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  • Christina Drummond

Sub-Lieutenant Edwin Leopold Arthur Dyett, Nelson Battalion, 63rd (Royal Naval ) Division

Remembering the Fallen: on this day in 1917, Sub-Lieutenant Edwin Leopold Arthur Dyett, Nelson Battalion, 63rd (Royal Naval ) Division, was executed at St. Firmin in France for desertion. In 2006 he was pardoned and is memorialised at the Shot At Dawn memorial in the National Memorial Arboretum. “It is a soldier's tale cut in stone to melt all hearts” wrote Winston Churchill years later in his introduction to A. P. Herbert's novel ‘The Secret Battle’ based on the execution.

The son of a Commander in the Royal Naval Reserve, who was a cousin of Sir John French, Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force, Sub-Lieutenant Dyett was transferred from naval duties to take part in the Somme Offensive. He was held in reserve until November of 1916 when the Royal Naval Division was sent to capture the villages of Beaumont Hamel and Beaucourt. Along with Lieutenant Truscott he was ordered to the front line to replace casualties. Another officer, Sub-Lieutenant Herring (known to be unpopular, with a grudge against Sub-Lieutenant Dyett for discovering him sneaking a woman into training camp), ordered them to take stragglers with them. Sub-Lieutenant Dyett questioned Sub-Lieutenant Herring's authority to give orders to a senior rank; also, he himself had not yet been in action and knew he was not suited to leading troops in the field, so stated he would return to headquarters for further orders. He lost his way amidst the smoke and confusion, and reached headquarters the following day, at which time he was charged with desertion.

The prosecutor had six weeks to prepare, yet the defence was allowed less than half-an-hour just before the trial. Sub-Lieutenant Dyett was not given counsel at the hearing, and a plea for clemency from his commanding officer was ignored. Sub-Lieutenant Herring gave evidence that he “had not seemed afraid nor gave any indication that he would desert”, and confirmed that Sub-Lieutenant Dyett intended to return to headquarters. He was found guilty of desertion – the audience panels, with one exception, favoured dishonourable discharge followed by imprisonment, and leniency was recommended, particularly considering his age, inexperience and confusing circumstances. The Divisional Commander upheld the pleas for leniency, but the Corps Commander, and subsequently Field Marshal Haig, ordered the death sentence. The historian Lawrence James wrote: “Haig wanted no mercy shown to officers who faltered - understandable, given that his strategy depended on an army suffused with offensive spirit…Top-level pressure for exemplary death sentences was transmitted downwards in an army where only officers with an aggressive spirit secured promotion. Arms were twisted in a denial of basic justice."

Sub-Lieutenant Dyer’s last words, spoken to the firing squad, were “For God’s sake, shoot straight”. He is buried in the Le Crotoy Communal Cemetery on the Somme. In a letter to his mother he wrote: “Dearest Mother Mine, I hope by now you will have had the news…My sorrow tonight is for the trouble I have caused you and Dad…if it were not for the kind support of the Rev. [name withheld at source] who is with me tonight, I should not be able to write myself. I feel for you so much and I am sorry for bringing dishonour upon you all. Give [name withheld at source] my love. She will, I expect, understand – and give her back the presents, photos, cards, etc., she has sent me, poor girl. May God bless and protect you all now and for evermore.” His father, after a futile attempt to clear his son, renounced his citizenship and moved to America.

Edwin, from Cardiff, was 21 years old.

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