Issue 2 - 2024 200dpi

23 August 2001 Edition

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Soldiers of misfortune

During the Great War, 26 Irishmen serving in the British Army were executed by firing squad on the flimsiest of pretexts. Many were underage. Some were mentally handicapped. None deserved their fate. MICHAEL MULQUEEN writes on the campaign to clear their names.

The men's Irish backgrounds made the haughty officer class even more inclined to sentence them on the most appallingly thin evidence and for the most ridiculous `offences'
Patrick J Downey from Limerick was just 19 when he was tied to a pole, blindfolded and shot by a firing squad on December 18, 1915. At least, he said he was 19. He was probably much younger. It is believed that he lied about his age so he could join the British Army for ``the great adventure'' in the French trenches.

The crime for which he was court-martialed was refusing the order of a senior officer to wear his hat. He didn't want to wear the hat because it was freezing cold and wet after it fell from his head while he was tied, crucifixion-style, to a wheel of a gun carriage.

He was one of 26 young Irishmen coldly shot to death by the British, for whom they were fighting in the First World War. This week, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern was asked to lend his support to the campaign to persuade British Prime Minister Tony Blair to grant pardons to these young men.

The pressure group Shot At Dawn, based in Britain, is leading a chorus of outrage about what it describes as the ``murders'' of the Irishmen, condemned to die because their nerves were shattered or because they were judged too ``stupid'' to be of any use as cannon fodder.

The group, backed up by expert research, reveals that the men's Irish backgrounds made the haughty officer class even more inclined to sentence them on the most appallingly thin evidence and for the most ridiculous ``offences''.

Like Patrick J Downey, many of the Irish sentenced to death as cowards and deserters were teenagers. Some were intellectually disabled, but still forced to represent themselves against their feared military superiors in courts that cared little for due process and ordered 306 dubious executions frequently because the top brass believed a firing squad was good for trench discipline.

For decades the stories of the Irish 26 were kept under lock and key on the orders of Whitehall. But the investigative efforts of both leading historians and Shot At Dawn have now revealed the shameful actions of the Army's officer class actions which still provoke fierce denials by the British military establishment.

Shot At Dawn founder John Hipkin (74), who was the youngest member of the British forces to be imprisoned during World War Two, speaks with passion of the Irish dead to whom he has given a voice.

``Ireland is an independent country, these are its own citizens,'' he says. ``If a Commonwealth country like New Zealand can pardon its five soldiers, the government of a sovereign country is in a much stronger position.

``Let us honour all our dead. Let Bertie Ahern align himself to Helen Clarke, the New Zealand premier. It would be a wonderful gesture to wipe the slate clean. It would cost the politicians nothing, there's no compensation involved. The relatives just want to get the names cleared.''

Most of these soldiers came from pitifully poor backgrounds and had little or no education. Although encouraged to join up either to preserve the Union with Britain or win Home Rule, they were brow-beaten, through a tradition of loyalty, into serving the moneyed elite.

World War One was the last true war of class distinction and terms such as battlefield trauma, nervous disorder and post-traumatic stress would have been regarded as evil among a General Corps whose guiding philosophy could generously be summed up as `Shoot the blackguards!'.

In the case of the Irish, the common soldier had to bear the burden not only of his servant class but also his accent, which quickly marked him out as a target for discrimination.

The number of Irish executed while serving with the British Army during war is alarmingly out of proportion, according to leading British academics including Professor Gerard Oram in his book Race, Eugenics and the Death Penalty Passed by Military Courts of the British Army.

Like his 25 executed comrades, Private no. 6/227 Patrick J Downey volunteered to fight. He joined the 5th Royal Munster Fusiliers and was later transferred to the 6th Leinster Regiment.

Details of his grim end came to light through groundbreaking investigations carried out by two historians, Julian Putkowski and Julian Sykes, for their book Shot At Dawn.

Perhaps suffering from the terrors of the trenches, maybe sickened by the sight of the rats that fed off the corpses of his comrades, Downey could not adjust to life at the front. It's not surprising. When his troubles peaked in November, 1915, he was officially listed as 19 years and nine months old, but is believed to have been a good deal younger.

That month, he was sentenced to 84 days of a barbaric practice known as `Field Punishment Number 1'. As well as performing heavy duties on restricted diets, Field Punishment Number 1 also involved being `crucified' by the wrists and ankles to cartwheels for periods each day.

