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Public urged to help fund renovation of iconic memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum

A new campaign has launched inviting the public to support the renovation and preservation of the Shot at Dawn memorial, one of the most visited and poignant memorials at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire, the Nation’s year-round place to Remember.

The memorial was installed in 2001 with the support of public subscriptions, and now over twenty years later the wooden stakes that pay tribute to the 309 soldiers that were ‘shot at dawn’ during the First World War have deteriorated beyond repair. This new campaign aims to raise £45,000 to ensure that the memorial will be preserved for future generations to explore, discover and remember.

“Our visitors regularly tell us how deeply affected they are by the Shot at Dawn Memorial, from the symbolism of its location and layout to the individual stories of the young men who were killed,” explains Maria Howes, Head of Marketing and Business Development at the National Memorial Arboretum. “Sadly, due to its location next to the River Tame, repeated flooding events have exacerbated the deterioration of the grounds and posts which have had to be replaced several times over the years. With the support from the public, sponsors and local businesses, we will ensure that the Shot at Dawn memorial honours the legacy of these 309 soldiers for future generations.”

During the First World War, 309 British and Commonwealth soldiers were shot for desertion, cowardice, striking a senior officer, disobeying a lawful order, casting away arms, mutiny and sleeping at post. Most of them were sentenced after a short trial at which no real opportunity for defence was allowed.

One of these soldiers was Private Herbert Burden, of the 1st Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers. At 16, Pte Burden had lied that he was two years older so he could fight in the war. Ten months later he was court-martialled after leaving his post, reportedly to comfort a recently bereaved friend stationed nearby, having seen many other friends killed at the Battle of Bellwarde Ridge. The officers considering Pte Burden’s case heard his unit had been issued orders to make for the front just before he went missing. By the time he faced the firing squad on 21 July 1915, Pte Burden was 17, still too young to even officially be in his regiment. Those ordered to join the firing squad may have recently served with the condemned soldier and it would have been a very traumatic experience for them also.

Today, it’s recognised that some of the soldiers were underage when they volunteered and many were likely suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, which was not recognised as a medical condition until 1980. After the 75-year Secrecy Act was lifted, members of the ‘Shot at Dawn Organisation’ started campaigning for pardons, and Herbert Burden was one of 306 First World War soldiers formally pardoned by the British Government in 2006.

Dedicated in 2001, the Shot at Dawn Memorial at the Arboretum is situated on the eastern edge of the 150-acre site where it is the first memorial to be touched by the sun’s rays at dawn. At its heart is a central statue of a young, blindfolded soldier sculpted by artist Andy DeComyn. In front of the statue are six conifer trees to represent the firing squad aiming for the target around the statue’s neck. Behind the statue, 309 stakes bearing the names of the shot soldiers (including three additional names that were added in 2016) are arranged in the form of a Greek theatre to symbolise the tragedy that the events signify.

“When I first became aware of the executions, in 1999, I was troubled by the fact that none of the soldiers had been commemorated on any UK memorials. I made it my mission to create one for them and to find a dignified location where it could stand,” explains sculptor Andy De Comyn, who was central to the original campaign to create the Shot at Dawn Memorial. “The Arboretum not only gave it a permanent home, but they have cared for it ever since. I am enormously grateful to them for being such fantastic custodians, and the fundraising campaign will mean that it continues to tell the Shot at Dawn story for generations to come.”

Whilst refurbishment work to the Shot at Dawn Memorial takes place at the Arboretum from 7 May for up to six weeks, the names of those who were ‘shot at dawn’ will remain accessible for those who wish to pay tribute to their service and tragic loss of life. The 309 replacement posts will be made from durable, recycled material and will no longer need to be replaced every 4-7 years. Works will also focus on improving drainage, access and new interpretation boards to improve the visitor experience.

Anyone wishing to donate to the campaign to refurbish the ‘Shot at Dawn’ memorial should visit https://www.thenma.org.uk/shot-at-dawn

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