Soldiers of the 1st Battalion, Cheshire Regiment, “Shot at Dawn” During the Great War
The “Shot at Dawn” Memorial in the National Memorial Arboretum commemorates 306 soldiers (but not 40 others executed for murder and mutiny).
The Memorial Statue is modelled on Pte. 3832 Herbert Burden. At the age of 16, Private Herbert lied that he was two years older so he could join the Northumberland Fusiliers and fight in the war.
By the time he faced the firing squad on 21 July 1915, Pte Burden was 17 – still too young to even officially be in his Regiment.
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In August 2006 the then Defence Secretary, Des Browne (now Lord Browne of Ladyton), reversed a former Parliamentary decision. He stated that he did not want “to second guess the decisions made by commanders in the field, who were doing their best to apply the rules and standards of the time“, but that “it is better to acknowledge that injustices were clearly done in some cases, even if we cannot say which – and to acknowledge that all these men were victims of war“.
In 2007, the Armed Forces Act 2006 was passed allowing the soldiers to be pardoned posthumously, although section 359(4) of the act states that the pardon “does not affect any conviction or sentence.”
…. the soldiers who were executed and the right in 2006 to grant a blanket pardon to the 306 men ‘Shot at Dawn’ by the British Army.
The following 6 men of Cheshire Regiments were executed during the First World War. Only two of them – Private 10263 J. E. Bolton and Corporal 10459 G. Povey – were of the 1st Battalion, although it seems that Corporal Povey joined as a replacement after the initial embarkation:
Cemetery: Roclincourt Valley Cemetery Grave: II.F.7. Executed: 14 April 1916 (Desertion) Age: 23 ? (Probably: 19)
Personal: According to his Service Papers Edward was born on 17th February 1894, i.e. on 8th November 1913, aged 19 years 265 days. The only other family mentioned is a brother, Charles, and a sister, Miss Sarah J. Cunningham, 22 Union Street, Wigan. [This would tie in with the assertion made in his 2nd Courts Martial that he enlisted under an assumed name – ‘Bolton‘.]
By a process of elimination it is most likely that he was the son of Frederick George (Coal Miner) and Christiana (née Davies) Cunningham, of 22 Adelaide Street, Wigan (1901 Census RG 13/3554). The same source states he was born in Ince-in-Makerfield, Lancashire, probably in the December quarter 1896 (the location he deserted to in 1916) – certainly not February 1894, as given in his enlistment Papers. He had an older sister, Sarah Jane Ward, and younger brother, Charles Ward. (see Footnote below)
Edward’s father died on 21st November 1910 in Wigan Workhouse Infirmary; his mother on 2nd November 1912 at 5 Clephans Yard, School Lane, Wigan. Christiana had 2 daughters from a former marriage to Charles Clarke, Rose and Mary Elizabeth.
At the time of his enlistment in November 1913, giving his age as 19, Edward stood 5 ft. 2¼ ins. [1.58 m.] tall and weighed 8 st. 0 lbs. [50.8 kgs.]. He had a ‘fresh’ complexion, grey eyes and dark brown hair and gave his occupation as: “Town Carter“.
Military Service: Edward attested on 8th November 1913, stated aged 19 years 265 days, on a 7 + 5 period of service (i.e. 7 years on ‘Active’ Service followed by 5 years ‘Reserve’).
His date of birth shown above suggests he knocked about 2 years off so was probably only 17 at the time.
He was already serving in the 3rd (Special Reserve) Battalion, Border Regiment. He was posted to the 1st Battalion, Cheshire Regiment, in Londonderry on the 11th. On 14th March 1914 he was appointed Lance Corporal.
As a Regular soldier when War was declared he sailed to France with the Battalion in August 1914 and took part in the the Battle of Audregnies, on 24th August, serving on the left of the line under Captain J. L. Shore.
On 28th October 1914 it was reported that Edward had been absent from the Battalion since the 22nd but was recaptured, being tried for Desertion on 11th August 1915. The charge was: ‘When on active service deserting H.M. Service’. Sentence of death was commuted to 10 years’ Penal Servitude by the Commander in Chief, and later ‘Sentence suspended‘ on 12th September 1915. [It is probable he was only 19 years old at the time.]
