The Royal Canadian Regiment and
The First World War - 1914-1919

Sentenced to Death by Court Martial

By: Captain Michael M. O'Leary

Reading any regimental history familiarizes the reader with the high points of a regiment's story. Regimental histories, our own no less than others, focus on successes, notable achievements and the actions of heroes. But there's always another side of the coin. Just as the collectors of extra duties, the central figures in charge parades and those who always garnered a CSM's special attentions help form our own memories of regimental service, so to did they exist in the background that is seldom described in the regimental history.

From my research in the Part II Daily Orders of the Regiment, many aspects of regimental service that did not get captured by the published regimental histories have been coming to light. Among these is the fact that two Royal Canadians were court martialed and sentenced to death for desertion in January 1918. From the information available from the Part II Daily Orders, their stories are given below.

The list of First World War Courts Martial for The RCR that I have identified so far, including punishments and Daily Order extracts can be seen at this page.

715976 Pte Thomas Howell

715976 Pte Thomas Howell was taken on the strength of The RCR on 21 Jun 1917, having arrived from England as a reinforcement from the 26th Reserve Battalion. Howell's first interaction with the military justice system occurred in July 1917, when he was found guilty of being "Out of Bounds" in accordance with Routine Orders and sentenced to forfeit seven days pay.

Experiencing summary punishment was not enough to encourage Howell to improve his behaviour. His first Court Martial would be held on 27 January 1918, and he would be one of two Royal Canadians sentenced to death during the First World War. The entry in the Part II daily Orders of the overseas battalion reads:

"Absent from 11 a.m. 14 Nov 1917 to 1.45 p.m. 9 Dec 1917. In arrest awaiting trial 9 Dec 1917. Tried and convicted by FGCM of When on active service, Deserting His Majesty's Service and sentenced to Death, 27 Jan 1918. Sentence commuted to 2 years Imprisonment with Hard Labour by G.O.C. 1st Army."

Luckily for Pte Howell, his sentence was commuted to Imprisonment with Hard Labour and and he was committed to No 4 Military Prison on 20 Feb 1918. Released on 8 Jul 1918 with the reminder of his sentence suspended, Howell returned to the Regiment in the field. As it would turn out, even imprisonment would not be sufficient to make Howell amend his troublesome habits.

On 22 Sep 1918, Howell would again be Court Martialed, the Part II Daily Orders reading:

"In arrest awaiting trial 22 Aug 1918. Tried and convicted by FGCM 22 Sep 1918 of When on active service, (1) Drunkenness; (2) When in arrest, escaping; (3) Striking his Superior Officer, being in the execution of his office. Sentenced to 5 months Imprisonment with Hard Labour. Sentence confirmed by G.O.C. 7th Cdn Inf Bde 23 Sep 1918."

Once he landed in prison following his second Court Martial conviction, Howell's past would catch up to him. His earlier suspended sentence would be resurrected, although initially the two sentences would run concurrently.

"Sentenced to 5 months Imprisonment with Hard Labour, 23 Sep 1918. Committed to No 5 Military Prison, in the Field, 16 Nov 1918. - AMENDED at DO Pt No 147 dated 14 Dec 1918 to read: Admitted to No 5 Military Prison in the field, 16 Nov 1918. 1st Sentence; 2 years Imprisonment with Hard Labour awarded 27 Jan 1918. 2nd Sentence; 5 months Imprisonment with Hard Labour awarded 23 Sep 1918. 1st Sentence suspended and man released from No 4 Military Prison 8 Jul 1918, unexpired portion of previously suspended sentence to run concurrently with latter sentence."

Howell's regimental service would come to a conclusion on 6 Feb 1919 when he was Struck off Strength of the Regiment on transfer to the Canadian Record List en route to being discharged.

715869 Pte Joseph Henry Morrison

715869 Pte Joseph Henry Morrison was also taken on the strength of The RCR on 21 Jun 1917, having arrived from England as a reinforcement from the 26th Reserve Battalion. His own first encounter with the military justice system, as least while serving as a Royal Canadian, would occur on 7 Jul 1918. Charged with and found guilty of Drunkenness, Morrison would forfeit 14 days pay as punishment.

Continuing to serve in The RCR, Morrison would be Court Martialed for Desertion on 28 Jan 1918. The entry in the Part II daily Orders of the overseas battalion reads:

"Absent from 11 a.m. 14 Nov 1917 to 3.30 p.m. 10 Dec 1917. In arrest awaiting trial 10 Dec 1917. Tried and convicted by FGCM of When on active service, Deserting His Majesty's Service and sentenced to Death, 28 Jan 1918. Sentence commuted to 5 years Penal Servitude by G.O.C. 1st Army. Placed under suspended sentence 6 Feb 1918 G.O.C. 1st Army."

The specifics of Morrison's penal servitude aren't recorded in the Daily Orders that have survived, but we know he returned to serve in the Regiment by his next and last appearance in the Daily Orders. On 6 Nov 1918, Pte Morrison was evacuated, wounded, on the Hospital Ship St. Patrick and posted to the Nova Scotia Regimental Depot effective that date.


These too are the stories of our Regiment.

Pro Patria

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