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Village History

The soldier shot by his own side

Posted on June 29 2014 at 1:52:59 0 comments

Bert's grave

The tragic tale of a Rowney Green man executed for alleged desertion during the First World War.

Amid the carnage of the First World War, one act in particular seemed to heap tragedy upon tragedy: the execution by firing squad of men branded as cowards for deserting their posts.

Between 1914 and 1918, more than 300 British and Commonwealth troops were shot by their own side for alleged desertion or cowardice, but the largest single execution by the British Army during the war took place on July 26, 1915, and included a soldier from Rowney Green.

Private Hubert “Bert” Henry Hartells, aged 32, was one of five men from the 3rd Battalion Worcestershire Regiment who were shot at dawn on the ramparts at Ypres, Belgium, having been accused of desertion, court-martialled and sentenced to death.

Village readers who enjoyed our serialisation of Alvechurch girl Norah May’s memoirs will remember Bert, who was the partner or common-law husband of her mother Jane, the father of her brothers Walter and Jack, and – in Norah’s own words – “the nearest thing to a father I ever knew”.

An army reservist who had previously served in the Far East, Bert was called up at the start of the war (telling his family, “It’ll all be over by Christmas,”) and landed in France with the British Expeditionary Force on August 12, 1914.

A 1998 BBC documentary, Shot At Dawn – a copy of which was lent to The Village by Terry Louch, the son of Norah’s sister Win – examines Bert’s story and features a dramatisation of his court-martial, using his own words:

“On June 15th at 2.30pm I went to get a drink and I came to a village nearby where I met a friend. We had two or three bottles of wine, and not being used to drinking I became the worse for it.

“Instead of going back to my bivouac I wandered away and fell asleep.  I then tried to find my battalion and wandered around from day to day until I found the farm where the military police found me.

“I did not intend to desert as I have a wife and children.”

Unfortunately for Bert, his defence cut no ice with the senior officers, who maintained that the soldiers had known full well that they were expected to take part in an assault the morning after going AWOL, and he was given the death penalty along with four of his comrades.

After being tied to posts and shot by firing squad, the men were originally buried in the Ramparts Cemetery, but later transferred to other cemeteries in the area. Bert is now buried in the Aeroplane Cemetery outside Ypres, and the War Graves Photographic Project has kindly supplied a picture of his grave (pictured).

Bert’s execution meant that Jane – who was listed as his wife although their descendants say they were not officially married – no longer received his army allowance, which caused further hardship for her and the children.

The documentary shows a letter written by Jane in which she begs for army charity, stating that she has “two little boys aged two and three”, but this was denied.

However, despite the stigma felt by many families of men shot for desertion (interestingly Norah did not mention the full circumstances of Bert’s death in her memoirs) it seems that Jane was still proud of her “husband”. 

Terry Louch remembers seeing a photo of Bert on his grandmother’s mantelpiece as a child and asking about him, to be told that he was someone who had “made the ultimate sacrifice”.

In line with the views of the time, Bert’s name was not included on the war memorial in St Laurence Church, Alvechurch, although it does appear on a longer list of local war dead which is read aloud each Remembrance Day.

In addition, a memorial to the executed soldiers – featuring their individual names – can be found at the National Memorial Arboretum in Alrewas, Staffordshire.

After many years of campaigning by relatives, The Armed Forces Act 2006 finally granted a posthumous pardon to all the soldiers executed in this way, although it is largely a symbolic gesture.

The campaign for legislation to completely quash the men’s convictions still continues.

St Laurence Church in Alvechurch will hold a service of commemoration to mark the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, on Sunday August 3 at 11am – all are welcome.

This is a chance to remember all those from the Alvechurch area who fought in, or were affected by, the war.

There will be hymns, readings, prayers and the reading of the names of those who died, with the opportunity to lay sprigs of rosemary at the war memorial in their memory.

Coffee will be available in the Ark from 10.30am before the service, and an exhibition will tell the stories of some of the Alvechurch men who died.

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