As it was put by the sadly defunct Shot At Dawn site (still preserved at the Wayback Machine), “The cemetery register of Poperinghe New Military Cemetery states that Lt. Eric Skeffington Poole died of wounds on 10 December 1916. Tactfully, it omits to record also that his death was caused by a British Army firing squad.”
A Canadian-born engineer, Poole had enlisted in the very first weeks of the war and been commissioned an officer by May 1915.
In July of 1916, a falling artillery shell struck so close that its concussion knocked Poole down, spattering him with earth. He was hospitalized for shellshock but returned to duty in September — still complaining of rheumatism and feeling “damned bad.”
One night in October as his unit moved up to a forward trench, Poole disappeared from it — nobody knows how or when, but he wasn’t there when it mustered at its new position at midnight. He was detained two days later, wandering well west of the trenches, a leather jacket hiding his private’s tunic … “in a very dazed condition,” an officer who interviewed him would later remember. “From conversation which I had with him I came to the conclusion he was not responsible for his actions. He was very confused indeed.”
Evidence collected in Poole’s desertion trial pointed to a man taxed beyond his capacities by command responsibility and the strain of two years at war. His division commander recommended against the court martial, for Poole was “not really accountable for his actions. He is of nervous temperament, useless in action, and dangerous as an example to the men” — but still “could [be] usefully employed at home in instructional duties or in any minor administrative work, not involving severe strain of the nerves.” Another captain in his battalion described him as “somewhat eccentric, and markedly lacking in decision” and liable under pressure to “become so mentally confused that he would not be responsible for his actions.”
By the book the man’s irresolute midnight ramble was a clear instance of abdicating duty, but Poole’s weakness was apparent enough to trouble the court that tried him for desertion — not only to solicit this and other testimony from his comrades about the lieutenant’s state of mind but even to remark from its own observation that his “mental powers [were] less than average. He appears dull under cross examination, and his perception is slow.” Perhaps this was fellow-feeling by other officers that would not have been extended to a mere grunt; if so, what was a mitigating consideration for the court made Poole’s execution a in the eyes of Field Marshal Haig: “Such a case is more serious in the case of an officer than a man, and it is also highly important that all ranks should realise the law is the same for an officer as a private.” Two years in, and somehow not one officer had suffered such a punishment; Shot At Dawn speculated that military courts’ recent shocking verdict excusing Captain John Bowen-Colthurst on grounds of insanity for an atrocity in Ireland had also raised pressure on the armed forces to show that British officers stood not above the law.*
The British army executed 306 of its own soldiers during World War I. Among them, Poole was the first of only three officers.
* The War Office’s decision not to publicize his fate (and the euphemistic reference in the cemetery register) would seem sharply at odds with any intended demonstrative effect.
An event horribly underscoring the heartlessness of the brass against frail flesh in their ghastly war of machines, this shooting succeeded a surprise German attack on November 27 whose short-lived push into the French line momentarily drove part of the 298th Regiment to fall back out of their forward trench, before the French rallied and retook their own position to restore the status quo ante. The whole back-and-forth consumed spanned mere minutes — just another snapshot of the trench war stalemate that would become so grindingly familiar to all belligerents in the years ahead.
French commanders in the earliest months of the war had shown a notable lack of empathy for any vexation of plans arising from the fog of war; indeed, exemplary executions became policy for enforcing military discipline to an unrealistic expectation. So, as punishment for their units’ “unauthorized* retreat,” six were selected for execution as an example to their fellows.
Some heartbreaking (or blood-boiling) last letters of the doomed survive.
Corporal Henri Floch (to his wife)
My darling Lucie,
By the time you receive this letter I shall be dead by firing squad. This is why: on 27th November, around 5pm, after 2 hours of heavy shelling in a trench on the front line, just as we were finishing our supper, Germans got into the trench. They captured me and two others. In the confusion I was able to escape from the Germans. I followed my comrades and then I was accused of dereliction of duty in the face of the enemy.
Twenty-four of us went before the War Council last night. Six were condemned to death and one of them was me. I am no more guilty than the others, but they want to make an example of us. My wallet will be sent home to you along with its contents.
