Throughout the last days of the Third Reich, it ruthlessly forced its desperate conscripts by threat of summary execution into service to slow the overwhelming Soviet army.
Borrowing a page from Gen. Ferdinand Schoerner‘s no-mercy demonstrative hangings of any “straggler” found behind front lines without orders, Goebbels
issued a radio proclamation to the trapped troops [of Berlin]: “Any man found not doing his duty will be hanged from a lamp post after a summary judgment. Moreover, placards will be attached to the corpses stating: ‘I have been hanged here because I am too cowardly to defend the capital of the Reich. I have been hanged because I did not believe in the Fuhrer. I am a deserter and for this reason I shall not see this turning point in history.
SS members, aware that they would be in for the worst of it after the war (and that their mandatory blood-type tattoos would make them easy to identify) were the ones sufficiently motivated to impose this policy. One German in the city at the time recalled the horror of seeing
boys who were found hiding were hanged as traitors by the SS as a warning that, ‘he who was not brave enough to fight had to die.’ When trees were not available, people were strung up on lamp posts. They were hanging everywhere, military and civilian, men and women, ordinary citizens who had been executed by a small group of fanatics.
Although it’s not specifically an execution story, the horrifying consequences of this lethal paranoia under siege are the theme of the West German film Die Brücke, in which a rare veteran sergeant looking after some child-conscripts is shot by a patrol when he can’t produce orders … leaving the children alone to be butchered pointlessly defending a bridge.
“This event occurred on April 27, 1945,” the film concludes about its (fictional) plot. “It was so unimportant that it was never mentioned in any war communique.”
By the end of World War II, he was, like millions of less-distinguished countrymen and -women, merely a person in the way of a terrible conflagration.
Cauer succeeded in evacuating his family west, where the American and not the Soviet army would overtake it — but for reasons unclear he then returned himself to Berlin. His son Emil remembered (pdf) the sad result.
The last time I saw my father was two days before the American Forces occupied the small town of Witzenhausen in Hesse, about 30 km from Gottingen. We children were staying there with relatives in order to protect us from air raids. Because rail travel was already impossible, my father was using a bicycle. Military Police was patrolling the streets stopping people and checking their documents. By that time, all men over 16 were forbidden to leave towns without a permit, and on the mere suspicion of being deserters, many were hung summarily in the market places. Given this atmosphere of terror and the terrible outrages which Germans had inflicted on the peoples of the Soviet Union, I passionately tried to persuade my father to hide rather than return to Berlin, since it was understandable that the Red Army would take its revenge. But he decided to go back, perhaps out of solidarity with his colleagues still in Berlin, or just due to his sense of duty, or out of sheer determination to carry out what he had decided to do.
Seven months after the ending of that war, my mother succeeded in reaching Berlin and found the ruins of our house in a southern suburb of the city. None of the neighbors knew about my father’s fate. But someone gave identification papers to my mother which were found in a garden of the neighborhood. The track led to a mass grave with eight bodies where my mother could identify her husband and another man who used to live in our house. By April 22, 1945, the Red Army had crossed the city limits of Berlin at several points. Although he was a civilian and not a member of the Nazi Party, my father and other civilians were executed by soldiers of the Red Army. The people who witnessed the executions were taken into Soviet captivity, and it was not possible to obtain details of the exact circumstances of my father’s death.
Cauer’s name was actually on a list of scientists the Soviets were looking to recruit, not eliminate. Presumably he and those other civilians who shared his nameless grave fell foul of the occupying army in some incidental way and were shot out of hand in the fog of war.
Weidling had been forced by overwhelming Russian power to withdraw from a position and an enraged Hitler ordered him summarily shot.**
Fortunately, it was not effected so “summarily” that Weidling wasn’t able to get his side of the story in and have the execution order revoked. Lucky Helmuth was within hours, uh, “promoted” to commander of the Berlin Defence Area, which is supposed to have led him to remark, “I’d rather be shot than have this honour.”
This was not to be his fate.
Instead, after a week’s overseeing the suicidal exertions of his underaged, underarmed Volkssturm militia, it fell to Weidling on May 2 to issue the order directing remaining garrisons in Berlin to lay down their arms.
