his Wife at other Times. The Prisoner, the Deceased, and I, have been acquainted many Years. He always has been very vile in his Behaviour to her: beating and abusing her frequently, though she always behav’d very mildly to him. The worst Words I ever heard her use to him, were,

why do you use me so? ’tis worse usage than I deserve.

I have seen her fall on her Knees and entreat him not to abuse her, and instead of being mov’d with Compassion, he has beat her ’till she has bled. On the first of February last, she sent for me; I found her darning, or running the Heels of his Stockings. As soon as she saw me, she burst out a crying, and said, she was now at a Distance from every Friend, and had no one to ease her Mind to. Her Husband (she said) was gone abroad in a great Passion; and had told her, that he would neither bed with her, nor ever eat or drink with her more, and that if he met her in the Street, he would certainly kill her; nor would he ever be Friends with her, unless she would own, she took a Guinea and a Half out of his Pocket, which she profess’d she had never touch’d. I was concern’d at her Tale, and went down to the Waterside to see for him, but not finding him, I returned again to the Deceased. While I was with her, the Prisoner came in, and to get him into a good Humour, I invited him to come a House-warming to my House, but he refuss’d: The poor Woman burst out a crying again, and told him she had made him some Broth, and beg’d him to eat some; he reply’d,

no, d-mn you for a Bitch, I won’t touch it, nor ever eat any Thing with you, ’till you have acknowledged you took the Money.

She fell on her Knees, and hung about his Knees, declaring with a great many Tears, that she was Innocent; but he up with his Fist, and dash’d her away from him with such Violence, as to set her a bleeding.

* “Interpersonal Violence in English Society 1300-1980,” Past and Present 101 (1983).

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1959: Guenther Podola

Add comment November 5th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1959, Guenther Podola became the last man hanged in Great Britain for killing a police officer.

A German emigre, Podola had been deported from Canada for committing a series of thefts and burglaries.

He’d just moved to London in May of 1959, not six months before his execution, when he tried to ransom stolen jewelry and furs to an American model he’d stolen them from. The model notified police and when they tracked him down, Podola shot Detective Sergeant Raymond Purdy straight through the heart.

Grasping for straws at his trial, he offered the soap opera-esque claim that he (now) labored under amnesia from a knock on the head suffered during his arrest. “I do not remember the crime for which I stand accused,” he told the court. “I am unable to answer the charges.” A Crown psychiatrist, the jury, and anyone’s common sense figured that he was shamming, which Podola himself also admitted after conviction.

Podola’s was the last British hanging of the 1950s. Five years and nineteen executions later, Britain binned capital punishment.

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1721: John Trantum, 1/2

Add comment October 23rd, 2020 Headsman

[H]e was “not of any Business”, but had gone to the East-Indies and China as a servant to someone on board a ship, and had stayed there for four months while the ship was loaded with cargo. On his return to England he was paid over &pound/80 but he quickly spent it all and “took to vicious Courses”. He related that his mother “some Times told him, she fear’d he lived Dishonestly, and beg’d him not think of subsisting on the Ruins and Spoils of innocent People, for it would terminate in Misery and Destruction”. She would prove to be right.

-From the London Lives biography of John Trantum. (London Lives is digital database with “a wide range of primary sources about eighteenth-century London, with a particular focus on plebeian Londoners”; it’s kin to the oft-used-by-ExecutedToday bonanza of trial records at The Old Bailey Online, and friend of the site Tim Hitchcock is a co-director of both.) Click through to read the whole thing, and don’t forget to navigate onward to his brother Richard Trantum — part of the same gang of criminals, and destined come 1723 for the same fate as John.

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1780: The Biggerstaff Hanging Tree earns its name

Add comment October 14th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1780, American Revolution patriots hanged nine captive loyalist prisoners in North Carolina, in the wake of the Battle of King’s Mountain.

Although the colonials would ultimately accomplish their break with the British Empire, the British and their local loyalists had a strong run in a southern campaign from about 1778.

But even at their acme, the redcoats could not extend their writ westward past the Appalachian Mountains, into the frontiers where hunger to swallow up Indian land made for ferocious adherence to the pro-independence cause, since the Crown was trying to limit settler expansion in those zones. The ones who turned their muskets against their king would become known as the “Overmountain Men” — and the Battle of King’s Mountain was their glory.

