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Officer executed for cowardice


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#1 John Hartley

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Posted 23 August 2012 - 12:16 PM

Leon Wolff writing in the "Menin Road" chapter of "In Flanders Field" quotes a press correspondent, Philip Green, who had written:

".....a young officer sentenced to death for cowardice. He was blindfolded by a gasmask fixed on the wrong way round and pinioned and tied to a post. The firing party lost their nerve and their shots were wild. The boy was only wounded and screamed in his mask and the APM had to shoot him twice with his revolver before he died."

Placing this in that chapter suggests this execution was taking place in the autumn of 1917 but, unless I've missed it, I can't see an officer execution around that time. Does the account fit the known facts of a particular case or was Green exercising journalistic licence?

#2 Will O'Brien

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Posted 23 August 2012 - 01:22 PM

John

Of the 3 officers executed, Patterson was for murder & in September 1918 so it's highly unlikely to be him who is being referred to .

Both Dyett & Poole were executed for desertion rather than cowardice but I guess that is easily mixed up. However the timings don't fit well as Poole was executed in December 1916 & Dyett in January 1917.Also Poole can't really be described as young as he was 31 years old, although he is in the right locality (Poperinghe). Dyett is better for age being only 21 but he was executed on the Somme.

Given this I'd hedge my bets on journalistic licence & suggest one of the following, a doctored version of Poole's execution, a doctored version of an execution from the autumn of 1917 but it not being an officer or a complete fabrication.

#3 corisande

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Posted 23 August 2012 - 01:48 PM

Not many men appear to have been blindfolded with a reverse gas mask. But there appear to be a few examples, of which this is one

Grave in Ypres Reservoir Cemetery of No 11/81 Private Charles F McColl 1/4th East Yorkshire Regiment executed 28th December 1917 for desertion. Private McColl had enlisted into the 11th East Yorkshire Regiment in 1914 and at the end of 1915 sailed to Egypt before the battalion was recalled to the Western Front. In September 1916 his unit had been holding the line near Neuve Chapelle when he was wounded by a shell and invalided home with heart failure. Upon his return to France he was posted to the 4th East Yorkshire Regiment but soon went absent receiving a sentence of 10 years imprisonment. On the 28th October 1`917 Private McColl absconded from his platoon in brigade support near Houlthult Forest in the Ypres sector leaving behind his rifle and equipment. Four days later he was arrested in Calais after enquiring abut a rest camp and stating he was on his way to England. At his court-martial he was not represented and detailed his nervous condition and inability to control himself when in the trenches. No medical examination was ordered and he was sentenced to death. He was held in a military prison at Brandhoek then on the eve of his execution brought to the prison at Ypres when he was told of confirmation of the sentence of death. As dawn approached he was manacled and blindfolded with a reverse gas mask and taken out and strapped to a chair and shot. Until recently two soldiers with personal knowledge of Private McColl described him as unstable and slow and that there was something wrong with him.

#4 centurion

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Posted 23 August 2012 - 02:59 PM

Given this I'd hedge my bets on journalistic licence & suggest one of the following, a doctored version of Poole's execution, a doctored version of an execution from the autumn of 1917 but it not being an officer or a complete fabrication.


All of which is dubious evidence at best. Who was Philip Green?

#5 David Filsell

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Posted 23 August 2012 - 03:04 PM

Leon Woolf's writing book has been much criticised for its inacuracies in the past!

#6 Stoppage Drill

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Posted 23 August 2012 - 04:21 PM

Remember he wrote it in 1958. He quoted this Philip Green character, but he would not have been able to access the capital court martial files to check the source.

#7 Crunchy

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Posted 23 August 2012 - 05:53 PM

Remember he wrote it in 1958. He quoted this Philip Green character, but he would not have been able to access the capital court martial files to check the source.


Did he ever check any of his "sources"?

#8 John Hartley

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Posted 23 August 2012 - 06:02 PM

Did he ever check any of his "sources"?


Wolff or Green?

I suspect Wolff may have come across perhaps an article written by Green and simply quoted it.

#9 centurion

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Posted 23 August 2012 - 07:32 PM

But other than a fictional journalist in a 1948 film there does not seem to have been a reporter called Philip Green - unless someone knows different.

#10 Stoppage Drill

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Posted 23 August 2012 - 07:52 PM

You seem to assume that Wolff stated, or implied, that "Philip Green" was a correspondent in France/Belgium at the time of the execution.

To me, it has the ring of the sort of report or article which found it's way into the press in the 1920's and '30's when the various debates about capital courts martial were taking place.

Widen your search for Philip Green, I would say, if you would know who he was.

#11 centurion

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Posted 23 August 2012 - 07:56 PM

You seem to assume that Wolff stated, or implied, that "Philip Green" was a correspondent in France/Belgium at the time of the execution.

To me, it has the ring of the sort of report or article which found it's way into the press in the 1920's and '30's when the various debates about capital courts martial were taking place.

Widen your search for Philip Green, I would say, if you would know who he was.

Read my post properly - I cast the net very wide

#12 John Hartley

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Posted 24 August 2012 - 03:23 PM

Folks

My sincere apologies for a misleading post. The press correspondent is Philip Gibbs, not Green.

Gibbs is well recorded as an accredited and respected war correspondent -

.

JH

Edited by Keith Roberts, 24 August 2012 - 03:52 PM.
political comment removed, though I did agree with it!


#13 Stoppage Drill

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Posted 24 August 2012 - 03:28 PM

Well in that case, I 'd make a start with "Now it Can Be Told"

#14 John Hartley

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Posted 24 August 2012 - 04:05 PM

Fair enough, Keith. Mea culpa.

