The Death Of Roger Casement
August 1st to August 7th 1916
As George Orwell was later to observe, the British enjoyed a hanging.
On 3 August, prurience and patriotism (in all its many guises) persuaded many in the nation to avert their eyes from the killing fields in Europe and focus instead on the condemned cell in Pentonville Gaol. The fate of its sole occupant, Sir Roger Casement — technically now plain Mr Casement — had been a matter of grave concern to the British Cabinet.
To reprieve or not to reprieve — that was the question. The final discussion had taken place on 2 August, following which the Home Secretary had annotated the trial papers with the portentous phrase dictated by custom: “The Law must take its course”.
As Roy Jenkins would later write: “There can be few other examples of a Cabinet devoting large parts of four separate meetings to consider an individual sentence –and then arriving at the wrong decision.”
Yet one can also argue there were all the elements here of a perfect storm: embittered nationalists, frustrated in their attempt to throw off the British yoke in the Easter Rising; enraged unionists, waiting to pounce at the first sign of faint-heartedness from London; a time of appalling danger and losses on the western front; the drip-drip of innuendo suggesting the accused had been guilty of monstrous homosexual excess.
Casement had been told, on the afternoon of 2 August, that there was no reprieve and that the execution would take place at 9 a.m. the following morning. Like the other Irish patriots with whom he had aligned, Casement prepared for death with courage and dignity, writing farewell letters and. at last, being received into the Roman Catholic Church. He wrote: “And if I die as I think it is fated tomorrow morning, I shall die with my sins forgiven and God’s pardon on my soul and I shall die with many good and brave men.”
Nor, in those dread final moments, did he repine. As Fr Carey remembered, “he marched to the scaffold with the dignity of a prince and towered straight over all of us on the scaffold”.
According to Ellis, the hangman:
The impression will ever remain on my mind of the composure of his noble countenance, the smile of contentment and happiness, as he willingly helped my assistant, the steady martial tread his six feet four inches and soldierly appearance adding to the solemn echo of his prompt and coherent answers to the Roman Catholic chaplain…Roger Casement appeared to me the bravest man it fell to my unhappy lot to execute.
Aware that there had been energetic petitioning to have the death sentence commuted, The Times felt constrained to insist that most petitioners felt no sympathy for the man himself. Rather, it believed, they had moved to plead for clemency on the grounds that “enough blood had been shed in the rebellion, and that the pardon of Casement would have had a good effect upon public opinion in this country”, and in this they were wrong:
It is quite certain, however, that if Casement had been reprieved the Nationalist Press would have hastened to compare that clemency with the severity of the executions in Dublin, and would have raised a new campaign against Sir John Maxwell. Nothing that the Government could have done with Casement would have satisfied the whole of Ireland.
Then came the question of the cadaver. Casement was buried in quicklime in the prison grounds, alongside Crippen and other convicted murderers. On 4 August, The Times reported that Casement’s lawyer, Gavan Duffy, had called the authorities’ refusal to return his body “a monstrous act of indecency”.
According to the official statement released by the government: “He was convicted and punished for treachery of the worst kind to the Empire he had served and as a willing agent of Germany.” It also sought to draw a sharp distinction between Casement’s high treason and his alleged homosexual misdemeanours.
The Times continued:
We cannot help protesting against certain other attempts which have been made to use the Press for the purpose of raising issues which are utterly damaging to Casement’s character but which have no connexion whatever with the charges on which he was tried. These issues should either have been raised in a public and straightforward manner, or they should have been left severely alone … If there were any virtue in the pomp and circumstance of a great state trial, it can only be weakened by innuendoes which, whatever their substance, are now irrelevant, improper and un-English.
Not so un-English, perhaps. Nonetheless, as a result of this protest, circulation of the diaries ceased in England.
Others were dying, of course. Churchill had newly returned to Westminster full-time, but he was no more guarded than he had ever been when it came to passing pungent judgement, even on those whose sphere of competence did not fall within his purview.
Having analysed every aspect of the Somme offensive, so he claimed, he circulated a confidential memorandum to the Cabinet on 1 August, concluding that: “In personnel the results of the operation have been disastrous; in terrain they have been absolutely barren… Therefore, the British offensive per se has been a great failure.”
There is no record that Haig was informed (he had greater preoccupations, after all). A few days earlier he had received a visit from press baron, Lord Northcliffe, on 21 July, and recorded the event in his diary thus:
I was favourably impressed with his desire to do his best to help to win the war. He was most anxious not to make a mistake in anything he advocated in his newspapers, and for this he was desirous of seeing what was taking place. I am therefore letting him see everything and talk to anyone he pleases.
