When I read Blindfolded and Alone by Cathryn Corns and John Hughes-Wilson, and reviewed it for Somerset Signals, I was very moved by many of the 'shot at dawn' cases examined, but one account impressed me more than the others. Jack Braithwaite was a New Zealander whose plea in mitigation against his sentence stated that he was not a born soldier, just a Bohemian journalist who had answered the call to arms but 'had made a serious mess of things, and where I came to win honour and glory, I have won only shame, dishonour and everlasting disgrace...'
I decided to try to find out more about Braithwaite and contacted Elizabeth Morey, Convenor of the New Zealand branch of the WFA. She agreed to help and recently sent me his records from the NZ Army files and also notes written for the dictionary of New Zealand Biography by Ian McGibbon, Senior Military Historian at the Ministry of Culture and Heritage. What follows is entirely due to her efforts and my grateful thanks go to Elizabeth and Ian McGibbon.
Jack was certainly a complex character and his background was also extremely complex. Born in Dunedin on 4 January 1885 (the birth was not registered until 1890) and christened Cecil James, he was one of the sixteen children of a bookseller, Joseph Braithwaite, a later mayor of Dunedin. Even his name and birth date are not straightforward as in his first attestation form he gave his birth date as 3 January 1882 but this is not possible as his brother Joseph was born on 1 July 1881. In his second attestation in November 1915 he declared that his first name was John (and gave his birth date as 1883) but there is no record of a John Braithwaite being born or going to school at the appropriate time. As one of his younger brothers was John Rewi, born 12 years later than Jack, it is unlikely that there would have been an earlier child of this name in the family. Ian McGibbon suggests that there could be reasons for the discrepancies, possibly that there might have been a criminal conviction or a deserted wife and that he was trying to cover his trail. For some reason, presumably at his own insistence, his name was not listed among those who had passed their medical examination in May 1915. Interestingly his younger brother, Eric, also tried to sign on under an assumed name and gave different birth dates in his two attestations.
There is some evidence that there may have been more children, perhaps as many as twenty-four, but only ten were listed as living when the father, Joseph, died in 1917, and only six deaths had definitely occurred.
Another of Jack's younger brothers, Warwick, attended Selwyn College and was one of their most distinguished pupils but although there is no information about Jack's education the fact that he became a journalist suggests that he received at least a high school education. In his second attestation he gave his last employment as being with an Australian paper, the Sydney Bulletin, although in the original form he had put a line through the answer space. Julian Putkowski and Julian Sykes in Shot at Dawn, p.124, state that he was an Australian citizen but Ian McGibbon thinks that by giving an Australian employer he probably sought to discourage the authorities from checking on his background. He also queries whether Jack was ever actually employed by the Bulletin.
Another younger brother, Horace, had been badly wounded during the ANZAC landings at Gallipoli, and this, together with the fact that yet two younger brothers were also serving with the NZEF, may have influenced Jack to enlist. According to a report in the Otaga Daily Times in May 1915 his mother had urged Horace to volunteer and may have put pressure on Jack to do the same. He was single at the time but engaged to be married to one of the best girls in the world' according to a statement during his court martial proceedings in 1916.
Jack left Dunedin for Trentham Military Camp at the end of May 1915 and in February 1916 he was in EgyptFrance with the 2'~ Battalion, Otago Infantry Regiment, and was promoted to Lance Corporal. He arrived in in April.
At the front Jack did not conduct himself well. In May 1916 he went absent without leave and this cost him his stripes; this did not seem to worry him, 'let duty and soldiering go to hell' was his alleged remark. His only service in the trenches, from 14 to 22 May, ended when he again left his unit without permission having attempted to use a false leave pass when apprehended, and was sentenced to sixty days field punishment. He made a bad situation worse when on 7 July he escaped from confinement and was sentenced to two years imprisonment with hard labour. An indication of how little he was regarded as a soldier is shown by the fact that his uncle, Brigadier W. Braithwaite, recommended that he be committed to prison and sent back to New Zealand as a prisoner at the earliest opportunity'. But he tried to escape again while being transferred to the British Army's Blargies North military prison near Abancourt, where he was taken on 31st July; the punishment for this second offence was to be served concurrently.
At the end of August 1916 Jack was involved in an incident in which an Australian prisoner, Private A. Little, was resisting arrest by a military policeman. The prisoner had been on a work detail outside the compound earlier in the day and apparently a lack of hot water in what is described as the vapour bath (a shower?) had caused the trouble. A crowd of about thirty unruly Australian and New Zealand inmates joined in and Jack, who was mess orderly, tried to give the prisoner his lunch. He made a grave mistake, as the trouble developed, of leading the prisoner away to his tent, claiming that he was attempting to pacify the situation but instead it served to single him out as one of the principal offenders. There was mutual antipathy between the Australasian and the military police, the hated bred caps', and it was this that almost certainly lay at the heart of the affair.
On 11 October 1916 he found himself facing his fourth court martial charged with three Australians with the crime of mutiny. He put forward a plausible defence, which was corroborated by defence witnesses but was found guilty and sentenced to death. In passing the papers to the Judge Advocate-General at GHQ on 17 October, the Inspector General of Communications, Lt. General Sir F.T. Clayton, drew attention to the fact that the evidence submitted might be considered to bear out Jack's version. Although the Australians received similar sentences they were not in danger of being shot because of their government's prohibition on executions without reference to Australia. No such reservation had been made by the New Zealand government and so Braithwaite's sentence was duly confirmed by the Commander-in-Chief, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, on 25 October.
According to the law, a soldier accused of mutiny need not have taken an active part to be guilty; if he was present and did not use his utmost endeavours to suppress the mutiny he was, in law, equally guilty with those who took an active part. Only 12 days before the incident in which Braithwaite was involved another mutiny had occurred at the prison among Scottish prisoners. Seven stood trial and six were sentenced to death but only one, Gunner W. Lewis, was eventually executed. In their defence the prisoners said that the Australians seemed to get preferential treatment, pointing out that they had been able to refuse work until their complaints had been considered. But the authorities' apparent acquiescence in the Australian behaviour was probably influenced by the realisation that they had little in the way of sanctions to apply in the absence of the death penalty.
Disciplinary problems within the prison and Jack's undoubted poor service record must have removed any inclination towards clemency. There was no requirement for the case to be reviewed by any New Zealand officer and he had no practicable avenue of appeal against conviction and sentence which he learned of on 27th or 28th October. By contrast the Australians had their sentences commuted to two years hard labour.
Jack Braithwaite was shot at 6.05 a.m. on 29 October 1916 by a firing squad at Rouen, being one of only five New Zealanders executed for military offences during World War I, and the only one not put to death by his countrymen. He is buried in St. Sever cemetery near Rouen.
Poor Jack. He seems to have been somebody who was totally unsuited to become a soldier and perhaps left to himself, and without the patriotic fervour sweeping Britain and the Empire in 1915, he would not have enlisted. He was unable to accept military discipline and acted in a foolhardy, perhaps stupid, manner and was dealt with firmly by the authorities. In his final, fatal, brush with military law he found himself cast in the role of a sacrificial victim. It would seem that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and his luck had run out. In his last hours how much he must have wished he had stayed in Dunedin as a 'Bohemian' journalist.
One day I hope to visit St. Sever cemetery because I think he deserves at least to have one small cross on his grave; after nearly a century all his wrongs can be forgiven.