Robert Peston's book is far more eloquent on the subject. :ph34r:

#15 Stoppage Drill

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Posted 25 August 2012 - 04:49 PM

Well in that case, I 'd make a start with "Now it Can Be Told"


Yes. Chapter VI, of 'Now It Can Be Told'

"To cheer up the war correspondents' mess when we assembled at night after miserable days, and when in the darkness gusts of wind and rain clouted the window-panes and distant gun-fire rumbled, or bombs were falling in near villages, telling of peasant girls killed in their beds and soldiers mangled in wayside burns, we had the company sometimes of an officer (a black-eyed fellow) who told merry little tales of executions and prison happenings at which he assisted in the course of his duty.

I remember one about a young officer sentenced to death for cowardice (there were quite a number of lads like that). He was blindfolded by a gas-mask fixed on the wrong way round, and pinioned, and tied to a post. The firing—party lost their nerve and their shots were wild. The boy was only wounded, and screamed in his mask, and the A.P.M. had to shoot him twice with his revolver before he died.

That was only one of many little anecdotes told by a gentleman who seemed to like his job and to enjoy these reminiscences. "

#16 John Hartley

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Posted 25 August 2012 - 06:05 PM

Thanks, Stoppage.

So, a dubious second hand account, with no details, remembered, possibly with dubious accuracy, by Gibbs. And replayed, without the note that it was a second hand tale, by Wolff. History, eh?

#17 Jim Clay

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Posted 25 August 2012 - 06:08 PM

Some say it's bunk, John ... :whistle:

#18 Stoppage Drill

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Posted 25 August 2012 - 10:22 PM

Thanks, Stoppage.

So, a dubious second hand account, with no details, remembered, possibly with dubious accuracy, by Gibbs. And replayed, without the note that it was a second hand tale, by Wolff. History, eh?


Yes. The preceding and following sentences put the quotation in it's place.
But do remember that in writing "In Flanders Fields" Wolff at least wrote a reasonably popular book at a time when there was little interest in the Great War. I bought it shortly after it came out as a present for my Dad. (Yes, that sort of present "Can I read it when you've finished it Dad?") For all it's inaccuracies (which I had no way of detecting at the time) it kindled my interest. On subsequent tours in Rhine Army I had somewhere to go in a 1957 Opel with a bootful of duty-free benzine in jerricans.
I don't know what happened to that copy - Dad was something of a literary critic in that he would blast books he didn't like with his old 16 bore, so maybe that's where it went.

#19 auchonvillerssomme

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Posted 26 August 2012 - 06:17 AM

Rumours and untruths were rife, and there was certainly some questioning of executions. This question was as a reult of an article in the publication 'John Bull' titled 'Shot at Dawn'.

COURTS-MARTIAL ("SOLDIERS' FRIENDS").


HC Deb 14 March 1918 vol 104 c493W
Major DAVIES asked the Under-Secretary of State for War whether his attention has been called to the details of the trial and execution of the young officer on the 15th January last; whether the officer who was to defend this officer who was subsequently shot did not see him until half an hour before the trial; whether, in order to avoid the possibility of such an occurrence and to facilitate the proceedings of courts-martial, he has conveyed to the Secretary of State for War the views of Members of the House of Commons with regard to the appointment of legal officers to be attached to corps or divisional headquarters in France to act as properly qualified soldiers friends in all cases of field general courts-martial; and whether he can inform the House what steps it is proposed to take in this matter?

Mr MACPHERSON My information is that it is not true that the officer who was to defend the accused did not see him until half an hour before the trial. I understand that he was with him from eleven to three o'clock two days before the trial. I may say that he is an officer with legal qualifications.

#20 Stoppage Drill

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Posted 26 August 2012 - 12:47 PM

That's the Hansard record of a question put by a Major Davies MP about the Dyett execution. The case had originally been raised in Parliament when Philip Morrell MP held up a copy of 'John Bull.' He read out a tragic description of the events, and said that if the contents were not true, then the author should be prosecuted.

The author was Horatio Bottomley, sometime MP, swindler and crook (the one proves the other) who, of course ened his days in Wormwood Scrubs. But not for writing aout Dyett. The original article appeared in John Bull on 23 Feb 1918, with a follow up on 2 March. In the next issue he taunted the Law Officers about instituting a prosecution against him.
The last time Dyett was specifically mentioned in Parliament was in a question from a Mr Pringle MP in a debate on a finance bill on 14 March.

#21 auchonvillerssomme

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Posted 26 August 2012 - 04:46 PM

Over the years I have tried to collate every question and reference to executions in Hansard, they certainly show how unsettled MP's of all sides about execution for anything other than murder were from the start.

#22 the conscript

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Posted 26 August 2012 - 09:05 PM

In my research of the "shot at Dawns" many of the references from the time of the executions referred to the particular soldier as a "Coward" although the conviction in most cases was something else. The act at the time may have been scene as cowardice but it was easier for the authorities to convict on desertion. They only had to prove he was absent after been warned for the front.

Also the emphasis of press censorship changed during the war. According to Martin J Farrar in his book "News from the Front" war correspondents on the western front 1914-1918, at the beginning of the war the military did not see why the war should be reported but by 1917 it had invested time and man power to cater for the correspondents. Neville Lytton who in 1917 had become the master censor declared at this point the despatches of the war correspondents required virtually no censorship attention from his department. With this self censorship Philip Gibbs was apparently happy to conform and have confidence in his own self censorship, but with hindsight he seemed to admit that he might have been mistaken.

If we also expand the description of Officer to read N C O it throws quite a few names in to the mix.