On April 30, 1945, the Führer committed suicide, and thus abandoned those who had sworn loyalty to him. According to the Führer’s order, you German soldiers would have had to go on fighting for Berlin despite the fact that our ammunition has run out and despite the general situation which makes our further resistance meaningless. I order the immediate cessation of resistance.
The devastated Berlin of the Soviet encirclement was Weidling’s last glimpse of his homeland: he was flown to the USSR as a prisoner of war and died there in captivity in 1955.
* Also working against the big brain’s career path in academia: “few people could appreciate the vast potential of Cauer’s special field of work … for mathematicians, he seemed too involved in applied sciences, and for electrical engineers his contributions included too much mathematics.” These days, Cauer’s disciplined application of mathematical principles to the field of network filtering is precisely what he’s remembered for.
** This was a notably bad day for der Fuhrer: it was also on April 22 when the impotence of the German army’s remaining shreds caused him to launch into that bunker tirade that has spawned a thousand Internet parodies.
On this date in 1865, the Confederate forces defending Galveston, Texas shot Antone Richers for desertion.
With the U.S. Civil War into its mopping-up phase, the Texas port was bracing for the Union to land an irresistible force. Many soldiers inclined less to brace than to bow: with the handwriting on the wall for any fool to see, the grey army suffered an epidemic of judicious desertions.
Antone Richers was one of these. Just, maybe not so judicious.
Richers was retrieved from the drink when the stolen boat he was attempting to ride out to the Union blockade capsized, and the upright Confederate officer who pulled him out wouldn’t take a bribe to keep keep quiet about it.
A sharp rattle of musketry, and the prisoner fell dead, several balls having passed through his breast … The saddest part of the story remains to be told. The friends of [the prisoner] had sent Rev. Father Ansteadt on the day before the execution, by hand car, to Houston, as bearer of documents addressed to General Walker, showing that [Richers] was not of sound mind, and setting forth other reasons why he ought to be respited. The telegraph line between [Galveston] and Houston broke down the evening before the execution, and remained down [until] fifteen minutes after the execution. No intelligence from General Walker could therefore reach [Galveston]. But as soon as the telegraph operated, a dispatch was received from General Walker, dated the night before, containing an order for the respite of Anton [Richers]. It was too late — the man was dead.
It was Galveston’s second and last military execution of the war.
One hundred fifty years ago today, a now-long-forgotten deserter from the Union Army was shot in Washington, D.C. This sad event in the then-novel American Civil War received lavish coverage in the pages of Harper’s Weekly, which we reproduce below.
THE EXECUTION OF JOHNSON.
ON page 828 we illustrate the military execution of Johnson, who was shot at Washington for desertion on 13th. The culprit’s crime is clearly described in the following extract from his confession:
I had not the slightest intention of deserting up to a few minutes before I started in the direction of the enemy’s lines. The way I came to leave our army was this: I was on the outposts, and after dinner, when out watering my horse, I thought I would go to the first house on the Braddock road and get a drink of milk. When I rode up to the house I saw a man and a boy. I asked the man for some milk and he said he had none, and to my inquiry as to where I could get some, he said he did not know, except I should go some distance further on. I said I thought it would be dangerous to go far, and he remarked that none of the rebels had been seen in that vicinity for some time. It was then that I conceived the idea of deserting. I thought I could ride right up to the rebel pickets and inside the enemy’s line, go and see my mother in New Orleans, stay for a few weeks in the South, and then be able to get back to our regiment again, perhaps with some valuable information. I never had any idea of going over to the rebels, and as it is I would rather be hung on a tree than go and join the rebel army. I don’t see what under heaven put it into my head to go away. I acted from the impulse of the moment. When the man at the house said none of the enemy had been seen lately in that vicinity I asked where it was that the five rebels I had heard of had been seen some time ago, and he said it was at the round house on the left-hand side of the road. I asked him where the road led to. He said to Centreville, and so I went that way. Riding along on the Braddock road, some miles beyond our pickets, I suddenly came across Colonel Taylor, of the Third New Jersey regiment, with his scouting party. I thought they were the rebels, but at first was so scared that I did not know what to say. However, I asked him who they were, and he said they were the enemy. Said I to him, “I’m all right, then.” “Why so?” said he. “Because we are all friends,” said I; “I am rebel too—I want to go down to New Orleans to see my mother.” Then he asked me how our pickets were stationed. I told him two of our companies which had been out went in that day toward the camps. He asked if I thought he could capture any of them, and I told him I did not think he could. He asked why, and I replied that there were a number of mounted riflemen around. The head scout asked me what kind of arms the Lincoln men received, and at the same time said, “Let me see your pistol.” I handed him my revolver. Colonel Taylor took it, and cocking it, said to me, “Dismount, or I will blow your brains out!” I was so much frightened I thought my brains had been blown out already. 1 dismounted, delivered up my belt and sabre, while at the same time they searched my pockets, but there was nothing in them except a piece of an old New York Ledger, I believe. Then he tied my hands behind me, and sent me back to camp in charge of three men, besides another who took my horse.
