Deserters - Shot at Dawn
At the time of the Great War discipline was a major factor in army life.
Desertion, especially in the face of the enemy, was considered the greatest crime and so it carried a punishment of execution.
In modern times we have grown to understand the mental pressure that men are under at times of war and to accept that many of the deserters were suffering from levels of stress that prevented rational thought and in almost all of the cases their desertion did not deserve a death sentence.
One hundred years ago, public opinion was quite different with neither the army hierarchy or the medical fraternity aware of the effects of stress. This ultimate sanction was considered essential by the military command to prevent mass desertion from the front lines when judged against the risk of death run by men on the front line.
During the Great Way 3080 members of the British Army were sentenced to death for desertion although over 90% had their sentence commuted by Field Marshall Haig.
Three members of the Essex Regiment were executed for desertion during the war.
Private 8278 Archibald Browne of 2nd Battalion executed for plundering and desertion on 19 December 1914
Private 21161 Harry Martin of 9th Battalion executed for desertion on 20 March 1918
Second Lt John H Patterson of 1st Essex executed for murder and desertion on 24 September 1918
The Police Gazette listed deserters on a regular basis. 77 Deserters from the Essex Regiment were recorded in the Police Gazette , mostly from the UK based 3rd ( Reserve) Battalion which was based in the UK to train recruits for the frontline Essex Battalions.
In 2006 most of the deserters, including Privates Browne and Martin received pardons for desertion.
Deserters were buried in the war cemeteries alongside their comrades. Their graves are marked in the normal way with no indication that their death was by firing squad.
Julian Putkowski and Julian Sykes have written an excellent book called Shot at Dawn which provided details of those executed and explains in detail procedures involved.