Dawn (The 306 Trilogy): Naming the dead
by Oliver Emanuel
There are very few things we know about the executed soldiers. Here are the facts.
Harry Farr was born in Paddington in 1891. He was one of seven brothers. He married Gertrude at Kensington Registry Office in September 1913 and their daughter, also named Gertrude, was born in December that year. Harry had already been in the Territorials for three years and was a reservist before being called up in August 1914. He saw her once again in November 1914 then never came back.
Joseph William Stones was born in 1890 in Crook and was a miner before joining up in 1915. The details of his trial are publically available and are excellently laid out in Blindfold and Alone by Cathryn Corns and John Hughes-Wilson – a book I found invaluable, not only for its examination of the individual cases of the accused men but also for the context in which these executions took place. Willie (as he was to those close to him) had made a deal with a miner friend of his that if anything should happen they would look after each other’s family. His friend kept his promise. Deprived of a pension after Willie’s execution, his wife Isabel married Arthur Jones in December 1917.
About Joseph Byers we know even less than the others. He was born in Scotland but not the date or the place. We know that he volunteered on 20th November 1914 in one of the first great patriotic waves in the early months of the war. He arrived in France on 3rd December 1914. On 8th January, Joseph went off to fetch coal and never returned. He was caught, tried for desertion and executed on 6th February 1915. He had been a soldier for less than three months.
Joseph’s records were destroyed by bombing in the Second World War and despite the work of many historians, journalists and a genealogist employed by the National Theatre of Scotland, no family member had ever been located.
The only document that we have is Joseph’s will. It’s in the National Archive of Scotland and I’ve a photocopy of it. It reads simply: ‘In the event of my Death I give the whole of my stuff to my Sister Nellie Murray’.
With so little documentary evidence how is it possible to write about these men?
I started by reading a lot of books about the First World War. History books, poetry, novels letters. There was almost a hundred percent literacy in 1914, everyone could write and they did so profusely.
There’s very little testimony by the condemned men themselves. Many were too ashamed to write a letter home. Others had to ask a priest or their guard because they did not feel capable of writing that farewell missive themselves. Some were drunk on their last night. All of them were given less than twenty-four hours notice of their execution. The remaining letters were hastily written goodbyes, full of sorrow and shame and apologies for what they had done.
The first-hand accounts I had at my disposal, I owe to the diligent work of my excellent researcher Sam Tranter. Sam was able to find a few eyewitness accounts of executions as well as testimonies by members of firing squads. These acts affected everyone who took part in them. They rarely spoke of it but never forgot it.
What I have done in writing this play is to imagine the gaps, the spaces between the facts, and create a version of what could have been. It is not the absolute truth of what happened, nothing ever could be. But I have tried to be as honest as I know how and have based the opinions of the characters on evidence from the time. Laurie Sansom, the director, said early on in the process that I shouldn’t be afraid to use the real names and stories of these people. I’ve often felt overawed by the responsibility to Harry, Willie and Joe but never doubted the vital importance of remembering their story.