yeovil at War
The Death of pRivate Ernest Horler
Executed by firing squad for desertion
Many thanks to Jack Sweet for allowing me to reproduce his article concerning the execution of Private Ernest Horler in February 1918.
For my page concerning Ernest Horler - click here.
Amongst the 306 British soldiers executed in the First World War and granted posthumous pardons by Parliament, is a Yeovil man - Ernest Horler, and this is his story.
At 6:46am on Sunday morning, 17 February 1918, 26 years old Private Ernest Horler of B Company, 12th (S) Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment (Prince of Wales' Own), died by rifle fire at a place called Boiseux-Au-Mont in France, a few kilometres south of Arras, and his 'death was instantaneous'. Private Horler did not die going into action, but this instantaneous death came from the barrels of .303" Short, Magazine, Lee Enfield rifles fired by British soldiers - Ernest Horler had been shot for desertion.
And how id Private Horler come to the place called Boiseux-Au-Mont on that February morning in the year 1918?
Nearly three weeks earlier, on 30 January, a Field General Court Martial was convened at the Headquarters of the 9th Infantry Brigade, 3rd Division, to try 46127 Private Ernest William Horler on three charges - two for desertion whilst on active service, and one, of escaping from lawful custody; to all three he pleaded Not Guilty.
The proceedings of the court martial are briefly recorded in pencil on five sheets of paper and can be examined in the national Archives at Kew under reference WO71/677.
The President of the four member court was Major E L Thomson, or the 3rd York and Lancashire Regiment, attached 12th West Yorkshire Regiment, and the other members were Captain J Young, 2nd Royal Scots, Captain C M Hadden, 1st Royal Scots Fusiliers (he would be killed in action two months later) and Second Lieutenant H H Harding of 7th Gordon Highlanders. Lieutenant J Thurgood of the 12th Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment, was the prosecuting officer, but there was no officer or 'prisoner's friend' acting for Private Horler.
Opening the prosecution on the charge of desertion, Lieutenant Thurgood called the first witness, Corporal J Russell of B Company who testified that the unit was in the support line in the Lagnicourt sector of the Front, and that the accused, Private Horler, was a member of his section. At 3pm on 3 December 1917, the accused had been present when the Company were told that they were going to wire in front of the support trenches and were instructed to parade for this work at 7pm that evening. However, at 7pm the accused was absent.
The next witness was Private Gilbert, also of B Company, who stated that the Company was paraded by the Sergeant Major at 7pm and had brought wire cutters and gloves for the work. The witness told the Court that he was in the accused's platoon and when his name was called out there was no answer; he did not see him that night or the next day.
Private Horler did not exercise his right to cross-examine the witnesses but in his defence stated that: "I was present on the parade at 3pm on 3 December. We were told to parade again at 7pm. I left the battalion because I was a sick man when I was sent to it. (He had joined the 12th Battalion on 2 October 1917, possibly with the '80 untrained men from the Labour Battalion', recorded in the Battalion Diary). My heart is in a very bad state, the arteries poisoned by an injection. My stomach is poisoned, also I have reported sick on different occasions for these ailments. I have been ill for a good many months and have done duty the whole time in the line and out. When I left the battalion I did not know that the wiring party was going up to the support line. I left because my condition had been getting worse."
The prosecution presented no further witnesses, none were called by the accused and he made no further statement. The court now closed to consider its findings on the first charge of desertion, this was Guilty, and the sentence was DEATH.
It appears that after leaving his unit on 3 December, Ernest Horler had made his way to Boulogne, where he surrendered to Military Police on the following day. He was taken to the large Base Depot at Etaples, where he waited to be returned to his unit and a probable disciplinary charge.
The court martial reconvened to consider the charge of escaping from lawful custody. Private Illingworth of the 12th Battalion, testified that at the Base Depot, Etaples, on 14 December, he had been a member of a draft of men being returned to the Front in the charge of Sergeant Bevan, and saw the accused join them. However, when the draft reached the railway siding to entrain, he could not see the accused and he was not with them when they reached the 12th Battalion. Under cross-examination by the court, Private Gilbert could not confirm that Private Horler was under escort at this time. He stated that Sergeant Bevan had since been killed.
Once again Ernest Horler had disappeared, and remained absent somewhere in the Etaples area to re-emerge several weeks later when he was stopped by Lance Corporal Pryce of the Military Police, who testified that "At Etaples on 12 January at about 10:50pm I was on duty and met the accused in the street. I stopped him. He could not produce a pass so I arrested him. Accused had no identity disc, pay book or tunic."
