Bernard McGeehan

Co. 48

To the soldier, luck is merely another word for skill.

~ Patrick MacGill

The worthless soldier


The Great War is not known for its happy endings. Millions of men died on the battlefields of Europe, painting the great canvas of the land with the blood of a damned generation. The slaughter is often forgotten. As are the men who were slaughtered. Bernard McGeehan was one such man. His story is one of heartbreak and betrayal in a cruel world. The saddest part is, everything you will read in this archive actually happened. 

Before I start telling Bernard's story, I would like to point out that it is believed that Bernard suffered from a form of autism, and this helps shine a light on certain aspects of his story.

Bernard McGeehan's grave in Poperinghe New Military Cemetery, Poperinge, West Flanders, Belgium.

Early Life

Bernard McGeehan was born in Raphoe, County Donegal, in 1888. His parents later moved to Moat Street in Derry City. It was here in Derry that Bernard, Neil, and Nellie McGeehan would grow up and go to school.  Bernard did not do well at school, and his teachers considered him to not be very intelligent.

After school, Bernard got a job working as a messenger boy for his local Post Office. Soon after, he began working as a groom for his father's business, which bought and sold horses in Ireland and England. He was very good at working with horses, and seemed to enjoy being with horses more than being with other people. In particular, he showed skill as a groom.

His parents would later move the family to Dublin, and their home at 7 Annesley Place, North Strand, Dublin. In a strange coincidence, North Strand was bombed by the German Luftwaffe during their Blitz campaign during World War II, in 1941.

7 Annesley Place would be Bernard's last home in Ireland.

The Diamond, Raphoe.

Moat Street, Derry.

7 Annesley Place, North Strand, Dublin.


On 11 November 1914, Bernard joined the 8th (Irish) King's Liverpool Regiment and was given the regiment number 2974. He registered himself in Liverpool City, and listed his lodgings as 10 Daulby Street, Liverpool. This was next to Royal Liverpool Hospital. The regiment was based in the nearby Shaw Street.

In terms of physical details, Bernard's service records tell us this about him; he was 5'5" tall, he weighed 147 pounds, and his chest measurements were 34.5" across. His eyesight was good. His teeth were very bad. Bernard listed his occupation as Groom. He listed his next of kin as Bernard McGeehan of 7 Annesley Place, North Strand Dublin. This was, presumably, his father. It is believed that his mother had died by this stage.

He trained with his regiment in England before being mobilised in Canterbury, Kent. Bernard arrived in Boulogne, France on 3 May 1915 with the Liverpool Irish and by 16 June they would be involved in combat on the frontlines of the Battle of Artois.

Daulby Street, Liverpool.

Shaw Street, Liverpool.

A town in the Artois region of France after the Battle of Artois.

Modern-day Arras, Pas-de-Calais, Artois region.

Discipline and Punish

On 14 July he was charged with being absent from duty, and was subsequently given three days of Field Punishment Number 2. This involved Bernard being bound in shackles and forced to do hard labour.

On 31 March 1916, Bernard was sentenced to 14 days of Field Punishment Number 1. He was found guilty of neglecting to obey an order and for losing government property by neglect. The offence happened on 24 March. The cost of the lost property was also docked from his wages.
Field Punishment Number 1 was much more cruel than Number 2. It saw a man tied to a gun wheel or another similar object in full view of the other soldiers. The man would be left in this position for up to two hours in one go, and would often be tied so tightly he could not move. The punishment was nicknamed “Crucifixion” and many soldiers believed it to be unfair due to the humiliation caused.

An artist's rendition of Field Punishment Number 1, similar to that suffered by Bernard in 1916.

Military Life

Life in the trenches was hell for all soldiers, but it was worse for Bernard McGeehan. He suffered from shell-shock. He found orders difficult to understand and carry out. The sound of gunfire and shells played on his nerves and freaked him out. His fellow soldiers were cruel to him, they mocked him and played tricks on him to make him believe they were under attack. This involved throwing stones and bits of metal at his head from behind, and then telling him it was shrapnel coming from a German attack. Officers and other superiors looked down on Bernard as inept, incapable, and insubordinate. They saw no value in him, and considered him to be a worthless liability.

