The story of the Shot at Dawn memorial

Andy DeComyn Shot at Dawn memorial
Andy DeComyn Shot at Dawn memorial

TRISH TAKES FIVE: By Trish Burgess

In 1999, a documentary, Conviction, was broadcast on the BBC’s Everyman programme. Its focus was the life of my uncle, John Hipkin, who was then leading the Shot at Dawn campaign, urging successive governments to pardon young soldiers executed during the First World War for cowardice or desertion.

Watching that programme was a sculptor, Andy DeComyn, who was so inspired by my uncle’s story that he made enquiries of the BBC before eventually contacting John and offering his help.

The following year he created a memorial for those forgotten men and in 2001 his sculpture was unveiled at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire. The slight figure of a boy, blindfolded, with his hands tied behind his back, stands in front of 306 posts, bearing the names of the executed men. Six fir trees are planted opposite, representing the firing squad.

Andy DeComyn funded the statue himself, with donations covering the cost of the posts and landscaping. The memorial generated a great deal of media interest and was instrumental in paving the way for the government to eventually pardon the soldiers in 2006. Andy remained firm friends with my uncle during these years and both were grateful for the support of the other in their passion for this injustice to be rectified.

Continuing his work as a sculptor, producing a number of public works of art, Andy was commissioned to create a Pipers’ Memorial for a site in Longueval in the Somme department of northern France. As he worked on this piece in 2002, he became so fascinated by the bagpipes, he decided to learn how to play them.

John Hipkin died at the ripe old age of 90 and his incredible life story was remembered in the words of his family and friends at his funeral in Newcastle. He had been the youngest prisoner of war at the age of 14 when, as a cabin boy in the Merchant Navy, his ship was captured by the German warship, Scharnhorst. He was eventually released at the end of the war when he was 19. Having suffered so much as in his own childhood it was only natural he should find an affinity with the young, frightened soldiers of the Great War.

As the cortege made its way from the church, a lone piper, in ceremonial Highland Dress, led the procession along the street playing the solemn hymn ‘How Great Thou Art’. Sculptor and piper, Andy DeComyn, paying his last respects to a very good friend.

You can follow Trish on Twitter @mumsgoneto and read her blog at www.mumsgoneto.co.uk