Staring Death in the Face

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. – Dylan Thomas

Pvte Eddie Slovik

Pvte Eddie Slovik

Death comes to us all, but it’s how we live right up to that very final moment that can often show our true character.

Private Eddie Slovik, the only GI to be executed by his own side in World War II (and of whom I’ve written before), raged at his imminent demise in the minutes before they strapped him to a post to kill him.

‘I used to steal things when I was a kid, and that’s what they are shooting me for. They’re shooting me for the bread and chewing gum I stole when I was 12 years old.

‘They’re not shooting me for deserting the United States Army. They just need to make an example of somebody and I’m it because I’m an ex-con.’

Eddie was killed because he was a deserter, but he had never gone on the run, instead he had handed himself in and simply stated that he preferred prison to battle. That wish was denied him and, on January 31, 1945, he was executed by firing squad. Who can blame his anger at the injustice of it all?

Erskine Childers

Erskine Childers

Others have taken a more sanguine approach to imminent death. In 1922, Erskine Childers was executed in Beggars Bush Barracks by the Free State Army during the Irish Civil War.

Childers was an historian and author of the acclaimed The Riddle of The Sands (a book I loved to read as a boy). In 1914, almost a hundred years ago to the day, he famously brought a shipload of weapons from Germany to Irish nationalists on board his boat, the Asgard. It was a pivotal act in Irish history and formed the basis of the armed struggle against British power.

Later, he was part of the delegation that traveled to London with Michael Collins to negotiate a treaty with the British. He later broke with Collins on the issue and supported the IRA nationalists who fought the Free State.

When Collins was killed, emergency laws were brought in ordering the death sentence for anyone caught with unauthorised weapons. Childers was arrested in early November with a small sidearm — a gun that had actually been given to him by Michael Collins as a gift back when they were on the same side.

The Free State wanted vengeance for Collins and so Childers paid the ultimate price. But Childers himself wasn’t one for revenge. On the eve of his death he asked to speak to his sixteen year-old son (also Erskine, who would one day become President of Ireland).

Erskine senior made his son promise that he would seek out every one who had signed his death warrant… and shake their hands. The following day he was was shot at the Beggar’s Bush Barracks in Dublin. As he stood there, facing all those rifle barrels, he said one more thing to the men about to kill him.

“Take a step forward, lads. It will be easier that way.”

And then they shot him.

My grandfather was one of those who pulled the trigger. He never spoke much about it, only telling my father that it was a bad business.

Thomas Whelan and Paddy Moran before being hanged

Thomas Whelan and Paddy Moran before being hanged

Others have faced death in similar fashion. A remarkable series of photographs show IRA Volunteers Paddy Moran and Thomas Whelan about to be executed by the British in Mountjoy Jail in 1921.

The men were sentenced to die for their parts in the assassination of British intelligence officers on what became known as ‘Bloody Sunday’. They are pictured posing happily with their captors. In one photograph, Whelan even has his arm around one British officer. A few minutes later both prisoners were hanged.

In World War I, German spy Karl Lody showed his mettle when he was in the Tower of London awaiting death.

Born in Berlin in 1877, Lody graduated as a captain from the Maritime Academy in Geestemünde in 1904, but became ill and was never able to take up the post. He married an American. Under a forged U.S. passport he traveled Europe, speaking English with an American accent.

Karl Lody

Karl Lody

When war broke out, German intelligence thought he would be useful and sent him to spy on the British naval base at Rosyth, in Scotland.

Lody was eventually tracked due to his own carelessness – he stopped encrypting his messages and even wrote them in German. He was tried and sentenced to death.

The day before his execution, on November 6, 1914, he wrote a letter to his jailers, in which he stated:

‘I feel it is my duty as a German officer to express my sincere thanks and appreciation to the guards and sentries… Although they never neglected their duty, they have shown always the utmost courtesy and consideration towards me.’

So impressed was Lody by them, that he even left a sixpence tip to show his gratitude. The guards, apparently, found it all a difficult business… but they still managed to take him out and kill him.

We are strange, strange creatures. Stories such as these only reinforce the pride and shame we feel in our own humanity, leaving us with the faint hope that, come the day, we too might meet our Maker with such grace and fortitude.

 

 

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About historywithatwist

I am an Associate Editor with a national newspaper. I have a keen interest in history and in writing. I have published one novel, Tan, and am currently working on a sequel
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18 Responses to Staring Death in the Face

  1. You’ve written a very poignant post, David. I was particularly struck by the sentence about your grandfather. War and execution – more than strange bedfellows.

  2. Your last paragraph says it all, David.

  3. Thanks for yet another great story.

  4. This is a subject that fascinates me, too. How someone can go so bravely to their deaths, especially when their execution is unjustified. That seems to me to have been the case also for William Mitchell, the only Black & Tan to have been executed during the Irish war of Independence (also at Mountjoy in 1921). The press reports say he faced death calmly and bravely, even though he had not killed the magistrate for whose murder he was hanged. Capital punishment is so wrong. http://www.amazon.co.uk/RUNNING-WITH-CROWS-Death-Black-ebook/dp/B00BQGV6I2

    • Yes, Denise, William Mitchell was another who was hard done by, and your book does him justice

      • Thanks David. I’m just reading Leonard Piper’s book ‘The Tragedy of Erskine Childers’ so your blog has given it another dimension for me. I’ve also been looking at Carl Lody and some other German spies of both world wars, many of whom who were either caught or imprisoned here in Buckinghamshire. My next but one book will be about Spies, Spymasters and Subversives in Buckinghamshire. Definitely some twists of history around here! I recently discovered we had Oswald Mosley and Joachim von Ribbentrop living within 3 miles of my village

  5. Interesting neck of thee woods you live in. Looking forward to the book

  6. Iain Martin says:

    Great post. It made me think of John Brown’s execution for his attempted rebellion to free the slaves in 1859. The morning he was executed he wrote a note that was passed to his jailer:

    “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.”

    John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s eventual assassin, borrowed a militia uniform so he could sneak into the proceedings and witness the execution.

    The poet Walt Whitman was there as well, in “Year of Meteors” he described viewing the execution and John Brown as “the comet that came unannounced out of the north flaring in heaven.”

    Your chants, O year all mottled with evil and good–year of forebodings!
    Year of comets and meteors transient and strange–lo! even here one
    equally transient and strange!
    As I flit through you hastily, soon to fall and be gone, what is this chant,
    What am I myself but one of your meteors?

  7. Carol Ervin says:

    Strong emotions here, each man and his choices worth contemplation. Thanks for sharing.

  8. In all of these cases, I imagine that the men who were charged with carrying out the executions we’re not the ones who made the decision to have the prisoner executed. I expect your grandfather was in that category, DavId. How difficult to live with an action you may not have believed in.

  9. Yes, it must have been very hard for my grandfather. He was a sergeant at the time of the execution. The executed man, Erskine Childers, was by all accounts quite remarkable.

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