Joseph Stones

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Joseph William Stones
Crook, County Durham
Died18 January 1917 (aged 24)
near Arras, France
Allegiance United Kingdom
Service/branch British Army
RankLance Sergeant
UnitDurham Light Infantry
Battles/warsFirst World War

Lance Sergeant Joseph William Stones (1892 – 18 January 1917) was a British soldier during the First World War who was executed for cowardice. He later became the first Briton so executed to have his name added to a war memorial.


Stones was born and grew up in Crook, County Durham, and worked as a miner before the war. When the war began in 1914 he volunteered to join the British Army, but was rejected because he was too short in height.[1] By 1915 the army had lowered its requirements, and Stones joined the 19th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry in 1915. He was commended for his bravery several times,[2] and fought in the Battle of the Somme.[3]

Night of 26 November 1916 and subsequent military legal proceedings[edit]

The incident for which he was executed occurred in the trenches near Arras on 26 November 1916. According to his statement at his court martial, his officer, Lieutenant James Mundy, mortally wounded during an encounter with a German patrol approaching the British trenches, ordered him to go for help. Stones testified that he was unable to fire his rifle because its safety catch was on and the cover was over the breech, so he had jammed it across the trench and abandoned it to slow down what he took for a German raiding party entering the British line, whilst he withdrew to the rear seeking help. He was subsequently stopped by Brigade police further back attempting to outside the forward line trenches area.[4]

In spite of Stones' statement as to the order that he had received, and one from his Commanding Officer that: "he is the last man I would have thought capable of any cowardly action",[2] he was convicted of "shamefully casting away his rifle" in the face of the enemy, and sentenced to death. The General commanding the 106th (Infantry) Brigade, Brigadier H. O'Donnell, upheld the verdict and death sentence, in spite of his doubts about the quality of the evidence presented.[1] On 11 January 1917 the matter was placed before Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig as the Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force, along with the files of 10 other men from the 35th Division whom had been tried and sentenced to death for desertion in the presence of the enemy in the same incident. Haig confirmed three of the death sentences (including Stones'), and effectively pardoned the remaining eight men.[5]

Stones was executed at Roellecourt in France by a firing squad on 18 January 1917, alongside two Lance-Corporals, John McDonald and Peter Goggins, also of the 19th Battalion D.L.I., who had been similarly sentenced to death for casting away their rifles and abandoning their posts in the same affair. All three were transported to a field in a motor ambulance vehicle manacled and blindfolded, where upon arrival they were escorted from the vehicle and tied to three wooden posts fixed in the earth, and shot simultaneously by three separate firing squads of 12 men each from their regiment.[6] The chaplain who prayed with them before their deaths remarked that he had never met three braver men.[7] Stones' body was buried in the British military cemetery at Saint-Pol-sur-Ternoise.[8]

Post-war events[edit]

Like many men executed for cowardice in World War 1 in the British Army, Stones became a source of shame for his family, and his name was rarely mentioned.[9] His great-nephew, Tom Stones, only discovered that he existed accidentally while researching his family tree, but later became prominent in the campaign for a Royal Pardon for Stones and the other servicemen executed for cowardice during the First World War.[4]

In 1997, Wear Valley Council took the then unprecedented decision to add Stones' name to the war memorial in Crook, after the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, John Reid, announced a government review of the cases of the men executed in World War 1 for desertion.[3][4] Stones was officially pardoned in 2006 along with the 305 other British soldiers who had been similarly executed in the First World War.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Lloyd, Chris (16 August 2006). "The final victory". Darlington and Stockton Times. Archived from the original on 4 May 2007. Retrieved 20 November 2007.
  2. ^ a b Burrows, Andy (25 July 1998). "Nephew's fight continues over shot sergeant". The Independent. Retrieved 19 November 2007.[dead link]
  3. ^ a b Stokes, Paul (18 September 1997). "Place of honour for true hero shot as coward". The Daily Telegraph. Archived from the original on 24 August 2004. Retrieved 19 November 2007.
  4. ^ a b c Stokes, Paul (21 June 1997). "Soldier shot as coward will be added to war memorial". The Daily Telegraph. Archived from the original on 27 November 2004. Retrieved 19 November 2007.
  5. ^ 'Douglas Haig: War Diaries & Letters 1914-1918', by G. Sheffield & J. Bourne (Pub. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005).
  6. ^ Article on the execution of Peter Coggins, 19th D.L.I., died 18 January 1917 on the 'Durham at war' website (1919).
  7. ^ Elliott, Francis; Stummer, Robin (28 March 2004). "Is a pardon in sight for Billy Nelson, one of 306 soldiers shot by firing squad in WWI?". The Independent. Archived from the original on 20 April 2013. Retrieved 19 November 2007.
  8. ^ Entry for Stones' grave in Commonwealth War Graves Commission website (2019).,-joseph-william/
  9. ^ "Families remember executed soldiers". BBC News. 7 November 1998. Retrieved 19 November 2007.
  10. ^ "300 WWI soldiers receive pardons". BBC News. 16 August 2006. Retrieved 19 November 2007.

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