Posts filed under 'Military Crimes'

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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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Canada,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,England,Execution,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Military Crimes,Mutiny,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions

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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.

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

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2012: Nine in Gambia

Add comment August 23rd, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 2012, the small west African country of Gambia suddenly shot nine.

Effectively abolitionist, Gambia had not exercised capital punishment since 1981, when an attempted coup led to one (1) execution.

But it did have a (seemingly) latent death row of close to 50 souls* and in August 2012 autocratic president Yahya Jammeh used that stockpile to suddenly break the death penalty moratorium with a shock mass execution.

Those executed included one woman, at least two Senegalese nationals, and several soldiers involved in anti-Jammeh mutinies. The nine were identified as

  • Dawda Bojang
  • Malang Sonko
  • Lamin Jarjou
  • Alieu Bah
  • Lamin F. Jammeh
  • Buba YarboeLamin B.S Darboe
  • Gebe Bah (Senegalese)
  • Tabara Samba (Senegalese, female)

As might be expected for such an impetuous deed, several of these individuals so suddenly killed were not even at the end of their legal journeys through the state’s regular channels. Buba Yarboe’s family had been fighting for recognition of his mental illness as a mitigating condition; Yarboe and Malang Sonko both had judicial appeals remaining that had not yet been heard; Lamin Darboe’s sentence had been irregularly vacated and then reinstated. No matter.

Jammeh backed off his threats of follow-up executions to purge the entirety of its death row, and Gambia has conducted no further executions since that one dark day. His successor Adama Barrow officially re-imposed a moratorium and in 2019 commuted all remaining death sentences with an avowed intention to abolish capital punishment altogether.

* Reports on the size of Gambia’s death row at this time varied. The UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions named 39 still-living condemned individuals in a letter to President Jammeh days after the nine were killed.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Gambia,Mass Executions,Milestones,Murder,Mutiny,Shot,Soldiers,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1863: William Lynch, suppressed mutineer

Add comment June 16th, 2020 Headsman

(Thanks to Edward Waldo Emerson, the son of transcendentalist chin-wagger Ralph Waldo Emerson, for the guest post. His account of the beloved Massachusetts cavalryman Charles Russell Lowell’s lethal suppression of a mutiny in his civil war regiment, as related to him by Lowell’s widow for his, Emerson’s, 1907 biography Life and Letters of Charles Russell Lowell. Lowell can’t speak for himself on this account because he was killed the next year at the Battle of Cedar Creek, after which he was posthumously promoted to Brigadier General.

Emerson does not directly narrate a death penalty story, but the image in the coda records the fate of one of the rebellious enlisted men. There were two others in legal jeopardy from this affair: Sylvester Riley died while awaiting his court-martial in Fort Independence in Boston Harbor; and, 16-year-old Francis Dew drew a death sentence which was commuted by President Abraham Lincoln on account of Dew’s youth. -ed.)

Mrs. Lowell, anxious that the exact facts be known, wrote for me this account of the

MUTINY IN BOSTON.

A very painful incident took place while Colonel Lowell was recruiting for the Second Cavalry, which impressed him very much.

Stopping as usual, at eight o’clock one morning, at the recruiting station, he found the small squad of new recruits who were to be transferred that day to the camp at Readville, in a state of mutiny. Hearing the noise on his arrival, he descended at once to the basement, and the Sergeant in command explained that he had ordered a man to be handcuffed, that the others had said it was unjust and should not be done, and had resisted. Colonel Lowell at once said: ‘The order must be obeyed.’ ‘No! No!’ shouted the men. He continued: ‘After it is obeyed, I will hear what you have to say, and will decide the case on its merits, but it must be obeyed first. God knows, my men, I don’t want to kill any of you; but I shall shoot the first man who resists. Sergeant, iron your man.’ As the Sergeant stepped forward with the irons, the men made a rush, and Colonel Lowell shot the leader, who fell at once. The men succumbed immediately, some bursting into tears, such was their excitement.

The whole incident was very painful to Colonel Lowell, especially because he had always regarded it as one of the privileges of an officer that he did not have to kill with his own hand.

The circumstances, however, turned out as fortunately as was possible in such a case. The man had no relatives, so far as could be discovered, and his record showed that he was a very bad man, and had previously been in the Regular Army, so that he knew very well what he was doing in resisting an order.

One of Governor Andrew‘s staff, who was present when Colonel Lowell reported his action, gave the following account, which I copy from Professor Peirce’s life of Lowell in the Harvard Memorial Biographies:

Entering his Excellency’s room, he made a military salute and said, ‘I have to report to you, sir, that in the discharge of my duty I have shot a man’; then saluted again, and immediately withdrew. ‘I need nothing more,’ said the Governor to a bystander, ‘Colonel Lowell is as humane as he is brave.’

