Shot At Dawn

Sergeant John Thomas Wall (13216) 3rd Battalion Worcestershire Regiment

Sergeant J. T. Wall of Bockleton, near Tenbury, Worcestershire had enlisted in the Worcestershire Regiment in 1912 and served on the Western Front from the beginning of the First World War.  When he arrived in France with the 3rd Battalion on the 12th August 1914, his rank was that of a Lance-Corporal.  He had fought with his Battalion in every engagement and was promoted to Sergeant.

In August 1917 the 3rd Battalion was in action near the Bellwarde Ridge, when Sergeant Wall went missing during the attack.  This was unlike him and it could have been that he was suffering from “battle fatigue” which affected his mental state.  Unfortunately, this was not considered at his trial and I do not believe this to be the case.

On the 6th September 1917, Sergeant Wall was wrongly in my mind executed by firing squad, for desertion, at Poperinghe.  He was 22 years of age.

He is buried Poperinghe New Military Cemetery.  Poperinghe New Military Cemetery is located 10.5 km west of Ypres town centre, in the town of Poperinge itself (Grave number II.F.42).  His parents William and Harriet Wall place the following inscription on his gravestone: “For ever with the Lord”.

Disgracefully on the 6th September 1917, Sergeant Wall was wrongly executed by firing squad, for desertion, at Poperinghe. He was 22 years of age. Sgt. Wall and 305 other British soldiers were pardoned in Nov 2006 under a law approved by the British Parliament with Queen Elizabeth assent. This Photo was taken when I last visited his grave in the New Military Cemetery.

The memory of “Jack” Wall, though, has always been under a cloud. He was one of hundreds of soldiers of the First World War who were shot by their own men for cowardice or desertion.

Just short of 90 years after he was executed at dawn for refusing to take his men to a near-certain death, Sgt. Wall and 305 other British soldiers were pardoned Wednesday under a law approved by Parliament that now awaits the formality of Queen Elizabeth II’s assent.

“It is better to acknowledge that injustices were clearly done in some cases,” said British Defense Secretary Des Browne. “All these men were victims of war.”

“I hope that pardoning these men will finally remove the stigma with which their families have lived for years.”

Jill Turner watched the House of Commons vote live on TV and drank Champagne. “I burst into tears,” she said. “I don’t normally drink and I did have a drink.”

Jack Wall was the young brother of her grandmother, Fanny Evans. Evans’ husband was killed in France in 1916 and a cousin died in the Allied assault on Gallipoli in Turkey. The execution of Jack Wall at dawn on Sept. 6, 1917, brought shame on top of grief.

Evans mourned the three men for the rest of her life, Turner said in a telephone interview from her home in Eastbourne, England. “She never laughed again.”

Jack Wall was an unlikely target for the firing squad. He joined the army as drummer boy in 1912, at age 16, and made sergeant during World War I.

“It is clear he was an excellent soldier,” said Piet Chielens, who directs In Flanders Fields, the war museum in the Belgian city of Ieper that was better known to the soldiers of 1914-18 by its French name, Ypres.

“Then one day he decides to stay in a bunker with eight men because the stretch he has to cover is open to German fire,” he said. “He is charged with desertion and executed for that one crime.” What he did “was an error in judgment at best.” but most likely good soldiering common sense.

During his court-martial on Aug. 20, 1917, in the Belgian town of Poperinge, Wall said he had remained hunkered down to avoid German gunfire. He did not claim shellshock or battle fatigue. “He used tactical arguments in his defense,” said Chielens.

The final night before being shot at dawn in Poperinge.

Westhoek (Ieper) 11th Aug 2007. In Memory of those “Boys” from the 3rd Worc`s Battalion who lost their lives on Saturday the 11th Aug 1917. Including Sergeant John Thomas Wall (13216) 3rd Battalion Worcestershire Regiment

Sergeant John Wall,  3 Bn. Worcestershire Regiment
Poperinghe, Town Hall, 6 September 1917

“Heavy rain fell continuously … hampering further operations, and causing intense discomfort to the troops, who had no cover whatsoever, and were heavily shelled throughout this period, a considerable number of casualties being incurred [there]by, including a large number from the new gas shells.” (2)

Evacuating the wounded through the morass was difficult and there were many casualties. Before they withdrew, a quarter of the battalion had been killed or wounded. Their respite was brief, as plans were advanced to involve the unit in a further operation. For Wall, the good news was that the rain forced the abandonment of an attack by part of Lieutenant General Jacob’s 2 Corps. The bad news was that the attack, originally scheduled to take place on 2 August 1917, had merely been postponed for a week.

