Hidden Truth: Caribbean Soldier Executions in the First World War, by Peter Polack

Seventeen year old Herbert Morris a Jamaican from Riversdale in the parish if St. Catherine was executed on 20 September 1917 behind a church in Poperinge, Belgium. He was one of thousands of West Indian volunteers who travelled thousands of miles to war in a strange land only to die from court martial for essentially shell shock, referred to today as PTSD. His death was personally approved by British commander Douglas Haig, part of the "lions led by donkeys" leadership team.

The tragic story of Herbert Morris from the Trench Brothers Project has resonated with visiting children:

'Herbert was just a lad of 16 when he volunteered for war service. He was recruited in Jamaica for the 6th Battalion of the British West Indies Regiment (6BWIR) and, as he wished, he was sent to the trenches of Flanders where his superiors noted in their records that he “behaved well”.

'Some members of the 6BWIR became afraid of the guns and often showed signs of disorientation during the shelling. Eventually Herbert’s nerves gave way, and the shell-shocked youngster fled from the trenches. He went absent without leave and was reported to have stayed on the run for two days before being captured and arrested.

'His capture was inevitable because it was almost impossible for deserters to remain at liberty in France, and to find a way back home to England.

'Herbert was picked up at Boulogne and given fourteen days field punishment. On August 20th, having seen seven of his comrades become casualties, Herbert absconded again, jumping from the lorry taking him to his battery. He was arrested, once more at Boulogne, when he entered a rest camp with no ticket of leave. Morris had clear symptoms of battle fatigue or "shellshock".

He pleaded to the court "I am troubled with my head and cannot stand the sound of the guns. I reported to the Dr. [sic] and he gave me no medicine or anything."

The court made no attempt to adjourn the case for medical reports. As far as the British Army was concerned, desertion lowered the morale of the troops and punishment was harsh, especially in wartime. Herbert was court martialed and sentenced to be shot for desertion from active service. His death sentence was confirmed by Field Marshall Douglas Haig. Herbert was paraded in front of 6BWIR as an example. In the early hours of September 20th 1917 Herbert Morris dictated a letter to Padre Horner for his parents in Jamaica, and was executed at dawn by a firing squad that included seven West Indian and three white soldiers. He had just had his 17th birthday.'

Herbert was not the lone teenager shot at dawn in that same spot. Nineteen year old Frederick Gore of the East Kent Regiment was shot less than a month later on October 16th 1917. They joined many others, also executed behind the Poperinge church as the war bogged down into trenches, full frontal charges and massive casualties.

Another teenager to meet this fate was seventeen year old Abraham Bevistein from an immigrant family who was executed on March 20th 2016, one of the estimated two hundred and fifty thousand estimated underage boys who served the British Army during World War 1. Bevistein had changed his name to the more English name of Harris on enlistment, but it did not save him.

Between 1914 and 1920 there were twenty thousand soldiers that were convicted by court martial with a potential death penalty. Three thousand British soldiers were sentenced to execution during the Great War not only for cowardice and desertion but for crimes such as murder. Slightly over three hundred were actually executed.

The youngest British underage execution was that of sixteen year old Herbert Burden who pretended to be eighteen so he could join in the excitement that the Great War presented to communities with a profusion of bored young men.

Hidden Truth Caribbean Soldier Executions In The First World War By Peter Polack Private Herbert Burden

The mindset must have been that this was a prank or taboo like having an underage drink or drive until the reality of thousands of dead bodies on a battlefield set in. This was the most popular and macabre sport of the time, underage enlistment, a conspiracy of fools and eager ears.

Burden’s urban hometown, the London Borough of Lewisham was a planet away from the quiet, rural community of Riversdale in Jamaica where his fellow teenager, Herbert Morris called home. Burden’s parents joined William and Ophelia Morris in mourning, five thousand miles away. Herbert Burden was executed on July 21st 1915, ten months after enlistment with the British Army. Subsequently he became the figurehead for the Shot at Dawn Memorial created after the 2007 UK government pardon for the executions of three hundred and six soldiers found guilty of desertion.

UK publisher Lime Tree Press has acquired the rights to Only the Young Shall Die by Peter Polack and Jack McCain about raising the age of military enlistment. The owners of Lime Tree Press had previously acquired the South Africa rights to The Last Hot Battle of the Cold War: South Africa vs. Cuba in the Angolan Civil War (2013) by Peter Polack.

The book offers an opportunity to reflect on the youth of soldiers killed in battle since the Revolutionary War in 1776 and latterly by decision makers who have neither felt the heat of battle or the melancholy of casualties in the field. This effort consists of statistics, images and more telling, the accounts of several soldiers in the field through many conflicts from diaries and other sources.

The average age of young men dying in combat has decreased substantially from earlier wars from mid-twenties to late teens. One estimate puts the average age of Union soldiers during the American Civil War at just under twenty-six years old.

A report on enlisted men from North-West England in the Great War puts the average age of dead soldiers at twenty-seven years old but more nineteen-year-olds died than any other age group. By World War 11 the average age of the US fighting man was still twenty-six years. In the Vietnam War the average age of soldiers killed in action had declined to 23 years and twenty percent of those killed were less than twenty years old. 61% of those killed in Vietnam were under the allowable age for drinking in the USA, twenty-one years old. A useful snapshot of this evolving paradigm came on 10 July 2009 when five UK servicemen were killed in Helmand province of Afghanistan in one incident with an average age of twenty. Three of the dead soldiers were only eighteen.


Peter Polack is a former criminal lawyer in the Cayman Islands for several decades. His books are The Last Hot Battle of the Cold War: South Africa vs. Cuba in the Angolan Civil War (2013), Jamaica, The Land of Film (2017) and Guerrilla Warfare: Kings of Revolution(2019). He was a contributor to Encyclopedia of Warfare (2013). Polack worked as a part-time reporter for Reuters News Agency in the Cayman Islands 2014-16. His article Syria: The Evolution Revolution was published in the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center magazine June 2014. In October 2018 Defence Procurement International published an article on the Guerrilla Warfare book entitled What Do Today’s Jihadists Have In Common With Famous Guerrilla Fighters Of The Past?The Defence Procurement International Winter 2018 magazine featured his article Brief History of MRAP vehicles. In September 2019 an excerpt from the George Washington chapter of Guerrilla Warfare Kings of Revolution was published in the American Intelligence Journal, Vol 36, No.1. His most recent article Soviet Spymasters: The limits of democracy and Navalny was published in Foreign Policy News 7 March 2021.McFarland publishers acquired his latest book entitled Soviet Spies Worldwide: Country by Country, 1940–1988 to be published in 2022. The Encyclopedia is a compendium of Russian espionage activities with nearly five hundred Soviet spies expelled from nearly 100 countries worldwide. In April 2021 UK publisher Lime Tree Press acquired the rights toOnly the Young Shall Die by Peter Polack and Jack McCain about raising the age of military enlistment. He is currently doing research on a curated collection entitled War In Pictures of almost 1,000 images throughout several conflicts over many centuries.

Image: Stake of Private Burden: By Steve Bowen - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/...

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