This is the text of a debate in the Houses of Parliament in March 2009. Jimmy Smith was the Great Uncle of website member Charles Sandbach. I would ask that whatever your views on the subject , you read with an open mind and reflect on the human tragedy. Jimmy has now been added to the Roll of Honour in Bolton.
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Interview with Charles Sandbach on Armed Services day following the addition of Jimmy Smith to the Bolton Roll of Honour.
Dr. Brian Iddon (
Many tragic stories have emerged from the two world wars of 1914 to 1918 and 1939 to 1945. Unbelievable numbers from the
This is the tragic story of James Smith—Jimmy to his friends—who was born in 1891 at 77 Noble street, which today is in my constituency, and whose mother, Elizabeth, died just after he was born. He was brought up by his devoted maternal aunt, Eliza, and his uncle John in Great Lever in my constituency. Relatives John—known as Jack—and Freda Hargreaves live in Great Lever today. Jack’s mother was Jimmy Smith’s cousin. Jimmy’s story was brought to me by Charles Sandbach and Bill Miles, who are interested in military history and who are campaigning to have Jimmy Smith’s name added to the
Mr. Jim Devine (
Dr. Iddon: I am grateful for that intervention; it is a story that has been told to me. Indeed, these two gentleman who are interested in military history made a one-hour film about a solider—not like the one I am talking about this evening—who went through the tragedies of world war one. It is a brilliant film that ought to have a wider showing than it has hitherto.
We want Jimmy to be remembered, along with his comrades, every year on Remembrance day. Jimmy was Charles Sandbach’s paternal grandmother’s uncle and Charles initially sought the help of my friend Councillor Frank White, former Member of Parliament for Bury and Radcliffe, who is currently president of the Bolton United Veteran’s Association, formed in 1906 before the British Legion was established, the second of many such associations to be formed that still exist today.
Private James Smith was the subject of a play, “Early One Morning”, written by
2022 Private James Smith trained in Egypt, then served in Karachi, India, before being recalled when world war one was declared. Among his many horrific
experiences of that war was the
No fewer than six of his comrades won
After enduring the rest of that nightmare campaign, Private James Smith was evacuated in 1916 to
Such were the losses on the
He almost lost his life in
According to his sister, it was big enough to put a fist in. Fortunately, he was rescued and taken home to Townleys hospital in
The shocks and horrors of the battles that he had seen had damaged him to such an extent that he was clearly unfit for further service. Those who served with him were well aware of his condition. Today, we would recognise that Jimmy Smith was suffering from serious post-traumatic stress disorder. No such condition was recognised in the great war, and it was believed that soldiers could recover from shell shock of that kind.
Just 10 days after he returned to the front line, and clearly under a great deal of stress, Jimmy Smith volunteered to give up his stripe and became 52929 Private James Smith. Six days later, he left his post without orders. On
We believe that the court recognised that Private James Smith was in no condition to fight. It spared him a death sentence on that second occasion and ordered him again to do 90 days’ field punishment number one, and he lost his second good conduct badge.
Unfortunately, the Army never allowed Jimmy to complete that sentence, because the 17th Battalion King’s Liverpool Regiment found itself at the Pilckem ridge, north of the famous town of
A doctor at a dressing station declared him fit for duty, and Jimmy was charged with desertion. While detained in the military cells at Poperinghe town hall, Jimmy was ordered to undertake a two-hour drill. He refused to march and was also charged with disobedience. That was the beginning of the end of Private James Smith. The plain fact is that at that time he should have not been in action but serving his third punishment.
They were told that, first, they had a special duty to perform, and they were taken outside into a courtyard where they found their friend, Jimmy Smith, blindfolded and tied to an execution chair in front of a wall, with a white target pinned to his tunic, just above his heart.
Protesting furiously to the commanding officer, the 12-man firing squad—11 privates and a non-commissioned officer—was summarily ordered to execute Jimmy. The lads aimed and fired, the majority deliberately missing the target. However, Jimmy was wounded, the chair was knocked over and he lay writhing in agony on the ground.
