The Boy Executioner
12 November 2005
Victor Silvester became a legendary band leader. But here, on this Remembrance weekend, his grandson reveals how he joined the Army at 14 and was forced to shoot First World War deserters at dawn
The most poignant image among my collection of family photographs was taken in 1914. It shows my grandfather, Victor Silvester, in the battle-dress uniform of the London Scottish regiment. He is clearly very proud to be wearing it. His expression is intensely serious, but also serene, and his face has a child’s sheen to it.
That is because Victor was just 14 when the picture was taken. And he was 15 when, after a few months” training, he was sent out to France to fight in the trenches. And after that, unimaginably, he was forced to do something still more horrific.
His mother had given him a small New Testament with “The Lord is my righteousness” inscribed on a copper plate inside the cover and he had promised her that he would carry it in his breast pocket next to his heart. I know all this because before he died in 1978, I urged my grandfather to tell me about his experiences as a boy soldier. He showed me his wartime memorabilia, including photographs, drawings, letters and a short diary, and he typed out his reminiscences.
“We went up into the front line near Arras, through sodden and devastated countryside,” he wrote. “As we were moving up to our sector along the communication trenches, a shell burst ahead of me and one of my platoon dropped.
“He was the first man I ever saw killed. Both his legs were blown off and the whole of his face and body was peppered with shrapnel. The sight turned my stomach. I was sick and terrified, but even more frightened of showing it.
“That night I had been asleep in a dugout about three hours when I woke up feeling something biting my hip. I put my hand down and my fingers closed on a big rat. It had nibbled through my haversack, my tunic and pleated kilt to get at my flesh. With a cry of horror I threw it from me.”
Miraculously that terrified teenager who was too young to shave survived The Great War. He went on to be a world champion ballroom dancer and a bandleader.
In the 1940s and 1950s, with his Victor Silvester Orchestra on the BBC Light Programme and World Service, he became a byword for the white-tie-and-tails elegance of the dance floor. His catchphrase of “slow, slow, quick quick, slow” became known in households throughout the land.
Yet how many of those who watched and listened and tapped their feet to his broadcasts had any notion of the living hell this legendary entertainer had endured as a boy soldier?
And how many today realise that, according to some estimates, as many as 250,000 boys – some of them as young as 13 and all of them under the conscription cut-off age of 18 – went away to fight, with the connivance of the authorities? Or that half of them never returned?
My grandfather was born during the Boer War on February 25, 1900, and was christened just days after news reached Britain that Ladysmith had been relieved. Patriotic fervour swept Britain and he was named Victor on account of the good news. The son of a Wembley vicar, he was educated privately at schools that charged lower fees for the sons of the poorer clergy. He was never a keen student and soon after the outbreak of war in 1914 ran away from school to join up, just like so many other boys of his day.
“The mood of the country was one of almost hysterical patriotism, and no excuses were accepted for any man of military age who was not in uniform,” he explained.
“Rude remarks were made about them in the streets. Sometimes they were given white feathers.”
Furthermore, recruiting sergeants were paid for every man who signed up. They were flooded with recruits -- on a single day in September 1914, 30,000 people signed up – and happily turned a blind eye if anyone was under-age.
On the morning Victor played truant and went to the headquarters of the London Scottish at Buckingham Palace Gate in London, he was exactly 14 years and nine months.
“A sergeant in the recruiting office asked me my age,” he said.
“18 and nine months.” “All right,” the sergeant said. “Fill in this form and wait in the next room for the medical officer to look at you.”
Of course, it would have been obvious that my grandfather was under-age. But the British Army never bothered with such details or asked for birth certificates. So he was accepted.
The boys like him who signed up were full of enthusiasm. Brought up on popular stories of adventure and heroic deeds, and often encouraged by their fathers, they thought nothing of the horror of war. The nation’s great poet and writer Rudyard Kipling was so caught up in the national mood that he encouraged his only son, John, to enlist as an officer at the age of 16.
John was rejected on medical grounds because of poor eyesight, but insisted he wanted to serve. Kipling persuaded the Commander in-Chief, Lord Roberts, to ignore the medical and his true age.
John Kipling was listed as “Missing, presumed killed” in his first action and his father later wrote a couplet to reflect his anguish and guilt: “If any ask us why we died Tell them, Because our fathers lied.”
My grandfather had been in France for six months when he was wounded. Not badly – he received a shrapnel wound to his backside.
And while he was being treated, the military authorities discovered he was only 15. It should have meant a release from the horror of war, but the discovery was to make things far worse for him.
He was sent back from the front line to the base camp for British, Imperial and Dominion soldiers at Etaples, in northern France. There, he was recruited as part of a firing squad to execute deserters.
Between 1914 and 1918, the British Army identified 80,000 men (2 per cent of those who saw active service) as suffering from shellshock, an illness that had never been diagnosed before.
Some of those unable to cope deserted, were court-martialled and shot. In total, British courts martial condemned 306 soldiers to be shot at dawn, including 25 Canadians, 22 Irishmen and five New Zealanders.
