Robert Fisk: Executed at dawn. But who was he?

Saturday 20 October 2007 00:00

All wars, like the ways into a human heart, are mysteries. Even A J P Taylor couldn't explain the origins of the First World War in his book of the same name. My dad couldn't either, and he was in it. But there's a mystery developing about the man whom Second Lieutenant Bill Fisk of the King's Liverpool Regiment was supposed to execute for the murder of a British military policeman in Paris.

Bill knew him as Frank Wills. I've even seen Wills's signature at the end of his last appeal to the military court which sentenced him to death. It did no good. Wills was shot at Le Havre in May of 1919 – though not by my dad who, in the noblest act of his life, refused to command the firing party and probably destroyed his own military career.

Frank Oswald Wills lies in the Sainte Marie cemetery (grave plot: Division 64. VI. F. 5) near the place of his dawn execution. But the man buried there may not be Frank Wills at all. Indeed, Frank Wills may not have existed.

So here I have to thank the tireless work of the Great War Forum and military researchers Bob Doneley and Beppo Sapone and Sandra and Tim and other emailers, most of them apparently Australian (their hard copy sent to me by Gerard Holuigue, since I remain a Luddite non-emailer). Great War sleuths may send me their own conclusions to this tale.

I will begin with my own copy of Wills's last words, vainly written to the court which ordered his execution in an attempt to spare his life: "I am 20 years of age. I joined the Australian Army in 1915 when I was 16 years of age. I went to Egypt and the Dardanelles. I have been in a considerable number of engagements there, & in France. I joined the British Army in April 1918 and came to France in June 1918. I was discharged from the Australian Army on account of fever which affected my head contracted in Egypt. I was persuaded to leave my unit by my friends and got into bad company. I began to drink and gamble heavily. I had no intention whatever of committing the offences for which I am now before the Court. I ask the Court to take into consideration my youth and to give me a chance of leading an upright and straightforward life in the future." Wills's appeal – rejected by the court – can be found in the Public Record Office (or the National Archives, as its Blairite title now reads) at Kew. His signature, in slightly shaky hand, is at the end.

Now to the first paragraph of Holuigue's 18-page file to me: "1709 Private Richard Mellor left Australia (in 1915) as a reinforcement for the 1st Light Horse Regiment. His mother stated that he enlisted under his brother's name and falsified his age. After less than salubrious service in Egypt and France, he deserted in May 1918 and was never apprehended. In 1939 his mother Elizabeth was still writing to the (Australian) Defence Department seeking information as to his fate." Mellor's 213-page service record is in the Australian National Archives.

Now to the jaw-dropper. "In May 1919, 253617 Gunner Frank O Wills, Royal Field Artillery, was awaiting execution for the military policeman he shot while being apprehended for desertion. He asked to speak to an Australian officer prior to his execution. Major Burford Sampson, Officer Commanding Australian Infantry Force troops in Paris, visited Wills in prison. There, Wills told him that he was actually Richard Mellor, an Australian deserter. He had been apprehended in a sweep for deserters and joined the British Army under the name of Wills. He outlined his past to Sampson and asked him to write to his mother and tell her what had happened to him ... on 27 May he was executed by firing squad and buried in the Ste Marie Cemetery, Le Havre."

Although Mellor's file contains Sampson's statement – which exactly matches the service record of Richard Mellor – and British Expeditionary Force orders recording Wills's execution, Mrs Mellor was never officially informed of her son's fate. Nor did the Australian Army ever officially record that Mellor and Wills were the same man. Indeed, even today Mellor is still listed by the Australians as a deserter, whereabouts unknown. In 1933, parts of his official file were marked "Secret". One page, dated 26 August 1920, asks if Mellor has yet been apprehended – well over a year after Wills/Mellor had been executed.

Yet Wills's story to Sampson appears watertight because he was able to give the Australian major details of Mellor with great accuracy – place of birth, mother's details, home address in Wigram Road in the Forest Lodge area of Sydney, dates of enlistment – and was apparently the same age as Mellor, who officially enlisted in 1915 aged 21 although Elizabeth says he was using his brother Richard's name and was only 16 at the time.

If this is true, then Richard Mellor was in fact the younger brother – whose name was Samuel Mellor. But why did Mellor – drawing the obvious conclusions from Wills's statement to Sampson – reinvent himself? Did he join the British Army in 1918 to avoid an Australian prison for desertion? Why didn't he provide his true identity to the court martial? And why wasn't poor Mrs Mellor told that her son had been executed? Sampson mentions his prison conversation with Wills in his diary, later published privately by his son. Sandra, in one of her emails, wonders whether Mellor married an English girl and was forced to enlist in the British Army. Did Wills fess up because he thought this would prevent his execution?

Elizabeth Mellor started her enquiries into her son's fate in 1920, and in 1939 she was still writing to the Australian authorities, stating that she was elderly and wanted to know what happened to her son before she died.

Her poignant, hopeless appeals for information about her son are a testament to official cruelty. "The despair shown by his mother does deserve an answer," one of the Great War Forum's investigators accurately points out today. But the real fate of Frank Wills – if he existed – remains a mystery. I suspect Bill Fisk would rise from the grave (if he had one – he was cremated) to demand an explanation from the authorities for all this tomfoolery. But alas, the authorities – like Richard Mellor and Bill Fisk himself – are dead.

Should the Commonwealth War Graves Commission think about a change of name on grave 64/VI/F/5 at Le Havre? A last intriguing clue: there's a W Mellor listed in the Sydney phone book, living only a short distance from Wigram Road, Forest Lodge. Had he been alive, Bill would have been tempted to ring the doorbell.

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