1916: Eric Poole, the first British officer shot at dawn during World War I

Add comment December 10th, 2016 Headsman

A century ago today in the Great War, Second Lieutenant Eric Poole laid down his life at the city hall of a Belgian border town.

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.

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1916: Nazario Sauro, Italian patriot

3 comments August 10th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1916, Italian nationalist and sailor Nazario Sauro was hanged by an Austro-Hungarian military court in Pula, Croatia.

Born in the Habsburg-controlled port of Koper at the crown of the Adriatic Sea,* young Sauro (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) evinced a much greater affinity for the seas than his schooling and had his first command — a merchant ship — by the tender age of 20.

Besides seamanship, his birthplace blessed or cursed him with the fin de siecle‘s ferment of Italian irredentism: his native Istria was one of those outlying lands with an ample Italian heritage laboring under the moldering Austrian boot. Patriots pined to append it to Mazzini’s energetic young state.

So, Sauro alongside his nautical career developed an avocation in remaking the map. He took pains to monitor harbor defenses during his shipping runs around the Adriatic; nor was his conviction in national self-determination confined to his own country, for he won admiration in Albania by smuggling supplies to anti-Ottoman rebels there.

With the outbreak of World War I, Sauro — then nearing 34 years of age — hopped a train over the border into his true nation and enlisted in Venice to fight against Austria. Considering that he was still a subject of Austria, this action invited a treason charge were he ever to be captured … and this finally occurred when now-Lt. Sauro ran aground in a submarine in the Austrian Bay of Kvarner on July 30, 1916. Once someone recognized him from his long prewar career at sea, his fate was sealed.


Lyrics here

Still a celebrated patriotic martyr to this day, number of cities around Italy host monuments to Sauro and streets named for Sauro; he’s also honored by the Italian navy’s Sauro-class submarine. Mussolini had a grand statue of the illustrious native son erected in Koper in 1935, when that city was under Italian control … but Nazi Germany tore it down in 1944 once relations between the former Axis partners went pear-shaped.

* Koper is in present-day Slovenia, but within literal (and littoral) walking distance of Italy.

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1916: Arthur Grove Earp, shellshocked

1 comment July 22nd, 2016 Headsman

July 22, 2016 marks the centennial of the wartime execution of Private Arthur Grove Earp, by the British Expeditionary Force.

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).

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1916: Trooper Alexander Butler

Add comment July 2nd, 2016 Headsman

One hundred years ago today at Bussy-les-Daours on the Somme, Canadian Trooper Alexander Butler was shot for the unprovoked murder of another soldier during World War I.

Butler was a veteran soldier with six-plus years in the 7th Hussars. For obscure reasons possibly tracing to multiple head injuries he had sustained in falls from horse during World War I, Butler on June 8 approached a fellow Hussar named Mickleburgh and suddenly poured five rifle rounds into his chest.

Butler was one of only two Canadian soldiers executed for murder during the Great War. (Twenty-two others were shot for desertion, and one for cowardice.) Those two soldiers were excluded from the 2006 posthumous pardon of Commonwealth servicemen who were “shot at dawn” during the war.

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1916: Four French soldiers of the 96 RI

Add comment May 22nd, 2016 Headsman

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!”

That man, Captain Paul Tuffrau, wrote in a letter a few days afterwards

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?

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1916: Abraham Bevistein, child soldier

1 comment March 20th, 2016 Headsman

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.”

Anti-war suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst took up Bevistein’s cause when she learned about his execution, prominently publishing a sympathetic feature story in her newspaper, Women’s Dreadnought. Like 305 other British and Commonwealth soldiers shot at dawn during the Great War, Bevistein was posthumously pardoned and added to war memorials in the 21st century.

* The farm owner’s later testimony to Bevistein’s court-martial that the young tommy had expressed an intent to return to England sealed his fate as a deserter.

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1916: Kosta Kromphold

Add comment September 1st, 2014 Headsman


According to the Portland Oregonian, Kosta Kromphold mellowed to a phonograph in his jail cell on the eve of his execution — including “If I Had a Thousand Lives to Live.”

A Russian native, the forgettable Kosta Kromphold had left his dear mum in New York City and chased his fortune to the Pacific coast, where he found it at gunpoint in the money-box of a Chinese restauranteur in Marysville.

