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Norfolk soldier who paid the ultimate price for walking away from hell

PUBLISHED: 09:06 10 September 2017 | UPDATED: 09:06 10 September 2017

Lethal justice: a British firing squad in action early during the First World War. John Abigail faced a similar end around dawn on September 12, 1917. Picture Steve Snelling collection.

Lethal justice: a British firing squad in action early during the First World War. John Abigail faced a similar end around dawn on September 12, 1917. Picture Steve Snelling collection.

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John Henry Abigail was one of hundreds of Norfolk men killed at the height of the Passchendaele campaign a century ago. But alone among them he died in front of a British firing squad. Steve Snelling charts his short and tragic life.

The court martial convened ‘in the field’ on August 24, 1917 was a one-sided affair with the evidence weighted overwhelmingly against the accused young soldier.

Aside from pleading ‘not guilty’, John Henry Abigail offered no defence, no explanation and nothing by way of mitigation in answer to the charge that he had “absented himself from his Battalion after having been warned for the trenches”.

In the face of a parade of prosecution witnesses, the 20-year-old from the slums of Norwich stood alone, without an officer, a so-called ‘soldier’s friend’, to represent or advise him.

Perhaps, he was already resigned to his fate or beyond caring. After all, most of his short life had been beset by misery and despair in a poverty-stricken household scarred by deprivation and neglect.

Either way, he listened in silence as his erstwhile comrades from the 8th Battalion, the Norfolk Regiment rewound the clock to the fateful afternoon of July 30 and a reserve camp on the northern outskirts of Dickebusche in Belgian Flanders.

The Norfolks had arrived there the day before, marching through drizzling rain to spend a mostly sleepless night watching a pyrotechnic display of flares and listening to the roar of guns heralding the opening of what would officially be styled the Third Battle of Ypres, otherwise known as Passchendaele.

Confirmation of what they already knew came somewhere between 3 and 4pm on July 30 when, in the words of Corporal W Ellwood, the first witness called, “Sergeant Bains warned the platoon to be ready to move to the trenches in fighting order that night and stated that all packs were to be handed in to the QM [Quartermaster] stores by 6pm”.

Lest there be any doubt about Abigail’s whereabouts at the time, Ellwood told the ‘court’ that he recalled seeing him with the rest of the platoon and noted that he was “closer” to Bains than he was when the orders were issued.

But two hours after the deadline, he realised that Abigail had not handed in his pack. Furthermore, he was nowhere to be seen. As his section leader, Ellwood searched the camp in vain before giving up.

Dolefully, he concluded: “He was absent when my section… fell in to proceed to the trenches at about 10.50pm”.

The evidence of two more soldiers, both privates in Abigail’s platoon, corroborated Ellwood’s account while adding a few additional details that did not materially affect the case.

In each instance, Abigail, according to the official record, declined to cross-examine the witnesses.

They were followed by Corporal H N Stallworthy, the mounted military policeman who had found Abigail three days later, “walking along the road” near the village of Staple, some 20 miles south-west of the reserve camp and in the opposite direction of the battle line.

“I stopped him and asked him if he was on duty,” he recalled, “and he replied, ‘No, I am looking for my battalion. They were billeted near here and I have been out for a walk for two hours and when I came back they were gone’.”

According to Stallworthy, Abigail, who was “without any equipment”, having discarded his pack, rifle and ammunition, was “unable to give… any further account as to the whereabouts of his battalion”.

Not surprisingly unconvinced by his story, he took him to 2nd Army Headquarters “where he was detained to await an escort”.

As with the earlier witnesses, Abigail made no attempt to rebut Stallworthy’s account, nor did he chose to make any statement or call any witnesses to support his own version of events.

If he hoped that the three officers sitting in judgment would take pity on him then he was to be sorely disappointed. His wretched record saw to that.

Since enlisting on March 12, 1916, he had been in action on the Somme, where, in what was most likely his first action, amid the carnage of a costly attack on Delville Wood, he was wounded, evacuated and hospitalised.

