Remembering the British deserters of World War One

Thirty-five days into the First World War, Private Thomas Highgate, a 17-year-old farmhand, became the first British soldier to be executed for desertion.

During the Battle of Mons, Highgate fled the frontline. He hid in a barn in the nearby village of Tournan, a few miles south of the river, and was discovered wearing civilian clothes and asleep by a gamekeeper. He reportedly told the man: “I have had enough of it, I want to get out of it and this is how I am going to do it.’

He was court-martialled and found guilty the following day. Highgate did not speak and was not represented during his trial. He was told, at 6.22am, that he was to be put to death: “At once, as publicly as possible.” A firing squad was prepared and, by 7.07am, Highgate was dead.

The burial place of his body was never released. He was the only son of a farm labourer from Oxbourne Farm in the Kent village of Shoreham. In 2000, Shoreham’s parish council voted not to include his name on its war memorial. Today, he has no known grave, and his name does not appear on the village plaque.

Highgate was one of 306 British or Commonwealth soldiers executed after being court-martialled for cowardice or desertion during that war.

Chlloe Dewe Mathews, the London-based photographer and former winner of the British Journal of Photography’s International Photography Award, set out to find the places those soldiers fell.

“As I stand in the 4am darkness, at the edge of an empty field in Flanders, I know that there is an absurdity to what I’m doing,” Chloe says. “Why am I searching for an event that took place 100 years ago? Why am I scrutinising the landscape when I know what I’m looking for is long gone?”

Driving from her home in Peckham, South-West London, to the battlefields of France and Flanders, Chloe spent two years collaborating with war historians, academics and old locals to find the execution sites. These places are unmarked, overgrown, seemingly incidental; a gently rising knoll, a wheat field, scrubland covered in daisies, a woodland glen, the back of a primary school, an old abattoir. She found holding cells where the condemned men waited for their death, with still legible messages scratched into the walls.

“I got up very early in the morning, in the darkness, to make my way to these places, setting up my tripod and waiting for the dawn, for the light to rise,” Chloe says. “That was the moment when I’d take the photograph.”

She soon realised: “I was setting up my tripod at about the same spot from where the firing squad had stood and looking directly at the place where the victim was placed.”

The photographs became Shot at Dawn, commissioned by the Ruskin School of Art at the University of Oxford as part of the commemorative series 14–18 NOW, published as a book in July and now exhibited at Tate Modern.

Daybreak held a special significance to soldiers of the First World War. It was when they went over the top, and it was when they were executed for cowardice. In his poem Exposure, Wilfred Owen wrote: “Dawn massing in the east her melancholy army, attacks once more in ranks on shivering ranks of grey, but nothing happens.”

Chloe would discover the date they died, and return to the same spot. In each place, nothing distinct is happening. With a click of her shutter, a photograph marked one hundred years since the soldiers’ death, a death wilfully lost to history by the British government and its military.

In Britain, the files on the subject were closed to the public until the 1990s, a move in-part motivated by the publication in 1989 of Julian Putkowski and Julian Sykes’s campaigning history Shot at Dawn, which listed the deaths of each deserter and, where possible, the events leading up to them.

In an essay for Dewe Mathews’s book, the historian Hew Strachan says of the victims: ”Men who were not yet legally adult, because they had enlisted under age; men who were suffering from what was then called shell shock; men who genuinely became lost in the confusion of battle; men whose courts martial were in the hands of officers who lacked legal training and so were not properly conducted.”

“Today, the soldier who breaks down in combat is most commonly seen as a patient or, by society more widely, as a victim of modern warfare,” writes Helen McCartney in an essay in Shot at Dawn. “This contemporary understanding of psychiatric breakdown, incomplete though it remains, reflects shifts in military and societal attitudes towards mental health that have taken place over the past century. It has been hard won. Public and institutional attitudes towards psychiatric breakdown were very different in all combatant states during the First World War.”

A total of 888,246 British and Colonial soldiers lost their lives during the First World War. In comparison, only a tiny fraction of men were killed for cowardice. In 2006, as part of the the Armed Forces Act, those men were given a mass pardon. But they have, nevertheless, been forgotten by a nation that should be thankful, an ignorant and determined stigma attached to their name.

And so, but for Shot at Dawn, these places would have remained unremarkable. Without context, they can seem passive, devoid of meaning and significance. But, here, in Chloe’s systematic and evidence-based photography, their emptiness is looming and potent.

“By photographing them,” Chloe says. “I am reinserting the individual into that space, stamping their presence back onto the land, so that their histories are not forgotten.”

See more of Chloe’s work here.

Tom Seymour

Tom Seymour is an Associate Editor at The Art Newspaper and an Associate Lecturer at London College of Communication. His words have been published in The Guardian, The Observer, The New York Times, Financial Times, Wallpaper* and The Telegraph. He has won Writer of the Year and Specialist Writer of the year on three separate occassions at the PPA Awards for his work with The Royal Photographic Society.