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Courts martial during the First World War
People - 6 individual histories
Private/Army: Thomas Aageson
Officer/Army: JRR Tolkien
Officer/RAF: Indra Lal Roy
Rating/Navy: James Dellbridge
Member/WAAC: Annie Ellwood
Officer/Army (executed): Eric Poole

Service record of an executed officer:
Eric Skeffington Poole

Eric Poole was born in Nova Scotia, Canada on 20 January 1885. His service record in WO 339/35077 shows that he gained his first military experience in the 63rd Regiment of the Halifax Rifles, with whom he served for two years between 1903 and 1905. The Poole family arrived in England at some stage between 1905 and the outbreak of the First World War, settling in Guildford, Surrey.

In October 1914, Poole joined the Honourable Artillery Company, where he worked as a driver (in 'B Battery') for the next seven months. His Territorial Force Glossary - opens new windowattestation form reveals that he earned a commission as a temporary second lieutenant in the 14th Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment in May 1915. A year later, Poole was transferred to serve in France with the 11th Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment, shortly before it was due to go into action at the Battle of the Glossary - opens new windowSomme.

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Shell shock

According to the medical history sheet compiled for Poole's general court martial in November 1916 (WO 71/1027), he suffered 'Glossary - opens new windowshell shock' after being hit by clods of earth distributed by an enemy shell during fighting on the Somme on 7 July 1916. After a period of recuperation, Poole was returned to duty with his battalion at the end of August. He was soon placed in charge of 'C Company' platoon at Martinpuich near Glossary - opens new windowAlbert.

According to his own testimony at his trial, the shell-shock injury caused Poole to 'at times get confused and... have great difficulty in making up my mind'. It was in this condition that he wandered away from his platoon on 5 October 1916, during a move into the frontline trenches at Glossary - opens new windowFlers.

Poole was apprehended by the military police two days later and arrested on 10 October. In early November, it was decided to try Poole by general court martial for deserting 'when on active service'.

Eric Poole Territorial Force attestation - opens new window
Territorial Force attestation

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The court martial

At Poole's trial, held in the town of Glossary - opens new windowPoperinghe on 24 November 1916, the prosecution called six witnesses. It was variously noted that Poole's 'nerves seemed rather shaken' and that he had confessed to feeling 'damned bad' on the morning of 5 October.

Two men spoke in Poole's defence, including an RAMC officer who argued that the 'mental condition' of the accused had precluded him from intentionally deserting his company. In his own testimony, Poole outlined his recent medical problems and confessed that he had been unaware of 'the seriousness of not going to the front line on Oct 5th'.

Despite defence pleas, however, the five-man court found Poole guilty of desertion and sentenced him to 'death by being shot'. This verdict was confirmed by Glossary - opens new windowSir Douglas Haig on 6 December 1916, three days after a medical board sent to examine Poole concluded that 'he was of sound mind and capable of appreciating the nature and quality of his actions'.

Poole was executed by firing squad in Poperinghe town hall on 10 December 1916. He was buried in the town's military cemetery.

Eric Poole court martial - opens new window
General court martial (258k)

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First officer to be executed

Eric Poole was the first British army officer to be sentenced to death and executed during the First World War. Despite the abundant evidence that he was medically unfit to command a platoon as a result of the shell shock, Poole seems to have been at least partially a victim of a political decision. In his diary entry of 6 December 1914 (in WO 256/14), Haig wrote disingenuously that 'it is... highly important that all ranks should realise the law is the same for an officer as a private'.

Poole's fate aroused little fuss back in Britain, where his family were understandably anxious to avoid publicity - particularly because his father was seriously ill at the time. The Glossary - opens new windowWar Office, equally wary of adverse publicity, agreed that Poole's name would not appear in the casualty lists published in British newspapers, and that no information about the circumstances of his death would be made public.

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