Kosta really got himself into the egg drop soup during the subsequent chase by two bicycle (of course — this is California!) cops. Firing back at his pursuers, he shot officer John Sperbeck dead, right through the mouth.

According to April Moore’s Folsom’s 93: The Lives and Crimes of Folsom Prison’s Executed Men, “A Mrs. A. Meyers of New York City wrote to Governor Hiram Johnson on behalf of her housekeeper, Johanna Kromphold, the condemned man’s mother, saying that Mrs. Kromphold had already lost two of her three children. Mrs. Meyers’s message continued, ‘By taking this young boy’s life, you not only take one but two, as I am positive she will never live through this terrible ordeal.'”

This appeal didn’t work, and on September 1, 1916, Kromphold imparted a dying plea to the Folsom Prison chaplain: “Write my mother. I haven’t the heart to do it.”

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1916: Benjamin De Fehr, fragging driver

Add comment August 25th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1916, Canadian World War I enlistee Benjamin De Fehr was shot for murder.

De Fehr was one of 25 Canadians to go to the stake for military offenses during the Great War. Twenty-two of those were condemned as deserters; another for cowardice when he refused to advance.

De Fehr, by contrast, picked up his rifle inexplicably on August 19, 1916, and shot his Regimental Sergeant-Major James R. Scott in the back. He was tried three days later, and executed three days after that. His best defense was a disputed claim that he was drunk, probably not a winner under the circumstances even if true.

“Shot at dawn” soldiers have earned a good deal of latter-day sympathy, but suffering from shellshock and fragging your RSM are two different things. De Fehr wasn’t even a front-line soldier himself; he was a driver behind the lines. He was excluded from the 2006 posthumous pardon of 306 British Commonwealth soldiers executed during World War I.

He’s buried in Nord-Pas-de-Calais, France, just three plots away from his victim.

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1916: Gabrielle Petit, Belgian spy

Add comment April 1st, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1916, German forces occupying Belgium shot Gabrielle Petit at Schaarbeek for espionage.

Petit, orphaned as a child, was a 21-year-old Brussels saleswoman and governess when the First World War began.

In 1914, she helped her wounded fiance, soldier Maurice Gobert, cross the front lines into the Netherlands to rejoin his unit.

This was already a no-no — just the thing, in fact, that would soon get British nurse Edith Cavell shot by the Hun. But Petit went way beyond into outright espionage.

Having impressed British officers upon her successful delivery of Maurice by relating everything she could remember about the German army’s disposition, she got a crash course in spycraft and returned back over the lines. For a year and a half, she continued funneling information about troop movements as well as distributing the then-underground (but today still-extant) newspaper La Libre Belgique.

Captured in February 1916, she refused to trade her life for the identity of any other operative, and was shot for spying.

Although Gabrielle Petit didn’t get anything like Nurse Cavell’s wartime propaganda play, her story became well-known after the Armistice and resulted in a state funeral, various films and books, and a monument in Brussels’ Place Saint-Jean.


(cc) image from dogfael.

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1916: Captain Charles Fryatt, illegal combatant

Add comment July 27th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1916, Captain Charles Fryatt was shot at Bruges, Belgium as an illegal combatant.

Fryatt was a 42-year-old civilian mariner captaining the SS Brussels on the Harwick-Hook of Holland route when, in March 1915, a German U-Boat ordered him to heave to.

Fryatt wheeled the Brussels around on the submarine and attempted to ram it. The German ship escaped by a whisker only by scrambling an emergency dive. The Admiralty gave Fryatt a gold watch and a pat on the head for bravery.

It was not until the following year that the Germans captured that same vessel with that same captain on board. When they realized who they had, they subjected him to a snap tribunal for violating the laws of war: he’d participated in combat (by trying to ram the U-Boat) whilst being not a member of his country’s armed forces. That made him an illegal combatant, a franc-tireur in the still-current term for a civilian partisan left over from the Franco-Prussian War.

The Germans mightily loathed such terrorists, feared they would bedevil their steps in Belgium and France: people not sporting enough to stay beaten, people with the effrontery to fight back without being a duly enrolled member of a nation-state’s standing army. They did not scruple to push an expansive line on the definition of civilian non-participation.