Three months later, he was granted leave to return to England, failed to return and was arrested at Ince-in-Makerfield, Lancashire (see above) where he had been working under the name of ‘Cunningham‘. On 11th March 1916 Edward was returned to France for his second trial, posted to the 5th Infantry Base Unit ‘As a Prisoner“.
Edward disputed none of the evidence, giving an account of having originally enlisted in the name of Bolton because he had been in trouble (his real name being Cunningham); of his being treated with contempt in the Regiment after his first desertion; and of some effort made to join another Regiment when he had been in England.
Edward asked for another chance, but in vain. His Service Papers were endorsed:
“Tried by F.G.C.M. 24.3.16. Convicted of ‘When on active service deserting H.M. Service’. Sentenced to suffer death by being shot. Duly carried out at 5.00 a.m. 14th April 1916.”
In total Edward had served 2 years 158 days with the Colours, 1 year 242 days in France. He was probably only 19 years old.
Joseph’s younger brother, Pte. 43883 Charles War Cunningham, enlisted in the 18th Battalion, Manchester Regiment, on 21st January 1915.
He served until he was wounded and discharged on 1st September 1917.
Cemetery: Bethune Town Cemetery Grave: VI. H. 3 Executed: 27th October 1917 – Desertion (repeat Offender) Age: 33
Details: From his CWGC age record, Ernest was born about 1884, but with no other details, other than Ernest was a “Gentleman’s Servant” in civilian life, it has not been possible to trace any of his former personal details.
Ernest initially enlisted in the 15th (1st Birkenhead) Battalion, Cheshire Regiment, before being posted to the 10th. His MIC does not give a date for him landing in France, indicating it was after the end of 1915.
The 10th (Service) Battalion was formed at Chester on 10th September 1914 as part of Kitchener’s 3rd New Army and came under orders of 75th Brigade in 25th Division. It moved to Aldershot in May 1915 and on 26th September 1915 the Battalion landed at France.
He had been wounded in both legs early in the Somme offensive in 1916 and following a period of convalescence returned to his unit in February 1917. In March he went absent and remained at large for four months until he was caught in Boulogne sur Mer.
On return to his unit, he made off during training exercises, but was arrested 4 days later in Boulogne. When arrested in Bailleul 9 days later, he gave false particulars of identity.
With multiple cases against him he was found guilty and sentenced to death and buried in Bethune Town Cemetery.
Cemetery: Longuenesse Souvenir Cemetery (St Omer) Grave: V. F. 71. Executed: 6th May 1916 – Disobedience Age: 20 (18)
Personal: James was born in the June quarter 1898, the son of George (Tinsmith) and Edith Lucy (née Edwards) Cuthbert. He had an older brother, George, and 6 younger brothers and sisters, John, Annie, Rose, Thomas and Edith.
In 1901(Census RG 13/3804) the family were living at 61 Webster Street, Oldham, Lancashire. They were at the same address 10 years later (1911 Census RG14/24517) and James was working as a “Cotton Mill Piercer“.
The ‘Register of Soldiers’ Effects‘ show that an amount of £1 17s 10d [£1.89 – equivalent to about £210 today – 2023] was returned to James’ father in September 1916.
Military Service: The 9th (Service) Battalion was formed at Chester on 13 September 1914 as part of Kitchener’s 3rd New Army and came under orders of 58th Brigade, 19th (Western) Division. After training the Battalion was posted to France and on 19th July 1915 landed at Boulogne. James’ Medal Index Card shows he joined the Battalion on 19th December 1915.
James was tried by court martial number 6078 along with Pte. 6758 John Dineen and Pte. W. Bate. He was shot at 4.45 am on 6th May 1916. It was as clear a case as any in which a man was shot as an example to others. ‘I regard this as a case where an example is necessary‘, the Commander of the First Army wrote, ‘this man deliberately refused to obey an order owing to the element of danger attaching to it- I recommend the Sentence should be carried out in all Three Cases.’
