A Canadian Execution

Fri 20 April …A Canadian private was shot this morning opposite our position: “cowardice”. There were several rifles – some with blank cartridge. I refrain from comment: it is too awful to think about.

That’s from an entry in Gunner Hamilton’s diary, just after his battery had spent hard weeks supporting the successful Canadian attack on Vimy Ridge in 1917.

I did some simple Google-research, and found that the Canadian executed on this date was Private Harold Carter, 73rd Battalion Canadian Infantry. He was aged 23, and the crime he was actually charged with was desertion, not cowardice.

A rather good website about military/legal history (called Stephen’s Study Room) filled out the story:

In March 1915, Carter enlisted in the 59th Battalion. After arriving in England, this unit was broken up and used as reinforcements for other units. As part of this process, Private Carter was transferred to the 73rd (Royal Highlanders of Canada) Battalion, part of the 4th Canadian Division.

Private Carter’s conduct was not good prior to joining the 73rd Battalion at the end of 1916. After being charged with AWOL during January 1916, Carter again went missing during fighting north of Courcelette. This time he was found guilty of desertion and his sentence was later reduced to 10 years’ imprisonment.

Due to manpower shortages, Carter’s sentence was suspended and he was released from prison, rejoining his unit on 16 March 1917. Soon after this date and before the attack on Vimy Ridge, Carter again went absent again; this time for 5 days before his capture. This time Private Carter was found guilty of desertion and sentenced to death by shooting.

The sentence of death was confirmed and Private Carter was executed on 20 April 1917. Carter’s remains are located in Villers Station Cemetery, Plot X, Row A, Grave 7.

Hamilton’s uneasiness about aspects of military discipline had been shown in an earlier entry:

Sat Mar 24 One of our men is undergoing Field Punishment No 1. He is handcuffed & tied to a tree, generally twice a day for an hour at a time: his punishment will last for fourteen days: it certainly is a most trying punishment, and should be resorted to as seldom as possible.

He was fully committed to the war, however. On Sun 8th April he had noted:

America is coming in to fight for freedom. How slow she has been to discover that freedom was at stake.

He could record other, closer, deaths dispassionately, without moral comment:

“Premature” caused several casualties in 181 Battery across the road from us. Shell exploded leaving the gun.

He is aware of the cost of capturing Vimy Ridge (a modern source estimates that the whole operation cost 3,598 Canadian dead, plus British casualties), but his view of the operation is entirely positive:

Tonight a party – rumour says 165 out of original 670 – passed down headed by a band. The band was playing “Light of Foot” as they passed us – a German tune, I believe. We cheered the heroes & they cheered us. Some had helmets and other trophies of a well-won fight.

As for his own part in the killing, he uses objective language:

Our guns have been once in action, against machine guns in a wood, elevation being 34º.

It is just this one judicial killing that he finds “too awful to think about”.

Recently the Canadian government has awarded Carter, together with the twenty-two other Canadians shot for desertion or cowardice “a dignity that is their due”, and has added the names of the executed to the official First World War Book of Remembrance alongside those of their colleagues.

Book of remembrance

The first page of the book claims to record “the names of Canadians who, loyal to the Crown and faithful to the traditions of their fathers, served in the Canadian and other forces of the British Empire, and gave up their lives in the Great War.” – which doesn’t seem to very accurately describe that unsatisfactory soldier Harold Carter. I wonder whether Gunner Hamilton would have approved of this posthumous reinstatement.

One Comment

  1. Posted October 23, 2006 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    Great stuff. I liked it a lot, and learned lots

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