Death Sentences within the Royal Naval Division which were never carried out.

Death Sentences awarded in to men of the RND which were never carried out


During some research some years back I came across an interesting series of paragraphs relating to Ptes Chemmings and Pike, both of 1/RM. The first sentence noted that they were both missing from a front like trench, quite an unusual observation to be found in a unit diary. This entry later was followed by an entry stating that these two Privates were being court martialed, three days later it was noted that Chemmings had escaped and was later recaptured. The final entry in the war diary caused the most interest and that was that Chemmings sentence was commuted to 5 years. To me this implied that Chemmings was originally sentenced to death. I decided to pull the papers for Chemmings and Pike to find out more, and I was right Chemmings had been reprieved from a death sentence. This caused me to try and find out how many other men had death sentences commuted. This is done at the PRO by looking through large books which list all courts martial, the reason and the sentence. This is quite a laborious task, this has been made easier with the recent publication of Gerrard Orams excellent book on this subject. I came up with a list of four Royal Marines, six matelots of the RNVR and 3 Soldiers of the 4/Bedfords. The drawback of this PRO document and consequently Oram’s book is that service numbers are not given, but this is not a large obstacle for an experienced researcher. As these men had their sentences commuted they were likely to have kept their medal entitlement and their service numbers were traced through the medal rolls fortunately there was only one possibility per name in all bar one name. For the purpose of this study I looked for further information on the RNVR and RMLI men only as there was more chance of finding their service papers. From analysis of the service numbers of the RNVR and RMLI men I was able to tell that all of these men were volunteers, there were no conscripts amongst them.

Royal Marine men sentenced

There were four men of the RMLI sentenced to death, Privates E.G.Keeble, J.Chemmings, J.T.Greenlagh and H.Tuke. There are several sources of information for the RMLI men. All had entries in the service ledgers at the PRO, on some of these a great deal of detail is recorded. There are more records for the Portsmouth men at the PRO, these are quite incomplete and the more detailed records of the Plymouth and Chatham men are to be found at the Fleet Air Arm Museum. One thing common with all records and that is that the Courts martial papers were all missing.

RNVR men Sentenced

There were six men of the RNVR who were sentenced to death and had their sentences commuted. There was however a seventh member of the RNVR who received the death sentence but became the only member of the RNVR to be excecuted- S/Lt Dyett. His case is covered in detail in “For gods sake shoot straight” and will not be dealt with here. The men sentenced were all Able Seamen, two were from Nelson, One from Hood, One from Drake and two from Hawke. As stated earlier the service numbers were located via the medal rolls at the PRO. The service records for the RNVR who served in the RND are kept at the Fleet Air Arm Museum and on a trip down there I looked up all of the men sentenced. By and large the RNVR records are complete including many courts martial papers, there were however only detailed papers for three of the men sentenced and partial details for a forth.

RNVR Ratings sentenced to Death

TZ4748 Able Seaman Harry Davidson Hawke Battalion

AB Davidson was a 25 year old miner from Sheffield who joined his battalion towards the end of the Gallipoli Campaign. There were only partial papers available for this man. It can be ascertained that this man was convicted for desertion and sentenced to death on 12th November 1916-the eve of the battle of the Ancre. The prosecuting officer interestingly was a certain A.P.Herbert JP. It can be assumed that as he was sentenced to death, Davidson would have been held in confinement under arrest. Ironically this would have saved his life as 24 hours later Hawke battalion was virtually wiped out. What is available is a copy of the review of sentence, it can be assumed that there would have been few members of the Courts martial left alive. The review by Lt Cmdr Lockwood covered 3 sections, firstly the character of the man from the fighting point of view. Davidson was described as a good fighting soldier but irresponsible when under the influence of liquor. The first comment was probably the one that saved him, it also hints at the offence, probably committed whilst drunk. The next category assessed was the state of discipline within the battalion. This was described as good with no previous cases of desertion. It is interesting to note that this factor was noted as a factor in the commution of a sentence. The last area of assessment was whether the Commanding officer thought the offence was carried out deliberately. Lockwood replied that there were no plans for offence at the time (ie therefore no reason to desert to avoid it), and that the man became drunk in the house of a prostitute and continued drinking until he ran out of money. Lockwood went on to state that Davidson was a good soldier but for his drink addiction. This assessment was passed onto the Brigade commander Brig Phillips who was the reviewing officer. His comment was ” I do not consider that the extreme penalty should be inflicted, as this mans absence was entirely due to drink and the influence of a woman”.

