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A recording of Fr Fitzmaurice SJ's account of witnessing an execution during the First World War.

The most unnerving experience that I have had since the war began—perhaps the worst I have ever had--was having to attend a man sentenced to be shot, and having to be present when the sentence was carried out. It was my first case of the kind, and, please God, may it be my last. I had the redeeming consolation of knowing that the poor boy (he was nineteen) died a magnificent death.

I went to see him the day before, heard his confession, and talked to him a little, arranged a little time-table for him of reading and praying, plotting to get his mind easy so that he might sleep.

I don't know what I said to him quite, but I do know that the Comforter of the Afflicted helped me, for he was almost happy when I left with the promise of Holy Communion before his great sacrifice on the morrow. Next morning I had to be up before daybreak—he was to be shot at dawn —for I had a three mile ride. I called at a convent chapel for the Blessed Sacrament at half-past four, and I was in the boy's cell as the church clock outside struck five. I found he had had a fairly good night, getting to sleep early according to my stratagem, and not waking till 2.30.

After that, the Corporal of the Guard told me, he had spent all the time with his prayer-book and beads. He was obviously glad to see me for what I had brought. When we were alone, I placed our Lord on the straw—there was nowhere else to put Him, and after all, it wasn't the first time He had been laid on the straw, was it?

The next, and last half-hour was spent as the last half-hour should be spent. We made our thanksgiving together, and all the while, though I was fully intent -upon what we were doing, I was painfully conscious of every detail of the moving picture that was being played outside.
Again the clock chimed out, a quarter past. A knock at the door and the Corporal entered with a glass of hot coffee and rum for the prisoner. I took it and closed the door again, and made him drink it slowly while we talked about the men outside, the Corporal, who was kind and a R.C., and some of the Guard who were sympathetic too, and silent, of one who was from his own town in Lancashire, and who was his pal, and so the hot drink was finished.

Then we said the Sorrowful Mysteries which I had timed to take us just to the end. During the " Crucifixion " my heart began to race as I heard the firing party some distance away formed up and marched off to the place to await our arrival. As we said the " Hail Holy Queen," there was some stir outside, and I was aware, though they made no noise, that the Corporal and his Guard were standing ready for us, hand upon the key.

Then we said the Angelus, and as I said the Fidelium Animae, the half-hour struck, the key was turned, and the door opened on the fixed bayonets of the escort. My boy stood to attention with a spring: I fixed his cap on, and he marched out of his cell like a soldier.

Then in the passage queer things happened,—the corporal and the escort all shook the poor lad by the hand and said good¬bye. I did the same and blessed him, and them. One man said to me : " He's a good boy, Father." " He's the bravest boy here." And we marched off.
In two minutes we were there—a garden. It was now full day¬light, a lovely spring day beginning, but what strange flowers in this garden : the firing party drawn up, a second party in case of accidents, the Provost Marshal and staff officers, the doctor, the stake near the wall—and the grave already dug. Straight up to the stake he walked, was blindfolded and fastened to it.

I whispered a last word in his ear, and then with a smile, seen by all, and in a voice as steady as a rock, and for all to hear, he said : " Alright, Father, I'm ready." The rest is silence.
We buried him there, and the very staff-officers, who had been his unwilling executioners, were there bareheaded as chief mourners. Two of them were Catholics too.

Thus the boy really died in the end for his country after all—for an example and a sacrifice, that's how I put it to him, and so he offered himself up for us. His death was necessary, though he had committed no fearful moral crime, and he died a hero in God's eyes—and in ours too. R.I.P.

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William Fitzmaurice SJ 1877-1945