“I could not look on Death, which being known, Men led me to him, blindfold and alone.” At the start of this tour of Poperinge, I said that we would return to the centre of town in due course, and so here we are.
Poperinge’s chocolate box fairy tale town hall – I think it’s rather an odd building, and too small. Or too narrow. Or too something. All of which is beside the point.
Second World War plaques on the wall,…
…and then, around the corner,…
…this sign, and even non-Flemish speakers can most likely grasp the general meaning. This is not a nice post, and be warned that you may find a couple of photographs at the end distressing. But then this is not a nice subject.
Through that archway, which leads to an inner courtyard,…
…there’s a red door,…
…and through the red door,…
…the cells. Or at least one of them. Once there were four, and now there are two, and you can enter one.
The town hall was converted for use as a guardroom early in the war, but from 1916 the cells also became death cells, where condemned men would spend their final night on earth.
Some of the men detained here left their mark, the walls covered in graffiti and much griffonage, British & French, although the ravages of time have, and are, taking their toll.
The walls have been, very sensibly I expect, covered with perspex,…
…but that does create the reflection problems you see in some of these pictures.
And a few of the scribbles have been highlighted, such as this neat pencil-sketch of a battleship,…
…and these words from a member of the 3rd Canadian Tunnelling Company, but you really need to have a good search for yourself to find much of what still remains on these walls. So I did.
Tricky to see in person, but clearer in photographs, somebody whiled away the time creating the concentric circles you see in this shot (and other pictures too if you look carefully). How exactly did they do that, I wonder?
And zooming in a bit more, a number of French soldiers can be seen (I can spot six – starter clue: look for the buttons). My personal favourite piece of graffiti, up in the top left of this shot, has not been highlighted, for some reason,…
…although again, to be fair, he is much easier to see here than he was at the time. Is that not an identity disc beneath him? Bottom right, the words of a grumpy Frenchman, “…mais plus grave”.
…the view, if one can call it that, looking out onto the courtyard, right across to the place of execution.
More graffiti, this the emblem of the 49th Canadian Infantry Battalion.
I have my doubts as to whether a soldier chucked in here to sober up for the night would spend the time carving crosses. What do you reckon?
More graffiti highlights, these only discovered after careful scrutiny of the photographs once home. I should enlarge this one if I were you. Top left: Part of another cross. Centre column from top: Yes, Sarn’t Major; Indeed!!; And what appears to me to be a French soldier holding a pole over his shoulder with a hanged man on the end of it! What’s your interpretation? Top right; I see a British soldier in a Brodie helmet somewhere in there! You, of course, might not.
Across the way, a second cell, but it’s locked, so let’s fire off a shot through one of the apertures and see what we get.
One wonders how many soldiers, British & Empire troops, Belgian and French, found themselves incarcerated in these cells during the course of the war. It must have been thousands, many for just the night before release, some for longer, and one or two for whom these would be the last four walls they would ever see.
And one of those, whose grave we visited last post, was Eric Poole, seen here in a family portrait. The National Archives holds his papers, some of which are online:
On the left, Poole’s Attestation Form on enlistment into the Honourable Artillery Company in October 1914, and on the right, his Statement of Service with the H.A.C. (his rank given as gunner), and his discharge on receiving a commission in the 14th Bn. West Yorkshire Regiment, dated May 1915. Note that his character is noted as ‘V. good’.
Medical board findings,…
…and Poole’s own statement at his court-martial.
Documents from the court-martial files of Albert Botfield (left) & William Simmonds (right), both men buried in Poperinghe New Military Cemetery,…
…where we also visited the grave of seventeen year old Private Herbert Morris, British West Indies Regiment, and here’s part of the document, dated 20th September 1917, confirming that his execution had been carried out.
Outside in the courtyard, there’s a memorial to those who were executed here. The executions actually took place at the other end of the courtyard, which is no more than seventy five feet across, against the sandbag-covered wall of a three-sided coal shed.
