Poperinge Part Six – The Execution Memorial

I simply don’t know my own strength.

Ho ho!  This curious memorial, styled on the war memorial in the main square in Poperinge, can be found in a park a few hundred yards from the town hall,…

…and, as the artist who designed it, Anno Dijkstra, tells us on this information board,…

…‘The bottom of the socle [plinth, I think, to you and me – MF] is a gigantic black hole.

Do I succeed in looking into the head of the soldier?

The darkness is all over.  The socle is a funnel.

The present sneeks (sic) in through this funnel.

Or is it the past that is calling us?

Do we notice the enthusiasm of the first battle weeks, the homesickness, the pride, the doubts, the death-rattle or the song of victory? Perhaps it is just a whispering, as in an empty shell, the rush of our own blood?’

To which the information board adds, ‘This monument is in (sic – again) invitation to reflection. Sit down and listen to the whispers.’

Me, I’m just going to give you some facts.

Actually, before I do, as you know, I get easily confused these days.  Poperinge war memorial features a Belgian soldier, of course it does, as we saw in the first post of this series, but I don’t understand why, if this is a memorial to remember those executed, and Poperinge is (in)famous for the British executions that took place here, which it is, it doesn’t feature a British soldier, perhaps posed in homage to the Belgian soldier on the war memorial?  But then I didn’t design it, a Dutch lady did, so what do I know?  On to the stats.

In April 1920, a government spokesman stated that 3,076 sentences of death had been passed during hostilities, and that of these, 343 had been carried out.  Two years later, in March 1922, the War Office published a tome which, for the princely sum of 10s 6d, would have allowed you to peruse, at your leisure, ‘The Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire during the Great War’, and should you have reached Part XXII, you would have found a section entitled ‘Discipline’.  Today you can download it for free (which is very handy) if you know where to look,…

…and if you are interested in, oh I don’t know, the statistics relating to ‘Mechanical Transport Abroad and at Home’, or ‘Army Contracts, Clothing and Salvage’, or maybe ‘Enemy Prisoners of War’, or perhaps simply ‘Casualties’ or ‘Munitions’, to name a few chapters, then that is exactly what you will have to do.  Either that or ask me very nicely.  But the relevant pages of the ‘Discipline’ chapter are to be found in the appendix to this post, and the two most germane are shown directly below:

The bare statistics of military courts-martial are listed, and for the first time the public became aware of the figures.  The number of military executions had now risen to 346 – three men having been executed for murder in 1920 which the government spokesman had omitted – of which just three were officers.

The number of men actually sentenced to death is listed here, and the percentage chance you had of clemency, or otherwise.  The note at the bottom is difficult to understand; I think the total of 324 does not include any of the men found guilty of murder apart from the 15 Imperial Troops, because the remainder totals twenty two.  Add 22 to 324, and we have 346, the number of executions actually carried out.  Quite why they are separated from the others – they were not civilians, and elsewhere (see appendix) are listed under ‘soldiers’ –  I do not know.

Some thoughts.  It seems to me that the cases of the 346 men who were executed are inextricably linked, naturally with the 2,734 men sentenced to death who received clemency, but also with those who were tried and found guilty of the same offence, and yet did not receive a death sentence in the first place.  Take desertion.  Do you know how many General, District & Field General Courts-Martial there were for desertion during the war?  38,630.  Of those, 31,269 were at home in the U.K., and whether returning late from leave, for example, got you a court-martial for desertion I don’t know (I don’t think so – that would be ‘absence’, and there were more than 51,000 trials for men going absent at home), but nobody was going to be executed at home – that would not have gone down well – and it still leaves a total of 7,361 officers and men who were tried for desertion abroad during the war years.  I repeat, 7,361.  Unfortunately, we don’t know the number of acquittals, but looking at the statistics in general, the figures show us that acquittals of above 20% are rare across the board, which leaves several thousand men most likely found guilty of desertion who were clearly not sentenced to death.  Why?

The spire of the town hall peers over the trees in the centre background, the execution cells beneath.  Of the 3,080 death sentences passed in total, 346 were carried out, of which 264 were for desertion.  Of these 264, just two were officers.  What, leaving aside those already under suspended sentences, were the reasons for the remaining confirmations of death sentences, as opposed to the vast majority who received clemency?  Why, for example, despite Haig’s comments on the case of Second Lieutenant Eric Poole, ‘Such a case is more serious in the case of an officer than a man, and it is also highly important that all ranks should realise the law is the same for an officer as a private’, were the other twenty officers found guilty of desertion all given a lesser sentence?  Questions, questions……

And you know what?  Very few people actually cared.  A nation tired of war did not want to hear unsavoury tales of Briton killing Briton.  And that was pretty much how it remained, with due deference to certain individuals in the 20th Century who worked tirelessly to gain some sort of modern justice for these men, until the pardons of the early 21st Century.

