The Execution of Pte Henry Hughes (1891 - 1918)

No242904 1/5 Yorks and Lancs - 49 (West Riding) Division

"A shocking crime was committed on the unscrupulous initiative of few individuals, with the blessing of more, and amid the passive acquiescence of all". - Tacitus

Private Hughes unit was based in a hamlet called Potijze which was on the road that runs from Ypres, across the Frezenburg Ridge, to Zonnebeke in Belgium. Today it is really more an outer suburb of Ypres, but in 1914 it was quite separate, surrounding a large house that was used extensively by medical and artillery units. On  8th January 1918 Hughes was detailed to join a working party in the trenches  near Hussar Camp, Potijze (Ieper) but instead he deserted his unit. Hughes, who was already under sentence death for deserting the previous December, was arrested on 8th February 1918 later at Poperinge a town which is situated about eight miles to the west of Ieper/Ypres. Poperinge at the time  was used by the British Army as a gateway to the battlefields of the northern Ypres Salient. As well as being an important rail centre it was also used for the distribution of supplies, the billeting of troops, for casualty clearing stations and for troops enjoying rest from forward duties.

A Field General Court Martial (FGCM) was assembled on 19th March 1918. This form of Courts-Martial  could only be convened if the accused was on active service or was stationed overseas. It had the full powers of a General Courts-Martial, although it could sit with a minimum of only three members, and even with two if no more officers were available. Field General Courts-Martial 's were used almost exclusively for trials on the Western Front during the war, and they imposed a total of over 3,000 death sentences—around 11 per cent of which were actually confirmed. At Hughes' hearing, the Commander of the 148th Brigade described Hughes as "from a fighting point of view of no value". He was summarily sentenced to death, a decision that was confirmed by the officers commanding the 49 (West Riding) Division and the XXII Corps and ultimately by the Supreme Commander, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig himself. Twenty one days after the Court Martial Hughes was informed that he would be shot the next morning.

A Firing Squad under the command of Captain F.G. Smith, the Assistant Provost Marshal of the 49th Division, was assembled and at 5.50 a.m on 10th April 1918, Private Hughes was shot through the heart in accordance with the military code. The execution was carried out at the Klijtebeck stream at Millekapelle. All the trial papers refer to him as No242904 Pte J Hughes. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission commemorates him as No242904 Pte Henry Hughes, the 27 year old son of John Charles and Ellen Hughes of Sheffield.

This was the first execution that had taken place in the Division but Henry was the third person from Sheffield to have been executed. Henry was conscripted into the Army and was just one of 306 British soldiers who were executed during the First World War. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission gives the following information with regard to Henry Hughes

In Memory of


1st/5th Bn., York and Lancaster Regiment

who died on
Wednesday 10 April 1918 . Age 27 .

Additional Information: Son of John Charles and Ellen Hughes, of 513, Gilpin St., Sheffield.
Cemetery: THE HUTS CEMETERY Ieper, West-Vlaanderen, Belgium
Grave or Reference Panel Number: XV. D. 15.
Location: The Huts Cemetery is located 6 kilometres south west of Ieper town centre. From Ieper town centre the Dikkebusseweg (N375) is reached via Elverdingsestraat, straight over a roundabout onto J. Capronstraat (for 30 metres), then left along M. Fochlaan. Immediately after the train station the first right hand turning is the Dikkebusseweg. On reaching Dikkebus village the cemetery is reached by taking a right hand turning onto the Melkerijstraat. This road continues for 1 kilometre, over a crossroads and bending sharply to the right, then meeting a junction with the Steenakkerstraat. The cemetery is located 200 metres after this junction on the Steenakkerstraat.
Historical Information: This cemetery takes its name from a line of huts strung along the road from Dickebusch (now Dikkebus) to Brandhoek, which were used by field ambulances during the 1917 Allied offensive on this front. Much of the cemetery was filled between July and November 1917 and nearly two thirds of the burials were of gunners from nearby artillery positions The cemetery was closed in April 1918 when the German advance brought the front line very close. The advance was finally halted on the eastern side of the village, following fierce fighting at Dickebusch Lake, on 8 May. There are now 1,094 Commonwealth burials of the First World War in the cemetery. The cemetery was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens.


If you want further information about the executions of soldiers during the 1914 - 1918 please read the books listed in the Sources section or visit the official Shot At Dawn Web Site. There are many issues involved and these are dealt with in a comprehensive manner by the sources I do not know anything about the life of Henry Hughes beyond the fact that he was conscripted and that his parents were living in back to back accommodation in a poor working class part of Sheffield. 

Information on Henry is scarce but the records show that he was the son of John Charles and Ellen Hughes. I researched the 1911 Census and found this entry

Name: John Hughes
Age in 1911: 52
Estimated birth year: abt 1859
Relation to Head: Head Gender: Male
Birth Place: Sheffield, Yorkshire, England Civil Parish: Sheffield County/Island: Yorkshire-West Riding Country: England
Street address: 25 New St Sheffield Marital Status: Married
Occupation: Hawker Of Hardware
Registration district: Sheffield Registration District Number: 510 Sub-registration district: South Sheffield ED, institution, or vessel: 8 Piece: 27856
Household Members: 
Name Age
John Hughes 52
Ellen Hughes 42
James Hughes 12

His wife of 25 years Ellen was born in Merthyr Tydfil and a check on the BMD registers revealed this entry  

Surname First name(s) District Vol Page 
Marriages Sep 1886 HUGHES John Merthyr T Volume 11a Page 659 Spouse Ellen Jones

and then there was this entry five years later

Births Mar 1891 Hughes Henry Merthyr T. Volume 11a  Page 671.

