Executions in the First World War

When the British Army went into action in the summer of 1914, a number of offences were punishable with death. This included mutiny, cowardice before the enemy, self-inflicted wounds, disobedience of a lawful order, desertion or attempted desertion, sleeping or being drunk on post, striking a superior officer, casting away arms or ammunition in the presence of the enemy, leaving a post without orders, abandoning a position, and treacherously communicated with or in any way assisting the enemy.

Brigadier-General Frank Percy Crozier admitted he ordered the shooting of sentries who fell asleep while on duty. He also described the execution of Private James Crozier of the Royal Irish Rifles: "There are hooks on the post; we always do things thoroughly in the Rifles. He is hooked on like dead meat in a butcher's shop. His eyes are bandaged - not that it really matters, for he is already blind... A volley rings out - a nervous volley it is true, yet a volley. Before the fatal shots are fired I had called the battalion to attention. There is a pause, I wait. I see the medical officer examining the victim. He makes a sign, the subaltern strides forward, a single shot rings out. Life is now extinct... We march back to breakfast while the men of a certain company pay the last tribute at the graveside of an unfortunate comrade. This is war."

Victor Silvester was a member of one firing-squad in 1916: "The tears were rolling down my cheeks as he went on attempting to free himself from the ropes attaching him to the chair. I aimed blindly and when the gunsmoke had cleared away we were further horrified to see that, although wounded, the intended victim was still alive. Still blindfolded, he was attempting to make a run for it still strapped to the chair. The blood was running freely from a chest wound. An officer in charge stepped forward to put the finishing touch with a revolver held to the poor man's temple. He had only once cried out and that was when he shouted the one word mother. He could not have been much older than me. We were told later that he had in fact been suffering from shell-shock, a condition not recognised by the army at the time. Later I took part in four more such executions."

At total of 304 men were executed during the First World War, while another 18 suffered the same fate while waiting to leave the army after the signing of the Armistice. Of those executed, the vast majority, 286, committed the offence while in the trenches on the Western Front.

Executions in the British Army: 1914-1918

Offence

1914

1915

1916

1917

1918

Desertion

3

46

71

90

35

Cowardice

1

4

10

2

-

Quitting Post

-

2

2

2

1

Disobedience

-

1

3

1

-

Murder

-

2

4

3

10

Striking a superior officer

-

-

3

1

-

Casting away arms

-

-

1

1

-

Mutiny

-

-

1

2

-

Sleeping on post

-

-

-

2

-

Totals

4

55

95

104

46

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Arthur Savage was ordered to execute one of his own men in 1917.

I was ordered to go on a firing squad in 1917. The man was lead out by a military policeman and a priest. Then he was tied to this post. He only looked about twenty and wasn't very tall. An officer went up to put a blindfold over his eyes. I can hear his voice now, as clear as me and you talking in this room. He said "I need no blindfold over my eyes. Curse you and your blindfold and may the judges who will surely sentence you one day show you more mercy than you've shown me."

Then we had to take aim. My hands were shaking so much. So I aimed about a foot to his left. Then we fired. There were nine of us and only one shot caught him in the side. He slumped forward wounded. So I was not the only one firing wide deliberately. The captain walked up to him and put a bullet into his head. Some of the men were sick, others were crying.

Most of the poor sods were mainly convicted on the evidence of doctors. They would not accept that men could reach a point of utter exhaustion when as a result of trench warfare their nerves and brains would snap. These so-called 'doctors' would not have it that there was such an illness as shell-shock. They insisted that men were cowards and deserters.

