The number of soldiers in the British army who were executed by firing squads during the First World War is utterly insignificant compared with the massive carnage at the front… At the time of their condemnation [these soldiers] were branded as ‘shirkers’, ‘funks’ and ‘degenerates’, whose very existence was
best forgotten. Yet, ever since, the manner in which they were tried and their subsequent treatment have given rise to a profound unease in the national conscience. Death did not come to them, random and abrupt, on the field of battle; it came with measured tread as the calculated climax of an archaic and macabre ritual carried out, supposedly, in the interests of discipline and morale.
For the Sake of Example: Capital Courts–Martial 1914—1920
Soldiers were routinely executed for breaches of military discipline throughout the First World War. To ensure obedience on the battlefield, the armies of nearly all the combatant states felt obliged to make an example of troops who disobeyed orders and men were brought before courts-martial, sentenced to death and shot for a range of offences, including cowardice and desertion. Most of these executions took place
Today, there seems little doubt that at the time of their offences at least some of these men were suffering from psychiatric illness brought on by
the horrors of trench warfare. There is now recognition and understanding within military institutions that psychiatric conditions can be attributed
to military service, which can help to explain erratic and uncharacteristic behaviour, including conduct that could be classed as military crime.
After 1918 armies on both sides of the conflict closed their files on the war. Certainly, there were anecdotes about executions, and in a few instances the truth seeped out, but only since the 1970s have more cases come to light. Thanks to the efforts of veterans’ groups, human rights organisations, independent researchers, journalists, and the families and relatives of the soldiers themselves, a number of these stories have become well known and campaigns have been established to exonerate and seek posthumous pardons for those who were shot at dawn.
Some countries, like Britain and New Zealand, have issued statutory pardons for individuals who were executed for cowardice and desertion. Other countries, like France and Belgium, are still in the throes of political debates about the rehabilitation of troops who appear to have been the victims of miscarriages of justice.
Commissioned by the Ruskin School of Art at the University of Oxford as part of 14–18 NOW, WW1 Centenary Art Commissions, Shot at Dawn is a new body of work by the photographer Chloe Dewe Mathews that focuses on the sites at which British, French and Belgian troops were executed for cowardice and desertion between 1914 and 1918. The project comprises images of twenty-three locations at which individuals were shot or held
in the period leading up to their executions and all were taken as close to
the exact time of execution as possible and at approximately the same time