On 4 May 1916, Bernard was sent to the store yards so that he could work away from the front lines. His officers believed this would be the best place for him to stay out of trouble. This would be short-lived however, as he would be made return to the front line during the Battle of the Somme.

A typical Allied trench on the Western Front from World War I.

The Battle of the Somme

The 8th Regiment joined the Battle of the Somme on 20 July at Guillemont, but in the early days of the battle their losses were so catastrophic that they needed every man they could get. This included Bernard. He was subsequently drafted back in and sent into the heat of battle.

A breakthrough was made by the Liverpool Irish on 8 August, when they pushed through a German attack into enemy territory. This proved to be a mistake however, as they forced their way through far too quickly, and back-up was unable to catch up and were swiftly cut off. The soldiers were forced to hold out for themselves beyond the German front line. They suffered many causualties. Bernard survived all of this, amazingly.

The regiment remained in the Somme for a further two months, enduring quiet patches pocketed amongst the conflict. They were not always directly involved in the fighting, but they were not safe, by any means.

Soldiers of the Somme.

Soldiers in the trenches during the Battle of the Somme.

Shell-Shock and Desertion

Bernard was in over his head and by September 1916 he was a total nervous wreck. His nerves were completely shot, and his wits were gone. His nerves finally gave in to the stress and trauma of the war on 20 September 1916, just as his regiment were about to re-enter the Battle of the Somme at Death Valley. Shell-shocked, he broke rank and decided to go for a walk to clear his head. He was stressed and bewildered, stranded in a warzone in a foreign country. After he settled his nerves, he tried to return to his regiment, but ended up getting lost. He went to the location in which he believed his regiment were stationed. They were not there. He was alone, lost in hell. He wandered around the Somme battlefields for five days looking for his regiment. An autistic man survived five days walking around one of the most vicious battlefields in world history. It is truly remarkable that he endured.

On 25 September 1916, he happed upon another British regiment, whom were stationed in Montreuil, Pas-de-Calais. Montreuil was the location of the British Army's French headquarters during the First World War. Montreuil was located over forty miles from where his regiment had been stationed when he broke rank. This shows just how far he had walked in those five days. He asked the unit he had found for food and provisions, as well as the current location of his regiment.

His regiment had moved on without him, leaving France and moving on into Belgium. They were stationed in the hamlet of Brandhoek in West Flanders, which is located between the cities of Poperinge and Ypres, by 28 September. An escort brought Bernard to his regiment.

The Town Hall in Montreuil, Pas-de-Calais, France.

Poperinge, West Flanders, Belgium.

The Trial of Bernard McGeehan

Bernard was accused of desertion on his return to the regiment. He was court martialled and the court did not offer him an officer to represent him, and since none volunteered, he was left to represent himself in his own trial. Obviously, he didn't stand a chance. The deck was completely and utterly stacked against him. Not a single person testified in his defence, while one record notes that at least six witnesses testified against him. Lieutenant Colonel Leech said that he was “generally well behaved but an indifferent fighter, of weak intellect, who was incapable of understanding orders”. He also said that Bernard had "committed the crime deliberately". Another had this to say about him; "He seems of weak intellect and is worthless as a soldier". Another soldier, one whom had known Bernard before enlisting, told the court that “he was inclined to be rather stupid”.

Within twenty minutes of his trial, Bernard was sentenced to death. An appeal to the King and a perogative of mercy were not offered to him. It took only two sheets of paper to cover the entirety of this trial.

Bernard's trial was a disgrace and would have broken so many rules in the modern day that it would be classified as a war crime and as murder.

It seems obvious that at least a few of Bernard's superiors would have known about his nerves, his inability to fight, the bullying he suffered, and perhaps even his disability.They ignored all of this however, and decided to make an example out of him for the other soldiers. Another issue they had with him was that he was Irish. Many of them considered him to be nothing more than a "Thick Paddy".

