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WW1 soldiers sent to the firing squad for being Irish... and of the wrong class; UNPUBLISHED DOSSIER'S DAMNING EVIDENCE.

Byline: By ANDREW BUSHE

RACIST British Army officers ordered the firing squad executions of young Irish men without real cause, a damning new report reveals.

The unpublished dossier - seen by the Irish Sunday Mirror - uncovers an anti-Irish bias among officers and a Courts Martial system that was "incosistent, capricious and unpredicatble".

The report was drawn up by Department of Foreign Affairs officials after unprecedented access to the military court case documents of 26 executed soldiers from Ireland, north and south.

It was sent to the British Government nine months ago but no action has yet been taken to pardon the men.

The report shows fast-track military courts that were riddled with not just anti-Irish feeling, but class bias as well.

In many cases, death sentences were dispensed to innocent men simply to set an example and shore up discipline in the trenches.

The secret report is scathing in its criticism of the executions. It says an examination of the cases is "starkly revealing" of the shocking treatment of soldiers.

The "stout" defence of the WWI military justice by the British Defence Ministry is described as "fundamentally flawed".

The 54-page dossier said the courts martial system's racist bias against Irish soldiers is "difficult to explain".

Based on a case-by-case examination by Foreign Affairs experts of the files for each of the so-called field general Courts Martial of Irishmen, the report says each individual case could have been overturned if a review was undertaken based on agreed standards such as the absence of proof or due consideration of medical conditions. Among the 26 Irish Courts Martial, the report says presiding officers ignored, or didn't consider, medical evidence in 11 cases and there are four that involved extenuating circumstances such as the death of family members.

There are 11 "clear cases" where an execution was thought necessary simply to set an example because of bad discipline in units.

It says: "Soldiers were effectively condemned to be shot because of both the behaviour of others and the opinion of others as to their fighting potential. Executing a soldier simply to deter their colleagues from contemplating a similar crime, or because their attitude in the face of the gravest of dangers was not what was expected - in some cases after only a matter of weeks of basic training - must be seen as unjust, and not deserving of the ultimate penalty."

The report calls for full pardons for the men to "grant them the dignity in death they were denied in life".

Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern described the report as "very tragic reading". He said: "No one could fail to be moved by the simple stories of brave, often poorly educated, young men who were shot after perfunctory Courts Martial. The Irish Government believes this was wrong. These Irish people died needlessly.

"We continue to press the British Government to restore the good names of these men. In most instances almost 90 years has passed since these men met their awful fate.

"It was a different world, a different society and a harsher, most bloody time. We must ensure that these men's names are cleared and their memories honoured well in advance of the centenary of their deaths and the outbreak of the Great War.

"Nothing less will do the Irish Government, their families and loved ones."

In addition to the Government, the Shot At Dawn Campaign for pardons - which is coordinated in Ireland by Peter Mulvany - is supported by numerous TDs and MPs including John Hume and Ian Paisley, Catholic and Protestant church leaders and SIPTU. The report says it is "telling" that Britain kept the courts martial files secret and sealed from the public for 75 years because of their sensitivity.

Its controversial conclusion of ethnic and racist bias against Irish soldiers results from a comparison of recruitment figures and subsequent death sentences. That check revealed a disparity in the treatment of Irish soldiers in comparison with those from other countries in the British army.

The report states: "For example, the number of men recruited in Ireland was similar to that of New Zealand, however there are ten times the level of condemnations in the Irish regiments."

This is despite the fact that the New Zealand regiments were "notoriously harsh with discipline" at the time.

"There were 26 executions of soldiers serving in Irish regiments; 23 for desertion, one for striking an officer, one for quitting his post and one for disobedience. This might not seem many, but given the size of the Irish regiments it is an extraordinary high number".

One soldier for every 2-3,000 British troops were shot by firing squad compared to one in less than 600 in the Irish units. This applied equally to regiments, such as the 36th Ulster Division, as it did to regiments recruited south of the border.

The report says: "The confirmation process presents clear evidence that some soldiers were executed for example, to deter others from committing a similar crime, and not because they deserved their fate".

The report says that in one case a soldier was executed for a 45 minute absence.

Most of the men were illiterate and had no grasp of military law. Only one of the 26 Irishmen was provided with the assistance of a "prisoner's friend" - as was their entitlement - and most condemned soldiers and their appointed defending officers were unfamiliar with the system of pleas for mercy following conviction.

PRIVATE THOMAS

DAVIS

from Ennis, Co

Clare. 1st Royal

Munster Fusiliers

EXECUTED JULY, 1915

He visited the latrine with stomach cramps for 45 minutes and was charged with quitting his post without permission.

