The Execution of Private Edward Fairburn of the 18th


This article is part of the author’s research into the circumstances of the death by execution by a soldier of the 18th Battalion. Up until his desertion after 5-months of active service with the Battalion there is no indication of behaviour that would reflect cowardice.


Private Edward Fairburn, reg. no. 227098.

11 Maples Street, St. Catharines, Ontario.

This man was born at St. Catharines, Ontario on 21 September 1895 to Jane (Jennie) Fairburn. He became a machinist and resided at 11 Maple Street in St. Catherines. On 22 November 1915 he enlisted with the Depot Regiment of the Canadian Mounted Rifles at St. Catharines. His attestation papers indicated he had 7 months of militia experience with the 19th Regiment and he was single at the time of his enlistment.

At 20-years and 2-months old he stood 5’6” and it was recorded that he had a ruddy complexion, blue eyes, and dark brown hair. He practiced the Wesleyan faith. He had no distinguishing marks and he passed his medical with a weight of 148-pounds with a chest of 34” that expanded 2”. He was inoculated and vaccinated in January 1916 and his medical file shows no injuries, wounds, or ailments during his service.

His service card shows a transfer from the 2nd Dragoons, Recruiting Depot to the Canadian Mounted Rifles where he was issued his regimental number. It is noted that he was awarded 25-days detention on March 1, 1916, though there is no notation in his file as to the nature of the behaviour that required this punishment. He was then assigned to the 1st Overseas Draft on April 1, 1916.

He would embark in Canada on March 29, 1916, aboard the SS Olympic and arrive in England on April 11, 1916, being taken on strength with the Canadian Command Depot on 12 April 1916 and then he was attached to Lord Strathcona’s Horse Royal Regiment at Shorncliffe, Kent 12 June 1916.

On 17 September 1916 he was transferred to the 11th Reserve Battalion and was then sent overseas ten days later as he was transferred to the 18th Battalion. He arrived at the Canadian Base Depot at Etaples, France the next day and then was sent to the 18th Battalion joining it “in the field” on 10 October 1916, as it just finished serving at the Somme.

One the day of the beginning of the Battle of Vimy Ridge on 9 April 1917 he was listed as “Missing”.

Private Fairburn remained missing until a telegram informed the Battalion that he had be arrested a Bruay, France on 29 January 1918[i]. He had been absent from the Battalion for 295-days. He was returned under escort to the 18th Battalion on 31 January 1918. The Battalion was located at Hills Camp near Neuville St. Vaast.

On 18 February 1918 he was recorded to be suffering from a case of syphilis and had been sent to No. 30 Casualty Clearing Station for initial treatment and assessment. He was then transported to No. 3 General Hospital on 22 February 1918 and then transferred to the 51st General Hospital at Etaples, France the next day. This hospital specialized in treatment of venereal disease.

At this point his service record goes silent. It does not record the return of this man to his Battalion, nor the convening of a General Courts Martial. There is a notation on a more modern version of the docket containing folder stating “DECEASED 2-3-18”. From 22 of February to 2 March 1918 a court martial was affected and this man was sentenced to death and executed by firing squad.

No notation in his service file indicated how he died. There is no War Diary entry. There, as yet, is no eye witness account of his death. His Circumstances of Death Card states, “Shot by order of Field General Court Martial”.

There is a piece of evidence that he was tried with an officer from Canadian Corps Headquarters. Major Allan Pearson Shatford, Canadian Corps Chaplain witnessed Private Fairburn’s will. It simply stated:

“Last Will of Pte Edward Fairburn # 227098 5384

I give and bequeath to my mother Mrs. Jane Fairburn of St. Catherine’s, Ontario all the money or property belonging to me at the time of my death.

Edward Fairburn

Witness
Allan P. Shatford
Major Can Corps Hdqs France”

One hopes that Private Fairburn was healed of his disease but probably not. Treatments for VD could take up to four weeks, hardly enough time given the timeline outlined in this man’s service record.

On March 2, 1918, at, most likely, sunrise Private Edward Fairburn was executed near Villers Au Bois. Probably by fellow members of the 18th Battalion, usually a 10-man detail, a sergeant, and an officer commanding the execution detail. He would have been buried after a brief, and probably sparsely attended, funeral service. It is possible that his headstone simply stated “DIED” to differentiate his death from being killed in action or dying of wounds. Thankfully, his epitaph now reads “SLEEPING IN OUR FATHER’S ARMS”.

On 8 March 1918 the Toronto Star noted in the CANADIAN CASUALTIES section of the newspaper reported, oddly, that” Cancel [a previous report of death] Report Presumed Dead, Now with Unit.” Thus, the official information of this man’s death had not been reported through the military authorities. Yet, on the same day, the St. Catharines Standard published on the first page of their paper that Private Fairburn had been wounded at Vimy Ridge on September 23, 1917 and died at No. 51 General Hospital. Surviving was his mother, Mrs. J. Fairburn, his sisters Mrs. Avery and Palmer, and his brother Howard.

The 18th Battalion War Diary for the date of the execution makes no mention of the event.

The 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade War Diary (or which the 18th Battalion was one of the four battalions that composed this unit) makes no mention of the execution.

Thus, the death by execution of Private Fairburn devolves into the mists of time. A blank nothingness, save a gravestone, ironically, in a graveyard shared with three other men executed for desertion.

There is a notation of his document docket folder that his “Medals forfeited” though it appears they were issued at a later date. The medal card is undated and has no reference numbers to any of the medals, plaque, scroll, or the Memorial Cross for his mother.

So, passes the tragic end to a 23-year-old Canadian soldier. He is the only man of the 18th Battalion to be executed and this practice, though officially condoned by higher military authority, illustrates the moral and ethical objection that the participants felt for this practice. There appears to be a tacit act of suppression throughout this man’s experience. He is recorded to have died at the hospital he was supposed to be treated for a social disease. Though this man was going to be subject to a Courts Martial that held the death penalty the military bureaucracy had an obligation to his well-being and had a responsibility to cure him. It is unknown when his sentence was issued but most executions occurred withing 12 to 24 hours after the sentence was promulgated and confirmed by higher authority. Since most executions occurred at dawn Fairburn was most likely shot on dawn on 2 March 1918.

Much has been written about the controversy of executing soldiers of the Imperial Forces and much has been lost to history about the circumstances surrounding the military proceedings of the courts martial. In the case of Private Fairburn his service record reflects the institutional shame of the morality of the act. If the institution fully supported the act of execution the records would be more forthcoming and would allow greater clarity of this man’s death.

Such is the case with Private Harold George Carter, reg. no. 454482 of the 73rd Battalion executed on April 20, 1917. His service record of 18-pages is missing numerous sheets and, similarly, lacks specific information about the circumstances of his death.

All the men serving with the Canadian Expeditionary Forces who were executed during The Great War were pardoned by an official act of Parliament on 16 August 2006.

Their deaths still require us the bear witness and examine the darker side of our humanity towards others.

It is hope that this article helps us remember Private Fairburn and we remember that his failings, such as they were, are but a reflection of many of us.


[i] Note that the location is undetermined. There are several villages that have the name “Bruay” as part of their name. Bruay-la-Buissière and Bruay-sur-l’Escaut are two examples from the Pas de Calais  and Nord area of France.

2 thoughts on “The Execution of Private Edward Fairburn of the 18th

Add yours

  1. Their serivce records were expunged from that database because of the pardon. Please try to set some context to further comments at this blog.

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