Feeling their oats after thrashing Horatio Gates‘s rebel army at the Battle of Camden — seen here in the Mel Gibson/Heath Ledger movie The Patriot

— the Brits sent the capable Scottish Major Patrick Ferguson into the mountains to roust out the irregulars. After some weeks of maneuver, Ferguson faced off with the Overmountain Men on October 7 at a wooded crag just south of the border between the Carolinas: barely a “mountain”, and definitely not the king’s. In an hourlong fight, the Overmountain militia overwhelmed Ferguson’s command, killing Ferguson himself.

Historical novel about the events surrounding King’s Mountain. (Review)

It was a stunning blow to the British, and checked that rampant southern campaign; as British prospects slipped away in subsequent years, King’s Mountain would loom as a mighty portent. The British commander Sir Henry Clinton considered King’s Mountain “the first link in a chain of events that followed each other in regular succession until they at last ended in the total loss of America.” In a more buoyant mood, Thomas Jefferson judged this battle “the joyful annunciation of the turn of the tide of success which terminated the Revolutionary War, with the Seal of our independence.”

Not so joyful were nearly 700 Tory prisoners whom the colonial militia hurriedly marched west to Gilbert Town (present-day Rutherfordton) in the western reaches of North Carolina. The militia’s blood was up already from British atrocities; at King’s Mountain, the British had difficulty surrendering to baying guerrillas who killed the first man to offer the white flag, baying for revenge upon previous massacres of patriots.

While holding their prisoners at the farm of Aaron Biggerstaff — a Tory who had been killed at King’s Mountain, even as his Patriot brother languished in British custody — word reached the Overmountain Men that yet more revolutionists had been executed in British custody.

Vowing to put a stop to this this, they put 36 of their prisoners to a drumhead trial on October 14 and sentenced them all to death. Nine of them were actually hanged that evening, three by three: Ambrose Mills, Robert Wilson, James Chitwood, Arthur Grimes, Thomas Lafferty, Walter Gilkey, John McFall, John Bibby, and Augustine Hobbs. Mills, a colonel and the leader of the loyalist forces in this western county, was the most prominent of the bunch.

Intercession by Patriot officers and the Biggerstaff women put a stop to the proceedings; the other 27 “condemned” were simply suffered to return to the horde of POWs, and marched out the next morning.

A sign noting the place of the Biggerstaff Hanging Tree is one of the markers on the National Parks Service’s Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail.

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1832: William Hodkin, child rapist

Add comment September 29th, 2020 Headsman

The crime had taken place at Sheffield on the night of Tuesday/Wednesday the 18th of July. Catherine [Stacey, the victim, a 12-year-old girl -ed.] was a servant to a publican named George Elam and went to bed a little before midnight, leaving her mistress, Sarah Elam drinking with a few regulars, including Hodkin. Around 1 am. Sarah woke Catherine and told her to move over as “Billy” as Hodkin was known was going to be sleeping in the same bed. Hodkin got into bed and immediately began to fondle Catherine and when she complained Sarah told her to be quiet or she would get a beating. Hodkin then proceeded to rape Catherine who tried to escape into Sarah’s room but was refused entry. For two weeks Catherine told no one what had happened to her but eventually she told her mother who took her to the doctor.

Hodkin’s friends tried to intervene at this stage by abducting Catherine to prevent her mother going to a magistrate. Her mother did and reported what had happened leading to several arrests on the 10th of August.

-From the September 29, 2020 Facebook post of the Capital Punishment UK Facebook page.

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1829: David Evans, in Carmarthen

Add comment September 21st, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1829 in the Welsh town of Carmarthen, David Evans hanged for savagely murdering his pregnant girlfriend Hannah Davis with a billhook, in a fit of jealousy.

As Capital Punishment UK notes, the large public audience in attendance got double the spectacle:

When the preparations had been made, Evans gave the signal by dropping a handkerchief, to draw the bolt but the hook gave way and he landed on his feet. He expected to be reprieved, telling the officials that “He had been hanged once and they had no more to do with him”, but this was not the case in law and the execution had to be carried out, which it was a few minutes later, this time without a hitch. After hanging for an hour the body was taken down and sent for dissection.

The folk belief in this notional post-botch safe space was something that the coalescing state struggled to dispel as an irrational carve-out. It was here over half a century since William Blackstone‘s seminal legal Commentaries went out of its way to dismiss the idea.

it is clear, that if, upon judgment to be hanged by the neck till he is dead, the criminal be not thoroughly killed, but revives, the sheriff must hang him again. For the former hanging was no execution of the sentence; and, if a false tenderness were to be indulged in such cafes, a multitude of collusions might ensue. Nay, even while abjurations were in force, such a criminal, so reviving, was not allowed to take sanctuary and abjure the realm; but his fleeing to sanctuary was held an escape.