(2) Frank Percy Crozier, A Brass Hat in No Man's Land (1930)

The question of the temperamental fitness of soldiers to be ordered into the line and shot if they fail to stay there was one which, of course, I could not discuss with my own officers in the training stage. My duty was to teach them the Regulations and the Army Act where they could see the penalties, and to help them to overcome the difficulties which impel to desertion, cowardice and such - like offences which, in their case, if indulged in, lead to trouble and even death by shooting at the hands of comrades. The question of ability to "stick it" or to do the right thing in the right way, in action, is largely one of morale; but the fact cannot be overlooked that fear of the consequences undoubtedly plays an important part in the reasoning powers of men distracted by fear, cold, hunger, thirst or complete loss of morale and staying power. I should be very sorry to command the finest army in the world on active service without the power behind me which the fear of execution brings. Those who wish to abolish the death sentence for cowardice and desertion in war should aim at a higher mark and strive to abolish war itself. The one is the product of the other. Some people, particularly Labour Cabinet ministers and leaders seem to think that "fear" itself is a crime in war. Fear is no more a crime in war than in peace. Inability to control or smother fear is an unpardonable and dangerous crime in war and, as it is contagious, must be treated like any other disease in peace time - abolished I would remind the advocates of the abolition of the death sentence in war that to catch ann infectious disease in peace time is no crime; but to foster its spread, by non-notification is an offence against society which is rightly punished.

(3) At the age of fourteen, Victor Silvester ran away from Ardingly College and joined the army. In an interview he gave just before his death in 1978, he described how he was ordered to execute a man for desertion.

We marched to the quarry outside Staples at dawn. The victim was brought out from a shed and led struggling to a chair to which he was then bound and a white handkerchief placed over his heart as our target area. He was said to have fled in the face of the enemy.

Mortified by the sight of the poor wretch tugging at his bonds, twelve of us, on the order raised our rifles unsteadily. Some of the men, unable to face the ordeal, had got themselves drunk overnight. They could not have aimed straight if they tried, and, contrary to popular belief, all twelve rifles were loaded. The condemned man had also been plied with whisky during the night, but I remained sober through fear.

The tears were rolling down my cheeks as he went on attempting to free himself from the ropes attaching him to the chair. I aimed blindly and when the gunsmoke had cleared away we were further horrified to see that, although wounded, the intended victim was still alive. Still blindfolded, he was attempting to make a run for it still strapped to the chair. The blood was running freely from a chest wound. An officer in charge stepped forward to put the finishing touch with a revolver held to the poor man's temple. He had only once cried out and that was when he shouted the one word 'mother'. He could not have been much older than me. We were told later that he had in fact been suffering from shell-shock, a condition not recognised by the army at the time. Later I took part in four more such executions.

(4) George Coppard, With A Machine Gun to Cambrai (1969)

I believe that an important modification of the death sentence also took place in 1917. It appeared that the military authorities were compelled to take heed of the clamour against the death sentences imposed by courts martial. There had been too many of them. As a result, a man who would otherwise have been executed was instead compelled to take part in the fore-front of the first available raid or assault on the enemy. He was purposely placed in the first wave to cross No Man's Land and it was left to the Almighty to decide his fate. This was the situation as we Tommies understood it, but nothing official reached our ears. Let the War Office dig out its musty files and tell us how many men were treated in this way, and how many survived the cruel sentences. Shylock, in demanding his pound of flesh, had got nothing on the military bigwigs in 1917.

(5) Private George Morgan, 18th West Yorkshire Regiment, interviewed in 1978.

These two men got drunk and they wandered away and got caught and were brought back and were charged with absenteeism on active service. They laughed it off, they thought wandering away was just something or nothing: but they were court-martialled and they were sentenced to be shot, subject to Sir Douglas Haig. He could have said no, but he didn't. So they were shot. They were described as being killed in action. I remember a letter years ago in the local paper, in which some lady was asking "what happened to my brother?" That was what had happened to her brother.