The Department of Foreign Affairs report said he was executed "without so much as a second thought by the military hierarchy. Dysentery was rampant at the time, so this would not have been an unreasonable excuse"

LANCE

CORPORAL

PETER SANDS

from Belfast. 1st

Battalion Royal

Irish Rifles.

EXECUTED SEPT, 1915

A soldier since 1906, Sands remained in Belfast for four months after getting a four-day leave pass. He wore his uniform at all times and said he reported to his regimental depot after losing his warrant card. The DFA report said the casual approach to the case is evident from the file. Described as a "good fighting man", his commanding officer gave him an excellent character reference. "There doesn't seem to be any substantial evidence to support the sentence being handed out, nor why it was confirmed."

PRIVATE

PATRICK

DOWNEY

from Limerick.

6th Leinster

Regiment.

EXECUTED DEC 27, 1915

It was claimed he refused to fall in when ordered and also failed to put his helmet on when ordered. Found guilty by Court Martial in Slakonia in Greece.

The new report said the court erroneously accepted a guilty plea from Downey which effectively meant he signed his own death warrant. Lt General of British forces in Greece said the condition of discipline in the battalion was such as to "render exemplary punishment highly desirable".

RIFLEMAN JAMES TEMPLETON

from Belfast.

15th Royal Irish

RIFLES.

EXECUTED MARCH, 1916

On his way to the trenches, he went missing for three days before giving himself up to an officer. The DFA report said evidence at the trial was that his behaviour had deteriorated three months previously but there is no indication from the file as to why this was or if he had been medically examined. Both Major Commanding and Major General agreed Templeton should be shot as a deterrent as there had been three previous cases of desertion and none had been given the death penalty.

PRIVATE

THOMAS

HOPE

from Mullingar,

Co Westmeath, 2nd

Leinster Regiment. EXECUTED MAR 1915

He was charged with desertion drunkenness and conduct prejudicial two days before Christmas, 1914.

He said he was upset because two of his brothers had been killed in the trenches.

The DFA report said the court did not try to verify his claims about his brothers. Commanding officer said discipline in the 2nd was the worst in the army. This proved to be the fatal factor in confirming his death sentence.

PRIVATE

JOSEPH

CAREY

from North Wall,

Dublin. 8th

Royal Irish Fusiliers

EXECUTED SEPT, 1916

After going missing for a day, got 90 days field punishment also known as "a crucifixion" - it involved being shackled to a wheel. After second alleged desertion for a day he was charged and clemency was recommended on the grounds of defective intellect. It was said he suffered a mental affliction that had also led to the suicide of his father and his brother in Dublin's Phoenix Park.

The new report said: "This is a particularly shocking case". Carey had been caught up in a heavy artillery bombardment and apparently not only had mental problems but was shell-shocked. His psychiatric condition and clemency plea were ignored and he was apparently shot as an example for discipline purposes.

PRIVATE

BERNARD

McGEEHAN

from North Strand,

Dublin. (Irish)

King's Liverpool

EXECUTED NOV, 1916

He had been in France for 18 months and went missing for five days. He had been bullied in the trenches and called names. When other men threw stones at him and pretended it was shrapnel, he thought he was under attack. A soldier told Court martial he had known McGeehan from before the war and "he was inclined to be rather stupid". The DFA report said: "This would seem to be a man that needed the protection of the upper echelons of the military." It is a "damning indictment" of those who confirmed the death sentence that they did not see a connection between character references describing McGeehan as incapable of understanding orders and his subsequent action in the trenches. "It was well known that he was intellectually incapable of even the most basic of tasks."

PRIVATE

GEORGE

HANNA

from Belfast. 1st

Battalion Royal

Irish Fusiliers.

EXECUTED NOV, 1917

He had been charged with desertion and convicted on two previous occasions. After a third desertion his Court Martial was told he had not had been home on leave for three years. In that time three of his brothers had died in the war. He had absented himself because he learned his sister was not well and he was upset because he was not able to see "his people". The DFA report said his failure to get home in three years undoubtedly influenced his decision to try to get back to Belfast. There is no evidence the military hierarchy thought twice about taking a fourth son from the family by executing Private Hanna.

PRIVATE

BENJAMIN

O'CONNELL

from Foulksmills,

Co Wexford. 1st

Battalion Irish Guard.

EXECUTED AUG, 1918

He was found to be absent on evening roll call and it was discovered he had left to find a woman in one of the surrounding villages. Unable to read or write, he said he was unaware of the seriousness of his action and had intended returning to his battalion. General Commanding Third Army recommends sentence be carried out and states O'Connell is "useless as a soldier, and leniency has no effect".

The DFA report said the Court Martial evidence was contradictory evidence and concluded he was shot as an example.

CAPTION(S):

Soldiers from the Royal Irish Rifles in the trenches during the Great War; One of the men shot as an example to others was James Templeton. He had been missing for three days
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Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Aug 7, 2005
Words:1888
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