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3 Mar 2009 : Column 819

Business without Debate

delegated legislation

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

Fees and Charges

Official Statistics

Question agreed to.

european union documents

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 119(11)),

Mandates of EU Special Representatives

Question agreed to.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 145),

Question agreed to.

business of the House


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Private James Smith

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —(Mr. McAvoy.)

8.44 pm

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): Many tragic stories have emerged from the two world wars of 1914 to 1918 and 1939 to 1945. Unbelievable numbers from the British Commonwealth and other men and women from across the world were lost in these conflicts. In my opinion, they were all people of great courage who were willing to put their lives on the line for this country and for freedom from tyranny.

This is the tragic story of James Smith—Jimmy to his friends—who was born in 1891 at 77 Noble street, which today is in my constituency, and whose mother, Elizabeth, died just after he was born. He was brought up by his devoted maternal aunt, Eliza, and his uncle John in Great Lever in my constituency. Relatives John—known as Jack—and Freda Hargreaves live in Great Lever today. Jack’s mother was Jimmy Smith’s cousin. Jimmy’s story was brought to me by Charles Sandbach and Bill Miles, who are interested in military history and who are campaigning to have Jimmy Smith’s name added to the Bolton roll of honour, which is kept in the ceremonial entrance to Bolton town hall.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): As my hon. Friend knows, the same individuals have been involved in getting the name of someone from my constituency on a roll in that hall. He was 27 years old, and died in 1917, and it was not until the work that these people did in identifying where he came from and his family background that that soldier’s name was proudly was put on the war memorial.

Dr. Iddon: I am grateful for that intervention; it is a story that has been told to me. Indeed, these two gentleman who are interested in military history made a one-hour film about a solider—not like the one I am talking about this evening—who went through the tragedies of world war one. It is a brilliant film that ought to have a wider showing than it has hitherto.

We want Jimmy to be remembered, along with his comrades, every year on Remembrance day. Jimmy was Charles Sandbach’s paternal grandmother’s uncle and Charles initially sought the help of my friend Councillor Frank White, former Member of Parliament for Bury and Radcliffe, who is currently president of the Bolton United Veteran’s Association, formed in 1906 before the British Legion was established, the second of many such associations to be formed that still exist today.

Private James Smith was the subject of a play, “Early One Morning”, written by Bolton playwright Les Smith and presented at the Octagon theatre in Bolton, with its first performance on 22 October 1998 to mark the 80th anniversary of the armistice. James Smith initially enlisted in the 1st Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers in 1910, just before his 19th birthday, to escape the grinding poverty in which he lived at that time. Although he hardly knew his father James William Smith, who remarried, Jimmy enlisted using his father’s address in Noble street.

2022 Private James Smith trained in Egypt, then served in Karachi, India, before being recalled when world war one was declared. Among his many horrific experiences of that war was the Lancashire landing on
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W beach at Gallipoli on the morning of 25 April 1915, when his battalion stormed a cliff bristling with Turkish machine guns. No fewer than six of his comrades won Victoria crosses before breakfast—still an all-time record for such awards. In scaling and taking that cliff, half the battalion were lost on that day.

After enduring the rest of that nightmare campaign, Private James Smith was evacuated in 1916 to France, where he joined volunteers in the 15th Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers, known as the Salford pals. With one good conduct badge at that time, he was soon in the thick of the action again and gained a second good conduct badge. Such were the losses on the Somme that infantrymen were regularly transferred from one regiment to another, and Jimmy was transferred to the 17th Battalion King’s Liverpool Regiment, known as the 1st Liverpool pals, on 26 June 1917, with the rank of lance corporal. He almost lost his life in France on the Somme when, on 11 October 1916, a massive German artillery shell buried him alive on the Transloy ridge, with bits of his friends around him, and shrapnel created a large deep wound on his right shoulder. According to his sister, it was big enough to put a fist in. Fortunately, he was rescued and taken home to Townleys hospital in Bolton, but in a very poor mental and physical state from which he never recovered. The shocks and horrors of the battles that he had seen had damaged him to such an extent that he was clearly unfit for further service. Those who served with him were well aware of his condition. Today, we would recognise that Jimmy Smith was suffering from serious post-traumatic stress disorder. No such condition was recognised in the great war, and it was believed that soldiers could recover from shell shock of that kind.