Davidson’s sentence was commuted to one of 3 years penal servitude, this was usually served in the line. Davidson was killed in action 24th April 1917 at Gavrelle.

TZ5250 Able Seaman W.P.Reilley Nelson Battalion

On the 14th May 1917 a courts martial was held to try 3 men of Nelson Battalion. Reilly was charged with the following “When on active service deserting His Majesty’s service in that he in the field on 23rd April 1917, absented himself from his battalion during the operations about Gavrelle, and persistently remained absent although ordered to rejoin until 6.30am on 25th April 1917. The members of the court were Lt.Cmdr Lockwood as President Capt Bare of Loyal North Lancs and S/Lt Matthews of the RNVR were other members of the court. The prisoner was represented by S/Lt Cooper. Witnesses for the prosecution were Major H.W.Barker 6th W.Yorks, MZ651 AB.Pampling, CZ2479 CPO Simpson ,BZ 4448 AB Chettle and Capt Laverick RAMC.

From the transcript and questioning it was clear what had taken place. Reilly had been suffering from a bad heel for some time which was hampering his movement. Indeed on the 21st April he was seen by his MO Capt Laverick who saw his heel, said it was skinned and septic. The heel was dressed but the dressing was not designed to last a few days, it would need to be changed within a day or two, in fact it would aggravate the heel if not changed. It was impossible to change the dressing in the line and the MO admitted that Reilly was not fit for marching. On the 23rd April Reily was a company signaller and was with his HQ when the battle began and after a while he was ordered to take six prisoners down to the POW cage near a railway cutting (?Baillieul East). He did this and went to the QM stores and reported to Mjr Barker of 6/W.Yorks at 7.30 PM. He was ordered to get something to eat and send the night and return to his unit in the morning and report to his brigade HQ. N the morning of the 24th he left to go back to Gavrelle. His progress was slow as his foot was very painful. He got as far as the Hawke Battalion Aid post which was opposite the Brown house. He sat down and was given a drink and had his heel inspected. The stretcher bearer testified that he inspected Reilly’s heel and it was raw and infected and obviously painful. His heel was redressed. Reilly waited at the aid post for about 4 hours and decided to move on. He encountered some Hawkes and asked them the way and he was told that Nelson had been relieved. He accompanied the Hawkes as far as the railway cutting and waited for some Nelsons. He found some and accompanied them to the cookers where he settled for the night. The following morning Reilly encountered Mjr Barker again who asked him if he had reported to Brigade HQ yet and he said no.

It is not certain who instigated the charges against Reilly but he was found guilty and sentenced to Death with a strong plea for mercy. Their recommendation was that the sentence should be commuted as it was patently obvious that Reilly was unfit to march let alone fight and had a dressing that was likely to aggravate the situation, the sentence couln’t be carried out because of the negligence of the MO. The papers were then passed to the Brigade commander Brigadier General Phillips who recommended that the sentence be carried out on the ground that no attempt was made to report to his HQ and seemed to be avoiding the action. The papers passed up the command chain further to General Lawrie. The papers pass up the command chain with other assessments as mentioned earlier. Reilly’s was described as a good soldier and had fought at Beaumont-hamel and Miraumont. The medical officer came in for some severe criticism as to his treatment of Reilly. These factors stood well for Reilly, the last piece of evidence was that of the state of discipline within the unit itself. Colonel Lewis stated that he had just taken over Nelson, and was not aware of any cases of desertion. But he went on to say that there was a general slackness and when many officers became casualties some men took advantage of the situation to drift away, this was due to the lack of training. General Congrieve the Corps commander recommended that the sentence be commuted to one of imprisonment. General Horne the 1st Army commander took the same view and refused to confirm the death sentence, indeed he ordered that Reilly be released and “relieved of all consequences of the trial”. Reilly went back to his unit and a month later given UK leave. He was wounded at Welsh Ridge in December 1917. He was transferred to Hawke battalion and was wounded again in September 1918. He was discharged in 1919.

