Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Executed for Cowardice

Rev Richard Griffiths served as a chaplain to the forces in the 24th Field Ambulance, Eighth Division, of the British Army in France. He was 49. He wrote about his experiences in a detailed journal. The extract below describes the execution of a deserter. 

3 June 1915: I received the shocking confidential information that one of the men was condemned for repeated desertion and cowardice and is to be shot. The message came late last night and I have been with him most of the afternoon. I sat on the edge of the dug-out talking, with him crouched on the straw. The bullets and shells did not matter, as this lad pleaded with me to do all I could for him, and I tried to bring him to truth, honour and God. Many thoughts weighed up. 

Pro: His youth, not yet 20. His circumstances—an only son and his mother a widow. His health—he repeated that his head troubled him, and he did not know what he was doing. 

Con: The selfishness of a man wishing other people to face dangers for him and unwilling to take his share. What right has any man to ask that? The falseness of some of his statements. The need of discipline—on two battlefields he had run away, after being warned. The assurance that every consideration must have been weighed by the Court Martial, the Brigadier, the General, the Corps Commander, the Army Commander and the Field-Marshal—and yet one’s last lingering wonder is whether penal servitude would not have answered the offence. Those responsible have decided not. 

Film Depiction of a WWI Execution

4 June 1915, 4.30 a.m.: It is all past—the hideous business. The actual agony was over in three minutes and the burial in another five. Everyone was assembled by 3.30 a.m. He was a man who had made many scenes, and it was thought I should not speak with him again, and I felt that that was right. The sandbag bank, the hollow in front of it with the stake. The long grass and oat stalks. The trench made for the purpose, along which were lined small detachments from other battalions. The firing party about 20 paces in front. The Provost Marshal, the Colonel, three or four officers, the doctor. I put on my black scarf and stood at the side, almost too stunned to pray. Behind came the prisoner, scarcely able to walk, pleading and groaning. As he turned the corner he suddenly dashed from his guard and ran wildly across the broken ground, stumbling, panting, able in his despair to reach an astonishing speed, and for the time, to outdistance the men, laden with their equipment. He was eventually caught, and as he came back facing us, he presented a pathetic figure. He was tied to the stake. His eyes were bandaged. "Past 4 o’clock," said the Colonel to the Provost Marshal. A sudden quick crack and the huddled earthly form was separated from the soul gone to the beyond. 

4 June 1915, later: The strain of this morning has been rather much. Other men have gone from us, so many now, good and gallant—known to be sinful, some of them, but redeeming so much by dying bravely. One likes to recall them at a time like this. That abject cry: "Can I have the bandage off, sir? I want to see the sky"—cut short with the sharp crack, the quiet thud, the absolute silence, the stillness. The quick "about turn" to the firing party. The swish of an enemy bullet in the long grass across the path — it was difficult to pray.

Published in the Guardian, 26 July 2014


  1. A thought-provoking and moving account. For pure theater of a WWI execution you can't beat the triple execution in What Price Glory.

  2. To DS: You mean 'Paths of Glory' staring Kirk Douglas.

  3. You are correct; my error. I should have taken the time to look it up.

  4. Thank you for sharing -- the honest and frank diary account gives much to think about.

  5. Read the account of the execution of Private James Crozier in 'Shot at Dawn' and in the memoirs of his Colonel, also James Crozier. (No relation). The lad was plied with rum and dragged lifeless to the stake, shot in front of a wall with his regiment 'standing too' on the other side hearing all that was taking place. He wasn't killed straight away and the officer in charge had to administer the last shot.

  6. One more casualty to a rather senseless war in retrospect. Executing deserters was done to keep others from running in the face of battle; battles led by many incompetent and unimaginative leaders who fed troops into a hopeless meat-grinder for 4 years. The Spring of 1915 when this happened would have been around the 2nd Battle of Ypres, followed in 1916 by the bloody Battles of the Somme and Verdun that swallowed the youth of Britain and France (and Germany) for little gain.

    These troops died for fear of being shamed by their own troops if they ran... or being shot for cowardice if they did, all casualties of battles they could not win.

    We are talking millions of young men here sacrificed for little and nothing. No wonder many in that time, at the end of the war, declared WW I was "the war to end all wars."

  7. It is rather sad that so many arm chair warriors have come to see WW I as 'senseless.' That would certainly not be the position of many Belgians who fought and died as the Germans rolled across their lands destroying towns and villages. Or the French who rushed to the front in taxis to stop the onslaught. But it took even more to stop the Axis - AND THIS was not senseless, but the cost of liberty. It is a sad fact, that the tree of liberty must be periodically watered with the blood of patriots.