Superficially this could be Henry's family but to be certain I would need further information to verify them. Nevertheless three points on the census stand-out - firstly John was unable to read and write - he just placed his mark on the form and someone else must have completed it for him Secondly the family were living in just two rooms and finally their son James was living with them. There was another child that was still living (was this Henry who would have been 20 at the time of the census?) but was not resident at 25 New Street. John and Ellen had eleven children but only two were still living in 1911. 

If Henry was the other son it means that the British Army executed one of their only two surviving children. You are left literally speechless!     

Given this background and the charge against him his chances of being acquitted were remote .The following summary by Julian Putkowski neatly encapsulates the sheer class prejudice and injustice that permeated the British Army in 1918

"The enforcement of discipline and ritual humiliation of the accused and the exercise of class prejudice, are key to understanding the manner in which the courts-martial system operated. This was codified in the Manual of Military Law, which permitted officers from the defendant’s own unit to take part in a disciplinary triage which generally took about twenty minutes to find ninety percent of defendants guilty as charged.

This activity was made easier by the fact that the majority of the accused were ill educated, inarticulate and inexperienced in self-advocacy and invariably under great stress. Before 1918 most soldiers were unassisted by a defending officer – even when a defendant’s previous disciplinary record made it more likely that a death sentence would be confirmed. Immaturity made little difference, as may be demonstrated by the execution of two 17-year olds, Private Herbert Morris in Poperinge and Private Herbert Burden at Dikkebus. 

Few, if any of the men court martialed in the Salient were able to summon witnesses in their own defence ; some opted to remain silent throughout the proceedings and in one case a soldier effectively committed suicide by pleading guilty. The presence of legally qualified Courts Martial Officers (CMO) at trials made little difference, for their task was not to defend the accused, but instead to confer an element of rationality via a implementation of disciplinary policy. By ensuring that courts martial were systematic and consistent in carrying out the legal ritual, CMO also served as a reminder to officers of their and responsibilities.

The sometimes bigoted opinions of confirming officers were invariably critical, even when unsupported by evidence. There was no way in which a condemned man could challenge their fatal prejudices......."

As a final note I have posted a copy of Henry's medal card - it makes for sad reading!



Unquiet Graves Guide  Execution sites of the First World War in Flanders - Piet Chielens and Julian Putkowski 
Rusteloze graven gids – Executieplaatsen uit de Eerste Wereldoorlog in de Westhoek
The Guide is centred on the countryside around Ieper (Ypres) and Poperinge in the Westhoek of Flanders and visits the places of execution and graves of men 'shot at dawn' by the British Army in the Great War.

 Shot at Dawn - Julian Putkowski and Julian Sykes - The standard reference work about soldiers executed under the British Army Act in the First World War (1989).

Notes on Conscription in the First World War

Due to the carnage and mounting casualties incurred by the British Army in the first two years of the War, the British Government was pressurised into introducing a succession of Military Service Acts. Each Act shows the increasing desperation of a government struggling to find people to send to their deaths in the fields of a foreign country.

January 1916  The first Military Service Act was passed.  This Act called for the compulsory enlistment of unmarried men between the ages of 18 and 41. 

May 1916  Military Service Act (2) was introduced which  brought all men regardless of marital status between the ages of 18 and 41, under the provisions of the existing Military Service Act.  It also allowed the War Office to extend the service of time-expired men whilst there was a war and to re-examine men rejected as physically unfit. 

April 1917 Military Service Act (3) was introduced which called for the examination of Home Service Territorial, men discharged in consequence of disablement or ill-health and those previously rejected for service.  A new schedule of Protected Occupations was also announced. 

January 1918 Military Service Act (4) was passed.  Further exemptions were removed including the following:

1.  It empowered the government to quash all exemptions on occupational grounds.  

2.  It also abolished the two month grace period allowed to workers in cases where exemptions had been withdrawn. 

April 1918  Military Service Act (5) was introduced.
This was the most drastic act yet, increasing the eligibility of male civilians even further.  It lowered the minimum age of liability to 17 and increased the maximum age to 55.  The law was extended to include Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.  It also called for the abolition of the tribunal system. Released or exchanged prisoners of war were no longer exempt and provision was made for the recall of time-expired soldiers.

Sources re Conscription
Conscription and conscience: a history 1916-1919 by John W. Graham. - London: Allen and Unwin, 1922.
Conscience and politics: the British government and the conscientious objector to military
service 1916-1919
John Rae. - London: Oxford University Press, 1970. ISBN 0-19-215176-2
The Times history of the war: 22 volumes - London: The Times, [1914-1920] - 22 vols. Volume XIX, pages 379-382.

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This page was last updated on 04/06/18 15:13