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Campaign for soldiers shot at dawn

25 June 09 23:00 GMT

By Tom Warren
BBC News

On Saturday, more than 90 years after being shot for desertion, Pte James Smith's name will finally be added to Bolton's roll of honour to soldiers killed in World War I.

It is one of many events taking place across the UK to mark the first Armed Forces Day, which has replaced Veterans' Day.

The long-awaited recognition for Pte Smith, known as Jimmy, comes after a campaign by his great, great nephew Charles Sandbach.

In 2006 the government formally pardoned 306 British soldiers executed for military offences other than murder or mutiny.

But more than 90 years after their deaths the sense of anger and injustice felt by some of their descendants still burns strongly.

Pte Smith joined the Army in 1910 and served with the 1st Battalion of Lancashire Fusiliers.

At the outbreak of war he was posted to Africa and served at Gallipoli before being transferred to the Western Front, where he fought bravely in the Somme and was promoted to L/Cpl.

During a battle he was buried alive after an explosion of German artillery and had to be dug out.

He was never the same again and suffered what today would be recognised as post traumatic stress disorder, Mr Sandbach said.

"He was a sick man. But he was transferred back to the Ypres sector and his mental deterioration started to manifest itself," he said.

"He never showed any fear but his mental state meant he would not take orders to go into suicidal operations."

Pte Smith, aged 26, was tried, found guilty of wilful disobedience and sentenced to death.

Most of the firing squad, who initially refused to carry out the order, deliberately missed the target, leaving the soldier injured but still alive, Mr Sandbach said.

Jimmy Smith's friend, Pte Richard Blundell, was then ordered to kill him after the commanding officer, a Lt Collins, could not bring himself to fire the fatal shot.

"The circumstances were appalling, but he [Pte Blundell] had to do what he had to do," Mr Sandbach said.

"In my opinion he [Pte Smith] was murdered by the British Army and I can't believe they did what they did.

"Richard lived until he was 95 and on his death bed in 1989 he was calling out Jimmy's name.

"Jimmy was the only soldier from Bolton executed. For 92 years he was forgotten about, now on Saturday he is being respected, justice has been done."

'Peace of mind'

Pte Blundell's daughter Jean Corwen, 84, from Preston, will also attend the ceremony in Bolton.

"I hope it gives her some peace of mind," Mr Sandbach added.

The best-known of the executed WWI soldiers was Pte Harry Farr, who was shot at dawn in 1916 after refusing to return to the front line.

His family had always argued the soldier, of the 1st Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment, was suffering from shell shock at the time.

Their court battle with the government to officially clear his name led to all 306 soldiers being granted formal pardons.

Another of these was Pte Bernard McGeehan, from Derry, Northern Ireland, who was executed on 2 November 1916 after being found guilty of desertion.

His second cousin John McGeehan, from Pontypool, south Wales, visits his grave each year at Poperingue Cemetery near Ypres.

He discovered his distant relative's story while researching family history.

"The first time I stood at his grave I broke down in tears because I suddenly realised I was the first McGeehan who had stood at that grave for 80 years," he said.

Pte McGeehan, of the Liverpool King's Regiment, worked at a horse marshalling yard in Ardrigues after signing up to the Army in 1913, but was sent to the front line after the Somme.

"He was not a bright person and would probably be known today as [someone with] special needs," Mr McGeehan said.

'Taint of cowardice'

"[The front line] was alien to him and after a period of time he cracked."

The soldier disappeared from duty for five days and returned without his weapon, Mr McGeehan said.

"It was totally unjust. Bernard's court martial was written on two pages of handwritten notes. It's just immoral."

Mr McGeehan is now campaigning to have his relative's name added to Derry's war memorial.

Military historian Julian Putkowski, who co-authored Shot at Dawn, said many communities have already added the names of the executed soldiers to their memorials.

He said their family members still had raw feelings about the actions of the British Army.

"The taint of cowardice runs down the blood line," he said.

"Always [the family] take it personally."

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