Soldiers shot for not putting on cap may at last be pardoned

Discussion in 'Military History and Militaria' started by jonwilly, Apr 3, 2006.

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  1. The Times April 03, 2006

    Soldiers shot for not putting on cap may at last be pardoned
    By David Sharrock, Ireland Correspondent

    ALL his life Christy Walsh wondered if it was true that his great-uncle, Patrick Downey, really was executed for refusing an order to put on his cap.
    “My mother talked about it a lot and you’d ask yourself: ‘Can she be right?’ It just didn’t make any sense at all. But when the Freedom of Information Act came about and all the documents were available, I discovered that’s what happened.”

    Mr Walsh is a member of a select band of Irish families who are seeking pardons from the British Government for their kin who, as serving soldiers in the Great War, were executed for desertion or insubordination — often for minor acts of rebellion.

    The group has the support of the Irish Government, which last week published its own investigation into the fate of the 26 Irishmen shot at dawn during the First World War.

    The atmosphere at the session of the Dail’s upper chamber was electric when Senator Martin Mansergh, a special adviser to three Irish prime ministers, disclosed that a forebear of his had passed the death sentence on Patrick Downey.

    “There is shame on all involved,” Mr Mansergh told the chamber. “I am afraid to say that included a first cousin of my grandmother, a Captain Mansergh who presided over one of the worst cases, that of Private Downey from Limerick.

    “I can only express the deepest regret to his family, including his great-nephew, for the little that is worth.”

    Mr Walsh shook his hand after the debate. “I told him there was no need for him to apologise, he had done nothing wrong,” he told The Times. “But it’s important now to the Walsh-Downey family, on both sides of the Irish Sea, that the stigma be removed . . . On all the available evidence, he was murdered.”

    Only one photograph survives of one of the 26 executed Irishmen. Rifleman James Templeton, from Belfast, was serving with the 15 Royal Irish Rifles when he was executed in March 1916. He had gone missing for three days. A brigadier general recommended that an example be made of him.

    Patrick Downey, 19, was at Salonika, Greece, on December 1, 1915, when it was alleged that he had refused to fall in and put on his cap. Downey, who had a history of minor insubordination, admitted the charge in the belief that a guilty plea would lead to a lesser sentence.

    The sentence passed by the court was agreed unanimously and the proceedings were referred to Lieutenant-General Sir Bryan Mahon, the commander of British Forces in Greece, who recommended the sentence as an exemplary punishment because of poor discipline in the battalion.

    Downey was executed at Eurenjik, near the port of Salonika, on December 27.

  2. Truly shocking, that not placing your headdress could result in death. Same thing these days, no tin lid and shrapnel takes your head off.

    Perhaps we should execute the ministers for sending us to war without CBA and Ammo!?
  3. I see this as an example of the fuzzy thinking that is going on here. The old specimen charge about Murphy throwing down his rifle and refusing to pick it up is applicable. The picking up of the cap was preparatory to falling in, The falling in was preparatory to moving off as a disciplined body. Refusal to take the first step was defiance. He was a known insubordinate soldier. Obviously, his NCO got a grip and stuck him on one. That led to the charge that was punishable by death. I have to repeat that the officers of that time knew very well what constituted cowardice and mutinous conduct. They needed no legal instruction. The swift - maybe even condign - punishment was necessary to deter others and stiffen them up. Tough justice to us but that is how things were in those times. Downey was not executed for failing to wear his cap - he was executed for showing his refusal to soldier by not wearing his cap.
  4. Agreed OldRedCap! The usual fuzzy ill-informed thinking from politicians and amateur historians. he wasn't topperd for a brach of Dress regulations but refusing to soldier on active service. The penalty was well known and war is a serious business. I hope the MOD will be robust in refusing any appeal for a pardon on this. Anyway, it's a bit late for the Irish Governmenat to be taking an interest in Irish soldiers of the Grat War given that they've comprehensively ignored them for the past 90 odd years!!
  5. I suppose the next thing will be an apology along the lines given for the potato famine.

    If you read For the Sake of Example and Blindfolded and Alone they put the business into perspective. There were a few executions carried out that on reflection were wrong.

    However, unlike the French Army, the British Army never mutinied and the lads served to the end. I think a blanket pardon would be wrong as a lot of those executed were not for cowardice but for murder, desertion and other crimes.

