By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — A campaign to secure pardons for 26 Irishmen shot for alleged cowardice, disobedience or desertion by the British military authorities in World War I has been launched by a Dublin association that describes the executions as “judicial murders.”
“With over 300 other innocent British and Commonwealth soldiers, these Irishmen were brutally gunned down, not in the name of justice, but as a stupid, spiteful and shameful example to others,” said Peter Mulvany of the Irish Seamen’s Relatives Association.
The association is already involved in a campaign for compensation for Irishmen taken as prisoners of war by the Germans in World War II who were then used as slave laborers in Nazi wartime factories and farms.
The ISRA is seeking the relative of two of those executed, one a 19-year-old from Limerick man who was shot for refusing to wear his hat, and a 24-year-old from Omagh who was executed for desertion because his wife and child were ill.
“Most of those who were executed were clearly suffering from shell-shock,” Mulvany said. “There was no proper justice or medical evidence at the court martials. It was incredible what went on.
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“In many of the cases there was no defending officer. It was required that a field officer, an officer from the front, should be present at the court martials, but in many cases that requirement was waived.
“The men on the front line were simply cannon fodder and justice demands that those who were executed be given full reviews and pardons.”
Mulvany has called on the taoiseach to join the campaign to have the men pardoned.
In New Zealand, the international Shot at Dawn campaign resulted in a special pardons bill being enacted in September 2000 that granted pardons to five New Zealanders who were executed, including one man who was shot after being convicted of mutiny.
“The Canadian government is putting their 23 people executed on a memorial and there is talk of an apology,” Mulvany said. “The Blair government are stubbornly refusing to grant pardons. Last year there was a bill in the House of Lords and amongst those signing it were members of the Liberal Party, John Hume and Rev. Ian Paisley. The government let it run out of time.
The list of Irishmen executed shows they came from all over the country, including Naas, Belfast, Dublin and Cork. They were serving in regiments like the Munster Fusiliers, the Irish Guards, the Royal Irish Rifles, the Liverpool Regiment, the Leinster Regiment and the Inniskilling Fusiliers.
One executed Irish soldier, Private Thomas Davis, 21, had been suffering from dysentery and was absent from his sentry post for three hours.
Mulvany said details of the executions were not declassified and made public until 1993. He said a study of the court martial dossiers by a prominent British judge and World War II veteran concluded the court martial decisions were “arbitrary, inconsistent and irregular.”
The authorities assumed that the executions were good for discipline. The treatment of enlisted men was harsher and they were more likely to be executed. All but a handful of the executed were volunteers not conscripts. Only three officers were shot.
“Initially, for officers the treatment was encouragement, usually accompanied by withdrawal from the bloody trench warfare for a longer period of rest and rehabilitation,” Mulvany said. “It wasn’t until 1916 that Haig (Field Marshall Douglas Haig, British commander on the western front during World War I) gave an order that there was too much leniency with the officers. So they picked officers and executed them as an example. In one particular case an officer’s gun got stuck in the trench and he want back to get it. He was court martialed for desertion. They construed desertion any way they wanted.”
Mulvany is seeking the relatives of two of the executed men so that they can take part of remembrance services for them in November.
Private Patrick Downey, 19, from Limerick, army number 6/227, of the 10th Division, 6th Leinster Regiment, was shot in Serbia on Dec. 27 1915.
“He was tied to a pole and shot after a field court martial presided over by a Capt. R. Mansergh of the Royal Irish regiment. His crime was he refused to wear his hat. There are only three pages of hand-written details about his court martial.
“His hat had fallen from his head while he was tied crucifixion-style to the wheel of a gun carriage. He was tied to the wheel as part of what was called field punishment number one, which meant he was tied for two hours every day to the wheel.
“Downey had had several weeks of this punishment and when he refused to keep his hat on they shot him.”
The second man whose relatives are being sought is Private J. Wishart, 24, from Omagh, army number 26248, of the 16th Division, 7th Inniskilling Fusiliers, who was executed in France on May 6,1917.
“He wanted to get home to his wife and child, who were ill, so he did not take up a position in the trenches,” Mulvany said. “He was court martialed as a deserter and shot.”