The young officer in charge of the firing squad was shaking like a leaf, but he knew now that he had to finish Jimmy off by putting a bullet through his brain with his Webley pistol. He lost his nerve, however, and could not fire the pistol in his hand as Jimmy continued to writhe in agony on the ground.
One of Jimmy’s friends, 23643 Private Richard Blundell, who hailed from Everton in
Richard Blundell died in
His action on that morning in September 1917 had clearly been on his mind for 70 years. It was the first time that his family can recall his speaking of his experiences in the great war.
The author of a book on the
For a long time after the great war of 1914-18, shame hung over the families of soldiers such as Private James Smith and their names were not added to those of their comrades on our war memorials or rolls of honour, or written into our books of remembrance. However, Mrs. Freda Hargreaves has told me that her family felt no shame and that they proudly owned a photograph of Jimmy, which stood over the mantelpiece for many years after the war ended.
After a long campaign, the Labour Government pardoned those soldiers who were shot at dawn, like Private James Smith in 1917. An amendment to the Armed Forces Bill was introduced in the autumn of 2006 to pardon 306 soldiers, and the measure received Royal Assent on
However, Private James Smith’s name has still not been added to the book of remembrance in
I hope that he will always be remembered by the people of
As a footnote, I can tell my hon. Friend that tomorrow evening I expect that Bolton council will agree to add Private James Smith’s name to the roll of honour, and that a ceremony will be held later this year. We have suggested that an appropriate date would be 27 June, which is armed services day.
Bolton council has let it be known that it is prepared to add any other names to its roll of honour that have been missing to date for any reason. I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that all local authorities should be encouraged to follow suit.
John Reid (Airdrie and Shotts) (Lab): I was not aware of the subject of the debate until about 20 minutes ago. I heard the opening words of my hon. Friend the Member for
I was the Minister who reopened the subject in 1997-98, and I remember it well. In all my years in Government and in the nine posts that I held, I cannot think of any more heart-wrenching task that I took on or was given to me. I personally examined about half the 306 cases, and I am eternally grateful to the officials who went through them, including my military adviser at the time, Simon Gillespie, who sat up, night after night, going through individual cases.
I will not rehearse some of the heart-breaking stories, but I will say this. First, recognising the suffering undergone by those who were executed at dawn and their families is in no way to minimise the equal sacrifices of those who went over the top. I believe that they were all victims. Secondly—this is the only respect in which I differ slightly from my hon. Friend—we should not issue a carte blanche condemnation of the military hierarchy. The truth is that there were some 30,000 cases that could have qualified for a death sentence, but 90 per cent. of those concerned did not receive one. Of the 3,000 who did, 90 per cent. of those sentences were commuted by the military hierarchy. The records were destroyed, I think in 1924. However, it is extremely likely that the reason why those 2,700 sentences were commuted and only 306 individuals were condemned to death—that is a large number, however, because it is 306 tragedies—is, I believe, although I cannot prove this because the evidence has gone, probably that in many cases the medical and the mental condition of the person who had been sentenced to death was recognised.
Dr. Iddon: If I gave the impression that I was being critical of the military at that time, it is the wrong impression. They were different times and they were difficult times. People were in the heat of battle and I recognise that they did what they had to do.
John Reid: Perhaps I phrased my comment wrongly. It was not meant as a vicarious criticism of my hon. Friend; it was about whether people recognised shellshock or post-traumatic stress, or whatever it was at the time. I believe that many people did, albeit not because of medical evidence, but because of their personal experience. I think that that is why 2,700 death sentences out of those 3,000 cases were eventually commuted.
