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Webmatters : The executed soldiers of Poperinghe New Military Cemetery, Poperinge

Poperinghe New Military Cemetery

Shot at Dawn

As a major military centre just behind the lines Poperinge was the scene of numerous courts martial and dozens of executions. Because of this there are a large number of executed soldiers buried in the cemetery.

I think that the best way to look upon these men who died at the hands of their fellows is to be thankful that for most of us we have never been put to the test; to be found wanting. We cannot all be brave or courageous and for those that faltered I think we can afford to be forgiving.

It will be noted that in accordance with their policy of equality in death the IWGC (later CWGC) gave each soldier, regardless of his fate, the same styled headstone.

There is nothing on any of these gravestones that suggests that the soldier was executed. If the family wished it mentioned then the Commission acquiesced but in fact only one soldier has his execution explicitly mentioned in the inscription – and he lies elsewhere.

It also needs to be understood that terms of imprisonment handed out by the courts martial were invariably suspended. Soldiers were sent back to their units rather than being given a plush cell away from the battlefield.

A recurring element in cases of desertion is that the culprit rarely seems to have thought through what he was going to do having made off. The front and rear area were crawling with Military Police and Gendarmes. The ports were particularly well policed and even if they made it back to England – what were they going to do there ? Hide for the remainder of their days ?

The vast majority of those sentenced to death were not executed and many of those who were had already been given one suspended death sentence: but that said, it strikes me on reading some of the stories behind the cases that the outcome of any particular hearing was pretty much a lottery.

That the guilty verdict was usually just, is one thing, after all, if you are found at the ports instead of in battle you have deserted – the case is proved. But the courts martial appear to have solely concerned themselves with the guilt as opposed to the why. Any mitigating circumstances simply fell into the lottery of who was leading the panel.

In this particular cemetery we have one boy executed for failing to rise to his own expectations of bravery when he volunteered. Yet elsewhere many soldiers older than he were given a second chance. A sergeant was executed for his first failing whilst another soldier was constantly in conflict with the authorities yet given chance after chance to redeem himself.

That justice is not an even handed matter is still seen today. Despite judges being given guidelines to sentencing there is still wide variance and of course in some places in the world whether you will be executed for certain crimes can depend on a simple matter of geographical location. Two kilometres up the road and you would have been across the line.

Perhaps one day somebody will do a study on the verdicts and sentencing of those who were not executed to see if there was a particular factor. I would also wonder just how many reprieved soldiers would eventually fall on the Field of Honour.

Whilst I don’t really want to get into the rights and wrongs of the system it is quite evident from the statistics that the officers were given preferential treatment.

As an example.

Following the Sinn Fein uprising in Dublin on Easter Monday 1916 Captain Bowen-Colthurst arrested a man called Francis Skeffington who had been stopped by troops on the Portobello Bridge in the city. Skeffington, a known and agitating anti-war pacifist, was that night taken out as a hostage by the British Army on a raid. During the course of the raid Skeffington witnessed Bowen-Colthurst shoot dead a 17 year old boy. The following morning Skeffington and two journalists: Thomas Dickons and Patrick McIntyre were summarily executed at Bowen-Colthurst’s orders.

The plot then thickened, for his immediate superiors attempted to hush the entire affair up and it was only at the insistence of Major Sir Francis Vane of the Royal Munster Fusiliers that Bowen-Colthurst found himself Court Martialled.

Bowen-Colthurst successfully pleaded insanity arising from shell shock as a means of escaping the death sentence. Released from a mental institution in 1922 he went off to lead a new life in Canada.

Perversely it was Sir Francis Vane who came off worst. Due to his interference in the matter he found himself relegated to unemployment and dismissed from the army.


2nd Lieutenant Eric Poole

2nd Lieutenant Eric Poole
11th Bn West Yorkshire Regiment
Prince of Wales’s Own
Died on 10th December 1916 aged 31

Son of Henry and Florence Poole
of 2, Rectory Place, Guildford, Surrey
Born Nova Scotia.

Grave: II A 11

Shot at Dawn for Desertion

Eric Poole was born in Nova Scotia, Canada on 20th January 1885 and gained his first military experience in the 63rd Regiment (Halifax Rifles), with whom he served for two years between 1903 and 1905.

