The Menin Gate – The Executed Soldiers & the Crucified Canadian

The Menin Gate.

For King.  The names of four men who were executed, for a variety of reasons, during the Great War, but whose places of burial are unknown, are inscribed on the Menin Gate, and here are the stories behind their deaths.

Private William Scotton, Middlesex Regiment, came from Walton in Liverpool, enlisting along with his brother Albert just prior to the outbreak of war.  After a brief period of training he was drafted to the 4th Battalion in Flanders, where, towards the end of December 1914 he was discovered to have been absent for a period and was consequently punished.  Nonetheless he repeated the offense on 22nd January 1915, when he was found to be absent during his unit’s period of service in the front line, only returning once they were relieved.

At his trial, court papers described him as a weakling, and suggested that discipline in his battalion was bad.  Found guilty of desertion, there was no recommendation for mercy, and William Scotton was executed by a firing squad made up of men from his own unit at Vierstraat on 3rd February 1915.  The whole of the 4th Bn. were paraded to witness the execution, a sure sign that Scotton’s death was ‘pour encourager les autres’ as much as anything else.  William’s brother Albert, incidentally, was killed on 18th September 1916, and his name is now to be found on the Thiepval Memorial.  The CWGC database under Albert’s entry simply states ‘His brother, William also fell’.

George Henry Povey was among the thousands who answered the call-up in August 1914, joining 1st Bn. Cheshire Regiment and arriving in France in mid-December 1914. Within days his battalion were holding the line near Wulverghem, some six miles south of Ypres.  Following the unofficial Christmas truce, which had been observed in this area, as it had along much of the line in Flanders, hostilities resumed with both sides launching night-time trench raids to gain information and prisoners, and to create disruption in the enemy front lines.  Often these raids would be over almost before the defenders were aware of what was happening, and although previously designated rally and resist points behind the front line had been prepared should an enemy raid succeed in gaining the trenches, the very suggestion that their trenches were to be raided was sometimes enough to send men scurrying back from their front line positions.  On some occasions men would later be punished for leaving their posts, and already ten men had been tried and sentenced to death, although all ten had subsequently had their sentences commuted.

Corporal George Povey and four privates were accused of leaving their posts in the early hours of 28th January 1915, Second Lieutenant A. W. Rhodes, 1st Bn. East Yorkshire Regiment, in evidence corroborated by two sergeants of the 1st Bn. Cheshire Regiment, relating at the initial enquiry which took place the following day, ‘On the morning of 28th January 1915 in the field at about 2.30 a.m. there was an alarm that the Germans were in our trench, this alarm proved to be false and appeared to have been caused by a German taking a man’s rifle out of a loophole in the trench, a panic was caused. When things had quietened down a roll of the men in the trench was called and the accused Corporal Povey was absent. Corporal Povey was present when the panic began.  During the panic, I saw several of my men making off in the distance. Corporal Povey was sent back to my trench by the officer i/c the support point about 3.15 a.m. During the panic the Germans did not open any regular fire on my trench’.

On 31st January 1915 George Povey and Privates Hennerley, Devine, Ormonde & Cotgrave were each separately charged with ‘When on Active Service, leaving his post 6 (1) without orders from his superior officer’, their trials scheduled to take place by Field General Court Martial at Bailleul on 3rd February.  In trials lasting no longer than ten minutes, the four privates were found guilty and each received a sentence of ten years penal servitude with a recommendation to mercy, although all did serve prison terms.  George Povey, being a corporal, was dealt with far more harshly and sentenced to death.  The Army’s Manual of Military Law stating that NCOs should be punished more harshly than privates, his sentence was duly confirmed on 8th February, and he was shot by firing squad at 7.45 a.m. on 11th February 1915 at Saint-Jan-Cappel near Bailleul, the first Welshman to be executed in the Great War.  Note that the reason for George Povey’s execution was given as ‘leaving his post’ as opposed to the far more common ‘desertion’, which usually involved finding a soldier far from the front lines.  In fact I can find only two soldiers who were executed for leaving their posts throughout the war, and just four executed for ‘quitting post’, which presumably amounts to the same thing.

