The Shot At Dawn Memorial
3rd August 2013
A long standing commitment saw the family driving from Coventry to Tamworth last Saturday and this presented me with the possibility of seeing a recent World War One memorial, one with a difference.
The Shot At Dawn memorial set in the beautiful grounds of the National Memorial Arboretum in rural South Staffordshire was inaugurated in June 2001 in the presence of a few relatives of some of the men (and sadly boys) remembered here.
In the course of the war, 306 British and Commonwealth soldiers were court martialled on charges of cowardice and desertion. Their fate has echoed down the decades since the end of The Great War and now as we as a nation prepare to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the start of the hostilities the words 'Shot At Dawn' have lost none of their impact in the minds of the British public.
Those individuals found guilty by their superiors were sentenced to be executed by a 6 man firing squad. The men that made up these execution squads were issued with ammunition (1 bullet per man) comprising five live rounds and one blank, the theory being that on firing none of the soldiers would know with certainty that their shot was responsible for the death of a comrade. However, I have read that for soldiers well experienced with firing their rifles, this attempt at easing the conscience was futile since the recoil felt upon firing differed between live and blank rounds.
Back then to the arboretum, in front of the simple stakes (one for each of the 306 men commemorated at this spot) stands a statue, sculpted by Andy De Comyn, in the likeness of Private Herbert Burden (see below).
On 7th November 2006, the Government acted and decreed a blanket posthumous pardon to the 306.
The story that culminated in Private Herbert Burden's death at dawn on 21st July 1915 is particularly poignant. Like many young people in 1914 Herbert was swept along on the crest of a wave of patriotism and the promise of adventure to the local recruiting office. Here, he shaved two years off his true age of 16 and was able to convince a staff sergeant that he was of legal age to join the army (not that recruiting officer's took a great deal of convincing). And thus it was that as a Northumberland Fusilier he was drafted to France just shy of his 17th birthday. Herbert's battalion went into action at Bellwarde Ridge (in the infamous Ypres Salient) during which this soldier's young mind cracked and he ran away. Captured and tried undefended (such were the losses within his battalion that no-one could be found to provide a character reference for the boy) on 2nd July.
And so having lied in order to 'do his duty to King and Country' Private Herbert Burden faced death at the hands of the British Army, an army that at 17 he was still officially too young to be a part of.
Quite clearly, the well documented circumstances that befell Private Burden represent a heartbreaking tragedy against the backdrop of a tragic conflict. However, I am not so naive on this issue as not to acknowledge the danger of us transplanting our modern values upon the British Army commanders facing a national crisis. The impact on the minds of soldiers facing the horrors of the first fully mechanised war could not be imagined since there was no precedent. The affliction of Shellshock (now better understood as Post traumatic Stress Disorder) baffled the commanders. Men suffering from the mental and nervous symptoms associated with Shellshock and removed from the trenches lost pensions and were not entitled to wear the 'wound stripe'. However, as the battles intensified the numbers of cases multiplied and it became clear that Shellshock was not brought about by a lack of moral fibre or fighting spirit. The condition was indiscriminate, affecting officers and ordinary ranks alike (although it is interesting to note that the symptoms presented differed between the officer class and lower ranks!). The Army and medics struggled to find explanations and treatments in order to get affected soldiers back into the front line.
Quite what an army can do in situations of desertion (intentional or accidental) in order to maintain military discipline in such combat situations is not for me to say and the British Army were not alone in meting out such harsh punishment. The French are thought to have killed about 600. The Germans, whose troops outnumbered the British by two to one, shot 48 of their own men, and the Belgians 13. Conversely, the neither the Australian Army or the US Army resorted to execution.
Doubtless among the 306 soldiers that faced the firing squad a proportion would have genuinely deserted or shown cowardice in the face of the enemy and so there will always be some controversy linked to the 'Shot At Dawn' memorial. Interestingly, on this point is is worth noting that under the enabling act that paved the way for the 2006 pardon (the Army Forces Act 2006), section 359(4)(a) states that the pardon does not 'affect any conviction of sentence'.
Controversy aside, the memorial is profoundly moving and well worth a visit (as of course is the rest of the site!).
'Shot At Dawn'
The National Memorial Arboretum