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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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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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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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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1917: The only triple hanging in Montana

Add comment February 16th, 2018 Headsman

Anaconda Standard, Jan. 11, 1917:

The story of the crime was that seven negroes boarded an eastbound freight train on the Great Northern railway at Nihil on Oct. 5 with the intention of beating their way. They found the car they boarded, a gondola loaded with lumber, already occupied by three white men. The deceased [Michael Freeman] and two companions, Earl Fretwell and Claud C. Campbell. The negroes first went through the white men, obtaining a small sum of money and some trinkets, and then directed them to get off the train, which was going at the rate of 30 miles an hour. The men begged to be allowed to remain on the train until it stopped or slowed down. Fretwell started to comply, being urged by blows, and was struck on the head with a revolver and fell from the car. Campbell jumped from the train, followed by a fusillade of shots. Freeman was shot from behind, the bullet entering his back, and his body thrown from the train, being found alongside the track the next morning.

National Public Radio, July 2, 2014 (associated audio story):

“I was curiosity with a ‘C.’ I just started to pepper him with questions — ‘Oh, Grandpa, what was it like? Did they lose their heads? Did their eyes bug out? Did everybody cheer? Did everybody cry?'” Zachary says.

“And he raised a hand, which told me to shut up. And he said three words: ‘It was awful.'”

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1917: Marguerite Francillard, seamstress and spy

Add comment January 10th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1917 — with the parting cry, “Je demande pardon à la France! Vive la France!” — 18-year-old Grenoble seamstress Marguerite Francillard was shot at Paris’s St. Lazare prison as a German spy.

Her lover, a German agent posing as a traveling silk salesman, had induced the naive young woman to act as his courier and in this capacity she shuttled his messages treasonably between Paris and Geneva. Eventually, German intelligence sacrificed her: a nothing loss for an empire at war.

The cell Marguerite Francillard inhabited while awaiting execution was subsequently occupied by a more famous (albeit similarly marginal) German asset, Mata Hari.

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1917: Herbet Morris, British West Indies Regiment deserter

Add comment September 20th, 2017 Headsman

At dawn on this date in 1917, 17-year-old Jamaican soldier Herbert Morris was shot in a courtyard behind the town hall in the Flemish town of Poperinge.

He’d volunteered the year before, 8,000 kilometers away from the terrible trenches, to cross the Atlantic and stake his life for the 6th Battalion of the British West Indies Regiment but in the end it was the guns of his own countrymen who would fell him.

Like numerous front-line troops, Morris became disordered by shellshock, and despite a generally commendable service record, routed during a bombardment to be discovered days later wandering at Boulogne. With that (non-capital) precedent already to his name, Morris’s second desertion on August 20 met a very much harsher response.

When on active service deserting His Majesty’s Services, in that he, in the Field on the 20th of August 1917, when warned for duty, in the neighbourhood of the front line absented himself from his detachment until apprehended by the Military Police at Boulogne on the 21st of August 1917.

-Morris’s death sentence, endorsed by Douglas Haig, 15 September 1917

“I am troubled with my head and cannot stand the sound of guns,” Morris explained to his very brief court-martial, unavailingly. “I reported to the Dr. [sic] and he gave me no medicine or anything. It was on the Sunday that I saw the doctor. He gave me no satisfaction.” Two character witnesses from his unit comprised the entirety of his defense.

During the week between Morris’s hearing and his Field Marshal Haig-confirmed sentence, a violent mutiny by British Empire troops in Etaples, France shook the high command. Nobody can say if it was determinative for Morris’s fate, but it cannot have weighed in favor of leniency.

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1917: James Smith, Early One Morning

Add comment September 5th, 2017 Headsman

One hundred years ago today, a Bolton private (formerly lance corporal) named James Smith fell to his countrymen’s guns on Belgian soil during World War I.

A career soldier since 1909, Smith had served honorably in India and Egypt before the war. He had the hardiness and luck to survive Gallipoli and the Somme — but their horrors broke him mentally.

