James Crozier, from Battenberg St, Belfast, is a “shirker” or “funk” in British Army parlance. It’s the name given to men (or boys in Crozier’s case, as he was only 16 when he enlisted in September 1914) who were executed for cowardice or desertion during the First World War.
Crozier fought in the Somme. In February 1916, he went missing. He was found a week later wandering around dazed behind the front line, which led to a court martial. He was sentenced to death on the morning of Sunday, 27 February 1916.
“At the execution, all the firing squad shot wide,” says British photographer Chloe Dewe Mathews, whose series, Shot at Dawn, records the sites where soldiers such as Crozier were executed. “They didn’t kill him so the commanding officer had to deliver the final coup de grâce. There are accounts of how the firing squad, his comrades were weeping afterwards. It’s brutal.”
At the site where Crozier was killed stands a lone tree on the grounds of a big, private house in Picardie, northern France. Crozier was one of 22 Irishmen executed during the First World War. The site where another Irishman, Private James Graham of the Royal Munster Fusiliers, who grew up on Lavitt’s Lane off Old Market Place in Cork, is also featured in Shot at Dawn.
Graham was executed on 21 December 1915 in a small French town, Mazingarbe, close to the Belgian border. He was killed just outside an abattoir commandeered by the British Army for executions. “It was used systematically for 11 executions throughout the war,” says Dewe Mathews. “Now it’s used by local men who come in and fix signs and street furniture there.”
Dewe Mathews spent two years going backwards and forwards between London and 23 sites she identified – from approximately 1,000 First World War execution cases – around the fields, forests and villages of Belgium and northern France. Each of her photographs was taken at the same time of day, same time of year and location where the executions occurred a century ago. Graham, for example, was shot at 7.22am.
It was army protocol to carry out the executions at daybreak. Some happened in sloping fields so stray bullets, like those that missed Crozier’s body, would catch in earth nearby. It was a harrowing experience for the 12 men chosen to make up the firing squad, and it brought disgrace on the deceased’s family.
“In the French Army, families weren’t notified about executions,” says Dewe Mathews. “They would have got a letter saying, ‘Your son has died for France.’ For the French, it would only come out later by friends coming back home and telling family members.
“In the British Army, families were notified, but executed soldiers’ names weren’t put on the village or town monuments. It was a huge source of shame. Often their pension would be suspended so some families were pushed into destitution. The ramifications were huge.”
There was no appreciation of the effect shellshock or life in the trenches would have in causing erratic behaviour. One French soldier, François Marsaleix, who is featured in Shot at Dawn, was executed for supposedly refusing to wear the bloodied pants of a dead comrade.
“I became quite immersed in the stories of different people and what happened to them,” says Dewe Mathews, “and seeing correspondence between officers. For example, seeing Eric Skeffington Poole, an officer who was executed. He was hospitalised with shellshock. When he was deemed to be fit and well he deserted. He wandered off with pains in his body, and was found in this dazed situation, and didn’t really know where he was. One of the officers said: ‘He’s not responsible for his actions.’ Yet still he was executed. I was so shocked by these individual cases. In the scale of the whole war, they are minute but are still meaningful.”