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.
In honor of the 90th anniversary year of the war’s end back in 2008, the National Archives produced a podcast series titled “Voices of the Armistice”. The episode “Court Martial” dramatizes Knight’s face via readings of archive records, and can be found here.
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.
On this date in 1807, the British navy hanged Jenkin Ratford from the yardarm of the HMS Halifax off the coast of Maryland — an incident destined to become a rallying cry for the United States in the ill-fated War of 1812.
The U.S. at this moment was an upstart young country and naturally enough chafed at the lordly interpositions of her recent mother country. Great Britain had the navy, however, so the Americans could chafe all they liked. In the words of the tune that had emerged in the 18th century with Britain’s globe-straddling sea power
The Britons who got to do the grunt work of wave-ruling might disagree.
Seaman in the Royal Navy, and that huge navy needed many seamen, was a harrowingly brutal position often filled by press gangs empowered to grab anyone not able to produce immediate evidence of exemption and have them by next morning swabbing the nearest frigate on a ration of wormy hardtack. Desertion was correspondingly popular and more radical resorts not unheard-of; the mutiny on the Bounty had occurred in 1789; two other mutinies much more alarmingly proximate to Old Blighty took place in 1797.
Britain’s willingness to extend impressment to stopping American ships and seizing crew members who couldn’t produce American identity papers made a great affront to the young Republic — an insulting reminder of its third-rate* place among the nations. Years before while American colonists were kicking redcoat ass in the Revolution, they had dreamt among other things of correcting America’s aggravating dependence on the British fleet. “No country on the globe is so happily situated, or so internally capable of raising a fleet as America. Tar, timber, iron, and cordage are her natural produce,” wrote Thomas Paine in Common Sense. “Ship building is America’s greatest pride, and in which she will, in time, excel the whole world.”
Congress got a start on that project with a 1794 naval act creating the original six frigates of the U.S. Navy. The USS Constitution is the most famous of these; one of her five sisters, the Chesapeake, will figure in the action of this date’s post.
In 1806, two French ships, the Cybelle and the Patriot, struggled into Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay for repairs after being crippled by a storm at sea — stalked by British ships that blockaded the mouth of the Chesapeake to trap them there.
The proximity of American soil proved an irresistible inducement for at least four sailors on the British ships to desert. Three of them — William Ware, Daniel Martin and John Strachan — were American victims of British impressment. The fourth, our man Jenkins Ratford, was a Limey. They then enlisted in the American Navy.
Great Britain’s demands for their return met with steady refusal on the American side. Knowing that the deserters had been posted to the Chesapeake, which was then outfitting for deployment to the Mediterranean, British ships in the vicinity of the North American coast were ordered to stop the Chesapeake on sight to recover the absconders.
This the HMS Leopard did do on June 22, 1807, and with a singular lack of subtlety: the Leopard battered the Chesapeake with broadsides. Shocked and unprepared, the Americans couldn’t even fire back before striking colors and yielding to a humiliating British search that hauled off Ware, Martin, Strachan and Ratford.
The HMS Leopard (easily recognizable since it’s the only ship firing!) vs. the USS Chesapeake.
While these unfortunates were sailed off to Halifax, Nova Scotia** for their trial, outrage spread on American shores — immediately advised of the incident since the Chesapeake† had had to limp directly back to Norfolk, Va., for repairs. Outrage at the British, but also outrage at the captain who failed to so much as resist the attack (he was court-martialed, and suspended from command for five years), and outrage for the national honor. Some, more vengeful than sensible, wanted immmediate hostilities with Great Britain. “Never since the battle of Lexington have I seen this country in such a state of exasperation as at present, and even that did not produce such unanimity,” U.S President Thomas Jefferson wrote to his friend, the French emigre Dupont de Nemours.‡
Ratford, the only actual British citizen among the shanghaied sailormen, was the only one executed. The Americans “merely” got prison sentences.
At the political level, President Jefferson had a thorny problem. The British could in no way be induced to meet the American demand to end impressment, for simultaneous with the scandal Napoleon was finalizing victories that would knock Britain’s continental allies out of an altogether more urgent war. No derogation of security interests could be entertained, and so for America, no diplomatic satisfaction could be forthcoming.
Instead of war, Jefferson responded by convincing Congress to enact an embargo on trade with Europe. It proved to be a counterproductive policy that damaged the U.S. far more than the European export markets it had intended to punish.
The U.S. and U.K. would come to blows soon enough, and if the War of 1812 was hardly fought because of the Chesapeake-Leopard affair, that incident was certainly among the contributing grievances.
Injuries more directly attributable were not hard to come by, however. When James Barron, the suspended former commander of the Chesapeake, sought reinstatement to the navy, early American naval hero Stephen Decatur opposed him with vehemence sufficient to induce Barron to challenge Decatur to a duel. Decatur was slain in the fight, shockingly pinching out one of America’s leading military figures at the age of 41.
The Chesapeake herself fared little better. The ship was captured by the British in the ill-fated War of 1812, and recommissioned into the hated Royal Navy. Sold off for scrap in 1819, its timbers were repurposed for a long-lived (and now historic) Hampshire watermill — the Chesapeake Mill.