CHAPTER XXII.

A TRAGEDY OF WAR.



    THERE is nothing which brings home to the heart with such force the iron discipline of war as the execution of men who desert from the front line. It was my painful duty on one occasion to have to witness the carrying out of the death sentence. One evening I was informed by the A.P.M. that a man in one of our brigades was to be shot the next morning, and I was asked to go and see him and prepare him for death. The sentence had already been read to him at six o’clock, and the brigade chaplain was present, but the A.P.M., wished me to take the case in hand. We motored over to the village where the prisoner was and stopped at a brick building which was entered through a courtyard. There were men on guard in the outer room and also in a second room from which a door led into a large brick chamber used as the condemned cell. Here I found the man who was to pay the penalty of his cowardice. He had a table before him and on it a glass of brandy and water and writing materials. He was sitting back in his chair and his face wore a dazed expression. The guards kindly left us alone. He rose and shook hands with me, and we began to talk about his sentence. He was evidently steeling himself and trying to fortify his mind by the sense of great injustice done to him. I allowed him to talk freely and say just what he pleased. Gradually, I succeeded in getting at the heart of the true man which I knew was hidden under the hard exterior, and the poor fellow began to tell me about his life. From the age of eleven, when he became an orphan, he had to get his own living and make his way in a world that is often cold and cruel to those who have no friends. Then by degrees he began to talk about religion and his whole manner changed. All the time I kept feeling that every moment the dreaded event was coming nearer and nearer and that no time was to be lost. He had never been baptized, but wished now to try and make up for the past and begin to prepare in a real way to meet his God.
    I had brought my bag with the communion vessels in it, and so he and I arranged the table together, taking away the glass of brandy and water and the books and papers, and putting in their place the [Page 210] white linen altar cloth. When everything was prepared, he knelt down and I baptized him and gave him his first communion. The man’s mind was completely changed. The hard, steely indifference and the sense of wrong and injustice had passed away, and he was perfectly natural. I was so much impressed by it that while I was talking to him, I kept wondering if I could not even then, at that late hour, do something to avert the carrying out of the sentence. Making some excuse and saying I would be back in a little while, I left him, and the guard went into the room accompanied by one of the officers of the man’s company. When I got outside, I told the brigade chaplain that I was going to walk over to Army Headquarters and ask the Army Commander to have the death sentence commuted to imprisonment.
    It was then about one a.m. and I started off in the rain down the dark road. The Château in which the General lived was two miles off, and when I came to it, I found it wrapped in darkness. I went to the sentry on guard, and told him that I wished to see the General on important business. Turning my flashlight upon my face, I showed who I was. He told me that the General’s room was in the second storey at the head of a flight of stairs in a tower at the end of the building. I went over there, and finding the door unlocked, I mounted the wooden steps, my flashlight lighting up the place. I knocked at a door on the right and a voice asked me who I was. When I told my name, I was invited to enter, and an electric light was turned on and I found I was in the room of the A.D.C., who was sitting up in bed. Luckily, I had met him before and he was most sympathetic. I apologized for disturbing him but told him my mission and asked if I might see the General. He got up and went into the General’s room. In a few moments he returned, and told me that the General would see me. Instead of being angry at my extraordinary intrusion, he discussed the matter with me. Before a death sentence could be passed on any man, his case had to come up first in his Battalion orderly room, and, if he was found guilty there, it would be sent to the Brigade. From the Brigade it was sent to the Division, from the Division to Corps, from Corps to Army, and from Army to General Headquarters. If each of these courts confirmed the sentence, and the British Commander-in-Chief signed the warrant, there was no appeal, unless some new facts came to light. Of all the men found guilty of desertion form the front trenches, only a small percentage were [Page 211] executed. It was considered absolutely necessary for the safety of the Army that the death sentence should not be entirely abolished. The failure of one man to do his duty might spoil the morale of his platoon, and spread the contagion of fear from the platoon to the company and from the company to the battalion, endangering the fate of the whole line. The General told me, however, that if any new facts came to light, suggesting mental weakness or insanity in the prisoner, it might be possible for the execution to be stayed, and a new trial instituted. This seemed to give hope that something might yet be done, so I thanked the General for his kindness and left.
    When I got back to the prison, I made my way to the cell, not of course, letting the condemned man know anything that had happened. By degrees, in our conversation, I found that on both sides of his family there were cases of mental weakness. When I had all the information that was possible, I went out and accompanied by the brigade chaplain, made my way once again to Army Headquarters. The chances of averting the doom seemed to be faint, but still a human life was at stake, and we could not rest till every effort had been made. I went to the room of the A.D.C., and was again admitted to the presence of the Army Commander. He told me now that the only person who could stop the execution was the Divisional Commander, if he thought it right to do so. At the same time, he held out very little hope that anything could be done to commute the sentence. Once more I thanked him and went off. The brigade chaplain was waiting for me outside and we talked the matter over, and decided that, although the case seemed very hopeless and it was now half-past three, one last effort should be made. We walked back through the rain to the village, and there awoke the A.P.M. and the Colonel of the battalion. Each of them was most sympathetic and most anxious, if possible, that the man’s life should be shared. The A.P.M. warned me that if we had to go to Divisional Headquarters, some seven miles away, and return, we had no time to lose, because the hour fixed for the execution was in the early dawn.