According to this biography, “Jimmy almost lost his life on the Somme on 11 October 1916 when a German artillery shell exploded, burying him alive and causing a shrapnel wound ‘the size of a fist’ on his right shoulder.” When he returned from two months’ convalescence leave his mates could see that shellshock had destroyed the old Jimmy Smith.

Erratic behavior that cost him his good conduct badges culminated in a break on July 30, 1917, the eve of the frightful Battle of Passchendaele, when Smith deserted his post and disappeared from the front — to be found later, wandering in a nearby town. In World War I, such an offense invited the brass to make an example of you.

Smith’s own comrades from the 17th Battalion King’s Liverpool Regiment were drafted into the firing squad. Pitying their victim, the executioners pulled their shots and missed the target, only succeeding in wounding the brutalized private. When the firing squad commander faltered at his duty to deliver the coup de grace, the task monstrously fell on a close friend of Smith’s, Private Richard Blundell, to press the revolver to Smith’s temple and blow out his brains. For its service to the war effort, the firing detail got 10 days’ R&R … and a lifetime of shame.

In the weeks before his own death, in February 1989, Blundell was often heard by his son, William, to murmur deliriously: ‘What a way to get leave, what a way to get leave.’

According to historian Graham Maddocks, in his book Liverpool Pals, William Blundell asked his father in a more lucid moment what he meant.

Still desperately upset seven decades after the incident, the dying Richard told his son what had happened. It was clear, that as he faced his own death, Richard had never forgiven himself.

Jimmy Smith was the subject of a 1998 play, Early One Morning.

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1917: Dragutin “Apis” Dimitrijevic, of the Black Hand

3 comments June 26th, 2017 Headsman

A century ago today* Dragutin Dimitrijevic — better known by his code name “Apis” — was shot on the outskirts of Salonika (Thessaloniki) along with two lieutenants in his legendary Serbian terrorist organization, the Black Hand.

Not to be confused with mafia extortionists of the same name, the Black Hand was the cooler brand name of Ujedinjenje Ili Smrt — “Union or Death” in the Serbo-Croatian tongue, referring to the network’s objective of aggrandizing the small Kingdom of Serbia with their ethnic brethren who, circa the fin de siècle, still answered to the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

This national aspiration would midwife the First World War.

Though it wasn’t formed as an institution until 1911** — it had its own constitution and everything — some of the Black Hand principals had entered the chessboard dramatically by conspiring in the 1903 assassination of the unpopular King Alexander Obrenovic and his consort Queen Draga. This operation is remembered as the May Coup and numbered among its leaders our very man, Apis. (English Wikipedia link| Serbian) Apis caught three bullets in the chest during the murderous palace invasion, but the hand wasn’t the only thing tough about him.

In victory, these conspirators grew into a powerful faction of a more bellicose state, the most militant exponents of Pan-Serbism — a spirit perforce directed against the Austrian polity, which called South Slavs subjects from Trieste to Montenegro. Belgrade, then as now the capital of Serbia, was at this point a border city, with the bulk of the future Yugoslavia lying to its north and west, in Austria-Hungary.

“We do not say that this war is declared yet, but we believe that it is inevitable. If Serbia wants to live in honour, she can do so only by this war,” Apis predicted to a newsman in 1912. “This war must bring about the eternal freedom of Serbia, of the South Slavs, of the Balkan peoples. Our whole race must stand together to halt the onslaught of these aliens from the north.”

I, (name), by entering into the society, do hereby swear by the Sun which shineth upon me, by the Earth which feedeth me, by God, by the blood of my forefathers, by my honour and by my life, that from this moment onward and until my death, I shall faithfully serve the task of this organisation and that I shall at all times be prepared to bear for it any sacrifice. I further swear by God, by my honour and by my life, that I shall unconditionally carry into effect all its orders and commands. I further swear by my God, by my honour and by my life, that I shall keep within myself all the secrets of this organisation and carry them with me into my grave. May God and my brothers in this organisation be my judges if at any time I should wittingly fail or break this oath.

