Image: Private Thomas Highgate was the first British soldier to face a firing squad.


At 07.07 on the 8th September, 19 year old Private Thomas Highgate of the Royal West Kent Regiment was shot by firing squad.  This young man – who had fought at Mons – became the first executed soldier of the Great War.  Private Highgate was charged with desertion, having been discovered dressed in stolen civilian clothes and hiding in a barn. When challenged he apparently said, 'I have had enough of it, I want to get out of it’.   Highgate  - an only son - had joined the army before the outbreak of war while still only 17.  During the course of the war the British army executed 306 soldiers for various misdemeanours including striking an officer, looting and murder.  Regardless of their offence, all were pardoned in November 2006 sparking campaigns to also have their names added to local war memorials.
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 8th September 1914

Shot at Dawn - The First British Execution

Private Thomas Highgate–Western Front Witness– Shot at Dawn WW1-WW1 Deserters-Court Martial WW1

George Ward deserted from his unit on 15th September 1914 – only 3 days after arriving in France.  He therefore holds the unfortunate record for the shortest period of service before facing a firing squad.


Private Ward was a 20 year old, regular army soldier with the 1st Royal Berkshire Regiment who had arrived in France just in time to take part in the Battle of the Aisne (12th – 15th September 1914).  When his unit advanced towards the German trenches they were subjected to a terrifying bombardment by enemy artillery.  Ward headed to the rear, falsely claiming that he had been wounded.  Six days later he reported back to his unit and was arrested for cowardice.  A total of 3,080 British soldiers were sentenced to death but only a small proportion (11%) was carried out. 

On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 15th September 1914

A Sad Record - George Ward

Shot at Dawn Memorial–Western Front Witness– Shot at Dawn WW1-WW1 Deserters-Court Martial WW1

In early November 1914, Private Archibald Brown helped an injured soldier to an Aid Post and then deserted.  Brown had seen bloody action with the 2nd Essex in the early battles at Mons and Le Cateau.  However he took a momentous decision when he chose to discard his army uniform and don civilian clothes.  In his subsequent search for food and shelter, Brown broke into a house and was arrested by the French police who promptly handed him over to the British army. The outcome was inevitable and following a court martial, he was shot by firing squad the following month.  Brown was the last of four soldiers executed in 1914 and, as was the case with all those ‘shot at dawn’, he received a posthumous pardon in 2006.

On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 10th November 1914

Deserter Apprehended

WW1 Executions–Western Front Witness– Shot at Dawn WW1-WW1 Deserters-Court Martial WW1

Image: Military Police in their uniform, note MP band on their left arms.


On the 25th January 1915, Private Graham of the 2nd Munster Fusiliers decided that he had had enough of war.  He left his battalion in trenches near Givenchy where a German attack was imminent, and sought refuge in a brothel.  He took precautions – changing his tunic to that of a Corporal and using a false identity disk.  Private Graham managed to evade capture for 10 months but was uncovered when the brothel was raided by Military Police.  He continued to argue his innocence but further investigation found that not only could he be charged with desertion but also with fraud.  On 9th December 1915 he was convicted and sentenced to death by firing squad.  This was carried out a fortnight later making him the last British soldier to be executed in 1915.  In 2006 all executed British soldiers were pardoned.

On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 25th January 1915

He Sought Sanctuary in a Brothel

WW1 Military Police–Western Front Witness– Shot at Dawn WW1-WW1 Deserters-Court Martial WW1
On 29th January 1915, Lance Corporal William Price (41) and Private Richard Morgan (32) of the Welsh Regiment got drunk and murdered Sergeant Major Hughie Hayes (32).  They immediately confessed their crime to the Adjutant stating that it was a mistake. “What do you mean?” said the bemused officer, “Did you mistake him for a spy”.  “No sir”, came the answer “We mistook him for the sergeant”. Their intended victim was their Sergeant, a bully who regularly had them punished for crimes they did not commit.  Hayes cause of death was listed as ‘accidental’ while Price and Morgan were ‘shot at dawn’.  All three are buried close together in Bethune military cemetery.
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 29th January 1915

We Shot the Wrong Man!


Re-enactment of Execution–Western Front Witness– Shot at Dawn WW1-WW1 Deserters-Court Martial WW1
In a Bethune estaminet (bar), a private of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers drew his bayonet and stabbed to death a Frenchman for loudly proclaiming that the British army was no good and that the Germans would win the war. The court martial dismissed the charges and later, a local French official commended the Tommy for ‘repressing local defeatism’.  A bayonet was also used to kill 24 year old Arthur Charker of the 4th Cameron Highlanders.  His assailant was his best friend, Private John Fraser and the two men had become involved in a drunken brawl while their unit was in Bedford preparing for embarkation to France.  Private Fraser was charged with willful murder but this was reduced to manslaughter with a punishment of 15 months hard labour.

Beer and Bayonets - A Bad Combination

Bethune Estaminet (Bar)–Western Front Witness– Shot at Dawn WW1-WW1 Deserters-Court Martial WW1

In May 1915 the parents of Acting Corporal Alexander Chisholm received the news that their son had been ‘mentioned in dispatches’ having displayed great bravery in the field.  It was little consolation as this letter had been preceded by another informing them that their hero had been executed by firing squad.  The offence was murder as Chisholm had shot Lance Corporal Robert Lewis, a fellow Royal Engineer, outside the Estaminet du Pelican in Baileul (shown above).  Relations between Lewis and Chisholm had been strained for weeks and they rowed continually over issues such as accommodation and pay.  Chisholm was duly convicted and although sentenced to be hanged, it was not the gallows but a firing squad he faced.