Way up in the eaves of the Addenda Panel, so forgive me for the handheld blurry zoom shot (will do better next time) is the name of one of the most controversial of all the British soldiers executed during the war.  Herbert Francis Burden was born on 22nd March 1898 in Catford, London.  Without some serious research, which I ain’t doing, his early army career seems littered with ambiguity.  The popular story is that in 1914, at the age of sixteen, he lied about his age to enlist.  However at his trial, at which, I believe, he was not present, his defence mentions that he served in the Royal West Kents in 1913, so perhaps he was a boy soldier all along, or had lied about his age long before war broke out – other evidence, as you will see, suggests his army service must have been longer than just ten months.  Whatever his previous service, by 26th June 1915 he was seventeen years old and serving with the Northumberland Fusiliers (why the Northumberland Fusiliers, I wonder?) in the Hooge sector east of Ypres.  Having already received a punishment for being absent once since arriving in Flanders, Burden reported sick on his return to his unit, spending eleven days in hospital, and had only just returned once again when, on the evening of 26th June, he was warned (selected, in army-speak) as part of a working party which was ordered to proceed to the front line for two nights’ trench digging.  Burden failed to appear at roll call preceding the party’s departure for the trenches, the Lance Sergeant who called the roll stating that the next time he saw Burden was at 9.40 pm on 28th June when he was returned to his unit by an escort of men from the Royal West Kent Regiment.  Arrested and charged with desertion, Herbert Burden’s Field General Court Martial took place on 2nd July at Vlamertinghe Camp, on the road between Ypres & Poperinghe.  Witnesses said that he had been seen in the Dickebush area more than once between 26th & 28th June, the Quartermaster of the 1st Bn. Royal West Kents stating that ‘at about 8.30 p.m. on the 28th June 1915 in the huts of the battalion near Dickebusch I saw the accused & asked him for his reason for being there. He told me that he had permission from the Transport Officer to visit 1. R.W. Kent Regt. to see a friend’.

And that was indeed Burden’s defence.  ‘I went to see a friend of mine in the R.W. Kent Regt. in which Regt. I served in 1913 and as I heard he had lost a brother I wanted to enquire if it was true or not’.  Unfortunately for Burden, his army record already showed seven cases of absence and three ‘miscellaneous’ offences whilst on Home Service, and one since arriving in France on 28th March (which, if he joined up on the outbreak of war, means almost one absence per month, which seems unlikely, does in not?).  Interestingly, Burden’s battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Clement Yatman, reporting that Burden was ‘of inferior physique, reported as untrustworthy’ and that his combat experience amounted to two patrols but no major actions, maintained that discipline in the battalion was good, suggesting that his troops did not need the example of an execution to stiffen their resolve.  Rather damningly, Yatman also said, ‘No officer of the company left who knows the man but his platoon sergeant states he is a man you cannot trust. Defaulter sheet… shows he is much addicted to absence’.  Herbert Burden was found guilty of desertion and sentenced to death by firing squad; his execution duly took place at 4.00 a.m. on 21st July 1915.

The facts of the matter seem to be thus:  Herbert Burden was certainly seventeen years old when he was executed for desertion in July 1916, still too young to be on active service in the first place.  He was also by then a serial absentee, with other offences on his record.  Assuming they did not know his real age, and why would they (and even if they did he was just another seventeen year old among thousands who had enlisted under age), and with no survivors of his depleted battalion who knew him to give him a character reference, Herbert Burden was seen as a soldier who had left his colleagues in the lurch during the fighting at Hooge following the Battle of Bellwarde Ridge on 16th June.  He might, as the story goes, have seen many of his friends killed on the ridge (although the timings suggest that he was actually in hospital during the battle, and he himself says that he heard about his friend’s brother’s death, not saw it), but his defence, even if true, hardly provided mitigating circumstances, and his sentence was therefore hardly unexpected.  Private Herbert Burden did, eventually, leave one legacy.  In the early 1990s it was Burden’s case that prompted John Hipkin, a retired Newcastle teacher who had fought in the Second World War and been taken prisoner by the Germans when a fourteen year old cabin boy in the Merchant Navy, to organise the Shot at Dawn campaign that resulted, in 2006, with all 306 soldiers who were shot at dawn for cowardice or desertion, in fact any offense not punishable by death under civil law at the time, being granted posthumous pardons.  If you ever visit the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire in England, which was opened in 2001, the blindfolded figure that forms the centrepiece is based on Herbert Burden.