Elsewhere, a Peace Tree, planted on 11th November 2018,…

…and this curious memorial that I nearly didn’t photograph but, once researched, I was very glad I did, as this is something I knew nothing whatsoever about.  Most countries seem to have, or have had, ‘forgotten’ groups of men and women from the Second World War (think Arctic Convoys, up until a few years back, in the U.K.) who failed to get the recognition their sacrifices deserved, and this memorial remembers a group of Belgians who fall into that category.  On 10th May 1940, the Germans, once again uninvited, came to Belgium.  As thousands of Belgian civilians, just as they or their forefathers had done a quarter of a century earlier, began the trek west in a vain, on this occasion, attempt to escape the invaders, many passing through Poperinge as they went, the Belgian Government ordered all Belgians between the ages of 16 & 35 to immediately register for the army reserve at one of the Recruitment Centres of the Belgian Army (RCBL) in Flanders, or a Center de Recrutement de l’Armée Belge (CRAB) in Wallonia.  Hence the initials on the memorial.  You have to remember that all this was during the chaos of the German invasion and the uncertainty about the immediate future, but those who did not register were considered deserters, with all the potential consequences that might entail.  Although only a reserve, many who registered were sent to France, where some would have inevitably found themselves in the firing line, and God knows the fate of many once the Battle of France was over, but those who returned to Belgium never received official recognition for their deeds because they were never regarded as real soldiers!  Hence it would be 1998 before this memorial, which features a young Belgian, his belongings packed on his bicycle, typical of those who made up the reserve, would be unveiled.

Appendix

Selected pages from ‘The Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire during the Great War’ – the omitted pages, apart from the two you have already seen, mainly deal with offences committed while at home (as already intimated, no soldier was executed for an offence carried out at home), or by civilians or prisoners-of-war at home or abroad.

142 soldiers were sentenced to life imprisonment; what were their crimes, I wonder, and did they actually serve a life sentence?

The only documentation you will find with a total of 371 death sentences!  Hm.  However, the asterisked note at the bottom, which you may have spotted on the majority of these pages, explains all, or perhaps throws all into confusion, ‘The remissions and suspensions of sentences are only shown when noted on the proceedings’.  One can only presume, therefore, that the twenty five civilian death sentences were all suspended (although ‘not noted on the proceedings’), bringing our total once more down to 346.

Enough about executions.  Talbot House, a much happier place, next.

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2 Responses to Poperinge Part Six – The Execution Memorial

  1. Nick Kilner says:

    As intriguing as ever. A post which as you quite rightly state, raises at least as many questions as it answers, and (dare I say it) demonstrates a degree of leniency from the courts which many would perhaps not have thought existed.
    I’m not a fan of the ‘fallen’ memorial, I must confess. I guess I’m old fashioned that way. The Dutch mistress is not for me! 😉 I wonder if she knew the number of British soldiers represented when deciding on the figure of a Belgian soldier? Possibly not. Had it been built as a standing memorial, blown over by shellfire and left as it fell then it would be quite something, but as it stand (or lies), it holds little appeal and strikes me as a somewhat lazy attempt at art. But perhaps that’s just me, after all they do say that art is anything which provokes thought and conversation, though in truth I’m not convinced by that either. And should a memorial be considered art in its own right? Many are quite stunning, but does the artistry draw attention away from the men or women that the memorial is there to represent? More questions….
    I do like the small Belgian memorial. Not the usual dead soldier in the wings of an angel, but the innocence and joys of youth. A somewhat happier aspect, in some respects at least.

  2. Magicfingers says:

    The memorial had me interested turning to ambivalence to irritation to annoyance, although only the first two while I was actually there. And I think there is some laziness involved, wrapped up as enigma. And if you think I am entering into a ‘What is Art’ discussion without the beers being stacked up, you are sorely mistaken.
    I’m not sure what I think about the other memorial either, actually. But then that is purely personal taste.
    The stats made my head hurt, but I think I got there in the end. But loads of questions still. Always.

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