Ever since I joined up, all the men have made fun of me and I did not know what I was doing when I went away. Every time I go into the trenches, they throw stones at me and pretend it is shrapnel and they call me all sorts of names. I have been out here 18 months and have had no leave.

~ Bernard McGeehan, speaking at his trial, 1916

Bernard's medal card from 1916.


Bernard McGeehan was found guilty of desertion and sentenced to death by firing squad. He was shot dead by his own side at 6:16 am on 2 November 1916 in the West Flanders city of Poperinge. He was later buried in his final resting place in Poperinghe New Military Cemetery, so very far from his home. The cells in which he was held and the execution pole where he stood at his moment of death are still standing in the inner courtyard in the Town Hall in Poperinge.

The Death Cells in Poperinge, where Bernard was held before his execution.

The Execution Place in Poperinge, where Bernard was executed.


Bernard McGeehan was amongst the 346 British soldiers executed in the First World War. 306 of these men were posthumously pardoned by the British Government in 2006, and the Armed Forces Act 2006 was passed. Ninety years after Bernard lost his life, his family were finally shown justice.

As well as being buried at Poperinghe New Military Cemetery, Bernard McGeehan is also remembered at the Shot at Dawn Memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire, England.

Bernard's story was later adapted for stage by the late Derry playwright Sam Starrett in his play The Worthless Soldier, which retold the story of Bernard's trial and execution. It was first performed in 2006.

Shot at Dawn Memorial, National Memorial Arboretum, Staffordshire.

The Worthless Soldier by Sam Starrett.

The pardon stands as recognition that he was one of many victims of the First World War and that execution was not a fate he deserved.

~ Armed Forces Act 2006

Death of the Worthless Soldier

~ Joshua Perraton

The cell door is pushed open.
It is time.
I feel no fear for those things which I cannot control.
This was the way my life was meant to go.

I couldn't have changed it. I don't even think I would have.
The morning is cold. The mood is cold.
It is winter.
Belgium is nice, this time of year.

Gunshots play in absence.
I feel nothing. Sorrow and self-pity have divorced me.
I do not weep.
I am led out from my cell the yard.
I am tied to the pole.
The pole is cold against my skin. White is the cloth on my chest.
Vaguely, barely audible, I hear a priest giving me my rites.

My thoughts have returned to my youth.
I can see my mother.
Oh mother, how I have missed you! I am sorry, so very sorry!
I have let you down, oh mother!
I have failed.

But fear not, my mother. I will be with you again soon.
For I am nearly free.
Free of this accursed world with its guns and its pain and its death!
I liberate myself from this hell.

Forsaking my legacy I realise,
reality is a throbbing ache
which all men must endure.
But all men must die. Why delay?
No longer will I endure this hell.
No longer. This is it.

The end. Finality.
I lean back, touching my head to the pole.
The pole is cold like death, but I stopped caring a long time ago.
The shackles of liberation root me to the spot.

My fate is sealed.
I dimly open my eyes long enough to see my brave comrades...
my Brothers in Arms pick up their rifles.
An order is given by the one who is in charge.
I know not what was said, but from the soldiers' response,
I can assume.

I feel a sense of relaxation.
It is almost a trance.
Rifles shake and their tips illuminate.
Death beckons as the bullets race towards me.

The world has stopped spinning.
Everything has grided to a halt before the rapture.
I feel weightless, drunk on regret,
and I can hear nothing.

I am barely aware
of the sweet pain of the bullets
tearing through my flesh.
Then I feel weak.
But I am gifted with warmth.

The time is upon me.
I am finished.

Black follows.
A definitive.
My time here is done.

I never thought I believed
in hell before I came here.

Such is the price of entering heaven,
perhaps. Anyway, on with it.

The world returns to normal speed.
Gunshots ring out in the morning sun.

Birds fly away. Angels weep.
But I need fear, no more.

A typical First World War execution.

Executed by Shooting

~ Erwin Mortier

Light, bleak dawn.
The worn out night
Bursting open in my chest and fading.