Having said those two things, I do not think that there is any doubt that each case was a tragedy. I said earlier that I would not mention any of them, but two stick in my mind. The first involved a young boy in his teens whose last words were: “Don’t tell my mother.” Facing an execution squad, he could think only of the effect that it would have, not on him, when the bullets landed, but on his mother, when the word reached home. The second case was this. At the back of one of the files that I went through, I found, as latterly I found in my father’s file—he fought in the second world war—a little bit for the soldier’s will. Soldiers could leave all their worldly possessions in their wills. I recall that the total possessions of one of the soldiers who was executed were the three days’ wages that he was owed up to the day of his execution, which he left to his fiancée in
I was told on the highest legal advice at the time—I can say that now that I am not a Minister—that I could not give a legal pardon. As it was explained to me, I understand that it is impossible to give such a pardon, first, because there were no surviving witnesses, and secondly, because there was no real evidence to overturn a duly arrived at verdict. Thirdly, of those 306 people, even if there had been sufficient evidence in the numerous pages of brown foolscap paper—often they were not transcripts, but summary records of what had happened in the field general courts martial—we would have had to test perhaps 14 cases and left those in the remaining 280 to 290 cases re-condemned. I took the decision at
the time that we could not give a legal pardon, but that we should go as far as we could. I will return to that in a second.
I was very grateful to get a second chance at the Ministry of Defence some years later, when I returned as Secretary of State for Defence. During the interval between being Armed Forces Minister and being Secretary of State, I discovered that
Naturally, and in my normal delicate fashion, I interviewed some of my officials who were still there about why that which we had found impossible had been found possible elsewhere. We re-opened the inquiry, and I am glad to say that my successor, my right hon. Friend the Member for
The reason that I am supporting my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East tonight is that even at the first stage, in 1998, when we were saying that there was no legal pardon available—I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) was deeply disappointed by that—I said that, although I found it impossible to give a legal pardon, we would redefine “pardon” as something other than a legality, and say that, in the eyes of all humanity in this country, those people who had suffered such a terrible fate would indeed be pardoned, in substance if not in legality. Subsequently, of course, we were able to add a legal pardon to that.
At that time, I did three things simultaneously. The first was to say that, as those people had been pardoned, their names should be added back into the books, and on to the memorials and cenotaphs. Secondly, I said that they should be recognised as victims of the great war, just as everyone else who had fallen in that war was recognised. In that way, their relatives would have a cloud lifted from them. Thirdly—although it was hardly noticed at the time—I announced the abolition of the death penalty in the British armed forces, which was enacted by the next Armed Forces Bill. Yet, some 10 years later, some of those names have apparently not been added back in that way.
I hope that what my hon. Friend said tonight was true, and that the case of Jimmy Smith is about to be rectified by having his name added back on to the memorials. I hope, moreover, that that will be an example for other councils and authorities throughout the country, and that they will now recognise what has been recognised over two stages in Parliament, over 10 years—namely, that the names should be added back and that the families involved should have no shame.
Having been a Minister, I now have this rare opportunity to say thank you to those who pricked the conscience of Ministers and cajoled, persuaded, drove and whipped them into line. That includes several Members who are here tonight. There cannot be many more worthwhile causes to which they could have applied their minds throughout that period, and I am delighted to be here tonight, no longer as a Minister, but as someone who is part of a group who fully support what my hon. Friend is asking for.
Andrew Mackinlay (
my heart when I say that he has written a page in
One of the delights of getting the pardons in 2006 was the fact that so many of our countrymen and women—and school students in particular—had learned more about the first world war as a result of the campaign. Through my hon. Friend, I want to congratulate
Dr. Iddon: I have a great deal of respect for my hon. Friend, especially regarding the campaign we are discussing tonight. He might like to know that I intend to send this speech to the secondary schools in my constituency, so that they are made aware of a little part of their history.
The Minister of State and his predecessor went to great lengths to mark the 90th anniversary of the Armistice—and they did so very successfully, as three veterans were in attendance. That means that this is not ancient history: those people, living beings from the great conflict, were actually there. My follow-up point—my hon. Friend’s contribution this evening endorses it—is that just as the American civil war has become a part of the American psyche, so has the first world war become part of ours. The conflict in which the soldier we have commemorated tonight took part represents a seminal moment in our history. When this soldier went to war, there were cavalry participating and many of the combating forces wore bright uniforms; yet by the end of the war, we had seen weapons of mass destruction and bombers. At the same time, there was tremendous social change with the extension of women’s suffrage and greater popular representation in this place after the war.
