Poperinge Part Five – The Condemned Cell & Execution Courtyard

“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”.


And functional,…

…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.

Names to the right of the right-hand window (Morrison twice?), but no perspex.

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 over there.

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 some 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, but the more I look at the evidence, the more I think these photos show the post actually in its original position, as you’ll see.  So, this picture, and that below, from a school trip in the late 1990s, both show an execution post encased in perspex against a brick wall.

Maybe the brick wall of a three-sided shed, the rest of which, by the looks of the end of the wall nearest the camera, has already been demolished?  If so, bearing in mind the context, why would you demolish two walls of a three-sided shed and leave the third, unless it was, perhaps, of some significance?  The inset shows the post in the same position at an earlier date, before the green algae took hold.

The door in this shot (taken in 2020) is the same as that in Morag’s photos; what is missing, as you can clearly see, is the wall behind the execution post in the two previous pictures.  If you look a short distance above the plastered section of what is actually the rear of the town hall, there’s a line that denotes where the roof of our three-sided shed once joined this wall.  At least that’s what I think.  I therefore suggest, M’lud, that just twenty years ago the execution post was a real execution post, still in its original position against its original wall, and that some tourist or planning officer (that new building behind the car – not there twenty-odd years ago if you look at Morag’s first photo – probably played a part), who has now moved on to fuck up some other historical site, decided to make their mark by cleaning the place up (which included demolishing the original, and remaining, and historically crucial, never to be replaced, shed wall) 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.

This fourth 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 now moved to a position right in the middle of where the shed was once sited.  We know for certain that one man was shot tied to this actual 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.

The tour continues here.

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35 Responses to Poperinge Part Five – The Condemned Cell & Execution Courtyard

  1. Morag Sutherland says:

    Thank you. Sombre…..I am pretty sure that somewhere in Poperinge town hall there will be found the original post…..tucked away in a corner until someone decides to tidy up

  2. Jeff Truscott says:

    What a brilliant piece of writing and illustration. You really have conveyed the tragedy of war in this post MagicFingers. Well done. Your posts are always so incredibly insightful. Best wishes to you.

  3. Steven Hearnden says:

    Excellent again. I notice that a lot of the examples were for ‘crimes’ and not ‘cowardice’,
    Which sits a little easier with me……..although, not much.

  4. Stephen moore says:

    Well done Magicfingers, your commitment to the memories of WW1 is impressive. Every piece you write is a powerful testimony to the lives lived and lost during the War. You are always informative backed up with superb research and matched with a real passion . Thank you.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Thanks very much Stephen. If I ever need a testimonial, I reckon you have supplied me with a pretty good one. Thanks ever so!

  5. It is hard enough to come to terms with the industrial slaughter which was trench warfare but the State murder of volunteer soldiers suffering from what today we know as PTSD is unforgivable. Having been to this place in Pop in 2018 and today reading your post MJS, I am not proud to be British this morning.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Thanks Nigel. You know, walking along the old trench lines, imagining, or being down in a preserved dugout, imagining, even down in the crater at Beaumont Hamel imagining, all are strange experiences – you’ve done them. But being in that cell on my own, knowing and imagining, was……. I’m still not sure what word to use. Really. But it was different, and it was different because men who knew they were hours from execution had spent their last night there 100 years ago – that’s 1200 months – only 60,000 weeks – only 3 billion seconds – my Dad was alive when some were executed – and I can think of little that is scarier than knowing you are to be executed. Knowing you are going to be executed for what, being a frightened kid? Jesus, I cannot imagine.

  6. Nick Kilner says:

    A necessary evil? Perhaps…. How else do you get men to fight in the face of unimaginable odds? Desertion was certainly a very significant issue with Australian troops, who knew full well that they would not face the same consequences as British troops. In fact they had the highest number of deserters of any of the National contingents in the BEF.
    With around fifteen times as many men involved in the fighting, the British could never have afforded for the same situation to develop, the front would unquestionably have been lost.
    When you are losing thousands of men a day fighting to defend their country, how do you justify allowing a few others to walk away? An impossible situation. In peacetime it is an easy distinction to make, but we should perhaps not view too harshly the men who were faced with bringing these sentences, and remember that in doing so they may actually have helped win the war.

