30th June 1801
Two deserters were shot after landing on Guernsey
When two members of the York Hussars made plans to desert in early summer 1801, they decided that their best plan would be to head for France. Unfortunately for the deserters, their navigation was not up to scratch, and they never quite got that far.
The soldiers stole a boat from the closest harbour and set out to sea, eventually landing on Guernsey. Guernesiais and French would still have been widely spoken on the island at that time. They might therefore have initially have thought they’d succeeded – until they discovered their terrible mistake.
To all intents and purposes, they were still on home ground, and they were inevitably arrested. They were returned to the mainland and found guilty at court-martial. Their sentence was to be the standard punishment for desertion: death.
On 30 June 1801 they were taken up to Bincombe Down, near Weymouth, in a mourning coach. Two priests travelled with them, and several regiments were waiting when they arrived, including the Staffordshire, Berkshire and North Devonshire Militias, the Rifle Corps and the Greys.
Emma Thoyts takes up the story in her 1897 book, History of the Royal Berkshire Militia:
After marching along the front of the line [the condemned men] returned to the centre, where they spent about twenty minutes in prayer, and were then shot by a guard of twenty-four men; they dropped instantly, and expired without a groan. The men appeared sensible of their awful situation, and were very penitent. The soldiers then wheeled in sections and marched by the bodies in slow time.
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