Whether he was traumatised or unnerved by the experience is not known, but his behaviour became increasingly difficult.

Having recovered and been posted to a holding unit at Felixstowe, he went absent without leave for a week over Christmas 1916. Arrested by police in Norwich, he was sentenced to 168 hours’ detention and ordered to forfeit nine days’ pay.

If it was intended as a deterrent it failed. A little more than a fortnight later he was ‘confined to barracks’ for five days for “having a dirty rifle on parade” and a week after that he absconded for another five days, making his way back to Norwich, before eventually handing himself in at Britannia Barracks to be awarded 14 days’ ‘Field Punishment’.

Worse was to follow. Having rejoined the 8th Norfolks in France, Abigail committed his first capital offence on May 4, 1917. In a foreshadowing of his actions near Dickebusch less than three months later, he deserted after being “warned that his platoon would be moving to the trenches that day”.

He remained absent for a week before “reporting” or, more accurately, surrendering himself to the Fifth Army Infantry School behind the lines. His punishment - 10 years’ penal servitude - was suspended the following month and he returned to his unit as it prepared for the coming offensive in Flanders.

There would no second reprieve and no clemency this time round. The ‘guilty’ finding delivered by Lieutenant Colonel Gerald Hill DSO was as unequivocal and as inevitable as the sentence: Death, with no recommendation for mercy.

The verdict, harsh by today’s standards but in keeping with the exigencies of war a century ago, represented a sorry end to a sorry army career and an even sorrier life that had taken the hapless, hopeless young soldier from the squalor of Norwich’s slum land to the desolate wasteland of Europe’s killing fields.

Just six weeks before he joined the army, the EDP reported on a ‘painful’ case brought before the city’s police court. The couple indicted were Abigail’s parents who pleaded guilty to the wilful neglect of his younger twin brothers and four-year-old sister.

In what the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children called “a very long standing” example of deprivation which had been “under observation” for 11 years, a harrowing picture emerged of life in the Distillery Yard hovel that passed as the Abigail family home.

An inspector considered the downstairs ‘living room’ so dirty as to be “not fit for human habitation”. He found the two boys clothed in rags and covered with vermin bites, their beds no more than filthy sacks laid on the floor.

So grim were the conditions, even by the standards of 1916, that it seemed to the NSPCC “almost impossible that human beings good exist amid such surroundings”.

The result was a one-month jail term with hard labour for Abigail’s father, while the charge against his mother was dismissed.

How much the parlous nature of his miserable upbringing contributed to his ill-judged and thoroughly ill-starred war service is impossible to say, but it can hardly have helped.

Where for some the war provided a means of self-advancement and escape from the bad hand that fate had dealt them, for Abigail it must have seemed merely an extension of the misery he had always known, with the threat of imminent death added to the years of prolonged maltreatment.

It was one of the great ironies that ultimately such a fate should come not on the battlefield at the hands of the enemy, but behind the lines in front of a firing squad made up of his fellow countrymen.

Three days after his sentence was confirmed by Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, around dawn on September 12, 1917, a volley rang out near the village of Esquelbecq and put an end to a troubled and troubling young life.

The only member of the Norfolk Regiment to be executed for desertion during the First World War, John Henry Abigail died a victim of war as much as his own frailties and circumstances and was laid to rest in the local communal cemetery.

It is possible his parents never knew the manner of his death for there was nothing on his headstone or on the local ‘roll of honour’ to distinguish him from those of his comrades who had been killed in combat or died as a result of wounds received on the battlefield.

But the story did not end there.

In 2007, 18 years after his fate was publicly revealed and following a long protest campaign, John Abigail and 306 other servicemen who were executed by firing squad during the First World War were posthumously pardoned by the Government.

While accepting that commanders had done their best to apply the rules and standards of the time amid often terrible circumstances, Des Browne, the Defence Secretary, declared: “It is better to acknowledge that injustices were clearly done in some cases, even if we cannot say which - and to acknowledge that all these men were victims of war.”

Thanks to Dick Rayner, historian of the 8th Norfolks, for his research into the life and death of John Henry Abigail.

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