A hundred years ago the acronym PTSD or the words “post-traumatic stress syndrome” would have meant nothing. The term used to describe what soldiers faced after living through the horrors of war rattled the ears: it was “shell-shock.” Words far less clinical but no less devastating to those who endured the trench warfare and unrelenting battle fatigue of the First World War.
In England, as in other countries, hundreds of servicemen—often hastily tried—faced not treatment but a firing squad, for offenses labeled as “cowardice” or “desertion.” Shot at Dawn at the National Memorial Arboretum is a tribute to the legacy of these young men of Britain and the Commonwealth, many of them only boys, their honor finally reclaimed.
The memorial was designed and installed by sculptor Andy DeComyn in 2001, in recognition of the injustice faced by the soldiers. The public’s positive response may have played a role in the government’s decision in 2007 to grant a pardon to the victims of a system that failed to recognize the effects of prolonged exposure to such brutal combat and constant shelling.
A group pardon had been resisted by some in the past, including Prime Minister John Major in 1993, but in 2006 Defense Secretary Des Browne led the cause to pass the Armed Forces Act of 2007, granting a pardon to all 306 men and boys who had been “shot at dawn” for desertion or cowardice. There was one catch though—the pardon had no effect on the sentences themselves, which were not expunged. As one Member of Parliament asked during debate, “Are we entitled to ask what it does do?”
Still, the symbolism has gone a long way towards healing old wounds and erasing decades of the unwarranted but shameful shadow of untreated shell-shock.
The memorial consists of a statue of a blindfolded young soldier tied to a stake, modeled on the likeness of 17-year-old Private Herbert Burden, who had lied about his age to join the military. The figure stands with 306 wooden posts bearing the names of the serviceman who were executed, unbearable suffering their only crime.