Sometime after this the family moved to Guildford in England.

Following service in the Honourable Artillery Company as a driver, Poole was commissioned into the 14th Bn West Yorkshire Regiment on 3rd May 1915. At the end of May 1916 he was sent to join their 11th Battalion who were part of 23rd Division and preparing for the battle of the Somme.

On 7th July 1916 Poole was hit by debris thrown up by an artillery burst at Contalmaison. Poole was hospitalised with shell-shock and was only declared fit for duty on 1st September. A few weeks later the Battalion was moved from Ieper back to the Somme.

Poole later stated at his Court Martial that this injury caused him: at times get confused and… have great difficulty in making up my mind.

One of these occasions would appear to have been on 5th October 1916 as his Platoon was moving up towards the front line trenches at Flers (Somme). Just how he managed to wander off from his unit without anyone noticing has never been shown but by midnight his absence had been noted.

Two days later on 7th October Poole was stopped near Henencourt Wood which is nearly six kilometres west of Albert and a long way from where he was supposed to have been.

Poole was medically examined on 21st October with the report suggesting that his mental state precluded his ability to deliberately desert. Despite that, his Army Commander Lt General Sir Henry Rawlinson ordered a Court Martial with a charge of Desertion.

This took place on 24th November at Poperinge in Belgium.

Despite hearing evidence that Poole was unaware of the seriousness of his not going forward with his men on the night of 5th October, and that mentally he was highly strung, the five man panel of officers found Poole guilty as charged and sentenced him to death.

Following the verdict Poole was medically examined again on 3rd December. The Medical Board was headed by Lt Colonel H Martin RAMC who had been the same officer to have passed Poole as fit for duty following his shell-shock injury.

Their findings were that Poole:

Was of sound mind and capable of appreciating the nature and quality of his action in absenting himself without leave on October 5th 1916, and that such act was wrong.

That his mental powers are less than average. He appears dull under cross examination, and his perception is slow.
(Their emphasis)

On 6th December General Sir Douglas Haig confirmed the sentence which was carried out at 0725 hours on 10th December in Poperinge Town Hall.

Eric Poole had become the first officer to be shot, and one of only three who would be.

Haig gave as one of his reasons for confirming the sentence that:

Such a case is more serious in the case of an officer than a man, and it is also highly important that all ranks should realise the law is the same for an officer as a private.

The other two executed officers were:

Private John Fryer

Private John Fryer 16120
12th Bn East Surrey Regiment
Died on 14th June 1916 aged 23

Grave: II D 14

Shot at Dawn for Desertion

John Fryer was an early volunteer but in his case when he was arrested for desertion he already had a two year sentence hanging over his head for a previous offence.

Private J Bennett

Private John Bennett 3/4071
1st Bn Hampshire Regiment
Died on 28th August 1916 aged 19
Son of John Bennett
of 37, Vernon Rd., Bow, London

Grave: II J 7

Shot at Dawn for Desertion

Like many of the younger executed soldiers in this cemetery John Bennett had signed up for a life in the Army and then discovered that he could not live up to the required level of courage. On 20th July 1916, during the Battle of the Somme, he had been sentenced to two years imprisonment with hard labour for having gone absent.

Less than three weeks later on the night of 8th August 1916 the Germans launched a gas attack on the Hampshire’s trenches followed by a raid. Bennett fled the gas cloud. The word cowardice was used and that was sufficient for his Corps Commander to override the Brigadier’s plea for clemency.

Private Albert Botfield

Private Albert Botfield 12772
9th Bn South Staffordshire Regiment
Died on 18th October 1916 aged 28

Grave: II F 7

Shot at Dawn for Cowardice

Albert Botfield was sent to his unit in France in January 1916 but failed to turn up with the rest of his draft. Within three weeks of his active service he was on a charge and was given ninety days Field Punishment No 1 (Where he would be tied up in full view for so many hours a day for the duration).

The battalion was a Pioneer unit which would have been used for labouring tasks (Such units were often made up of craftsmen). One such task was building trenches.

At 1800 hours on the 21st September 1916 Botfield and a party of others from the battalion were sent forward to assist with trenches near Pozières. By this time the village (Or at least what was left of it) was a reasonable distance behind the lines but the area was still subjected to shelling and as Botfield approached his destination a shell fell near him.

