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How Victor Silvester became haunted by killing his own men

The Express on Sunday

19 August 2001



In 1914, the majority of people in Britain completed school at the age of 14 and thereafter considered themselves adults. My grandfather, Victor Silvester, who later became famous as a ballroom dancer and dance band leader, enlisted in the London Scottish regiment on November 10, 1914, when he was 14 years and nine months, by adding four years to his age.


 By his own account, he took part in a series of military executions as a member of a firing squad when he was only 16 because he had proved himself a marksman. At the time, he did not question the morality of what he was ordered to do, nor did he know anything about shellshock. Like most of his peers, he regarded those who ran away from battle as cowards who were a danger to their fellow soldiers. Later in life, however, he was haunted by his memories of taking part in these executions.


 Blindfold And Alone is the first book to examine in detail the First World War court martial records held in the Public Record Office and it seeks to place these trials in the context of their time. The authors state that "the band leader Victor Sylvester's [sic] much-quoted tales of taking part in a firing squad as a young soldier appear to bear absolutely no relation to recorded facts". That may be so, but my faith in the recorded facts has not been encouraged by the following statement. "The young Sylvester [sic] seems to have been determined to get to France as he then joined the First Aid Services and served with them in France from October 1916 to June 1917, entitling him to the British War Medal and Victory Medal." The source given for this statement is a PRO document, but it gives an inaccurate account of my grandfather's war service which can easily be established from other sources.


 Victor Silvester enlisted in 1914 and was sent for intensive training. After several months, he wondered why he had not been drafted to go to France along with those who had enlisted at the same time. He soon discovered the reason: one of the company sergeant majors knew that he was under age.

 The CO had decided to keep the boy in England.


 After obtaining a transfer to the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, he was eventually sent to the trenches near Arras, in northern France, where he served for six months before the regiment realised his real age - by now he was 17 instead of 21, his official age. He was sent back to the base camp at Etaples and it was during this time, he claimed, that he served on firing squads. He was subsequently transferred to the 1st British Ambulance Unit in northern Italy, where he was later awarded the Italian Bronze Medal for Military Valour.


 I mention all this to demonstrate that the official records are not an infallible source and should be taken in conjunction with the testimony of witnesses, however long after the fact. Nonetheless, the authors - one an ex-soldier, the other a clinical scientist - have been painstaking in their research into the official records and the result is a powerful defence of the Army's policy. They argue that in a period when capital punishment was widely applied in civil society, the Army resorted to the ultimate penalty only sparingly and that the 346 men who were executed represent a small fraction of those who faced court martial.


 Recently, the Shot At Dawn campaign has won growing Parliamentary backing for pardons for many of those who died before firing squads.


 My grandfather died in 1978 and so did not live to see the unfolding of the Pardons Campaign, though I suspect that had he done so he would have agreed with the authors that we should "leave the courage - and the cowardice - of the Western Front where it belongs: long, long ago."


Blindfold and Alone: British Military Executions in the Great War

Cathryn Corns and John Hughes-Wilson