Search Form
font size: Increase | Decrease | Reset
Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

Private Abigail

Private Abigail: A Norfolk Soldier of the Great War

About 12,000 Norfolk servicemen lost their lives on active service during the First World War. Around half of these served in the county regiment, which was greatly expanded during the war from five battalions to twelve. Private 9694 Abigail, J. H., who served in the 8th Battalion, one of the British Army's new 'Kitchener' or Service battalions, has the unique distinction of being the only member of the Norfolk Regiment to have been executed by his own side during the war. For this reason his name was not included on any regimental or civic rolls of honour, though, unusually, he is commemorated in St Augustine's church, situated in an area of Norwich where he once lived and where sentiments were perhaps, as a consequence, less officious and more personal.

A Thorpe Hamlet childhood

John Henry Abigail was born on the 29th April 1897 in Thorpe Hamlet, a village in the hilly eastern suburbs of Norwich. His mother, Susannah Maria Abigail, was born in the nearby village of Great Plumstead in 1863, where her parents, William and Susan Webb, were agricultural workers. His father, John James Abigail, born in 1868, had lived in Thorpe Hamlet all his adult life, having moved there as a boy some time before 1881 with his widowed father, also called John, who worked as a labourer at the city gas works on Gas Hill. John James Abigail, like his father and generations of Abigails before him, had been born in and around the village of Bacton on the north-east coast of Norfolk. Both his father and grandfather had been carters there and he would follow a similar trade in Norwich, driving wagons for a number of employers including Bullards, where his cousin, James Abigail was the foreman blacksmith in charge of the brewery's dray horses.

John James Abigail and Susannah Webb were married in Thorpe St Andrew's church on 18 October 1891 and lived at 10 Gipson's Yard off Camp Road, Thorpe Hamlet, for the first twenty years of their married life, raising eight children there. John Henry was their fourth child and second son. No details of his childhood, such as whether he was baptised or where he went to school, have yet been found. In 1911 his elder brother William, then aged 17, joined the Territorials and would go on to serve in the Norfolk Regiment throughout the 1914-18 war. During the war he married and settled outside Norfolk and doesn't appear to have played any part in family's unfolding tragedy. Around 1912 the Abigails moved from Thorpe Hamlet to 17 Distillery Yard off Oak Street, Coslany, a predominately working-class, industrial area of Norwich north of the River Wensum but within the old city boundary. Bullards' Anchor Brewery, where Mr Abigail now worked, was just a few steps across St Miles Bridge on the south side of the river.

A hard life

Even taking into account their large family and meagre income, Mr and Mrs Abigail do not seem to have been very able parents. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC, formed 1884) had been keeping an eye on them since 1905, just after twins, Percy and Walter, were born and John Henry was aged about 8. An eighth and final child, Florence, was born in 1908. On 18 January 1916 Inspector Lycett of the NSPCC and Dr Laurence Mills called at 17 Distillery Yard. What they found there clearly shocked them, used as they must have been to scenes of poverty and destitution. Both parents were subsequently charged with keeping their children 'in a manner likely to cause them unnecessary suffering and injury to their health'. At the Police Court hearing the magistrates heard that their home was extremely dirty. The three youngest children's clothes were ragged and their bodies covered in lice and vermin bites. Their bedding was no more than a pile of soiled and revoltingly filthy sacks. Giving evidence, Dr Mills stated, 'it seemed almost impossible that human beings could exist amid such surroundings'. The Court heard that Mr Abigail earned 18 shilling a week, out of which his wife received 12 shillings housekeeping. This, in the opinion of one of the magistrates, was perfectly adequate to keep a decent home. That they were evidentially unable to do so was therefore a further indictment of the couple's moral character. While Mrs Abigail was acquitted, her husband was sentenced to one month's hard labour at Norwich Prison. In the meantime Percy, Walter and Florence were placed in the corporation workhouse in Turner Road, Heigham, to be deloused and reclothed.

The case was reported in all it shameful detail in the local newspapers, which could not but have had a detrimental effect on the morale of 18-year-old John Henry; who suddenly found himself the oldest male member of the household now his father was in prison and elder brother William on active service. His life, however, and those of thousands of young men like him, was about to change in an even more dramatic way.

Conscription

On 12 March 1916, two weeks after his father was released from prison, John Henry was conscripted. After only four months' basic training he found himself on the Western Front in France, fighting to stay alive in the slaughter of the Battle of the Somme. On 19 July 1916 the 8th Battalion Norfolk Regiment lost eighty confirmed dead, thirty missing and over 180 wounded in a futile struggle to capture a German stronghold in the shattered remains of Delville Wood. The wounded included Private Abigail; whose name appeared at the head of a long, alphabetical list of wounded published in the Eastern Daily Press in Norwich a few weeks later.

The nature of Private Abigail' wound is not known, nor where he was located between July and December -his Army Service papers, which would have detailed his movements, have not survived. However, in December 1916 it is known he was stationed at an Army camp at Felixstowe in Suffolk, for it was from here that he committed his first recorded offence against military discipline - going absent without leave for eight days. He was arrested in Norwich on Boxing Day 1916 and received 168 hours' detention and forfeited nine days' pay. The reason for his desertion has not survived in the records, but it cannot have been purely coincidental that his offence coincided with another moment of family crisis.