    The only way that any pardon could be given is to go through the court transcripts of all those sentenced. I don't know if they are available or not. :wink:
  6. Altogether 3,080 death sentences were passed by courts martial on British, Dominion and Colonial troops between the outbreak of war and 31st March 1920 when active service officially ceased.

    Sentences had to be confirmed by the commander in chief of the theatre who held a royal warrant authorising him to do so.

    Of the 3,080 who were sentenced to death in fact only 346 were actually executed:

    322 in France,
    5 in East Africa,
    4 in Mesopotamia,
    4 in Constantinople,
    3 in Gallipoli,
    3 in Salonika,
    2 in Egypt,
    1 in Italy,
    1 in Palestine
    and 1 in Serbia.

    The break down of offences for the 346 executed is:

    Casting away arms 2,
    Sleeping at post 2,
    Mutiny 3,
    Disobedience to a lawful command 5,
    Striking or using violence to a superior 6,
    Quitting a post without authority 7,
    Cowardice 18,
    Murder 37,
    Desertion 266,

    The case files, some of which comprise of as little as one piece of paper are available at the Public Records Office at Kew.
  7. Army's not what it used to be.
  8. Was it one of those caubeens?

    If so, I can understand his point of view.
  9. Amen to that. I only have my readings and tv reports to go by but the system that has replaced those standards does seem to have many snags that tend to bring the whole process near to scorn? There seems to be much wrong with the redress system. I chuck manning control in with disciplinary powers and that generates much aggro. The ALS and its successors caught much criticism. The sybills seem to do little better with PACE than we did with Judges Rules. Prosecutions brought/not brought attract criticism in equal measure. Allegations that friends in higher CoC are handy when the fit hits the shan.
    This is all pessicism and doubtless I have hold of the wrong end of the stick - or am I looking the wrong way down the binoculars?

    It will take a Federation to sort things out!!
  10. You can't have an military force without discipline.
    There is no discipline without fear.
    Fear of, loss of money, freedom, status, life or respect of your fellow men.
    With a person who quite litterally dosen't give a sh1t, and they do exsist, there is little you can do. (Colly ? yes and kick out)
    No military formation can sit down and debate orders as and when they are given.
    You sign on, you take the rewards and you do your duty.
  11. True, and he had established a history of insubordination. "minor" may have been a more recent opinion.
    Although, they could have just locked him up in a dark place.
  12. Yep, they could have locked him up. However, at the time Military Law said that the offence was punishable by death. Just because we wouldn't do it now doesn't mean that it was wrong then. Laws change & punishments change, but it was under the law and punishment rules at the time that he was convicted and sentanced, and it is (IMHO) correct that the sentance should stand. Yes sad for his family, but it is wrong to second guess the legal system that stood.

    Consider this - way back when, a person who stole a loaf of bread could be 'transported' to the penal colony in Australia. These days it would not even reach court. Does that mean that anyone who stole a loaf of bread in the 19th Century should be pardoned? It is just a matter of scale.
  13. I have always thought of this retrospective judgment as pointless. I am quite sure that the semi-serious statement "The army cannot make you do anything except be sorry you did not do as you were told" existed in the '14-'18 period. Soldiers knew what they risked. I bet there were just as many thought of desertion etc, but did not go through with it because of the punishment, as there were who did crack and were punished for it.
  14. I agree with oldredcap.

    This is pointless. All involved are dead and the issues are no longer relevant. The British Army doesn't use the death penalty any more.

    This campaign also obscures some of the real victims of military injustice during the two world wars. The hidden victims are the many Berlgian and French ciuvilians shot out of hand as spies or Fifht columnists. Look at the contemporary magazines and there are photgraphs of "suspects spies" given short shrift. Read the accounts in the NAM and IWM archives. Plenty of occasions where British soldiersa convinced themselves that some farmer ploughing his field was signalling to the enemy or that the rules of engagement allowed them to shoot nuns, priests or old women as suspected fifth columists.

    A pardon for those shot at dawn is really irrelevent. But the risks of misinteptreting civilian actions are very much a live issue -or dead if you are a Brazilian electrician.;) This is a matter which deserves more time and thought.
  15. I agree with you completely. He had also tempted fate with with 'insubordination' previously, and was bound to reach the most severe punishment for it.