July 11, 2004
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Honoring the Forgotten Casualties
HE ancient cathedral city of Lichfield, about 20 miles north of Birmingham, England, is an oasis of historical interest in an area that was otherwise transformed forever by the Industrial Revolution. Compact and pretty, its old streets are now pedestrianized and its buildings restored. During the Civil Wars of the 1640's, the Royalists made a stronghold of the cathedral and held out there for some time; you can still see the place, in an adjacent street, where the general in charge of the Parliamentary forces was shot through the forehead by a Royalist sniper perched on the cathedral's Gothic battlements.
In the following century, when peace reigned, the town was birthplace to both Dr. Johnson, the great lexicographer, and his lifelong friend, the actor David Garrick. It was also, a generation later, home to a most distinguished group of gentlemen scientists and technocrats. Here, in the house of Erasmus Darwin (physician, botanist, inventor, philosopher and grandfather of Charles Darwin) the early engineers Matthew Boulton, James Watt and Richard Arkwright, among others, used to meet, as well as the founder of the Wedgwood china works.
You can visit the houses of these movers and shakers and walk in the streets they knew, but there is another reason for an expedition to this relatively unknown heartland of England. Since March 1997, 44,000 trees have been planted on a tract of open, grassy land about five miles north of Lichfield, fringed by the fast-running River Tame. Ten years ago, these 152 acres were gravel works owned by Redland (now Lafarge) Aggregates. Most of the land and its pits have been reclaimed. Our children, and our children's children, will walk here in a young forest interspersed with clearings, garden patches and a lake - a memorial arboretum (free to visitors) to all those, both the survivors and the slain, who experienced the 20th century's wars.
The concept of such a place will not be unfamiliar to American visitors. In fact, the founder of the plan, Commander David Childs, retired from the Navy, got the germ of the idea on a visit to Washington. Later, in conversations with Group Capt. Leonard Cheshire, it was decided that creating a wooded space for future generations to enjoy would be a way of perpetuating the memory of all those who had given their best efforts in war and suffered for it. In 1994, an appeal began, supported by armed services, veterans associations and many other groups. One result was Redland's gift: a 990-year lease on the land at £1 a year. A Millennium Commission grant later provided some of the funds for a visitors' center and a chapel.
This is all very nice, you may say, and a carefully managed forest with memorial plaques will be a lovely thing if you're in the area, but what makes it worth a trip now? Shouldn't the avenues and copses of beech, horse chestnut, larch, lime and willow, the wildflower meadow and the water-bird lake be given a few years to mature?
The answer is that it already contains one monument that is unique and is perhaps a peculiarly British piece of fairness and respect-given-where-due.
It is the Shot at Dawn Memorial, unveiled in June 2001. It does not commemorate heroes, or those such as prisoners of war and unlucky civilians on whom a terrible heroism was sometimes thrust. It was erected in memory, and as long overdue amends, to the 300-odd British soldiers of World War I who were judged by their fellows to have failed in their duty and, by the summary justice of those terrible killing fields, were executed for desertion in the face of the enemy.
The fate of these men became a secret in the decades that followed, first kept by their shamed families and then, as law and social opinions changed, by the military authorities themselves. Had they really hustled to a dawn meeting with death these men who were already psychological casualties of constant bombardment, groggy with memory loss, shaking with what was even then recognized as shell shock, what we would call acute traumatic stress? It was not until the beginning of the 1980's that a judge was given privileged access to the men's files to write an account and not until 1992 that they were opened to the public.
Some excerpts are now available at the visitors' center, and they make poignant reading. Many of the men were boys still in their teens, and it is clear that some of them had joined up by giving a false age and should not have been at the front at all. Some were not very bright and had little understanding of where wandering off the battlefield might lead them. Some had deserted in an attempt to sort out troubles at home, some had recently had news of the death of brothers in other parts of the line. The majority were not conscripts but had volunteered at the beginning of the war. Described as "good soldiers," many had already been wounded and then had returned to the front.
What can one say of Private Beverstein, alias Harris, the only son of an East London immigrant family, who wrote to his mother in February 1916: "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 try my best to get out of it, so don't worry." The next letter his mother had was from the War Office informing her of her son's execution. Not until the following year was this stark formula toned down into the less-explicit "death in service." And what of two other privates, who fell asleep on sentry duty to which they had been posted after a 30-mile march? And what of Herbert Burden, a Northumberland Fusilier who was still only 17 when he was executed at Ypres, Belgium? He had no one to defend him at his trial, and his battalion had taken such heavy recent casualties that there was no survivor to give him a character reference.
Herbert Burden, at least, is now with the immortals. The Shot at Dawn Memorial is an impression of this short, stocky boy - no actual photograph of him exists - which was created three years ago by Andrew DeComyn, an art student at a Birmingham university. Hands bound, eyes blindfolded, both like and unlike the war memorial soldiers that are a familiar part of rural England, this larger-than-life figure stands surrounded by what will soon be a forest glade at the arboretum, with benches for those who come to this quiet spot to reflect on the pity of war. Behind him, as in a Greek amphitheater, stands a semicircular swath of posts, tallest toward the back, each one bearing the name and rank of the 306 other men. A group of cypress trees opposite represents a firing squad.
Those who interest themselves in this tragic corner of history soon discover that there is an active campaign afoot to get the 307 men, plus another 40 or so, an official pardon. The campaign is heartfelt, and one respects the view of its supporters. Yet, even at the time, it seems to have been recognized that these barbarous executions for the sake of example happened because of the all-round barbarity of a trench war that no one was winning. Can one really say that the executed men were treated much worse than all those others who were driven toward enemy lines, sometimes literally at rifle point by their equally despairing officers, and who knew well that they were charging toward death or mutilation?
Even God, let alone governments, cannot undo the past. At least these soldiers now have honor, sympathy and their own place in history.
GILLIAN TINDALL is working on a book about the oldest house on London's Bankside.