We get a picture of what it was like for Downey in the writings of another soldier, Archie Baxter, a conscientious objector who survived the punishment: ``My hands were tied together and pulled well up, straining and cramping muscles and forcing them into an unnatural position... I was strained so tightly... that I was unable to move a fraction of an inch... the pain grew steadily worse until by the end of half-an-hour, it seemed absolutely unendurable.''

It appears that on the following day, Downey's cap, which he was forced to wear while tied, fell into the freezing muck of the tented camp where his division was billeted. He was ordered by a Captain Craddock to put the sodden cap back on his head, but twice refused.

For this, he was hauled before a full Field General Court Marshal. Transcripts of the entire trial, obtained by Julian Putkowski, run to three pages of notepaper, less than one-third of the length of this article.

His trial took place at Hasanli, Serbia, on 1 December 1915. Presiding was a Captain R Mansergh, 6th Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles, and two lieutenants. Official regulations that a Field Officer preside over his case were waived by Brigadier-General RS Vandeleur on the grounds that ``none can be spared''.

Remarkably, Downey was recorded as having pleaded guilty to disobeying a lawful command of a superior officer, an admission that was tantamount to suicide. At no point did the teenager, who had to represent himself, request to cross-examine any of his superiors who testified against him. He simply told the court that he had never been in prison while in civilian life.

Captain Mansergh and his fellow officers were unanimous in sentencing him to death, noting his ``very bad'' character. Downey started to laugh and said: ``That is a good joke. You let me enlist and then you bring me out here and shoot me.''

The proceedings were referred to Lieutenant-General Bernard Mahon, Commanding British Forces in Greece, who tellingly wrote: ``Under ordinary circumstances, I would have hesitated to recommend that the Capital Sentence awarded be put into effect as a plea of guilty has erroneously been accepted by the Court, but the conditions of discipline in the Battalion is such as to render an exemplary punishment highly desirable and I therefore hope that the Commander in Chief will see fit to approve the sentence of death in this instance.''

Downey was shot at 8am on December 18, 1915, at Eurenjik, near the port of Salonika, by a firing squad commanded by a Captain Charles Villiers of the 10th Irish Division. His death was reported to be instantaneous.

As we see with Downey, battle trauma or shell-shock as it used to be called wasn't recognised as a defence; nor were what we would label `special needs' in today's more correct terminology. But Derry-born Private Bernard McGeehan, who was about 30 when he was executed, fell most assuredly into that category, according to Julian Putkowski of London University.

Putkowski has been researching and writing about dissent and discipline in the First World War British Army for over 20 years. He includes McGeehan's case in a book, Unquiet Graves, he is writing with Flemish historian Piet Chielens.

Of those officers who sentenced Private McGeehan to death, Putkowski says: ``Their callous, compassionless and unimaginative behaviour toward McGeehan provides further ammunition for critics who insist that senior British officers had neither sympathy not understanding about the plight of the rank and file during the First World War.''

McGeehan was hauled before a Field General Court Marshal on a charge of desertion, following the massacre of more than half of his battalion at Guillemont in August, 1916. McGeehan, described as ``stupid'' by his officers, was kept behind lines on transport duty during action and so survived. He was listed as missing for six successive days in September, eventually turning up without rifle or equipment.

His trial, recorded on just two pages of unlined paper, makes depressing reading. Putkowski says: ``What was to emerge about the soldier's character during the latter part of his trial and subsequently, and the failure of the court to secure an officer to assist McGeehan's defence reduced the proceedings to a shoddy exercise in judicial murder.''

McGeehan's own testimony tells of a hopeless man unable to cope with being the brunt of trench bullying: ``Ever since I joined, all the men have made fun of me and I didn't know what I was doing when I went away. Every time I go into the trenches, they throw stones at me and pretend it is shrapnel, and they call me all sorts of names. I have been out here 18 months and had no leave.''

That did not quench the bloodlust of his senior officers, who agreed that he be condemned to die. ``He seems of weak intellect and is worthless as a soldier,'' said his judges, his jury and his executioners.

From a modern standpoint, the implications of McGeehan's case are clear: he, like many others, was shot to death, argues Putkowski, ``because his officers felt he had no further military use as a fighting man, other than as a source of grisly propaganda with which to intimidate his fellow soldiers''.

Evidence of McGeehan's shattered nerves, intellectual weakness and torment by bullies cut no ice. Neither did the mercy plea of Belfast's George Hanna, who was refused leave when three of his brothers died in action. Nor that of Dublin's Thomas Davis, who was executed even though he had dysentary.

Shot At Dawn may well have fired the first salvo in the battle for belated justice for these soldiers.

An Phoblacht
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