During the First World War, more than 300 men serving with British forces were executed for offences including desertion, disobedience and violence. Those punished for cowardice or desertion received a posthumous pardon from the UK government in 2006, yet the subject of those ‘shot at dawn’ remains controversial and highly sensitive. In this blog post we look at the story of 17 year old Herbert Morris, who was executed 100 years ago for desertion.
Herbert was born in Jamaica in 1900, to Ophelia and William Morris. We know very little about his early life, but it is possible that he was employed on fruit or sugar cane farms like many people living in the area.
In 1915 Britain’s War Office, which had initially opposed recruitment of West Indian troops, created the British West Indies Regiment (BWIR), which served in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The formation of the BWIR did not give black soldiers from the West Indies the opportunity to fight as equals alongside white soldiers. Instead, the War Office largely limited their participation to ‘labour’ duties.
Herbert joined 6 Battalion British West Indies Regiment sometime in late 1916 or early 1917, meaning that like many other young men at that time he enlisted underage. After a long sea voyage in which many troops died from illness, the unit arrived in France on 17 April 1917.
- Service in France
BWIR troops were engaged in numerous support roles on the Western Front, including digging trenches, building roads and gun emplacements, acting as stretcher bearers, loading ships and trains, and working in ammunition dumps. This dangerous work was often carried out within range of German artillery and snipers. Indeed, Herbert reported to the army doctor that ‘I am troubled with my head. I cannot stand the sound of the guns.’
This testimony suggests that Herbert may have suffered from war-related trauma, known at the time as shell shock. He was fined for fighting in his billet on 3 June 1917, and received punishment for being absent without leave on 16 July. On 20 August, he again left his post without permission and was arrested the next day in Boulogne.
- Court Martial and execution
Herbert faced a court martial on 7 September 1917.
The accused has never given me any trouble. He is well behaved – Lieutenant Andrews
His commanding officers gave a good account of his behaviour and work ethic, but unfortunately the blemishes on his record counted against him and he was sentenced to death.
Although around 3,000 men were given the death penalty during the war, the vast majority of them had their sentences commuted to imprisonment or forced labour. However, because of mutinies amongst the Allies and in light of the continuing offensive in autumn 1917, Herbert’s sentence was carried out in order to deter other potential deserters.
He was shot in the courtyard behind Poperinghe Town Hall at 6.10am on 20 September 1917, and buried nearby. Today, he lies in Poperinghe New Military Cemetery alongside more than 670 other men, 16 of whom who were also ‘shot at dawn’. Herbert’s headstone does not reveal the circumstances behind his death, reflecting the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s principle of equality amongst the dead.
The 2006 Armed Forces Act pardoned Herbert Morris as “one of the many victims of the First World War … execution was not a fate he deserved.” He is remembered at the ‘Shot at Dawn’ memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire, and is united with other men who shared his fate in this Lives of the First World War Community.