In wartime, any officer with a legal qualification was likely to find himself ordered to take part in the military justice system. It could be a terrible responsibility.
Henry Lawson, who later went on to a distinguished career including presidency of the Law Society in 1962, but in 1917 he was utterly unprepared to be called as one of three officers trying a case. He recalled: 'I had never attended a court martial, let alone sat as a member of the court. I suppose in my examinations I may have read something about the subject, but I knew virtually nothing.'
The defendant, 'a charming boy of 19 or so with pink cheeks and blue eyes' who admitted the charge of sleeping at his post. 'This did not surprise me because one or twice on my night rounds I had found a sentry asleep, absolutely worn out, whom I dealt with in my own manner.' This apparently involved firing a rifle six inches from the sleeper's ear and shouting 'They're coming!'.
As junior member of the court, Lawson had to give his verdict first and he recommended a reprimand, saying he held the platoon commander in part responsible. 'Silence reigned until the Colonel told me that if I found the boy guilty there was only one sentence I could pass... the death penalty.'
Lawson responded that he would 'be prepared to be taken out and shot, which the enemy would probably do to me anyway before the end of the war, but in no circumstances whatever would I pass the death sentence upon that boy with whom I sympathised.'
In the end the court agreed on 40 days 'confined to barracks... whatever that meant in the line'.
The prisoner 'showed no emotion, no relief, thus confirming by belief that he had no idea that his life had been at stake.'
In 1979* Lawson recalled: 'All was mysterious to me, but I have never forgotten that charming boy with pink cheeks and blue eyes, whose life I have always felt I saved. I can still see his face.'
*Vignettes of the Western Front, Henry Lawson, Positif Press 1979. We would like to thank Lawson's grandson, Freddie Lawson of W. Davies Solicitors, Woking.