-Black Hand induction oath

On the pregnant date of June 28, 1914, the Black Hand grasped at its historical destiny to redraw that noxious border when a cell of Bosnian Serbs whom Apis — a mere captain at the time of the 1903 coup, he by now commanded Serbian military intelligence — had dispatched for the purpose assassinated the Austrian heir presumptive Archduke Franz Ferdinand during his visit to the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo.

Their objective was the same as it had ever been, to avenge themselves upon their occupier. Moreover, Serbia had allied herself with Russia, and Vienna’s inevitable declaration of war over the provocation could be expected to draw Russia into a Great Power war, perhaps with the effect of shaking loose Austria’s Balkan provinces.

It did that, and it drew in the whole of Europe besides.

Apis’s assassins shattered the Habsburg empire and made possible a postwar Yugoslavian kingdom. That the Black Hand itself was one of the Great War’s casualties in the process was the littlest of ironies.

Its aggression had long placed it in a delicate relationship with the state which could never really be expected to acclimate to a permanent network of enragees looking to author wars and political murders.

By 1917 the Prime Minister Nikola Pasic saw an opening to move against Apis. Perhaps he feared resumed Black Hand subversion if Serbia negotiated a peace with Austria, or wanted to get rid of the guy who could tell exactly how much he, Pasic, knew about the Archduke’s assassination before it happened.

It was an effective ploy, no matter the reason. Alleging a bogus Black Hand plot to kill Serbia’s prince regent, a Serbian military investigation rolled up Dimitrijevic along with one of his original May Coup cronies, Ljobomir Vulovic and the alleged would-be assassin Rado Malobabic, a man who really had been involved in planning the Archduke Franz Ferdinand hit. Dimitrijevic was known to remark privately that whatever the charge sheet said, he was really being executed for that fateful day in Sarajevo.

The three condemned men stepped down into the ditches that had been dug for the purpose, and placed themselves in front of the stakes. Dimitrijevic on the right, Vulovic in the middle, and Malobabic on the left. After being blindfolded, Dimitrijevic and Vulovic cried: “Long live Greater Serbia!”

Malobabic succumbed after the first five shots, while the two others suffered longer, twenty shots having to be fired at each of them. No one was hit in the head. The execution was over at 4.47 in the morning.

Witness’s account of the execution

* Different sources proposing numerous different dates in June and even July can be searched up on these here interwebs. We’re basing June 26 on primary reportage in the English-language press (e.g., the London Times of June 28, 1917, under a June 26 dateline: “The Serbian Prince Regent having confirmed the death sentences passed on Colonel Dragutin Dimitriovitch, Major Liubomir Vulovitch, and the volunteer Malobabitch for complicity in a plot to upset the existing regime, these were executed this morning in the outskirts of Salonika”). The sentences were confirmed on June 24, and both that date and its local Julian equivalent June 11 are among the notional death dates running around in the wild.

** The Black Hand from 1911 was the successor to Narodna Odbrana (“National Defense”) which formed in 1908 in response to Austria-Hungary’s annexation of Bosnia.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Attempted Murder,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Greece,History,Infamous,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Serbia,Shot,Soldiers,Terrorists,Wartime Executions,Yugoslavia

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1917: Otilio Montaño, Zapatista

Add comment May 18th, 2017 Headsman

One hundred years ago today, Otilio Montaño Sánchez was shot as a traitor to the Mexican Revolution.

Montaño was a rural schoolteacher who came to mentor Emiliano Zapata via Zapata’s cousin.

Montaño had the distinction of helping Zapata draw up his movement’s “sacred scripture,” the egalitarian Plan of Ayala, and rose with his protege to become Secretary of Public Instructions in the Zapatista governing junta.

This association was destined to be displaced by a different (ex-)revolutionary, Venustiano Carranza, who would break with Zapata and emerge from the Revolution as Mexico’s president. Montaño suffered the fate Carranza’s former allies would have wished to impose upon him: being accused of supporting a pro-Carranza revolt, a revolutionary tribunal had him shot (dishonorably, shot in the back) wearing a defamatory sign reading “So die all traitors to the fatherland.”

A small town in Morelos is named for Montaño.

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