Private one of two local men shot for desertion

The Northumbria World War One Commemoration Project is currently researching North Tynesiders killed during the four-year conflict.

Sunday, 7th February 2016, 15:00 pm
Updated Tuesday, 2nd February 2016, 15:15 pm

Estimates put the figure for the borough at almost 5,000.

Some 1,800 casualties have already been researched by an earlier project centred on the old borough of Tynemouth, and are now on a database at www.northumbriaworldwar

Recently, one of our volunteer researchers came across the case of Henry Palmer, of the fifth battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers.

Private Palmer, of Station Road in Wallsend, died on October 27, 1916, at the age of 22.

Unlike most of those hundreds of thousands of men mown down by murderous machine-gun fire or blown to pieces by shellfire, Palmer was killed by his own side.

At 6.20am on that cold, autumnal day, he was blindfolded, tied to a post and shot for desertion by some of his comrades in arms.

He was one of 306 members of the British armed forces executed for military offences during the war and later pardoned by the government, in 2007. By chance, two other volunteers were doing research among the vast store of First World War records at the National Archives in Kew, London, and were able to locate his court martial records, and what sobering reading they are.

Palmer faced three charges of desertion. The first two alleged instances occurred in late September 1916, but he was found not guilty of them because of insufficient evidence.

However, a third charge relating to an attack on German lines in early October was to condemn him to death.

Presiding were a major, a captain and two second Lieutenants, all, apart from the captain, attached to the Northumberland Fusiliers, though not from his battalion.

Palmer was presented to the court early on in the proceedings as a man of low intellect. He doesn’t appear to have been represented at his trial.

Three witnesses appeared in court, the first two to give evidence relating to the first two charges.

The third witness, a L/Cpl W Hadaway, later killed in action in 1917 and to be found on our database, gave evidence that Palmer had climbed the parapet with him, but was nowhere to be seen shortly after, only appearing back in the trenches the next day.

Palmer claimed to have got lost and been hit on the knee during the attack, but on examination this appeared not to have been the case.

No questions were asked by the accused, something that was noted at the trial at the time, and he called no witnesses in his defence.

The court found him guilty, and his papers were passed through various branches of military administration to Lt-General Sir William Pulteney, of III Corps, who reasoned that morale in the fifth battalion was good, so “there was no need for an example to be made”.

However, General Sir Henry Rawlinson, commanding Fourth Army, disagreed, saying: “I recommend that the sentence be put into execution.”

The papers were sent to the Army’s commander-in-chief, General Sir Douglas Haig, and he signed a death warrant.

Palmer’s case throws up many questions about military discipline at the time, and it is interesting to note that no executions for desertion took place in the Second World War.

Palmer is one of two soldiers from the borough known to have been executed for desertion, the other being William Hunter, of North Shields.

His story is told in the play Death at Dawn, by Cullercoats playwright Peter Mortimer.

Following the premiere of the award-winning play in September 2014, a new production is being staged at Wallsend Memorial Hall from Friday, February 19, to Tuesday, February 23, and the Discovery Museum in Newcastle from Friday, February 26, to Wednesday, March 2.

Tickets, priced £10, are available from libraries in Wallsend, North Shields, Newcastle and Whitley Bay.

Mr Mortimer will give a talk at Wallsend Library next Thursday at 7.30pm about the play and William Hunter. All are welcome.