A Very Unpleasant Duty

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: War and Military  |  House: Booksie Classic
Beryl Clarke was distraught when she learned that her husband had been killed in the conflict they called the Great War. What made things worse that he had been shot for cowardice. This is their story.

Submitted: November 17, 2016

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Submitted: November 17, 2016

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Beryl Clarke stared at the letter. She felt cold. She slumped into the chair at her kitchen table. She read the letter from the War Office once more. She knew that this war, this Great War, that had been raging for two years, since Nineteen Fourteen may very well take her husband from her but, no, not like this. Not like this.

 

Dear Madam,

We regret to inform you that your husband has died. He was found guilty of cowardice.

He was shot at dawn on 16th October.

Yours,

 

Her George. Her poor George. She placed the letter on the table in front of her. Hands on her face, she broke down and wept. She sobbed for her poor, gentle George. She sobbed for herself. She sobbed for their three year old daughter, Greta, who would now grow up without a father. She adjusted her dress. She placed the letter carefully back in the envelope. She crossed the kitchen and tucked the letter in a drawer. Her husband. That word. Coward. She couldn’t bear it. How could she walk down the street with people knowing that her husband was a coward? She was distraught. As well as the overwhelming grief at the loss of the man she loved, she felt ashamed, embarrassed.

Well, she decided, George had died in the war. The Battle of the Somme had taken so many, he was one more casualty. That is all people needed to know and that was all she would tell them. The exact circumstances were nobody else’s business.

A month later Beryl went to the post office as usual to claim her army pension. The girl on the counter was very apologetic. There was nothing there for her. Beryl asked what she should do now. The girl has suggested she contact the War Office. Beryl went home to write to them enquiring what had happened to her payment.

She received a letter in reply two days later. The typed letter simply stated that as her husband had been executed for cowardice there would be no further payments. That was the last she would hear from the War Office. The British army had taken her husband from her and as he had been executed as a coward she was entitled to nothing. How was she supposed to feed and clothe young Greta? She would have to go to the Soldier’s orphanage shelter for help. Beryl’s shame turned to anger. How dare they? How could they do this to her? She pictured her husband in his uniform. What had happened in France on the first of July?

‘Oh George. What happened? How did it come to this?’

 

On the First of July Nineteen Sixteen George, his company, and the rest of his regiment, readied their rifles, bayonets attached, lined up. This was it. They were going over the top. George felt his hands tremble. His heart pounded in his chest. He struggled to breathe. Panic. It felt like he was drowning. He felt pains in his chest.

In his time at the front George had been in the military hospital three times after one mental breakdown after another. They had a new word for it. They called it shell shock. He didn’t know what to call it but he just felt unable to cope, unable to function. How did the rest of his company line up and fall in and obey like that?

The men shuffled towards the ladders. The word came down the line.

‘Five minutes, lads.’ The sergeants called.

Some men laughed and tried to brave it out, others fidgeted nervously in silence. George leaned against the sand-bagged wall. He panted at the air.

Then the sergeants blow hard on their whistles. They ordered their men to charge up the ladders and over the top.

‘Private Clarke. Move!’ one officer screamed.

George stared. He couldn’t move. It was as though this was happening to someone else. It was like he was watching a film in a picture house. As his company moved off into no man’s land and the raining German fire George slumped to the trench floor. His hands, arms and legs shook violently.

 

Private George Clarke was taken away from the chaos and carnage of the front line. Miles away from the front he was kept in a tiny cell. Away from the front life was supposed to be safer, but George knew he was in as much danger here as he was going over the top. The court-martial passed in a blur. The sentence was confirmed that evening. He was to be shot at dawn.

 

Captain Walton shook his head. His superior officer had given him what even he had admitted was ‘a very unpleasant duty’. Walton agreed, very unpleasant. He found the soldier in his tiny cell just before dawn. He grabbed the coward, this Private Clarke, by the arm. He escorted him from the small cell and out into the courtyard. Private George Clarke did not speak. He did not beg, cry or plead like some did. He looked the captain in the eye. He co-operated as he was lead out into the cold October dawn. The dark sky overhead was starting to brighten.  Captain Walton tied George’s hands behind his back. He placed him with his back against the wall.

The firing squad, eight men armed with Enfield rifles, marched into the courtyard. Only two of the rifles were loaded with live cartridges. The other weapons would be firing blanks. The men who made up the firing squad would never know if they fired the shots that killed him.

These things had to be done, Walton figured. They had to execute those found guilty of cowardice. It was essential. You had to set an example to the other men. They had to be left in no doubt that if the German guns couldn’t reach them then the British ones would.

Walton produced a patch of brightly coloured cloth. He pinned the cloth to George’s tunic. The cloth marked his heart and would help the firing squad with their aim. George watched and waited patiently, calmly as this was done.

Captain Walton pulled a blindfold from his pocket. He held it up in front of George. The coward shook his head in reply.

‘No thank you, sir.’ He stared straight ahead.

Walton returned to the firing squad.

‘Fire.’

Beryl would not tell her daughter until she was an adult. Greta grew up believing her father had died under enemy fire. Greta, at almost forty years old, was shocked. ‘The Germans didn’t shoot him, we did. The side he was fighting for.’

Until she died Beryl couldn’t watch any of the annual Remembrance Day commemorations.

 

This is a true story.

Between 1914-1918 over three hundred men were shot for cowardice. Their names do not appear on any war memorials. In 2006 following years of campaigning by the families left behind, including George’s daughter, all these men were pardoned.


© Copyright 2017 CTPlatt. All rights reserved.

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