Was Will Stones a hero or a coward? The Crook soldier was one of hundreds executed during World War One and inspired Northern writer Peter Drake's debut play, The Prisoner's Friend. Viv Hardwick looks at a remarkable project.

WHEN Northumberland chemistry teacher Peter Drake was inspired to write a screenplay after a showing of Four Weddings And A Funeral in 1994 he never imagined it would take him almost ten years to see his work finally performed.

But the Hexham teacher's dedication has paid off and now a dramatic retelling of how 15 North-East First World War soldiers were shot at dawn for cowardice in 1914 is being staged at Durham Cathedral tomorrow. The one-man play, starring John Winter, is called The Prisoner's Friend and has been snapped up for the Edinburgh Festival's Hill Street Theatre for August 19-30.

Drake explains that a first screen draft about a friend crippled by an accident and then The Prisoner's Friend both gained initial interest from Blue Heaven, which adapts Ruth Rendell's novels for TV.

"I realised when you're a complete minnow, you don't carry enough clout and they moved on to other projects. The Prisoner's Friend went to a short story, a stage play, another screen play and I'd finally decided to set up my own company and stage it as a monologue," says Drake.

Fortunately, Newcastle's Actors' Centre put him in touch with actor John Winter who, in turn, recommended director Liz Miller and the incredible story which focuses on the execution of Lance-Sergeant Will Stones from Crook, County Durham, finally earned a place in the spotlight.

The great pity for Drake is that Tom Stones, the great-nephew of William who campaigned so hard to have his relative pardoned, died before the play was finally staged.

"He was absolutely astounded and not a little angry when the plight of these soldiers was made public under the 80-year rule on state secrets. He was a little anxious about my project but saw the drama medium as a way to raise the story again in society," says Drake.

The families of the eight Northumberland Fusiliers and seven members of the Durham Light Infantry shot at dawn - among 306 executed as cowards - have had to endure the Government turning down the idea of a pardon in 2000.

Will Stones' plight is among the most controversial. He used his rifle, which he couldn't use in freezing conditions, to barricade a trench before running to raise the alarm during a surprise German attack.

"His entire trial took 25 minutes and then they took him out and shot him. Today you couldn't fit a preliminary hearing in that time. Now you'd be careful of accusing a solider of being dyslexic and before standing him up against a wall you need a psychiatric expert and professional representation. It would be completely unthinkable... and yet today you can find a powerful resonance with contemporary events in Iraq."

Drake's play focuses on the memories of an old Army officer, who acted as a Prisoner's Friend because non-commissioned ranks were not allowed to speak in their own defence. Actor John Winter also provides the voice of Will Stones as he contrasts the mud and gore of The Somme with the quirky personalities of soldiers from North-East mining villages.

Perhaps it's fitting that the final performance in the region should be in the Cathedral's Durham Light Infantry Museum.

New Zealand pardoned five soldiers three years ago and Ireland is looking again at the cases of those found guilty of "casting away arms in the face of the enemy".

Drake himself says it's "absolutely absurd" how the Government can release 50 IRA members from prison for serious crimes yet refuse to pardon boys as young as 17 from 90 years ago.

"I got the chance to interview a Somme veteran from Ponteland before he died. His view of what happened was extraordinary. He remembered the boredom being so bad that he polished his boots about 30 times a week. He also said that most of the soldiers felt like running away and would have done so if they'd been sure to have got back home safely. I think that places the whole thing in perspective."

* The Prisoner's Friend runs at The Durham Light Infantry Museum in Durham Cathedral tomorrow at 7.30pm. Box Office: 0191-384 2214

Free to those who fought in the Second World War or any other conflict

Published: 13/05/2004