The shocking statistic that 306 British soldiers were executed for military offences in the Great War masks a much greater number of incidences of the imposition of the death penalty.
Only ten per cent of those sentenced to death were ultimately put before a firing squad – formed, in most cases, by troops from the condemned man’s own battalion.
Although the military system of justice was operating in the midst of the most savage war of attrition experienced by soldiers up to that time, the putting into effect of a sentence of death was subject to a considerable degree of scrutiny before a man would learn in the final 48 hours of his life that he was to be executed.
The military system of field general court martial was a simpler version of the stricter procedures that operated in peacetime at home.
The procedure in the field of battle allowed for a panel of four officers, one normally to be of the rank of major or above.
In the case of Henry Palmer, of Wallsend, uncovered recently by researchers at the Northumbria World War One Commemoration Project, the highest ranking officer was only a captain and two were second lieutenants, frequently men of only 19 years of age and barely months out of school.
The court martial process was held simply to determine if an offence had been made out to the satisfaction of the panel.
A man was sometimes allowed the assistance of a defending officer, someone who would have little in common with the accused and was thrust into the role with no legal experience.
In many cases, the accused would be unrepresented and left to make whatever cross-examination he was allowed as the case proceeded.
In the event that the panel found the case proved, the death sentence was automatic for a wide range of offences and took any discretion away from the panel that had actually had the man standing before it.
There was no appeal against the sentence, and the papers in the case would then begin a relentless progression up the chain of command as the man’s battalion, brigade, divisional and corps superiors added written comments or a simple agreement to the carrying out of the sentence.
It would often be the case that the degree of discipline in the man’s unit would feature as a mitigating or militating factor in the final decision of the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Douglas Haig.
In the case of Palmer, the battalion had acted successfully in pressing an attack when Palmer had dropped out of the action.
Nonetheless, his sentence was confirmed, even though the panel had recommended mercy on the grounds of his low intellect.
In the case of William Hunter, of North Shields, the subject of the Peter Mortimer play, Death at Dawn, soon to be staged again at Wallsend Memorial Hall and in Newcastle, the officers in his battalion and superior units all found him to be of little quality as a fighting man and that discipline in his battalion had been poor of late, so Hunter was executed perhaps as a warning to others in his battalion rather than as a punishment for him.
More about his case can be found in the 1983 book For the Sake of Example, by Anthony Babington, published by Secker and Warburg.
Tickets are now available for the new performances of Death at Dawn. The play will be staged at the Frank Street hall from Friday, February 19, to Tuesday, February 23, and at the Discovery Museum, in Blandford Square, Newcastle, from Friday, February 26, to Wednesday, March 2, at 7.30pm nightly, but with no Sunday performances.
Tickets are available from customer first centres and libraries in Wallsend, North Shields and Whitley Bay, priced £10, £8 for concessions.
The project’s next talk, by Tony Wall about gas warfare, is being held at the Low Lights Tavern at the Low Lights Tavern on Brewhouse Bank in North Shields next Tuesday at 7.30pm. Entry is free.
They can also be bought online via our website, www.northumbriaworldwarone.co.uk and from the Discovery Museum and Newcastle Central Library.