History in hindsight is not so black and white

World War One, Crawley SUS-150317-153008001
World War One, Crawley SUS-150317-153008001
  • Young father deserted out of fear for his wife and child
  • Police were given monetary rewards for capturing deserters
  • 306 British and Commonwealth soldiers were executed for desertion or cowardice

Some reports of court proceedings from a century ago can raise a smile while others leave a bad taste.

The Sussex & Surrey Courier in March 1914 told tales of pigs, sheep and chickens being allowed to roam the streets and promptly landing their owners in court.

If the same happened to day, the cause would probably be a mass break-out from the Nature Centre.

When it came to dealing with offenders of the two-legged variety, the local bobby in May 1915 – PC Luck – seemed to spend his time nicking people for not have lights on their bikes or for failing to license their dogs.

Elizabeth Harris, of Crawley Down, was fined two shillings and sixpence for such an offence, while Eli Denman was fined five shillings – even though he had sold the dog.

But, during the war years 1914-1918, there were frequent reports, the subjects of which were never going to reach such an easy conclusion – deserters.

One particularly harrowing account was that of a young soldier who had received word his wife and child had not been receiving the allowance he had made for them from his Army pay and were starving.

The man – who was serving in the 13th Battalion (Southdowns) of the Royal Sussex Regiment – was handed over to military police after being chased down by PS Capelin in Crawley.

The Courier report read: “PS Capelin said he saw the man acting suspiciously in the Three Bridges road and watched him trying to escape observation. Witness gave chase over five fields and eventually came up to the prisoner, whom he apprehended on suspicion.

“The man was afterwards identified and admitted the facts.

“Prisoner’s reason for deserting was that his wife and child had nothing to eat, though he had made an allowance of 3s.6d per week for them out of his pay.

“His wife had received nothing yet, he said, and last week was notified to apply again in another month.

“Prisoner was handed over to a military escort in attendance, and PS Capelin was allowed the maximum sum of £1 for securing the man’s arrest.”

Another man was captured after being found living rough in Ifield Wood having fled his unit, the 2nd Battalion of the Coldstream Guards; while a third was arrested walking out of Crawley towards London after selling his military overcoat for five shillings.

He was absent without leave from the Royal Warwickshire Regiment.

While nothing was written of the reasons for the second and third men’s desertion, the first tale seems terribly harsh to those of us who have never faced the prospect of a world at war.

What man wouldn’t want to ensure his wife and child were safe, especially when the arrangements he had made for their wellbeing were not being carried out?

World War One saw the execution of 306 British and Commonwealth soldiers for crimes such as desertion and cowardice. They included 25 Canadians, 22 Irishmen and five New Zealanders. The vast majority were non-commissioned men and they died at the hands of a 12-man firing squad.

It can only be hoped the case of the young husband and father was treated with the sympathy it deserved.