In haste I say my last farewell to you, with tears in my eyes and a heavy heart. I humbly beg your forgiveness for all the grief that I will cause you and the difficulties that you will have to face because of me.
My dear Lucie, again, please forgive me. I’m going to Confession now and I hope to see you again in a better place. I die innocent of the crime of desertion of which I stand accused. If, instead of escaping from the Germans, I had remained a prisoner, my life would have been spared. It must be fate.
My last thoughts are for you, right to the end.
Jean Quinault (to his wife)
I am writing to you my latest news. It’s over for me. I do not have the courage. We had a story in the company. We went to the court martial. We are 6 condemned to death. I am in the six and I am no more guilty than the comrades, but our life is sacrificed for others. Last farewell, dear little woman. It’s over for me. Last letter from me, deceased for a reason of which I do not know well the reason. The officers are all wrong and we are condemned to pay for them. I should never have thought of finishing my days at Vingre, and especially of being shot for so little and not guilty. It never happened, a case like this. I am buried in Vingré
Jean Blanchard (to his wife)
3 December 1914, 11.30 pm
My dear Beloved, it is in great distress that I begin to write to you and if God and the Blessed Virgin do not come to my aid it is for the last time …
I will try in a few words to tell you my situation but I do not know if I can, I do not feel the courage. On November 27, at night, as we occupied a trench facing the enemy, the Germans surprised us, and panicked us, in our trench, we retreated into a trench behind, and we returned to resume our places almost immediately, with this result: a dozen prisoners in the company of which one was in my squad, for this fault our squad (twenty-four men) spent today before the council of war and alas! We are six to pay for all, I can not explain it further to you, my dear friend, I suffer too much; friend Darlet will be able to explain to you better, I have a calm conscience, and submit entirely to the will of God who wants it so; It is this which gives me strength to be able to write to you these words, my dear beloved, who have made me so happy the time that I spent with you and of which I had so much hope to find. December 1 morning we were deposed on what had happened, and when I saw the charge that was brought against us and which no one could suspect, I cried a part of the day and have not had the strength to write to you …
Oh! Blessed be my parents! My poor parents, my poor mother, my poor father, what will become of them when they learn what I have become? O my beloved, my dear Michelle, take good care of my poor parents so long as they are of this world, be their consolation and support in their grief, I leave them to your good care, tell them I have not deserved this hard punishment and we will all find each other in the other world, assist them in their last moments and God will reward you for it, beg my forgiveness of your good parents for the punishment that they will experience by me, tell them well that I loved them very much and that they do not forget me in their prayers, that I was happy to have become their son and to be able to support and care for them their old days but since God has judged otherwise, that His will be done and not mine. Goodbye up there, my dear wife.
* The “cowards” contended that a falling-back had been ordered by a lieutenant who no doubt was as war-befogged as everyone else. Since this order could have set up Lt. Paulaud himself to be the guy shot for example, he naturally denied issuing it; when the six were exonerated after the war, Paulaud was indicted for perjury, but acquitted.
On this date in 1914, the French army shot Lt. Jean-Julien Chapelant as a coward.
Most resources about Lt. Chapelant are in French, as are almost all the links in this post — but within France this case has been contested since the interwar years when his father fought in vain ferocity to reinstate the honor of his son.
Four days before his execution, Chapelant, commanding a machine gun section near a village in the Somme, was captured with four other gunners when the Germans overran their position. Though he’d been shot in the leg, Chapelant managed to escape his captors and return to French lines. (Three of the other gunners escaped, too.)
While the categorical rehabilitation of Great War soldiers “shot at dawn” as cowards or deserters has been a going concern in recent years, Chapelant also has a compelling individual argument that he ought not have been construed such even by the standards of his time.
The luckless lieutenant was shot for “capitulating in open country”. This was at best an extremely prejudicial interpretation of the facts, seemingly one that commanding officers themselves still adjusting to the unexpected prowess of German arms had already settled upon before any proper investigation, out of their pique at losing the position. The verdict was so certain that Chapelant’s commanding officer gave him his revolver back urging him to “burn out his own brains” and save everyone the trouble.