    The question now was to find a car. The only person in the place who had one was the Town Major. So the Colonel and I started off to find him, which we did with a great deal of difficulty, as no one knew where he lived. He too, was most anxious to help us. Then we had to find the chauffeur. We managed to get him [Page 212] roused up, and told him that he had to go to Divisional Headquarters on a matter of life and death. It was not long before we were in the car and speeding down the dark, muddy roads at a tremendous rate, whirling round corners in a way that seemed likely to end in disaster. We got to the Divisional Commander’s Headquarters and then made our way to his room and laid the matter before him. He talked over the question very kindly, but told us that the courts had gone into the case so carefully that he considered it quite impossible to altar the final decision. If the action of the prisoner had given any indication of his desertion being the result of insanity, something might be done, but there was nothing to suggest such was the case. To delay the execution for twenty-four hours and then to have to carry it out would mean subjecting a human being to unspeakable torture. He felt he could not take it upon himself to run the chance of inflicting such misery upon the man. The Colonel and I saw at once that the case was utterly hopeless and that we could do no more. The question then was to get back in time for the carrying out of the sentence. Once more the car dashed along the roads. The night was passing away, and through the drizzling rain the gray dawn was struggling.
    By the time we arrived at the prison, we could see objects quite distinctly. I went in to the prisoner, who was walking up and down in his cell. He stopped and turned to me and said, “I know what you have been trying to do for me, Sir, is there any hope?” I said, “No, I am afraid there is not. Everyone is longing just as much as I am to save you, but the matter has been gone into so carefully and has gone so far, and so much depends upon every man doing his duty to the uttermost, that the sentence must be carried out.” He took the matter very quietly, and I told him to try to look beyond the present to the great hope which lay before us in another life. I pointed out that he had just one chance left to prove his courage and set himself right before the world. I urged him to go out and meet death bravely with senses unclouded, and advised him not to take any brandy. He shook hands with me and said, “I will do it.” Then he called the guard and asked him to bring me a cup of tea. While I was drinking it, he looked at his watch, which was lying on the table and asked me if I knew what time “IT” was to take place. I told him I did not. He said, “I think my watch is a little bit fast.” The big hand was pointing to ten minutes to six. A few moments later the guards entered [Page 213] and put a gas helmet over his head with the two eye-pieces behind so that he was completely blindfolded. Then they handcuffed him behind his back, and we started off in an ambulance to a crossroad which went up the side of a hill. There we got out, and the prisoner was led over to a box behind which a post had been driven into the ground. Beyond this a piece of canvas was stretched as a screen. The firing party stood at a little distance in front with their backs towards us. It was just daylight. A drizzling rain was falling and the country looked chilly and dear. The prisoner was seated on the box and his hands were handcuffed behind the post. He asked the A.P.M. if the helmet could be taken off, but this was mercifully refused him. A round piece of white paper was pinned over his heart by the doctor as a guide for the men’s aim. I went over and pronounced the Benediction. He added, “And may God have mercy upon my soul.” The doctor and I then went into the road on the other side of the hedge and blocked up our ears, but of course we heard the shots fired. It was sickening. We went back to the prisoner who was leaning forward and the doctor felt his pulse and pronounced him dead. The spirit had left the dreary hillside and, I trust, had entered the ranks of his heroic comrades in Paradise.
    The effect of the scene was something quite unutterable. The firing party marched off and drew up in the courtyard of the prison. I told them how deeply all ranks felt the occasion, and that nothing but the dire necessity of guarding the lives of the men in the front line from the panic and rout that might result, through the failure of one individual, compelled the taking of such measures of punishment. A young lad in the firing party utterly broke down, but, as one rifle on such occasions is always loaded with a blank cartridge, no man can be absolutely sure that he has had a part in the shooting. The body was then placed in a coffin and taken in the ambulance to the military cemetery, where I held the service. The usual cross was erected with no mention upon it of the manner of the death. That was now forgotten. The man had mastered himself and had died bravely.The effect of the scene was something quite unutterable. The firing party marched off and drew up in the courtyard of the prison. I told them how deeply all ranks felt the occasion, and that nothing but the dire necessity of guarding the lives of the men in the front line from the panic and rout that might result, through the failure of one individual, compelled the taking of such measures of punishment. A young lad in the firing party utterly broke down, but, as one rifle on such occasions is always loaded with a blank cartridge, no man can be absolutely sure that he has had a part in the shooting. The body was then placed in a coffin and taken in the ambulance to the military cemetery, where I held the service. The usual cross was erected with no mention upon it of the manner of the death. That was now forgotten. The man had mastered himself and had died bravely.
    I have seen many ghastly sights in the war, and hideous forms of death. I have heard heart-rendering tales of what men have suffered, but nothing ever brought home to me so deeply, and with such cutting force, the hideous nature of war and the iron hand of discipline, as did that lonely death on the misty hillside in the early [Page 214] morning. Even now, as I write this brief account of it, a dark nightmare seems to rise out of the past and almost makes me shrink from facing once again memories that were so painful. It is well, however, that people should know what our men had to endure. Before them were the German shells, the machine-guns and the flood of gas. Behind them, if their courage failed, was the court-martial, always administered with great compassion and strict justice, but still bound by inexorable laws of war to put into execution, when duty compelled, a grim and hideous sentence of death.
    If this book should fall into the hands of any man who, from cowardice, shirked his duty in the war, and stayed at home, let him reflect that, but for the frustration of justice, he ought to have been sitting that morning, blindfolded and handcuffed, beside the prisoner on the box. HE was one of the originals and a volunteer. [Page 215]