George Mills, the son of Mrs Pilling of 142 Mortlake Road, was born in East London in 1894. George volunteered for enlistment into the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry on the 24th February 1915. Little is known of his background except that he was born in the East End of London in 1894, and is alleged (but not officially recorded) to have had a police record at the time of his enlistment. Within a matter of a couple of weeks, on the 15th of March 1915 he crossed to France in a troopship, and reported to the 2nd Battalion DCLI later the same day. The date indicates that he could not have completed more than a fortnight’s training, however the recruit training programme of the time was designed to last for six months. This period was occasionally shortened when the manpower demand on the western front was critical. It was, however, unprecedented for this to occur. His arrival coincided with the 2nd Battalion which was resting out of the line in billets at the Rue de Lettre about two miles south of Erquingham near Armentieres. He was initially employed as a company orderly and later as the soldier-servant of Lieutenant Evelyn Mulock. When the Battalion went up into the line again, Mills was, for some reason, left behind in billets with the rear details.
On 31st July 1915, he stole money, documents and general property belonging to Lieutenant Mulock, 2nd Lieutenant Martin and Private Lucas. Then, dressing himself in officer’s uniform, he went to Boulogne to enjoy his stolen goods. He was quickly arrested.
A field general court Martial was held at Boulogne on 10th September 1915. Mills conducted his own defence; it is not recorded whether he was accorded his legal right to be represented by a defending officer, or whether he refused to exercise that right. In his defence he stated: “ The other officers’ servants wer e always drinking and wanting to fight one another… The other servants were down on me because I did not drink. I dressed as an officer so as not to be stopped by the sentry of my regiment… I intended to go home for a few days and come back again. ” He was shot at 5:03 a.m by a firing squad on 29th September 1915.
During the First World War, the execution of soldiers was controversial and in total 306 men mostly volunteer soldiers were executed mostly for desertion and cowardice. By 1930 Parliament had introduced legislation banning the death sentence for the crimes which 306 of the men were shot. There were no recorded British soldiers executed in the Second World War, but a bill to pardon the executed soldiers of world war one was passed in 1993.
George Mills was one of hundreds of British army and commonwealth soldiers executed after courts martial for desertion and other capital offences during world
war one. They received no medal, are never mentioned in memorial services and their families got no pension. Of the +200,000 men who had a court martial during the First World War, 20,000 were found guilty of offences carrying the death penalty. In total 306 British and Commonwealth soldiers were executed during WW1. George Mills was the only DCLI soldier to receive the death penalty. The whole question of executing soldiers, many of whom like Mills were volunteers was always, and continues to be, contentious. On 19th October 1993, Mr Andrew Mackinlay (MP for Thurrock) presented a private members bill proposing a pardon for all soldiers who had been executed during the Great War for the offence of cowardice, desertion, sleeping at post, throwing away arms and striking a superior officer. His bill passed into law on 3rd November that year. Leading up to this, there exists correspondence on this subject between Mr Mackinlay and successive Prime Ministers, Mr John Major and Mr Tony Blair. It is perhaps of interest that both opposed the views of Mr Mackinlay on the grounds that it would be wrong to judge the decisions of men of a former generation brought up to a mores differing from those of today, and made at a time of desperate national trauma. In short, it was pointless to attempt to re-write history.
Military executions would appear to have been carried out ‘ pour ecourage les autres’ . Whether this was ever necessary or indeed whether it had the slightest effect is now highly dubious. The greatest crime that a soldier can commit in times of mortal danger is to abandon his comrades. It would appear that, in the eyes of fellow soldiers, this is what those executed had done. Generally speaking they received little sympathy. The first execution of a soldier during the war was Pte Thomas Highgate on 8th September 1914 and the last two soldiers executed were Pte Louis Harris and Pte Ernest Jackson on 7th November 1918. George was buried in Boulogne, among other soldiers. His record says: 18603 Private George Mills, 2nd Bn. Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, executed for desertion 29th September 1915, aged 21. Plot VIII. B. 81. Son of Mrs Pilling, of 142, Mortlake road Prince Regents Lane, Custom House, London.