My hands holding the glass -
my last one.
The priest bringing his god,
the doctor and his opiates.

Mother of God.

Out there she's warming
her feet against the coal.
Out there she's
turning in her sleep.

Do not aim at me, lads
Aim at the white cloth
on my chest.

Light, bleak light
etching words, bare
words in the wall.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

~ George Santayana

My Story


My name is Joshua Perraton and I am from Glenties, County Donegal. My story includes my first experience with the project, a very detailed account of an unforgettable trip to Belgium, further thoughts on the project, and a poem I wrote about the German war dead. I thank you for taking the time to read my story.

I was in fifth year when my history teacher, the project co-ordinator, Mr. Gerry Moore announced the project to my history class. I was very interested in taking part in the project, and so jumped at the chance to do so. I submitted an entry essay in which I outlined my own personal interest in World War I and the reasons why I wanted to take part in the project. I was so happy when I was told I had been chosen to represent both my county and my country in such a huge project.

First Meeting - Collins Barracks, 14 February 2016

Our First Meeting took place in the Palatine Room in Collins Barracks. It was an early start to get the bus to Dublin from Donegal but it was totally worth it. The meeting was a great success for everyone involved. There were presentations made by the various leaders, including Gerry Moore who outlined the project and what it entailed as well as giving some background into World War I as a whole. It was also outlined what would happen in Belgium when we went there on the actual trip. There were ice-breakers as none of the fifteen of us doing the project had met one another previously. We hit it off very quickly and I must admit that I forged a few very strong friendships that day. After being left to meet and converse with one another, we were divided into our respective provinces and given a folder containing all of the details for the trip to Belgium. Next, we were individually interviewed by RTÉ North West Correspondant, Eileen Magnier. It was so great to have Eileen on board for the project. Finally we got a group photograph taken in the splendid courtyard of Collins Barracks and then it was time to go. I then spent a few hours exploring Dublin City before having to take another four hour bus journey home!

My Research

Unfortunately for me, things did not go entirely to plan while researching my soldier. I was given a contact who, as I was informed, was very passionate about World War I and also my soldier in particular. I made contact with this person, and for reasons unknown to me, she was unable or unwilling to help me. After this, I decided to search for surviving family members. I managed to find one living around Derry City, but again I never heard back from this person so was left with two failed contacts. I came across an article about my soldier on the Derry Journal's website, and emailed them to see if they could help, and once again, I never heard back. I also made contact with the Shot at Dawn Campaign Irl via a Facebook private message, but they also were unable to help. By this point, I was unsure if I would be able to find any information on Bernard. That was when I came across - by chance - a website dedicated to the remembrance of Liverpool's war dead. This website included an article about Bernard called "Shot at Dawn". It was from here I acquired the majority of my information (the article can be found here). This article was invaluable to me in creating an image of Bernard as both a man and as a soldier. Sadly, no photos of Bernard have survived but I was able to find his regiment's cap badge, his grave, and some of the houses he lived in. I contacted a member of my family who once served in the Irish Army. She did some digging in the archives for me and was able to find Bernard's medal card from 1916. This was a great thing to have. I compiled all of my information on Bernard, as well as some photographs of his homes, maps of where he served in the Great War, and other miscellaneous images which I acquired throughout my research, into a PowerPoint presentation.

The Social Aspect

After meeting for the first time in February, we, the members of the project, began to get to know one another. We created a group chat on Facebook Messenger for all members after an unsuccessful attempt to create a Whatsapp group. We all got on very well and hit it off almost immediately. The group chat was used for both business and pleasure - for sharing information and ideas, for asking for advice, and also for the usual banter while we began forging friendships. I made good friends with some of the people who did this project with me. Later, we also made a group chat on Snapchat, which gets used less frequently. It was important for us to get to know one another ahead of the project launch, to eliminate awkwardness, but more importantly, so we would all become friends with one another. In early June, we made contact with one of the German students and began making a joint group chat for both groups of students - Irish and German. The trip worked wonders for us in terms of creating and strengthening our friendships. I genuinely regard some of my fellow project members amongst my closest friends now.

