Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Shot At Dawn

April 15, 2010 by  
Filed under Shot At Dawn

Shot at dawn headline in the Journal, The voice of the North, 16/6/01.

The hardest word.

If ever there was a place that thoroughly fulfilled the oft used description “Hell on Earth” , then it was the Western Front 1914—18. There was glory, there was heroism, there was death. Some could not cope and for them awaited the disgrace of the dawn firing squad.

For years the families of these young soldiers have waited for them to be pardoned. It has been a fight tirelessly championed by a North East man John Hipkin. He deserves to succeed. It really is time that somebody said sorry.

Finally he has succeeded; I raise my glass in salute.

John Hipkin, No words of mine can do justice to the work of this man, a little about him. John was Britains youngest prisoner of WW2, like so many of the WW1 under aged He wanted to serve his Country, and aged 14 went to sea as a cabin boy, his career was short lived, his ship was sunk and the crew taken prisoner. He served 1500 days as a prisoner, released on his 19th birthday. Continued his education, and entered the teaching profession.

For the past 16 years he has carried on with the SAD campaign, tirelessly writing to so many politicians, even to the queen, and standing in all sorts of weather sun snow and rain with his protesting placard, and if that were not enough also attending meetings at home and abroad , Some politicians especially those out of Office promised help, only to regress after gaining power. Yes he was arrested on occasions often unjustly. More of his efforts will emerge later.

The shot at dawn never asked for a blanket pardon, as claimed by many. They only asked for pardons for under aged soldiers, those suffering mental illness, and in cases of doubtful or illegal Courts Martial.

The Guardian published an article on 19th. Mar.1998,

Heading Killing their Own.

Death sentences and executions British and Empire armies.


No. of death sentences

No. of executions

Private 2,938 316

NCO 134 24

Second Lieutenants

3 3





3077 343

Only 5 Officers were sentenced to death, and none above that of the rank of Lieutenant. This is a low number compared to the number of Officers actually serving., and dramatically with the fate of other ranks, and soldiers in particular.

Military Executions. WW!.

France, 600.

Italy. 500.

British, 346. Includes Commonwealth troops.

German, 48.

Canada, 25.

Belgium. 13.

U.S.A. 10. For non military offences, murder and rape.

New Zealand 5.

Australia. Nil.

Russia. Nil. ???.

Extract from a letter to me from John Hipkin, regarding the court martial and execution of Fusilier Joseph Byers,15576, 1st.Royal Scots Fusiliers, aged 16 and 4 months.

‘Dear David, Now that the 79 day air war against Yugoslavia has ended, perhaps Mr Blair can turn compassionately to the 79 day war of Fus. Joseph Byers, the first Kitchener Volunteer to be shot at dawn– a patriotic boy aged 16 years and 4 months on 6/2/1915, and his court martial papers kept secret for 75 years.

Fus. Byers lied about his age to enlist on Nov.20th, 1914.,was shipped to France on Dec. 5th.1914, after only 2 weeks basic training, was later charged with desertion,(a military capital offence abolished by parliament in 1929) and as an under aged soldier was illegally executed , drugged or drunk, by a reluctant firing squad made up of his own comrades.

The Officers of his court martial received a letter from Gen. Sir Horace-Dorrien, commander of 2nd,army dated 2/1/1915, (public records office WO71/397) stating would urge that discipline in the 1st. Batt. Royal Scots Fusiliers had been very bad for some time past and that a severe example is very much wanted, Buyers after 79 days in the army was shot at dawn 6/2/1915.

Fus. Byers like most soldiers was undefended , and like all defendants was not allowed to see what had been written about him, Most courts martial officers were without any legal training, and were in fact Judge and Jury, No appeals were allowed.

Pardons for these boys and and 303 adolescent and adult soldiers were blocked in parliament in 1996, 1998,and 1999 by both Lab.and Con. Governments.’

Extracts from a letter sent to John dated 24th.Mar.1999, from Miss.A.J.Ward OBE. Ministry of Defence, Army Historical Branch.

I write in response to a number of letters which you have sent in recent months on the subject of pardons for those executed during the First World War. I wish to answer particularly the letter you sent to Her Majesty the Queen, and also various letters to the Prime Minister, Dr. Reid and defence ministers.

The current position on the subject of these executions was set out in a letter of 2 .March 1999, which the Prime Minister’s Private Secretary sent you.There are a few further points I would like to make.

The first and most important is in reply to your letter to Her Majesty the Queen. I must explain that The Queen is a constitutional Sovereign and therefore acts on the advice of her Ministers, which is why your letter was passed to the Right Honourable George Robertson MP, the secretary of state for defence that he might consider the points you have raised. These points have been considered but in the light of the careful and sympathetic review which Dr. Reid conducted, the Secretary of State feels unable to advise the Queen to take the action you have requested.

You mention in a letter which you sent to a number of people your wish to , make a formal complaint to the Ombudsman. I should advise you that this must be done through your member of Parliament.

You also mention that a number of Soldiers who were under age were illegally tried and executed, I am afraid this is not the case. Anyone over the age of 14 was deemed legally responsible for his actions, and Army regulations provided no immunity from Military Law for an under age soldier. While measures were taken to remove under age soldiers from the front line when their ages were discovered, anyone who had voluntarily placed himself – albeit through fraudulent enlistment- under Military Law, could not exempt himself from the legal consequences of doing so.John Reid paid particular attention in his review to the views, and representations which you ,the Veterans, and especially the families of those executed made to him, He also consulted and took advise from a number of people outside the Ministry of Defence on historical, legal, and medical aspects of the matter.

Signed, Yours sincerely, A.J.Ward.

This like so much previous spin doctoring blocked the work of The SAD campaign time and time again. The stated experts who advised Dr. John Reid remain nameless and hidden.

Shot at Dawn Western Front.

Pte.J Byers. First under age British Soldier to be shot at dawn by British Firing Squad

Illegally enlisted age 16 on Nov.20th 1914.

Unjustly sent to France Dec. 5th 1914

Unjustly executed age 16 Feb. 6th.1915.


Pte.H.F,Burden,3832, Ist Northumberland Fusilers.

The second under age soldier to be shot at Dawn by British Firing squad for desertion.

Illegally enlisted age 16, unjustly shot age 17 ¼.

Fought on Belwarde Ridge, Ypres Salient,

Battalion decimated..

Unjustly tried for desertion by 3 Court Martial Officers, they without legal experience.

He without defending Officer.

No appeal against death sentence.

No known Grave.

1995 Name entered on 1sr, Northumberland book of remembrance, 80 years late.

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