14 February 1916 – Deserter
Born in West Belfast, shipyard apprentice James Crozier was reportedly just 16 or 17 years old when the Great War began, but he was determined to join his friends enlisting in the 9th Royal Irish Rifles (RIR). His mother accompanied him to the recruiting station, for she did not want her son to go. Pleading with him not to enlist, she vowed to tell the recruiting officer his real age, but was instead persuaded by Lt. Colonel Frank Percy Crozier (no relation) that she need not worry because he would look after her son. This is the story that the elder Crozier tells, anyway. By the time young James reached France with his comrades in October 1915, his age was listed as 19. This is not the only point where the officer’s memory disagrees with the established facts of James Crozier’s life and death, but we can trust the veracity of the following summation from his memoir, The Men I Killed, of the four months which followed:
Rain, rain, rain! Rain and rain and mud and slush and shells. Four days ‘in’ and four days ‘out’ …Hell. Sentry duty, patrol duty in no man’s land, wet uniform, eternal digging, eternal pumping out, ration parties, carrying parties, working parties. mining-sniping-bombing. Up to the middle in mud and slush for four days on end; then another four days cleaning, drilling, sleeping and getting dry again. But considering all things, the food was good. One of the marvels of the war, was not that the men got good food in beastly, filthy surroundings in the trenches, but that they got food at all.
During that time, Private Crozier developed a poor reputation as a soldier, being counted absent once for a working party and then again from his billet, earning the label of ‘shirker.’ The weather turned abysmal during the last week of January. Perhaps it was the winter doldrums which finally broke poor Private Crozier, or maybe he suffered from shell shock, or maybe he was simply not adaptable to military life for any one of a thousand reasons. We will never know why he went missing at about 8:45 PM on the last day of January, just after his squad leader warned him not to leave his dugout, as it was almost his turn for a shift on sentry duty, but we do know that a thorough search of the company’s area of responsibility failed to locate him. Officially, Private Crozier was listed as missing in action. Unofficially, he was immediately suspected of desertion.
Four days later, a different corporal spotted Private Crozier twenty-five miles behind the front as he walked along a light rail line at an artillery park. “He had no numerals, cap badge or rifle or equipment on,” the corporal later testified at trial. “I challenged him and asked him what he was doing. He had no pay book. I placed the accused in our guard room. I asked him his name and regiment and he told me his name and regiment and said he was a Deserter.” Three days later on February 7th, Private Crozier was returned to the 36th Division Headquarters, where he was held prisoner. After a week’s preparation, this morning a Field General Court Martial finds him guilty of desertion and sentences him to die.
Private Crozier does not cross-examine any of the witnesses, none of whom speak for more than a minute. His only defense is a claim of amnesia. “On 31 January 1916 I went into the front line trenches with my platoon. I was feeling very ill; with pains all over me. I do not remember what I did. I was dazed; I do not remember being warned for duty. I cannot remember leaving the trenches ever.” Under cross-examination, however, he admits that enemy rifle grenades were exploding nearby, and that he had not reported himself sick at any time. Four days after the verdict, Private Crozier is examined by a doctor who concludes that he shows no sign of being “other than sound in mind and in body.” Because his brigade has already experienced a desertion, with the offending soldier granted clemency in the form of hard labor, Private Crozier’s chain of command decides to uphold the verdict in order to discourage anyone else from following his example.
Finally, at 7AM on February 27th, Private Crozier is carried out to slaughter, for he has been sotted all night to keep up his courage and is now too drunk to walk without assistance. “There are hooks on the post,” Lt. Col. Crozier relates in his memoir. “We always do things thoroughly in the Rifles. He is hooked on like dead meat in a butcher’s shop. His eyes are bandaged — not that it really matters, for he is already blind.” There is some concern that the firing squad, picked at random from the 9th RIR, will be unwilling to aim true, and indeed they apparently miss the mark, wounding but not killing the hapless private outright. “A volley rings out — a nervous volley it is true, yet a volley. Before the fatal shots are fired I had called the battalion to attention,” Lt. Col. Crozier says. “There is a pause, I wait. I see the medical officer examining the victim. He makes a sign, the subaltern strides forward, a single shot rings out. Life is now extinct.” James Crozier will be the youngest Irish recruit to die before a firing squad in this conflict.
Lt. Col. Crozier tries at first to keep Private Crozier’s mother or the people of Belfast from learning the truth about his execution. But his efforts to present Private Crozier as being ‘killed in action’ fail when rumors reach home anyway, and unit members are pressed for explanations on leave. The matter is controversial in Belfast to this day, and his name is among those posted at the Shot at Dawn Memorial in Staffordshire, pictured at top.