Paul Johnson, The Brookwood Killers (Frontline, 2022)
In The Brookwood Killers, Paul Johnson stitches together a compendium of murderers connected by their names appearing on a WWII memorial at the Brookwood Military Cemetery. His objective, he states, is ‘simply to supply the reader with the details…’. His agenda, however, is rather different.
Johnson begins with an overview of crime during WWII. He notes that reported crime rose 57% in those six years, fuelled by wartime restrictions. Johnson moves on to describe the process of execution and treatment of the executed bodies. He also remarks on the haphazard policies for commemorating servicemen convicted of murder – the ‘majority’ of their victims, Johnson fumes, lie in ‘unmarked graves [with] no formal recognition for them.’ Johnson arrives at the Brookwood Memorial and a list of 21 executed men; the list includes none above the rank of Sergeant, 15 were Privates or the equivalent, 6 were 21 years old or younger, and 3 were executed after the end of the War. Almost all were hanged (not ‘hung’ as Johnson repeatedly errs) except two killed by firing squad after courts-martial and one died by his own hand.
Other than a half-page conclusion, the rest of the book comprises short case-studies of the crimes for which the men were executed. These include a bigamist who murdered his baby, various sexually motivated killers, a drug dealer, an armed robber, a traitor, a jealous husband, a spurned lover, and a murder/suicide case. Other than being executed servicemen and appearing on the Brookwood memorial, they had nothing in common. Johnson’s structure for each case is the same: the location of the man’s name on the War Memorial, their service number and unit, and the date they were executed precede the account. Then Johnson describes the victim and assailants, how they came to commit their crimes, the investigation and evidence against them, the trial and sentence, and the aftermath if any – the exception is the treachery case of Theodore Schurch.
Johnson argues that despite his stated objective in just presenting details, this book is ‘an attempt to understand the circumstances, the actions and the outcome of a crime…’ But it is not: Johnson’s transparent agenda is to have the names of these executed men expunged from the Brookwood war memorial. He clearly resents them being included there, particularly when their victims are ‘often […] ignored or overlooked.’ Johnson deploys two intertwined and flawed methods to make his case. The first is to set up a false equivalency whereby no one visits the graves of the victims, but many people visit the war memorial and see these men’s names. It is false because there are 3,500 names at Brookwood; thus, the equivalency would be to argue that nobody visits the cemeteries where the victims are buried, which is highly unlikely. Some of the victims may also have been cremated or buried in pauper’s graves; just because Johnson does not know what happened, does not mean that others are equally ignorant. Moreover, at 80 years since the victims’ deaths, visits to their graves are likely less frequent than visits to a Commonwealth war memorial.
Appealing to his readers’ emotions is Johnson’s second method of bending the argument his way. He softens them up early by collating ‘murder, rape and mutilate’ and suggesting that war provided the ‘opportunity to seek out potential victims.’ A cursory glance at Johnson’s case-studies reveals that only a couple of these crimes fall into those two categories; the rest have tragic motives, but Johnson has already planted the image of the bloodthirsty killer seeking his chance to indulge his desires. As for the victims, Johnson’s introduction and several chapters conclude with the simple instruction: ‘Remember them.’ He reiterates that: ‘When you gaze upon the name of…spare a thought for them too’, as if somehow you are not already doing so. Johnson sometimes trips himself up with this mantra; for example, when he states in the case of Kitty Lyon that she ‘lies in an unmarked grave that has no visitors’, he has just finished describing her funeral ‘amid a mass of floral tributes…the sizeable congregation…at the grave a large crowd attended…’ Thus, Johnson does well to remind us of the victims, but they are not the sharp chisel he wants to use to eradicate the names of the executed. Then there is the inclusion of colourized photographs for victims, their assailants, and some locations. This is highly unusual for books on World War II, but it has the effect of making this all more current, to enhance the emotional impact.
To his credit, despite his shallow treatment of the sociological issues illustrated by his case-studies, Johnson just about manages to keep the lid on several cans of worms that once opened would produce a very different underlying narrative to his compendium. Scratch the surface of these stories and the brutality of the English judicial system in World War II lies exposed. Many of the juries recommended mercy for those they found guilty, but the judges donned their black caps anyway, and the Home Secretary backed the judges over appeals and petitions. Also evident are the backgrounds of some severely troubled men who were not allowed to go into combat but were able to come and go freely when it was clear that they should have been incarcerated or received treatment – despite the relative lack of mental health awareness, that is a telling factor. In addition, it is clear that race and ethnicity played a significant role in who lived or died at the hands of English wartime justice. Johnson includes the statistic that between 3 September 1939 and 31 December 1947, ‘at least’ 44 soldiers were executed for murder; 27 were colonial or native troops, including 3 Palestinian Arabs. The inclusion of some of them here is justified only because the executed men appear on the Brookwood memorial. A significant curiosity also appears, that again to his credit Johnson mentions; one-third of these case-studies relate to Canadian soldiers, which prompted a complaint during the war from a member of the Canadian judiciary, relating to the capriciousness in the way cases involving his countrymen were dealt with.
If reading compendiums of murders is something you enjoy, then Johnson’s book will appeal to you. But do not be fooled into thinking his gossamer threads of argument have any merit as they relate to who should be remembered and who should not, or how they are remembered. Johnson describes tragic events for all involved, but it does not take much digging to discover even deeper tragedies lurking in the undergrowth of these case-studies. A better book might have examined those as well.