The boys of Belgium. Photo taken in Schipole Airport, Amsterdam.

Project Launch - Collins Barracks, 13 May 2016

It was soon time to return to Collins Barracks for the official project launch. It was great to see everyone again. Four students - one from each of Ulster, Munster, Leinster, and Connacht, presented their PowerPoints to us. It was incredible to learn of the individual hardships each of the four men suffered in the theatre of war, and the harrowing contrasts and similarities between their stories. Gerry made another presentation, and so did David Grant from the Leuven Institute, which is where we were staying while in Belgium.  The Belgium trip was outlined in its entirety, so we knew exactly what was to happen and when. We had an esteemed guest in MEP Marian Harkin, who made a powerful and emotional speech about the War and our responsibility to safeguard the future from such atrocities. Light refreshments were offered after and a group photograph was taken. I had the privilege of meeting Ms. Harkin after the presentations were all done, and I thanked her for her support and funding, as without her, this project may not have gotten off the ground. After the photos were finished, we all got a chance to chat and catch up with one another over a cup of coffee. Then it was time to leave, but it was a great day for everyone involved and a resounding success for Gerry and the rest of the My Adopted Soldier team.

Left and centre: Gerry and I at Bernard's grave in Poperinge.

Right: Visiting the execution place in Poperinge.

Travelling to Belgium

The trip to Belgium was honestly one of the most amazing experiences of my life so far. It was truly unforgettable - that is the only way I can summerise it. My fourteen fellow Irish project members were some of the sweetest, smartest, funniest, kindest, most down-to-earth people I have ever met and with them I have become very close friends even in the short time we have known one other.

After meeting at Dublin Airport on Tuesday, 20 June 2017, we set off for Brussels and later Leuven to begin our adventure, which began properly the following morning (Wednesday) with a quick tour of Leuven City followed by our first meeting with our German colleagues. We then did some ice-breakers after lunch at the Leuven Institute and a scavenger hunt in the city. Leuven is a genuinely stunning location and I would highly recommend visiting it at least once. Dinner followed and then free time within the city limits. We began to grow really close over the course of the day. We were also blessed with some very nice weather while in Belgium - temperatures soared as high as 32°C! There were some presentations in the evening and interviews with Eileen Magnier of RTÉ.

Thursday was the best day of the trip in my opinion. First off, we visited the European Parliament Building in Brussels. Talks followed from the MEPs Marian Harkin of Ireland and Gesine Meißner of Germany. We took some photographs in the European Parliament Building and then set off across Belgium to Messines where we made our first stop at the Island of Ireland Peace Park, a beautiful spot with an authentic round tower specially constructed, so we may remember both our war dead and our home country. Next up was Messines Military Cemetery, followed by the Pool of Peace. We took a minute's silence at the Pool of Peace in respect for the German soldiers who were blown to pieces in that exact spot. It was quite symbolic that new life, in the form of trees and other vegetation, should spring from a spot where so much death had occured. After the Pool of Peace we visited Wytschaete Cemetery and then Heuvellend Tourism Office where we watched a short video on the War on the Western Front called "Zero Hour". One of the most different stops of the day was the Bayernwald German Trenches, which were faithfully reconstructed to look just like the original trenches. Lastly, we travelled to to the city of Poperinge to see the death cells and execution place used by the British Army. It was at this spot that my soldier, Bernard McGeehan was executed by firing squad. It was a very emotional moment for me to stand, almost 101 years later, exactly where Bernard stood in his final moments. I was asked to present and say a few words to the group about Bernard, and then I got some photographs, and shot some footage for RTÉ's "Nationwide". Then I wrote a message for Bernard on a cross and placed it at the execution place. I got a quick look at the death cells and then we set off for a nearby hostel which was to be our base for the evening. We really bonded with one another here, spending the evening playing football, pool, chatting, and listening to music together.

