A Duty to Execute.

A. A. Dickson

Captain, 2/7th Battalion, The Sherwood Foresters

‘A Duty to Execute’,


ImageThis is Captain Arthur Annan Dickson of the Sherwood Foresters Regiment. It is the only known photograph of a British Officer who commanded one of the 1916 execution parties at Kilmainham Gaol. What is not known, with any precision, is which of the leaders of the Rising Capt. Dickson’s firing party shot, although it can be narrowed down to one of the four leaders who were executed on May 8th, namely Cornelius Colbert, Edmund Kent, Michael Mallin or JJ Heuston.Neither Capt Dickson, nor his men would have known of the identity of the prisoner they were ordered to execute. And in all probability they did not care. His soldiers, just a few days earlier had seen many of their comrades cut down on Northumberland Road and Mount Street Bridge. They had suffered some 183 casualties, officers and men. Some horribly wounded by soft nosed bullets, many of them dead.  Indeed when Capt Dickson told his men they were to form a firing party it was suggested to him by one of the survivors of the Mount Street Bridge battle that it was un-necessary for the men to dirty their rifles and Capt. Dickson was asked if they could just bayonet the prisoner instead.These were desperately young soldiers, many with less than eight weeks service in the army, still half civilian, but so brutalised by the street fighting they had endured that they had been turned by war, into heartless cynical killers. But they shot their prisoner in the early dawn of the 8th May with cold military discipline.

Capt. Dickson himself had had a narrow escape at the Mount Street Bridge battle. He had been in the thick of the fighting and seen many of his fellow officers and even more of his men fall to the fatally effective rebel fire. He had been shot himself, the bullet entering his tunic and smashing into and lodging itself in the spine of his Field Pocket Book. He ever after kept the Pocket Book as a souvenir of his narrow escape and his luck in Dublin.  

The Pocket book exists still, with rebel bullet still embedded in the spine, the book now placed for all eternity in the Imperial War Museum.  It must  surely be the most evocative Pocket book in all of Irish History for there never was, in eight hundred years of the British in Ireland a more eloquent or dramatic entry into a English Officer’s Pocket Book than that rebel bullet fired from the barrel of a gun from which grew the Irish Republic.

After the fighting and after the surrender of the rebel forces Capt. Dickson found himself stationed at Richmond Barracks guarding the surrendered rebel prisoners. On 3rd May he commanded a detail of soldiers that took some three hundred of the prisoners and marched them through Dublin to the docks and escorted them all the way to Knutsford Prison in Cheshire where they were to be interned. He had tea with the Prison Governor before returning with his men to Dublin to resume their duties guarding the remaining Prisoners.   And on May 7th he escorted another prisoner, this time from Kilmainham Gaol to Mountjoy. The prisoner was marched across the city in the early morning, before the military curfew was lifted,  She marched, according to his memoir, filed in the Imperial War Museum, dignified and determined, walking stoically along the middle of the dingy streets, with half-a-dozen soldiers keeping level on each pavement, her deliberate pace, a slow march for the soldiers. It was the Countess Markiewicz , the daughter of an Anglo-Irish landlord who married a Polish aristocrat and them became a fervent Irish nationalist. She had been second in command of the rebels that fought at the Royal College of Surgeons and was the only woman to be sentenced to death. Her sentence was commuted to one of life imprisonment on account of her sex. Had it not been so she may well have been shot by Capt. Dickson’s firing party.

On the 8th May Capt Dickson commanded his firing squad, firing one of the volley of  shots that were to signal the end of the eight hundred year involvement of the British inIreland.

After, when all the killing was done, the Sherwood Foresters left Dublin, in its smoke and rubble and marched into the country to spend the rest of 1916, peacefully, training in Ireland for the Great slaughter in France. They trained hard, digging trenches across the Curragh and practising for gas attacks in Flanders. Their life in Ireland was not without its compensations. The Officers rode out to tea in the grand houses of County Kildare; there was a concert party for the soldiers in Naas Town Hall. They went to the Galway Races. Their Dublin dead were replaced and their Dublin wounded returned. New drafts of soldiers arrived, now conscripted. They were all anxious to bring the training to an end and to join the war inFrance.

In early 1917 they left Ireland for the trenches. They would find that Flanders andFrancewould take a greater share of Sherwood Forester blood than hadDublin. 10,189 would fall before it was all over, including many who had survived the battles of the Rising.

Capt. Dickson, for the remainder of the war, commanded a Trench Mortar Battery. His Dublin luck stayed with him. In the photograph he wears two wound stripes on the lower left arm. Both from further narrow escapes. His hand was damaged in an artillery bombardment on the Somme.  In the photograph he carefully masks the injury.  And in 1918 he was shot through the neck by a German sniper in the killing fields of Gommecourt, Northern France, a shot which ended his war. He returned to civilian life, to Lloyds bank where he rose to be bank manager in a picture postcard English town.

Reflecting on his war, on his role as an executioner and all who had been lost in Ireland and in France, he became a Quaker and a life long pacifist. He died peacefully in 1979. In the early 1920’s he had written his brief, powerful and important memoir of the war*. It is but a few pages of handwritten manuscript and on his death it was placed in the Imperial War Museum in London, a tribute to the men he had lost and the men he had killed, together with that most evocative Dublin Pocket Book with the spine smashed by a 1916 rebel bullet, the bullet still embedded and making it, perhaps one of the most evocative footnotes in Irish History.

John McGuiggan

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