For 90 years their names were blighted with shame and history tried to forget them.
Photo Credit: Dave Green. The Shot at Dawn Memorial is a British Monument at the National Memorial Arboretum near Alrewas, in Staffordshire, UK. It memorialises the 306 British and Commonwealth soldiers executed after courts-martial for cowardice or desertion during World War I
Their names were never remembered on memorials and family’s often hid the truth, shame was too much off a burden when so many had died with honour.
Their crime was cowardice and 306 young men – four of them just 17 – were shot at dawn during the First World War.
For most of these young men, cowardice was far from the truth, it was the traumas of war, break downs amidst the unspeakable horrors they endured in the trenches.
In 2006 all 306 men received a posthumous pardon, some names went onto being inscribed upon war memorials alongside the names of the men who died fighting and the topic on these pardons sparked controversy at the time with arguments for and against.
Eight years have passed since then and over the course of the next few years we celebrate and remember the men who died during this, the centenary years of World War One.
Have we learnt anything in these eight years and are these men truly remembered as heroes and no longer as cowards.
Out of the 888,246 ceramic poppies that have filled the moat in The Tower of London, the memorial entitled; Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red. Not a single poppy remembers these 306 executed men. The installation is beautiful, thought-provoking and sad and I have personally visited the site twice and bought a poppy in remembrance of my great-grand uncle, but at the same time these young men executed during the heat of war should also be remembered.
Tomorrow we celebrate armistice day and on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month we take a two-minute silence out of our busy lives and remember the soldiers who have fallen, not only during World War One but in every conflict since that day.
Many of us have worn our poppies with pride and many of us will respectfully take that silence, this year I am going to spend those two minutes thinking about the 306 young British men who were executed, unlike other soldiers who died in the 1914 – 18 conflict, these men received no medal, until recently they were never mentioned in memorial services and their grieving families never received a pension.
For 90 years our country has believed it’s OKAY to shoot a sick soldier, and many of these men deserved their punishment.
Here I will share just five of their stories, all of which made me cry when I originally read them, these stories have been sourced from the Internet.
A century on and may they finally be remembered and receive the justice they deserve.
WILLIAM NELSON, 19
Shot at dawn August 11, 1916
BILLY was executed after 11 months in the trenches only days after being wounded in the bloody Battle of Loos.
The soldier’s “crime” was to miss his unit going over the top because he was having his first meal for days, with permission, in another part of the battlefield.
He had absconded three times before – but only at times of family crisis which included the death of his mother leaving his 12-year-old sister to look after a younger brother.
His father, also a soldier, had recently been captured.
Billy’s trial lasted only five minutes. With noone to represent him, he said: “I have had a lot of trouble at home and my nerves are badly upset. My father is a prisoner in Germany and is losing his eyesight there through bad treatment.
“My mother died while I was still in England, leaving my sister aged 13 and my brother aged 10. I am the only one left. I had to leave them in the charge of a neighbour. I had no intention of deserting.”
But his story didn’t impress his superiors, who ordered him to be shot as an example to others. Billy’s death warrant describes him as being “of no more military use”.
CHARLES NICHOLSON, 19 – A ‘nervous’ boy who ran away
Shot at dawn October 8, 1917
IT took less than ten minutes to sentence the teenage soldier to death.
The evidence came from his platoon sergeant, who told the court that the private had gone AWOL following a bombing raid.
The only defence was an 11-word statement from Charles. He said: “When the bomb dropped, I got nervous. I can’t say anything else.”
The private, from Middlesbrough, had joined the 8th Yorkshire and Lancaster Regiment aged 16, lying about his age.
Two days after his execution, in October 1917, Charles’ twin brother John was killed by German machine-guns at Ypres.
When their mother got the telegram telling her that both her twin sons had died – one executed for desertion – she had a nervous breakdown.
Shot at Dawn
PETER GOGGINS, 22
Shot at dawn January 18, 1917
PETER was one of seven soldiers guarding their positions in the early hours of November 26, 1916.
Most of his fellow soldiers from 19th Durham Light Infantry had been taken off the frontline after rumours the Germans were about to launch a gas attack.
As the guns fell silent, a sergeant and captain ventured into No Man’s Land for a reccie — but they were ambushed.
It was shortly after 2.30am when the sergeant managed to stagger back, shouting: “Run for your lives, the Huns are on top of you!”
Peter, himself a young sergeant, scrambled out of the dugout, withdrawing to a reserve trench 20 yards away – but it turned out to be a false alarm.
With the six others, he faced charges of deserting his post, and was court-martialled on Christmas Eve. Even though the sergeant confirmed he had given the orders to retreat, Peter was executed a week later along with two others. Another soldier wrote a moving account of the execution: “A piercingly cold dawn’ a crowd of brass hats, the medical officer and three firing parties.
“A motor ambulance arrives carrying the doomed men. Manacled and blindfolded, they are tied up to the stakes. Over each man’s heart is placed an envelope. At the sign, the firing parties, 12 for each, align rifles on the envelopes.
“The officer holds his stick aloft and, as it falls, 36 bullets usher the souls of Kitchener’s men to the great unknown.”
ABRAHAM BEVISTEIN, 17 – ‘I am in a bit of trouble’
Shot at dawn March 20, 1916
ABY was so desperate to fight the Germans that he gave a false age and name to join the 11th Battalion Middlesex Regiment at just 16.
He had been with his battalion for less than a month when a grenade exploded next to him, leaving him with profound shellshock.
Leaving his position in the front-line trenches, he went to one of the company headquarters at the rear to ask for help. When the medical officer insisted he was all right and ordered him back, the bewildered teenager wandered off and was arrested.
In a letter to his mother, he wrote: “We were in the trenches and I was ill so I went out and they took me to prison and I am in a bit of trouble now and won’t get any money for a long time. I will have to go in front of a court. I will try my best to get out of it, so don’t worry. But, dear mother, try to send some money. From your loving son Aby.”
On March 4, he was court-martialled and sentenced to death.
WILLIAM STONES, 25 – Pluck in the trenches
Shot at dawn January 18, 1917
GIVING evidence at the trial of Lance Corporal Will Stones, a Company Sergeant Major said of the condemned soldier: “He is the last man I would have thought capable of any cowardly action.”
Four other soldiers also leapt to his defence at the trial, saying Will had “always been a good soldier”, that he was “always keen and bold”.
Will had volunteered to fight, despite being too short for the initial height limit. He proved himself to be so brave and able, that he was quickly promoted to the rank of Lance Corporal in the Durham Light Infantry.
He fought courageously through the bloodshed of the Somme and in four other intense battles.
But Will was executed for cowardice after he jammed his rifle across one of the narrow trenches in a quick-thinking attempt to block a rush of oncoming Germans. He then shouted warnings to his comrades, as his senior had commanded him to, but having just seen his Lieutenant shot by a group of enemy soldiers in the unexpected trench raid, he was too confused to join the counter-attack.
In the eyes of the army authorities, this was cowardice, and the penalty was death.
Despite the five men who spoke up in Will’s defence, and the fact that he had been promoted above his fellow Privates because of his performance as a soldier, he faced a firing squad at Arras, France, in 1917.
When Will’s widow, 21-year-old Lizzie, went to collect her War Widow’s Pension, she was told, “There is no pension for you. The British Army does not give pensions to cowards.”
Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red