Is a pardon in sight for Billy Nelson, one of 306 soldiers shot by firing squad in WWI?

By Francis Elliott,Robin Stummer
Sunday 28 March 2004 02:00

"Every Armistice Day, my mother shed buckets of tears. We've got Billy's Bible, I got that when mother died. She used to lay that out on a piece of blue satin cloth, and she would cry," Norah High remembers now. "She always said: 'I won't cry any more because that only upsets Billy. He doesn't want me to cry. Everything's fine for him now.'"

"Every Armistice Day, my mother shed buckets of tears. We've got Billy's Bible, I got that when mother died. She used to lay that out on a piece of blue satin cloth, and she would cry," Norah High remembers now. "She always said: 'I won't cry any more because that only upsets Billy. He doesn't want me to cry. Everything's fine for him now.'"

Norah's mother, Billy Nelson's sister, was only 13 when he died in 1916. Private Nelson was only 19 and had served in France for less than a year when he was shot - executed by his own side, like more than 300 other soldiers.

Now, almost 90 years after the start of the Great War, ministers are finally considering a pardon for the 306 soldiers executed for desertion, cowardice or quitting their post. Only three of them were officers.

The looming 90th anniversary, this August - together with a diplomatic initiative by the Irish government - is leading to a re-think in the Ministry of Defence. The British government previously rejected calls for a blanket posthumous pardon six years ago on the grounds that there was not enough surviving documentation to justify such a move.

Ministers are preparing for a meeting next month with Brian Cowen, the Irish Foreign Minister, who has taken up the cause of the 26 Irish-born soldiers serving with British forces who were executed after British courts martial.

The MoD has already handed over its files on the Irish cases at an initial meeting called by the Irish government and, last night, a senior official said there would likely be further progress next month. "It is pretty clear that we are going to have to look at this again," the official told The Independent on Sunday.

In 1998, John Reid, then armed forces minister, expressed "remorse" at the Great War executions, but insisted there was no legal case for a pardon after a review that Labour had promised as part of its 1997 election manifesto. By contrast, four years ago, the New Zealand government unilaterally granted pardons to its five soldiers who were executed during the First World War. The Germans executed fewer than 30 soldiers, mostly for non-combat offences. No Americans or Australians were shot for cowardice or desertion. But the British Army was exceptionally ready to kill its own men.

Pte William Nelson - Billy - was one of the tens of thousands of young men who rushed to join up in September 1914, amid the frenzy of flag-waving and Kaiser-baiting. He was 17 years old when he enlisted in the 14th Battalion of his local regiment, the Durham Light Infantry. By the time he arrived in France, a year later, the war had settled into static butchery.

Facing the horrors of the Western Front, Billy Nelson had already had more than his share of troubles. His father, a seaman, had been captured, and - going blind - was held in Germany. His mother died soon after the start of the war, leaving his 13-year-old sister and 10-year-old brother in the care of impoverished neighbours.

In September 1915, Nelson's unit fought at the Battle of Loos. In one day, his battalion lost nearly 300 men killed or wounded. He was shot in the hand and spent two months in hospital. Then he began to "drift". For a few days at the end of 1915 and again in early 1916, Nelson went absent without leave. He was sentenced to a year in prison. That was suspended, but soon he was absent again, for several days. He was sentenced to penal servitude, but, again, this was suspended.

Then, in July 1916, he allegedly stole an officer's puttees. While in a canteen he vanished - to appear days later asking two officers where he could sleep. He was arrested, and charged with desertion.

"I have had a lot of trouble at home," said Pte Nelson at the trial, which he endured without counsel, or even the usual "prisoner's friend" to speak for him. "My nerves are badly upset," he went on. "I had no intention of deserting. I did not realise what I was doing. When I did so I went and gave myself up."

The court was not impressed. He was shot at 5.15am on 11 August 1916, two months short of his 20th birthday.

"I first got to know about what happened to Billy in my early 20s," recalls Norah High, from Seaham, County Durham of the uncle she never knew. "My mother said to me: 'Now I'll tell you something ...' It lived with her all her life. But at least she died knowing that Billy's name was put on the roll of honour at Durham Cathedral."

Then an unexpected visit, a few years ago, shed new light on his last months. It was an old friend and comrade who'd served with him in France, says Mrs High.

"He'd read about Billy in a newspaper. And he said: 'A finer young lad there never was. He did his duty. He was 11 months in the trenches.' He was the one that was his friend. He was the one that had brought the Bible back. He said that Billy had no defence other than himself."


Sergeant Will Stones of the Durham Light Infantry and two corporals, John McDonald and Peter Goggins, were charged with abandoning their post, tried, and shot in 1917. A prisoner, Pte Rochester, witnessed the executions:

A crowd of brass hats, the medical officer and three firing parties. Three stakes a few yards apart and a ring of sentries around the woodland. A motor ambulance arrives carrying the doomed men. Manacled and blindfolded, they are tied up to the stakes. Over each man's heart is placed an envelope. At the sign of command, the firing parties, 12 for each, align rifles on the envelopes. The officer in charge holds his stick aloft and, as it falls, 36 bullets usher the souls of three of Kitchener's men to the great unknown. As a military prisoner, I helped clear the traces ... I helped carry those bodies towards their last resting place.

I took the belongings from the dead men's tunics ...A few letters, a pipe, a photo. I could tell you of the silence of the military police after reading a letter from a little girl to 'Dear Daddy', of the blood-stained snow that horrified the French peasants, of the chaplain's confession that braver men he had never met than those three men he prayed with just before the fatal dawn. I could take you to the graves of the murdered.

This account is available on the website of the Shot At Dawn campaign, which has lobbied for a pardon for more than a decade: