Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

Determined to Write a Great Wrong

Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

Determined to Write a Great Wrong

Article excerpt

Byline: By David Whetstone

The sad fate of a North-East soldier of the Great War will be remembered in a new play called The Prisoner's Friend, being premiered in the region later this month.

William Stones, from Crook, County Durham, was one of 346 men - three officers and 343 soldiers and military labourers - executed while serving with British forces overseas during the 1914-18 conflict.

According to Peter Drake, a science teacher at the Queen Elizabeth High School in Hexham, any accusation of cowardice in Stones' case seems incredibly harsh, nearly a century after he was shot at dawn on January 17, 1917.

Drake says Stones and another man, Mundy, were on a reconnaissance mission in the middle of the night when they were ambushed by Germans and Mundy shot dead..

"After that, the whole thing is shrouded in mystery. But shortly afterwards Stones arrived back in the reserve trench, in what was described as a pitiable state of terror," says Peter. "His record until days before that had been exemplary. The assumption is he was suffering from battle fatigue.

"His story was that when he'd been ambushed and Mundy was shot, four or five Germans were advancing towards him. He couldn't get the fitment off his trigger: it was so cold that he couldn't rip the thing off to return fire.

"So rather than waste time, he drove the long rifle with its bayonet across the trench to create a makeshift barrier and then ran back. Casting away arms in the presence of the enemy was a crime punishable by death."

Stones was court martialled and sentenced, says Peter, in a rudimentary hearing unlikely to have taken more than 30 minutes. Very rarely at such a court martial was there anyone present with any legal training, says Peter, although prisoners were allowed to be defended by a junior officer known as a `prisoner's friend'.

This was apparently an unpopular post among officers, because it meant sticking up for `cowards'. …

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