|The Shot at Dawn Memorial, Staffordshire, UK|
As it was put by the sadly defunct Shot At Dawn site (still preserved at the Wayback Machine), “The cemetery register of Poperinghe New Military Cemetery states that Lt. Eric Skeffington Poole died of wounds on 10 December 1916. Tactfully, it omits to record also that his death was caused by a British Army firing squad.”
A Canadian-born engineer, Poole had enlisted in the very first weeks of the war and been commissioned an officer by May 1915.
In July of 1916, a falling artillery shell struck so close that its concussion knocked Poole down, spattering him with earth. He was hospitalized for shellshock but returned to duty in September — still complaining of rheumatism and feeling “damned bad.”
One night in October as his unit moved up to a forward trench, Poole disappeared from it — nobody knows how or when, but he wasn’t there when it mustered at its new position at midnight. He was detained two days later, wandering well west of the trenches, a leather jacket hiding his private’s tunic … “in a very dazed condition,” an officer who interviewed him would later remember. “From conversation which I had with him I came to the conclusion he was not responsible for his actions. He was very confused indeed.”
Evidence collected in Poole’s desertion trial pointed to a man taxed beyond his capacities by command responsibility and the strain of two years at war. His division commander recommended against the court martial, for Poole was “not really accountable for his actions. He is of nervous temperament, useless in action, and dangerous as an example to the men” — but still “could [be] usefully employed at home in instructional duties or in any minor administrative work, not involving severe strain of the nerves.” Another captain in his battalion described him as “somewhat eccentric, and markedly lacking in decision” and liable under pressure to “become so mentally confused that he would not be responsible for his actions.”
By the book the man’s irresolute midnight ramble was a clear instance of abdicating duty, but Poole’s weakness was apparent enough to trouble the court that tried him for desertion — not only to solicit this and other testimony from his comrades about the lieutenant’s state of mind but even to remark from its own observation that his “mental powers [were] less than average. He appears dull under cross examination, and his perception is slow.” Perhaps this was fellow-feeling by other officers that would not have been extended to a mere grunt; if so, what was a mitigating consideration for the court made Poole’s execution a in the eyes of Field Marshal Haig: “Such a case is more serious in the case of an officer than a man, and it is also highly important that all ranks should realise the law is the same for an officer as a private.” Two years in, and somehow not one officer had suffered such a punishment; Shot At Dawn speculated that military courts’ recent shocking verdict excusing Captain John Bowen-Colthurst on grounds of insanity for an atrocity in Ireland had also raised pressure on the armed forces to show that British officers stood not above the law.*
The British army executed 306 of its own soldiers during World War I. Among them, Poole was the first of only three officers.
* The War Office’s decision not to publicize his fate (and the euphemistic reference in the cemetery register) would seem sharply at odds with any intended demonstrative effect.
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