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1809: Six at Halifax for the mutiny aboard the HMS Columbine

Add comment September 18th, 2020 Headsman


(cc) image by Dennis Jarvis.

On this date in 1809, the Royal Navy hanged six for a failed mutiny bid aboard the HMS Columbine, subsequently gibbeting four of them at Maugher Beach upon McNabs Island at the entrance to the harbor of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Boatswain William Coates, seamen Jacques L’Oiseau, Alexander McKinley, and William Stock, and marines Henry Coffee and Edward Kelly — the latter of whom might also have been acting as the ship’s steward — suffered the extreme penalty, while a seventh man, Pierre Francoise, was reprieved by royal mercy. L’Oiseau, McKinley, Stock, and Kelly were then painted with tar and hung in chains at the same site as a public warning to seafarers, a scene “very disagreeable as it is hardly possible to sail anywhere below George’s Island without being offended at the sight of those unfortunate sufferers,” in the estimation of the provincial secretary.* Sixteen other actual or aspirant mutineers were tried with them, many receiving heavy sentences of flogging followed by convict transportation in irons.

The Columbine’s tars were motivated by the grievances of ill-treatment typical in the British navy, and the proximity of United States territory — whose appeal to deserters as an escape from the empire’s lash would soon help bring about war between the U.S. and the U.K. — presented an inducement to rebel that they could not resist.

For greater detail, I cannot begin to improve upon the thorough and nuanced exploration of this event presented by the Nova Scotia Maritime Museum. Click through for a great read.

* Legend has it that the guy McNabs Island was named for, Peter McNab, was so put off by the practice of gibbeting near his land that one night he cut down whatever poor sufferers were dangling there, plus the whole apparatus.

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1951: Robert Dobie Smith, suicide by Pierrepoint

1 comment September 13th, 2020 Headsman

On the 22nd of May 1951, after an argument with Joan, [Robert Dobie Smith] persuaded his brother Andrew to write a rambling letter to explain his intended actions and then make a phone call to the police. The letter stated that he would shoot the first policeman he came into contact with. Smith had earlier stolen a double barreled 12 bore shotgun and 25 cartridges from his father’s home.

From the Capital Punishment UK Facebook page … click through for the rest of the story.

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1664: Sawny Douglas, Chevy Chaser

Add comment September 10th, 2020 Headsman

From the Newgate Calendar:


SAWNY DOUGLAS

A Scottish Highwayman who laid England under toll, and took a Copy of “Chevy Chase” to Tyburn when he was hanged on 10th of September, 1664

SAWNY DOUGLAS, a Scotsman, was the son of a tanner, and born at Portpatrick in the shire of Galloway, where he lived till the unnatural Civil War broke out in 1641. Sawny at this time being very zealous on the side of the Kirk, and consequently against the King, entered himself into the service of the Parliament, was at the siege of Dundee, and boasted after that bloody action was over that he killed with his own hands no less than twenty-nine persons.

Those who have read the histories of that time will remember that Dundee was taken by storm, and that the garrison was put to the sword; which gave Sawny an opportunity to discover his cruelty.

After the restoration of King Charles II, when the Scots were reduced to obedience, Sawny found himself obliged to seek some other subsistence than the army.

He had now been a soldier about twenty years, and though he had never been advanced higher than to carry a halberd [i.e., a sergeant -ed.], yet he was something loth to lay down his commission. However, there was no opposing necessity, and he was obliged to submit, as well as many of his betters, who were glad they could come off thus, after having been so deeply concerned in the rebellion.

Coming into England, and being destitute of both money and bread, he was not long in resolving what course to take in order to supply himself. The highway, he thought, was as free for him as for anybody else, and he was both strong and desperate. But the question was, where should he get a horse and accoutrements? “What,” said he again, “should hinder my taking the first that comes in my way, and seems fit for my purpose?” Pursuant to this last resolution he kept on the main road, with a good crab-tree stick in his hand, till he saw a gentleman’s servant alone, well mounted, with pistols before him.

He had some question ready to ask, and after that another, till the poor footman was engaged in a discourse with him, and rode along gently by his side. At last Sawny observes an opportunity, and gives him an effectual knock on the pate, which, followed with four or five more, left him insensible on the ground, while our young adventurer rode off with the horse till he thought himself out of the way of any inquiry.

