One should not confuse the soldiers ‘Shot at Dawn’ with the young men who were court martialled for desertion. Over 80,000 men were found guilty of desertion from the Army on the Western Front during WW1. Even desertion had its own specific definition – many soldiers were found guilty of ‘Absence without Leave’. It was often the Army which decided which charge to make, the key to a case of desertion was the intention never to return.
Halton Park in Buckinghamshire, owned by Alfred de Rothschild, was offered by Rothschild to the War Office as a training camp. The 21st Division, with over eight Yorkshire battalions was the first to arrive. By the end of September, over 30,000 troops were living under canvas and then it started raining. As the tents had been pitched on one of lowest areas on the estate, the field started to flood. The troops were soon wet day and night and that is when the first desertions began. When the soldiers were arrested for desertion, especially those who had been miners before the war, they gave excuses such as ‘withholding labour (striking)’ as the ‘business’ was not offering proper conditions of work. The conditions, the poor food (or lack of food), untreated illness, family problems, lack of alcohol as well as the possibility of better employment were all offered as reasons for desertion at their trials. First the captured men appeared before a magistrates’ court and were held until the military police came for them. The court martial was held at the battalion’s HQ.
One interesting case was that of the Middleweight boxing champion, Gus Platts, who was born in Sheffield. When he found that the army would not release him for boxing engagements, he took himself off. At his trial he was asked the reason for his desertion, which was eventually ‘downgraded’ to absent without leave, he replied that he wanted better paid work that that offered by the army!
In January 1916, the Military Service Act was passed which allowed conscription of single men aged between 18 and 41 but with a few exceptions. By March 1916 over 57,000 men had failed to answer their call up notices. Conscientious objection was only allowed for selected religious reasons never for political ones. Missing men who tried to escape their ‘call up’ often managed to evade the authorities by use of an ‘underground railway’ by which they moved, unnoticed from safe house to safe house usually until betrayal. In May 1916, a change was made to the act by which harbouring or encouraging deserters was made a criminal offence. In Leeds the police held a ‘sweep’ of Briggate in September 1916 and stopped all young men of a certain age to check whether they were without evidence of exemption of military service. 350 men were questioned and after interrogation 50 were detained for further investigation. Only 16 were handed over to the Army as deserters. Similar raids were organised in Sheffield but it was soon decided, after extensive unpopular reporting in the press, to discontinue the practise. One case, that of Timothy Kayes, a lion tamer, is interesting. At 5ft he had considered himself exempt due to his short statue. He was detained by the police as he entered the cage at the popular Holbeck Feast, a substantial travelling fair. Given a fortnight to sort out his affairs, he absconded again and was re-arrested at a feast on Woodhouse Moor the following month. Eventually, after serving his sentence he served in the war and is recorded in the pension records. His place in the lion’s cage was taken by his 50-year-old mother!
Absconders from England were assumed to have escaped to Ireland where there was no conscription. But some places, like Cowling, near Skipton, became notorious for harbouring deserters in the outlying farms. There had always been a strong Methodist and Baptist culture in Cowling. The labour MP for Blackburn, Philip Snowden, was born in Cowling, and Snowden was always a strong advocate for the cause of Conscientious Objectors. From 1916 until the end of the war, police were searching for farm labourers from the Cowling area for evading their conscription call-up. This included men who had simply gone home from France or the channel ports when they deserted. At one time police were searching for five labourers all hiding out in the farms overlooking the village. Friends and family usually concealed the deserters, wives were never punished for concealing their own husbands but several were convicted for concealing men other than their husbands! Parents who shielded sons who had deserted were often shown sympathy in the courts.
The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) was formed in 1917 in order for women to serve in a non-combatant role during the war. They provided vital workers for mechanical and clerical services amongst others. About 40,000 women served during the four years that the Corps was in existence and it was not exempt from the problem of desertion. Reasons given for desertion were similar to those given by the men since 1914 – poor conditions, poor management and the chance of better paid employment, especially in the armaments industry. The women deserters were invariably treated better by the courts than the men were.
One last point – survival of deserters on the run who were not aided by friends and family. The police records show that from 1914 – 18 there were many more cases of petty theft – usually burglary – as men on the run sought to feed themselves and to avoid the authorities.
Report by Peter Palmer