Remembering the Fallen: on this day in 1916, Private William Barry Nelson, 14th Battalion, the Durham Light Infantry, was executed for desertion. In 2006, he was one of the three hundred and six men who were pardoned, and he is remembered at the Shot At Dawn memorial in the National Memorial Arboretum.
Private Nelson had volunteered to serve at the outbreak of the Great War. His mother died soon after and his two younger siblings were left alone as their father had been taken prisoner by the Germans - his sister was taken in by the local doctor, but what became of his brother is not known. On the first anniversary of his mother’s death Private Nelson went missing, pleading that he was going mad at the thought of his young brother and sister at home without their parents, and for that absence he received a year’s prison sentence. For a subsequent absence he was sentenced to penal servitude for life, but most war-time prison sentences were suspended for the duration of the war so that men could fight and not simply spend the time in a prison cell.
Private Nelson was wounded during the fighting at the Battle of Loos, yet continued with the advance, as later related by his sergeant. Some while afterwards he had his first meal for days in another part of the battlefield, having been given permission to do so, and missed an order to go over the top. He was arrested, and stated at the hearing: "“I have had a lot of trouble at home, and my nerves are badly upset. My father is a prisoner in Germany and is losing his eyesight there through bad treatment. My mother died while I was still in England, leaving my sister aged 13 and my brother aged 10. I am the only one left. I had to leave them in charge of a neighbour. I had no intention of deserting. I did not realise what I was doing when I left the camp. When I did so I went and gave myself up. When I went to the store my object was to get a night’s sleep and then go and surrender in the morning. I thought it was too late to do so that night. I did not know when the battalion was coming out of the trenches.” His court martial, at which he was not represented, lasted for five minutes, he was found guilty of desertion, and was shot at dawn the following morning as an example to others.
His bible and a couple of buttons from his tunic were retrieved by his friends and sent to his sister. His sister’s daughter, Nora, told the Guardian: “Every Armistice Day, my mother shed buckets of tears. We’ve got Billy’s Bible, I got that when mother died. She used to lay that out on a piece of blue satin cloth, and she would cry. She always said: ‘I won’t cry any more because that only upsets Billy. He doesn’t want me to cry. Everything’s fine for him now.’”
Unlike many of those who were executed for desertion, Private Nelson does have a grave, located in the Acheux Military Cemetery, at Acheux-en-Amiénois, six miles from Albert, in France, and he is memorialized at the Shot at Dawn Memorial in the National Memorial Arboretum near Alrewas, in Staffordshire.
William, from Seaham Harbour, Co. Durham, was 19 years old.