‘Man’s life I always felt I had saved’

Further to my letter published earlier in the summer dealing with British Army judicial executions in the First World War, readers may be interested to know that courts martials were in the main carried out correctly and with fairness and common humanity, as an uplifting story concerning solicitor Henry Lawson demonstrates.

In the First World War, any Officer with a legal qualification was likely to find himself ordered to take part in the military justice system.

It could be a terrible responsibility.

Henry Lawson, who later went onto to have a distinguished legal career becoming president of the Law Society of England and Wales in 1962, was in 1917 an infantry officer, appointed as one of three officers to sit on a General Court Martial.

He was utterly unprepared to be called and later recalling: “I had never attended a court martial, let alone sat as a member of the court. I suppose in my examinations I may have read something about the subject, but I knew virtually nothing.”

The defendant ‘a charming boy of 19 or so with pink cheeks and blue eyes’, admitted the charge of sleeping at his post.

“This did not surprise me because once or twice on my night rounds I had found a sentry asleep, absolutely worn out, whom I dealt with in my own manner.” he added.

This apparently involved firing a rifle six inches from the sleeper’s ear and shouting ‘They’re coming’.

As the most junior member of the court, Lawson had to give his verdict first and he recommended a reprimand, saying he held the platoon commander in part responsible.

He said: “Silence reigned until the colonel told me that if I found the boy guilty there was only one sentence that could be passed ... the death penalty.”

Lawson responded that he would himself “be prepared to be taken out and shot, which the enemy would probably do to me anyway before the end of the war, but in no circumstances whatever would I pass the death sentence upon that boy with whom I sympathised”.

In the end the court agreed on 40 days “confined to barracks ... whatever that meant in the line”.

The prisoner “showed no emotion, no relief, thus confirming my belief that he had no idea that his life had been at stake”.

In 1979, Lawson recalled: “All was mysterious to me, but I have never forgotten that charming boy with the pink cheeks and blue eyes, whose life I have always felt I saved. I can still see his face.”

Henry Lawson well understood the reality of the front line having served on the western front for two years before being severely wounded in October 1918 while leading his platoon in an assault on a German machine gun post.

He recalled: “When just a few yards away I found uncut wire and having fired my rifle from my hip at the gun’s flash I put one leg over the wire.

“Then it happened. I felt that I had been kicked by an elephant.

“Before losing consciousness I felt a bullet graze the palm of my hand and a piece of grenade pierce an eyelid.”

At the age of 80, Henry Lawson was able to write: “Those were happy days of fellowship and camaraderie, despite the tragedies.

“I am eternally grateful that so much opportunity was given to me to undertake duties which, looking back, were very risky, yet presented me with a guide for later life, of enduring value and influence upon my career as a professional man.”

John Scott TD

North Shields