Award-winning blogger Trish Burgess writes for the Free Press
Like thousands of other visitors to London, I recently took the opportunity to see the poppies at the Tower of London.
The installation, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, was created by Paul Cummins and features 888,246 ceramic poppies, each representing a British fatality during the First World War.
Some 306 of those who died were executed for cowardice or desertion. For many years the names of these men were left off memorials and their families shamed until, eventually, Defence Secretary Des Browne, in 2006, passed legislation so they could be granted posthumous pardons.
My uncle, John Hipkin, took up the fight for these men when official records were released in 1990. A retired teacher from Newcastle, John spearheaded the Shot at Dawn campaign and, along with family members of the men, sought pardons for underage soldiers, those suffering mental illness and in cases of doubtful or illegal Courts Martial.
The stories of the young boys were of particular interest to my uncle as he too had lied about his age to join the Merchant Navy at the beginning of World War II, aged just 14. His ship was captured by the German battleship, Scharnhorst, and he became Britain’s youngest Prisoner of War: he was released on his 19th birthday at the end of the war. The Shot at Dawn campaign, under John’s leadership, urged successive governments to recognise these soldiers who had been scared and confused or suffering from shell shock. Many were given little legal support before they were condemned to death, at the hands of their fellow men who had to pull the trigger.
Private Thomas Highgate (17) fled from the Battle of Mons and hid in a barn. He was undefended at his trial because all his comrades from the Royal West Kents had been killed, injured or captured. Private Hubert Burden (16) lied about his age to join the Northumberland Fusiliers. Ten months later he was court-martialled and executed for fleeing after seeing his friends die at the Battle of Bellwaarde Ridge.
There was resistance to granting pardons, sometimes from soldiers themselves who felt these men had ‘let the side down’. However my uncle persevered, an elderly man silently holding his placard in all weathers at remembrance ceremonies across the country, often being arrested for doing so.
I know John was very proud when the Shot at Dawn memorial was erected at the National Arboretum in Staffordshire, in 2001. The slight blind-folded figure, modelled on Private Burden, stands surrounded by a semi-circle of stakes on which are listed the names of every soldier executed in this way.
After seeing the poppies in London, I was moved to purchase one. This will be my own way to remember those who fell and to thank my Uncle John, now aged 88, for his devotion to a cause so close to his heart.
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