    • Nigel Shuttleworth says:

      I know it was a different era and our ‘ruling classes’ kept themselves in check with the famous ‘stiff upper lip’ and no doubt felt they were doing the ‘right thing’ by shooting their own men but twenty years later we had learned a little from the previous fracas. Take for instance RAF crews who refused to fly were stripped of their rank, their records marked LMF (Lacks moral fibre) and they were either drafted into the army or given ‘menial duties such as cleaning the latrines for three months’. Since my wife had a serious op on her neck 12 years ago I’ve cleaned the latrines ever since and I can tell you I’d rather do that than be shot at dawn! (Sorry for the levity on such a serious matter, but I’m trying to make a point that the British ‘donkeys’ were a bunch of pricks 100 years ago – and some might say still are!).

      • Nick Kilner says:

        Worth noting of course that these were not generally first offences (unlike the RAF cases you mention, which would have likely resulted in their not being in a position to refuse to fly again). Looking at the records, those condemned had frequently already been given field punishments for previous similar offences. It seems the judiciary did operate, for want of a better phrase, a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ policy for the most part. Presumably they worked on the basis that if being strapped to the wheel of a gun carriage for several hours a day over the course of three weeks wasn’t enough to deter a man from absconding, particularly if it was done within range of enemy fire, then nothing else was going to work (flogging had already been banned by that time). I doubt cleaning the latrines would have had any great effect tbh, and may well have been a regular part of a soldiers reserve line duties anyway.

        • Nigel Shuttleworth says:

          We’ll have to agree to disagree on this one. Execution for desertion was State-endorsed murder and that is a fact, plain and simple. In 1930 the punishment of execution for desertion was removed. These men were not ‘cowards’, the vast majority, probably all, were suffering from what we know today as PTSD. I have seen the affect of this first hand on a close relative who did two tours in Iraq and it broke him. It was a great victory for the Shot at Dawn campaign, although rather belated, when in 2006 the Labour Government cut short the review and granted a posthumous pardon for all 306 who were executed during WW1.

          • Nick Kilner says:

            I don’t think that anyone would dispute that the vast majority, if not all of these men were suffering from PTSD, that’s not in question. The issue I raise is the reason behind these men being shot. The outdated idea of ‘lions lead by donkeys’ has certainly not helped with our understanding of what was actually going on from the point of view of command staff. In my opinion it is far too easy to look back with a critical eye without actually analysing the situation from both sides. Had the British army had the same freedoms from prosecution that the Australians did, I think there can be little doubt that the war would have ended very differently. It may also have dragged on much, much longer and in doing so cost many hundreds of thousands more lives. Did the sacrifice of these three hundred and six men therefore shorten the war and save many more lives? Quite possibly. Not an easy idea to swallow given what we know of their mental state, but not one that should be dismissed either.
            To quote Gene Roddenberry “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”. A line coined by a man who flew 89 combat missions in WW2 winning the distinguished flying cross in the process. It’s a philosophy which most soldiers would probably agree with, certainly in times of war.

          • Nigel Shuttleworth says:

            Do a little bit of research into the history of some of these men such as Jimmy Smith, Thomas Highgate and the most famous Harry Farr which lead directly to the 2006 pardon for the 306 and you will discover that the FGCMs were just kangaroo courts, devoid of anything whatsoever resembling justice. The first to be courts-martialled, Thomas Highgate was done so solely ‘pour encourager les autres’; he was a 19 year old poorly educated lad who was forced to defend himself. His whole demeanour throughout the hours leading to his arrest indicate that he was not of sound mind. The structure of the system was such that no one from the ranks ever had a chance against the ‘donkeys’. Junior officers were allocated to the defence of those charged, pre-condition by the class system prevalent in British society of the time to hold in contempt the very men they were supposed to represent and themselves existing in great fear of the senior officer who chaired the FGCMs. The ‘trial’ often lasted just a few minutes. I’m sorry, but there is just no excuse possible for this. The execution of men who even at the time were recognised as having mental disorders is pure bloody murder, whatever you want to call it.

