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  • Christina Drummond

Lance Corporal John McDonald, Lance Corporal Peter Goggins and Sergeant Joseph Stones, 19th (Bantam)

Remembering the Fallen: on this day in 1917, Lance Corporal John McDonald, Lance Corporal Peter Goggins and Sergeant Joseph Stones, 19th (Bantam) Battalion, the Durham Light Infantry, were executed side-by-side for cowardice at Arras in France.

In 2006 they were pardoned and are remembered at the Shot At Dawn memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire. Their battalion had been formed in January of 1915, “bantam” referring to the battalions where the height requirement was reduced to lower than 5’3”. The battalion sailed from Southampton to France in February of 1916 for active service on the Western Front.

In the early hours of the morning of the 26th of November, 1916, the battalion was holding part of the British line near Arras. Sergeant Stones was with Lieutenant James Mundy when they were attacked by German raiders; Lieutenant Mundy was grievously wounded and ordered Sergeant Stones to go for help. His rifle was in such condition that he could not fire it so he jammed it across the trench to slow down an advancing German soldier. Still under attack, he took cover in a reserve trench. Meanwhile, Lance Corporal Goggins and Lance Corporal McDonald had been leading their men from the front line trench. All three had retreated approximately twenty yards to a reserve trench while under attack from the enemy. They were approached by military police amidst the dark and much confusion, arrested - the sergeant was charged with “shamefully casting away his arms in the presence of the enemy”, and the two lance corporals for leaving their posts without orders, although their sergeant testified that they had in fact been following orders.

On Christmas Eve Lance Corporal Goggins and Lance Corporal McDonald were tried and sentenced to death, as was Sergeant Stones a few days later, in spite of Lieutenant Mundy’s order as well as the statement from his commanding officer that "he is the last man I would have thought capable of any cowardly action”. Brigadier-General H. O'Donnell wrote that although he had doubts about the evidence, he felt that the executions were necessary to set an example to other men in the battalion.

John, from Jarrow in Co. Durham, had worked as a glassworks labourer before joining the army in March of 2015 - he was 27 years old and married with three children. Peter, from Seaham Harbour, Co. Durham, was one of eight children - he was 21 years old and had been married for only six months; after his execution his wife disappeared. Joseph, from Crook in Co. Durham, was also a miner - he was 27 years old and married with three daughters. As miners were in a reserved occupation, there was no requirement nor expectation that they would enlist. All three men are buried in the St. Pol Communal Cemetery Extension at Pas de Calais in France.

This letter from Private Albert Rochester, in detention for complaining about conditions in the trenches, appeared in the Daily Herald in 1925: “Three stakes a few yards apart and a ring of sentries around the woodland to keep the curious away. A motor ambulance arrives conveying the doomed men. Manacled and blindfolded they are helped out and tied up to the stakes. Over each man’s heart is placed an envelope. At the sign of command the firing parties, twelve to each, align their rifles on the envelopes. The officer in charge holds his stick aloft and as it falls thirty-six bullets usher the souls of three Kitchener’s men to the great unknown. As a military prisoner I helped clear up the traces of that triple murder. I took the posts down… I helped carry those bodies towards their last resting place; I collected all the blood-soaked straw and burnt it. Acting on police instructions I took all their belongings from the dead men’s tunics (discarded before being shot). A few letters, a pipe, some fags, a photo. I could tell you of the silence of the military police after reading one letter from a little girl to ‘Dear Daddy’, of the chaplain’s confession that braver men he had never met than those three men he prayed with just before the fatal dawn. I could take you to the graves of the murdered.”

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