The Bickersteth War Diaries, 1914-18
July 5, 1917 I was distressed to hear from our Colonel that the man who came to us under arrest as a deserter six months ago and who had deserted again four times since, had been condemned to death. The previous sen- tence of death passed on him had been commuted and then suspended to give him another chance, but he deserted again during the Battle of Arras and so lost his only chance.
A wire shortly came from the Brigade HQ telling me that I should be expected to attend him from the moment of the pro- mulgation to his death.
Monday July 2nd 1 left our HQ in the Line fairly early and went straight down to see the Senior Chaplain, who himself had intended to take on this sad business, but as I have been seeing the man practically every day for three or four months I asked him to let me see it through. I felt it was my duty. So after some lunch with him I went to our Transport Lines and saw the firing party, picked by military require- ments from our own men. These men had been sent down specially from the trenches. I made several arrangements about the dig- ging of the grave and then went on to the spot where the promulgation was to take place. This consisted of the prisoner being marched under escort to a spot just outside the village. Here he was placed in the cen- tre of a hollow square formed by represen- tatives drawn from each battalion in the Brigade. At a given signal the prisoner is ordered to take two paces to the front, which he does, and his cap is taken off, and then the officer in charge of the parade read the sentence which concluded a recital
of the crime for which the prisoner had been found guilty. I stood close behind the prisoner to support him by my presence all I could. There was a terrible silence when the promulgation concluded with the sen- tence of death. The man seemed a bit dazed, but stepped back to between his guards fairly smartly. I walked off the ground with him. He was taken to a little back room on the second storey of a two-storied semi-detached villa in the village.
Let me try to describe to you the man before I tell you more. Heavily built, rather vacant-eyed, low forehead, very dirty in appearance in spite of all the efforts of the military police to make him clean himself, his utterance was indistinct and his mastery of the English language somewhat limited. His previous history was typical, I suppose, of many others, but not without its sadness. Our modern civilisation had done but little for him. His father, a 'cabby' in East London, had died when the boy was 13. His mother, reduced in her circumstances, lived afterwards in one room. The boy was sent out to 'do what he could for himself. He lived from hand to mouth. He soon learnt enough to avoid the police, to get enough to eat, but his home ties soon began to mean less and less to him, Occasionally he brought his mother home a few pence to add to the limited family exchequer. On this effort he dwelt in his reminiscences to me with pride. And who knows it may stand before the Judgment Seat for much. It meant at least a spark of filial duty. But with no one to help him much he soon drifted into bad company and before he was 20 found himself in prison. On coming out the first time he still kept in touch with his mother, but a second conviction soon after meant a longer time in prison and when at last he was free again his mother had moved from the single room she occu- pied before he went to prison and from that day to this he had never seen her again. He never found out, or troubled to find out, where she had gone. His two sisters had several years before gone into service and disappeared from the family circle. The Military Service Act caught him in its meshes and he became a soldier. During his training in the East End he found one good woman, who lived next to the Military Depot or guard room, who used to give him meals on credit. The address of this woman he remembered, but not her name. Accustomed always to do as he pleased, he had deserted twice before he left England and was brought across under arrest. Escaping soon after, he was caught and sent up to the Line, only to escape on the way, and when he was apprehended, we had to send our battalion military police to fetch him — not a very propitious entry into the regiment. He had belonged to another regiment of the `London Regiment' and was only attached to us at the Base.
This was six months ago, and from that day to this he has almost the whole time been in our Guardroom.
This was the man I had to tackle with only 12 hours more to live. There were not a few who said he was mad, or at least something wrong with his brain, but our Doctor had been unable to certify that he was in any way not responsible for his actions and certainly he was quite intelli- gent in a good many ways. He could read and write well.
He sat down heavily on a chair. The room was furnished with a small round table, three chairs, and a wire bed raised six inches from the ground. I took a chair and sat next to him. 'I am going to stay with you and do anything I can for you. If you'd like to talk, we will, but if you would rather not, we'll sit quiet.' Two fully armed sentries with fixed bayonets stand one by the door and the other by the window. The room is only 9 feet by 10 feet. Anything in the nature of a private talk seems likely to be difficult. An appeal that the sentries may be removed is not accepted. There are no bars to the windows and the prisoner might seek to make an end of himself. So I sit on silently. Suddenly I hear great heaving sobs and the prisoner breaks down and cries. In a second I lean over close to him, as he hides his face in his hands, and in a low voice I talk to him. He seems still a little doubtful about his fate and I have to explain to him what is going to hapPeo tomorrow morning. I tell him about Morris and of how 'many splendid men have `passed on'. What fine company he will find on the other side. After a time he quiets down and his tea comes up — two larger pieces of bread and butter, a mess tin full of tea and some jam in a tin. One 011 the sentries lends me his clasp knife, s° that I may put jam on his bread, for the prisoner of course is not allowed to handle a knife. After his tea is over, I hand him a Pipe and tobacco. These comforts, strictly forbidden to all prisoners, are not withheld now. He loved a pipe and soon he is contentedly puffing away. Time goes on. I know that he must sleep, if possible, during the hours of darkness, so my time is short. How can I reach his soul? I get out my Bible and read to him something from the Gospel. It leaves him unmoved. He is obviously uninterested and my attempt to talk a little about what I have read leaves him cold. Where is my point of contact? I make him move his chair as far away from the sentry as possible, and speaking in a low voice close to him, I am not overheard, but of what to speak? There is no point of contact through his home, which means nothing to him. I get out an army prayer- book, which contains at the end about 130 hymns, and handing him the book, ask him to read through the part at the end, so that, if he can find a hymn he knows, I can read it to him. He hits on Rock of Ages and asks, not if I will read it to him, but if we can sing it. The idea of our solemnly singing hymns together, while the two sentries eye us coldly from the other side of the room, seems to me so incongruous that I put him off with the promise of a hymn to be sung before he goes to sleep, but he is not satis- fied and he returns to the suggestion again. This time I had enough sense, thank good- ness, to seize on 'the straw', and we sat there and sang hymns together for three hours or more And the curious thing about this extra- ordinary man is that he takes command of the proceedings. He chooses the hymns. He will not sing any one over twice. He starts the hymn on the right note, knows the tunes and pitches them all perfectly right. Music has evidently not been denied him. The words mean nothing to him, or else he is so little gifted with imagination that the pathos of such lines as 'Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes' and many similar lines, which in view of the morrow should cut deep, leave the prisoner unmoved.
