They wore white-hearted poppies, lest we forget the 306 who were shot at dawn

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The Independent Online

Only the sharpest-eyed observers would have noticed a tiny alteration to the poppies belonging to one group of marchers at yesterday's Remembrance Sunday parade.

Only the sharpest-eyed observers would have noticed a tiny alteration to the poppies belonging to one group of marchers at yesterday's Remembrance Sunday parade.

Before they set out from their marshalling point near Admiralty Arch on the Mall, one of their number passed among them with a tube of paint and a paintbrush, whiting out the black roundels at the centre of their poppies.

They were listed in the parade itinerary as the World War One Pardons Association - the relatives of some of the 306 men shot for desertion and cowardice - and the white centres to their poppies were there to recall the scraps of white cloth that were pinned over the hearts of men about to face a firing squad.

The parade was a bittersweet occasion for those who have long argued that their relatives were victims too - a kind of armistice in itself.

They took their place for an enlarged commemoration, as part of a contingent of more than 2,000 civilians who for the first time were allowed to join the march past the Cenotaph.

After the Queen and the Prime Minister had laid their wreaths, and the armed services had marched past to the sound of the massed bands of the Household Division, it was the turn of those who did their bit by other means.

The singer Max Bygraves led an Equity deputation honouring those who entertained the troops, and 200 members of the Merchant Navy who were excluded from the official ceremonies for 55 years were finally allowed to represent the thousands of seamen who died in the wars.

Former miners marched alongside ambulancemen, evacuees beside veteran land girls, firefighters alongside representatives of the Army Pigeon Service.

And segregated from the armed forces, but permitted at last to honour their own fighting men, came those for whom a careful amnesia had long been the official prescription.

For John Hipkin, the founder of Shot at Dawn, which campaigns on behalf the executed, the feeling was one of "joy for the relatives" but also of continuing anger at the circumstances in which many of men had died.

His own poppy wreath was dedicated "In Memory of the Boy Soldiers of World War 1" and in particular to Private H Morris of Jamaica and Private H F Burden of Lewisham, south London, teenagers who were executed after collapsing under the strain of shellfire.

Mr Hipkin is not a relative; his involvement in the campaign is fuelled by an empathy born of his own capture, at the age of 14, when he was serving as a cabin boy in the Merchant Marine.

Nora High, also marching yesterday, served in an ack-ack (anti-aircraft) battery in the last war and, after witnessing the accidental death of a 19-year-old boy on her gun, learnt from her mother about the fate of her uncle, Billy Nelson, who went absent without leave after 10 months in the trenches of the First World War.

"We felt no shame," she insisted fiercely, detailing the mitigating circumstances that were never put at his court martial. "He was only a boy." For Ms High, as for many, it was the feelings of those bereaved by British bullets that counted almost as much as justice for the dead. "I watched my mother and Armistice Day was terrible for her. It broke her heart ... You've no idea how proud I feel to be able to do this thing," she said.

Tom Stones regrets that the full details of the courts martial only emerged after those most closely affected by the executions had died. "I would love to have showed all these papers to my grandfather and father," he said.

He learnt of the existence of his great uncle William just three years ago, when papers relating to the executions were released. He researched the case further, uncovering the story of a man whose first attempt to volunteer had been rejected because he was below the height restriction.

After a skirmish between the lines in which the officer he was accompanying was shot, his explanation that he'd jammed his rifle across the trench to delay pursuing Germans was dismissed and he was executed for "shamefully casting his rifle away" in the face of the enemy.

Where others are campaigning for a general pardon, Tom Stones refuses to accept that the term might apply to his great uncle. "A pardon means you're forgiven for something you've done wrong ... I want an admission that they made a mistake and shot a brave little soldier". For others, though, a general pardon will be the only acceptable conclusion to their campaign - a recognition that the real shame of these deaths should lie with a high command often contemptuous of the men it ordered into battle.

John Hipkin said the much larger German army executed 25 men for similar offences and quotes reports typical of those made on the condemned men; one firing squad victim had been dismissed as "a typical slum product of low intellect".

But even as the relatives of those shot at dawn were gathering yesterday, the Secretary of State for Defence, Geoff Hoon, told GMTV's Sunday programme there would be no posthumous pardon for those executed for cowardice or desertion. "The question of a pardon is a very technical and legal issue," he said. New Zealand recently issued a pardon to its executed troops and there are signs Canada is reconsidering a previous refusal.

Until there is a change of heart from the British Government the campaigners will have to make do with belated additions to parish memorials and regimental lists and the sympathy of supporters.

But there is a little more understanding from those who risked their lives. The Royal British Legion veteran who came to brief the Shot at Dawn group on their marching order said: "I'm ever so pleased you're marching in my column" - not quite a pardon, but as good as they'll get for now.

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