  7. Sid from Down Under says:

    Your comment the Australians not facing executions – this was as decreed by the Australian government not only because of the British Command Boer War execution of “Breaker Morant” in 1902 but mainly because for WW1 Australians all volunteered to fight in a cause not primarily their own – albeit in that era Australians being of British stock they individually felt compelled to fight “for King and Country” and to preserve the Empire. Many young Australian volunteers thought they were embarking on a free short overseas adventure – how wrong that turned out to be. My father for one, was severely wounded on the Somme.

    Your suggesting the possibility of the War continuing much longer had the Brits not used executions – please don’t overlook the War turning at Hamel under the change of strategy by Australia’s brilliant tactician and volunteer citizen soldier Lieutenant General Sir John Monash – tactics used to this day. King George V knighted Monash in the Field for this brilliance. Field Marshal Montgomery, a junior officer in the First World War, later wrote: I would name Sir John Monash as the best general on the western front in Europe.

    • Nick Kilner says:

      Indeed. My point in regard to the Australians with reference to the death penalty (or absence of it), is their decision not to implement it proved quite conclusively that it was successful in reducing the number of men deserting. Some may not agree with the use of it as a tactic, any more than we would agree with the use of poison gas, but there’s no denying that both were used effectively as a means to an end. I think it’s far to easy to assume that there was a better alternative that would have been as effective.
      It’s also worth noting that in contrast to my earlier statement, it’s entirely possible that the war could have been lost much sooner had the British had high numbers of deserters. In which case Monash may never have had his chance…

      • Sid from Down Under says:

        Very simply Nick – I suggest you are drawing a long bow of fantasy. You seem to be engaging in a DoDo bird scenario to which I choose not to become engaged. Facts are facts regarding the ultimate outcomes.

        • Nick Kilner says:

          I can certainly understand your not wishing to be involved in a discussion which highlights something of a black mark against the Australian forces Sid, but in fairness to them I’m sure others would have had a similarly bad record had the death penalty not been in place. Which is actually my point.

          • Nigel Shuttleworth says:

            Nick, I don’t know what you’re taking but your statement that the discussion ‘highlights something of a black mark against the Australian forces . . . ‘ is absolutely outrageous and I suggest you post a retraction forthwith. Sorry pal but you’re well out of order on this thread.

          • Nick Kilner says:

            Nigel. I think many would consider the fact that the Australian forces had the highest percentage of deserters of any of the allied forces to be something of a black mark against them. Clearly you don’t agree, or have misunderstood the facts to which I was referring, but I certainly do not feel that a retraction is at all warranted. So no.
            Nor do I agree with your previous assumption of ‘kangaroo courts’. Military law is significantly different to common law, which is why some are confused by it workings. Worth some research if you have the inclination. It might also interest you to know that every soldier was offered the option of being represented. Some chose instead to represent themselves, but it should not be assumed that no representation was available. Another common misconception.

          • Nigel Shuttleworth says:

            Don’t be so fucking patronising

          • Nick Kilner says:

            Mind your language please Nigel, there’s no need for that. Thank you.

          • Morag Sutherland says:

            Thank you for the comment about foul language . I have been on this site for a long time and not had this used . It is unnecessary

      • Morag Sutherland says:

        Along life’s way we have met a lot of Australians who seem to think that single handedly they were responsible for the victory on the Western Front….. for Scots whose losses were enormous this is distressing
        My granny lost 2 cousins who fought with the CEF. one of their brothers suffered field punishments for fightingor a brawl I understand. He was tied to a wheel as was common. At no time did anyone suggest possible desertion ….just the strain of experience proving too much. He lived well into his 80s. However one brother who died 1919 did have a psychiatric report done. It’s available online and depression and melocholy are cited as a consequence of being involved in trench warfare. None of this is really relevant to being shot at dawn but family stories show men under great pressure…..