Oh! how we sang — hymn after hymn. He knew more tunes than I did. Girdlestone came and fetched me away for half an hour's dinner and then I returned to the little room and in the rapidly fading light went on with the hymn-singing. I brought him a YMCA hymn-book, which contained several hymns not in the other. He was delighted and we sang 'Throw out the Life- line', 'What a Friend we have in Jesus' and others. When 10.30 pm came I was anxious to see the prisoner sleeping, for his own sake, though I was willing to go on singing hymns if he wanted to. His stock, however, was nearly exhausted, as he would never sing the same hymn twice over. So we agreed to close the singing, but we would sing one of the hymns he had already sung, a second time as a last effort. So he chose `God be with us till we meet again.' He sang it utterly unmoved. While I was ruminating over how to make use of the hymns for getting a little further on, he said `We haven't finished yet — we must have "God save the King" and we then and there rose to our feet, and the two Divisional Military Police, who had replaced the ordi- nary guard and been accommodated with two chairs, had to get up and stand rigidly to attention, while the prisoner and I sang lustily three verses of the National Anthem! A few seconds later the prisoner was asleep.
I felt that the hymns, even if the words had not meant much to him, had been a prayer — or rather many prayers — and seeing him inclined to sleep, I did not try to get his attention to pray more with him. I have never spent a stranger evening. I think it was a distinct effort on his part to give Religion full play. To him, hymn-singing meant Religion. Probably no other aspect or side of Religion had ever touched him and now that he was `up against it' he found real consolation in singing hymns learnt in childhood — he had been to Sunday School up till 12 or 13. Anyhow, that was the point of contact I had been seeking for. All night I sat by his side. One sentry played patience — the other read a book. Once or twice the prisoner woke up, but he soon slept again. At 3.0 a.m. I watched the first beginnings of dawn through the window. At 3.30 a.m. I heard the tramp tramp of the Firing Party march- ing down the road. A few minutes later the police Sergeant-Major brought me up a cup of tea and I had a whispered consulta- tion with him as to how long I could let the prisoner sleep. A minute or two later I was called down to see the APM, the divisional officer in charge of the police, and he gave me some rhum to give the prisoner if he wanted it. It was a dark morning, so he did not want the prisoner awakened for another ten minutes. I went up again and at the right time wakened him. While his breakfast was being brought up, we knelt together in prayer. I commended him to God and we said together the Lord's Prayer, which he knew quite well and was proud of knowing. Then he sat down and ate a really good breakfast — bread and butter, ham, and tea. When he had finished it was just four o'clock and I poured into his empty mug a tablespoonful of rhum, but when he had tasted it, he wouldn't drink any of it. 'Is it time to go ?', he said. `Yes, it is time. I will slay close to you.' Down the narrow stairs we went and through the silent streets of the village our weird little procession tramped. First a burly military policeman, then the prisoner, unbound, and myself, followed close on our heels by two more policemen, the APM, the Doctor, and one other officer. We had about 300 yards to go to a deserted and ruined house just outside the village. I held the prisoner's arm tight for sympathy's sake. Reaching the house, the police immediately hand-cuffed the man and the Doctor blindfolded him. He was breathing heavily and his heart going very quickly, but outwardly he was unmoved. I said a short prayer and led him the 10 or 12 paces out into the yard, where he was at once bound to a stake. I whispered in his ear `Safe in the arms of Jesus', and he repeated quite clearly 'Safe in the arms of Jesus'. The APM motioned me away. In three or four seconds the Firing Party had done their work. Poor lads — I was sorry for them. They felt it a good deal and I followed them out of the yard at once and spoke to them and handed them cigarettes.
Girdlestone turned up and together we took the body in a motor ambulance to the nearest cemetery, where I had a burial party waiting, and we gave his body Christian burial.
I went back to the Transport Lines and tried to get some sleep.
This is an extract from a letter to his mother from the Reverend Julian Bickersteth, MC, Royal Army Chaplains Department with the 56th London Division. It forms part of 11 volumes of the family's unpublished diaries, mostly consisting of letters to their mother from five serving sons, kept between 1914 and 1918. The same recipient began again in 1939 and put together a further seven volumes of correspondence from her by then extended family.