December 10, 2023

Hidden Truth: Caribbean soldier executions in the First World War by Peter Polack

Seventeen year old Herbert Morris a Jamaican from Riversdale in the parish if St. Catherine was executed on 20 September 1917 behind a church in Poperinge, Belgium. He was one of thousands of West Indian volunteers who travelled thousands of miles to war in a strange land only to die from court martial for essentially shell shock, now referred today as PTSD. His death was personally approved by British commander Douglas Haig, part of the lions led by donkeys leadership team. 

The tragic story of Herbert Morris from the Trench Brothers Project has resonated with visiting children:

Herbert was just a lad of 16 when he volunteered for war service. He was recruited in Jamaica for the 6th Battalion of the British West Indies Regiment (6BWIR) and, as he wished, he was sent to the trenches of Flanders where his superiors noted in their records that he “behaved well”. Some members of the 6BWIR became afraid of the guns and often showed signs of disorientation during the shelling. Eventually Herbert’s nerves gave way, and the shell-shocked youngster fled from the trenches. He went absent without leave and was reported to have stayed on the run for two days before being captured and arrested. His capture was inevitable because it was almost impossible for deserters to remain at liberty in France, and to find a way back home to England. Herbert was picked up at Boulogne and given fourteen days field punishment. On 20 August, having seen seven of his comrades become casualties, Herbert absconded again, jumping from the lorry taking him to his battery. He was arrested, once more at Boulogne, when he entered a rest camp with no ticket of leave. Morris had clear symptoms of battle fatigue or ‘shellshock’. He pleaded to the court ‘I am troubled with my head and cannot stand the sound of the guns. I reported to the Dr. [sic] and he gave me no medicine or anything.’ The court made no attempt to adjourn the case for medical reports. As far as the British Army was concerned, desertion lowered the morale of the troops and punishment was harsh, especially in wartime. Herbert was court martialed and sentenced to be shot for desertion from active service. His death sentence was confirmed by Field Marshall Douglas Haig. Herbert was paraded in front of 6BWIR as an example. In the early hours of 20 September 1917Herbert Morris dictated a letter to Padre Horner for his parents in Jamaica, and was executed at dawn by a firing squad that included seven West Indian and three white soldiers. He had just had his 17th birthday.

Herbert was not the lone teenager shot at dawn in that same spot. Nineteen year old Frederick Gore of the East Kent Regiment was shot less than a month later on 16 October 1917. They joined many others, also executed behind the Poperinge church as the war bogged down into trenches, full frontal charges and massive casualties.

Another teenager that met this fate was seventeen year old Abraham Bevistein from an immigrant family who was executed in 20 March 2016, one of the estimated two hundred and fifty thousand estimated underage boys who served the British Army during World War 1. Bevistein had changed his name to the more English name of Harris on enlistment, but it did not save him.

Between 1914 and 1920 there were twenty thousand soldiers that were convicted by court martial with a potential death penalty.  Three thousand British soldiers were sentenced to execution during the Great War not only for cowardice and desertion but for crimes such as murder. Slightly over three hundred were actually executed.

The youngest British underage execution was sixteen year old Herbert Burden who pretended to be eighteen so he could join in the excitement that the Great War presented to communities with a profusion of bored young men. The mindset must have been that this was a prank or taboo like having an underage drink or drive until the reality of thousands of dead bodies on a battlefield set in. This was the most popular and macabre sport of the time, underage enlistment, a conspiracy of fools and eager ears. 

Burden’s urban hometown, the London Borough of Lewisham was a planet away from the quiet, rural community of Riversdale in Jamaica where his fellow teenager, Herbert Morris called home. Burden’s parents joined William and Ophelia Morris in mourning, five thousand miles away. Herbert Burden was executed at seventeen years on 21 July 1915, ten months after enlistment with the British Army. Subsequently he became the figurehead for the Shot at Dawn Memorial created after the 2007 UK government pardon for the executions of three hundred and six soldiers found guilty of desertion.

Peter Polack is a former criminal lawyer in the Cayman Islands for several decades. His books are The Last Hot Battle of the Cold War: South Africa vs. Cuba in the Angolan Civil War (2013)Jamaica, The Land of Film (2017) and Guerrilla Warfare: Kings of Revolution (2019). He was a contributor to Encyclopedia of Warfare (2013). Polack worked as a part-time reporter for Reuters News Agency in the Cayman Islands 2014-16. His work has been published in Small Wars Journal, Defence Procurement International, American Intelligence Journal, U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center magazine, Military Times, Foreign Policy News, EU Today, Radio Free Europe, VOA Portuguese, South Africa Times, Africa Monitor, Folha de Sao Paulo, NODAL Cultura, Caribbean Life, Jamaque Paradis, History Cooperative, INews Cayman, Jamaica Gleaner, Miami Herald, Reuters and The New York Times. His latest book entitled Soviet Spies Worldwide: Country by Country, 1940–1988 is published by McFarland. The book is a compendium of Russian espionage activities with nearly five hundred Soviet spies expelled from nearly 100 countries worldwide. In April 2021 he completed Only the Young Shall Die by with Jack McCain USNR about raising the age of military enlistment. He is currently doing research on a curated collection entitled War In Pictures of almost 1,000 images throughout several conflicts over many centuries.

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