Skip to content

Shot at Dawn.

Shot at Dawn sentences in the British Military:- numbers subject to correction,

2,938 Privates were sentenced to death.

316 were executed.

134 N.C.O.s were sentenced to death.

24 were executed.

3 2nd & Sub. Lieutenant were sentenced to death.

3 were executed.

Following the release of Field General Court Martial files which showed that 17 year old boy soldiers were amongst the British and Empire servicemen to have faced British firing squads during World War One, John Hipkin started the “Shot At Dawn” campaign in December 1990, to see justice done on behalf of the 306 British and Empire servicemen that were executed mainly on the Western Front. After much campaigning and lobbying of Government over the years, during which time governments of both sides expressed sympathy but took the decision to maintain the status quo, it was finally on the 8th November 2006 that all 306 men were granted a blanket conditional pardon. In all 2,700 British and Empire servicemen were sentenced to death but only a small percentage (11%) were actually executed. Other countries executed their soldiers in varying numbers, including Germany – the exceptions being America and Australia which did not execute any.

Example of the brutality  of the Officers and system .

Private William Burrell

Private William Burrell, one of two sons of Charles Alfred and Fanny Burrell of Mill House, Fishbourne, Chichester, enlisted prior to the outbreak of war. Aged 19, he arrived in France and joined the Royal Sussex Regiment toward the end of November 1914. He went missing after several weeks, was captured, tried and in May 1915, received a death sentence which was commuted to imprisonment. Almost a year later Private Burrell was released and returned to his regiment at Loos but shortly afterwards went missing again , was re-captured, tried and executed on 22 May 1916, now aged 21.

The following statement was added to Burrell’s file by Lt General Henry Wilson, Commanding First Army:-

‘The particulars of the offence, as given in the charge sheet, were not completely proved before the court, but I do not think any injustice has been done. I recommend that the extreme penalty be carried out…’

William Burrell is buried at the Communal Cemetery Extension at Mazingarbe, Pas de Calais. His grave bears the inscription ‘ The will of the Lord be done. Acts 21.14. Dad, Mum’.

His younger brother, Ernest, had been killed in action at Ypres whilst William was serving his prison sentence

James Crozier, Belfast, Sunday 27th February, 1916. In 1916 his commanding officer was a namesake, Lieutenant-Colonel Percy Crozier. James was a 16 years old apprentice in Belfast shipyard when he enlisted in September 1914. He was under age and his mother came as far as the recruiting officer to persuade him not to join up.

She threatened her son that she would tell the recruiting officer his real age. James said, ‘You cannot do that, mother, if you do you will be a coward and none of your family were ever cowards’.

At this point the then Major Crozier said to the mother, ‘Do not worry, I will look after him and see that no harm comes to him’. Events would show that the officer was not as good as his word.

Rifleman James Crozier spent the dreadful winter of 1915/16 in the trenches of the Somme. In February of that miserable cold, dreary wet winter James Crozier went missing from his sentry post. He had walked a considerable distance when he was admitted to an Army Medical Post.

At his court martial he said that he had not known what he was doing when he made off, being in a daze and suffering from pains throughout his body. However the doctor who examined him ****ounced him fit for active service and he was returned to his unit to face the consequences of his desertion.

Lt. Col. Percy Crozier in evidence stated that this was not a case of a confused and disorientated young man who left his post to check into a field hospital. Rather he was a cunning deserter. He also said that James Crozier, fed-up, cold, wet to the skin and despondent, had sneaked off from the line under cover of darkness, throwing away his rifle, ammunition and equipment. (A legal ground for a second

charge also punishable by death)

Percy Crozier’s distortion of the facts makes it easier for him to explain away his subsequent actions. The young rifleman was court- martialed and found guilty of desertion. Despite his promise to the boy’s mother the officer had no hesitation in recommending to higher authority that the sentence be carried out.

The carrying out of the sentence itself often verged on black farce. According to Lt. Col. Crozier, he plied his young namesake with drink in order ‘to ease his living misery’ before his execution. He may also have had a desire to ensure that the young man went to his death in a state of sufficient oblivion to avoid any embarrassing scenes.

The officer was conscious that feelings against the execution were running high in the battalion. The military police and the assistant provost marshal were convinced that the firing party would deliberately miss. They even feared a mutiny by the troops.

Just before dawn on the morning of 27th February 1916 the battalion was paraded, the execution was to take place in a walled garden so Crozier’s comrades could hear, but would not see, what happened.

Not unexpectedly, the firing squad failed to find their target, and the officer in charge was obliged to step forward and put a bullet through young Crozier’s head.

Because of his promise to the young boy’s mother; Percy Crozier attempted to have his name added to a list of field casualties. He failed in this and Mrs. Crozier was duly notified that her only son had been shot for desertion, and she was denied the normal allowances payable on the death of next-of-kin. Percy Crozier commanding officer of the 9th Royal Irish Rifles, despite his promise to the boy’s mother had no hesitation in recommending to higher authority that the dearth sentence be carried out.

He tried to justify his stand by saying that, ‘When it fell my lot to recommend the carrying out or remitting of the death sentence, I invariably recommended the carrying out of the extreme penalty – because I expected to be shot myself if I ran away’, Crozier was conscious that feelings against the execution were running high in the battalion.

Patrick Joseph Downey from Limerick. He was shot at dawn on Monday 27th December 1915. The charge was insubordination and refusing to put on his cap. The cap was soaking wet and covered in muck. His age was officially given as 19 years; he was possibly much younger.

The charge read, “The accused disobeyed a lawful command in such a manner as to show willful disobedience of authority given personally by his superior officer in the execution of his office”.

Downey was not defended at his trial. An officer told how on hearing that he had been sentenced to death, Downey laughed and said, “That is a good joke, you enlist me to shot the enemy, and then you shoot me”.

copyright Connaught Ranger

One Comment
  1. Norman Blofend permalink

    John Hipkin should have been given a medal the size of a frying pan for starting the Shot at Dawn campaign

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: