Private Herbert Burden

Private Herbert Burden

Joined at 16, Shot at 17

Julian Putkowski

On 2 July 1915 at Vlamertinghe Camp in the Ypres Salient, three soldiers, one from the 1 Bn. Northumberland Fusiliers and two from 4 Bn. Royal Fusiliers were found guilty after being separately tried by the same Field General Court Martial. One of the Royal Fusiliers was punished with a year's imprisonment with hard labour for sleeping on guard; the other was awarded 30 days Field Punishment No. 1 for using threatening language and the Northumberland Fusilier, Private Herbert Burden, was sentenced to death for desertion. The hearings in all three cases were extremely brief. In Burden's case, the entire verbatim proceedings consisted of the following:-

The Prosecution

"1st Witness: No. 8628 L/Sgt C. Dawson 1/5th Fusiliers, states: Sat Vlamertinghe Camp on 26 June in the afternoon I warned the accused for trench working party to parade at 7 p.m. the same date. I called the roll at 7 p.m. The accused was absent. I did not see him again till 9:40 p.m. on the 28th when he was brought in by an escort of the R. W. Kent regiment."

"2nd Witness: No. 10353 Pte. J. O'Callaghan 1 R.W. Kent states: On the 26th June 1915 I saw accused in the transport lines of my Regiment near Dickebush between 12 noon and 1 p.m. he told me he was on pass. I saw him again on the morning of the 27th at about 9.00 a.m. He was then leaving the transport lines. I saw him again on the 28th at about 18.30 p.m. near Dickebush Huts where my battalion was coming on relief from the trenches. The huts are about 2 miles nearer Dickebush than the transport lines It was nearer 12 noon than 1 p.m. when I saw the accused."

"3rd Witness: No. 472 L/C. A. Chapman, 1 R.W. Kents states: On 26th June 1915 at about 12 noon I saw the accused in the transport lines of my Regiment. I saw him again at about 9 a.m. on the 17th June in the same place. I again saw him on the 28th inst. near the huts which my battalion were coming on relief from the trenches that night."

"4th Witness: & Qmr. H.G. Rogers 1 R.W. Kent Regt. states: At about 8.30 p.m. on the 28th June 1915 in the huts of the battalion near Dickebusch I saw the accused & asked him for his reason for being there. He told me that he had permission from the Transport Officer to visit 1 R.W. Kent Regt. to see a friend."

The Defence

"Defence: I went to see a friend of mine in the R.W. Kent Regt. in which Regt. I served in 1913 and as I heard he had lost a brother I wanted to enquire if it was true or not."

"5th Witness: Lt. B.G. Gunner 1/5th Fusiliers states: I produce A.F.B. 122 showing 7 cases of absence and 3 miscellaneous offences on Home Service and one case of absence in this country. He came out on 28-3-15 and has served with the Battalion since then except for 11 days in Hospital."


As was customary, the proceedings were sent to Burden's battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Clement Yatman, who was requested to comment on Burden's character, the state of discipline in the battalion and to express an opinion, '(Based on the personal knowledge - or that of his officers - of the soldier's characteristics) as to whether the crime was deliberately committed with the sole object of avoiding the particular service involved."

Yatman replied in a memorandum, stating that discipline in the battalion was good, inferring thereby that the execution was not required to intimidate Burden's comrades.

Of Burden's combat experience, Yatman reported that he had been out on two patrols but had not participated in any major action. "Other than the usual trench sniping", adding that he was, "Of inferior physique, reported as untrustworthy" and confirmed that the solider had been sick.


Yatman's opinion of Burden's motives was candid but equivocal:

"This man was punished for being absent on 11th inst. and reported sick the following day. He had only just returned when, on being warned for the trenches, he absented himself. No officer of the company left who knows the man but his platoon sergeant states he is a man you cannot trust. Defaulter sheet... shows he is much addicted to absence. In the absence of any officers who know this man I do not feel justified in expressing an opinion. I know very little of the man and it seems to me wrong to express an opinion with so little to back it up. I trust the G.O.C. will realise how hard it is to answer in this question fairly in the present circumstances and will not press for a reply."

Brigadier General Douglas-Smith commanding 9 Infantry Brigade agreed that the discipline of the battalion was good but considered that the sentence would be carried out because, "There are a few cases of desertion and the death penalty is the only means by which it can be stopped."

The commander of 3 Division, General Aylmer Haldane declared he had, "No remarks to offer in mitigation of the order of the court." But the officer commanding 5 Corps. Major General Allenby recommended that the sentence be put into effect. The Army Commander, Lieutenant General Herbert Plummer agreed with the latter's opinion.


Before the endorsementof Field Marshal French was sought, scrutiny of the proceedings by the Adjutant General's staff caused the latter to point out that, "As far as the proceedings were concerned there is nothing to show that the trenches might not have been in the firing line - in fact they might have been instructional."

Lieutenant Colonel Yatman responded with another memorandum, stating:

"Burden was warned for duty with a working party which was ordered to proceed to the trenches occupied by the 9th Brigade at Hooge. The party was to remain there for 2 days and took their rations for that period with them. Their duty was to dig at night in the vicinity of the firing line etc. The duty was liable to the usual dangers to be met with in the vicinity of the trenches."

On 18 July, Field Marshal French signed his assent and three days later, at 4.00 a.m. Burden was executed by a firing squad commanded by Major Charles Rich, Assistant Provost Marshal 3rd Division. The location of Burden's grave was not recorded.


The army records noted that Burden was 19 years old and therefore met the criteria for service overseas. However, the information about his age was inaccurate. The youngster had been born on 22 March 1898 in Lewisham, where his father worked as a gardener. It seem very likely that Burden had either joined up as a boy solider before the war or lied about his age on enlistment. He probably served with 1/5 B. Northumberland Fusiliers in Britain before being drafted to serve overseas.

It was not unusual for patriotic youngsters to lie when asked about their ages by recruiting officers and there are numerous examples of the latter openly collaborating in the enlistment of under age recruits. Wartime newspapers regularly featured reports of underage soldiers, some as young as 14 being wounded or killed while serving overseas.

For its part, the army resisted any suggestion that recruits prove their age by producing their birth certificates when enlisting. It was a scandal which provoked complaints in Parliament. Organisation like the National Service League also protested, claiming that around 15% of wartime recruits were underage.

The army eventually allowed underage soldiers to be reclaimed by their parents. Otherwise, the authorities put the onus on the youngsters to take the initiative - and it is easy to understand the informal social pressures which would have discouraged underage soldiers from declaring their real age and requesting to be sent home.

There were very many under age soldiers who were lucky enough not to be killed or injured by enemy fire and whose physical and mental capacities were sufficient to survive the rigours of life at the front. However, as Burden's case demonstrates, others were less fortunate.


The extent to which the army recruiters may be considered responsible for Burden's plight is difficult to asses but what about the army itself?

Institutionally, the War Office and today's Ministry of Defence still maintain that soldiers who enlisted underage during the First World War had only themselves to blame if their conduct caused them to be court martialled and sentenced to death.

As far as executing young men under the age of 21 (then the age of majority), the MOD declare that the contemporary age of criminal responsibility was 14 and that in civilian courts the young men could also have been sentenced to death for a capital offence.


The point is factually correct but in drawing attention to this point, MOD officials are less ready to concede that the pre-war national average of the thirteen or fourteen executions per year which were carried out in Britain included no eighteen or nineteen year olds.

In any case, civilian defendants charged with a capital offence, if they could not afford it themselves, were provided with a legally qualified person to assist them with their defence. Their cases were heard by experiences judges and evaluated by a jury, there was a system of appeal - and the presumption that the defendant was innocent until proved guilty. Few, in any, positive comparisons can be established between civilian judicial practices and the British Army's Field General Courts Martial.

Biased Judgement

The evident disinclination of courts martial officers to enquire about Burden's age remains very disturbing. The officers could see for themselves that Burden was not physically robust and they had been told that he had been ill - yet it made no difference. From the remarks made by the Adjutant General's staff it is also clear that the court was not interested in even probing the details of the case for the prosecution.

Were theofficers biased in their decision to have Burden executed? Their unanimity in agreeing to have him shot was recorded on the court marital documents but the independence of the court remains open to doubt.

The President, Major D.H. Grant and one of the members, Captain R.H. Johnston belonged to the 1st Bn. Lincolnshires. The third member of the court was a subaltern, Lieutenant E.E. Dorman-Smith, serving with 1st Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers - the same unit as that of the defendant. During the First World War it was legally permitted for courts martial panels to include one or more officers from the same unit as that to which a defendant belonged. However, junior officers in Dorman-Smith's situation would have been under pressure to find a defendant guilty.

When the court withdrew to consider the verdict, regulations stipulated that most junior ranking member was expected to be the first to voice his opinion. He would have been likely to attract censure for appearing indulgent towards indiscipline. In any case his regimental affiliation ensured that to have found Burden innocent would have effectively amounted to Dorman-Smith contradicting the opinion of senior colleagues who had preferred the charges and the 9 Infantry Brigade commander who convened the trial and who also confirmed the sentence.

Good Reason?

Finally, there remains the issue of the "few desertions" which the execution of Herbert Burden was intended to bring to a halt. The battalion had previously had only one similar case - on 9 April 1915, Private J. Burton had been sentenced to death but his punishment was commuted to 10 years penal servitude. It is true that a further six men from 4 Bn. Royal Fusiliers (also part of 9 Brigade) had been sentenced to death but not executed since March. However, only two of the latter, tried separately on 31 March and 25 May had been deserters.

Even without data relating to lesser penalties inflicted on deserters, it appears difficult to sustain Brigadier General Smith's ostensible justification for having Burden executed. On the other hand, the killing was promulgated on 20 July, the morning after 9 Brigade and the collective might of 5 Corps were pitched into yet another futile and bloody assault on Hooge.

Was Burden therefore executed in order to intimidate men who might possibly desert during the battle? If so, then his death reflects ill on the purported confidence British military commanders had in their men. If not, then it is difficult to gauge what other imperative, however justified, was served by killing the youngster.