The execution of a young soldier – judge yourself

One of the most enduring controversies surrounding the tragedy of the First World War was the policy of executing soldiers for military offences, including cowardice and desertion.

William Hunter, of Coronation Street in North Shields, was one of 306 men executed.

His story has been dramatised in a new play, Death at Dawn, by north east playwright Peter Mortimer, and will be performed at the Linskill Community Centre from September 1 for six nights at 7.30pm with a Saturday afternoon matinee.

Drawing on the facts as recorded in Hunter’s court martial papers, the play considers just one man’s circumstances but reflects the issues surrounding a highly controversial subject.

The number of men sentenced to death was ten times the number of executions actually carried out.

In considering this tragic toll of young lives – the average age of men executed was 25 – it should not be forgotten that the British and Dominion forces lost 996,000 men killed in more than four years of fighting,

That shocking statistic resolves to an average daily toll of 640 men killed or who died of the effects of war service.

In the circumstances of such loss, it is perhaps possible to understand how those accused of deserting their comrades and avoiding unpleasant and traumatising duty should have been treated with little sympathy.

Modern commentators on all sides of the argument will concede that the judicial processes by which men were tried and their cases reviewed before confirmation were in many cases biased and unfair by current standards; where today a simple trial can take months to come before the courts, as evidence about the accused’s background and circumstances is gathered and presented to the court.

No such extended process encumbered the swift and cursory trials of the men facing execution for military offences.

The modern take on this for some people is a military system cruel and uncaring, dealing out summary and unjust sentences of death to men traumatised by war, often unable to cope with the stress and horrors to which they were exposed day after day.

That may have been true of some but no evidence exists today to reappraise all 306 cases.

With 4.5 million men serving in France and Belgium by 1918, maintaining discipline and deterring desertion was essential.

The threat of imprisonment would not have deterred those seeking to avoid an ‘inevitable and brutal death in action’ that many foresaw.

The difference between those who deserted and those who stayed is an intriguing question.

Edward Madigan, of Queen Mary College who delivered one of the project’s lectures last winter, believes the outstanding feature of the British forces in the war was their collective stamina and sense of the need to ‘stick it out’, however terrible the conditions.

The county regimental system, with its sense of ‘clan loyalty’, ensured that the numbers who faced a firing squad was probably remarkably small, given the horrors to which they were exposed.

Peter Mortimer’s Death at Dawn, telling the story of William Hunter – executed in France in February 1916 – will be premiered on Monday, September 1.

This new play is the only original work on the First World War commissioned in the north east for this centenary year.

Tickets (£10 and £8 concessions) can be bought from Linskill Community Centre reception; Keel Row Book Shop; North Shields Library (Discover section) and the project Information Centre in Front Street, Tynemouth, open daily until September 7 from 1pm until 4pm.

Telephone ticket bookings / purchase for Death at Dawn can be made through the Linskill Community Centre from 8am to 9pm on (0191) 257 8000, or alternatively from Essell Accountants, from 9.30am to 4.30pm, Monday to Friday only, on ( 0191 )259 1871).

To access the project Database please visit

Anyone with information about anyone killed or died as a result of the war is asked to contact the project. The Project Workroom at Room B9, Linskill Community Centre, Trevor Terrace, North Shields is open from 1000 to 1300 each weekday for visitors and for anyone interested to learn more about the project or how to get involved. Our address for correspondence is c/o Essell, 29 Howard Street, North Shields NE30 1AR.