Remembering the Fallen: on this day in 1916, Second Lieutenant Eric Skeffington Poole, 11th Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment (Prince of Wales’ Own), was executed by firing squad at Poperinghe, Belgium – the first British Army Officer to die in such a way. Ninety years later he was pardoned along with three hundred and five other soldiers and is commemorated at the Shot at Dawn Memorial in the National Memorial Arboretum near Alrewas, in Staffordshire.
Between 1903 and 1905 he served in Canada with the Halifax Rifles. At some point between then and the outbreak of the Great War, his family moved to England. In October of 1914 he joined the Honourable Artillery Company and served as a driver before going on to earn a commission with the 14th Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment in May of 1915. A year later Second Lieutenant Poole was transferred to the 11th Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment shortly before it was sent to France to fight on the Somme.
On the 7th of July, 1916, during the Battle of the Somme, he was struck on the head by debris from an enemy shell explosion – due to his injuries he was not returned to his battalion until the end of August, when he was placed in charge of C Company at Martinpuich, near Albert. The medical history sheet states that he suffered shell shock at the time of the explosion - shell shock having been recognised in print the previous year by the British Psychological Society. Second Lieutenant Poole found that it caused him to, in his own words, “at times get confused and...have great difficulty in making up my mind”. In such a state on the 5th of October he wandered away from his platoon as they were moving into the frontline trenches at Flers; he was apprehended by the military police and arrested five days later for “deserting when on active service”. He stated that he felt “damned bad” on the day he had wandered off, and it had been noticed that he seemed shaken.
A Royal Army Medical Corps officer argued at his court martial that Second Lieutenant Poole’s mental condition precluded him from intentionally deserting. Second Lieutenant Poole spoke of his medical condition and said that in such a state he did not comprehend the seriousness of his actions. In spite of the defence’s pleas, and what was considered abundant evidence that he was medically unfit to command a platoon, he was found guilty of desertion and sentenced to “death by being shot”. Sir Douglas Haig confirmed the death sentence, writing in his diary that “it is highly important that all ranks should realise the law is the same for an officer as a private”.
Second Lieutenant Poole is buried in the Poperinghe military cemetery. The War Office was aware of the adverse publicity his death would attract, so agreed that his name would not appear in the casualty lists published in the British newspapers, and that no information about his death would be disclosed. His father was seriously ill at the time, so his family also did not want the manner of his death to be made public. His service card contains this bald word, underlined: “Killed”.
Eric, born in Nova Scotia, but settled in Guildford, Surrey, was 31 years old.