Army

Shot At Dawn: Pardoned Soldiers Remembered

A century ago they were shot for mutiny - one of the most serious crimes in the British Army - but now their honour has been restored. The...

A century ago they were shot for mutiny - one of the most serious crimes in the British Army - but now their honour has been restored.
 
The Shot at Dawn Memorial in Alrewas, Staffordshire, had contained the names of 306 men who were executed for 'cowardice' or 'desertion'.
 
With many now recognised as having been suffering from mental illnesses like post-traumatic stress disorder, these men were subsequently pardoned.
 
As a result, the Staffordshire memorial was created to honour their sacrifices, along with all those who died in combat fighting for the British Empire in World War One.
 
But these 306 names are the tip of a much larger iceberg.
 
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Hundreds of men were shot for 'cowardice' or 'desertion' in WWI, many of whom had been scarred by horrendous fighting in battles like the Somme (above; image by Peter Dennis from Somme 1 July 1916 Tragedy and Triumph by Andrew Robertshaw)
 
200,000 serving soldiers were officially court-martialled by the British High Command in the First World War.
 
Of these, 20,000 were found guilty of offences that carried the death penalty, while 3,000 are said to have officially received it, though many of these sentences were subsequently commuted. 
 
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In the end, of these 3,000, 346 executions were carried out by firing squad.
 
Now, of the 40 names left off the Shot at Dawn Memorial, three have been added, thanks to the persistence of memorial creator Andy DeComyn.
 
They are New Zealander Jack Braithwaite, of the New Zealand Otago Regiment, Gunner William Lewis from Scotland, and Jesse Robert Short, from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne.
 
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Jack Braithwaite (front row, far right) with his football team
 
Braithwaite's 'mutiny', according to the Birmingham Mail, consisted of nothing more than a misdemeanour.
 
The 'bohemian' former journalist, who'd confessed at his trial to not being a natural soldier, had tried to calm down a belligerent prisoner at Blargies prison in Rouen, northern France, by taking the man to his tent to feed him.
 
The soldier, Private Little, had been a ringleader in a small uprising against the prison guards. But Little was an Australian and couldn't be executed because Australia's government wouldn't allow Britain to execute its soldiers.
 
 
But 'Bohemian Jack' Braithwaite was a New Zealander, and could be executed. His attempt to defuse the potential riot (sparked by appalling conditions at the prison) involved him leading Little away from the custody of a staff sergeant, which officially amounted to mutiny.
 
He was subsequently shot by firing squad on August 28, 1916.
 
His execution occurred within five minutes of Gunner William Lewis, who'd also been involved in the uprising at the prison.
 
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Bryan Ritchie brought a wreath of poppies for his relative Gunner William Lewis
 
Meanwhile, Corporal Jesse Short was condemned to death for uttering "put a rope around that bugger's neck, tie a stone to it and throw him into the river".
 
He was said to be inciting guards barring his exit from the infamous 'Bull Ring' training camp to rebel against their officer.
 
This was the September 1917 Etaples Mutiny, an uprising by around 80 servicemen rebelling against what are now acknowledged to have been harsh and unreasonable conditions at the camp.
 
The uprising was depicted in the 1978 book (and 1986 BBC series) 'The Monocled Mutineer', the lead character in which is said to have been based at least partially on Corporal Short.
 
1917 was the year that pushed Russia into revolution and the French 'Poilu' into wide-scale mutiny.
 

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It would be the Commander-in-Chief, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, that confirmed Short's death sentence (as he did Lewis a year earlier). This could perhaps be seen as the command structure fighting back against the 'revolutionary atmosphere' brewing that year, although it was also the normal procedure for the C-in-C to confirm death sentences.
 
In any case, now these three men, Short, Lewis, and Braithwaite, have received their pardons and been honoured along with comrades who fell in battle.
 
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The remaining 37 men who were shot, according to Richard Pursehouse of the Staffordshire military history research group the Chase Project, were not executed for mutiny, but murder.
 
As this also would have resulted in a death sentence even under civil law codes of the time, it's been decided that their names should not be added to the memorial.
 
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