Hero Put Before Firing Squad

Estaminet due Pelican in Baileul–Western Front Witness– Shot at Dawn WW1-WW1 Deserters-Court Martial WW1

The first soldier to be executed while suffering from shell shock is believed to be Lance-Sergeant William Walton of the 2nd King’s Royal Rifle Corps.  The 26 year old deserted towards the end of 1914 and was arrested by military authorities while sheltering in the home of a civilian.  Walton claimed to have suffered a nervous breakdown and a medical examination was ordered.   It didn’t save him and he was ‘shot at dawn’ on 23rd March 1915.  One Medical Officer considered shell-shock to be a "manifestation of childishness and femininity" but while ‘other ranks’ were treated as malingerers, officers were prescribed periods of convalescence – often in hotels in the South of France.

On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 23rd March 1915

The First Shell Shock Sufferer is Executed

Shell Shock Sufferer–Western Front Witness– Shot at Dawn WW1-WW1 Deserters-Court Martial WW1

While some soldiers were learning about their bravery awards, one unfortunate Tommy was languishing in a cell awaiting trial and ultimately execution.  Private Isaac Reid deserted during the attack on Neuve Chapelle and at his trial he admitted to losing his head and expressed profound regrets.  Despite a plea for mercy, Private Reid was led out in front of his fellow Scots Guards, tied to a tree and shot.  In a strange twist, three of the four men who made up the firing squad were killed in action a month later, and all on the same day.

On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 9th April 1915

Firing Squad Cut Down

Memorial to Isaac Reid–Western Front Witness– Shot at Dawn WW1-WW1 Deserters-Court Martial WW1

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission holds no record of the age of Gunner William Jones.  The young Welshman was probably suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when he took the decision to flee.  The fact that William (who was believed to be a teenager) later turned himself in did not save him and he was convicted, blindfolded and shot.  In 2006 a blanket pardon was issued for the men who died this way after years of public pressure.

On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 20th April 1915

Young Gunner Shot By Firing Squad

Young Gunner William Jones–Western Front Witness– Shot at Dawn WW1-WW1 Deserters-Court Martial WW1

In 2015, Channel 4 commissioned a controversial sitcom about the Irish Famine.  Since then debate has raged about how successfully the lines can be blurred between comedy and tragedy. For example in poking fun at desertion and execution did the writers of ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’ go too far? What do you think?  Here is part of the script for the episode entitled ‘Corporal Punishment’.


Corporal:  “So, look forward to seeing you tomorrow, sir.  You’ll have a blindfold on of course, but you’ll recognise me.  I’m the one that says, “Ready, aim, fire!”


Blackadder:   Can I ask you to leave a pause between the word "aim" and the word "fire"?  Thirty or forty years, perhaps?


Blackadder:  So, where do you want me?


Corporal: Well, up against the wall is traditional, sir.


Blackadder:  This side or the other side?

Blackadder - Spot on or Wide of the Mark?

Blackadder Corporal Punishment–Western Front Witness– Shot at Dawn WW1-WW1 Deserters-Court Martial WW1

Private Herbert Burden enlisted in the Northumberland Fusiliers while only 16.  Just before his 17th birthday he was drafted to the 1st Battalion and on his way to Belgium and saw bloody action on the Bellewaerde Ridge (see story on 16th June).   The lad deserted, was captured and appeared before a court martial on 2nd July.  He was undefended at his trial and his case was weakened because there was no one from his unit to give him a character reference.  All of his comrades were dead!  The army was concerned about his battalion as the first cases of self-inflicted wounds had been identified the previous week (see story of 9th July).  This may have had more of a bearing on the court’s decision than Burden’s actual offence and on 16th July he was shot by firing squad.

On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 16th July 1915

Shot Because No One Could Defend Him

Herbert Burden–Western Front Witness– Shot at Dawn WW1-WW1 Deserters-Court Martial WW1

There were more executions at the Tower of London during the 20th Century than there was during the Tudor period.  Among those who faced the firing squad at the world famous landmark were 11 German nationals who were convicted of spying. Carl Muller (57) was executed a century ago today, the second spy to be shot there.  Muller was fluent in five languages and corresponded with a number of un-related individuals on the continent.  British intelligence intercepted some of his letters and discovered invisible sentences written in German between the lines of innocuous English text.  The most common form of invisible ink used by German spies was lemon juice and possession of this plus pen nibs could lead to immediate arrest.

On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 23rd June 1915

Traitor Shot at Tower of London

Carl Muller German Spy–Western Front Witness– Shot at Dawn WW1-WW1 Deserters-Court Martial WW1

In the summer of 1915, two women who ran a shop selling postcards to Tommies were convicted of spying and shot.  The court agreed that they passed secrets to enemy agents with whom they had ‘relations’. This story reflects the growing neurosis in the British army about how the Germans seemed to know every planned move.  Scrutiny fell on anyone whose home was within range of the German guns but remained undamaged, and a watchful eye was even kept on a cat that was seen to regularly cross No-man’s land.  A broken village clock was kept under surveillance when it was noted that the hands often showed different times.  No-one was yet aware that the Germans had learned to tap phones (story to follow) and instead suspicion fell on others. 

Affair with Germans Marked Their Card

Postcards for British Soldiers–Western Front Witness– Shot at Dawn WW1-WW1 Deserters-Court Martial WW1