"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." - Oscar Wilde

Monday, January 18, 2016

UK: WWI soldier executed for mutiny to be honoured at National Memorial Arboretum

British court martial on the front. Screenshot from "For King and Country", a film by Joseph Losey (1965) with Dirk Bogarde and Tom Courtenay.
British court martial on the front. Screenshot from "For King and Country",
a film by Joseph Losey (1965) with Dirk Bogarde and Tom Courtenay.
In the mist of an anaemic French dawn, the weak sunlight burning through leaden skies, they placed the blindfold over Jack Braithwaite's eyes.

He stiffened against the whitewashed wall, the wisps of breath from his open mouth quickening.

These were Jack Braithwaite's horrifying last moments.

At 6.05am on October 29, 1916, Jack was executed by firing squad, joining the ranks of those slaughtered by his own side.

His death on that barren patch of land in Rouen came minutes after one Gunner Lewis was shot.

Jack, aged 31, heard the rifles' crackle and the sound turned his legs to jelly.

His crime: mutiny. But that incendiary word paints a picture that does not fit the act that cost Jack his life.

Jack, who openly admitted at his court martial, "I am not a born soldier, just a Bohemian journalist", was guilty of a misdemeanour, not mutiny.

On August 28, 1916, the New Zealander, who had proved truly troublesome to Army top brass, found himself at Number 1 Prison, Blargies, a military lock-up noted for its toughness.

The simmering ill-feeling among inmates turned into open rebellion on that day.

A tough Aussie named Private Little complained bitterly and loudly about the lack of hot water in the showers.

The matter escalated, with Little banging on tables and demanding his meal. Others joined the insurrection, seizing the moment to air their own grievances.

It was then Jack, known as "Bohemian Jack" because of his artistic bent, made his fatal mistake.

In a bid to defuse a potential riot, Jack, who was on mess duty, led furious Little to his tent and fed him.

He had, however, taken Little from the custody of a staff sergeant. And that, in the army's book, constituted mutiny.

Now, following a lobby by New Zealand historian Geoff McMillan, together with Richard Pursehouse and Lee Dent of Cannock-based Great War group The Chase Project, the trooper is to be honoured at a Staffordshire war memorial.

Jack's name will be included in the 'Shot at Dawn' tribute at the National Memorial Arboretum in Alrewas.

Created in 2000 by Birmingham artist Andy DeComyn, the area is a circle of 306 stakes, bearing the name of men posthumously pardoned after being executed by their own side, surrounding a statue of a blindfolded soldier.

It is hoped Jack's stake will be installed before the centenary of his death.

At the court martial, Jack, who spent every day of active service wondering what he was doing amid the mud, blood and brutality of the trenches, pleaded for his life.

He was attempting to stem trouble, he insisted, and pointed out that in Egypt, where he had served, such actions had been punished with 14 days imprisonment.

"I cannot understand that a simple act of peace-making could be brought to look like deliberate mutiny," he protested.

Jack, a member of 2nd battalion Otago Regiment, also pointed out the sacrifices his family had made for the war effort. 2 brothers had been killed in action, 2 wounded and invalided back home. 2 more were training to join the fray. The Braithwaites had paid a heavy price.

In an attempt to win sympathy, Jack added to the mix the fact he was due to marry "the best girl in the entire world".

He partially won over the trial's convening officer, Lieutenant-General Clayton, who recommended that the sentence be commuted to 10 years penal servitude, concluding the evidence bore out the defendant's version of events.

But his recommendations were not accepted by the court. Jack and 3 Australians involved in the prison clash were sentenced to death by firing squad.

There is credence in claims made by Jack's family that he was a "sacrificial lamb".

Despite being sentenced to death, the Army knew there was little chance that the Australians would face a firing squad. The execution of any trooper from Down Under needed the approval of the Australian Governor General.

And he did not share Allied chief Sir Douglas Haig's appetite for killing our own men.

The 3 Aussies, who all played a greater role in the near jail riot than Jack, had their sentence commuted to 2 years hard labour.

But Haig and his cronies had to make a point, had to show that flagrant disobedience would result in death.

That factor, plus the powder keg atmosphere at the prison and Jack's poor disciplinary record meant clemency was not an option.

He had, after all, proved more than problematic during his stint on The Front.

In May, 1916, Jack lost his stripes for going AWOL and didn't seem to give a fig about it. He allegedly retorted: "Let duty and soldiering go to hell." His only time in the trenches, from May 14 to 22, ended ignominiously. He again went missing from his unit, armed with a forged "leave pass". That earned him 60 days field punishment, but by this time Jack had decided war was not for him.

He again escaped on July 7, was caught and sentenced to 2 years hard labour. Even then, he tried to do a runner while being transferred to the British Army's Blargies prison.

Jack's own family seems to have been ashamed of the reluctant trooper. His own uncle, Brigadier W. Braithwaite, urged authorities to lock up his nephew and send him back to New Zealand as soon as possible.

Quite simply, in the British Army's eyes, Jack was a coward. In reality, the man was a sensitive soul, intelligent enough to realise the madness he was immersed in. The Bohemian had been flung into a meat grinder and wanted none of it. In all, he was court martialled 4 times.

His approach to military life is best summed up by writer Mary Vidal in a superb blog on the Western Front Association website.

She said: "Poor Jack. He seems to have been somebody who was totally unsuited to become a soldier and perhaps left to himself, and without the patriotic fervour sweeping Britain and the Empire in 1915, he would not have enlisted.

"He was unable to accept military discipline and acted in a foolhardy, perhaps stupid, manner and was dealt with firmly by the authorities.

"In his final, fatal, brush with military law he found himself cast in the role of a sacrificial victim. It would seem that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and his luck had run out. In his last hours how much he must have wished he had stayed a 'Bohemian' journalist."

Great War historian Ian McGibbon wrote: "Braithwaite was foolhardy, even stupid, in his failure to take military discipline seriously and was treated firmly by the New Zealand divisional authorities. But in his final hearing he was more unlucky than criminal.

"But he found himself cast in the role of sacrificial victim and paid the supreme penalty."

In his last, poignant written missive to the court, Jack, pinning his hopes on his prowess as a writer, stated: "Unfortunately I have made a serious mess of things, and where I came to win honour and glory, I have won shame, dishonour, and everlasting disgrace."

He was wrong. Disgrace did not last forever.

His pardon was signed by British Secretary for Defence Des Browne in 2006.

Jack's tribute at the National Memorial Arboretum was secured after Geoff McMillan, from Waikanae Beach, New Zealand, visited the site last April.

"I could only find 4 stakes for the 5 New Zealanders executed during the Great War," he said.

"There was not one for Jack Braithwaite, who had been pardoned by the New Zealand Government in 2000 along with the other four under the Pardon for Soldiers of the Great War Act."

News of Jack's honour has been welcomed by Richard Pursehouse.

"I think it's great, like picking up on something that has been missed," he said. "I feel very humbled to have been involved.

"There is no date yet, but we hope it happens before the centenary of his death.

"What happened was the law at the time, you had to have the ultimate deterrent. In contrast, not a single servicemen was executed in World War II."

Bohemian Jack is buried in St Sever Cemetery, Rouen, France.

Source: birminghammail.co.uk, January 17, 2016

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