The firing squad was the most harrowing experience for 16-year- old Victor, and one that he described in heart-stopping detail. “The victim was brought out from a shed and led struggling to a chair to which he was then bound and a white handkerchief placed over his heart as our target area. He was said to have fled in the face of the enemy.
“Mortified by the sight of the poor wretch tugging at his bonds, 12 of us, on the order, raised our rifles unsteadily. Some of the men, unable to face the ordeal, had got themselves drunk overnight.
“They could not have aimed straight if they tried, and, contrary to popular belief, all 12 rifles were loaded. The condemned man had also been plied with whisky during the night, but I remained sober through fear.
“The tears were rolling down my cheeks as he went on attempting to free himself from the ropes attaching him to the chair. I aimed blindly and when the gunsmoke had cleared away we were further horrified to see that, although wounded, the intended victim was still alive.
“Still blindfolded, he was attempting to make a run for it still strapped to the chair. The blood was running freely from a chest wound. An officer in charge stepped forward to put the finishing touch with a revolver held to the poor man’s temple.
“He had only once cried out and that was when he shouted the one word ‘mother’.
“He could not have been much older than me. We were told later that he had in fact been suffering from shell-shock, a condition not recognised by the Army at the time. Later I took part in four more such executions.”
The truth is that not only were several of Britain’s boy soldiers among the firing squads, but also among those executed by their fellow soldiers for cowardice and desertion.
And each account of an execution is as painful to read as the last. One soldier, James Crozier from Belfast, who enlisted when he was 16, deserted during the battle of the Somme and was sentenced to be shot at dawn.
His comrades gave him so much rum that he passed out and had to be carried to the place of execution. The firing squad deliberately missed, so it was again left to an officer to dispatch him with a shot to the head.
Private Abe Bevistein, a Polish-Jewish immigrant from Mill Hill in London, enlisted aged 16, claiming to be 19 and giving his surname as Harris. After being left shell-shocked by a grenade blast, he went into hiding and was court-martialled. “Dear Mother,” he wrote home, “We were in the trenches. I was so cold I went out [and took shelter in a farmhouse]. They took me to prison so I will have to go in front of the court. I will try my best to get out of it, so don’t worry.” He was shot by firing squad at Labourse, near Calais, on March 20, 1916.
Eventually my grandfather was relieved from his duty with the firing squad and served as a stretcher-bearer with the 1st British Ambulance Unit in northern Italy, where our Italian allies were fighting against Austrian and German troops. This did nothing to prevent him from witnessing further horrors.
One night, Victor and another ambulance man named Foster were unable to return to their post because of the heavy bombardment of the road, so they rested for a few hours in a large barn, groping around in the dark and finding a couple of stretchers on which to lie down.
“To me the walls seemed rough and somewhat irregular as I felt with my right hand, but I was too tired to investigate further,” he recalled. “I soon fell asleep.”
The following morning he was woken by a renewed bombardment before dawn and saw that the floor beneath his stretcher bed was a mass of congealed blood: “I jumped up, then saw what I had taken to be the wall on my right.
“It was the soles of hundreds of boots on the feet of dead soldiers, whose bodies had been stacked one on top of another the whole length of the barn, from the floor up to near the roof.
“There had been no time to bury them. We had noticed the smell the night before, but were well used to the stench of war.”
During fighting near a town called San Gabriele, Victor was carrying wounded Italian soldiers from the first-aid post to a point some 600 yards away where ambulances were parked.
He made several trips as shells burst all around, but eventually sustained a shrapnel wound to the lower leg, just above the ankle. He received the Italian Bronze Medal for Military Valour for his part in evacuating the wounded.
Yet in the diary he kept for this period, I made a shocking discovery. An entry written in pencil had been erased, although the words had clearly left their impression.
By gently rubbing a soft lead pencil across the page I was able to reveal my grandfather’s appalling secret. He had noted that he had found a couple of wounded “Boche” in a shell-hole and instead of offering them medical assistance had dispatched them with a grenade.
If it was a war crime for a soldier to kill enemy wounded, it was worse for a non-combatant to do so. But my teenage grandfather had been brainwashed by government propaganda to believe that all German soldiers were beasts who killed women and children, even Belgian nuns.
Was he more susceptible to the propaganda because of his impressionable age? It is impossible to say. But years later, he was still haunted by the memories of those killings and the other deaths he witnessed as a young teenager.
Victor Silvester was one of the lucky ones, though. Troubled and harrowed he may have been, but at least he survived and was able to lead a life of fun and fulfilment where so many others like him never had that privilege.
Tomorrow when we give thanks for the sacrifice of our armed forces, we should all of us spare a special thought for the boy soldiers of World War I. We should look at our own teenage sons and in doing so try to gain a fuller understanding of the horror these boys went through.
And we should pray that never again will so many, so young, suffer such a terrible ordeal.