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.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Belgium,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,Diminished Capacity,England,Execution,History,Military Crimes,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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1683: James Smith and John Wharry, Covenanter bystanders

3 comments June 13th, 2010 Headsman

Inscription on a marker on the road from Kirkintilloch to Kilsyth* in Scotland:

In this field lies the corpse of John Wharry and James Smith, who suffered in Glasgow, 13 June 1683, for their adherence to the Word of God, and Scotland’s Covenanted Work of Reformation: ‘And they overcame them by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death'” (Rev. xii. 11)

Halt, courteous passenger, and look on
Our bodies dead, & lying under this stone.
Altho’ we did commit no deed,** nor fact
That was against the Bridegroom’s contract,
Yet we to Glasgow were as prisoners brought,
And against us false witness they sought.
Their sentence cruel and unjust they past,
And then our corps on scaffold they did cast.
There we our lives and right hands also lost.
From Glasgow we were brought unto this place
In chains of iron hung up for certain space.
Then taken down interred here we ly–
From ‘neath this stone our blood to heaven doth cry.
Had foreign foes, Turks, or Mahometans,
Had Scythians, Tartars, Arabian Caravans,
Had cruel Spaniards, the Pope’s blood seed,
Commenced the same, less strange had been the deed;
But Protestants, profest our Covenants to,
Our countrymen, this bloody deed could do.
Yet notwithstanding of their hellish rage
The noble Wharry stepping on the stage
With courage bold and with a heart not faint,
Exclaims, This blood now seals our covenant–
Ending, They who would follow Christ should take
Their cross upon their back, the world forsake.


Image (c) Maria ‘Mia’ Gaellman | http://www.mariaphoto.co.uk/

The epitaph above is from this Victorian text, which further observes:

The probability is, that what is called on the new stone “the old tombstone” is not much older than this [the 19th] century, and that it is the successor of an older one on which may have been inscribed the following epitaph:

Halt, passenger, read here upon this stone
A tragedy, our bodies done upon.
At Glasgow Cross we lost both our right hands,
To fright beholders, th’ enemy so commands;
Then put to death, and that most cruelly.
Yet where we’re slain, even there we must not lie,
From Glasgow town we’re brought unto this place,
On Gallow tree hung up for certain space.
Yet thence ta’en down, interred here we lie
Beneath this stone; our blood to heaven doth cry.
Had foreign foes, Turks or Mahometans,
Had Scythian Tartars, Arabian caravans,
Had cruel Spaniards, the Pope’s bloody seed,
Commenc’d the same, had been less strange their deed.
But Protestants, once Covenanters too,
Our countrymen, this cruel deed could do:
Yet, notwithstanding this, their hellish rage,
The noble Wharrie leapt upon the stage.
With courage bold, he said, and heart not faint,
‘This blood shall now seal up our covenant,’
Ending, ‘they who would follow Christ, should take
‘Their cross upon their back, the world forsake.'”

* Kilsyth lays claim to be the birthplace of curling.

** Smith and Wharrie, apparently uninvolved civilians, were seized as the nearest available guys to punish after a Covenanter guerrilla attack near Inchbelly Bridge.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Innocent Bystanders,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Scotland,Summary Executions,Treason,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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