His comrades all gave evidence that Botfield simply ran off and could not be found. The work continued without him until 0300 hours without further incident. On returning to their encampment at Bécourt Wood, five kilometres to the rear, Botfield was found to already be in his tent.

In the subsequent trial Botfield admitted that he had not attempted to return to the working party having become separated from them during the shelling but had simply returned to his bivouac. With a previous conviction the death sentence was confirmed.

Cowardice, was a relatively rare charge, most executions were for desertion. Cowardice required a situation of being in the face of the enemy. The provision for a charge of cowardice suggests that there is a Military Regulation that: you will be brave – or else.

Private Bernard McGeehan

Private Bernard McGeehan 2974
1/8th Bn The King’s
Liverpool Regiment
Died on 2nd November 1916

Grave: II D 9

Shot at Dawn for Desertion

Bernard McGeehan had joined the Battalion on its creation and had served during the early part of the Battle of the Somme when his battalion had been involved in the assault of Guillemont village in a number of particularly bloody encounters during August. The following month, as the British prepared to assault the village once more McGeehan fled.

Deserting on the eve of battle was particularly frowned upon (their comrades in arms sometimes showing scant sympathy for those that had run off) and the sentence was carried out in Poperinge where the unit was serving at the time.

Private Reginald Tite

Private Reginald Tite 4242
13th Bn Royal Sussex Regiment
Died on 25th November 1916 aged 27
Son of Mrs. Harriet Tite
of 56, Downes St., Old Kent Road, Peckham

Grave: II F 9

Shot at Dawn for Cowardice

Reginal Tite had joined his battalion in October 1915. On 30th June 1916 Lowther’s Lambs as they were known (after the man who had raised them) were involved in the Battle of the Boar’s Head near Richebourg. A diversionary assault (For the Somme the following morning) that was so disastrous that it doesn’t feature in the Official History.

Reginal Tite would have joined the battalion in France in the immediate aftermath of this battle. Almost immediately he showed his inability to comply with his chosen military life and was sentenced to four years penal servitude (suspended of course).

In the midst of battle on the 21st October 1916 whilst his unit was engaged near Thiepval on the Somme Tite ran off. Immediately apprehended he was tried at Aveluy just behind the front line on the 2nd November. By the time that the sentence of death had been confirmed the battalion was in Poperinge where it was duly carried out.

Private William Simmonds

Private William Simmonds G/11296
23rd Bn Middlesex Regiment
Died on 1st December 1916 aged 23
Son of William and Emily Simmonds
of 18, Sidney Terrace, Bedfont Lane
Feltham, Middlesex

Grave: II E 9

Shot at Dawn for Desertion

William Simmonds was another soldier who had deserted on the Somme only to find himself in the condemned cell at Poperinge.

Private James Crampton

Private James Crampton 34595
9th Bn York and Lancaster Regiment
Died on 4th February 1917 aged 39

Grave: II B 14

Shot at Dawn for Desertion

At the outbreak of the war James Crampton had joined the 6th Bn Yorkshire Regiment and gone with them to Gallipoli. Having served through the campaign there he was eventually posted to the 9th Bn York and Lancaster in France in time for the Battle of the Somme in July 1916.

On 16th August 1916 Crampton made use of an attachment to the Royal Engineers to desert. He remained at large around Armentières for three months before being apprehended.

Private James Wilson

Private James Wilson 10701
4th Bn Canadian Infantry
Central Ontario Regiment
Died on 9th July 1916

Grave: II H 12

Shot at Dawn for Desertion

James Wilson was no stranger to the military having previously served with the Connaught Rangers before joining up in his new home of Canada in 1914.

In June 1917 the Germans launched an assault on Mont Sorrel in the Ypres salient. For a moment things were desperate in the Canadian lines and on the 13th June their 1st Division of which both Wilson and La Liberté’s (below) units were a part, launched a counter attack.

Wilson like La Liberté disappeared before the counter attack and in his case was only arrested on the 16th. Wilson already had previous convictions for drunkenness, insubordination, breaking arrest and absence. He was tried on 29th June 1916 and sent for execution ten days later.