After their court case in January 1916 Mr and Mrs Abigail were regularly visited by the NSPCC. Each time they were warned to keep their youngest children clean and to make sure that they attended school. On 16 October Inspector Lycett called at 17 Distillery Yard and found Mr Abigail still in bed at one o'clock in the afternoon. On questioning Mrs Abigail, a woman clearly at her wit's end, it emerged that her husband hadn't been downstairs for two days because he was sleeping off a heavy drinking session. She was warned again to improve matters. Matters finally came to a head on 21 November 1916 when Inspector Lycett and Dr Mills entered the Abigails' home and had the three youngest children removed to the workhouse. Both parents were again summonsed to appear at the Police Court on a second charge of wilful child neglect. On this occasion the magistrates found both guilty and sentenced Susannah and John Abigail to, respectively, one month's and six weeks' hard labour at Norwich Prison. Had Private Abigail been refused leave at this time while anxious to get home and see what he could do to ease his family's plight just before Christmas, with both of his parents now in prison and his youngest siblings in the workhouse? Mrs Abigail was due to be released from prison on Christmas Eve. Private Abigail was arrested on Boxing Day. Did mother and son spend Christmas Day together? If they did it would be the last one they would have.

Two weeks after serving out his detention in Felixstowe, Private Abigail was in trouble again - confined to barracks for five days for having a dirty rifle on parade. On 22 January 1917, two days after this second period of detention, he went absent without leave for the second time, voluntarily handing himself in at Britannia Barracks near Thorpe Hamlet where he had spent his childhood five days later. Again, this desertion coincided with a family crisis - the release of his father from prison after having served six weeks' hard labour without remission. This time Private Abigail's punishment was much harsher. In addition to detention and loss of pay he had to endure fourteen days' Field Punishment Number One, a painful and humiliating punishment in which the prisoner, dressed only in a shirt and breeches, was tied or manacled to the wheel of a gun carriage or wagon for hours on end, outside at the mercy of the elements and terrifying NCOs. Private Abigail's punishment coincided with of one of the coldest winters in living memory. It is likely that his opinion of the Army by this time was not very high.

Desertion

By April 1917 Private Abigail was back with the 8th Battalion on the Western Front preparing to go into action in the Battle of Arras. On 4 May his platoon was ordered to hand in their packs and be ready to move into the assembly trenches later that day, a sure indication that they were about to go over the top. For whatever reason, fear, stress, mental incapacity or 'cowardice', he decided to desert again. He was captured eight days' later near the vast Army camp at Etaples near the French coast just south of Boulogne. At his Court Martial he was found guilty and sentenced to ten years' penal servitude - sentence suspended pending review. It is a little known fact that while over 3,000 British Empire servicemen were found guilty during the war of military offences for which the ultimate sanction was death, only around 340 were actually executed; about forty of whom had been found guilty of murder, which was in any case still a capital crime in civilian life. Unfortunately, the transcript of Private Abigail's first Field General Court Martial has not survived. Was there some extenuating circumstance that persuaded the Court to commute the death penalty to penal servitude this time? Military courts at this time were beginning to take into account whether the accused had been wounded in action, so perhaps his injuries during the Battle of the Somme the previous summer were entered as a mitigating circumstance on this occasion.

Trial and punishment

On 30 July 1917, the 8th Norfolks were waiting in reserve trenches in the Comines Canal area of Flanders for their orders to go over the top at the start of the Third Ypres offensive, a bloody, mud-drowned nightmare later known as the Battle of Passchendaele. Private Abigail would presumably have known that if he deserted again and was caught he would almost certainly be shot this time. Such seems to have been his desperation, however, that he deserted again. Shell shock cannot be ruled out. Prior to going over the top at Ypres the front-line troops had to endure ten days of barrage in which the artillery fired over four million shells at the German positions. This time Private Abigail was caught by a mounted military policeman after only three days on the run at the French village of Staple. His Court Martial was convened on 24 August and probably lasted no more than twenty minutes. Throughout the proceedings Private Abigail did not speak in his defence, called no witnesses and did not request a prisoner's friend (normally a junior officer from the defendant's company to speak in his defence). He seems in fact to have been either resigned to his fate or too shell-shocked to realise what was happening. Found guilty, the Court had no option, given his previous record of desertion, but to request the death penalty. This was confirmed sixteen days' later by the Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front, Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig. Two days later the confirmation of death by firing squad was 'promulgated', a grim ceremony in which the prisoner was read the decision of the Court on the parade ground in front of as many of his comrades as could be assembled. The men of his company, Company "B", then drew lots to select the firing squad and the following day, Wednesday 12 September 1917, at dawn, Private John Henry Abigail was executed somewhere between the 8th Battalion's rest camp at Rubrouck and the French village of Esquelbecq. He was 20 years old.

Pte John Henry Abigail's remains are buried in a grave cared for by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission at Esquelbecq Communal Cemetery in Nord, France, and he is also commemorated on the Great War Memorial screen in St Augustine's church, Norwich, and at the Shot at Dawn Arboretum near Lichfield. In November 2006 Private Abigail was among 306 executed British servicemen of the First World War to receive a pardon by HM Government.

Sources/Further reading:

  • Shot at Dawn, Julian Putkowski and Julian Sykes (Pen and Sword, 1998)
  • Eastern Daily Press
  • Royal Norfolk Regimental Museum
  • The National Archives

Stuart McLaren

May 2008