Soldier receives posthumous pardon

A DESCENDANT of a soldier who was killed by the British Army for desertion in the First World War described as “wonderful” last night confirmation he was to receive a posthumous pardon.

By Danielle Nuttall

A DESCENDANT of a soldier who was killed by the British Army for desertion in the First World War described as “wonderful” last night confirmation he was to receive a posthumous pardon.

Private Benjamin Hart, a labourer at a local iron foundry in Ipswich, was with the 1/4th (Territorial) Battalion, Suffolk Regiment, when he was sent to France to fight in January 1916 - at the age of 19.

Months later, after a series of harrowing experiences including being buried alive, Private Hart was charged with desertion when he failed to return to the line with his platoon.

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The young soldier had been suffering with shell shock and had complained to medical staff.

But his commander was dissatisfied with his explanation and he was tried by Field General Court Martial on December 28, 1916.

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Following the trial, he was condemned to execution by firing squad. A firing party was ordered, but everyone refused to do it, so he was shot by a single officer.

Now, almost 90 years after the event, Private Hart is among more than 300 soldiers killed for military offences during the First World War to receive formal pardons from the Ministry of Defence.

Last night Douglas Hosking, his great nephew, said it was wonderful his ancestor would receive official vindication after all this time.

The 73-year-old furniture maker, who lives in High Street, Ipswich, said: “I've always cared about this. I was always irritated. They say times are different now, nevertheless I suspect it was wrong in those days as well.

“This poor man was shell-shocked. They had been blown up. It was harrowing. There were people in positions of power who were treating soldiers like peasants.

“My mum told me when I was young but they never said much about it, there was a lot of stigma and shame about it and they didn't know what the circumstances were.”

Just three months after joining battle, Private Hart and several of his comrades were buried alive after an enemy mine exploded at their position in the Brick Stacks, Cambrin. The soldier was lucky to survive, having been buried so that only his feet could be seen.

According to documentary evidence on the website, some months later Private Hart was ordered by his commanding officer to undergo 28 days field punishment for not complying with an NCO's order.

This involved a punishment known as “crucifixion” which saw soldiers tethered by their wrists and ankles to something like a gun wheel. The punishment inflicted severe discomfort and humiliation.

They were also required to carry out hard labour as a further penalty and were severely penalised for any delay in carrying out orders.

While undergoing sentence, Private Hart claimed his nerves had given way and he was briefly classified as unfit for duty by the battalion's medical officer. After suffering another attack with his nerves, he was sent to the Field Ambulance.

In December, when his platoon was going into line at High Wood - part of the Battle of Bazentin Ridge - Private Hart failed to turn up. He reported himself to the NCO two days later, but the commander was dissatisfied with his explanation and he was eventually charged with desertion.

In his trial defence, Private Hart said: “I have been in France for 10 months with my battalion. Some time last May near Givenchy I was buried by a shell. This upset my nerves and I have never been right since.

“I have twice been before the MO for nerves and was twice passed unfit by him, in July and May.”

But the officer commanding 98 Infantry Brigade recommended the 'extreme penalty' be inflicted for the 'bad example' he had set to the remainder of the battalion by being absent from tours of duty in the trenches. He was executed at 6.45am on February 6, 1916.

Mr Hosking said the family only learnt the full details of what had happened about 15 years ago when they were approached by somebody campaigning for formal pardons for the men killed. It was at this stage they received documents recording the events.

“Now they've finally done it, I think it's wonderful,” he said.

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