As soon as the weather eased, the assault was to be launched against the heavily defended front line German positions around the pulverised hamlet of Westhoek and nearby Glencorse Wood. The 25 Division General Staff noted:

“The North end of Westhoek Ridge had been captured on July 31st by the 8th Division and consolidated by us, but only a footing had been gained on the Southern end. The Southern end and the valley between Westhoek and Bellewaerde ridges was overlooked by the Germans both from Glencorse Wood and from the ridge itself. This rendered assembly it a very difficult matter indeed and one which would have to be carried out in darkness and silence. The German position was held by a series of isolated concrete gun and machine gun emplacements with portions of trenches. Behind these was a line of trench also held, and numerous machine guns in shell holes. It had been almost impossible to dig any assembly trenches owing to the condition of the ground, and what was dug was full of water. Therefore it was decided that the attack was to be carried out in a rush as quickly as possible, and keeping close under the barrage.”(3)

The attack on Glencorse Wood, “A mess of broken tree trunks lying on black slimy mud pitted with shellholes”, was to be the task of 18 Division. (4) The 25 Division, which included Wall’s battalion, was directed to assault Westhoek Ridge. On Thursday, 9 August the weather cleared. That evening, 3 Worcestershires were moved up from Halifax Camp to Bellewaerde Ridge. Two companies went into trenches immediately behind the crest of the Ridge, the remaining two companies, including Wall’s, relieved the 8 Border Regiment at Lake Farm and Railway Wood Dugouts. (5)

At 2 a.m. on 10 August Company Sergeant Major J. Davies told his platoon sergeants, including Wall, to order their men to move out from Railway Wood Dugouts. Weighed down with rifles, buckets of grenades, digging implements and wire-cutters, the platoons, at 200-yard intervals, made their way towards the assembly positions.  Plodding through gas-polluted mud, Wall’s company was inching over Bellewarde Ridge when the leading platoon lost its way in the darkness. The British bombardment erupted. Two minutes later German heavy guns retaliated, targeting the reinforcements assembled behind the advancing troops. Caught on the exposed crest of the Ridge, Wall’s platoon column was raked by storm of enemy shellfire. (6)
“Lt. Thomas Randle ordered the platoon to take cover and nine men, including Wall, huddled into a nearby concrete dugout. Others cowered outside, partially protected by the emplacement’s bulky exterior. After a while Sergeant Davies, taking advantage of breaks in the bombardment, detached small parties of the more exposed group and sent them on their way up the line. (7)

Amongst those who squeezed into the dugout was Pte. W.H. White, who later testified for the prosecution at Wall’s trial. White recalled that after hearing a summons from outside, six of the men in the dugout departed, leaving himself, Wall and Pte. Rowlands. After the shelling had abated Wall and White emerged from the dugout, searched vainly for the rest of the Company and concluded that they had gone back to Railway Wood Dugouts.

He added “Just then the enemy got up their barrage and so we remained in the dugout. We stayed there all that day and through the next day, the 11th August, up till about 5 or 6 p.m. when the shelling had ceased.”(8).

Wall, White and Rowlands then returned to the Railway Wood Dugouts and remained there until the Company returned on the morning of 12 August, when the sergeant reported himself present to the duty sergeant. On being asked where he had been, Wall explained that he had reported what had happened to an officer from another regiment. (9)

Wall was subsequently charged with desertion and tried by Field General Court Martial on 20 August. He was undefended but gave sworn testimony about his conduct. He said:

“As far as I knew the Company was going up in the supports for an attack. On the way we lost direction and halted. The enemy opened fire and our officer ordered us, ‘to take cover’. I looked round for cover from my platoon. I did not find any place except a concrete dugout in which I found 9 or 10 men and I joined them there, the rest of the company was sheltering around the dugout and in an old piece of trench. I stopped in the dugout. Whilst there Sergeant Barlow of my company came in and said ‘he wanted 4 to 6 men to go an a patrol’. He got his men from the dugout, leaving only Rowlands, White and I there. About 5 minutes later I went outside to see what the company was doing, or to get some men into the dugout, but I found that the company had gone.”

Wall had an impeccable military career. He had probably been faced by enemy fire more frequently than any of those who passed judgement on his behaviour. But his behaviour and battle experience was of little consequence to the court. Had it been otherwise then the Court Martial Officer attending Wall’s trial, Captain Griffith-Jones, an experienced barrister, would have been certain to counsel caution. However, the Court Martial Officer’s de facto function was not to defend the accused but to advise the court on matters of military-judicial procedure.