He was duly tried by court-martial and found guilty. The sentence having been approved, it was ordered that it be carried into effect on 13th. The following extracts from the Herald report complete the melancholy history:
The spot chosen for the impressive scene was a spacious field near the Fairfax Seminary, a short distance from the camp ground of the division. The troops fell into line, forming three sides of a square, in the order designated in the programme, precisely at three o’clock P.M.
In the mean time the funeral procession was formed at the quarters of Captain Boyd, Provost Marshal of the Alexandria division, near the head-quarters of General Franklin. Shortly after three o’clock it reached the fatal field.
The Provost Marshal, mounted and wearing a crimson scarf across his breast, led the mournful cortege. He was immediately followed by the buglers of the regiment, four abreast, dismounted. Then came the twelve men—one from each company in the regiment, selected by ballot—who constituted the firing party. The arms—Sharp’s breech-loading rifle—had been previously loaded under the direction of the Marshal. One was loaded with a blank cartridge, according to the usual custom, so that neither of the men could positively state that the shot from his rifle killed the unfortunate man. The coffin, which was of pine wood stained, and without any inscription, came next, in a one-horse wagon. Immediately behind followed the unfortunate man, in an open wagon. About five feet six inches in height, with light hair and whiskers, his eyebrows joining each other, Johnson presented a most forlorn spectacle. He was dressed in cavalry uniform, with the regulation overcoat and black gloves. He was supported by Father M’Atee, who was in constant conversation with him, while Farther Willett rode behind on horseback. The rear was brought up by Company C of the Lincoln Cavalry, forming the escort.
Arriving on the ground at half past three o’clock, the musicians and the escort took a position a little to the left, while the criminal descended from the wagon. The coffin was placed on the ground, and he took his place beside it. The firing party was marched up to within six paces of the prisoner, who stood between the clergymen. The final order of execution was then read to the condemned.
While the order was being read Johnson stood with his hat on, his head a little inclined to the left, and his eyes fixed in a steady gaze on the ground. Near the close of the reading one of his spiritual attendants whispered something in his ear. Johnson had expressed a desire to say a few final words before he should leave this world to appear before his Maker. He was conducted close to the firing party, and in an almost inaudible voice spoke as follows: “Boys,—I ask forgiveness from Almighty God and from my fellow-men for what I have done. I did not know what I was doing. May God forgive me, and may the Almighty keep all of you from all such sin!”
He was then placed beside the coffin again. The troops were witnessing the whole of these proceedings with the intensest interest. Then the Marshal and the chaplains began to prepare the culprit for his death. He was too weak to stand. He sat down on the foot of the coffin. Captain Boyd then bandaged his eyes with a white handkerchief. A few minutes of painful suspense intervened while the Catholic clergymen were having their final interview with the unfortunate man. All being ready the Marshal waved his handkerchief as the signal, and the firing party discharged the volley. Johnson did not move, remaining in a sitting posture for several seconds after the rifles were discharged. Then he quivered a little, and fell over beside his coffin. He was still alive, however, and the four reserves were called to complete the work. It was found that two of the firing party, Germans, had not discharged their pieces, and they were immediately put in irons. Johnson was shot several times in the heart by the first volley. Each of the four shots fired by the reserves took effect in his head, and he died instantly. One penetrated his chin, another his left cheek, while two entered the brain just above the left eyebrow. He died at precisely a quarter to four o’clock.