In response to this charge Ernest Horler produced no witnesses but stated that: "I was supposed to be on my way to join the Battalion without escort. I admit that I disappeared from the party. I had no intention of deserting. I had lost my disc, pay book up at the camp at Etaples. I do not mean the military prison."
The proceedings on the charge of escaping were now complete and after due deliberation the court found the prisoner Not Guilty. The findings on the second charge of desertion was Guilty and once again the sentence was DEATH.
With the findings on the charges now given, the prosecuting officer, Lieutenant Thurgood, produced Ernest Horler's conduct sheet and this was not very good. He had been absent from his previous unit for 24 hours on 25 July 1917 and forfeited 7 days pay, three days later on 28 July he disobeyed a lawful command and was sentenced by a Field General Court Martial to 56 days No 1 Field Punishment. On 8 November a Field General Court Martial had sentenced him to two years Hard Labour for escaping and being absent without leave, but this was reduced to 90 days No 1 Field Punishment; Ernest Horler was still under this sentence when he deserted on 3 December. No 1 Field Punishment was designed to humiliate as well as punish the offender, and usually involved the soldier being secured by ropes or manacles to a fixed object, such as a cart wheel, for up to two hours a day followed by hard labour and other demanding work in the vicinity of the front line.
Ernest Horler was now afforded the opportunity to plead mitigation and to call evidence of character. No character witnesses were called but he sought mitigation of the sentence stating that: "I have been ill. I have been deprived of pay and am sure there is a lot due to me. (This is the response of a man just sentenced to death!!) I should like to apply for a medical board on my physical and mental condition. Before joining the Army I had a fine character. I have an aged mother and make her an allotment. My illness has told against me all the time. I appeal to the Court to see that my health is inquired into."
With this statement the court closed and Private Ernest Horler was taken away into the custody of the Third Division's Assistant provost Marshall to await his fate; would the sentence of death be confirmed, or a term of imprisonment substituted?
The death sentence required the confirmation of the Commander in Chief, Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig, and the wheels of military justice were turning rapidly as the findings were passed up the chain of command.
On 31 January, Lieutenant Colonel R C Smythe, Officer Commanding the 12th Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment, transmitted the findings of the Court Martial to the Headquarters of 9th Infantry Brigade accompanied by the following statement:
Re 46127, Private ERNEST WILLIAM HORLER, 12th Bn. West Yorks. Regt.
Herewith particulars required under S.S. 412a. 66.
He has been in one action only whilst serving with this Battalion. Most of his time has been spent under arrest or as an absentee.
Joined 12th Battn. West Yorkshire Regt., 2.10.17
Struck off the strength as a deserter, 14.12.17
Apprehended by M.P., 12.1.18
Rejoined Battalion under escort 20.1.18
Discipline in the Battalion is good.
I am of the opinion that the crime was deliberately committed.
R C Smythe,
Commanding 12th (S) Battn. West Yorkshire Regt.
The statement that Ernest Horler was married is a puzzle. There is no record of his marriage and as later events will show, this information is almost certainly inaccurate.
On 1 February, the prisoner was medically examined by the Deputy ADMS of the Third Division who could "find him suffering from no appreciable disease", and on the same day the Battalion's Medical Officer reported that he had seen him on five occasions:
Secondly 'Rheumatic' - which did not exist
Thirdly Chill - easily remedied
Fourthly during Field Punishment stomach required purge
Fifthly Prior to disappearance reported that his heart was bad.
I examined him and found his heart normal.
On the morning of the trial he made no complaint of illness and on examination I found him to be suffering from no appreciable disease."
The papers were proceeding up the chain of command and on 1 February landed on the desk of Major General C J Deverell, Commanding, Third Division, who wrote in his own hand:
"I recommend that the sentence be put into execution. The crime was apparently deliberate to avoid service as a soldier and to avoid going out with a wiring party. The prisoner has been previously convicted of absence without leave. From his previous record and the opinion given by his C.O. the prisoner appears to be a worthless man who has continually endeavoured to evade service. I can find no extenuating circumstances."
The recommendation was sent on with the papers to the Corps Commander, Lieutenant General A Haldane who concurred, as did General Byng, Commanding Third Army, and on 3 February the proceedings were presented to the Adjutant General for scrutiny at General Headquarters prior to their submission to the Commander in Chief. When the papers were read, a Captain Dowson on behalf of the Deputy Judge Advocate General, noted the words "as a deserter (or absentee without leave)" in the certificate of surrender put in evidence relating to Ernest Horler's arrest in Boulogne were not strictly admissible, but they were merely formal and could not have affected the finding on the first charge.