Chapelant refused, insisting that he had done his proper duty, and military justice was edified by the spectacle of a crippled man who could not stand propped up in his stretcher against an apple tree for the tender ministry of his firing squad.
“I die innocent. You will all know it later,” he told his executioners — then added, futile wish, “do not tell my parents.”
Although we have been treated in these pages to the heartbreaking scene of an officer comforting a man about to be shot with the remark that “yours also is a way of dying for France,” the idea has until very recently been confined to the precincts of personal sentiment and certainly not to the institutions responsible for the dying.
On November 11, 2012 — the centennary of Lt. Chapelant’s execution* — he was ceremonially rehabilitated and his death officially ascribed to that same cause that laid so many of his comrades low: “mort pour la France.”
The ensuing Retreat from Mons scrambled the BEF, sprinkling the French countryside with stragglers, though there is little evidence that these men represented a trend towards wholesale desertion as against the disorder inherent to the retreat. The horrors of trench warfare still lay in the (very near) future but perhaps British commanders who aspired to put the Hun to jolly rout were already shaken by the dawning reality of a long and inglorious slog.
“Everyone has a plan ’til they get punched in the mouth,” Mike Tyson once quipped. In Blindfold and Alone: British Military Executions in the Great War, Cathryn Corns and John Hughes-Wilson suggest that BEF Commander-in-Chief John French had become a bit unmanned by the punches the Germans had thrown at his beautiful army* and fired off the memo that would doom Thomas Highgate in an embarrassed panic.
The C in C views with grave displeasure the straggling which still continues … and has reason to think that in certain cases sufficient effort is not being made to rejoin units. … All ranks will in the event of being detached from their units use every effort to [rejoin] … and [will face] severe punishment if there is reason to suppose that every effort has not been made.
On September 5, Highgate slipped away from his unit to relieve himself, then just stayed away. “I got strolling about, went down into a farm, lay down in an empty house,” he would explain to his court-martial. (For whom Highgate’s inability to account for doffing his military duds played very ill.**) A few hours later, he had the rum luck to be found by a manor gamekeeper who happened to be a former British soldier. “I have lost my army,” Highgate declared, “and I mean to get out of it.” The private suggested to his judges that the sense of this remark was to express his intent to return (i.e., get out of the barn).
The court martial didn’t buy it: here was the public example to make as a sop to the boss’s anti-straggling ukase. There was little time wasted.
Highgate was condemned on the 6th, the death sentence endorsed by superior officers on the 7th, and it was carried into effect on the morning of the 8th — Highgate having the benefit of only 47 minutes’ advance notice, just enough time to scribble a tear-jerking “will” leaving the remains of his salary due to a girlfriend in Dublin. His execution was published in army orders a few days later — a little warning to the rest of the team.
* French would be relieved of BEF command in 1916.
** Dressing in civvies reads pretty badly, but slumming in more comfortable French peasant gear too was a (disturbingly, to the brass) common indiscipline in these days. Adrian Gilbert in Challenge of Battle: The Real Story of the British Army in 1914 quotes a cross directive of Brig. Gen. Forestier-Walker: “No unauthorized articles of dress should be allowed. Articles of civilian pattern are absolutely prohibited … The crime of throwing away clothing must be severely dealt with.” To be fair, Forestier-Walker had in mind ad hoc amendments to the gear, like tossing the army cap in favor of a shady straw hat, more so than wholesale wardrobe changes.
In Philadelphia this date in 1778, “Lyons, Ford and Wilson, late Lieutenants, and John Lawrence, late gunner, in the navy of this State, were taken from the gaol to one of the gallies lying off Market Street wharf, where the two former were shot agreeable to their sentence, but the two latter reprieved.” (Pennsylvania Evening Post, September 2, 1778)
Samuel Lyons, Samuel Ford, John Wilson and John Lawrence all served on various of the American “row galley” fleet that gave the American revolutionaries at least some seaborne presence in their fight against the world’s preeminent naval power.
