When the men enlisted in 1914 they knew that they may face execution for a number of offences including, mutiny, cowardice, self-inflicted wounds and desertion, striking an officer, sleeping while on duty and helping the enemy. It was just 35 days into the conflict that the first sentence was carried out. Private Highgate was executed for fleeing from the Battle of Mons. He was just 17 years old.
The men were tried by Field General Court Martial. They were allowed to be represented by a ‘friend’ which might be a Battalion officer. The defendant could ask questions of witnesses, make a statement and call his own witnesses. If a not guilty verdict was reached, then it was announced immediately, if not then mitigating circumstances could be heard together with evidence of the soldier’s character. The Commander-in Chief had the ultimate decision.
There were 240,000 Court Martials during the war of which 3,080 were given death sentences, but only 346 were carried out. Only 18 of those executed were for “Cowardice”. Why were some executed? If the officers deemed that the man would not make an effective soldier as in the case of Private Lawrence. Devonshire Regiment “the man is a useless soldier” or his execution was the best action to ensure discipline, then it was inevitably carried out. A report on Private Lawrence said “Such an example must have a dangerous influence on the fighting qualities of those with whom he comes in contact and such an exemplary punishment is required for the sake of a deterrent”. Shell shock – was first acknowledged in 1915, but was not easily demonstrated as a condition, subsequently many were said to be using it as an excuse. Medical opinion was very often not admissible in the courts.
Capital punishment for desertion was abolished in 1930. These men are not given different treatment in death and lie in Commonwealth War Graves alongside their comrades. In 2006 after a campaign, 306 of those executed were pardoned, the others were convicted of crimes such as murder which would have carried the death penalty in civilian life
All that can be confirmed about Ernest is, he was born about 1896 probably in the London area, and that his father’s name was John Lawrence whose address post war was 101 Clifton Road, South Norwood, London.
Ernest joined the army at the beginning of 1916, starting his overseas service in June of that year. It wasn’t long after Ernest’s arrival in France that on the 1st July the 2nd Battalion Devonshire Regiment saw action in the Battle of the Somme. Ernest would have been part of and witnessed some of the bloodiest fighting of the war so far. He entered an environment of constant shelling and the fear of going over the top after seeing so many of his comrades cut down. . On the first day of the Somme the 2nd Battalion had 232 killed and 199 wounded. Towards the end of 1916 the bad weather would have meant cold and muddy living conditions in the trenches. The Battle of the Somme was fought until November 1916.
Ernest was charged with three counts of desertion all of which happened between 5th March and 23rd May 1917. His Court Martial took place on 7th November 1917 in Ypres.
The first time Ernest went missing was on 5th March when he was part of a party detailed to get rations from Aldershot Dump about 1200 yds from the support lines at Bouchavesnes and take them to ‘B’ Company. Two witnesses testified that when the party were ordered to fall in at 6.30pm that evening, Private E. Lawrence was missing. His arrest came on 11th March at No 2 Infantry Base Depot, Rouen. Private Lawrence had reported there stating he had come from No 8 Stationary Hospital. When at the base Sergeant Skinner of the Connaught Rangers asked Lawrence how he had left his Battalion, Lawrence told him he had reported sick while on the ration party and was sent to a Casualty Clearing Station. This explanation was his defence at the trial. Sergeant Skinner was not satisfied with his explanation placing Lawrence in the guard room until he was picked up for escort back to the Battalion.
The second offence occurred on 8th May 1917 when Lawrence, a prisoner at the time, was handed over to Sergeant G. Down, the senior Sergeant of a working party in the front line at Gonnelieu. The party started work on the night of 8th May and between midnight and 1am Lawrence was accounted for. The party then marched back to the quarry about 100yds behind the front line to hand in their picks and shovels, by the time they had reached the quarry Lawrence was found missing. He was arrested on 15th May when he went to Camp 16 No 49 Infantry Base Depot at Harve asking for money. His pay book was requested, but Lawrence did not in initially have it on him, he went to get the book, that was when Corporal O.E Champion RFA, who was on duty that day became suspicious. He noticed that the book had been tampered with. The signature on page one was Richards, but on page three the signature of Lawrence appeared. Later when Lawrence was being questioned by an officer, Corporal Champion found the two pages torn out of the pay book in Lawrence’s kit.
