WWI Executions, Lest We Forget

I saw on the One Show, a UK TV ‘Magazine Program on BBC 1 Weekdays at 19:00, an article about Edith Cavell.

I wrote about Edith Cavell on my personal FB page last year as Armistice Day approached. And it touched me that I was watching this program with my own Mother and she seemed not to know the story.

Edith Cavell was executed on charges of Spying by the German Army during WWI. More famous in the UK is the fact that people suffering from Post Traumatic Stress were executed, of course it was called ‘Cowardice’ in those days.

Here are two examples of the people that were executed. Edith Cavell and Herbert Burden.

Edith CavellBritish Nurse Edith Cavell who was executed by the Germans for aiding Allied soldiers to escape. As a nurse Edith Cavell treated all injured alike. As a Nurse it was her duty to save lives.

Edith Cavell was ‘guilty’ of aiding escaping soldiers. It is fair to say that the Germans could have justified imprisonment for the duration of the war.

She died alongside Philippe Baucq, an architect from Brussels, on October 12, 1915, shortly after 06:00. They were buried where they died.

Others accused, and indeed involved in the safe escape of around 200 soldiers, included the Prince and Princess De Croy, Belgian Arristocrats, Louise Thuliez, a teacher from Lille, Louis Severin, an apothecary, and Countess Jeanne de Belleville. Though some were sentenced to death their executions were scheduled after that of Edith Cavell and following the international outrage their convictions were commuted to imprisonment, they all survived the war.

Edith Cavell was re-interred in the East side of Norwich Cathedral. Her sacrifice is commemorated each year on 12th October.Philippe Baucq was re-interred in the royal vault at the church of Notre-Dame de Laeken.

The Belgian who entrapped the network by pretending to be an escaping soldier, Gaston Quien, was tried for Treason after the war. He was convicted and given the death penalty but this was commuted to 20 years penal servitude, though he maintained he was innocent.

Herbert BurdenThe memorial dedicated to those executed, who received pardons in 2006, is in the likeness of Private Herbert Burden.

Herbert had lied that he was two years older so he could join the Northumberland Fusiliers and was executed on 21 July 1915 aged 17, still too young to legally be recruited. He was, it is understood, the 41st soldier of an estimated 306 to be executed for cowardice.

Herbert left his post to meet with a friend, Herbert had heard that his friend’s brother had been killed. However Herbert’s unit had also recently received orders to move to the front. Despite popular opinion the men in the trenches were rotated regularly.

Over 3000 men were tried for cowardice and though usually condemned to death only one in ten sentences were carried out. It seems from evidence that there were two reasons for this. One was to make examples of men just before a ‘push’. The other was that a higher amount of executions would cause an issue with public opinion. It is believed that there were a further 37 men executed for murder, a sentence equal to that at the time in normal civilian life during peace.

In 1993 the then Prime Minister of the UK refused calls to issue a pardon for these men. Most other countries had already issued such pardons.

The pardon was not fully in place until 2007, when the relevant Act of Government was in place.The term ‘pardon’ however is rather inaccurate as the wording of the Armed Forces Act 2006, under which  the soldiers to be pardoned posthumously, states in section 359(4) that the pardon “does not affect any conviction or sentence.” This really leaves a question of whether it really is a pardon after all.

The execution of people helping save lives or for suffering from a mental health issue is something most people today cannot accept. Sadly however this is what took place.

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