The soldiers who didn't deserve the terrible fate they suffered; A tragic discovery has surfaced as a play on the First World War execution of a young Tyneside soldier embarks on a new run of performances. TONY HENDERSON reports.
APLAY based on the actual First World War execution of a young Tyneside soldier which packed theatre houses is to be repeated at two venues with links to the conflict.
The first set of performances of Death at Dawn, telling the story of the life and death of William Hunter, from North Shields, will be at Wallsend Memorial Hall.
And it coincides with the discovery that another soldier who lived in Station Road, in Wallsend, only yards from the hall was also shot by firing squad at dawn.
Henry Palmer, who served with the 5th Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers, was executed on October 27, 1916.
The hall was built as a First World War memorial and halfway through the play's run from February 19 to 23 will be the exact centenary of William Hunter's execution.
He was shot on February 21, 1916, at an abattoir at Mazingarbe near Loos, in France.
The play, by Cloud Nine Theatre Company, will also be staged from February 26 to March 2 in the Great Hall of Discovery Museum in Newcastle, which was used as a canteen for First World War recruits.
The play was originally commissioned by the Tynemouth World War One Commemoration Project from Cullercoats writer Peter Mortimer.
It ran for a week at the Linskill Community Centre in William Hunter's home town in September 2014, to a total audience figure of around 1,000 people. The play was a double winner in The Journal Culture Awards and won the best direction category in the British Theatre Guide Regional Awards. Tragically, director Jackie Fielding died, aged 47, last year and the new run of the play is being directed by her close friend Neil Armstrong.
As the play begins new stories about Wallsend's war dead have begun to emerge.
Margaret Scott, a volunteer researcher with the now expanded and re-named Northumbria World War One Commemoration Project, uncovered the story of Henry Palmer. The news was transmitted to a team from the project which was carrying out research at the National Archives in Kew, in London, and members were able to locate Henry Palmer's court martial papers.
Tommy McClements, who is leading the project's Wallsend research, said: "It was incredible to discover this when the play is due to be performed at the Memorial Hall.
"I don't think that the executions were justified. It comes across as callous, and it is shocking when you read the transcripts of Henry Palmer's court martial."
Henry Palmer was charged with constructive desertion in respect of three instances of being absent from his unit's supervision. He entered not guilty pleas to all three charges.
The commander of the British Expeditionary Force, Sir Douglas Turn to Page 26 From Page 25 Haig, had to confirm or vary the automatic sentence of death which the court martial had passed but with a strong recommendation for mercy on the grounds of the man's low intellect.
Thus he was one of about 3,000 sentenced to death although it was only carried out in 306 instances - including Palmer's case.
Palmer had not questioned any of the prosecution witnesses, was unrepresented and said little in his defence.
The papers in his case were passed back along the chain of command with his Corps Commander Lt General W P Pulteney noting: "The battalion fought well [in the action Palmer had absented himself from] and has good discipline. I support the recommendation of the court'."(mercy).
That note also showed a sentence stating: "There appears to be no need for an example to be made."
Notwithstanding Pulteney's recommendation, Sir Henry Rawlinson - General Commanding the Fourth Army - confirmed his support for the death sentence and Haig signed the charge sheet with the single word 'confirmed'.
A sheet attached to the front of the file records that by virtue of the Armed Forces Act 2006 Henry Palmer was pardoned, noting: "The pardon stands as recognition that he was one of many victims of the First World War and that execution was not a fate he deserved."
Palmer had been attached to a Lewis Gun team on September 21 and went over the top with them on the evening of October 1 On the afternoon of October 2 he was challenged as he made his way along a communication trench forwards towards his battalion which had successfully taken a section of a German support trench.
Palmer stated that he had been knocked over by being struck in the knee by something and had been unable to continue in the advance.
He had later made his way back to the old British lines but on his own admission had not sought any medical help which he said was not available.
There were no signs of injury to his knee and the decision was taken to charge him with desertion during the attack - he had been absent in a non-combat scenario on two previous dates since September 21 when he had joined the Lewis Gun team going missing when sent on errands to the rear. In a twist of fate one of the witnesses in the trial of Palmer was L/Cpl J W Hadaway of North Shields, a member of the same Lewis gun team who stated that he was alongside Palmer as they went over the top but that he had not seen him again until the afternoon of October 2, when Palmer returned to the front line area.
Hadaway had a tragic history himself, having been widowed in March 1916 and left with four young children. He remained at the Front and his children were placed in the workhouse. He was killed a year later at Passchendaele.
For details of the performances and to book tickets at PS10 and PS8 go to www.northumbriaworldwarone.co.uk or www.cloudninetheatre.co.uk, or use the ticket hotline on 0191 259 2743.
Haig signed the charge sheet with the single word 'confirmed'
<BTom McClements, who is leading a project to trace soldiers from Wallsend who died in the first world war., pictured at Wallsend Memorial Hall Tim McGuinness
<BActors at a dress rehearsal for the first run of Death at Dawn by Peter Mortimer. Now the moving play is to return for a new run Simon Greener