Cemetery: Écoivres Military Cemetery Grave: II. E. 7. Executed: 30th May 1916 – Quitting post Age: 31
Personal: James was born in Moulton, Cheshire, in the June quarter 1884, the son of Samuel (Carpenter) and Mary (née Harding) Holland. He had three older siblings, William, Mary and Annie, and a younger brother, John.
In 1891 (Census RG 12/2837) he was living with the family at 12 Chapel Street, Northwich. Ten years later (1901 Census 13/) they were at the same address and James was employed as a ‘Carpenter’s Labourer‘. The 1911 Census (RG 14/) shows James still living with his parents at 8 Oldhams Hill, Winnington, Northwich, and working as a “Domestic Gardener“.
When he enlisted, aged 30, he stood 5ft. 8 ins [1.73 m.] tall, weighed 8st. 8 lbs. [54.4 kgs.], had a ‘fresh’ complexion, brown hair and brown eyes.
Military Service: The 10th (Service) Battalion was formed at Chester on 10th September 1914 as part of Kitchener’s 3rd New Army and came under orders of 75th Brigade in 25th Division. It moved to Aldershot in May 1915 and on 26th September 1915 the Battalion landed at France.
James had already enlisted on 30th August 1914 at Northwich. He was posted to the 10th Battalion on 15th September 1914. After being promoted to Lance Corporal on 29th March 1915, he was reduced to Private 3 months later. James was posted with his Battalion to France on 26th September 1915, and again promoted to Lance Corporal, in the field, on 12th February 1916.
James’ Service Papers detail the barest facts of his trial:
“Tried by F.G.C.M. 18/5/16 for (i) Misbehaving before the enemy in such a manner as to show cowardice. (ii) When on Active Service leaving his post without orders from superior Officers.
Findings: (i) charge Guilty, (ii) charge Not Guilty. Sentence: Death sentence confirmed by C, in Chief Gen. Sir Douglas Haig 28/5/16. Authority D.J.A.G. Ho1467, 28/5/16. In arrest awaiting trial from 8/5/16 to 17/5/16. Sentence duly carried out at 3.38 a.m. 30/5/16.”
James had served just 1 year 274 days with the Regiment, the last 247 days in France.
…. the trial of Pt. James Holland with this Transcript of his trial and witness statements
Cemetery: Bailleul Communal Cemetery Extension Grave: III. A. 219. Executed: 21st November 1916 – Desertion Age: 20
Personal: William was born in August 1896 (baptised on 27th at Holy Trinity Church, Chester). He was the fourth (of four) child of Alfred and Mary (née Thompson) Moon and was born at 7 Weaver’s Street, Chester.
His older siblings were Albert, Martha and Elizabeth (1901 Census RG 13/3372).
By the 1911 Census William was living with his mother and sister. Elizabeth, at 22 Commonhall Street, Chester and working as a “Stationer’s Porter“.
The ‘Register of Soldier’s Effects‘ records that he was executed by order of a Field General Court Martial and an amount of £3 15s 8d [£3.79] was returned to his father, Alfred. at 106 Alfred Street, Chester. (This is equivalent to about £420 today – 2023).
Military Service: William’s Medal Index Card shows he entered France on 28th September 1915.
The 11th Battalion landed in France two days earlier as part of 75th Brigade in the 25th Division and their first action was in defence of the German attack on Vimy Ridge in May 1916. The Battalion was one of the first into action on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, attacking Thiepval from the direction of Authuille.
William was one of the members of ‘A’ Company, 11th Battalion. In December 1915, during another battle, an artillery shell landed near him and he was hospitalised at least twice.
On 22nd October 1916 the Battalion was relieved to go back to Albert then Warley and Authieule before entraining at Doullens for Bailleul on the 29th October 1916.
Lance Corporal Moon had deserted at some time during the Somme Battle and was tried at a Courts Martial on the 11th November 1916, convicted and shot 10 days later.
