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First World War Trials and Executions (Paperback)

Britain's Traitors, Spies and Killers 1914-1918

WWI 1914 1915 1916 1917 1918 20th Century

By Simon Webb
Imprint: Pen & Sword History
Pages: 192
Illustrations: 16 black and white illustrations
ISBN: 9781526796684
Published: 25th January 2021
This Week's Best Sellers Rank: #16


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Between the beginning of the First World War in the summer of 1914 and the armistice in 1918, 51 men were executed in Britain. The great majority, over 80%, were hanged for murder, but in addition to this, 11 men were shot by firing squad at the Tower of London. One traitor and one spy were also hanged.

Traitors, Spies and Killers tells the story of the most interesting and noteworthy of these executions and the crimes which led up to them. Most books about true crime focus upon the crimes themselves and the trials which followed them. In this book, Simon Webb explores in detail the fates of the condemned men, examining what happened to them after their trials and the circumstances of the executions. This makes occasionally for harrowing reading.

Trends in murder are also examined. For instance, a third of those executed for murder during the First World War had used cut-throat razors to dispose of their victims; a type of crime unheard of today. Others used pokers and axes, which are also exceedingly uncommon murder weapons in the twenty first century.

This is a book which will fascinate and horrify those with an interest in crime and the death penalty.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Where does one even begin with such a fascinating topic? Simon Webb has written about completely different perspectives than typical history books. He has researched the last moments of many who were executed, nearly all men, in England between 1914 and 1918; some were stoic, some terrified out of their minds and some resolute. Not only that but he describes the crimes, trials and manners of execution in vivid detail.

Considering the era, murder methods during the time were different in ways than they are now. Murder is often committed with implements at hand and then the most oft used was the "cut razor". The term is no accident. Other methods described include fireplace pokers and drowning. At times the conviction was obvious but that was not always the case. So many stories stand out in my mind but two in particular include a man who literally tried to run to his execution to get it over with and another of a man known by the executioner. Also described is where the prisoner spent his last night and why.

What intrigued me most were the last moments of those executed, how they interacted with guards, what they ate for breakfast and their walk to the scaffold or the shooting "gallery". Prior to read this book I hadn't thought about the executioner mentally (and sometimes physically) measuring the person's height, weight and neck in order to calculate the "drop" for a clean death. Two executioners were discussed in particular, especially a man called John Ellis who often visited his "clients" incognito to alleviate the stress of measuring in person. The author also describes the 30+ meter walk to death which must have felt like forever and the procedures involved in hanging and shooting (for those in the military). We are also told the salary for executioners then and the heavy weight an executioner carried. It all sounds positively morbid but it is riveting information.

The grisly descriptions are not for everyone but it is a highly interesting topic to those who wonder about the mechanics and processes of the death penalty.

NetGalley, Brenda Carleton

Webb presents the real-life stories of thirty-one trials that occurred during World War One in Britain, from 1914-1918. Each of these trials, separated in the book by murder method or type of offense, ended in execution. This book details the experiences of each man chosen for execution (there were no women on trial for murder during this time period), from sentencing to execution, and recounts the activities that took place in the cell of the confined and also during the execution.


First World War Trials and Executions: Britain's Traitors, Spies and Killers 1914 – 1918 is a well researched book from the historian of Simon Webb. The book as it says in the title investigates all those the state put to death for various reasons and gives a short picture of the reason why and how they were executed.

What Webb does tell us that during World War 1 the number of executions fell, and that in all a total of 51 men were executed in England. Most of those executed were hanged, 80% of those were for murder, and a small number shot for espionage. Only one spy and one traitor were hanged during this period.

The book neatly brings those with similar crimes together in one chapter, so those that used cut-throat razors for example, seven men, told who they were, who the crime is committed against and where their execution was carried out. They do this for all the chapters, so you are able to dip in and out of the book.

There are also short chapters about the Executioners which is rather interesting and how they came to the position and why they left. For those of a gorier bent there is also a chapter on The Mechanics of Hanging.

This is an interesting, short history book that has been well researched, well written and an ‘entertaining’ read that you can consume quickly. A book for all those interested in historic crimes and how things used to be.

Amazon Reviewer - Paul Diggett

As featured in

Essex Life Magazine
 Simon Webb

About Simon Webb

Simon Webb is the author of a number of non-fiction books, ranging from academic works on education to popular history. He works as a consultant on the subject of capital punishment to television companies and filmmakers and also writes for various magazines and newspapers; including the Times Educational SupplementThe Daily Telegraph and The Guardian.

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