Justice plea for compassionate soldier

Frederick Edward Butterfield

L-Cpl Frederick Edward Butterfield, pictured left in the above montage, promised a dying comrade (top right) on the battlefield at Trones Wood on the Somme in 1915 that he would care for his widow and children. When he himself was discharged as unfit for military service in 1917 after being wounded in five different battles, he sought out his comrade's widow and they were married.

“He proved a most loving and kind husband and father,” said the by then Mrs Sarah Alice Butterfield in July 1919. But her new husband, while employed as a temporary postman in Luton, stole a post order and Treasury notes and obtained £1 by means of false pretences.

As a result he was sentenced to a total of six months hard labour by magistrates at the Luton Police Court on July 9th, 1919. His plea was that he yielded to sudden temptation.

The sentence produced a strong response not only within Luton but from other parts of the country, and included an open letter to the justices that was published in the Beds & Herts Saturday Telegraph on July 12th, in which it was suggested an appeal should be made to the Home Secretary with the object of securing a reduction of the sentence.


The Saturday Telegraph letter, signed Fiat Justitia and headed “Justice and Mercy,” said: “Frederick Butterfield, a young man on the threshold of life, has been fighting for some years past for the defence of human liberties – those of the Luton justices included.

“In Trones Wood, his comrade is mortally stricken by his side, and Butterfield eases the man's last moments by a promise to care for the widow and two fatherless children who would be left in England to mourn the loss of a brave breadwinner.

“Himself wounded no fewer than 13 times, on five occasions so seriously as to entitle him to an honoured gold stripe, Butterfield is finally discharged from hospital and from the Army.

“The promise made on the battlefield he regards as sacred, and he redeems it to the full by marriage to the widow. The two children and their mother have again someone to lean upon, and the family eventually is increased by the arrival of a third little stranger.

“Meantime, the young man has secured employment at the Post Office, but one is entitled to ask what was the sum paid to him upon which to maintain the responsibilities he had undertaken – responsibilities far out of proportion to his age or his experience.

“His weekly wage from a generous Government, we are told, was 47 shillings. Have you, gentlemen, tried the maintenance of father, mother and three healthy, growing children on 47s weekly, with the purchasing power of the pre-war sovereign down below 50 per cent?

“He is guilty of pilfering, perhaps worse. Serious offences, beyond any question. And really when we come to think of it, and remember his responsibilities, can we be surprised that he fell?

“It is his first lapse from the paths of rectitude. He is the son of decent parents – a father with 28 years Army service. No mean achievement, gentlemen!

“The young man himself has a clean record prior to this fall; he has been tested in the sternest school, and found not wanting. Yet your Worships appear to have paid no more than passing heed to all these circumstances. What is to become of his wife and children? What provision can be made for them? Why must they suffer?

“It is the law. He should have thought of this before! The public services must be above suspicion. And he is sentenced to six months hard labour.

“Here, gentlemen, surely you were concerned with a case in which the facts cried aloud for that combination quoted at the outset: justice and mercy. I can find no trace of the latter. My view is that of other men. I have difficulty in believing that it will be different from you view granted sober reflection of the governing facts.

“May I, then, therefore, hope that in the event of representation being made to the proper authorities for a revision and reduction of this sentence, there will be no undue opposition so far as the justices are concerned? Is it even too much to ask that you may see your way to take the initiative in this direction? Especially so, as it is a most difficult thing for the uninitiated properly to present a case in a court of law when unaccustomed to it procedure and formula.”

And now in the picturesque little village of Kensworth, a few miles from Luton, wrote the Luton News on July 17th, Mrs Butterfield is anxiously awaiting his return to make a fresh start in life, determined to preserve the home and three young children (the third having been b orn to her as result of the second marriage). It will be a struggle, but Mrs Butterfield appears to possess that determination which overcomes adversity.

The newspaper also revealed that Mrs Butterfield had received the following letter from a Hertfordshire lady in Margate: “I should like to express to you my sympathy over the sad case of your husband, who appears to be suffering a very hard sentence. My mother has decided to allow you £20 in the hope that it may help you through the bad months to come. I enclose you now £2, and have sent the other £18 to the Daily Herald and asked them to open a fund to provide for you and your children until you husband is again at liberty.”

Another letter direct to the Luton News and signed Leighman, said: “As an old Lutonian, I am amazed at the sentence passed on a hero for a lapse while being temporarily employed at the Post Office. Whichever way you may regard his offence, the fact remains that he is a man in every sense of the word. If he is to received six months after doing his bit, what sentence would he pass if her were a magistrate and had, shall I say, a man in front of him who, instead of doing his bit out there, had stayed at home profiteering?”


South African-born Frederick Edward Butterfield was serving in the Bedfordshire Regiment at Trones Wood when comrade Acting Cpl Albert Isaac Hammond, aged 23, was killed on September 25th, 1915. Frederick himself had suffered a severe gunshot wound in the left elbow the previous May and would be wounded again, in the hand, the following October.

Albert, had married Sarah Alice Reed in Bishops Stortford, Essex, in the spring of 1914. They had two children, Hilda and Edward. Albert is commemorated on the Loos Memorial.

Sarah was traced by Frederick and the couple were married at Bishops Stortford Register Office on April 26th, 1917. They had a son, Frederick Charles, in 1918, and a second son in 1920.

Living at Kensworth at the time of Frederick's arrest, the couple spent much of their lives in Luton, Sarah dying here in 1972, at the age of 81, and Frederick in 1977, aged 79.

The picture at the head of this post shows Frederick (left), Albert (right), Sarah and young Frederick (centre) and the two older children (bottom right).