(6) Frank Percy Crozier, A Brass Hat in No Man's Land (1930)

The old redan has become a veritable hell-hole, as it is easily reached by hostile mortar fire. In February, George Gaffikin holds it and we are attacked. We are ready. The artillery receive our secret Very light signal and hell is let loose. George keeps his head and as a reward is personally mentioned in Sir Douglas Haig's first despatch in June, as is also the whole battalion. Later, an officer, Rochdale by name, who once went to Amiens for ten days on private business, is sitting in the redan dugout at 2 a.m. with his company commander. I enter. They show me a peculiar German rifle grenade and say it is of new design. As Rochdale understands bombs I suggest he takes it down and examines it when we come out to rest. He agrees. The big trench mortars then start. Everything is shaken, including Rochdale's nerves. We are short of subalterns. Rochdale has been sent out earlier to put a notice on the German wire, by order of Corps headquarters, a propagandic move to inform the front line men that their families are starving at home. Now the trench mortaring is too much for him. He rises, rushes past me, and bolts down the trench in front of his men as fast as he can go. After daylight he is discovered in a disused French dugout behind the lines, asleep - apparently a deserter, as absence and evasion of duty are the two chief factors which go to constitute the offence. There is the additional fact that he has shown apparent cowardice in action, in front of his men. It is just as futile to be half a mile away from the duty point as sixty kilometres. I have already a private soldier absent. He will no doubt be caught and tried. What about this officer? I see him and put him back for trial by court martial for cowardice and desertion. He is tried and found guilty of one charge or both. Meanwhile the private - Crocker - is caught by the military police, a long way back. He too is tried. I sign the charge sheet of both these men. Promulgation, where death sentences occur, is a long and painful job. One day we received a wire. Rochdale is to be "released from arrest and all consequences." They try to send him back to duty but I refuse to receive him. I am asked my opinion as to whether sentence of death should be carried out on Crocker. In view of certain circumstances I recommend the shooting be carried out. At last I receive the orders and documents relative to the execution. We leave the line for four days' rest at Mailly-Mailly.

In the afternoon of the first day out we parade in hollow square. The prisoner - Crocker - is produced. Cap off he is marched by the sergeant-major to the centre. The adjutant reads the name, number, charge, finding, sentence and confirmation by Sir Douglas Haig. Crocker stands erect. He does not flinch. Perhaps he is dazed: who would not be? The prisoner is marched away by the regimental police while I, placing myself at the head of the battalion, behind the band, march back to billets. The drums strike up, the men catch step. We all feel bad but we carry out our war-time pose. Crocker didn't flinch, why should we? After tea the padre comes to see me. "Might I see Crocker?" he asks. "Of course, Padre, but don't be too long-winded," I say seriously, "after you have done anything you can for him tell his company commander. But I don't think his people should be told. He can go into the died return. War is all pot-luck, some get a hero's halo, others a coward's cross. But this man volunteered in 1914. His heart was in the right place then, even if his feet are cold in 1916. What do you say?' "I quite agree," answers the good man, much too overcome to say more.

Now, in peace time, I and the rest of us would have been very upset indeed at having to shoot a colleague, comrade, call him what you will, at dawn on the morrow. We would not, in ordinary circumstances, have slept. Now the men don't like it but they have to put up with it. They face their ordeal magnificently. I supervise the preliminary arrangements myself. We put the prisoner in a comfortable warm place. A few yards away we drive in a post, in a back garden, such as exists with any villa residence. I send for a certain junior officer and show him all. "You will be in charge of the firing party," I say, "the men will be cold, nervous and excited, they may miss their mark. You are to have your revolver ready, loaded and cocked; if the medical officer tells you life is not extinct you are to walk up to the victim, place the muzzle of the revolver to his heart and press the trigger. Do you understand?" "Yes Sir," came the quick reply. "Right," I add, "dine with me at my mess to-night." I want to keep this young fellow engaged under my own supervision until late at night, so as to minimise the chance of his flying to the bottle for support. As for Crocker, he leaves this earth, in so far as knowing anything of his surroundings is concerned, by midnight, for I arrange that enough spirituous liquor is left beside him to sink a ship. In the morning, at dawn, the snow being on the ground, the battalion forms up on the public road. Inside the little garden on the other side of the wall, not ten yards distant from the centre of the line, the victim is carried to the stake. He is far too drunk to walk. He is out of view save from myself, as I stand on a mound near the wall. As he is produced I see he is practically lifeless and quite unconscious. He has already been bound with ropes. There are hooks on the post; we always do things thoroughly in the Rifles. He is hooked on like dead meat in a butcher's shop. His eyes are bandaged - not that it really matters, for he is already blind. The men of the firing party pick up their rifles, one of which is unloaded, on a given sign. On another sign they come to the Present and, on the lowering of a handkerchief by the officer, they fire - a volley rings out - a nervous ragged volley it is true, yet a volley. Before the fatal shots are fired I had called the battalion to attention. There is a pause, I wait. I see the medical officer examining the victim. He makes a sign, the subaltern strides forward, a single shot rings out. Life is now extinct. We march back to breakfast while the men of a certain company pay the last tribute at the graveside of an unfortunate comrade. This is war.