Just 10 days after he returned to the front line, and clearly under a great deal of stress, Jimmy Smith volunteered to give up his stripe and became 52929 Private James Smith. Six days later, he left his post without orders. On 29 December 1916, Jimmy found himself before a field general court martial for a breach of military discipline. He was ordered to do 90 days’ field punishment number one and lost one of his good conduct badges. On 15 July 1917, just before the battle of Passchendaele in the Ypres salient, he found himself before a field general court martial for a second time for going absent without leave. He was only 26 years old.

We believe that the court recognised that Private James Smith was in no condition to fight. It spared him a death sentence on that second occasion and ordered him again to do 90 days’ field punishment number one, and he lost his second good conduct badge. Unfortunately, the Army never allowed Jimmy to complete that sentence, because the 17th Battalion King’s Liverpool Regiment found itself at the Pilckem ridge, north of the famous town of Ypres. By that time, Jimmy Smith was so unwell that he could not function properly at the front, and his comrades knew it. They tried to ensure that he was given light duties, possibly out of the trenches, but to no avail.

On 30 July 1917, on the eve of the battle of Pilckem ridge, Jimmy had a breakdown and deserted his post without orders again. At 11 pm, he was seen 5 miles from the front, wandering about in the town of Poperinghe, where he was arrested. A doctor at a dressing station declared him fit for duty, and Jimmy was charged with desertion. While detained in the military cells at Poperinghe
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town hall, Jimmy was ordered to undertake a two-hour drill. He refused to march and was also charged with disobedience. That was the beginning of the end of Private James Smith. The plain fact is that at that time he should have not been in action but serving his third punishment.

On 22 August 1917, Jimmy found himself before a field general court martial for the third time in seven months. Major Watson, Lieutenant Pierce and Lieutenant Collins came to a unanimous verdict of guilty on both charges. At his trial, he was unrepresented, no defence witnesses were called and he never spoke a word. Jimmy accepted his fate without fear as he was sentenced to death. The court was well aware of his medical history and could have decided to transfer him to the Labour Corps, but no; instead, it decided to make an example of an experienced regular soldier, clearly suffering from serious shell shock having experienced horrors in several battles. The brigadier confirmed sentence on 22 August, the divisional commander on 28 August and the commander-in-chief Field Marshal Haig on 2 September.

Early on the morning of 5 September, a small patrol of soldiers from Jimmy’s own unit entered a barn at Kemmel Château in Belgium to clean their weapons prior to re-engagement with the enemy. They were told that, first, they had a special duty to perform, and they were taken outside into a courtyard where they found their friend, Jimmy Smith, blindfolded and tied to an execution chair in front of a wall, with a white target pinned to his tunic, just above his heart. Protesting furiously to the commanding officer, the 12-man firing squad—11 privates and a non-commissioned officer—was summarily ordered to execute Jimmy. The lads aimed and fired, the majority deliberately missing the target. However, Jimmy was wounded, the chair was knocked over and he lay writhing in agony on the ground.

The young officer in charge of the firing squad was shaking like a leaf, but he knew now that he had to finish Jimmy off by putting a bullet through his brain with his Webley pistol. He lost his nerve, however, and could not fire the pistol in his hand as Jimmy continued to writhe in agony on the ground.

One of Jimmy’s friends, 23643 Private Richard Blundell, who hailed from Everton in Liverpool, was then ordered by the commanding officer to take the Webley pistol and kill Jimmy. Jimmy’s death was recorded on that day at 5.51 am. The 12 members of the firing squad were given 10 days’ leave after that tragic event in the heat of battle. That was unusual.

Richard Blundell died in Liverpool 70 years later in February 1989, when he was well into his 90s. As he fell in and out of consciousness, his son William heard him utter the words, “What a way to get leave.” Eventually the story that I have just told about Jimmy’s execution emerged, and Richard Blundell’s final request to his son was to seek forgiveness from Jimmy Smith’s family for what he had done. His action on that morning in September 1917 had clearly been on his mind for 70 years. It was the first time that his family can recall his speaking of his experiences in the great war. The author of a book on the Liverpool pals had tried unsuccessfully to interview him about his experiences. In my view, Dickie Blundell also faced a life sentence, perhaps worse than the fate of Private James Smith—we will never know.

