Museum volunteer, Steve Erskine has been researching the three Yorkshire Regiment soldiers executed during The First World War.
In tackling this subject it has been a challenge to give a straight telling of the facts, in so far as archival records and contemporary testimony allow, without letting personal prejudice or a modern-day moral squint colour the objective research. You will judge how far that challenge has been met…
The first soldier subject to the military laws as they stood at the time was 8534 Private Harry Poole.
A native of Sheffield, born in early 1894, Harry first appears in the 1901 census living with his grandparents, Edward, a penknife blade cutler and Elizabeth a silver burnisher at 55 South Street, Sheffield. Ten years later he is living with 3 generations of his family; Edward and Elizabeth have been joined by their son Albert and his wife Ellen and, in addition to Harry there are 4 other boys and one girl all now living at 94 City Road, Sheffield. Now 17 years of age Harry is working as a Stable Boy with the Great Central Railway (GCR).
Harry does not appear in the list of GCR employees who enlisted leaving us to conclude that he left the GCR employ before joining up or being conscripted.
On enlistment into the Yorkshire Regiment Harry was posted to the 3rd (Training) Battalion then based at West Hartlepool, Hartlepool, Seaton Carew and Redcar. He was then posted to the 7th Battalion and it was with that battalion that Harry landed in France at Boulogne on 13th July 1915.
They saw extensive front-line service around Ypres before moving down to the Somme where it was particularly badly hit in front of Fricourt. In mid-September 1916 the battalion was in the line in front of Hebuterne. The stint in the line was relatively quiet, with one man killed and six wounded between 12th and 17th September.
Work mainly consisted of repairing and improving assembly trenches with patrols sent out at night which, according to the battalion’s War Diary ‘..found enemy very unenterprising’. On the 14th September Harry was detailed to be part of wiring party deployed in no-man’s land to repair and improve the wire. Harry seems to have left the trenches with the wiring party but was missing by the time the party returned to the trenches. Harry was next seen in billets the following morning. Two days later, the final day in the line, Harry was again detailed to be part of a working party but he failed to report with the rest of the party when it assembled to go out. He was again found in billets when the party returned from its work.
Harry was arrested on a charge of desertion and tried by Field General Courts-Martial on 11th October 1916. The charge was upheld and Harry was sentenced to death.
Harry escaped from detention on 24th October and was on the run for about six weeks when he was re-arrested in Boulogne on or around 22nd November. The personal diary of the 7th Battalion Commander, Lt-Col. Ronald d’Arcy Fife notes that he was President of a Courts-Martial on 25th November but we cannot be sure that this involved Harry and the confirmation of his sentence. But, confirmed it was, and the sentence of the court was carried out at 0700hrs on Saturday 9th December 1916.
Harry lies in Cavillon Communal Cemetery some 22 kilometres west of Amiens. The cemetery holds just five graves, another ‘shot at dawn’ man, Private William Henry Randle of the 10th Battalion, The Sherwood Foresters (Notts & Derby Regiment) and the crew of a Royal Air Force Blenheim No. P6894, call sign Oscar Mike of 107 Squadron, which was lost on operations against Amiens on 10th July 1940.
Like all soldiers, Harry made a Will and in it Harry left all he had to be shared equally between his mother Ellen, and his grandmother, Elizabeth. His family paid to have an inscription placed on his headstone, it reads, ‘Loved in Life, remembered in death. Mother, Father, Sister, Brothers.’
Anyone researching Henry will be left with no doubt as to his fate and the reason behind it. His Medal Index Card, which confirms his eligibility for the 1915 Star, British War Medal and British Victory Medal as well as confirming his move to France in July 1915, carries upon it, in big red hand-written letters the word Deserter.
The entry for Harry on the Register of Soldiers’ Effects shows he had outstanding monies due him totalling £1 13s & 5d. The record notes that this credit was not admissible.
10641/34595 Private James Crampton (mistakenly listed as Grampton in various records, including on his original headstone) was born at Scarborough on 22nd April 1877.
He had seen military service prior to the war and, as a trained soldier, was early recalled to the Colours in 1914 and posted to the 6th Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment. He went with the Battalion to Gallipoli on 2 July 1915. Having survived four-and-a-half months on the peninsula, James and the 6th Battalion were evacuated to Egypt. It was here first fell foul of military law. File W.O.71/543 in the Public Records Office covers the details of the case against James as well as details of his military record.
