'Tragic' statue for the Great War's executed soldiers

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The Independent Online

Herbert Burden lied about his age to join the Army at 16. He escaped a massacre at Ypres, but was arrested, charged with desertion and shot. He was 17 when he died.

Herbert Burden lied about his age to join the Army at 16. He escaped a massacre at Ypres, but was arrested, charged with desertion and shot. He was 17 when he died.

There were no survivors from Private Burden's unit of the Northumberland Fusiliers to speak up for him at his court martial. But yesterday there was recompense of sorts. A statue was unveiled in memory of him and the other British and Commonwealth soldiers executed by their own side during the First World War.

The 10ft statue of a blindfolded teenage soldier tied to a stake, modelled on Private Burden, by the Birmingham-based artist Andy De Comyn, is at the National Memorial Arboretum, near Lichfield, in Staffordshire. Around him is a semi-circle of stakes with the names of 305 others who suffered the same fate. They are arranged in the style of a Greek theatre to stress the "tragedy" of what happened. Most of those executed – or subjected to judicial murder, according to campaigners – were suffering from shell shock after months in the trenches. Many were of below-average intelligence and dismissed by officers as worthless.

In many cases, even when senior officers recommended mercy, Field Marshal Haig, the commander-in-chief of the British forces, authorised executions. There was a prevailing feeling that examples needed to be made.

Attempts to give posthumous pardons to those executed have failed after strong opposition from senior officers who believed it would demean the thousands of others who remained at their posts.

David Childs, director of the memorial, denied that it was in any way "political". He added: "Over 80 years of medical, psychological, psychiatric and sociological advances give us advantages over those who sat on the court martial boards.

"The memorial asks us to recognise these deaths as another of the tragedies that warfare has brought about."

In 1997 Tony Blair's government announced a plan for granting posthumous pardons after individual cases had been reviewed by the Ministry of Defence.

They included: Pte James Archibald, 20, executed for going missing from his "bantam" unit of soldiers less than 5ft 3ins tall. He was not represented at his court martial; Lance Sergeant Joseph Stones, 25, who walked into an ambush in which his companion, a Lieutenant Mundy, was killed. Lance Sergeant Stone ran back to his battalion HQ to summon help. He had lost his rifle. He was arrested, charged with throwing away his rifle and shot; Private Joseph Byers, who had also lied about his age when he joined the Royal Highland Fusiliers at 16. A year later he was found guilty of being absent from parade. Some of the firing party were crying as they took aim and some fired wide. It took three volleys to kill him.

In 1998, the Government announced that pardons would not be granted after all.

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