“Every non-uniformed person,” read the a Moltke directive to the army, “if he is not designated as being justified in participating in fighting by clearly recognizable insignia, is to be treated as someone standing outside international law, if he takes part in the fighting … [or] participates in any way in the act of war without permission. He will be treated as a franc-tireur and immediately shot according to martial law.” (Source.)

So … that’s exactly what happened to Captain Fryatt.

This shooting set off a flurry of international recriminations and rebuttals.

People of normal moral sense can see readily enough that a merchant captain who scares off a submarine has not committed a grave crime any more than has a teen who chucks a grenade at commando firing at his home. The legal question for deliberation in Fryatt’s case was all about whether the merchant mariner had or had not committed an impermissible belligerent act by charging* … and as always, the definition of a war crime turned out to mirror precisely the political interest of the definer.

The British at this point had the Germans handily bottled up in a naval blockade that even seized food as “contraband”. (A tactic angrily denounced as a war crime in Berlin.) The Germans needed to get out of this stranglehold, and lacking anything approaching parity on the high seas, they staked their hopes on the U-boat. So the German interest was for maximum latitude for submarine activity; in fact, early in 1915, it was just in the process of rolling out its unrestricted submarine warfare policy of unannounced attacks on civilian freighters carrying war materiel. This does not seem to be what the U-boat stopping the Brussels did, but it gives you an idea of the scene. German military judges naturally said that German submarines who stopped a British merchant ship were not to be defied.

And the British interest, and by wonderous coincidence also its policy and legal position, naturally maintained maximum restrictions on a U-Boat’s potential targets, and maximum rights for the realm’s Captain Fryatts to resist.**

Fryatt, indeed, had followed the directives laid down by that Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. Churchill threatened to prosecute any ship captain who surrendered his vessel to a U-boat without opposing it “either with their armament if they possess it, or by ramming”: the theory was that routine resistance would maximize costs to the German navy, and maybe lead slow and vulnerable U-boats to skip the parley stage in favor of sneak attacks on unflagged steamers, which would sooner or later sink an American ship, which would help pull the U.S. into the war. (In May 1915, making no mistake at all about its target, a German U-boat intentionally torpedoed the Lusitania, generating a helpful stateside scandal also attended by dickering over the legality of the attack.)

So, the initial German announcement tersely reported that Fryatt

was condemned to death because, although he was not a member of a combatant force, he made an attempt on the afternoon of March 20, 1915, to ram the German submarine U-33 … One of the many nefarious franc-tireur proceedings of the British merchant marine against our war vessels has thus found a belated but merited expiation.

Britain replied that the captain had exercised only his “undoubted right of resistance,” and pointed out that a different merchant vessel that did obey such an order on the very same day had been sunk before it could evacuate — drowning 104 souls.

[T]he experience of German methods of warfare warned him that surrender would be no guarantee that the lives of his crew would be spared.

He determined therefore to take the best chance of saving his ship, and to steer for the submarine in order to force her to dive, and, if she were not quick enough in diving, to ram her.

This was his undoubted right under international law – to disregard her summons and resist her attack to the best of his power. It was a contest of skill and courage in which each side took their chance.

This led Germany to reiterate, on August 10, its view that Fryatt’s

act was not an act of self-defence, but a cunning attack by hired assassins …

The German War Tribunal sentenced him to death because he had performed an act of war against the German sea forces, although he did not belong to the armed forces of his country. He was not deliberately shot in cold blood without due consideration, as the British Government asserts, but he was shot as a franc-tireur, after calm consideration and thorough investigation …

Germany will continue to use this law of warfare in order to save her submarine crews from becoming the victims of francs-tireurs at sea.

There’s a 1917 monument to Captain Fryatt still displayed at London’s Liverpool Street Station, as well as a mountain in Alberta named in his honor.

Nobody was ever prosecuted for Fryatt’s execution.

* The distinction as parsed by Germany hung on whether the intended merchant prize was armed (allowed to resist) or unarmed (not).

** U-boats were new legal territory in 1915. The 1930 London Naval Treaty — although Germany was not party to it — attempted to clarify the status of these machines.

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