The memorial stands outside the cell we were in – the two windows on the right,…
…and a memorial is exactly what this is. For many years an original wooden execution post stood in this courtyard, but no one in their right mind is going to shoot someone tied to a metal post, for obvious reasons.
Although there is nothing around to tell the visitor this; I certainly arrived here expecting to see the real thing, and it took me a little while, because I am not very clever, to work it out. But what we have now is a memorial, and what we had once was a relic.
And here’s the proof. With huge thanks to Morag, we have three photographs which show a real execution post, at the time positioned across the courtyard nearer its original position than today. I say nearer its original position. Maybe actually in its original position. This picture, and that below, both from a school trip in the late 1990s, shows an execution post encased in perspex against a brick wall.
Maybe the brick wall of a three-sided shed – note the shed door? Why is everything shouting at me that just twenty years ago the execution post was a real execution post, still positioned against its original wall, and that some tourist officer, who has now moved on to fuck up some other historical site, decided to make their mark by cleaning the place up and, like magic, another piece of Great War history disappears to be replaced by a nice clean facsimile*. Or perhaps it makes it all much better than it was, depending on your viewpoint.
*or, as I have already referred to it, but only because I am feeling charitable, a memorial.
The third of Morag’s photographs takes us into the 2000s, the execution post – and it is the same post as in the previous two pictures – no longer encased but cleaned up, with a new base, and the wall behind now plastered. Except it’s a different wall, and the post has been moved. We know for certain that one man was shot tied to this post, and that was Ch’un Wang Ch’ih, the Chinese labourer whose grave we visited at Poperinghe Old Military Cemetery, and who was sentenced to death for the murder of a fellow Chinese worker at De Klijte, around five miles to the south east of Poperinge, his execution taking place in this courtyard on 8th May 1919.
And here’s the current metal one once more, for proper comparison. Enquiries reveal that the wooden post is in storage. Unfortunately, storage can equate, in my experience, to lost, at some point in the future. Let’s hope not. “What did you do with that piece of wood that’s been down here for ages? Oh, got rid of that, it was cluttering the place up”.
Twenty five British and two Canadians were executed by firing squad in Poperinge, some, although not all, in this courtyard. The British, it seems, tended not to photograph executions, or if they did, none of the photographs has as yet emerged. At least not of their fellow British soldiers; a couple of photos of the executions of German spies seem likely to be authentic, and, be warned, the shots below do show a British firing squad in action during the Great War,…
…these unfortunate men all members of the 5th Light Infantry Regiment of the Indian Army, sent to Singapore on the outbreak of war in 1914 to replace 1st Bn. King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, who had been hurriedly recalled to England. With Turkey’s entry into the war on the side of the Central Powers prompting Muslim caliphate leader Sultan Mehmet V to call on Muslims around the world to take up arms against the British Empire, on 15th February 1915, some eight hundred Muslim soldiers mutinied against their British officers, killing up to forty, and creating mayhem for a week before the arrival of British warships saw the mutineers overwhelmed and what would become known as the Singapore Mutiny terminated. Many mutineers were killed, some fled, and some were captured, forty seven of these paying the ultimate price at a public execution in front of huge numbers of onlookers, hence the fact that these photographs exist, I suspect.
And the Belgians provide us with this terrible picture. Up on the dunes near the English Channel, at the little town of Oostduinkerke, a couple of miles away from where the Canadian Second World War graves, pictured right, in Coxyde Military Cemetery, are to be found, Grenadier Alois Walput slumps, as far as the ropes that tie him permit, just seconds after his execution. The date is 3rd June 1918, and behind him, a soldier begins to cut the ropes that will allow his body to fall to the ground. The officer in charge of the firing squad stands front left, spurs gleaming, while another officer appears to be checking the time of death – or has he just delivered the coup de grâce? Walput, a twenty one year old volunteer who had murdered his corporal a couple of weeks earlier, was one of thirteen known cases of death by firing squad in the Belgian Army during the Great War.
Some British regiments used hooked posts. No slumping corpses for them.