Just another one of those things I don’t understand

“Shot at dawn”.

Why dawn? Why executions at 8 am or whatever when we did have judicial hangings?

I know why current US executions are at 1 am and the like – the death warrant is only valid for the one day. So, get it done early in case there is delay.

But why executions at dawn before that was a legal problem?

22 thoughts on “Just another one of those things I don’t understand”

  1. decnine has a point – squaddies being sick and firing their rifles sideways into other members of the firing squad would be a problem.
    When was this custom started? There is a reference to it being made compulsory by the British Army Act of 1881 – so it must have been optional before then – and the site suggests that the condemned soldier would be encouraged to get blind drunk to minimise his suffering; it also suggests that some of the firing squad would be expected to vomit even without having eaten breakfast.
    To answer Tim’s question: By 19th century standards, shot at dawn was designed to be relatively merciful.

  2. Given how bad I am at early mornings, my reaction to a sentence of being shot at dawn would have been “you chaps carry on without me, I’ll turn up later”.

  3. ‘Be sure and make a good job of it.’

    – Lt. H. H. Morant, South Australian Mounted Rifles / Bushveldt Carbineers



  4. Each soldier was issued with a little handbook “written by” the Field Marshal ( the one I saw was by Sir John French). It stated in very clear and concise English that being in a war meant that discipline was much stricter and that certain offences which in peacetime would result in a few months or years in prison now meant death.

    Discipline was a strictly controlled matter in the British Army, offences were punishable after a hearing and officially logged, whereas in the continental armies summary punishment ( eg striking the miscreant) was routine. As Patton discovered, hitting a squaddie was a bloody stupid idea.

    And as others above have said, early morning executions meant that there were likely no witnesses to cause trouble and that the accused would be woken up ( if he could sleep ) and mercifully executed quickly. Pierrepoint liked to boast that he could have the accused out of the cell and through the trap door before the clock stopped striking eight. Also executioners were employed on a per case basis and that this was their second job. If the execution was at Strangeways or somewhere similar Pierrepoint could be back in time to open his pub.

  5. There’s a Czech/Austrian film version of Good Soldier Schwejk, where our hero is about to go before a tribunal. The officers were discussing a previous case and the Colonel said “…So I told the corporal to take the prisoner out and hang him from a tree. The fool came back four hours later with the prisoner and said that he couldn’t find a tree standing to do the execution. So I had them both shot instead…ha ha ha…”

  6. Bloke in North Dorset

    Chris’s link is quite good and has a quote from Gordon Corrigan, author of Mud, Blood and Poppycock.

    There is a lengthy chapter on kangaroo courts and firing squads and he’s done a lot of research in to all the those executed by firing squad. He lists them all:
    Mutiny 3
    Cowardice 18
    Desertion 266
    Murder 37
    Striking or using violence to a superior 6
    Disobedience 5
    Sleeping at post 2 (They’d actually got down from their posts and curled up, not fallen asleep at their post)
    Quitting a post without authority 7
    Casting away arms 2

    He goes through in detail the cases that have faced most challenge and doesn’t find any problems. He’s quite scathing about the shot at dawn memorial:

    “…. nearly ninety per cent of the sentences of death were not carried out, and it is difficult for a soldier reading the records today to find a single case where it is obvious that an injustice has been done. That there is a memorial to those ‘shot at dawn’ in the commemorative arboretum near Litchfield is an insult to the millions of men who did their duty, frightened and experienced as most of them must have been. Those who were shot had let their comrades down. They had failed. They are not martyrs to injustice, and those who demand pardons for them, (and presumably by extensions any soldier punished in any way by military law) show a complete lack of understanding of conditions and requirements in a mass army at war. It may have been hard justice, but it was justice, and this was a hard war.”

  7. My grandfather, who volunteered and served in the Royal Artillery, was given a shooting test. He said he shot anywhere but at the target! I think it was to avoid being selected to be a sniper, but maybe being part of a firing squad was also a consideration. Too late to ask him now…

  8. I don’t know how relevant this is but I went to a bog standard comprehensive school in the 1970s. Canings were always carried out after assembly in the morning. The names of the miscreants, were read out at the assembly. These students would subsequently apologise for being late to class, everyone,including the teacher, would know why s/he was late and that it was best not mentioned.

  9. So the chaps who showed initiative where shot. And why not do the deed in frot of the whole army, to show what happens to people who think for themselves.

  10. HGS chaps who know they are pillocks tend to cover their traces where possible. Those who are pillocks but believe otherwise are happy to display their quality on blogs for all to see.

  11. Following on from BiND, note the total of 365 British soldiers shot by firing squad in WW1 – less than 1 in 10,000 of all those who served on the front line. Having one of your own executed was a major embarrassment to every regiment, who did their best to downgrade charges whenever possible.

    But of course most people’s knowledge of WW1 is taken from ‘Blackadder goes forth’.

  12. The execution of ‘Breaker’ Morant was the reason the Australian government insisted that no Aussie soldier could be executed without the consent of the Australian parliament.

    Since it was beneath the dignity of any British court to order an execution that was subsequently vetoed by the Aussies, no death penalties were ordered. British officers did complain about the intolerable indiscipline of those awful Aussies though.

  13. A military historian (retired)

    General Monash, the Australian commanding the Australian Corps in 1917-18 would have used the death penalty if allowed to do so.

  14. In the old days, they would have public hangings in the afternoon so crowds could assemble, drinks could be sold, pies etc eaten and the good seats in the bedrooms of the inns and houses round about could be populated by paying guests. This was for your usual ‘normal’ criminals as opposed to notorious or noble ones. Even bigger crowds for a grand day out. Often for nobility it included the drawing and quartering bits too. Nasty but apparently a big draw (no pun intended) on the day.

  15. I went out to Charing Cross, to see Major-General Harrison hanged, drawn, and quartered; which was done there, he looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition. He was presently cut down, and his head and heart shown to the people, at which there was great shouts of joy.


    Nice black humour – Harrison was one of the regicides and found guilty of treason, for which hanging, drawing and quartering was the usual punishment.

  16. Chris Miller

    just read the last line of that Pepys entry

    “Within all the afternoon setting up shelves in my study. At night to bed.”

    What we are missing of course is “In the forenoon did to a Swedish emporium of great size and complexity whereupon I did purchase goods for my study, which were furnished with instructions that I did not understand.”

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