On 7th May 1916 James was taken before Major C. G. Forsyth D.S.O. on a charge, namely, ‘while on active service, Drunkenness’. He was found guilty and sentenced to fourteen days Field Punishment No1. It was about this time that James’ behaviour changed. When he and others of the 6th Battalion were detailed to dig defensive trenches, James would isolate himself from others and, at night, would wander out into the desert to sleep.
The battalion eventually moved to France, landing at Marseille on 1 July 1916 from where it moved up to Arras. At this time James was transferred to the 9th Battalion of the York and Lancaster Regiment; perhaps a case of making a difficult soldier someone else’s problem?
Now with the service number 34595 James and his new Battalion were, by 16th August 1916, in dugouts near the village of Ploegstaert (known as Plugstreet to the British). On that day James and another man were detailed by their Company Sergeant Major to report to the Royal Engineers to help construct a light railway. As it happened, they were not required for duty and on reporting to the Engineers both men were sent back to their unit, a fact reported to the Company Sergeant-Major. However, at Evening Roll Call that night, James was noted as being missing.
James was missing until 17th November when he was found living in a house in Armentieres. Still dressed in his khaki uniform, James had removed all insignia and had disposed of all of his equipment. James was handed over to the Military Police and held under guard in the Town Hall at Armentieres until, four days later, an escort arrived from the 9th York and Lancs and he was taken back to his unit to await punishment.
On 23rd January 1917, James stood before a Field General Courts Martial (FGCM) at Ypres, The Officer Presiding was Major G.L. Pyman of the 8th Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, and the statutory three officers sitting in judgement were Captain E.V. Price of the 9th York and Lancs, Lieutenant E.W. Barcliff of the 11th Sherwood Foresters, and Captain O.F. Dowson of the Royal Army Service Corps.
The charge which James faced was that of ‘When on active service deserting his Majesty’s service…..’ The prosecution called five witnesses. The first, Company Sergeant Major (CSM) G. Oldfield, James’s CSM gave details of how James had been detailed for work with the Royal Engineers and that he had subsequently been found to be missing. The later fact was confirmed by the second witness, the Sergeant who had called the roll on the night of August 17th.
The third witness was a Private Goulding, the other soldier who had been detailed, with James to work building the light railway. He confirmed that upon their arrival they were told that they would not be required for work that day and that they could return to their unit. He also testified that, later on 17th August he had seen James leave the dugout in the company of another soldier – a Private Corker – and that he had seen Corker return but not James. The fourth and fifth witnesses, Lieutenant A. A. Chapman of the New Zealand Pioneers and Corporal W. Mason of the Military Police both gave the details of James’ arrest in Armentieres.
James seems not to have availed himself of the opportunity to speak directly to the Court and the only mitigating circumstances offered in court were of his previous long-service and general good character (the drunkenness charge being highlighted as no worse than many another soldier).
Lance Corporal E. Guymen of the 9th York and Lancs, who had served with James in 6th Yorks since January 1916 gave his view (shared with many others in the Battalion) that James had ’gone in his head’. Company Sergeant Major G. Oldfield, the first witness called, did not support this view. He stated that he had known the accused for about a month prior to August 17th and had not noticed anything ‘peculiar’ about him, and that he had carried out in a normal way any orders that had been given to him.
The only plea from James was a written statement, read to the Court, in which he said:
‘There is no one here who knows me. I was in the Army before the war. I re-enlisted in August 1914. I always show a good character and there is nothing against me during my war service’.
As was normal, following the Courts Martial James was sent back to his Battalion to await his fate. The day after the Courts Martial, the Trial papers were on the desk of Brigadier General H. Gordon, who recommended that James be granted mercy if it was found by a medical examination that he was insane or ‘mentally unsound’ and if he was not that the ‘extreme penalty’ be carried out, his reasons being;
1. ‘The plea of mental deficiency is one that is easy to put forward and difficult to disprove’; and
[2. ’Two recent charges of desertion in the Brigade were not upheld and ‘absence’ was the finding’
Further contextual ‘evidence’ not considered at the Trial, was submitted by the Commanding Officer of James’ Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel R. Ratliffe who stated that when required to comply with orders, James ‘never seemed to understand quite what he was doing’, and that in his view James was, mentally deficient. Ratcliffe also said that James had always been ‘a source of trouble, never seeming to understand the most simple instructions given him, and being of a very forgetful nature he was always very reserved among the men and preferred to be alone’. All of which contradicted the evidence of CSM Oldfield.
