Shot at dawn; Justice does not have an expiry date

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2005), News, News, Volume 13

Different spanks for different ranks
Lions led by donkeys

The last words of James Templeton, a 20-year-old mill apprentice from Belfast, are written neatly in his own hand. Before he was executed by his own battalion in the trenches of northern France in 1916, Templeton wrote: ‘I’m sorry for what I have done’. This was his only defence before he was taken out, blindfolded, and shot by a firing squad made up of the soldiers he served with. Templeton had volunteered with the Royal Irish Rifles because he wanted to join Britain’s glorious cause. Then, in the trenches, he failed to turn up to a parade. He had missed parades before but it was deemed a minor offence. This time he was executed for desertion, in the words of his commanding officer, as a ‘deterrent’ to other men. Also shot that March morning was the Ulsterman James F. McCracken. A volunteer aged 19, McCracken had reacted badly to the news that his mother had died. He had just returned to the front line from hospital when he stepped out of the trenches. He was shot for desertion. ‘I had just come out of hospital and was not feeling fit’, he wrote before his execution.
On trial for their lives, few defendants were either articulate or educated enough to present a coherent defence during proceedings which generally lasted about twenty minutes and sometimes as little as ten. Most were working-class men with a basic elementary education. With no experience of self-advocacy, soldiers were prosecuted and judged by officers to whom they had been trained to defer. Frequently disabled by battle trauma, family troubles and fatigue, many defendants opted to remain silent throughout the proceedings and pleaded guilty. They were given short shrift. Men and boys who had broken down under the strain of persistent shell-fire, sniping, lack of food and sleep in constant wet and cold were damned as ‘worthless’. Senior officers, it appears, felt it their duty to cull these weak specimens, to enhance the fighting quality of the units who were herded into the next offensive. What other justification could there be for executing a man like Private Bernard McGeehan from Derry? McGeehan was recorded to have been generally well behaved but an indifferent fighter ‘of weak intellect’, ‘incapable of understanding orders’ and ‘worthless as a soldier’. Undefended at his trial for desertion, McGeehan pleaded:

‘Ever since I joined, all the men have made fun of me, and I didn’t know what I was doing when I went away. Every time I go in the trenches they throw stones at me and pretend it is shrapnel, and they call me all sorts of names. I have been out here 18 months and had no leave.’

He was executed on 2 November 1916.
Was it possible to be shot at dawn for refusing to put your cap on? The full might of British military justice did just that. These shocking facts are outlined in the case of Private Patrick Joseph Downey from Limerick. Downey was tried by field general court martial at Hasanli, Serbia, on 1 December 1915. Aside from other shortcomings, it is difficult to believe that Private Downey was fully aware that pleading guilty to a capital offence was tantamount to suicide. That the court accepted the plea is no less disturbing. The sentence passed was agreed unanimously and the proceedings referred to Lt General Bryan Mahon, commander of British forces in Greece. Before forwarding the papers to his commander-in-chief, Mahon commented:

‘Under ordinary circumstances I would have hesitated to recommend that the capital sentence awarded be put into effect as a plea of guilty has erroneously been accepted by the court, but the condition of discipline in the battalion is such as to render an exemplary punishment highly desirable and I therefore hope that the commander-in-chief will see fit to approve the sentence of death in this instance.’

Private Downey, aged 19, was executed on Monday 27 December 1915. Lt General Sir Bryan Mahon later became a member of the Senate in Ireland.
Current research detects a statistical anomaly: Irish troops were as much as four times more likely to be condemned to death by a British court-martial than were troops from other parts of the UK and the dominions. Whilst comprising a mere two per cent of the total British army, Irish troops accounted for eight per cent of all death sentences and a similar proportion of executions. No other national group experienced such a disparity. Ireland’s 134,202 recruits accounted for 239 death sentences, compared to only 23 from New Zealand’s 112,223. Only 25 Canadians were executed from a total of 464,391. Only two men in the prestigious Guards division were executed: both were Irish.
In September 2000 the New Zealand government concluded that the standard of military justice during World War One was such that there could be no faith in the justness of the verdicts and then proceeded to pardon five New Zealand soldiers who had been executed during the war—a development ill-reported by the media here. Their Pardon for Soldiers of the Great War Act 2000 states:

‘Their execution was not a fate that they deserved but was one that resulted from the harsh discipline that was believed at the time to be required; and the application of the death penalty for military offences being seen at the time as an essential part of military discipline’.

It was stated that the purpose of the act ‘was to remove, so far as practicable, the dishonour that the executions brought to those soldiers and their families’.
New research into the sentences meted out during the 1914–18 conflict has established that at least fifteen officers, including one Scot, escaped execution. There is, however, no documented case of an ordinary soldier being spared, and more than 300 were executed. The research also shows that, as well as avoiding the firing squad, the officers were granted retrospective clemency by King George V, both during and after the war. The king conferred revised sentences—notably four full pardons and a reinstatement—on the group, which included three majors and two lieutenant colonels.
These revelations reinforce our long-standing claims that the lower ranks were treated more brutally than their superiors during the war and blows a hole in the British government’s insistence that they could not justify retrospective pardons because such a dramatic judgement would be unprecedented. Only three officers are known to have been executed during World War One.
Opponents of the pardons campaign (notably Kevin Myers in the Irish Times) continually assert that we cannot apply today’s standards of justice to the past. But this assumes that public opinion during the First World War endorsed the executions. It may have been an officers’ point of view—a perspective embraced by an unrepresentative minority of the population—but not of the country at large, a fact admitted confidentially even by Brigadier General Sir Wyndham Childs, writing on 12 March 1919:

‘Even during the continuance of hostilities there was very strong feeling both in the country and in the House of Commons against the infliction of the death penalty for military offences. Now that hostilities have ceased it can confidently be stated that the effect on this country of a death penalty might lead to an agitation which might be difficult to control and in all probability would jeopardise the prospects of maintaining the death penalty for military offences in time of peace when the Annual Army Act comes before the Houses of Parliament.’

To anyone properly prepared to consider the matter of pardons, these Irish-born servicemen were executed under questionable circumstances. It was a futile exercise in military discipline. Some relatives feel a surge of outrage and consider their long-lost kin to have been judicially murdered. On the facts of the cases, who can deny them this? The Shot at Dawn Campaign, started here over two years ago, has attracted support from all traditions throughout Ireland and further afield. The Department of Foreign Affairs is to be commended for its compassionate and humane approach on this issue. Perhaps the British Ministry of Defence might now be persuaded to grant the request of the Irish government and finally remove the stigma of dishonour, giving our families the right to remember our dead with dignity.

Peter Mulvany is coordinator of the Shot at Dawn Campaign, Ireland.

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