Sergeant Cavinder: One Man’s Story of Compassion and Brutality in the Trenches

Left: Heroic scene in the British trenches of WWI.
Right: Depiction of an execution as shown in the ‘Shot at Dawn’ Documentary

The Hull Daily Mail reported a story that shows both the brutality and compassion that took places during the First World War

Sergeant Len Cavinder tried his best to protect his troops as the First World War dragged out. At the end of the war, 908,000 British soldiers had been killed in those four years. One morning, he was tasked to oversee the execution of one of his own men. The crime? The soldier was a deserter and he was to be shot down. He then had to shake the hand of a man from his platoon before the soldier was taken away to his death.

As the 100th year anniversary of the First World War’s outbreak approaches, the Daily Mail will launch a series of stories about East Yorkshire soldiers and civilians who were swept up in the war’s path, much like the sergeant. “Two military policemen came and manacled his wrists behind his back,” he said in a recorded 1980s interview, uncovered by Van Wilson of the York Oral History Society.

“I shook hands with him as they led him out and there the ten men were.

“They put an old gas helmet over his head, and pinned this piece of paper over his tunic and they manacled him to a chair. The men who shot him were given an extra dose of rum.”

The sergeant was told to always refer to the man as Private X, but there are records that suggest that the private was Charles Frederick McColl of 1/4th battalion, East Yorkshire Regiment. He was executed by firing squad on December 28, 1917. The only crime was being afraid. He was one of more than 20,000 British soldiers who were convicted to the death penalty for reasons of desertion and cowardice during the First World War. It was Sgt. Cavinder who first Private McColl was missing, in July of 1917. As the year ended, his commanding officer Major HB Jackson called the sergeant in for a discussion.

“Do you know that McColl is going to be shot for desertion?” he said.

“I want you to help him find God.”

Charles McColl had been a Hull shipyard plater before the war. This exempted him from military service, but he signed up on September 7th, 1914 on his own accord. In September 1916, his unit was holding the line near Neuve Chapelle in France. There he was wounded by a shell and invalided home due to a heart failure. When he returned to battle, he found that the fighting was too much. He absconded, left his rifle behind, and was later arrested in Calais. McColl defended himself in a court-martial and explained that his nervous condition and experienced a loss of self-control in the trenches.

There were no medical examinations ordered and on December 21, he was ordered to death. Sergeant Cavinder was there when the private learned of his fate and he remained by his side until it was time for him to face the firing squad. “At midnight, in came a string of brigade officers and the captain in charge of the firing party, and I was told to stand him to attention,” he said.  “They read out the sentence of death, signed by King George V. I’ll never forget that. He nearly went raving mad.”

The sergeant considered himself a teetotaler, and tried to give McColl whiskey with laudanum tablets that contained morphine so it would calm his nerves. The private was only minutes from his death, and he was too scared to take it.

“He started to cry and I got the bottle of whisky out,” Sgt Cavinder said.

“He wouldn’t drink the blinking stuff.

“If I could have got him drunk, I would have done.”

The meeting was interrupted by a priest. The priest was shocked to see alcohol being offered as a comfort and threatened to report the sergeant to the authorities.  “You can do what you like,” the sergeant replied. Eventually, the sergeant was able to get the private onto his knees and help him through the Lord’s Prayer.  After the prayer was finished, the military policemen carried McColl away. The awaiting firing squad was made up of several of the platoon that McColl served with, which was overseen by Captain Cecil Moorehouse Slack.

Seven of the ten-man execution squad that killed McCool later formed a ruthless clique who called themselves the Black Hand Gang.

“When they were out of the trenches, they would commandeer an empty house and live in it,” Sgt Cavinder said.

“I don’t know where they got the paint from but they would plaster on the wall a hand with seven digits and the names of each chap.

“They didn’t know what fear was.”

The group was known for their ruthlessness, the gang was always chose to do the dirty jobs—whether it was leading an assault across no man’s land or killing a former comrade. The executioners picked up five rifles with live rounds and five with blanks so no one would know how fired the killing shots. After the private had been killed, Sergeant Cavinder was left with the task to bury the soldier and say a final prayer. The winter ground was so hard he was unable to break a piece of clay to scatter as he said the last words, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

Sergeant Cavinder later heard that Private McColl had fled to a village ten miles away after deserting, and was living with a French woman until he was arrested. Ronald Fairfax, a Hull historian, believes that the private was a man with very low intelligence and should have never been allowed to enlist.He tracked down Captain Slack in the 1970s, but found the old man unrepentant. “He had no sympathy at all,” Mr Fairfax said.

“He said he was intelligent enough to find a woman and live with her for three months after he deserted.” The sergeant who support the private was more understanding. “He was one of those cases that in the next war would have been dealt with better because he wasn’t 100 per cent,” Sgt Cavinder said.

“He was pretty hopeless in the line.” Sergeant Cavinder lived for decades after the war ended. Who knows, maybe on winter mornings when the ground was frozen solid, he would think about the solider who he had to bury far away.

Evette Champion

Evette Champion is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE