Practical joke backfired when Preston soldier killed by rifle shot that fractured his spinal cord

Local historian Keith Johnson looks back at the tragic death of a military man killed accidentally in a practical joke.

Thursday, 25th November 2021, 3:45 pm
The Military Barracks, scene of the tragedy
The Military Barracks, scene of the tragedy

Back in 1889 a regular artillery unit of the British Army was formed on the island of Malta and named the Royal Malta Artillery.

The RMA spent the interwar years as coastal and heavy anti-aircraft unit. Among the serving soldiers in 1935 was Gunner John Neilan who came from Preston.

In mid-September 1935 his recently widowed father John Neilan, who lived in Manchester Road, Preston received a letter from Capt. A.P. Parkinson, the officer commanding the 13th Battalion stating that Gunner Neilan, aged 26, had been accidentally shot in the neck by a sentry and fatally wounded. Whilst expressing his condolences he also remarked that his son had been an excellent soldier, who was popular among all the ranks.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

The next day an internal inquiry took place and it was stated that Gunner Frederick Pearson, aged 20, and the deceased were the best of friends, with no ill feelings between them. It was revealed that Pearson who was on sentry duty decided to play a trick on Neilan, whilst he was a sleep. He and another gunner went to Neilan’s bunk and called him. He showed signs of having heard that call and Pearson poked the bayonet end at his neck and the gun went off. Death was practically instantaneous and Pearson looked dazed and distraught as he realised what had occurred. When asked what had gone on he stated: “ I was only playing with the gun and it went off.” The hearing was then adjourned and the following day Gunner Neilan was buried in the cemetery at St. Andrew’s Barracks, Malta.

The incident eventually led to a trial at the Malta Criminal Court in mid-December 1935 with Pearson being charged with having through negligence, imprudence, unskilfulness and neglect of regulations caused the death of Gunner Neilan. The public prosecutor told the court the charge in reality amounted to manslaughter.

Among the witnesses was Sergt. Edwards who testified that the accused was on sentry duty from 2 o’clock in the morning and he had handed him a rifle, a whistle and five rounds of ammunition, that he was told to keep in his pocket.

Gunner Begley who was also on sentry duty that night stated that he had met Pearson at four o’clock in the morning and he had told him he was going to play a joke in the cook’s quarters and placed some ammunition in his rifle.

The pair headed to the quarters and when they reached Neilan’s bunk Pearson flashed his torch in his face, but that did not waken him. Pearson then approached the sleeping Neilan holding his rifle loosely in his hands, and pointed it at Neilan. Just as Neilan began to stir the rifle went off and the bullet entered his throat. Begley claiming that he had advised against the prank, because it was against standing orders. Evidence was then submitted that death was instantaneous and that the bullet had fractured his spinal cord.

Pearson told the court that Begley woke Neilan and seeing that the joke was spoiled he kept his rifle loose, with the safety catch three quarters on. Claiming that he was playing with the trigger when a startled Neilan hit the barrel of the rifle and it went off. The jury after a lengthy deliberation returned with a guilty verdict and Gunner Pearson was sentenced to eight months imprisonment for the practical joke that went terribly wrong.

Malta gained its independence in 1964, and the RMA was dissolved in 1970 having completed service in Germany from 1962. There is a memorial cross in memory of him in the Pembroke Military Cemetery.