As stated at the start of this account there were two other men tried at the same sitting. One man I haven’t been able to trace but evidently punished in another way, I did however find the other man tried, LZ4388 AB C.J.Tuffe, a local man to me from Folkestone. He was another man charged with desertion, the officers of the court were the same including prosecution and defence representatives. Tuffe was sent back with prisoners also and re appeared later with his unit. Unfortunately all of the men who were his witnesses bar Surgeon Lt McCracken were killed in the fighting. He was found not guilty. He was later killed with Drake Battalion.

AB C.Rodgers Nelson Battalion.

The next man to be sentenced to death was also a man from Nelson Battalion, AB C Rodgers. I can find no papers on his case. What is known is that he was tried on 9th June 1917, probably for an offence committed in the Gavrelle sector. He was found guilty and received the death sentence. This was commuted to a sentence of 10 years penal Servitude. Rodgers was subsiquently killed in 1918.

WZ1625 AB J.C.Ricketts Drake Battalion

It was nearly a year before another death sentence was passed in the RNVR. On 25th May 1918 a Field General Court Martial was held and Able Seaman Ricketts was charged with desertion. The officials of the court were Lt Cmdr Lockwood as president, S/Lt R.B.Lawrence, S/Lt H.Cooper plus the Corps courts martial officer Capt Stuart. The prosecutor was S/Lt Heath and the defence was conducted by Lt.Davison.

There was a long chain of events which lead to the trial. Ricketts was an American who sailed to England and on arriving enlisted in the RND. He was sent to Gallipoli in October 1915 with Howe Battalion. He then served in the Aegean and transferred to France when the Division was posted there. Ricketts was wounded in the back in June 1916. On recovery he was returned to France but in a short space of time sent back home with adhesions (a common complication of surgery, even today). Ricketts returned to France in December 1917, this time with Drake battalion. Ricketts went missing from the battalion on the 3rd January and arrested on 15th January at Le Harve and taken back to the battalion, from there to hospital with a minor ailment. He was returned to Drake on 14th February and disappeared in Albert on 16th April when the unit was there. He was recaptured in Montdidier on 23rd April using a false name. He was returned to Drake again . On 8th May he went missing again and this lead to the trial.

The transcript of the Courts martial didn’t mention the above, these details were culled from the B103 form. The trial opened with a plea from the defence suggesting that the court had no right to try Ricketts as he was an American citizen. Not surprisingly this was thrown out of court. PO Grant then stated that on the night of the 7th May the battalion had been warned for duty in the line the following day. PO Grant saw Ricketts at 7.30 but when roll call was done at 8.15 Ricketts was missing . LS McCarthy was Ricketts section leader and called the rol for the next 6 days in the trenches, Ricketts was missing for all of this time. Ricketts was arrested by the military police at 10.05PM in Abbeville with no equipment, no rifle and no badges. This evidence looked bleak for Ricketts. Next to give evidence was Drakes CO ,Commander Beak. Beak had held a defaulters parade on the evening of 7th May, on that parade he had personally spoken to Ricketts. He had told Ricketts that they were up the line in the morning and that he was going to go with them. The officer for the defence asked whether the instruction to go up the line was a conversational suggestion or a direct order. Beak replied that it was an order, also Ricketts had been told that if he did well in the line, he would be considered for transfer to the US army. Ricketts statement in his defence was that he had been wounded in 1916 and this had affected his nerves, his relationship with his wife had gone wrong and he wanted to join his countrymen.

He was found guilty, there was no recommendation for mercy. The papers were again passed up the chain, all of the officers who saw the papers recommended that the sentence be carried out. The papers stopped at Gen Du Pree who recommended that the sentence be carried out but only if a medical board was held to see if Ricketts problems were due to a nervous condition. The medical board held concluded that Ricketts had a poor physique, and was suffering from nervous shock which may or may not be related to his old wound. These results were forwarded to the corps commander, a certain Lt.Gen C.D.Shute. He recommended that in the light of the evidence the sentence be commuted, also that Ricketts should not be returned to the fighting line. The sentence was commuted to 5 years penal servitude with hard labour, Ricketts was transferred to a military prison and released and demobilised in 1919.

CZ5966 AB George Milligan Hood Battalion

On July 4th 1918 another Seaman went on trial, AB Milligan of the Hood Battalion for desertion, he was found guilty and sentenced to death. Thos case was like many that were tried during the Great war in that the man was torn between duty to the Army and duty to his family.

