One of the lesser-known facts of the First World War was that 320 men of the British and Imperial Forces were executed between August 1914 and November 1918 – 308 for military offences such as desertion and cowardice, and 12 for murder. No Australians serving with the AIF never met this fate, although two Australians who were serving with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force were executed.
One of the major places where these executions were carried out was in the small Belgian town of Poperinghe, located seven miles due west of Ypres. 70 executions – 50 British and 20 French were executed in the area.
During the First World War Poperinghe was the centre of a large concentration of troops, and there were many camps in the countryside around it. There was generally at least one Division billeted in the town, and it was described in a very early battlefield guide as “a [wartime] centre for recreation, for shopping and for rest”. The population before the War was about 12,000, but in 1917 there were as many as 250,000 soldiers billeted in the area. The imposing Town Hall, built in 1911, can be found on the main square. It was used as a Divisional Headquarters during the War.
Within the town hall are execution cells where some of the British soldiers condemned to execution during the Great War were kept awaiting their fate – to be shot at dawn. There were originally four cells, which were used by the police here before the war. Two of these small rooms have been restored; one with a simple pallisade bed and a lavatory bucket.
Although the exact number of men shot here at the Town Hall is unknown, there is firm evidence for five. There are photographs of some of those executed on the wall, part of an artwork located here. The two small rooms have small barred windows and are very dark, even on a bright sunny day.
The cells have brick floors, and many people have left wreaths here. On the walls are graffiti, scratched into the surface, much of which dates back to the Great War. The cells were used to hold many men who were taken into custody for a number of reasons, such as drunkeness, as well as to hold some of those awaiting execution.
In the courtyard outside stands a very grim reminder of the Great War – the post to which at least one soldier was tied before he was executed. The execution post stands next to a large silvered panel on which a few words from a Kipling poem (The Coward) are inscribed – including the words ‘blindfold and alone’.
The executions of British soldiers during the Great War is a subject on which emotions run high. There are many viewpoints; often today the men are seen as those who simply could not cope with the horrors of warfare and were victims. However amongst those executed were murderers, and also some who had deserted many times and been given many previous chances. It is also true that some of those executed were men who deserved another chance, or who perhaps should not have been at war at all. But it is easy to judge this by the standards of our own times and forget that this was a time when the country was quite literally fighting for its future, and even in peacetime at that period the laws and punishments seem harsh to us today.
The nearby Poperinghe New British Military Cemetery has the graves of 18 executed soldiers – more than any of the many other British military cemeteries that are located along the site of the Western Front.
The book “Guide to Australian Battlefields of the Western Front – 1916-1918” by John Laffin, Kangaroo Press, Sydney, 1999, p. 196 was used as the source for this blog post.