We cannot, therefore, overdo this issue. My hon. Friend has reinforced the importance of the first world war tonight—it is something we need to understand and we need to reflect more on the brave soldiers who fought just like the soldier from Bolton—so I would encourage the Minister to do more to widen access to information about world war one and to encourage school students to study it, to reflect on it and to commemorate the brave struggle of men who did their very best on behalf of their country in this most awful conflict, which still has its resonance today.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Kevan Jones): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) on securing tonight’s debate to highlight the tragic story of Private James Smith and on his campaign to press for the local authorities in Bolton to add this soldier’s name to their book of remembrance. I also thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid) for his contribution and I pay tribute to his involvement in the process of finally getting pardons for these individuals. I pay tribute also to my hon. Friend the Member for
I reflected on those words when, on the 90th anniversary last November, we witnessed a very moving ceremony at the Cenotaph at which the three surviving UK-resident veterans of world war one laid wreaths to commemorate those who lost their lives in that great war. Sadly, one of them has passed away since that commemoration.
There are few alive today who have personal memories of those who marched away to war, but never came back. However, across the UK, millions of men, women and—as my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock said—children shared that poignant moment through the medium of television, and nowadays through the internet. I reinforce his point about ensuring that these tragic events are not forgotten and that future generations learn from them.
Clearly, the first world war is part of the
We must not forget the events of that time. My hon. Friend the Member for
Mr. Devine: Speaking of living history, a constituent of mine, John Patterson, flew on 37 bombing missions in the second world war and ended the war flying around
Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I have no desire to take anything away from the valued work that those individuals have done, but I think the hon. Gentleman will have noted the title of tonight’s Adjournment debate. Perhaps he will be able to raise his point with the Minister on another occasion.
Mr. Jones: I will of course follow your guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker, but my hon. Friend has raised an interesting point. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East said that he would send copies of the report of tonight’s debate to schools, with the aim of communicating the facts to future generations, and my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) has spoken of veterans visiting schools to pass on their memories.
In Fromelles in northern
Increased participation not just in the educational projects that have been mentioned tonight but in genealogy means that many relatives are researching their family histories and uncovering facts surrounding their forebears for the first time. Some of those discoveries have been disturbing, revealing executions during the first world war.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East pointed out, some of the relatives knew the circumstances of their loved ones’ deaths, and certainly did not see them as a cause for shame or any stain on the character of their families. However, I hope that the granting of the statutory pardon in November 2006 has ensured that relatives who did feel shame have experienced some relief, and have recognised that no shame attaches to any of the individuals who were executed or their families. The stigma of dishonour should have been well and truly lifted.
Those executions were tragic episodes, but, as the hon. Member for
Thankfully, public perception has changed. That is why, when we introduced the pardon in 2006, it was broadly welcomed by most individuals, although I recognise the strong disagreements that there have been about the issue over many years.
As my hon. Friend the Member for
I was privileged in January to visit that memorial. I recommend that hon. Members who have not had a chance visit the National Memorial Arboretum. The “Shot at Dawn” memorial is a simple but moving memorial. Private Smith is among those individuals who are commemorated there.
The Cenotaph, the nation's war memorial, bears only the inscription “The Glorious Dead” and the dates of the two world wars. No distinction is made in respect of race, gender, colour, creed, or place or circumstances of death of those whom it commemorates. So, too, in the thousands of cemeteries and memorials across the world, without distinction, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission officially commemorates all the men and women who died in the service of
While commending any initiative that commemorates the sacrifices of those who served in Her Majesty’s armed forces, it is important to understand that, beyond
the official commemoration to mark a serviceman's final resting place, the Government do not have responsibility for either the funding or maintenance of many memorials such as the one at
I know that the names of many of those executed men have already been added to many local war memorials as a result of local pressure or family initiatives. I think that that is appropriate; those individuals should be added to those local memorials. I fully support the inclusion of Private Smith's name in his local book of remembrance and I am very pleased to hear that