        • Sid from Down Under says:

          Firstly Morag in reply to your response to Nigel – in 2019 like it or not, the F word is common on TV, movies, radio and print media – it has become part of today’s language (unfortunately). Elton John during his concert here in Perth a few days ago used both the F and C word. In Nigel’s instance it is sometimes necessary to make a strong emphasis and I have no problem with it. I do however consider Nick needs to apologise.

          Secondly, your opening comment about Australians – it is a well accepted fact that Australian John Monash using his then new tactics (still used today) at Hamel created the start of the ending of WW1 – it’s on the record – and he was knighted for his brilliance.

          • Magicfingers says:

            Elton John, that paragon of virtue! Ha ha! I am sure Morag is well aware of the use of all sorts of words, and being Scottish probably loads we don’t know, and entitled to voice her opinion.
            I am not sure what ‘creating the start of’ something means. Certainly, Hamel was a success, but it was an experiment, with limited objectives. It raised the bar by developing the tactics used at Cambrai. The start of the end was 8th August, when the Hamel model was used, much bigger, to begin the end. John Terraine had Hamel right when he called it, ‘a revolution, a textbook victory, a little masterpiece casting a long shadow before it’.

          • Sid from Down Under says:

            Turn of words, my friend – perhaps “Turning point” would be better – as you’ve rightly said, none of us can include everything we want to say …. and the site won’t accept hyperlinks so below copy and paste is a passage from “Battle of Hamel – still considered the ‘turning point'”

            The Battle of Hamel on July 4, 1918 lasted only 93 minutes but it was the turning point for Allied victory in World War I.

            Led by Australian Corps commander Lieutenant General John Monash, three Australian infantry brigades (the 4th, 6th and 11th) along with British and American soldiers captured the village of Hamel near Amiens.

            It was the first time the Allied forces coordinated an all-arms battle with tanks, aircraft, artillery and machine guns.

            Historian Nigel Steel, from the Australian War Memorial, says the coordinated approach provided a model for larger offensives during August and September which ultimately lead to victory in November 1918.

          • Nigel Shuttleworth says:

            And it’s also obvious Morag hasn’t read MJS’s post properly. . . . I believe we’re all adults on here, I don’t wish to cause offence gratuitously but I have used this word in an entirely appropriate context since I will not be lectured or patronised on a website or in life. Now let’s get on and discuss the issues in an adult and respectful manner shall we?

  8. Magicfingers says:

    My turn. And no, you don’t get my opinion – maybe sometime, but I’m far too cowardly to enter into this one at the moment (and thus, with my luck, I’d probably have been doomed a century ago). What I do think is that the passion in all your words is clear – how many subjects can cause such strong differences of opinion (between people, let’s not forget, who probably would not generally disagree fervently on Great War topics), such a long time after the event? Which, I think, is as it probably should be. Bear in mind, please, all of you, that unfortunately we are not all sitting in the pub having a pint or seven discussing this – none of you can include everything you want to say and this is such a complex subject – or maybe it’s just black & white – see what I mean – and it cannot be covered in a few comments, even a few posts. Only one bouncer per over allowed, mind.
    Anyway, next post you will get all the official stats. And probably more questions. Always questions. Make of them what you will.
    Carry on…….

    • Nick kilner says:

      Very much looking forward to it, and I sincerely hope that our bickering over what I suspect will always be a divisive issue has not detracted too much from what is a truly excellent post. My mother would have spanked the lot of us and nobody would have had supper lol.
      A most enjoyable and informative read, as ever.

  9. Peter says:

    I visited the town hall just a few years ago. A sombre place for so many – held in that cell, to be led out into the courtyard in the morning. Just human beings, whose courage failed them in most cases. Gratifyingly, their families never knew in most cases, their deaths simply being posted as killed in action. Having never been in those men’s situation, we cannot judge them.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Doesn’t bear thinking about – but impossible not to when you’re there. No, never judge. Thanks for commenting Peter.

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