The four, executed and pardoned alike, had deserted the American garrison when that preeminent power put Fort Mifflin in the Delaware River under siege the previous autumn. (There’s a very detailed account of this operation here; the British eventually captured the fort from its badly outnumbered defenders.)
While desertion between the antagonists was a common phenomenon in the American Revolution, this made for an especially bad look a year later once the British abandoned Philadelphia to the aggressively triumphalist Patriots.
Even so, the last-minute clemencies alongside the actual shootings were also very much a part of the Continental Army’s delicate enforcement of discipline, in an environment where it feared that being either too lenient or too harsh could fatally undermine the tenuous morale of the rank and file. Every enforcement was considered in the light of its public impression.
“The number of spectators was very great,” our short report in the Evening Post concluded. “And it is hoped the melancholy scene will have a proper effect upon the profligate and thoughtless, who do not seriously consider that the crime of desertion is attended with the dreadful consequences of wilful perjury.”
Earp fled the British trenches during the force build-up prior to the first suicidal charges over the trenches at the Battle of the Somme. He was shell shocked by an artillery barrage.
The term“shell shock” only emerged during the Great War — first printed by Lancet in 1915 to characterize soldiers mentally or emotionally debilitated by the horror of war.*
Army brass took an instant dislike to this category: here was a category ready-made to normalize cowardice on the lines and let doctors do to the western front what the Kaiser could not. Was it not an open invitation to abdicate trench, country, masculinity? Neurologist Gordon Holmes, a consultant to the British army, complained that “the great increase in these cases [of shell shock] coincided with the knowledge that such a condition of ‘shell-shock’ existed.” (Source)
The medical officer subsequently created Baron Moran describes with some umbrage this fresh medicalization sapping troop readiness in his seminal study of battlefield psychology, The Anatomy of Courage:
When the name shell-shock was coined the number of men leaving the trenches with no bodily wound leapt up. The pressure of opinion in the battalion — the idea stronger than fear — was eased by giving fear a respectable name. When the social slur was removed and the military risks were abolished the weaklings may have decided in cold blood to malinger, or perhaps when an alternative was held out the suggestion of safety was too much for their feeble will. The resolve to stay with the battalion had been weakened, the conscience was relaxed, the path out of danger was made easy. The hospitals at the base were said to be choked with these people though the doctors could find nothing wrong with them. Men in France were weary. Unable or unwilling? It was no longer a private anxiety, it had become a public menace.
Unable or unwilling? Our principal Earp was just such a one to pose the question.
Earp’s court martial recommended clemency, as did divisional and corps commanders. (Source) General Haig did not agree, and the rejection note he scrawled on Earp’s papers is also his army’s transcendent verdict on countless “shot at dawn” cases:
“How can we ever win if this plea is allowed?”
And so it was not allowed.
Were the British onto something trying to stanch a wave of shell-shocked early retirements? Or was this mere cruelty? Could anyone even draw a bright line between shell shock, the “ordinary” shocks of war, and outright faking?
Baron Moran, whom we have already quoted, was a regimental doctor during World War I. That made him personally responsible for judging maybe-shellshocked men fit for duty, or not. Many years and much investigation later, he still struggled trying to situate those decisions both medically and ethically.
[W]hat I wonder became of pity in those ruthless years?
When I look back I see that I was caught up in the atmosphere of the trenches. It was inevitable and no more than an instinct of self-preservation that the standards necessary to win should not be lowered. Good fellows in the line did not believe in shell-shock, they did not want to believe in it. Perhaps in their hearts, knowing what lay ahead, they could not altogether approve too sensitive men.
