The BIG question
Was my ancestor a deserter before he was eventually killed in action?
QMy great uncle, James Spellman, Pte 3156 in the Welsh guards, was killed in action in 1917. He lived in Liverpool, and there is a family story that he didn’t return from one of his leaves, was arrested and sent back to France. How can I find out if there is any truth in this?
Vivienne Cliff, by email
AFamily stories such as these are often difficult to prove or disprove, especially with so many soldiers’ service records destroyed in WW2. Desertions can be traced, with difficulty, using the official publication Police Gazette, produced weekly by the Home Office and sent to police forces as a list of all wanted criminals – including army deserters. Copies of the gazette are held by the British Library and aren’t online, but fortunately a friend of mine has copies of most of them on a microfilm and he’s able to help me with enquiries like this one.
The Police Gazettee of 6 March 1917 says that James Spellman, 2nd Battalion Welsh Guards, aged 19 and from Liverpool, deserted from Orpington on 22 February 1917. Orpington was the Depot for 2nd Welsh Guards and they were the Reserve Battalion for the 1st Battalion, which had been in France with the Guards Division since August 1915. The Reserve Battalion, as the title suggests, held a reserve of trained soldiers to be sent out as reinforcements if required. The
Police Gazette also tells us James had enlisted on 20 May 1916 (which means he was a conscript, not a volunteer) and that in civilian life he was a fountain pen maker. Most likely, rather than deserting while on leave from France, James deserted from leave granted to him before he was due to go to France for the first time. Most deserters went absent at home, or headed home where they thought they’d be safe. Unfortunately it was the first place the police looked and most were picked up fairly quickly. The Police Gazette of 13 March 1917 carries a note saying that James had rejoined or was otherwise not to be apprehended.
If James had been considered a deserter then he could have been tried by Court Martial – if he’d deserted in France or on leave from France then it would have been a Field General Court Martial which could give a maximum penalty of death for the offence, commuted in most cases to a lesser penalty. Having, as I believe, deserted while on leave before going to France, he could have been tried by a District Court Martial – while records of these are sparse there are registers of them being held, the charge(s) and the resulting sentence in TNA’s WO 92 series – “Judge Advocate General’s Office: General Courts Martial Registers, Confirmed at Home”.
These are roughly, but not exactly, chronological – some results weren’t received for weeks after the trial. I’ve searched the two volumes for 1917 (WO 92/3 and WO 92/4) and there’s no mention of James standing trial so presumably he didn’t face one. In many cases, where a General Court Martial might have applied, the soldier could ask his Commanding Officer to judge and sentence him to up to 28 days detention or 28 days Field Punishment. Presumably this is what happened.
James certainly went to France to serve with the 1st Battalion as he is recorded on the Memorial to the Missing at Ypres, The Menin Gate. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website says he was killed on 30 July 1917 and for some reason his body was not recovered after the war. The War Diary for 1st Welsh Guards on that day (WO 95/1224/1) says the battalion were moving up into the front line near the Ypres Canal in preparation for the opening of the 3rd Battle of Ypres next day. The diary says “casualties were very slight” but presumably James was one of them, his grave being lost in the subsequent fighting.
Presumably, James was one of the casualties at Ypres but his grave was lost in the subsequent fighting
A line-up of the 2nd Battalion Welsh Guards in WW1 – James Spellmen served in this regiment