3 Mar 2009 : Column 823

For a long time after the great war of 1914-18, shame hung over the families of soldiers such as Private James Smith and their names were not added to those of their comrades on our war memorials or rolls of honour, or written into our books of remembrance. However, Mrs. Freda Hargreaves has told me that her family felt no shame and that they proudly owned a photograph of Jimmy, which stood over the mantelpiece for many years after the war ended.

After a long campaign, the Labour Government pardoned those soldiers who were shot at dawn, like Private James Smith in 1917. An amendment to the Armed Forces Bill was introduced in the autumn of 2006 to pardon 306 soldiers, and the measure received Royal Assent on 8 November 2006. I am pleased that several colleagues who played an important role in bringing that about are present in the Chamber, and I thank them for being here.

However, Private James Smith’s name has still not been added to the book of remembrance in Bolton town hall, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary believes that it now should be. I believe that Jimmy Smith was the only soldier from Bolton to be shot at dawn in the great war. At least today we have recognised him for what he obviously was—by no means a coward, but an extremely brave soldier who was made seriously ill by his traumatic experiences in several battles in the great war. He is buried in the military cemetery at Kemmel Château in Belgium in grave M.25. On the grave are the words, “Gone but not forgotten”. I hope that he will always be remembered by the people of Bolton and that his bravery will finally be recognised. In a different way, he also paid the ultimate price for the rest of us. He, too, laid down his life for our freedom, albeit in a different way.

As a footnote, I can tell my hon. Friend that tomorrow evening I expect that Bolton council will agree to add Private James Smith’s name to the roll of honour, and that a ceremony will be held later this year. We have suggested that an appropriate date would be 27 June, which is armed services day.

Bolton council has let it be known that it is prepared to add any other names to its roll of honour that have been missing to date for any reason. I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that all local authorities should be encouraged to follow suit.

8.58 pm

John Reid (Airdrie and Shotts) (Lab): I was not aware of the subject of the debate until about 20 minutes ago. I heard the opening words of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) as I left the Chamber, and came back precisely to identify myself with his comments.

I was the Minister who reopened the subject in 1997-98, and I remember it well. In all my years in Government and in the nine posts that I held, I cannot think of any more heart-wrenching task that I took on or was given to me. I personally examined about half the 306 cases, and I am eternally grateful to the officials who went through them, including my military adviser at the time, Simon Gillespie, who sat up, night after night, going through individual cases.

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I will not rehearse some of the heart-breaking stories, but I will say this. First, recognising the suffering undergone by those who were executed at dawn and their families is in no way to minimise the equal sacrifices of those who went over the top. I believe that they were all victims. Secondly—this is the only respect in which I differ slightly from my hon. Friend—we should not issue a carte blanche condemnation of the military hierarchy. The truth is that there were some 30,000 cases that could have qualified for a death sentence, but 90 per cent. of those concerned did not receive one. Of the 3,000 who did, 90 per cent. of those sentences were commuted by the military hierarchy. The records were destroyed, I think in 1924. However, it is extremely likely that the reason why those 2,700 sentences were commuted and only 306 individuals were condemned to death—that is a large number, however, because it is 306 tragedies—is, I believe, although I cannot prove this because the evidence has gone, probably that in many cases the medical and the mental condition of the person who had been sentenced to death was recognised.

Dr. Iddon: If I gave the impression that I was being critical of the military at that time, it is the wrong impression. They were different times and they were difficult times. People were in the heat of battle and I recognise that they did what they had to do.

John Reid: Perhaps I phrased my comment wrongly. It was not meant as a vicarious criticism of my hon. Friend; it was about whether people recognised shellshock or post-traumatic stress, or whatever it was at the time. I believe that many people did, albeit not because of medical evidence, but because of their personal experience. I think that that is why 2,700 death sentences out of those 3,000 cases were eventually commuted.

Having said those two things, I do not think that there is any doubt that each case was a tragedy. I said earlier that I would not mention any of them, but two stick in my mind. The first involved a young boy in his teens whose last words were: “Don’t tell my mother.” Facing an execution squad, he could think only of the effect that it would have, not on him, when the bullets landed, but on his mother, when the word reached home. The second case was this. At the back of one of the files that I went through, I found, as latterly I found in my father’s file—he fought in the second world war—a little bit for the soldier’s will. Soldiers could leave all their worldly possessions in their wills. I recall that the total possessions of one of the soldiers who was executed were the three days’ wages that he was owed up to the day of his execution, which he left to his fiancée in Northern Ireland. Such cases deeply moved me.

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