The comments of officers confirming the sentences passed on soldiers convicted by courts sometimes make observations to justify their view about a soldiers’ character, fighting ability and the combat performance of his unit. In Wall’s case there was only one entry, “Confirmed: D. Haig 2/9/17”. Since it was Wall’s first offence, Haig’s isolated confirmation departed from the usual confirmatory procedure. Usually, the opinions of battalion, brigade, division, corps and army commanders were only dispensed with when the authorities had already suspended a previous death sentence. However, Wall was certainly no recidivist. (13)
Further, German shelling had been so sustained and intense that the 25 Division General Staff diarist had felt impelled to underline the fact in his account: “The German shelling throughout the attack and all day was extremely severe.”(14)

The officer who authorised Wall’s court-martial was a celebrated Hampshire cricketer, Lt. Colonel Alexander Johnston, who had formerly commanded 10 Bn. Cheshire Regiment, also part of 7 Brigade. He had taken over from Brigadier General Cranley Onslow barely twenty-four hours before Wall’s platoon set out for Bellewaerde Ridge. The result of the first operation under Johnston’s command was a bloody fiasco which culminated in the British capturing Westhoek on the 10 August and being driven back by the hellish barrage of un-destroyed enemy artillery. Of the Worcestershires who took part in the attack 114 were casualties within twenty-four hours. (15)

Both General Jacob and Lt. Col. Johnston knew that the initial assault had scattered companies and platoons into isolated pockets across the entire divisional front. Thus Wall’s experience of being separated from the remainder of his company was far from unique. Consolidation of the initially successful assault on Westhoek was curbed a hellish combination of enemy snipers, machine guns and artillery.

Aside from enemy shellfire, the officers who made up the court martial, like the General Staff, failed to fully recognise the futility of an enterprise that made insufficient allowance for the state of the ground over which the troops were compelled to advance. The ground, a pestilent porridge at the beginning of the assault was turned into a glutinous, knee-deep swamp by a heavy thunderstorm on 11 August. By evening the rain-lashed mud was so bad it took half a dozen stretcher bearers two hours to drag a casualty to an aid post. (16) It begs the question, how long would it have taken Wall to have reached the remainder of his company – even had he known where they were located?

Wall was executed at 5.25 a.m. on 6 September at Poperinge by a firing squad under the command of Captain Alfred Vint, 3 Bn. Worcestershire Regiment. (17) Commenting in his diary, a fellow officer of Vint’s confided:

“6th September 1917. Dickebusch… Sergt. Wall ‘B’ Coy, shot by order of F.G.C.M. for cowardice in the face of the enemy. The sentence was carried out by a section found from all companies of this battalion; which is unusual, as hitherto firing parties have been found from another Battn. to that of the prisoner. To me, it seems a miscarriage of justice, as Wall had been out in France since August 1914, and had fought in many battles, and was probably quite mad at the time of his offence. One cannot go through three years of this inferno and keep sane in all circumstances.”(18)

Wall’s mental state was never an issue during his trial, though it is surprising that the court ignored the mitigating implications of battle fatigue. As for Wall being mad, temporarily or otherwise, when presenting his defence, Wall raised the issue of his own mental condition. Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that he did not consider himself to have been mad, either at the time of his trial or when he was being shelled on Bellewaarde Ridge.(18) And as far as the officers responsible for having Wall killed were concerned, it is not their sanity which remains at issue but their balance of judgement.

References:

1. AFB 112, FGCM: J. Wall, The National Archives, WO71/582.
2. War Diary: 3rd Bn. Worcestershire Regiment, 1 – 3.8.17, WO95/2244.
3. War Diary: 25th Division General Staff, 10.8.17, WO95/2224
4. Warner, P., Passchendaele (Sidgewick & Jackson: London: 1987), p. 54.
5. War Diary: 3 Bn. Worcestershire Regiment, 9.8.17, op. cit.
6. War Diaries cite different times for the initial bombardment: 4.45 a.m.
(25th Division General Staff); 4.00 a.m. (3 Bn. Worcestershire); 4.35
a.m. (11 Bn. Lancashire Fusiliers). Stacke, H.F., The Worcestershire
Regiment in the Great War (Kidderminster: Cheshire: 1929), states
4.25 a.m..
7. Testimony: No.12882 CSM J. Davies, WO71/582, op. cit.
8. Testimony: No. 34079 Pte. W.H. White, ibid.
9. Testimony: No. 10293 Sergt. J. Stokes, ibid.
10. Testimony: No. 13216 Sgt. J.T. Wall, ibid.
11. Davies, op. cit.. Lt. Randle could not testify because he had been killed in action on 11.8.17.
12. Ibid.
13. Wall, ibid.
14. War Diary: 25th Division General Staff, op. cit.
15. Casualties during month of August 1917, Appendix A, WO95/2244, op. cit.
16. Macdonald, M., They called it Passchendaele (Macmillan: London: 1978), p.119.
17. Vint had been awarded the Military Cross for leading A Company into action on 10.8.17.
18. Thanks to Maureen Kendrick for this reference.
19. This point is addressed by Judge Anthony Babington, see: For the Sake of Example (Leo Cooper: London: 1983) pp. 141 – 143.

We make reference to the letter he sent the day before his trial to his sister.

19 August 1917: Sergt J.Wall, 13216 B.Coy,3rd Battalion Worcs. Regt. B.E.F.France

Dear sister.

I now take the pleasure of writing these few lines in answer to your most kind and ever welcome letter which I received quite safe. Pleased to hear that you are in the best of health as it leaves me quite well at the present time of writing. Well dear Emily, I received the photo alright and I think he looks very nice it is as you say he does look wicked. Its a nice little boy all the same. Dear Emily, I received the tobacco alright. I wrote back and answered your parcel. They must have crossed on the way. Well dear Emily I had a letter from home the other day they are all getting on alright there at present. We are having soon lovely weather over here very hot the people are all busy harvesting now. You asked me if I have heard about the draft well yes. I have heard about them. Well dear Emily I haven’t married that Belgian girl not yet. I don’t think I shall not till after the war nor where we are because we are not allowed to. Well dear sister, I think I have said all for this time and I will close my short letter in sending my best hope and kisses from your loving brother Jack XXXXXX

P.S. Remember me to all. Thanks very much for the tobacco and photo.

There are a number of important considerations about the letter.

1) This is obviously not a letter from a worried man. He never thought that the trial that was waiting for him the following morning, would end in his execution. Being a boy from the country, he has even time to think about the harvest.

2) Who was the Belgian girl? The 25th Division only arrived in Flanders on 7 July (to Halifax Camp). They start of their Flanders campaign by taking a long tour of duty in the trenches near Hoge, until they come out of the line to Halifax Camp on the 23 July. Halifax is between Reningelst and Vlamertinge and was used lots as a camp on the way to or on the way from the front. Nobody could settle down there. There would have been Belgian civilians hanging around there, like around every camp, but it’s very unlikely that Wall met a girl there he could fall in love with.

3) The next day they move to a camp between Hooge Graaf and Reningelst (G 26 d 4.3) (Sheet 28 SW). There they stay for 5 days (refitting and training) until the 30th at night, when they moved into the reserve positions for the opening phase of Third Ypres. All the rest is font line duty again, until Wall is arrested. He must have met his Belgian girl before they left this rest camp. There was plenty of opportunity there, both Hooge Graaf and Reningelst were cramped with troops and estaminets. The Duke of Brabant is only 500 yards away, so is Hoog Graaf cabaret. The estaminets and all the rest in Reningelst are only a 20 minute walk away. Poperinge is not much further. He must have met the girl at that time, and he probably wrote about her to his sister before he went back to Bellewaarde on the 30th. He probably wrote Emily he wants to marry the Belgian girl, which makes his sister worry. The letter of the 19th August should reassure her that the marriage is not eminent, even if he would like it to be.

4) If he really was serious about his Belgian girl, and he’s not saying he isn’t (he just CAN’T marry here right now), this might have influenced his conduct on the Bellewaerde Ridge. For the first time he was thinking of survival rather than anything else. Therefore he looks somewhat better for shelter than he probably would have in other circumstances.

5) Finally, with reference to his letter, if Wall was so in love, this might have stirred jealousy among his companions. After all at the trial he’s done in by one, just one, witness’s testimony, that of CSM Davies.

6) Even if Davies statement wanted to harm Wall, the heavy sentence comes still as an enormous surprise. With his previous record Wall never should have got the death penalty. In the end he’s probably the victim of the fact that Col. Johnston wanted to establish his authority as a CO who meant business, with an example. During the assault on the Bellewaerde Ridge on 31st July and following days, the previous Bn he commanded, 10 Cheshires, had been in exactly the same exposed and untenable position as the Worcesters had been now. The casualty figures are very similar and very devastating (with the Cheshires even somewhat higher, up to 25% of the fighting strength).