AB Milligan was posted to France in July 1916, he served a spell in the Entrenching battalion and was posted to Howe Battalion in November 1916 as a replacement for losses that occurred at Beaumont Hamel. He was wounded at Miraumont in February 1917 and after that had various minor medical problems due to which he wasn’t present at Gavrelle. He continued to serve without fault until he was granted leave. On 3rd September 1917 he went on leave to the UK, but did not return. Milligan was apprehended by the Civilian Police in May 1918 in his home city of Glasgow and was returned to France under escort on 29th May 1918. In his absence Howe Battalion had been disbanded and in his absence Milligan had been posted to Hood. A Courts Martial was convened on 4th July 1918, nearly a month after joining Hood in the field, the officers on the panel were all from 190th Brigade, Lt.Col Wilkinson of the Artists Rifles, Captain Nicholson of 7th R.Fusiliers and a Corps Court’s Martial Officer Capt Keith of the 10th Scottish Rifles. The Prosecutor was Lt.Cmdr Fish the prisoners friend was Lt Dryden.

Milligan explained his absence in the following way. He went home on leave and found that his wife hadn’t been managing well on the separation allowance and her business wasn’t doing very well, the nature of her business wasn’t stated. He decided to stay and help her by getting another job as she had run up debts. He found a job in a munitions factory and was working when he was arrested by the police, it wasn’t stated but robably can be assumed that he was reported. He didn’t realise that he would be arrested for desertion. Lt Dryden , his defence, added that he had known Milligan since December 1915 and stated that he was a good soldier and was useful in the line, this last statement probably saved him..

The copurt found Milligan guilty and sentenced him to death. A recommendation for mercy was made on the grounds that Milligan was a good soldier and useful in the line. Brigadier Du pree reserved judgement and passed the matter up to the army commander Julian Byng who commuted the sentence to 5 years penal servitude. As is common in these cases the sentence of imprisonment was carried out in the field. Milligan resumed service with Hood Battalion and was wounded on 21st August 1918 at Logeast wood. His war finished there.

Royal Marines Sentenced to Death.

PO1219-s- Pte Ernest George Keeble 2 RM

Private Keeble was the first Royal Marine to receive the death penalty in the Great War. As stated before the details of Royal Marines sentenced are not as complete as RNVR men but in Keebles case we can piece together what happened. Pte Keeble enlisted into the RMLI in November 1915 on a duration only enlistment, he was aged 18. He did his basic training during which time he managed to get himself into trouble, he was absent for a day and received a fine of one days pay. Keeble was sent to Ireland in April 1916 with the composite Rm battalion. He was then posted to the RND depot at Blandford in June 1916.. On 11th August he was awarded 14 days field punishment no2 for breaking out of camp whilst excused duty for being sick and remaining absent until apprehended in Boscombe by the Police. Making a false statement to an officer and disobedience of orders by using the canteen whilst under arrest, and then refusing to leave when ordered to do so. In the circumstances the punishment seemed rather light, it can be assumed that as this was a first offence and he wasn’t in the line that he was treated leniently. Keeble was sent to France in Spetember and was again punished twicw for absence and disobedience at Etaples . Keeble did not take part in the Battle of the Ancre and and was drafted to 2RM afterwards. On 26th January 1917 Keeble offended again and was tried by FGCM on 1st February for “Disobeying in a manner as to show wilful defiance of authority, a lawful command given personally by his superior officer in excution of his duty”. He was found guilty and sentenced to one years hard labour which was commuted to 3 months Field Punishment no1. What happened next is unsure, but he was charged with “deserting his majesties service on 16th February 1917″., he was also charged with disobeying a superior officer when on active service. The battalion at this time as in the front line and due to resume the attack on Miraumont the following day, it can be assumed that Keeble decided not to take part and absented himself. The trial took place on 3rd March 1917 and he was found guilty and sentence to death. General Gough reviewed the sentence on 11th March and commuted it to one of 10years penal servitude. It is not known whether there was any recommendation for mercy, the unit discipline was good, Keebles gradings on his service papers were bad, and deserting the day of an attack with previous desertions would not have looked good. Keeble continue to serve with 2 RM or so it appears, his grading on both ability and character were bad, he was obviously serving reluctantly under a cloud. In June 1918 Keeble was posted home to the naval hospital at Haslar with Neurasthenia. In July Keeble was discharged “invalided”, the rest of his sentence being remitted due to ill health.