Friday was our last main day. Our first stop after leaving the hostel was Poperinghe New Military Cemetery, where Bernard was actually buried after his execution. I laid on his grave the lyrics of "The Town I Loved So Well" in reference to a childhood spent in Derry City, and a Donegal and Derry GAA braid tied together to reflect his two home counties. I spoke to Eileen Magnier of RTÉ at his graveside and described his trial, death, and pardoning in 2006. After this we hit the road again, this time for a German cemetery. Visiting Vladslo was a shocking and saddening experience for me and my compatriots. To see the mass graves containing twenty men each and in poor repair was sobering. After visiting the statue of the Grieving Parents and laying flowers at their feet in remembrance, we Irish students took it upon ourselves to clear the grass and dirt off as many of the headstones as we could in the short time we had in the graveyard. It made us realise that the only difference between the Allies and the Central Powers was that the Allies won the war. After Vladslo we visited our penultimate Allied Cemetery, Poelcapelle. Inside this cemetery is the grave of John Condon, a Waterford native and possibly the youngest soldier to die in the Great War. The song "John Condon" was performed beautifully at the graveside by project members Jessica and Ciara, accompanied by David Dunlop, one of the leaders. My friend and project co-member Shane read a self-written poem at the grave of his soldier, John Sherman. Between the music and the poem, I was on the verge of tears such was the power and emotion of the performed arts in the cemetery. There was one more German cemetery to visit - Langemarck, which included an enormous mass grave in its centre containing 25,000 corpses. To see this was stark and gave a new perspective to the War from the German side. We had some free time in the Belgian city of Diksmuide in between visiting cemeteries to get some lunch. The final cemetery we visited was Tyne Cot - the largest British military cemetery in the world. There was a sense of joy enclosed within the grounds of Tyne Cot which was not felt in the other cemeteries - it was so large and full of people. We went to the city of Ieper/Ypres and visited the stunning In Flanders Fields Museum. After this we had a delicious meal at Captain Cook's restaurant in Ypres before attending the Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate. The Last Post Ceremony was incredible to witness and I would highly recommend everyone sees it at least once in their life. After the Last Post it was back to Leuven for our final night in Belgium!

Our final day was mostly spent travelling. We left Leuven at 08:30 after bidding our farewells to the German students, and then set off for Schipole Airport in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. The bus journey was great fun, and the flight home was relatively short. A tearful and emotional goodbye followed at Dublin Airport and then we went our separate ways. Luke, my fellow Donegal student, and I took the bus back to Letterkenny and we were back at home in beautiful Donegal by around 22:00. I was really sad that the project was over, but also extremely happy that it had happened. I came home with no regrets, and would do it all again without question.

Cleaning grass off of the graves of German soldiers in Vladsloe.


Not one word of an exaggeration, I can honestly say that taking part in My Adopted Soldier 2017 has changed my life in ways I could never have imagined. It has made me more confident and improved my ability to speak in front of people and to interact with others. I've made some incredible friends also, and my perspective and opinions on the First World War have changed and broadened. I think it has also expanded my world-view and political identity due to the international aspect and the historical information I have uncovered. I would not have changed a thing about the project or the trip and I can honestly say I have no regrets.

Bernard McGeehan was an amazing man with a fascinating story. It was my absolute honour to bring him back to life. I only hope others can remember and respect him the way I have, because it is the very least he deserves.

Sometimes new friends are the best friends. Photo taken in Ypres.

Eulogy for Dead Men

~ Joshua Perraton

As I kneel by their grave, I can hear

the men, screaming in deathless voices.

It is unfair.


Did these men deserve to die?

Did their deaths serve a purpose?

I ignore the other people, the cell phones,

even the beating heat of the sun.

I look at the grave.

I read each of the names.

Some were young. Some were old.

All were German.

Were these men my enemies?

The grave is defiled.

Grass and leaves adorn it like a parasite.

A sarcastic crown.

The least I can do is wipe it clean.

As I stand up and leave,

I can hear the dead men whispering

their thanks in the wind.

This is a poem I wrote about my thoughts on visiting the German cemetery at Vladsloe, shortly after the trip concluded.

Thank you so much for reading my archive.