Shot at Dawn

Welcome to the Bredon Branch of The Royal British Legion

Below is an expanded version of an article, "Shot at Dawn', that appeared in the December 2010 edition of Bredon's Parish magazine:


Shot at Dawn

In all probability you will be caught up in the Christmas hype as you read this - Halloween and Bonfire Night done and dusted for another year.  But I write just before Remembrance Sunday and my thoughts turn to the future of the Bredon Branch of the Royal British Legion (RBL).   Superficially all's well:  our membership remains steady at around 60 thanks to the sterling efforts of our Membership Secretary, Vic Whittingham, whilst our own indefatigable Poppy Appeal Organiser, Sue Chandler, has just reported to the AGM that last year's collections in her patch had improved to almost £3,500.  Moreover, the people of Wootton Bassett, who line their streets in honour of the dead repatriated from Afghanistan, echo a supportive national mood.  And yet, and yet…..  Elsewhere RBL numbers are falling, significantly in some places.   The reason is hardly rocket science.  During the Second World War the RAF reached a total strength of over one million men and women; today its uniformed members would provide barely half the home crowd at Old Trafford or Twickenham.    And it's a similar tale for the Navy and Army.

When you donate to the Poppy Appeal all the money goes into the Legion's welfare fund.  To give you an idea of scale, during the financial year just ended Worcestershire RBL alone has made welfare grants totalling £167,107.  Nationally, the RBL is leading new initiatives to support our own Afghanistan generation of the Armed Forces to the tune of over £200,000 a day.  For example, it has committed £25 million over ten years to help fund four Personnel Recovery Centres for injured Service personnel.  But the Legion can't run on fresh air and that's where membership comes in, for the annual affiliation (membership) fees, currently £11 a head, go into a separate fund to finance the overheads of the organisation.  Thus, as the 'old soldiers' fade away, it is vital that we recruit new, younger 'civilian' members from the nation as a whole - yes, everyone over 16 is eligible to join, ex-military or not (youth membership also available from age 12).

"What's in it for me?" you ask, "I always support the Poppy Appeal, anyway." Indeed, and many, many thanks for that but, to be blunt, we need your affiliation fee as well.  Consider the aims of the RBL: help for serving and ex-Service people in need, and their families - I've already hinted above at the enormity of the financial support for today's generation; but also representing the Armed Forces community and carrying the torch of Remembrance.  Remembrance?

It's a misty autumnal day and I'm walking beside the River Tame in the National Memorial Arboretum.  To my left, is a copse and through the trees I see a ghostly white figure.   I leave the riverbank and head into the clearing.  Before me stands a marble statue, say ten feet high.  A young man? No, he's more of a boy.  Bareheaded and blindfolded, he is tied to a stake.  His trench coat is undone and round his neck hangs an aiming disc, which covers the heart.  In front stands a row of short, dark conifers.  The firing squad?  Behind are ranks of bare wooden stakes, 306 of them, each with a label.  I search the names:  "Private Highgate. Aged 17", "Private Farr. Aged 25".  And so on and on:  lowly privates mostly and painfully young, a few older NCOs and one naval sub-lieutenant - all shot at dawn during World War I by the British military authorities, either for cowardice or desertion.

(In fact the statue is modelled on 17-year-old Private Herbert Burden.  Reportedly, he left his trench to visit a transport column where a friend of his had just lost a brother and Burden thought to console him. At the age of 16, Burden had lied that he was two years older so he could join the Northumberland Fusiliers and fight in the war.  When he was court martialled for desertion and then shot he was still too young even to be in the regiment.)

We must be very wary about applying our modern sentiments and values to the 1914-18 War.  These were decisions taken in the heat of battle and from a different moral perspective.  Moreover, they were not all "scared young boys who lied to die in Flanders"; some of the 306 were, in all likelihood, rogues and serial deserters.  But, equally, many of them were not.  Rather, they were almost certainly suffering from shell shock - now called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  And who knows how many of our present-day young men and women, returning from the horrors they have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, are even now in the grip of PTSD?

The 'Shot at Dawn' memorial encapsulates for me what is meant by Remembrance, for it does not glamorize the act but widens the horizon to include those who suffered lonely, squalid deaths, caught up in events that were not of their making, and for which they were hopelessly ill-equipped mentally.  It also makes me wonder how the families of those 306 handled a grief that was overlaid with bewilderment and shame at the disgrace of their loved ones.

That is why you should join the RBL - the very least we can do is to remember not just all the fallen but also those who loved or still love them.   That is what your affiliation fee will help to achieve, whilst your separate Poppy donations are directed towards the welfare of the living, including those afflicted by modern-day PTSD.  The RBL does not have a monopoly on Remembrance but it is very good at it.  Give me a call.  (Mike Brumage, Secretary/Treasurer, Bredon RBL, 01684 773343)





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