War, of course, is a violent affair. Even though it may result in the death of thousands, and it may appear that individual lives count for little, it is still the case that one death is a tragedy. So it was that in the midst of the terrible slaughter of the First World War, a murder was still treated as a capital crime and the perpetrators, if found guilty, faced the death sentence just as they would in peacetime.
Murderous Tommies details the court cases that followed twelve of these murders. One of these was that of Second Lieutenant John Henry Paterson, the only British officer to be executed for murder in the First World War.
He had been in charge of conducting a working party of soldiers to the forward trenches of the 37th Division at Zillebeke during the German Spring Offensive of 1918. At one point along the route, Paterson told his sergeant that he had left a notebook and orders behind at a latrine near where they had earlier stopped. Handing over responsibility to the sergeant, Paterson went off and did not return to his unit.
He went instead to Calais where he remained for some months until finally being spotted on 3 July, his picture having been circulated in the UK and featured in the Police Gazette. Two Military Police detectives, Sergeant Collison and Lance Corporal Stockton, were monitoring the movement of people on a bridge over the Canal de Calais. They were in disguise as artillerymen and saw Paterson and a young woman walking casually across the bridge. The two detectives followed and eventually stopped them and challenged Paterson. The officer claimed that he was Second Lieutenant Bradford, 1st Essex Regiment, but he was unable to provide any documentation to prove this. Nevertheless, he invited the two detectives to accompany him to the British military camp at Beaumarais where he said he would be able to identify himself.
After a while, Paterson admitted to his true identity, but begged for thirty minutes grace to take tea with his girlfriend at her family home as the house was nearby. Remarkably, the detectives agreed and patiently waited outside the house until it was almost dark. Collison finally lost patience and ordered Paterson out. The officer came out, but after a few words with Collison, the officer pulled out his revolver. He fired two shots, one of which hit Paterson in the groin, the other hitting Collison in the chest, mortally wounding the sergeant. Stockton ran away and Paterson limped away and escaped.
He was recaptured on 22 July and a month or so later was sent for trial. The details of the trial are reproduced in this book. Whilst this may appear to be a straightforward case, Paterson, though, claimed that the gun had gone off by mistake, which is why he hit himself in the groin.
Much contradictory evidence was revealed during the trial which showed that the incident was far from being an open and shut case. When, in the 1980s the case was re-examined Judge Anthony Babington, he concluded that: “There is something puzzling about this case – something unexplained. The facts emerge in a misty sequence, orderly and precise, but at the end the enigmatic quality remains.”
All twelve cases examined in Murderous Tommies are fascinating in their own way.
Review courtesy of Britain At War Magazine.