At his trial, Lawrence admitted using the name Richards and tampering with the pay book. He stated he was in Havre because he was at risk of being recognized in Rouen. He had made his way to Rouen first to finish plans he had made for a trench mortar to his own design, because his Commanding Officer. Lieutenant Colonel Sutherland had been reluctant to help him. He admitted he had torn out the pay book page when as he stated “I had lost. It was a bold game to play”.
The third and final time Lawrence left his Battalion was on 23rd May 1917. Lance Corporal R. Bradford was in charge of the escort of Lawrence back to the Battalion at Aize Court. He ordered two men to take Lawrence over to a motor wagon, but within five minutes Lawrence had disappeared.
He made his way to Pont Le Larche where he reported on 28th May to the Engine Repair Shop of the Royal Flying Corp. He had on him a letter and telegram purporting to have been signed by Lieutenant Colonel Sutherland. Lawrence managed to stay with the RFC until his arrest on August 9th. He stated at his trial that while he was away he had managed in that time to pass his trade test. He had at this time been known to have used the name Shakespeare.
Private Ernest A. Lawrence was found guilty of all three counts of desertion and sentenced to be executed by firing squad. The report said that the record of this man showed him to be a thoroughly useless soldier and that the state of discipline within the Regiment is good, therefore such an example of this man’s behaviour would have a dangerous influence on the fighting qualities of those in his Battalion. An exemplary punishment was required for the sake of a deterrent.
Brigadier General G.W. St. G Grogan said Lawrence’s undesirable influence was likely to infect the fighting troops. Lieutenant Colonel A. Tillett DSO MC, Commanding Officer 2nd Devons said, Lawrence was a constant source of trouble in the Battalion and was of no fighting value.
Another senior officer said “During this man’s service with this Battalion he had been a constant source of annoyance and absolutely untrustworthy, both as a fighter and in everyday ordinary work. He is sullen and inclined to be insolent. I am of the opinion that the crime was deliberately committed with the sole object of avoiding the particular service involved.”
Private Ernest A. Lawrence was executed by firing squad between 6.30am -7.30m on 22nd November 1917 at Ypres prison. He is buried in Ypres Reservoir Cemetery. His father John asked that the words “In loving memory of my dear son. Gone but not forgotten” be engraved on his gravestone.
William Anderson was born 1896 in Stratford, London, and the son of William Henry Anderson, a dockland warehouseman and his wife Elizabeth. The family lived for much of William’s childhood in West Ham before eventually moving to Barking in Essex. William was one of five with three sisters and a brother. He enlisted on 5th August 1914 at Stratford still only 17 years old, while still serving in 3rd Battalion Dorsetshire Regiment, a Reservist Battalion. His height was given as 5ft 9 inches and he weighed 131Ibs. His enlistment record does not give an occupation and William declared he had not been living in his father’s house for the previous three years. William’s brother, Horace Charles joined the 3rd/4th Battalion Dorsetshire Regiment. He died on 11th December 1920 after an operation while stationed in Belfast. He is honoured as official war dead and buried in Barking [Rippleside] Cemetery, Essex.
It was not long after enlistment that William started getting into trouble. In December 1914 he forfeited pay then had 21 days detention. In February 1915 he was given 112 days detention for leaving his post and allowing a prisoner to escape. William joined the Battalion in Gallipoli on 22nd September 1915 at a time when conditions were at some of their worst. The weather was beginning to become wet and cold and disease was rife throughout the troops. William got into trouble again, just two weeks after arriving he was tried by Field General Court Martial [FGCM] for disobeying a command by his superior officer and sentenced to three months field punishment No1, which meant being tied or cuffed to a stationary object [gun wheel or post] for up to two hours every day. Before the sentence expired, the troops were evacuated from Gallipoli, moving to Imbros. It was while there that Anderson got into trouble again this time for absence and was sentenced to 112 days detention. While under detention he was moved with the Battalion to Alexandria, Egypt.