CH18716 Pte J.Chemmings 1RM

The next man to receive the death sentence is probably one of the most interesting cases, it was his case that aroused my interest in the whole subject of commuted death sentences.

John Chemmings enlisted into the RMLI on 18th August 1914 in the long service capacity (12years), he was 21years of age. He did his basic training and was posted to Deal battalion and went to Gallipoli with them. He served with Deal until the battalion was merged with Chatham to form 1RM, there appears to be no crimes against him and his grading was normal. However after the evacuation from Gallipoli things went wrong. In April 1916 Chemmings was in Malta on leave at the leave camp, whilst here he was imprisoned for 41days, in fact during this sentence the RND were posted to France, Chemmings was sent to France under escort. It seems that his sentence ended when he reached France. He was posted to 11th Entrenching Battalion and from there to 1RM on 26th November 1916 as a battle casualty replacement for those lost on the Ancre, therefore was not present at Beaumont Hamel. Chemmings went on UK leave in January 1916 and returned to France and was kept at base depot until 8th March 1917 when he was returned to 1RM. Due to this posting he missed the action at Miraumont. During this time Chemmings character grading had dropped to fair indication that he had an attitude problem. Chemmings sustained a sprained knee which hospitalised him on 30th April 1917, it can be assumed that this was incurred during the assault around Gavrelle. Chemmings returned to 1RM on the 18th July again in the Gavrelle sector, three days later whilst at the quartermasters stores he deserted. Chemmings was on the run for 2 months until he was captured by the Military Police at Cayeux near Abbeville on 21st October 1917. On 20th November Chemmings was charged ” When on active service deserting His Majesties service that ,he,on the 22nd July 1917, absent himself from the Quartermasters stores of 1RM until apprehended by the Military Police at Cayeux near Abbeville on 21st October 1917 thereby avoiding duty in the Front line trenches”. Not surprisingly Chemmings was found guilty and was sentenced to death. General Rawlingson reviewed the case and commuted the sentence to one of 5 years penal servitude. It is not known whether mercy was recommended. As usual the sentence was served in the line. Chemmings returned to 1RM on 1st December 1917, the unit was moving down from Belgium to Welsh Ridge. On 6th January 1918 whilst in the front line Chemmings absconded again, this time taking Pte Harry Pike with him, the war diary unusually notes ” Pte Chemmings and Pte Pike missing from trenches”, it was this comment that set me off on the trail. Ptes Pike and Chemmings were captured in Abbeville on 3rd February by the military police. They were kept in custody of Howe Battalion until a trial which was set for 22nd February, during this time Chemmings broke out of detention only to be recaptured a day later. Both Chemmings and Pike were tried for desertion and found guilty. Pike had a good record except for being picked up at a stragglers post at Passchendaele, he had served faultlessly from Gallipoli onwards, it could be assumed that he was lead on by Chemmings. Pike was sentenced to 5 years penal servitude, he went on to be wounded in September 1918 and finished his service unblemished. Chemmings on the other hand had more to worry about as he was already under suspended sentence. Incredibly on being found guilty he was sentenced to 5 years again to run concurrent with the previous sentence. The sentence however was to be carried out in a military prison at Le Attaques.

In July 1918 these two sentences were commuted to 2 years penal servitude with hard labour. The story doesn’t end there, Chemmings was released from prison on 29th January 1919, and was returned to 1RM, then up in Belgium, the rest of the sentence being suspended. On 6th June 1919 Chemmings was admitted to hospital in Belgium suffering from the effects of VD, after a week he was presumably feeling better as he absconded from the hospital. Chemmings was never heard of again, we shall never know what happened to him!!!.


PLY18399 Pte J.T.Greenhalgh 1RM.

On 2 August 1918 Pte J.Greenhalgh was sentenced to death for desertion there are no reasons to be found for this. The sentence however was commuted to one of 10 years peanl servitude.

