July 21st, 2011
On this date in 1915, Private Herbert Burden was shot for desertion — at age 17, still too young to even legally enlist in the Northumberland Fusilliers he’d deserted from.
This teenager rashly joined up at the outbreak of hostilities, fudging his age up by two years to qualify. It’s more than likely that he, and his real age, were known to the recruiters who signed him up. (He wasn’t the only child soldier in that war.)
A few months on into this less-noble-than-advertised perdition, with friends and comrades becoming burger meat all around him at the dreadful Battle of Bellewaarde Ridge,* the kid panicked and ran.
Burden is the “model” for the memorial statue a later, more soft-hearted British Empire put up in 2001 commemorating 306 British and Commonwealth soldiers shot during the first World War for desertion and cowardice.
* Here’s a book about an Irish battalion that was nearly annihilated in the battle.
Shot at Dawn memorial/Herbert Burden likeness photo (cc) Noisette.
Also on this date
Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Desertion,England,Execution,France,History,Military Crimes,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions
Tags: 1910s, 1915, battle of bellewaarde ridge, fear, herbert burden, july 21, shot at dawn, statuary, world war i
August 11th, 2010
On this date in 1916, 19-year-old Durham Private William Nelson was shot for desertion by the British military.
The Pity of It
by Thomas Hardy
I walked in loamy Wessex lanes, afar
From rail-track and from highway, and I heard
In field and farmstead many an ancient word
Of local lineage like “Thu bist,” “Er war,”
“Ich woll,” “Er sholl,” and by-talk similar,
Nigh as they speak who in this month’s moon gird
At England’s very loins, thereunto spurred
By gangs whose glory threats and slaughters are.
Then seemed a Heart crying: “Whosoever they be
At root and bottom of this, who flung this flame
Between folk kin tongued even as are we,
“Sinister, ugly, lurid, be their fame;
May their familiars grow to shun their name,
And their brood perish everlastingly.”
According to the archive capture of the lamentably defunct Shot at Dawn site — which campaigned (successfully) for clearing the names of World War I soldiers who had been executed for military failings like desertion or cowardice — Nelson gave a pitiable account of his situation. It was less the horror of trench warfare and mustard gas than desperation on his own home front that undid Nelson’s “nerves”.
“I have had a lot of trouble at home, and my nerves are badly upset. My father is a prisoner in Germany and is losing his eyesight there through bad treatment. My mother died while I was still in England, leaving my sister aged 13 and my brother aged 10. I am the only one left. I had to leave them in charge of a neighbour. I had no intention of deserting. I did not realise what I was doing when I left the camp. When I did so I went and gave myself up. When I went to the store my object was to get a night’s sleep and then go and surrender in the morning. I thought it was too late to do so that night. I did not know when the battalion was coming out of the trenches.”
by Thomas Hardy
If but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: “Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love’s loss is my hate’s profiting!”
Then would I bear it, clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased in that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.
But not so. How arrives it joy lies slain,
And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
–Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan. . . .
These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.
That 13-year-old sister whom Nelson worried over long suffered her brother’s senseless death. In 2004, that woman’s daughter (Billy Nelson’s niece), Nora High, told the Guardian:
Every Armistice Day, my mother shed buckets of tears. We’ve got Billy’s Bible, I got that when mother died. She used to lay that out on a piece of blue satin cloth, and she would cry. She always said: ‘I won’t cry any more because that only upsets Billy. He doesn’t want me to cry. Everything’s fine for him now.’
In Time of “The Breaking of Nations”*
by Thomas Hardy
Only a man harrowing clods
In a slow silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
Half asleep as they stalk.
Only thin smoke without flame
From the heaps of couch-grass;
Yet this will go onward the same
Though Dynasties pass.
Yonder a maid and her wight
Come whispering by:
War’s annals will cloud into night
Ere their story die.
* The title is a Biblical allusion to Jeremiah 51:20.
As a slight stretch, part of the Themed Set: Thomas Hardy.
Also on this date
Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,England,Execution,France,History,Military Crimes,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions
Tags: 1910s, 1916, billy nelson, nora high, poetry, shot at dawn, thomas hardy, war, william nelson, world war i