After being found guilty of desertion, 28-year-old Private Frank Hughes was shot by firing squad in the French village of Hallencourt. He was the first New Zealand soldier executed during the First World War.
Born in Gore in 1888, Frank worked as a builder’s labourer in Wellington before enlisting in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF). He departed New Zealand with the 10th Reinforcements and arrived in France in late April 1916. A month later he joined the 12th (Nelson) Company, 2nd Battalion, Canterbury Regiment.
Hughes, a heavy drinker, was in trouble from the start. By late July 1916 he had been hauled before his commanding officer three times for ill-discipline. On 26 July a Field General Court Martial found him guilty of ‘absenting himself without leave’ and sentenced him to one year’s imprisonment with hard labour. This sentence was suspended after review and Hughes issued a final warning.
Released from custody, Hughes had only just rejoined his unit in the trenches when he disappeared again on the afternoon of 29 July 1916. Eleven days later Military Police found him asleep in an abandoned house in Armentières. Asked what he was doing, he replied: ‘I’ve come for a sleep ... I’ve been away six days.’
On 12 August 1916, Hughes appeared before a Field General Court Martial at Armentières, charged with ‘Deserting His Majesty’s Service’. He pleaded not guilty, blaming his behaviour on alcohol: ‘Owing to the effect of drink I was light-headed and wandered out of the trench. I knocked round town until I was arrested. I intended to give myself up as soon as the Police came to me. While in town I was drinking.’
Despite his protestations Hughes was found guilty and sentenced to ‘suffer death by being shot’. At the end of the trial, he was remanded in custody until sentencing was confirmed by the Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, on 22 August 1916. Two days later, and 12 days after his court martial, Hughes was told his fate.
The execution was carried out the next morning in an orchard in the village of Hallencourt. Hughes was led from his cell and placed against a tree. He was offered a blindfold but refused, reportedly saying: ‘Don’t put the bandage over my eyes – I want to see them shoot.’ At 5.50 a.m. the firing squad, made up of men from the New Zealand Pioneer Battalion, opened fire. Hughes was buried in the Hallencourt Communal Cemetery, next to where the execution took place.
Frank Hughes was one of 28 members of the NZEF sentenced to death during the war. Of these, only five were sent before the firing squad: Hughes, Private John Sweeney, Private John Braithwaite, Private John King, and Private Victor Spencer. All but one (Braithwaite) were tried and executed by New Zealand military authorities for desertion.
In September 2000 all five men received posthumous pardons when the New Zealand Parliament passed the Pardon for Soldiers of the Great War Act.
Image: Shot at Dawn memorial, United Kingdom (Wikipedia)