CH1456-s- Pte Harry Tuke 1RM

Harry Tuke enlisted into the Royal Marines on 1st February 1916 on a duration only basis. Tuke completed his basic training and was posted to the reserve battalion at Blandford in July 1916. Whilst there in September he was punished for staying over his leave for 2 days. Tuke was posted to France at the end of September and within a day was punished for not immediately obeying the order of an NCO. Tuke proceeded to 1RM on 25th November as a casualty replacement. In February Tuke was posted back to the UK with a septic foot, thus missing the fighting at Miraumont. In April he was sent to Blandford and in the next two months was punished twice for absence. In July 1917 Tuke was sent back to 1RM in France. On 9th December 1917 Tuke was granted UK leave, he was due back on 23rd December but failed to return. Tuke was arrested by the Civilian Police on 23rd May 1918. He was returned to France and put under the charge of the APM for the 63rd Division. Again there was a while before the courts martial which was held on 13th September 1918. Tuke was charged with desertion, he pleaded not guilty but was convicted and sentenced to death. The sentence was reviewed by Julian Byng and commuted to 5 years penal servitude. Tuke was then returned to his unit and contracted Dysentery for which he was hospitalised. He recovered and served with 1RM and returned back with the cadre in June 1919.


Comment and Conclusion

Everybody everywhere has a view on these death sentences passed by military courts in WW1, they are entitled to them and I will not treat you to mine. But lessons and observations can be drawn from these cases and is on that I will concentrate.

1, It appears to me that Nelson Battalion at the end of 1916 and the early part of 1917. The reason for this is that the first 2 of the three death sentences passed in 1917 were passed on Nelson men. This followed the shooting of Dyett in January 1917, and the prosecution of two other Nelsons with Reilly for desertion at Gavrelle. I have the impression that Nelson was regarded as being a bit dud, the non reliable unit in the brigade. These sentences passed, the comments by their new CO at one of these trials about the tendency of the men to slip away when officers were lost due to the bad training, also Nelson didn’t particularly shine at Gavrelle again Drake and Hood. It seems to me that Nelson needed sorting out and this was one way of doing it

2, The paperwork examined showed that the procedures etc were carried out to the letter, I was impressed about the lengths that were gone to, to secure medical evidence that might mitigate the crime.

3, There appears more than anything a gross inconsistency on sentencing. Cases like Reilly who was medically unfit and the MO was chastised publicly for allowing him up the line still ended up getting a death sentence, yet after sentencing the man did everything to get him off as though they were embarrassed about it. They would have been better not issuing a death sentence. One ex Army officer told me the reason for this maybe that the most junior officer has to speak first when sentencing and there may have been pressure to be seen to pass a macho sentence to please the superiors. Put this up against the case of Chemmings who was consistently deserting including whilst under suspension.

4, I have details of other strange sentencing, even in my own medal collection of medals for two marines who were found behind the lines at Passchendaele going back, they were caught , court martialed and sentenced to 2 years penal servitude. These sentences were quashed two months later by Julian Byng, not just commuted but quashed. Men in other units were shot for a similar offence.

In fact whilst going through service papers , Court martials were common, especially for petty absences, assaults on superior ranks, again things which men were shot for in other units. There were many cases of sleeping on sentry duty on Gallipoli, the sentencing was mainly Field punishment no1, yet others were executed.

5, Lt Commander Lockwood was involved in all the RNVR trials that lead to death sentences, the significance of this is debatable.

6, From the papers it is obvious that certain questions were asked, and the answers to them decided whether the sentence was excecuted or commuted. A character reference was needed, ie was the man a good soldier, ?useful in the line or a dud. What was the discipline like in the unit?, good or bad?, did the man commit the offence deliberately? And lastly an over all opinion of the CO. All of these factors answer many of the questions set in the previous points. It may account to why none of these other ranks were shot. The RND may have had its enemies but was noted as a good division that did its job well, and it is noted that few sentences were carried out in Divisions like this (ie Guards).

7, Lastly all of these men were volunteers, no conscripts.


I would like to publicly thank the Fleet Air Arm museum for their help and effort. The original papers were based down there and I am endebted to them for allowing them to be accessed so freely. I would also like to thank John Morcombe who has catalogued many of these offences and generally helped with information, and to Tony Froom and Brian Smith for giving me an officers view, and Julian Sykes for his opinions.

Leave a Reply