The troops then all marched round, and each man looked on the bloody corpse of his late comrade, who had proved a traitor to his country.
These executions came in the aftermath of the Battle of Preston, with the Jacobite cause in full collapse. It was an affecting scene, the first of many among the Preston captives.
After [Major John Nairn] was shot, Captain Lockhart would not suffer any of the common soldiers to touch his friend’s body, but, with his own hands and the help of the other two gentlemen [about to be executed], laid Major Nairn in his coffin, and, with the greatest composure of mind, performed the last offices to his dear companion: After which, he was shot, and the other two performed the like to his body.
Then the others [John Shaftoe and John Erskine] were shot, and laid together, without a coffin, in a pit digged for that purpose. Which tragical scene being thus finished, Mr. Nairn and Mr. Lockhart were decently buried. (Source)
The “Captain Lockhart” named here was Philip Lockhart, brother to anti-unionist politician George Lockhart.* George Lockhart, years before, somehow ended up on the committee whose job it was to hammer out the terms on which that union would take place.
As a result, Lockhart’s memoirs record an inside look at the tawdry payoffs that roped Scottish elites into the union arrangement — beginning first of all with “the Equivalent”, a massive British inducement to Scottish lords who had lately gone comprehensively bust gambling on the dot-com scam of New World colonization, the Darien scheme.
the Equivalent was the mighty Bait; here was the Sum of 398,085 Pound Sterling to be remitted in Cash to Scotland (tho’ the Scots were to pay it and much more back again in a few Years, by engaging to bear a Share of the Burthens impos’d on England, and appropriated for Paymnt of England’s Debts.) … here was a swinging Bribe to buy off the Scots Members of Parliament from their Duty to their Country, as it accordingly prov’d: For to it we may chiefly ascribe, that so many of them agreed to this Union. The Hopes of recovering what they had expended on the African Company, and obtaining Payment of Debts and Arrears due to them by the Scots Government (it being articled in the Treaty, that it should be expended this Way) prevail’d upon many to overlook the general Interest of their Country.
This, however, was not the reason that Philip et al were first in line for punishment after Preston. Instead, they were in trouble because they were British officers who had deserted.
At least, that was the crown’s position. As a legal matter, it wasn’t quite that simple: the “deserters” weren’t on active duty, but rather, were half-pay officers.
This ambiguous category had been introduced as a sort of reserve system to keep idled officers available to the army, but developed into a general dumping-ground of incompetents, invalids, and retirees (half-pay could be used as an ad hoc pension) in an army still only semi-professionalized. Moreover, according to Margaret Sankey, the system
was thoroughly corrupt by 1715. Much of the half-pay list was made up of men who were unfit to be called back into active service, while many of the commissions had been sold to brokers for an immediate cash settlement … [some officers] saw half-pay as a well-deserved personal gift from Queen Anne for … service under Marlborough, and one that carried no obligations to the current monarch whatsoever ‘as no more than a gratuity and a reward for the hazards they had run and the fidelity they had shewn their late mistress.’
It was also a period of dynastic turnover: six different monarchs representing three different houses had ruled England/Great Britain in the preceding 30 years, each man or woman coming to the throne under contestable circumstances. Various gentlemen-officers had sworn various oaths to various entities and they in good faith did not necessarily consider those blanket oaths transferable to the new “British” state and to every Tom, Dick, and German elector who styled himself king of it.
These neither-fish-nor-fowl soldiers, then, presented a delicate jurisprudential question. No less a personage than the Lord High Chancellor suggested back in Privy Council that, since half-pay officers would not be eligible to sit on a court-martial jury, they must likewise not be eligible to be court-martialed.
The plurality of the government, and certainly the military, saw it otherwise.
