August 2014 marked the start of the 100th anniversary of the First World War, a conflict lasting until November 1918. With many tributes paid to the conflict over the summer, including the installation of 800,000 ceramic poppies forming the ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ commemoration at the Tower of London, this anniversary will continue to be observed throughout the next four years.
A month into the war, 8th September marks a more specific anniversary, that of the death of Private Thomas Highgate. The first British soldier of war to be executed for desertion, his death would precede those of 305 others executed for offences of cowardice and desertion before the war’s end.
Since the end of the war, campaigners have aimed to gain recognition for the often undiscovered stories of these soldiers, fighting against the tarnished brush of ‘cowardice’ by gaining posthumous pardons. These campaigns have focused on the background to the soldier’s executions, mainly the physical and psychological trauma experienced. By unveiling information into their situations they have helped to ensure the 2006 pardon for soldiers executed for military offences of cowardice and desertion and the creation of the Shot at Dawn Memorial in Staffordshire.
At the centre of 306 posts stands a statue modelled on Private Herbert Burden, a soldier who lied about his age to enlist and was later shot for desertion. The memorial represents those who, like Burden, were executed after being court martial during the war. Countless stories of those recognised by the memorial highlight the pressure that they had been under, the likelihood of post-traumatic-stress syndrome (then increasingly recognised as ‘shell shock’) impacting their reactions to the conflict that would lead them to be labelled coward, despite the often constant courage they had shown previously.
Some argue that we should not apply modern principles of justice to past events, and that by the standards of the time the deaths were a reasonable punishment for the soldier’s actions. Yet by applying these principles we are able to look into the situations surrounding the executions and realise a deeper complexity than appears on the surface.
Whilst some of those executed were working against the British Army as traitors, a large proportion were those whose actions can today been seen as an understandable reaction to the situations and subsequent psychological impacts they had endured throughout the terror and exhaustion of the conflict. Even those regarded as less deserving of commemoration should remain important through how they represent lives affected by the war, many not consciously acting against Britain but instead becoming victims of the situation.
The stories of each individual executed for desertion are far from simple and are instead the complex results of physical and psychological factors that had affected them during the war.
Remembrance of the war should not be selective and its complexity should be recognised. The individual cases of the soldiers executed for desertion combine to highlight just one example of the multi layered impacts of the First World War that need to be recognised in commemoration of the conflict.