“Lance-Corporal William Moon was one of many shell-shocked soldiers to face the firing squad, the explosion of his mate’s head and brains into his face putting him, as he wrote with some understatement, “in a queer state”. Other deserters had simply seen enough horror and decided to vote with their feet before they, too, lost their lives or their senses.”
Memorial: Ypres Menin Gate Panel: 22 Executed: 11th February 1915 – Quitting post Age: 23
Personal: George was born at Cop House, Sealand, Flintshire, Wales, in the September quarter 1891. He was one of the eight children of Robert (Sheet Metal Packer) and Dinah (née Ashbrook) Povey. He had 4 older siblings, Thomas, Mary, Elizabeth and Richard, and 3 younger, Robert, Annie and John.
The 1901 Census records that the family lived at 2 Davies Cottages, Hawarden, Flintshire (Census RG 13/3379). Ten years later (1911 Census RG 14/) George was lodging with the family of Thomas (his eldest brother) and Minnie Povey at 19 Primrose Street, Connah Quay. His occupation was stated as “Patent Manure“! His father, Robert, had died in the June quarter 1908, his mother, Dinah, had moved to 51 Primrose Street, Connah Quay.
The ‘Register of Soldier’s Effects‘ records that he was executed by order of a Field General Court Martial and in December 1915 an amount of £2 15s 3d [£2.76] was returned to his mother, Dinah, (This is equivalent to about £365 today – 2023).
Military Service: George’s Medal Index Card shows he was posted to the BEF in France on 18th December 1914, so was probably one of those reinforcements referred to in the War Diary on the 24th: “Capt. Lloyd, Lt. Mares, 2/Lt. Hazeon, 2/Lt. Rhodes & 2/Lt. Michener & 444 N.C.O.s & men joined from England. 1 man wounded.“
In December 1914 and January 1915, the 1st Battalion Cheshire Regiment was holding the line in the vicinity of Wulverghem (Wulverghan) in the Ypres Salient.
Although there had been little movement by either the German or British positions for a couple of months, the General Staff were unsettled about the large scale unofficial truce that had recently taken place in no-man’s land. Although men from the Battalion had not fraternised with the enemy during the celebrated Christmas Truce, half a dozen other battalions from 5 Division, including from 1/6 Battalion Cheshire Regiment had done so, and enjoyed a boisterous football match with the enemy.
After a couple of days, hostilities resumed and although the cold and muddy conditions at the front were unsuitable for major operations both sides were constantly probing the others defences. The latter activities included reconnaissance patrols or raids that were generally conducted at night. The procedure for dealing with these incidents generally stipulated that the enemy had to be repulsed and a warning had to be communicated to other troops in the sector, in the support trenches. However, because the night time raids were stealthily and swiftly executed, it would not have been unusual for the raiders to be back in their own lines before the victims of their attack were able to summon assistance from the support trenches.
If it appeared that a raid was likely to overwhelm soldiers in the British front line trenches, they were expected to fall back to designated support points, to rally and repel the incursion. This had already happened on numerous occasions and while many such retirements later proved to be false alarms, the soldiers who had been ‘spooked’ were subsequently punished, for quitting their posts. Of the latter, ten soldiers had been separately tried and sentenced to death by Field General Courts Martial for quitting their posts but thus far their punishments had been commuted to lesser, mostly custodial sentences.
The incident that led to Lance Corporal Povey being executed for “Quitting his Post” was essentially a false alarm. Although there is no reference to the weather conditions at 2.30 a.m. on 28th January, the weather in the sector had been changeable, with a good deal of freezing rain and fog restricting visibility. If that was indeed the case, there is nowhere any reference to the fact in any documentary evidence associated with Povey’s case or for that matter, the cases of the other men who were put on trial.
On 8th February, the Field Marshal confirmed the death sentence passed on Corporal Povey was executed at St. Jans Cappel in the Ypres Salient at 7.45 a.m. on 11th February 1915.
If his executioners bothered to record where they buried his body, the information did not survive the war and George now has no known grave. His name is engraved on the Menin Gate (left).
…. the trial of Cpl. George Povey with this Transcript of his trial and witness statements + his brothers’ War Service