I was perturbed at the time not by any difficulty in shaping opinion in the battalion, but by a gnawing anxiety lest the hard temper of the hour should drive men beyond what was fair and just. What was right was also what was expedient, for a sense of injustice eats away the soldier’s purpose. Even now after twenty years my own conscience is troubled by the summary judgments passed on some moor wretch in those days, and by my own part in those verdicts …
These rough decisions worried me because they were not decisions at all but only guesses with a bullet behind one of them. Was that poor devil crouching in that hut, who was to lose his life because he had sought to save it really responsible? Could any man who knew little of war and less of him decide by looking at him? …
I am asked to judge men, to label their motives, and if I am wrong they may be shot not by the enemy but by men of their own race. I think often of the men I have sent back to the trenches, when they have told me they could not carry on, that they were done. Were they really unable or only unwilling? If I had made a mistake, and it was easy to make mistakes, if I were wrong, God help some poor soul … I wondered if my answer to that question, unable or unwilling, had been coloured by pride that this battalion is an example to all in the shortness of its sick list; if that was all what a paltry self-sufficiency! What consequences!
* Although one would translate this into a modern milieu as PTSD, “shell shock” rings a bit differently: its phrasing implies an injury that although unseen is still essentially physical — as if the percussion of the trenches’ ubiquitous falling artillery had pounded in a cumulative neural degradation akin to a punch-drunk boxer. For a time the British army tried to differentiate shell shock cases of those who had been in actual proximity to an enemy shelling (officially discharged as wounded, and entitled to a pension) from those shaken by more diffuse and less window-shattering trauma triggers (not and not).
Four French soldiers of the 96th Régiment d’Infanterie were shot 100 years ago today for resisting an order to return to their World War I trenches on the western front. Their names (per French Wikipedia’s tragically lengthy entry on World War I executions) were Émile Frédéric Lhermenier, Lucien Baleux, Félix Louis Milhau, and Paul Pierre Regoult. Baleux was only 19 years old.
We have an affecting memory of the demoralizing effect of this shooting upon their fellow soldiers in the 55th division courtesy of a remarkable epistolary war memoir. Titled Émile et Léa : Lettres d’un couple d’instituteurs bourguignons dans la tourmente de la Grande guerre (Emile and Lea: Letters of a Burgundy teacher-couple amid the turmoil of the Great War), the book was lovingly assembled in the early 200s by Emile and Lea’s grandson Michel Mauny, from a box marked “GUERRE” that turned out to be heavy with over 1200 letters exchanged by husband and wife during Emile’s years at the front. (See French review here)
Two days after the quadruple execution, Emile heartbreakingly wrote —
Four soldiers of the 96th having been sentenced to death, the companies of the 5th Battalion 246th [regiment] were responsibe for providing the four firing squads. Of my company, we had five soldiers, four corporals, and five sergeants. Fortunately I was not designated for this horrible work.
Our comrades described the scene to us. It was mournful, poignant. All were stunned to have participated in the execution. Perhaps those unhappy four deserved it (I do not know), but we should find another way to enforce the law in the century we live in. One of them it seems had only 18 or 19 years. I think I, who used to live with children and young people, I would have gone crazy had I been forced to participate in this drama.
According to Michel Mauny’s commentary on the incident, a machine-gun captain in the regiment was so overwhelmed he became fixated on the nightmare of being executed himself, and eventually had to be relieved from his duties with dementia. “After twenty months on campaign, the commanders must be truly cruel to put four of our comrades to the post!”
In the first days of the week, there was a morning where four soldiers were shot … I did not hear the volley, but I knew from Bourgoeois and Geoffroy that we had taken the prisoners an hour early before the guns. One of them, a strong lad of nineteen, committed to the war, as strong as an ox, bellowing out “Kill me? Go ahead! It’s impossible!”
Bayon directed the execution; he had prepared four pole with ropes, for he guessed they would resist. It was quickly done, everyone in haste to finish; once all were bound the four platoons were lined up facing left, took aim, and there was not even a command for the first shot caused all the others. Afterwards Bayon imposed eight days’ punishment on a sergeant who was to represent the division and arrived four minutes late: “You made these men die twice, you!”
Such records as remain do not make clear why this quartet joined the 600-plus French troops shot for military offenses during the Great War, but three other soldiers from the same regiment accused of the same offense in the same incident did not have the honor of dying for France but suffered only demotion. Was it that four sufficed “pour encourager les autres” — that three would show a want of backbone, and five would be barbarity?
On this date in 1649, Oliver Cromwell had three leaders of his army’s working-class Levellers movement shot against the walls of Burford church.