7) With the Cheshires he had just experienced the escape and arrest of Pte. Bryant, whom Johnston had personally released from custody (he was awaiting trial for desertion) and had warned for the assault on the ridge on 30th July. Bryant would later be executed for this escape. It seems therefore quite possible that Lt.Col. Johnston deliberately sent the court martial papers straight on to Haig, bypassing all other levels of confirmation. Given this man’s record some senior officer might have objected to Wall being executed, and had the sentence commuted, which would have harmed the Johnston’s position.

8) The FGCM assembled probably in Dominion Camp (now in a field to the left of Feutenaarstraat between Reningelst and Vlamertinge) where 3 Worcs. were staying from the 19th till the 22nd August.

9) The weather was not good at all:

Pastor Van Walleghem: “11/8. The weather’s gone bad again, in the evening a terrible thunderstorm.12/8 Fine weather but in the evening again thunderstorms. The interpreter, Mr.Luneau, has been a few days in Zillebeke, and he tells me how bad it all is. It’s just one huge mud pool, with the constant shelling being the worst of all. On a surface of 500m² there fall every second 3 to 5 shells, for hours on end. The British have heavy losses.

13/8: Last night again a lot of rain. There has come a message from monseignieur De Brouwer to include an imperata, daily prayer, for good weather. The air is suffocating and overcast.”

Of the “Contemptible Little Army”, the Kaiser’s derisive description of the original BEF, a third had been killed by the end of the first battle of Ypres in November 1914. The second battle of Ypres, in early 1915, culled many survivors. Courage, stamina and good fortune combined to permit a handful to live long enough to fight in the third battle of Ieper during the soggy summer of 1917.

By these standards, John Wall was a miraculously lucky man. He was also a good soldier. He had joined the Army in 1912 and was serving as a Lance Corporal with 1 Bn Worcestershire Regiment when they arrived in France in August 1914. After thirteen months’ unrelieved active service with 1st Bn. he was transferred to 3 Bn. Worcestershire Regiment. By 1917 his combat record, exemplary discipline and very good character had secured Wall promotion to sergeant. (1)

 

She Never Smiled Again

Researched and written by Julian Putkowski in 1994. The notes accompanying the text of Wall’s final letter were researched and written by Julian Putkowski and Piet Chielens and featured in the “Unquiet Graves” International Conference held in Ypres/Ieper in 2000.

8 Responses to Shot At Dawn

  1. Peter Jones says:

    intrigued to see how many 3rd Batt Worcesters were shot. When I tried to find references in Astill’s edition of Johnston’s diaries, no mention. No Entries for significant dates in 1917 (Wall) but also July 1915 Ypres execution.

  2. ww1ieper1917 says:

    Thanks for the info Julian, I have added your notes.

  3. My maternal grandfather fought a Ypres, Arras and on the Somme. He was one of the very lucky few, he survived.

    I do not understand why the military ever had the power of death over volunteers and conscripts, it is vile. None of these men were deserters or cowards, they must have been scared beyond belief. In my view they are all heroes and their pardon is a century too late.

    Given what these men faced, the real miracle is that any of them were able to cope. A part of even those that survived like my grandfather must have died on those battlefields.

    Your story is a superb piece of research, well done.

    Best regards,

    Gary S. Crutchley

    • Jeff Clare says:

      You seem to forget the soldiers who didn’t desert, but stayed at their posts and put up with what was being thrown at them. They’re the ones who should be remembered, not the rouges who fled because they’d had enough.

  4. Kevin Hughes says:

    I publish a magazine in Worcestershire and I was wandering if I could publish this. I live in Droitwich. 07870 632895

    • ww1ieper1917 says:

      Hi Kevin. Thanks for the interest. Yes you can use the material here. Please Just add the appropriate credits. Is your mag online?…..regards Martin Newman.

      • Kevin Hughes says:

        Martin, Thank you very much. No it is not online but if you send me an address I will send you copies….kevin

  5. Jeff Clare says:

    Pardoning soldiers is just applying modern-day standards and re-writing history. The men were convicted and shot under the military conventions of the day. Not very nice, but it was a hundred years ago. What next? convicting British politicians and soldiers for their part in the brutal treatment of the Boers?

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