Deserters executed only days before war ended: Stephen Ward examines newly-released records of army trials during the First World War

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The Independent Online
TWO BRITISH SOLDIERS were shot at dawn for desertion just four days before the end of the First World War, War Office files released at the Public Record Office yesterday reveal.

Court-martial papers from the 1914-18 war were all either destroyed or retained by the Government for 75 years. More than 3,000 British soldiers were court- martialled and 312 of those, none of them officers, executed.

The belated gradual release of the papers - they had originally been closed for 100 years - has led to an increasing campaign by relatives for some of the men to be pardoned, and the disclosure yesterday that 44 men were executed in the final year of the war will fuel that campaign. John Major decided last year that it would be wrong to reopen any of the cases.

The last to be executed was Pte L Harris, 23, of the 10th West Yorkshire Regiment. His court-martial hearing is recorded in pencil on four sides of paper. The first witness, Pte G Helliwell, said the accused was attached to his Lewis (machine-gun) team during an advance on Rocquigny at midnight on 2 September. He halted to hide in some shellholes, and dump his haversack and mess tin. He hung back and failed to complete the advance. Pte Helliwell told the proceedings: 'There were only a few Germans knocking about. We took one prisoner. There was no firing whatever.'

Pte Harris was arrested at 11am the next day several miles behind the line. He pleaded not guilty, but offered no defence and called no character witnesses. After being found guilty he told the court: 'I joined the Army in early 1915. I was discharged in England as awful. I rejoined the Army at the beginning of 1916. I came out in March 1916. I have served in the trenches since 1916. Not married.'

On 21 October 1918, Maj-Gen PR Robertson wrote on the papers: 'I can find no extenuating circumstances other than that the accused has served in France for more than two years.'

The final signature confirming his death sentence is that of the commander in chief, Field Marshal Douglas Haig. Pte Harris was shot at 6.29am on 7 November.

Another soldier was shot at dawn for desertion 17 minutes earlier than Pte Harris, the files show. Pte E Jackson of the Royal Fusiliers, who was 32 and single, said in his defence that his father and mother had died in an asylum, and he had suffered mental trouble. The Army had examined him and found him sane before both sentences.

His brigade was two miles behind the lines, although subject to constant shelling, when he reported sick, and was arrested for absenting himself on 3 October. The next day he absconded again, and was rearrested on 5 October.

He told the court martial: 'I left because I could not stand the treatment I was receiving . . . On joining the battalion after doing imprisonment, the Company Sergeant Major, in front of everyone, called me a jailbird, and said he would make my life a misery. I have been looked down upon by everyone and this is the cause of my being here today.'