An Echo from the Great War 1914-18
Shot at Dawn
Thus far November has proved an inclement month of heavy rain and gloom despite the fact that according to the Met office we are experiencing “unprecedented warmth”, causing potential blackouts in the electricity supply this week? Nevertheless, the Chairman welcomed a healthy audience to hear Resolfen resident, noted author and commentator, Robert King. Robert this year, in this Week of Remembrance, took the contentious title “Shot at Dawn”, as his topic from the title of his latest book.
The subject of soldiers executed at dawn by a firing squad is a contentious one, and has intrigued Robert since the 1960s. Each of the six soldiers had a target on the heart of the sometimes blindfolded victim, though they knew at least that one of the rifles was not loaded. Under the “The Army Act”, soldiers could be executed for a number of offences during the Great War including insubordination, cowardice and desertion. Robert stated that pre 1916, the soldiers in the British Army were largely volunteers, pressed into the Army by the lure of the King’s Shilling and the call to arms. Many were very young, and one ‘soldier’, was later found to be only fourteen years of age after his execution. In all, some 3,000 men were charged and some 347 were executed by firing squad during the War. Robert explained that they were literally “shot at dawn”, in order to avoid cluttering the rest of the day’s activities. All the executions happened at the Western Front and sometimes these involved delivering deserters back to France even if they had succeeded in getting home. Some 15 of those executed were Welshmen.
Disquiet regarding the amount of executions was apparent during the War, and it is worth noting that no Australians were shot and only 44 Germans. In 1953, one of the first acts of the recently crowned Queen Elizabeth 2nd was to grant the deserters absolution. However, the matter was not resolved until the third term of the Blair government in 2007 when those who had euphemistically “died of their wounds”, would be allowed to be named on war memorials and receive campaign medals posthumously. Despite the fact that some of those executed were convicted of murder, Robert contends that most of the misdemeanours were down to the stress of war. Not least was the liberal use of alcohol prior to the men “going over the top”, and the need to instill unquestioning discipline in the troops.
Robert then took some case studies from Wales. He divulged that originally his book was to be titled “Welshmen Shot at Dawn”, though this had been turned down by the publisher. George Povey from Connah’s Quay had been executed in a false accusation of desertion at the front. William Jones from Glynneath had returned home and was subsequently arrested and later executed in France. The case of Edwin Dyet of Albany Road in Cardiff who was a naval officer, showed the difference in the treatment of officers as against the ranks (only three of those were “shot at dawn”). It appears that Dyet’s fate was sealed by a personal vendetta of a fellow officer and despite a three month trial still faced the firing squad. His father, a senior naval officer resigned his commission and he subsequently emigrated to Canada never to return, convinced to his dying day that there had been a miscarriage of justice.
The shame of having a relative “shot at dawn”, was felt by the families themselves. Robert related tales of his experiences when researching the book that some families were still reluctant to associate themselves with executed relatives. In the case of a soldier from Neath, his name appears in St Thomas’s Church and a similar name appears on the Gnoll war memorial. It is probable though not certain that this is the same person.
|Lichfield War Arboretum|
Mr Gwyn Thomas, thanked Mr Robert King for a powerful and detailed talk, which he had recounted entirely from memory.