Forgotten soldiers: the Irishmen shot at dawn

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2008), Reviews, Volume 16, World War I

Forgotten soldiers: the Irishmen shot at dawn
Stephen Walker
(Gill and Macmillan, e24.99)
ISBN 9780717141821

Shortly after the outbreak of the Great War in August 1914, James Crozier, a young shipyard apprentice from the Shankill district of Belfast, presented himself at his local recruiting office to volunteer for overseas service with the Irish Rifles. Crozier was accompanied by his mother, Elizabeth, who, being naturally upset at the thought of losing her son, tried to obstruct his enlistment by telling a senior officer who was present that James was only seventeen, and thus too young to enlist without a parent’s written consent. The officer (also, coincidentally, named Crozier) reassured her and said that he would personally look after her boy and ‘see that no harm comes to him’. Just over eighteen months later, Lt.-Col. Frank Percy Crozier would recommend that his namesake be put to death by firing squad for the crime of desertion. The younger Crozier’s battalion was attached to the 36th (Ulster) Division, stationed near Serre on the Western Front. He had failed to appear on sentry duty in the trenches, absented himself from the front line, and remained absent until apprehended a week later wandering aimlessly about behind the lines. When his court martial convened in February 1916, the young rifleman, with no legal counsel, represented himself. His claim of ill health as a mitigating factor was considered but not taken seriously; not surprisingly, he was found guilty and sentenced to death. He was shot dead just two weeks later in the garden of the regimental headquarters at Mailly-Maillet, a small town north-east of Amiens. Frank Percy Crozier, in an attempt either to ease the anxiety of the condemned man or to ensure that he accepted his fate passively, ordered that the prisoner be given access to alcohol on the night before he was killed, with the result that he was so drunk by dawn that he had to be carried to the execution post. This order may have been inspired by compassion but it robbed Rifleman Crozier of the opportunity to meet his death with dignity. And the circumstances of his death were anything but dignified: the firing squad, composed of the prisoner’s fellow riflemen, failed to kill him instantly, and a junior officer had to finish him off at close range with a revolver. The sordid tale of the two Croziers and 27 other cases involving Irishmen, or men serving in Irish regiments, who were executed by the British Army during the war form the basis of Stephen Walker’s Forgotten soldiers.
All of the Irishmen executed in the field during the war appear to have committed the offences for which they were put to death, and most of them had histories of poor discipline or, in the case of desertion, were repeat offenders. Yet the capital courts martial system that condemned these men was deeply flawed, both in the inconsistency of its administration and in its apparently biased treatment of those who stood trial. The officers who presided over the courts martial were often young and inexperienced, and in several of the cases that Walker describes established procedures were not followed: witnesses were not sworn in; mitigating medical evidence was ignored; legal representation was not provided; and the defence of diminished responsibility does not appear to have been taken seriously. Some of the executions were carried out in units experiencing discipline problems, ‘pour encourager les autres’. Perhaps most controversially, there is evidence that there was a strong class and cultural bias at work. The Irishmen who were shot at dawn were by no means blameless, and in some cases had committed serious offences, but the system that judged them did so in a ruthless, arbitrary manner, and few people today, whatever other views they hold on the issue, would argue that they deserved to be shot. It should also be stressed, and Walker is at pains to do so, that the phenomenon attracted significant criticism both during the war and in its aftermath.
Stephen Walker is a television journalist with BBC Northern Ireland and, perhaps understandably, his narrative occasionally throws up some regrettable journalistic clichés: at Gallipoli, for example, it was ‘the blood of dead Irishmen that helped turn the ocean crimson’ (p. 32); in the first hours of the Battle of the Somme ‘a generation of men walked to its death’ (p. 77). The author also exaggerates the casualties on the first day of the Somme offensive by some 20,000 men. Notwithstanding these weaknesses, however, Walker has produced a text that is engagingly written and accessible, and in at least one section he offers some genuinely fresh insight into the Irish experience of the capital courts martial system. In a chapter entitled ‘A class of their own’ he tackles the complex issue of class and its bearing on the treatment of condemned men. Here Walker cites two intriguing cases in which officers were found guilty of extreme dereliction of duty and accused of (although, significantly, not charged with) cowardice, and yet received relatively minor punishments. No more than 46 officers were sentenced to death during the war for battlefield offences, and just two of these were executed. Yet thousands of officers were tried for, or at least accused of, committing serious military crimes. According to Walker, who unfortunately cites no source for these figures, most of these men were simply let off with a reprimand, while approximately 1,000 were informally dismissed from the army and some 400 were cashiered (formally and dishonourably discharged). In Blindfold and alone (2001) Cathryn Corns and John Hughes-Wilson employed a rather cavalier interpretation of the statistical evidence to suggest that officers who were tried by court martial were treated more harshly than rank-and-file soldiers. By contrasting a number of key cases in which class appears to have been an influential factor, Walker goes some way toward challenging this argument.
There is also some evidence to suggest that, in the case of Irish soldiers, this obvious class bias was compounded by a cultural or ethnic bias. In Worthless men (1998) Gerald Oram argued, quite persuasively in my view, that Irish soldiers were more likely than any other national group to be condemned to death by field general courts martial during the war. Although Walker avoids really engaging with Oram’s pioneering study, he does highlight its influence on the Irish government and their decision to compile a report on the Irishmen shot at dawn. Peter Mulvany, founder of the Shot at Dawn Campaign, Ireland, brought the issue of the executed Irishmen to the government’s (and public’s) attention. The recent activity of Irish campaigners makes the publication of Forgotten soldiers particularly timely, and Walker opens the book with an engrossing account of the final stages of the ultimately successful campaign that acknowledges the crucial role played by the Irish campaigners, and indeed the Irish government, in securing conditional pardons from the UK Ministry of Defence for all 306 soldiers shot for committing battlefield offences. Unfortunately, however, Walker conflates the Irish Shot at Dawn Campaign with its British counterpart and, as a result, has provoked the ire of Peter Mulvany, who has denounced it on the campaign’s website as ‘nothing more than another British spin to suit a British audience’ (www.shotatdawncampaignirl.org). Nevertheless, I would recommend Walker’s flawed but highly engaging book to anyone seeking an insight into the Irish experience of the First World War in general, and the capital courts martial system in particular.

Edward Madigan tutors in history at Trinity College, Dublin, and Dublin City University.

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