The revolutionary army with which Cromwell had overthrown King Charles I came to a crisis in 1649 as the interests of senior officers and the class of landowners and merchants they hailed from clashed against those of the common soldiery.
This democratic and class-conscious Leveller movement has invited the sympathy of later radicals, and it would be hard to flatly call that attention anachronistic; Leveller William Walyn even anticipated Marx’s language in dismissing the Magna Carta as “that mess of pottage.”* This is an England whose capitalist shape is coming clearly into view.
Flint struck steel when the army’s Grandees laid a nasty Sophie’s choice on troops whose pay was deep in arrears: leave the army (forfeiting the back pay) or leave the country (to invade Ireland). Both options redounded to the advantage of the state and its moneyed interests, at the expense of the lower orders.
Army mutinies commenced immediately and the massive London procession that carried the executed Leveller Robert Lockyer to his grave proved the depth and danger of the public sentiment.
In early May of 1649, Colonel Scrope’s horse regiment — another of those offered the “opportunity” of serving in Ireland — followed suit, seizing the regimental colors, re-electing its own officers and marching out from Banbury across Salisbury plain to rendezvous with other discontented soldiers. In the words of one survivor,
the whole fabric of the Commonwealth fell into the grossest and vilest tyranny that ever Englishmen groaned under … which, with the considerations of the particular, most insufferable abuses and dissatisfactions put upon us, moved us to an unanimous refusal to go … till full satisfaction and security was given to us as Soldiers and Commoners, by a Council of our own free election.
Cromwell had a different satisfaction in mind.
Aided by an envoy sent to stall the rebels with a diversionary negotiation, Cromwell and Thomas Fairfax were able to surprise the 1,500 Levellers camped at Burford with a midnight attack the night of May 13-14. By morning, 340 soldiers were locked in Burford’s church as prisoners.
The tragic denouement of this Banbury mutiny was the execution of three soldiers, Cornet Thompson, Corporal Perkins, and Private Church. A plaque at the site still commemorates the event.
One century ago today, a Polish Jew from east London named Aby Bevistein was shot for cowardice in Calais — four weeks shy of his 18th birthday.
Abraham Bevistein was among an estimated quarter-million Brits who bore arms as minors in World War I. Fired by patriotism, these boys dodged the military’s 18-year-old minimum by … telling their recruiters they were 18. No documentation necessary.
Bevistein, whose family had moved to London from Warsaw when he was a small child, was British through and through enough to surge into the army with the first wave of pie-eyed volunteers in September 1914. He had 16 years and four months, and if he was like many of his new comrades in arms he probably reckoned on being back home by 17 — a bonny hero of a speedy war.
Instead, he spent most of 1915 navigating the labyrinth of trenches in France, and all their attendant horrors. He was wounded in December of that year but soon passed fit for duty again. On February 12-13, 1916, shellshocked and deafened by German grenades, he again sought medical help but was directed back to the lines by a harried medical officer. Instead, Bevistein wandered away to the rear, and took temporary refuge at a French farm.*
“We were in the trenches and I was ill so I went out,” he wrote to his mother by way of all-too-nonchalant explanation. “They’ve taken me to prison and I’m in a bit of trouble now.”
The New York Evening Post published this item excerpted from the Philadelphia Democratic Press on Thursday, December 17, 1812.
On Friday, a large concourse of people assembled at Fort Mifflin, to witness the execution of John Rickey and Benjamin Jackson, soldiers of the 16th Regt. U.S. Infantry, sentenced to be shot for desertion, the former having deserted three times, the latter once.
They were conducted to the fatal spot at 1 o’clock, attended by about 600 soldiers of the 2d Artillery and 16th infantry. Rickey’s sentence having been carried into effect, Jackson was pardoned by the commanding officer.
We trust the execution of Rickey, and the exercise of mercy to Jackson, will operate as a warning to the deserters in and about this city. It is stated upon good authority, that every reasonable indulgence will be extended to such deserters as may deliver themselves up voluntarily, but those who are taken cannot expect to be shielded from the penalty of the law.