“It’s the very last waltz and it’s called the Dangle” John Entwistle, (The Who)
History is a discussion, a debate, an argument, sometimes history even reaches the dizzy heights of a literal street brawl. We think we know what happened, it is the why that makes it all fun. everyone knows the facts of the first world war, right up to when they signed the armistice that came into effect at 12 noon on the 11th November 1918. Yes, 12 o’clock, that is the time the ceasefire came into effect as far as Germany was concerned, !2 noon in Berlin, but it was 11 o’clock in London, and it sounds better than at the 12th hour on the 11th Day.
Then there are those sad Australians, I have never met a sad Australian, as a people they tend to be happy bright and gay, at least the ones I have met or know are. But, the blog is about the First World War are it is the Shot At Dawn, SAD Australians that are more interesting. Like me everyone interested will have been informed “No Australians were shot at dawn in the First World War.” The Australian Government would not allow their soldiers to be executed by firing squad, and that’s a fact.
Now one of the things about history is when someone says, “and that’s a fact” there is a high degree of probability that it isn’t. So lets have a look at that “Fact” first. It was not the Australian Government that refused to allow Australians, tried and sentenced by Field General Court Martial, FGCM, to be shot, it was the British Governor General who refused. Why? I have no idea. That said, if a government or the military wanted someone dead, there is more than one way to skin a Wallaby.
Next the Australians shot at dawn, sad bunch, I have found two. All served in the New Zealand Army. The first, Trooper John Sweeney was executed on the 2nd October 1916. Born in Tasmania, and residing in Tasmania John decided to enlist in the New Zealand Army in October 1914. he served in Gallipoli, and Egypt before arriving in France in July 1916. just after leaving Etaples for the Somme on the 26th July John deserted. He was arrested five weeks later, after avoiding service on the Somme. He was tried by FGCM and sentenced to death he was shot by firing squad.. On hearing about John’s execution his father committed suicide. His pension was paid to his cousin who died in August 1919.
The second Australian to be shot was Private John King, Putkowski and Sykes claim not to have known his real name, king’s real name is Frank Hillier Needs. an habitual offender, ex-miner, no idea why he joined the New Zealand Army. Looking at his service record he was a lucky man not to have been shot earlier. His luck ran out on the 19th August 1917 at 5.30 am when he was executed by firing squad.
There was a third soldier executed, Verney Asser, tried and executed, by the civil authorities, Hanged on the 5th March 1918 for killing another soldier. Verney case is interesting because he was an Australian soldier who shot and killed another Australian soldier on an army camp in England. subject to military law, the military, possibly because they knew a death sentence would very likely be commuted, allowed Verney to be tried by the English civil authorities. The Govenor General of Australia having no power over English Civil authorities.
Verny had fallen out with another solder, Corporal Durkin, over a woman. The two soldiers were at Sutton Veny Camp on Salisbury Plain. Both had been drinking. Durkin seems to have chosen the wrong moment to gloat over his success with the woman. Verney Asser then shot Durkin, killing him. Verney was sentenced to hanged. He did the very last waltz on 5th March 1918.
More information can be found in Shot at Dawn, Putkowski and Sykes
New Zealand Archives, on for Verny Asser, on the web