On 12 February, Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig, the Commander in Chief, confirmed the sentence of death and Private Horler's fate was sealed - he had five days left.
Fur days later on 16 February, the following order was given by the Commander of the Third Division:
"No 46127. Private E.W. HORLER, 12th battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment, having been sentenced to Death by shooting and the sentence having been confirmed, I direct that it be carried out in the neighbourhood of BOISLEUX-AU-MONT, FRANCE, on February 17th, 1918, at an hour appointed by, and under supervision of, the A.P.M. 3rd Division."
How Ernest Horler spent his last days, or how he went to his death is not recorded, all that is known is that he was shot to death t 6:46am on Sunday morning, 17 February 1918 as certified by the Assistant Provost Marshall who confirmed that "Death was instantaneous."
On 9 March 1918, the Court Martial papers were sent to London by the Deputy Judge Advocate General with the added note "No further action required."
So ended the life of Private Ernest Horler, a former grocer's assistant, born in Yeovil on 30 March 1892, the second son of a Yeovil police constable, Edmund Horler, and his wife Sarah who sadly had been a widow for 19 years at the time of her son's death. Ernest lies in peace in Bucquoy Road Cemetery, Ficheux, nine kilometres from Arras. Tragedy had struck the Horler family some seven months previous, when Sarah Horler's elder son, George, had been fatally electrocuted in an accident at the electricity generating station, Back o'th Bank, Bolton, Lancashire, on 1 July 1917. George lies buried in Bolton Cemetery.
However, this is not the end of this sad story, because two months later on 17 April, a Member of Parliament asked a question in the House of Commons and the Western Gazette reported the outcome:
"The recent death of a Yeovil soldier has raised a good deal of local interest. The case was raised in the House of Commons on Wednesday last by Mr Athelstan Rendall, MP, who asked the Pensions Minister whether he has now considered the question of the awarding of a pension to the mother of Priv. E.H. No 46127, West Yorkshire Regt, who was shot for desertion, and, who prior to her son's death, was receiving 8s 9d weekly; if such pension has been refused, is it because although the widow of a soldier who has been shot is entitled to a pension a mother under similar circumstances is not; and how he justifies such a distinction?
The Minister of Pensions (Mr Hodge): The regimental paymaster reports that separation allowance will be paid in this case till the 16th September next. The question of pension will therefore be dealt with in August, and any pension admissible will be paid from 17th September. No distinction is drawn in these cases between widows and other dependents.
Mr Rendall asked whether any and what enquiries were made as to the past history of Private E.H. No 46127, West Yorkshire Regiment, before he was sentenced and shot for desertion on 17th February last: whether it was known that this man was considered by his employers and townspeople, previous to his becoming a soldier, to be mentally weak, and that whilst a soldier he gave considerable anxiety and trouble to the doctors and his officers; whether such doctors had made any report and if so, what report of his mental condition; whether, after he deserted, he wrote his mother several letters, the envelopes of which she sent on to his regiment to enable them to discover his whereabouts, and that it was by means of these that he was found, and, as a consequence, shot; and will he call for a full report on this man's health and conduct record previous to his death?
Mr Macpherson: I have made enquiry, and find that this man was specially examined by the medical authorities both before and after his trial by court-martial, with the result that he was found to be in a perfectly normal state of health. I have no information as to the other suggestions raised by my hon. friend.
Mr Rendall asked whether information to the effect that the man had been shot for desertion and no other information and no preliminary letter was sent on 16th march to his mother by the Infantry Record Office at York and whether he will explain why such method was adopted in view of the pledge given by him?
Mr Macpherson: It is much regretted that an error was made at the Record Office, and steps have been taken by the officer in charge to prevent a recurrence.
Mr Rendall: As this has caused very great pain and also injury to the health of the mother of this young man, will the War Office send some recognition of their error to this woman?
Mr Macpherson: I think that is a very reasonable suggestion, and if the officer in charge of the battalion has not done so I will see that it is done."
Someone at the Infantry Record Office had made a serious blunder, because in 1917 the government had directed that pensions were not to be denied in such cases and the cause of death was not to be disclosed to the next-of-kin. Mr Rendall's question relating to the envelopes is puzzling because no mention was made of this at the Court Martial, and from the evidence of Lance Corporal Pryce, his meeting with Ernest Horler appears to have occurred by chance. There is also no mention of a widow.
The author's late father, who served on the Western Front in 1918 with the Wiltshire Regiment, and was awarded the Military Medal as an 18-year old, occasionally mentioned the death of Ernest Horler, but never condemned him, commenting that - "He was a simple chap who should never have been a soldier." Perhaps that says it all!