Nevertheless, all concerned were constrained not to be entirely indiscriminate. Of six men prosecuted, the one who was able to prove that he had “thrown up” his half-pay commission walked altogether: he’d been in rebellion, but he hadn’t deserted to do it. Another defendant, who threw himself on the court’s mercy rather than trying to parse a half-reason why half-pay licensed his revolt, received that mercy. (It didn’t hurt that that one was also the child of a (loyal) duke.)
The rest of the lot was abandoned to its fate, leading the correspondent who recorded the particulars of their execution concluded to conclude,
this is a swatch of the usage people may expect that fall into some men’s clutches, from whom all good Christians and true Scotsmen should fervently pray, that God, out of his infinite goodness and mercy, would deliver every honest man!
This teenager rashly joined up at the outbreak of hostilities, fudging his age up by two years to qualify. It’s more than likely that he, and his real age, were known to the recruiters who signed him up. (He wasn’t the only child soldier in that war.)
A few months on into this less-noble-than-advertised perdition, with friends and comrades becoming burger meat all around him at the dreadful Battle of Bellewaarde Ridge,* the kid panicked and ran.
The sentence of death was often pronounced by courts-martial and not unfrequently carried out, a deserter convicted for the third time rarely escaping with his life. Many a man was shot in Hyde Park during the twenty years of peace, and no opportunity was lost to enhance the terror of the penalty, the firing party sometimes consisting solely of fellow-deserters, who were spared in consideration of the warning given by the ghastly body which their own bullets had pierced
Fortescue’s notes on this passage draw attention to the following account in the May 7, 1720 Weekly Journal.
On Thursday Morning the four Men, sentenced by a Court-Martial for Desertion, were brought hand-cuff’d to the Tilt-Yard Guard, from whence they marched with the Grenadiers at the Head of the Detachment to Hyde-Park; at the Place of Execution they were met by the Chaplain of the second Regiment of Guards, who prayed with them for a while; then three of the Prisoners, having before received the King’s Pardon, were restored to the Regiment, and ordered immediately to load their Pieces, and fire at their Comrade, which they obey’d; the Man was observed to give a little Spring after the Discharge of their Pieces, and a Corporal, who was kept, as usual, in Reserve, shot him through the Head; the other three Shot were lodged in his Breast. This is the third Time of his deserting.
If one proceeds from the premise of the British brass that the main problem with its military ineffectiveness was the men in the field, there was something in the cruelly “progressive” about the order: luckless enlisted fellows from the lower classes were smoking last cigarettes by the bushel, but gentry-stock officers were more liable to get the kid-gloves treatment .
Haig was taking the kid gloves off.
“A soldier’s tale cut in stone to melt all hearts,” said Winston Churchill of this pathbreaking novel thought to be based on Edwin Dyett. The first novel about executed World War I deserters, it is thought to have influenced later portrayals of such executions and the sub-heroic literary context for the Great War.
Within two months of that order, our man Dyett was up against the stake at St. Firmin, France — perhaps the most famous shooting among the officer corps.
Perhaps presuming upon the traditional leniency extended to the better classes, Dyett had little inkling of his fate during the weeks after his arrest. He’d been collared during the aforementioned Somme campaign for “deserting” for two days when he’d taken umbrage at being directed to the front by an inferior officer and instead returned to headquarters for orders.
As late as Christmas Eve, he was still keeping his parents in the dark, certain that the misunderstanding was not enough to even “cause a sitting.”
That sitting, however, occurred forthwith on Boxing Day, with only a half-hour for the defense to prepare. That defense was less than robust, and the court clearly disinclined to a sympathetic reading of the circumstances.
Dyett had only just turned 21, but clemency appeals around youth and the confusion of the situation would cut no ice. “”If a private behaved as he did,” wrote the officer charged to review it, “it is highly likely he would be shot.”
Lt. Dyett had only a single evening from hearing the bad news to prepare himself for what must have seemed to him a shocking turn of events. This time, he posted a different sort of missive to the home front.
