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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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Belgium,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Desertion,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,History,Jamaica,Military Crimes,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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

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1917: Jesse Robart Short, Etaples mutineer

Add comment October 4th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1917, Jesse Robart Short was shot in Etaples, France, for mutiny.


Jesse Robart Short’s sentence, as confirmed by General Haig, from the UK National Archives. (Transcribed more legibly.)

The fraught relationship between the enlisted and the officers had boiled over in the Etaples Mutiny just a few weeks before, which saw military police fire into a crowd of troops protesting the heavy-handed arrest of a fellow for slipping into the town of Etaples for a little (unauthorized, but widely practiced) R&R.

The shooting left a man dead and the camp in an uproar for several days, with some enraged rank-and-file men trying to break into army facilities hunting for MPs.

The excellent, but now defunct, site Shot At Dawn had a thorough recounting of the Etaples mutiny, still archived at the Wayback Machine.

Short, whose disciplinary record was otherwise clean, was picked out seemingly more or less arbitrarily to be the demonstration execution for this affair. He was doomed for an (unsuccessful) incident of incitement to mutiny, described by the officer thus:

“The picket was armed as regards 150 & the remainder were unarmed. At about 9.10 pm a lot of men, about 70 or 80 with notice boards torn away from the camps and waving flags which were handkerchiefs of all colours including red attached to sticks approached me. These men pushed through, the picket practically standing on one side … officers who stood out were also pushed aside. The picquet was absolutely unreliable at that moment so I called the officers together & made them fall their men in by Regts. I then addressed the picket & whilst doing so … [Short] came back from the crowd of men who had just broken through & told the men they were not to listen to men. ‘What you want to do to the Bugger is to put a stone round his neck & throw him into the river’… he told the men to fall out & join the mob who had just broken through.”

On this day..

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

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