Lois Dean has researched and written this powerful story from Bolton’s archives.
Shot at Dawn and an Appeal for Forgiveness
The brave young Bolton soldier had faced guns before, at Gallipoli and the Somme, but those James Smith faced early on the morning of 5th September 1917 were to be fired by his own countrymen – friends and comrades from his own unit.
James ‘Jimmy’ Smith became the only Boltonian to be ‘shot at dawn’ after being found guilty by a military tribunal of desertion and cowardice. However, his experience of the horrors of war told a different story, one that led to his pardon nearly 90 years later.
Born in Noble Street, Bolton, in 1891, the son of James and Elizabeth Smith, Jimmy was brought up by his aunt and uncle when his mother died soon after his birth. At 18, he joined the Lancashire Fusiliers as a career soldier and served in India at the beginning of the First World War before being part of the landing in Gallipoli in April 1915 when half his battalion lost their lives.
Jimmy was sent to France in 1916 to join the 15th Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers – the Salford Pals. He saw heavy fighting and gained two good conduct badges before being transferred to the 17th Battalion King’s Liverpool Regiment in June 1917, with the rank of Lance Corporal.
Jimmy almost lost his life on the Somme on 11 October 1916 when a German artillery shell exploded, burying him alive and causing a shrapnel wound ‘the size of a fist’ on his right shoulder. He was rescued and sent home to convalesce before returning to the Front in December.
By now, however, Jimmy Smith was a broken man, both physically and mentally, suffering from what is known today as post-traumatic stress disorder. He gave up his stripes and became 52929 Private James Smith. Soon he began disobeying orders and was twice given 90 days’ field punishment, losing his good conduct badges.
His comrades recognized he was very unwell and tried to help him as much as possible, but on 30 July 1917, Jimmy had a breakdown and deserted his post, being found wandering some five miles away in the town of Poperinghe. A doctor at the dressing post declared him fit for duty. Jimmy refused and was charged with desertion and later for disobedience for refusing to drill.
At this last court martial; Jimmy had no defence lawyer and no-one to speak of his past bravery. He said nothing and was sentenced to death.
His comrades from the 17th Battalion could not believe what they were being asked to do that September morning at Kemmel Chateau in Flanders. They fired, but aimed to miss the white target pinned to Jimmy’s chest. He was badly wounded however, and the young officer in charge knew he was supposed to put Jimmy out of his agony with his pistol. He could not bring himself to do this and instead ordered Jimmy’s friend, Private Richard Blundell, to fire the shot.
Unable to disobey, Richard carried out the task that was to live with him for the next 70 years. On his deathbed in 1989, his final request was for his son to seek forgiveness from Jimmy’s family.
The terrible event was recreated over 80 years later in November 1998, by playwright Les Smith, who wanted to highlight the plight of Jimmy and others like him. The play, ‘Early One Morning’, was staged at Bolton’s Octagon Theatre to coincide with the 80th anniversary of Armistice Day. A seminar at the theatre was attended by members of the Shot At Dawn Campaign, which was seeking pardons for 306 Britons who were executed in the war.
These pardons were granted by Parliament in 2006 and a relative of Jimmy Smith, Charles Sandbach, campaigned for his name to be added to Bolton’s book of remembrance, supported by Bolton South East MP, Dr Brian Iddon.
This recognition of James Smith’s bravery and suffering came on Armed Forces Day in June 2009 in a ceremony at Bolton Town Hall, attended by his family. He is buried in grave M 25 at Kemmel Chateau Military Cemetery.
House of Commons Hansard 3 Oct 2009. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200809/cmhansrd/cm090303/debtext/90303-0019.htm
Permission to use the “Shot at Dawn” Octagon Theatre programme cover courtesy of D-Room Design Communications.
“Remembering the Bolton hero who was shot at dawn” Bolton News 21 June 2009.
KEMMEL CHATEAU MILITARY CEMETERY, Heuvelland, West-Vlaanderen
Researched and written by Lois Dean