'So many soldiers were executed for desertion ... the British were particularly vicious'
GREY dawn broke over the killing fields of Ypres and one solider knew for sure he would not live to see nightfall.
As Europe's youth were scythed down by the machine guns of the First World War, Private Charles McColl got up for the last time.
On the morning of December 28, 1917, he was shot by his own side for desertion.
Pte McColl's death would be just a footnote in the war's bloody history were it not for Private Percy Cawkwell, a young medic from Beverley Road in Hull.
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"One patient who had been with the Division in the Ypres Salient brought news of the East Yorkshire lad who was shot for desertion," he wrote in his diary.
"He said he got the information from a corporal in East Yorkshire's division, who had been there when they read the lad's name out at a parade.
"The name of the soldier they shot was McColl. It was right, he was from Hull."
Pte Cawkwell's diaries were discovered years later by historian Ronald Fairfax and published in 2008.
The medic, who died decades after the war, also wrote a series of poems, including one about the execution.
Now, Mr Fairfax intends to use them for the basis of a new book ahead of the war's centenary commemorations.
"There were so many soldiers executed for desertion," Mr Fairfax said.
"The British were particularly vicious.
"The Germans, on the other hand, shot relatively few for cowardice."
Pte McColl was executed by soldiers from his own company.
There would have been between six and 12 men in the firing squad, each issued with one round.
A blank cartridge was loaded into one rifle to spare them the guilt of knowing they were responsible.
But experienced infantrymen could have told from the recoil if they had fired a live bullet.
If the accused was still alive after the shots, he was dispatched with a pistol bullet to the head.
"In today's Army, McColl would not have been enlisted," Mr Fairfax said.
"He wasn't really compos mentis – his defence said his educational level was not high enough to make a decision.
"But by that time they were enlisting men in their 40s, so they were really scraping the barrel."
Pte McColl may have been unwisely thrust into a war he could not comprehend.
But Pte Cawkwell, affectionately nicknamed Corky, was barred from fighting despite being desperate to sign up.
He had to suffer the indignity of being handed white feathers to mock his cowardice.
"Corky couldn't get accepted because he was blind in one eye," Mr Fairfax said.
"But by the end of 1914, he was very upset by the number of times he received the white feather.
"The last straw was when a young girl approached him and asked why he wasn't in uniform."
So he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and headed to the Western Front.
"Corky wasn't a frontline soldier but he did do many hours on the frontline," Mr Fairfax said.
On October 24, 1917, the medic was stationed in Ypres, Belgium.
He wrote about being exposed to "fairly intense artillery fire".
Less than a fortnight later, he was hit in the foot and leg by shell splinters while evacuating a patient from the ruins of a wood.
His leg was stitched, without anaesthetic, by a medical orderly in a first aid post.
"The treatment and stitching up had been excruciating but now I had to worry about getting further treatment as quickly as possible," he wrote.
"I knew all too well of the dangers in treatment being delayed.
"My worst fears were that gangrene might set in and then it would be first a foot off, then a leg below the knee, and then the rest off at the thigh."
The injuries put Pte Cawkwell in hospital for a week.
After days of trudging through the mud, rest came easily.
He wrote of "doing nothing but sleeping, eating and having my leg looked at".
The sympathy shown to Pte Cawkwell contrasted sharply with the treatment of Pte McColl.
When Mr Fairfax first became interested in the war in the late 1970s, he tracked down Cecil Slack, the man who oversaw his execution.
"He had no sympathy at all," Mr Fairfax said.
"He said he was intelligent enough to find a woman in Bologna and live with her for three months after he deserted."
The hard times of the war bred hard men with an uncompromising attitude to military duty.
On a grey dawn in Ypres, that attitude cost one East Yorkshireman his life.
But because of the poetry of another, his name will not be forgotten.
Corky's War, an adaptation of Pte Cawkwell's diary by Ronald Fairfax, is available on Amazon for £8.99.