James was ‘examined’ by a panel of two Doctors from the Royal Army Medical Corps on the 27th January 1917 their conclusion effectively condemned him. They found that he ‘….is of sound mind. There is no evidence that he was of unsound mind when he committed the crime for which he has been tried by Field General Courts Martial’.
According to military law, the Doctors report, court martial papers, and recommendations were sent to Army HQ and subsequently to the Judge Advocates Office who reviewed the proceedings and reports for any failure to observe due process. All was in order and the case was, again in accordance with military law, sent to the Commander in Chief, Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig, who confirmed sentence on 1 February 1917.
On Sunday, 4th February 1917 James Crampton was taken from the cells at Poperinghe Town Hall to an adjoining courtyard. It was duly recorded that the sentence of the Court was carried out at 0640hrs that day. As with Harry Poole, the archives holding various records relating to James’ military record make it clear what his fate was. For example, his entry in the medal roll….
9552 Drummer Frederick Rose was born in 1894 and joined the Army in 1909. He served with the 2nd Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment and saw action with them at the defence of the Menin Crossroads in October 1914.
On 18th December 1914, when the Battalion were moving up to the line near Fleurbaix, Fred fell out saying that he had hurt his leg but would catch up. He was not seen again until he was arrested on 16th December 1916 in the village of Hazebrouck following ‘….information received.’ For two years, Fred had been living with a woman in the village and had been betrayed to the police by a jealous neighbour.
At his trial Fred spoke of various ‘family’ troubles…’ at home but also claimed at his trial that ‘..he had no idea how he had fed and clothed himself..’ during his two year absence. Despite much evidence that he had been a good and steady soldier before the war and during his early service in France and Belgium, no redeeming features were found to upset the sentence of death.
Sentence was duly carried out on 4th March 1917. The archival record has been a little kinder to Fred Rose than it is to Harry Poole or James Crampton. Fred’s Pension Record card states that he was killed in action. However, other records note his execution.
In a letter to his wife, the day after the execution, Major C. L. A. Ward-Jackson, Commandant of the detention centre where Fred was held noted ‘Yesterday the Assistant Provost-Marshall of 3rd Division, Mellor, who always acts for Trousdale when the latter is away, had to be present at the shooting of two deserters first thing in the morning and that is a horrid business as you can image.’
The other soldier executed that day was Private Ellis Holt of 19th Battalion, Manchester Regiment. Up to this point, 3rd Division had executed 19 men, so Trousdale and Mellor certainly had their work cut out.
Fred Rose and Ellis Holt lie together in Berneville Communal Cemetery, oddly either side of Rifleman John King of the Kings’ Royal Rifle Corps, a soldier who did not suffer the vagaries of military justice but who, according to his entry in the Register of Soldiers’ Effects, died of heart failure on 16th March 1917.
Interestingly, the page from the 1914 Medal Roll showing the entry for Fred Rose also notes two other soldiers from the 2nd Battalion forfeited their medals for Desertion, namely: Private 10252 Thomas Rock who deserted on 29th October 1915 and 3/7432 Private Ernest Rodwell who deserted on 23rd January 1916. Neither man faced a firing squad. Ernest Rodwell was subsequently killed in action on 5th April 1918 whilst serving with the 2nd Battalion.
It is testament to the faithfulness of the IWGC (later CWGC) that, in death, every soldier is treated equally; regardless of rank or the circumstances of his or her death each soldier has the same styled headstone. There is nothing on any of these gravestones that suggests that the soldier was executed. If the family wished it mentioned then the Commission acquiesced but in fact only one soldier has his execution explicitly mentioned in the inscription – 10495 Private Alfred Ingham of the 18th Battalion of the Manchester Regiment, the inscription reads: Shot at Dawn. One of the first to enlist. A worthy son of his father.
A memorial to those shot at dawn was unveiled in the National Memorial Arboretum in June 2001.
In 2007, the Armed Forces Act 2006 was passed. It allowed the 306 British and Commonwealth soldiers executed after Courts Martial for desertion and other Capital Offences during the First World War, to be pardoned posthumously, although section 359(4) of the act states the pardon ‘does not affect any conviction or sentence.’
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