The first robbery he committed was in Maidenhead Thicket, in Berkshire, in those times a very noted haunt for highwaymen. The person he stopped was one Mr Thurston, at that time Mayor of Thornbury, in Gloucestershire. He got about eighteen pounds, and was so uncivil as to refuse the poor gentleman ten shillings to bear his charges home; which was all he required, and for which he begged very hard.

Another time he robbed the Duchess of Albemarle* of diamond rings to the value of two hundred pounds, besides a pearl necklace, rich bracelets and ear-rings. After this he came and took lodgings at the house of one Mr Knowles, an apothecary in Tuthil Street, Westminster, where he set up for a gentleman, appeared very fine, and made love to his landlord’s daughter, who was reputed to be a two thousand pounds fortune.

For some time he was very well received both by the young lady and her father; but when his money was gone, and they found him full of shifts, arts and evasions, they not only discarded him as a husband and son-in-law, but turned him fairly out of doors.

Sawny now took to the road again, and committed more robberies than before, ranging all over the north of England, and being often so fortunate as to escape justice when it pursued him. He moreover contracted a familiarity with Du Vall, the most generous-spirited highwayman that ever lived, which friendship continued till Death parted them by his deputy Jack Ketch.

Sawny’s last attempt was on the Earl of Sandwich,** who was afterwards admiral in the Dutch war, and unfortunately lost his life, together with his ship. This noble commander, having arms in the coach, resolved not to be insulted by a highwayman, and discharged a pistol into Sawny’s horse, which immediately dropping down under him, the servants came up and secured our bonny North Briton, who was thereupon committed to Newgate, and in less than a month after ordered for Tyburn.

The Ballad of Chevy Chase, a popular song that survives in several variants, tells the story of a great battle between Scotsmen and Englishmen — won by the Scottish side, as occurred in its likely real-life inspiration, the Battle of Otterburn (1388).

Much beloved on both halves of Britain, it survives in several variants to the present day. The ballad also directly inspired the naming of Chevy Chase, Maryland (which once contained a number of street names alluding to Otterburn), as well as the stage name of National Lampoon/Saturday Night Live comedian Cornelius Crane “Chevy” Chase.

While he was under sentence he behaved in a very profane and indecent manner, cursing the bellman for his bad English when he repeated the usual Memento the night before his execution. At St Sepulchre’s the next day, when the appointed ceremony was performed, instead of composing his countenance, and looking as a man in his condition ought to do, he only told the spectators that it was hard a man could not be suffered to go to the gallows in peace; and that he had rather be hanged twice over without ceremony, than once after this superstitious manner.

He read no Prayer Book, but carried the ballad of Chevy Chase [see sidebar -ed.] in his hand all the way to Tyburn. When he came thither he took no notice of the ordinary, but bid the hangman be speedy, and not make a great deal of work about nothing, or at most about a mere trifle. He died 10th of September, 1664, aged fifty-three, and was buried in Tyburn Road.

* There were only three legitimate Dukes of Albemarle. The first was ancient history, a casualty at Agincourt centuries before. Chronologically, this robbery victim should refer to the wife of the first Duke, who was also the great Roundhead commander — and indeed, the robber’s very own commander at Dundee — George Monck. However, the text might instead be an anachronistic invocation of the wife of the second Duke of Albemarle who attained notoriety, and great wealth, as the “Mad Duchess” even though she didn’t attain the title until 1669. These entries, especially the ones dating back to the 17th century, were full liable to crisscross the unmarked boundaries between history and legend.

** Not the Earl who gave us sammiches, but his ancestor.

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1917: Sgt. John Wall, Passchendaele casualty

Add comment September 6th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1917, Sgt. John Thomas Wall of the 3rd Battalion Worcestershire Regiment was shot at dawn during the horrific Battle of Passchendaele, for cowardice.

Passchendaele (or the Third Battle of Ypres) was a futile, weekslong attempt by the western allies to break through in Flanders, a stalemate bought at the price of hundreds of thousands of casualties on each side. Pounding August rains that turned trenches and no-man’s-lands into sucking bogs amplified the misery, and perhaps factored into Wall’s situation.

At 2 a.m. on August 10, Wall’s platoon crawled out of trenches and up Bellewarde Ridge. Theirs was a part of the 25th Division’s attack on Westhoek and while this attack would capture that village, it did so at the cost of 1,291 casualties — and an exposed right flank that left Westhoek open to withering German fire from the adjacent Glencorse Wood.


