At 7.30am on 12 January 1915, a firing squad was assembled behind the British lines on the Western Front. Its grim task was to carry out the first double execution of British soldiers in the war. Those men were Private J Ball and F Sheffield of the 2nd Battalion, Middlesex Regiment. This is Joseph Ball’s story.
Joseph Ball was born in West Kilburn; by 1912, he was 18, working as a van guard, and apparently keen to join the army. First up, he joined the Special Reserve (which could be called up in wartime) in the 5th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, in May. Then in August, he enlisted full-time as a soldier in the same regiment’s 2nd Battalion. He is described as fresh of complexion, with dark brown hair. Ball served with the unit in England for a year before it went to Malta in September 1913.
In his peacetime service, Ball was far from the perfect soldier. Every month or so, he was punished for some misdemeanour: untidiness, dirtiness, having a rusty rifle, not complying with orders, absence from parade and falling asleep while on sentry duty. The punishments ranged from brief detention, to a few days confinment to barracks, to simply an admonishment.
It was clear to his officers that this young man was not good soldier material. In March 1913, his Company commander wrote to the battalion’s adjutant, “Pte Ball was brought before me again today. I have remanded him in order to ask whether the [battalion’s Commanding Officer] cannot apply for his discharge. The man has absolutely no vice but is less than half witted. He will never make a soldier.”
It was not at all unusual for new recruits to be rejected as unlikely to become an “efficient soldier”, although in this case the application was for discharge as no longer required. In the year to September 1912, over two hundred recruits were rejected by the army within their first three months’ service for reasons over than medical; the following year the figure was 148. Around 400 were rejected on medical grounds in that same period after enlistment.
Sadly for all concerned, this officer’s recommendation for Ball’s discharge was not heeded. The soldier stayed in the Company; his annual reviews reported him (perhaps surprisingly) as of “Fair” military character, but noted that he was “Untidy and unreliable. Weak intellect”.
In September 1914, the 2nd Middlesex went rushed back from Malta to England in readiness to go to war. They arrived in France on 6 November, with Ball in their ranks. According to David Stevenson’s website on Middlesex regiment soldiers who were executed, Ball and Private Frederick Sheffield deserted together: “After only six weeks active service, they had deserted together from their unit. … Ball and Sheffield were discovered hiding in a barn, pretending to be French civilians. They were tried on 30 December 1914.”
The Field General Court Martial convicted them of “when a soldier on active service attempting to desert His Majesty’s Service and sentenced [them] to suffer death by being shot.” Field Marshal Sir John French confirmed the sentence, and the two men were shot on 12 January 1915. They are now remembered on the Le Touret Memorial in France.
It seems from Joseph Ball’s service record that the 2nd Battalion, Middlesex Regiment, let themselves and this young soldier down terribly. Despite his clear inadequacy as a soldier, they kept him on for some reason, punishing his misdemeanours but not sending him back out into civilian life. When it came to the Great War, they took this unreliable soldier with them to France, and when he deserted, ruthless punishment ensued and he was executed.
- J Ball’s service record
- Annual reports of the British Army, 1912-13 and 1913-1919
- David Stevenson’s website on Middlesex Regiment men shot at dawn
- The website Blindfold and Alone shows the stages of trial and confirmation/variation of sentence involved in cases like Ball’s (although his case is not featured)