The Battalion left Egypt for France in early July 1916, the Battle of the Somme had already begun and the Battalion went into the line south of Arras which was relatively quieter. In September, the Battalion took part in an attack at Mouquet Farm in which two thirds of the Battalion were lost or wounded. They suffered heavy losses again in the winter at Beaucourt.
William Anderson was charged with two counts of desertion, the first from 29th September 1916 to 13th October 1916 when he was arrested by Military Police. The second charge was “When on active service, Desertion”. Of the third offence William was missing on New Year’s Day 1917 from the trenches near Beaucourt. He managed to find his way back to England where he was arrested by civilian police on 30th January still in uniform.
William’s trial took place on 9th March 1917, he refused an officer as a ‘friend’. Unfortunately the witness statements at the trial are hand written in pencil and have become almost impossible to decipher. Anderson pleaded guilty to the first charge, and not guilty to the other two charges. When he was picked up in England he claimed he was on leave but had lost his ticket.
William Anderson was found guilty of all three charges and sentenced to death. He was executed by firing squad at 06.12 on 31st March 1917 at Beauquesne. In 1935 his remains, together with two others, were re-interred into the extension of Gezain Court Communal Cemetery.
John Lewis was born about 1896, possibly in Barking, Essex. At his trial he couldn’t confirm if his age would be 20 or 21 at his next birthday, It is recorded with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission that his parents were Alfred and Mary living after the war at 1 Factory Road, Barking. The only other reference to family is from a newspaper article relating to his appearance in magistrates court after his arrest, when a sister Joanne testified. No other confirmed records could be found to John’s life before the war.
John Lewis enlisted in April 1915 and joined the Regiment at Imbros on 2nd January 1916 when the Battalion had left after Gallipoli, going to Egypt then to France. He served with William Anderson from the day he joined the Battalion.
John Lewis was charged with when on active service ‘Desertion’. John Lewis was initially to be tried together with William Anderson, but on 28th April 1917 a new trial for Lewis was ordered. A prosecution witness at his trial gave evidence that Lewis was with a party of 25 detailed to serve with the 88th Company Royal Engineers in the line at Mouquet Farm on 9th September 1916. On 28th September a senior NCO reported to 2nd Lieutenant in charge of the detail that Lewis could not be found and was not seen leaving the trenches.
13481 Sgt. J. Richards 5th Dorsetshire Battalion testified that no leave warrants to England had been issued between September 1916 and 1917. None of the prosecution witnesses were cross examined.
John Lewis together with William Anderson did make his way to England and in December 1916 he was arrested in Folkestone, this was reported in the local paper when he appeared before the magistrate. He was using the alias ‘Thomas William Jones’. He had already been before the same court the week previous under his false name charged with wearing military uniform without authority. He had been remanded while inquiries were made, this was when it was found he was a deserter. Joanne Lewis from Barking testified that he was her brother and that she had seen letters from the front and a letter three weeks ago reporting he was missing. John Lewis said he liked the army and could not remember anything about deserting.
At his trial John Lewis defence was that he could not remember anything about being absent from the trenches. He said he had roamed about Fuchevillers and a town officer offered him some tea. He was sent to Toutencourt where he worked for two or more months for the APM, living with some state Territorials. He said an officer sent him to Boulogne where he was handed to two gunners going on leave and from there handed to the police in Folkestone. The magistrate sent him to the Depot in Dorchester.
On cross examination Lewis said he had lost his ID discs and didn’t know where his pay book is.
John Lewis was found guilty of desertion. A senior officer recommended that the death penalty be carried out.” It was the opinion that this crime was deliberately committed with the sole object of avoiding the particular service involved”.
John Lewis was shot by firing squad on 19th April 1917. He is buried in Forceville Communal Cemetery.
It should be noted that Major General A.B Richie 11th Division said he could see no reason for the sentence being carried out in both cases of Anderson and Lewis and commutation was recommended.
By Jane Mills, Researcher at the Keep Military Museum