(7) Stephen Walker, Belfast Telegraph (25th October, 2007)

Twenty-eight Irish soldiers were executed by the British Army during the First World War for desertion and disobedience. For decades, the full story of how they died remained secret. For the first time, award-winning BBC Northern Ireland journalist Stephen Walker tells their story Outside the winter snow lined the ground. James Crozier's guards wanted him to walk the short distance to a small garden where the firing party was waiting. The young rifleman was too drunk to move, and he had to be carried out into the open space. By now he was practically unconscious. Bound with ropes, he was attached to the execution post. His battalion formed up on the open road close to the garden. Screened by a wall, they wouldn't see the execution but would hear the shots. Crozier's namesake Frank Percy Crozier, the man who recruited him and promised his mother he'd watch out for her son, was now preparing to watch him die. Crozier later recalled how he was secured to a stake 10 yards from the firing squad. "There are hooks on the post; we always do things thoroughly in the Rifles. He is hooked on like dead meat in a butcher's shop. His eyes are bandaged - not that it really matters, for he is already blind." Then James Crozier was shot. "A volley rings out - a nervous volley it is true, yet a volley. Before the fatal shots are fired I had called the battalion to attention. There is a pause, I wait. I see the medical officer examining the victim. He makes a sign, the subaltern strides forward, a single shot rings out. Life is now extinct." The firing squad, made up of men from his own regiment, shot wide, so James Crozier was killed by a bullet fired by a junior officer. After the shooting, as Frank Crozier recalled, life resumed as normal. " We march back to breakfast while the men of a certain company pay the last tribute at the graveside of an unfortunate comrade. This is war." Frank Crozier didn't want James' family to discover how he had died. He tried but failed to pass off his death as 'killed in action'. Details of the manner of Crozier's death leaked out - though the facts weren't made public at the time. Weeks later one of Frank Crozier's officers was tackled about the shooting while on leave. He was asked by a civilian about the Crozier execution, and it was suggested that it had brought shame on the battalion and on the city of Belfast.

Crozier's colleague angrily replied: "He tried and failed. He died for such as you! Isn't it time you had a shot at dying for your country?"

When James Crozier was shot he became the youngest Irish deserter to face a firing squad; but Frank Percy Crozier's career blossomed. He saw action at the Battle of the Somme and rose up the ranks to eventually become a brigadier-general. After the war his life took a number of unexpected and controversial twists. In 1919 he was promoted to general and appointed military adviser to the newly established Lithuanian army; but his new job was not a success, and within months he resigned. He then returned to Ireland and became the commander of the Auxiliary Division of the Royal Irish Constabulary, and, as ever, controversy followed his every footstep. When he died, in 1937, the newspapers were full of details of his past exploits on the battlefield and his later days as an author and peace campaigner. His death received much national attention, in contrast with the secret demise of his namesake two decades earlier.