On this date in 1917, Edwin Dyett was shot for desertion and cowardice.
After the disastrously ineffective Somme offensive in late 1916, British Field Marshal Douglas Haig decided to pick up the men’s spirits. And what better way to motivate than by shooting more officers?
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.
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.
The Shot At Dawn site dedicated to executed first World War soldiers maintains a detailed (and very pro-Dyett) page about our day’s principal. There’s also a recent nonfiction book, Death for Desertion, which pleads Dyett’s case.