Driver Thomas Moore was born in Stockton-on-Tees in 1891, enlisting in the Army Service Corps in January 1915.  In late July he sailed for France as part of the 24th Divisional Train, carrying equipment and supplies to the B.E.F. in France.  On 11th February 1916, whilst billeted in Busseboom, some five miles west and slightly south of Ypres, Moore shot and mortally wounded an Army Service Corps NCO named Staff Sergeant James Pick and threatened an officer who tried to intervene, before being disarmed by other soldiers arriving on the scene.

Arrested and charged with murder, at his trial he used insanity as an unsuccessful defence for his actions, claiming his mother was in an asylum and that he too was insane.  He was found guilty of murder, sentenced to death, and executed by a firing squad drawn from his own A.S.C. unit at 5.40 in the morning of 26th February 1916.  Thomas Moore is one of the forty or so executed men who were not pardoned in 2006.

The floating sarcophagus.  The reasons why the burial places of these four men were lost are themselves lost, but they may have been buried in unmarked graves, and there doesn’t appear to be any evidence that their burial places were noted.  Maybe nobody cared.

Harry Band was born on 12th August 1885 in Montrose near Dundee in Scotland, at some point emigrating to Canada, because he enlisted on 18th September 1914 in Quebec with the 15th Bn. (1st Central Ontario Regiment), before long heading for England and then France.  Towards the end of April 1915 rumours began to surface of a Canadian soldier who had been crucified on the battlefield.  Three separate witnesses maintained they had seen a Canadian sergeant crucified with bayonets on a barn door on or around 24th April, although no conclusive proof could be found, the accounts were somewhat contradictory, and if the event had occurred, no name could be put to the unfortunate victim.  But the myth, if that is what it is, endured, long after the Great War had been superseded by an even greater one.

In the early 2000s a British film maker used newly uncovered evidence to identify that a soldier had indeed been crucified, and he was named as Sergeant Harry Band, Canadian Infantry, who had been reported as missing in action near Ypres on 24th April 1915.  According to the new evidence, after his death fellow soldiers who knew him had written to Harry’s sister, one of them, some time later, confirming that her suspicions that her brother was indeed the crucified soldier were correct.  Another piece of evidence, a typewritten note from a British nurse, Miss Ursula Violet Chaloner, stated that one of her patients, Lance Corporal C. M. Brown, had related a story to her about a Sergeant Harry Band who was ‘crucified after a battle of Ypres on one of the doors of a barn with five bayonets in him’.  Me, I hope it’s just a myth.

For Country.

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6 Responses to The Menin Gate – The Executed Soldiers & the Crucified Canadian

  1. Nick Kilner says:

    Another fantastic piece of research and writing Magicfingers. It makes you wonder just how many of those shot were actually under age, certainly young Herbert Burden was not alone in that. A true tragedy. Thanks for posting

  2. Jeff Truscott says:

    Chilling accounts of the awfulness of battle. So well researched and written. Well done Magicfingers.

  3. Marg Draycott says:

    Great articles M, now I know what you were doing in Belgium. Have seen the figure at the arboretum, very moving. Read the book of the individual stories of the shot at dawn casualties. Some of course weren’t so innocent. Made for heartbreaking reading

    • Magicfingers says:

      Thank you M. You can imagine, can’t you – every time we were herded back on the coach our long-suffering tour organiser could be heard shouting, “Where is he? Anyone seen him?” You, of course, probably know how irritating that is from the waiting-for-the-bloke-who’s-always-last point of view. Luckily most of the people on the tour know me, so they put up with it, bless ’em. And I was never ever very late, I promise. The Menin Gate was of course the final visit on the first day, so I had plenty of time to find the names I was after before meeting up with the family Baldrick for a meal.
      Tuesday night in Peronne – well, being at a loose end (Ha!), we decided to have a drink or nine. Phew!

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