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Massachusetts,Military Crimes,Mutiny,Shot,Soldiers,USA,Wartime Executions

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1918: Victor Manson Spencer, Otago Regiment deserter

Add comment February 24th, 2020 Headsman

Text from New Zealand’s Pardon for Soldiers of the Great War Act of 2000. Spencer was one of four New Zealand enlistees shot for cowardice during World War I,* all of whom were posthumously exonerated by this legislation.

Pardon of Private Spencer

Private Victor Manson Spencer, regimental number 8/2733, a member of the 1st Battalion, Otago Regiment, —

  1. who was charged with having committed on 13 August 1917 the offence of desertion; and
  2. who was, by a Field General Court Martial held on 17 January 1918, convicted of that offence and sentenced to death; and
  3. who was again sentenced to death on 29 January 1918 after the Field General Court Martial had revised its finding and had convicted him of having committed the offence of desertion not on 13 August 1917 but on 25 August 1917; and
  4. who was, after the sentence of death imposed on him on 29 January 1918 had been confirmed, executed by firing squad in accordance with that sentence on 24 February 1918, —

is, by this Act, granted a pardon for that offence of desertion.

He’s buried in Belgium. Spencer was also covered by the UK’s 2006 Armed Forces Act, pardoning 306 British and Commonwealth soldiers executed during the Great War.

Spencer’s pardon cleared the way for his family to receive several decorations that had been deprived him: the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal, Victory Medal, New Zealand Certificate of Honour and Anzac Commemorative. These items were recently in the news when the family accidentally sold and then successfully retrieved them.

* Another Kiwi, Jack Braithwaite, was executed for mutiny in 1916. He was also included in Wellington’s posthumous pardon bill.

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

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1918: The Cattaro Mutineers

Add comment February 11th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1918, four sailors who were ringleaders of a failed Austrian naval mutiny were executed at the Montenegrin port of Kotor.

It’s been largely forgotten beyond its Balkan environs — indeed, reports of its very existence were hushed up at the time it occurred — but it prefigured the more famous, war-ending Kiel mutiny later that year in Austria’s Entente ally. It was a heyday for radical sailors, taking heart from the inspiration of the famed Russian cruiser Aurora, whose guns launched Russia’s October Revolution.

The mariners in question for this post were the crew of the SMS Sankt Georg,* stationed in the aforementioned Kotor — aka Cattaro, which is commonly how this mutiny is named.

On February 1, this crew, gnawed by hunger, deposed their officers and ran up the red flag, chanting for bread and peace.

Although about 40 other ships in the Austrian fleet there responded with revolutionary flags of their own, the mutiny collapsed within two days. Alas, the sailors of this flotilla were not so determined as their Russian counterparts upon any particular course of action: they waffled upon considerations like defecting in the war or firing on the naval base, and deferred action until morale and common purpose dissipated. The Austrian military kept a tight lid on news of the rebellion, frustrating any prospect of catalyzing a wider insurrection among landlubbers.

Some 800 participants in the mutiny were arrested and some of them tried months afterwards; forty leader figures, however, were prosecuted within days by a summary court-martial and four of them executed on February 11: Franz Rasch, Jerko Šižgoric, Anton Grabar and Mato Brnicevic.

There’s a 1980 Yugoslavian film about events, Kotorski mornari.

* Aptly, Montenegro is among the innumerable places answering to the patronage of Saint George. There’s a St. George Island right there in Kotor Bay, the apparent inspiration for the Arnold Böcklin painting and Sergei Rachmaninoff symphonic poem Isle of the Dead.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Austria,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Habsburg Realm,History,Military Crimes,Montenegro,Mutiny,Revolutionaries,Wartime Executions,Yugoslavia

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1917: Private Joseph Bateman, shot at dawn

Add comment December 3rd, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1917, Black Country volunteer Joseph Bateman was shot for desertion.

The 2nd Battalion South Staffordshire Regiment private was among the earliest wave of young Britons to sign up, in late 1914 — but his three years of service were marked by intermittent AWOL episodes, including when the unit was on home soil, far from the front lines. It’s not clear the reason for this eventually fatal pattern.

For ninety years, Bateman was, like most “shot at dawn” soldiers, persona non grata for official war commemorations. His name was finally added to Wordsley‘s Great War cenotaph in 2007, thanks to the tireless campaigning of an interested teacher/historian named Graham Hodgson.*

Press reporting on Hodgson’s campaign subsequently turned up Bateman’s relations, including a grateful granddaughter whose only photo of Joseph Bateman was “marked by lipstick where her grandmother kissed it after learning of his death.” (BBC)

He’s buried at Rocquigny-Equancourt British Cemetery in the Somme.