Detail view of the section of the battlefield attempted by Wall. Click for a wider, but still local, perspective.

John Wall had enrolled in the army in 1912, as a 16-year-old drummer boy. He made sergeant during the Great War, which means that by this point he’d already survived three years of this hell and no disciplinary lapse prior to his fatal one suggests that he was anything other than exemplary soldier.

But on this occasion, Wall turned up on the evening of August 11 not at Westhoek but back in the reserve trenches.

Evidence to his field court-martial a few days later established that his platoon had become lost in the dark and at a lieutenant’s order huddled for safety in a small concrete dugout under German bombardment. Several of their number were requisitioned for a patrol, leaving only Wall and two other men — but the onset of more German fire pinned them down until 5 or 6 p.m. on August 11th. Exhausted and seeing no friendly forces, they fell back under a thunderstorm to their starting position. This was Wall’s whole defense: one of good-faith soldiering, with no recourse to excusing a failure by dint of fatigue or shellshock.

This detailed and sympathetic-to-Wall telling speculates that the remarkably severe punishment Wall received might have been a statement by brand-new regimental commander Alexander Johnston — he was a famous Hampshire cricketer before the war — to assert his authority, given that this, his very first operation in charge, had been such a bloody disaster.

The same post also produces this at-ease letter from Wall to his sister on the eve of his trial, either hoping to soothe his family from the mouth of the grave or else completely oblivious to the impending danger his officers posed to his own life and the future happiness of a forever nameless Belgian girl.

I now take the pleasure of writing these few lines in answer to your most kind and ever welcome letter which I received quite safe. Pleased to hear that you are in the best of health as it leaves me quite well at the present time of writing. Well dear Emily, I received the photo alright and I think he looks very nice it is as you say he does look wicked. Its a nice little boy all the same. Dear Emily, I received the tobacco alright. I wrote back and answered your parcel. They must have crossed on the way. Well dear Emily I had a letter from home the other day they are all getting on alright there at present. We are having soon lovely weather over here very hot the people are all busy harvesting now. You asked me if I have heard about the draft well yes. I have heard about them. Well dear Emily I haven’t married that Belgian girl not yet. I don’t think I shall not till after the war nor where we are because we are not allowed to. Well dear sister, I think I have said all for this time and I will close my short letter in sending my best hope and kisses from your loving brother Jack XXXXXX

P.S. Remember me to all. Thanks very much for the tobacco and photo.

And as an opposite keyhole glimpse from the far side of the dread procedure, this Warfare Magazine article* captures the testimony of a Private Eustace Rushby of the 1/4th Royal Berkshire Regiment, who was apparently part of Sgt. Wall’s firing squad.

The first execution I saw was at Kandis, not far from Doullens, in September 1916, near a Flying Corps aerodrome, and the other occasion was behind Poperinge, and this was September 1917. The firing squad consisted of eighteen men and the witnesses would be anything up to fifty, including ten men from four regiments. I was in the firing party at Poperinge. We found out afterwards that he was from a Worcester Regiment. There were six men lying, six kneeling, and six standing, and we were rehearsed before the victim arrived. We would receive instructions beforehand, but during the actual event there was not a word, not a sound, it was all done by signal. As soon as we fired, we dropped our rifles down where they were, and stepped back clear in our three ranks, and they would come along and check to see that we’d fired. Anyone who refused to fire or fired wide would be severely dealt with. The shooting took place in an orchard. The man was led out by two red caps with a gas helmet round the wrong way. They would warn you it was an order, but they knew it was no good choosing someone who would point blank refuse to fire or whose nerve wouldn’t allow them to do it. We were excused fatigues or guard duty for a week.

* We would be remiss on a site such as this not to excerpt another story from the same article, of a nearby farmer who was suspected of signaling the Germans under guise of his routine labors, and was summarily shot.

There was a windmill at Reninghurst, near Ypres, and the guard who was on duty that day noticed that the sail started to go around, stopped, then started to go round again. And he said, ‘That’s funny, there’s no wind, but it keeps stopping and starting.’ He couldn’t understand it, so he got it into his head to call out the guard. The duty officer took some men and observed what was going on and then went and arrested a Belgian who was using the position of the sails to signal to the enemy. I’d seen this farmer on several occasions going about his normal work. Anyway, they took him away and about half an hour afterwards somebody came along and said, ‘They’ve shot that bloke,’ and we said, ‘Really?’ He said they must have tried him straightaway and brought up a firing squad and shot him.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Belgium,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Military Crimes,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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