Northcliffe was a dangerous friend for anyone, but it is hard to begrudge Haig the few hours he had enjoyed in his company. Although Churchill’s appraisal may have been facile, the fighting in the west was taking a terrible toll and continued fiercely throughout the first week of August.
There were snippets of comfort: Allied forces made some ground north-west of Pozieres where German positions between Bazentin-le-Petit and Martinpuich to the west of Guillemont were taken. But conditions were frightful. An Australian private soldier, P. Kinchington, recalled:
The heavy shells were falling, so it was estimated, at the rate of three a minute. It was not long before the area became unrecognisable, and as time went on even the unwounded felt sick. Food and water were not too plentiful, and we did not know when any more would be available. After our iron rations had gone we were compelled to fall back upon any that could be found on the dead.
At Verdun, French and German soldiers launched attacks and counter-attacks all week around Thiaumont and Fleury, the latter changing hands twice before finally being held by the French. On 4 August, Private Meyer, a promising tenor, had been due to sing at a concert for the music-loving Crown Prince. The sudden threat of a French breakthrough at Thiaumont caused the concert’s cancellation; Meyer’s unit was hastily dispatched to shore up German defences and he became one of over two thousand prisoners taken by the French.
In reality, the French position was very gradually improving. Nivelle’s famous phrase (often wrongly attributed to Petain) — “Ils ne passeront pas!” — appeared now more like a hard-headed prognosis than an ostrich-like refusal to face up to reality. Life, however, lived from moment to moment, remained fraught and often horrific in the summer heat. Major Roman remembered that:
On my arrival, the corpse of an infantry man in a blue cap partially emerges from this compound of earth, stones and unidentifiable debris. But a few hours later, it is no longer the same; he has disappeared and been replaced by a tirailleur in khaki. And successively there appear other corpses in other uniforms. The shell that buries one disinters another. One gets acclimatised, however, to this spectacle; one can bear the horrible odour of this charnel house in which one lives, but one’s joie de vivre, after the war, will be eternally poisoned by it.
To become desensitised to this extent was fraught with danger. Raymond Asquith’s concerns, as revealed in a letter to his wife Katharine on 4 August, were more severely practical and focused on the calibre of the personnel upon whom he depended for his safety:
This night I was up at the forward end of the trench rather engrossed in directing men’s work, when suddenly I found myself surrounded by a mob of terrified figures from the battalion which was holding that part of the line (we were working on it) who gibbered and crouched and held their hands over their eyes and generally conducted themselves as if the end of the world was at hand. It was very alarming; they had seen one of those damned rum jars coming…Sure enough in about 5 seconds the thing went off — luckily on the other side of the parapet. The sky was black with smoke and dirt, and the people butted into one in the fog screaming, but much more frightened than hurt…
As with many others in the upper stratum of British society, not even the harsh contentions of war seemed to have allayed his disdain for the masses:
I am not favourably impressed by what I have seen of the K[itchener] armies in this part of the line. I daresay they go ahead all right in an attack, but they are horribly nervous even under the ordinary conditions of trench warfare.
Although he would not have known the finer details, the younger Asquith would have been aware that his father’s political enemies were now circling. The Prime Minister’s enemies, among whom numbered Northcliffe, had become increasingly sceptical that Britain could ever win a war while someone so languid and self-indulgent remained at the helm of government. Asquith’s disinclination to be hurried, his predilection for long sessions of bridge and for weekends enjoying the sea air at Walmer Castle, all contributed to the harsh press which now assailed him.
Lytton Strachey left a description of the day in May when he met Asquith and his entourage at Garsington chez Ottoline Morrell:
I studied the Old Man with extreme vigour and really he is a corker. He seemed much larger than he did when I last saw him…a fleshy, sanguine, wine-bibbing, medieval Abbot of a personage — a glutinous lecherous cynical old fellow!…And all the time, perpetually, a little pointed, fat tongue comes poking out, and licking those great chops, and then darting back again.
As Liberal Prime Minister of a fractious coalition, he was accused continually of kowtowing to the Tories who propped up the government. On 2 August, following Asquith’s defence of the Resolutions adapted by the Allies at the recent Economic Conference in Paris, the Labour MP Philip Snowden launched an excoriating attack:
The only thing the Prime Minister has left to surrender is his office, and I would respectfully suggest for the sake of his future reputation, that he should relinquish that as soon as possible and leave the carrying out of Tory principles to those who believe in Tory principles… If he were to take that course, then he would release from an unwilling submission those members of his own party who followed him through all this very much against their own will..
The sense that Westminster operated in a bubble is pervasive. Its internecine struggles smack of self-indulgence, especially given the intensity of war all over the world during the week. In a battle from 3 to 5 August, Allied forces under General Archibald Murray defeated the attacking Turkish army under its German commander, von Kressenstein, thereby initiating a Turkish retreat from the Sinai Peninsula.