* Unfortunately, Mr. Hodgson was killed in a car accident on Cyprus shortly afterwards. At the time he apparently had a historical novel about Private Bateman in progress, but I can find no indication that it’s been posthumously published; however, Bateman does figure in To War with God: The Army Chaplain who Lost his Faith by Peter Fiennes. Fiennes’s grandfather, the titular army chaplain, stayed up all night consoling Joseph Bateman in the hours ahead of his execution.

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

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1917: Private John Abigail

Add comment September 12th, 2019 Headsman

Private John Abigail of the Royal Norfolk Regiment was shot on this date in 1917 for World War I desertion, at the village of Esquelbecq on the French-Belgian border.

He was a four-time offender, the last occasion judiciously ditching his post just before he was ordered over the top into the Passchendaele bloodbath.

Abigail’s name surprisingly appears carved on a war memorial plaque at St. Augustine’s Church in Norwich that long predates the humane 21st century rehabilitation of those shot at dawn. (See it here, at the very top of the right panel.)

The BBC has a short program about him available here.

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

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1917: Albin Köbis and Max Reichpietsch, Wilhelmshaven mutineers

Add comment September 5th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1917, German sailors Albin Köbis and Max Reichpietsch were shot at the Wahner Heide proving ground near Cologne.

They’d been convicted at court martial of being “ringleaders” of a mutiny of increasingly militant anti-war seamen from the battleship Prinzregent Luitpold, who on August 2 had marched into the port of Wilhelmshaven to resist their continued participation in the futile bloodbath.

“Nobody wanted a revolution, we just wanted to be treated more like human beings,” said one of their number, sentenced by the same military tribunal to 15 years. But this was a bit coy, considering that Kobis wrote his parents that “I die with a curse on the German-militarist state.”

And why not? The Russian Revolution was in full swing at this moment, while the navy had become a center of radicalized anti-war and anti-imperialist sentiment. In a year’s time another sailors’ mutiny would set off the events that finally forced an end to the Great War — and after the armistice, sailors like Rudolf Egelhofer were again prominent in revolutionary ventures like the Munich Soviet. If there is one thing we can state with confidence about the Wilhelmshaven event, it’s that some participants most certainly aspired to a revolution.

Likewise the contemporary left-wing press recognized in Köbis and Reichpietsch heroes and fellow-travelers; they were saluted as martyrs in their own day, and after World War II, East Berlin had a Köbisstrasse appropriately near to the naval headquarters. While some Communist martyrs were persona non grata on the other side of the Berlin Wall, West German television also aired a dramatization in 1969, called Marinemeuterei 1917.


Memorial to Reichpietsch (left) and Köbis (cc) image from Gordito1869.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Martyrs,Military Crimes,Mutiny,Revolutionaries,Shot,Wartime Executions

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1743: The Black Watch mutineers

Add comment July 18th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1743, three leaders of the Scottish “Black Watch” were shot in the Tower of London for mutiny.

The recruits of the 43rd Highland Regiment of Foot* had been assured that their service would remain in-country only, and given that there was continental war raging at the time this was valuable assurance indeed — or would have been, if not for the propensity of military recruiters to lie wantonly.

The Black Watch were inveigled to London on the premise that they were to be reviewed by His Majesty King George II.

Once there, they caught wind of an actual or rumored plan to ship them on to the continent … or worse, to swelter in the West Indies. About a hundred of their number upped sticks and set off back for native hearth and heather. Alas for them, they were intercepted by General George Wade** and returned to London for court-martial as mutineers. Save for three perceived ringleaders, Corporals Malcolm McPherson and Samuel McPherson, and private Farqhuar Shaw, who were shot in the Tower, the rest had sentences commuted … to punitive overseas deployments from Gibraltar to the aforementioned dreaded West Indies.

As for the remaining, un-deserted corps of the regiment? It got shipped off to Flanders, just as it feared.

* Later renumbered as the 42nd Regiment — hence this musical tribute to the “Forty Twa'”:

** Wade’s renown in defeating the imminent Jacobite rebellion of 1745 would earn him tribute in an impolitic stanza of “God Save the King” that is rarely performed.

Lord, grant that Marshal Wade
May, by thy mighty aid,
Victory bring.
May he sedition hush
And, like a torrent, rush
Rebellious Scots to crush.
God save the King.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Military Crimes,Mutiny,Scotland,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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