Dearest Mother Mine, I hope by now you will have had the news. Dearest, I am leaving you now because He has willed it. My sorrow tonight is for the trouble I have caused you and dad. Please excuse any mistakes, but if it were not for the kind support of the Rev. W.C. — who is with me tonight, I should not be able to write myself. I should like you to write to him, as he has been my friend. I am leaving all my effects to you, dearest; will you give a little — half the sum you have of mine? Give dear Dad my love and wish him luck. I feel for you so much and I am sorry for bringing dishonour upon you all. Give — my love. She will, I expect, understand – and give her back the presents, photos, cards, etc., she has sent me, poor girl. So now dearest Mother, I must close. May God bless and protect you all now and for evermore. Amen.
Dad didn’t take it with the stiff upper lip; after a futile campaign to clear the boy, he renounced his citizenship and emigrated to America.
On this date in 1916, 19-year-old Durham Private William Nelson was shot for desertion by the British military.
The Pity of It
by Thomas Hardy
I walked in loamy Wessex lanes, afar
From rail-track and from highway, and I heard
In field and farmstead many an ancient word
Of local lineage like “Thu bist,” “Er war,”
“Ich woll,” “Er sholl,” and by-talk similar,
Nigh as they speak who in this month’s moon gird
At England’s very loins, thereunto spurred
By gangs whose glory threats and slaughters are.
Then seemed a Heart crying: “Whosoever they be
At root and bottom of this, who flung this flame
Between folk kin tongued even as are we,
“Sinister, ugly, lurid, be their fame;
May their familiars grow to shun their name,
And their brood perish everlastingly.”
According to the archive capture of the lamentably defunct Shot at Dawn site — which campaigned (successfully) for clearing the names of World War I soldiers who had been executed for military failings like desertion or cowardice — Nelson gave a pitiable account of his situation. It was less the horror of trench warfare and mustard gas than desperation on his own home front that undid Nelson’s “nerves”.
“I have had a lot of trouble at home, and my nerves are badly upset. My father is a prisoner in Germany and is losing his eyesight there through bad treatment. My mother died while I was still in England, leaving my sister aged 13 and my brother aged 10. I am the only one left. I had to leave them in charge of a neighbour. I had no intention of deserting. I did not realise what I was doing when I left the camp. When I did so I went and gave myself up. When I went to the store my object was to get a night’s sleep and then go and surrender in the morning. I thought it was too late to do so that night. I did not know when the battalion was coming out of the trenches.”
by Thomas Hardy
If but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: “Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love’s loss is my hate’s profiting!”
Then would I bear it, clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased in that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.
But not so. How arrives it joy lies slain,
And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
–Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan. . . .
These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.
That 13-year-old sister whom Nelson worried over long suffered her brother’s senseless death. In 2004, that woman’s daughter (Billy Nelson’s niece), Nora High, told the Guardian:
Every Armistice Day, my mother shed buckets of tears. We’ve got Billy’s Bible, I got that when mother died. She used to lay that out on a piece of blue satin cloth, and she would cry. She always said: ‘I won’t cry any more because that only upsets Billy. He doesn’t want me to cry. Everything’s fine for him now.’
In Time of “The Breaking of Nations”*
by Thomas Hardy
Only a man harrowing clods
In a slow silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
Half asleep as they stalk.
Only thin smoke without flame
From the heaps of couch-grass;
Yet this will go onward the same
Though Dynasties pass.
Yonder a maid and her wight
Come whispering by:
War’s annals will cloud into night
Ere their story die.
I saw a site today that made me feel mity Bad I saw a man shot for deserting there was twenty fore Guns shot at him thay shot him all to pease … he went home and thay Brote him Back and then he went home again and so they shot him for that Martha it was one site that I did hate to see it But I could not helpe my self I had to do Jest as thay sed for me to doo.
As Wiley points out, our letter-writer Private Warrick was himself planning to do just that.
Bragg’s little salutary bloodbath evidently had its effect, because he didn’t go AWOL. Wiley quotes Warrick, now in a more Joe Friday mode than when he had promised to “come home Eny how”, writing his parents in 1864,
I would be glad to see you all now but I recon that I have bin home my last time till this war closes.