To add to the horrors of battle came the terrors of thirst: Allied troops “received orders that while on the move no one was to touch his water-bottle between dawn and sunset, and that even then he was not to empty his bottle until he knew for certain that more water was be issued”.
Confounding every expectation, the Russian offensive also continued to gain ground. A German gas attack in east Vilna was repulsed on 2 August and, despite some desperate fighting, the Tsarist army penetrated into east Kovel and south Brody. On 7 August they captured Tlumacz, twelve miles from Stanislau, where 2000 prisoners alone were taken. The week’s total numbered nearly 5000.
Centuries of animus had given an edge to much fighting in the east. This was also true of the south, where the Italians appeared to relish the chance to inflict punishment on their onetime overlord. The Battle of Gorizia, the Italian attack on Isonzo, was launched in 6 August. Several lines of trenches and many machine guns were rapidly taken. The next day, they captured the bridgehead of Gorizia and also — this was satisfying — some 8,000 Austrian prisoners. Much less happily, on the night of 2/3 August, the Italian dreadnought, Leonardo da Vinci, at Taranto, had blown up following a magazine explosion. Austrian sabotage was blamed but, since ammunition was being loaded at the time, the more probable explanation was an unstable propellant. The explosion cost the lives of 21 officers and 227 enlisted men.
No one nation, however, enjoyed a monopoly of blundering. Questions put to the Secretary of State for India, Austen Chamberlain, on 1 August in the Commons, revealed that Territorial soldiers, who had been despatched to India in June on the troop shop Ballarat, had mistakenly been diverted to Karachi. In consequence, the 1,013 men and thirteen officers on board had had to take the train from Karachi to Muntan in order to relieve the garrison of regular troops who would then be sent on active service. As Chamberlain now conceded, they had crossed the ferociously hot Sind desert in the height of summer ‘insufficiently equipped, over-crowded, and without experienced officers’. Over 200 men had sunstroke and twenty died.
For men to be laid low by anything other than an enemy bullet or artillery seemed an affront to the natural order of things. So ran the perverse logic of war, anyway. A far bigger problem than heatstroke were STIs. The so-called ‘Madonnas of Pervyse’, Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm, continued their work ministering to Belgian soldiers at their First Aid Post. There they treated whatever medical problem presented itself, including STIs. Queues of men waited for treatment, for which the only medication was mercury.
Chisholm became the “boil expert”, and found the most “ghastly” ones were between the buttocks. She found it impossible to understand how afflicted soldiers could tolerate the agony, marching for hours or even just standing in the trenches. Her unfailing sense of humour helped in this delicate task:
It must have been the most terrible pain, and to treat them they nearly stood on their heads with their bottoms in the air and I was poking around between their legs…trying to get these things out… My entire viewpoint of this poor fellow was his bottom-end.
STIs became a major issue for the military authorities. By the end of the war, 416,891 British and Dominion troops would be admitted to hospital for treatment — around 5% of all serving troops. Any woman picked up by the German military police in the act of soliciting was put into an official brothel and subjected to twice-weekly inspections for venereal disease. Men on leave were given ‘love parcels’ which contained different antiseptics, but never prophylactics. Right through to the end of the war, the British Army feared to court a public relations disaster if it were deemed to be affording ‘opportunities for unrestrained vice’. So — no condoms.
In order to keep as many men as possible on active service, however, it made the lot of those who became infected with STIs as horrendous as possible. In 1915, the British had issued a memo stating that. “The victim’s parents or his wife or his relatives would be notified in the future if any man rendered himself unfit through contracting venereal disease.” It was an early example of the “‘Just Say No” campaigns advocated by various politicians in the 20th and 21st centuries, and proved to be just as ineffective. From 1916, the authorities reluctantly provided sexual health education and early treatment centres for disinfection. A soldier had his pay docked if he were admitted to hospital “through his own fault”.
Even in peacetime, human sexuality was a pretty tortuous affair for those born in the latter 19th and early 20th centuries. How much more so now! There is a terrible pathos to the exploited and exhausted prostitutes, and to the anxious and faux-raucous young men who patronised them. Because German brothels were scarce and far behind the lines, Stefan Westman, a junior medical officer with the German Army, recorded that many soldiers resorted to local prostitutes living nearer the front. So too the British. One Tommy remembered:
There were well over 150 men waiting for opening time, singing Mademoiselle from Armentieres and other lusty songs. Right on the dot of 6pm a red lamp over the doorway of the brothel was switched on. A roar went up from the troops, accompanied by a forward lunge towards the entrance…