Private Come La Liberte

Private Come La Liberté 416874
3rd Bn Canadian Infantry
Central Ontario Regiment
Died on 4th August 1916 aged 25
Son of Luger and Eugenie Liberté
of 170, St. Ferdinand St., Montreal

Grave: II H 3

Shot at Dawn for Desertion

At the time of leaving his battalion they were going into action in the Battle of Mont Sorrel. Like his 4th Bn compatriot Wilson (above) Comte La Liberté decided that he did not want to take part in what would be a successful counter attack.

Private James Michael

Private James Michael 23686
10th Bn Cameronians
Scottish Rifles
Died on 24th August 1917

Grave: II H 24

Shot at Dawn for Desertion

James Michael had gone absent from his battalion during the opening of the 3rd Battle of Ypres in July 1917.

Private Joseph Stedman

Private Joseph Stedman 88378
117th Coy Machine Gun Corps
Died on 5th September 1917 aged 25
Son of Henry and Sarah Stedman
of Liverpool

Grave: II F 41

Shot at Dawn for Desertion

Sergeant John Wall

Sergeant John Wall 13216
3rd Bn Worcestershire Regiment
Died on 6th September 1917 aged 22
Son of William and Harriet Wall
of Hill Cottages, Bockleton
Tenbury, Worcestershire

Grave: II F 42

Shot at Dawn for Desertion

John Wall was a professional soldier who had joined the army in 1912. He landed in France on the 12th August 1914 with the first contingent of the BEF and served for three years rising to the rank of Sergeant.

For whatever reason during an assault near Hooge in August 1917 he went missing.

Nothing was ever brought forward at his trial to suggest that there must have been some underlying reason why such a soldier would suddenly break and Wall did not put forward any defence.

This strikes me as being a typical case of the lottery of things. John Wall had evidently shown some ability in having become a sergeant. He had no previous convictions and yet was executed at the first offence.

Private George Everill

Private George Everill 8833
1st Bn North Staffordshire Regiment
Died on 14th September 1917 aged 30
Son of Mrs E Everill
of 40, Mount Pleasant, Shelton, Hanley
Husband of Mrs. L Everill
of 7, Southampton St., Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent

Grave: II F 44

Shot at Dawn for Desertion

George Everill arrived in France in May 1915 and found that he had a problem with military life almost immediately. In March 1916 he was given a year’s Hard Labour for being insubordinate. This was swiftly followed by two year’s for wilful defiance.

In March 1917 he was given ninety days Field Punishment No 1 for being absent. That sentence had hardly expired when he was back in court for threatening an officer for which he was given a further ninety days punishment. Two weeks later he defied an officer once more and the punishment was doubled.

Finally on 24th August 1917 having been warned for active duty at the front, Everill deserted. He was arrested the following day without his rifle or equipment. With his poor character already to the fore the death sentence was duly confirmed.

Private Herbert Morris

Private Herbert Morris 7429
6th Bn British West Indies Regiment
Died on 20th September 1917 aged 17
Son of William and Ophelia Morris
of Riversdale P.O., St. Catherine, Jamaica

Grave: II F 45

Shot at Dawn for Desertion

Herbert Morris had joined his regiment during a recruitment drive there in the winter of 1916/17. Having been given some training the battalion left for France arriving there on 17th April 1917. Many of the men had fallen ill during the voyage and sickness continued to be a problem during their months of acclimatisation in France.

Although the regiment was not intended to be used as an active unit (coloured soldiers) they were still within the sound of the guns and Herbert Morris later told his court martial that the reason he had gone absent was because he couldn’t cope with the sound of the gunfire.

At 17 Morris was one of the youngest soldiers to be executed, though not the only one underage. In all probability the board had no idea as to his age.

Private Frederick Gore

Private Frederick Gore 15605
7th Bn The Buffs
East Kent Regiment
Died on 16th October 1917 aged 19

Grave: II J 34

Shot at Dawn for Desertion

Frederick Gore had volunteered in 1915 but the life was evidently not suitable for him as he had already deserted twice and also been charged with cowardice. Some leniency had evidently been shown because he was serving under two suspended death sentences but it is also evident that the army had no idea what to do with cases like Gore who could simply not face battle.

Frederick Gore became the seventeenth and thankfully last soldier to be executed in Poperinge.


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