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Shot at Dawn memorial

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Shot at dawn
In September 1914 Abraham Beverstein, of Whitechapel in the east of London, joined the army under the name Abraham Harris. He did not tell his parents he had enlisted until afterwards: he was afraid they would have stopped him. He was 18 years old, and their only son. From the training camp at Aldershot, the boy wrote home: ‘I was very sorry to leave you, and very sorry to see you cry, but never mind, I will come back one day, so be happy at home. From your loving son Aby.’

In the spring of 1915 his battalion went to fight in France. (‘Dear mother, I do not like the trenches...’) At the end of the year Abraham was in the army hospital; an official telegram to his parents reported that he was ‘suffering from wounds and shock (mine explosion)’. In January 1916, however, he was able to write reassuringly, ‘I am feeling a little better, so don’t get upset’. Three weeks later he was sent back to his unit.

But soon afterwards another letter reached Whitechapel: ‘Dear mother, we were in the trenches and I was ill, so I went out and they took me to the prison, and I am in a bit of trouble now....I will have to go in front of a Court.’ This was the last his parents heard from Abraham.

In April they received the following letter, in every way insensitively expressed. It came from the senior officer in charge of Infantry records. ‘Sir, I am directed to inform you that a report has been received from the War Office to the effect that [Abraham’s army number and regiment – not his name] was sentenced after trial by court martial to suffer death by being shot for desertion, and the sentence was duly executed on 20th March 1916. I am, Sir, your obedient servant....’

In his statement to the court martial (he had no legal representation) Abraham explained, ‘I left the trenches because three rifle grenades exploded near me. I was deafened and my nerves had gone a bit.’ He saw a medical officer, who told the court he had ‘found him suffering from no appreciable disease...I told him he was fit for duty.’ Another soldier had come across Abraham by chance at the farm where the boy was billeted – the nearest thing to home. ‘Harris told me he had just come out of hospital,’ the soldier said. ‘He had no greatcoat or hat and was covered in mud. He stayed in the farm all afternoon sitting by the fire warming himself.’ In the evening Abraham was arrested.

His landlady at the farm told the court, ’He said the trenches were being bombed and he had left them and was going to England.’ Abraham himself said, ‘I felt nervous and lost my head. I thought I’d stay at the farm for a few days and go back to the company when they came out of the trenches.’ Those were the words that condemned him: the court was convinced that he had intended to desert.

Sylvia Pankhurst, a tireless campaigner for human rights and social reform, knew Mr and Mrs Beverstein and took up their son’s case. She published his letters in her magazine ‘Dreadnought’ and protested vehemently against the injustice of executing a 19-year-old volunteer who had endured 8 months in the trenches and had only just come out of hospital with injuries and shell-shock. As a result there was a question about Abraham in the House of Commons, but the only real outcome was that henceforward executed soldiers were simply said to have ‘died of wounds’.

Between 1914 and 1920, around 20,000 men of the British forces were convicted of military offences carrying the death penalty. Over 3,000 of them were sentenced to death. Most had their sentences commuted (usually to years of penal servitude) either at the time of sentencing or after November 11 1918. Over 340, however, are known to have been executed, as ‘an example’ to other soldiers.
18 men were executed for cowardice, 5 for disobedience, 2 for casting away arms’, 4 for mutiny, 7 for ‘quitting post’, 2 for ‘sleeping at post’, 4 for ‘striking a senior officer’, 1 for violence, and 35 for murder – an ironic charge in wartime. The remainder were put to death for desertion.

A National Memorial Arboretum has been set up at Alrewas, near Lichfield in Staffordshire, UK. It includes an installation commemorating these soldiers. Here there is a statue of one of them: Herbert Burden of Lewisham, London, shot for desertion in 1915. His image stands, blindfolded and strapped to a wooden execution post, eternally awaiting the order to fire. Behind the statue are 340 other posts, each labelled with an executed soldier’s name. The site is by the river, at a point where the dawn light first reaches the arboretum.

The sorrow of women
Sylvia Pankhurst lived and worked in the Borough of Poplar, not far from Upper North Road and just a few miles east of Whitechapel. ‘The war spread its huge tentacles to all sections of the people, breaking them at the Front, bleeding them of energy and joy of life in the munitions factories,’ she wrote in her memoir of wartime life.

Manufacturing weapons (in which many women were employed because of the shortage of men) itself caused death. Sylvia reported: ‘At an inquest on Lydia Gibson, an examiner at a munitions factory who died from TNT poisoning in October 1916, it was revealed that she wore neither gloves nor respirator. At an inquest on Annie Nelson, who died from the same cause, a doctor said that respirators weren’t used in the factory where she worked because the medical arguments against them were stronger than those in their favour.’ More stringent measures were introduced, but still the workers’ skin turned yellow, still they became ill, still some died.

There are many sad stories of the suffering of women and children during the war. Sarah Brown’s is only one of them. Sarah and her husband had been happy, despite their poverty. Frank had a steady job and ‘never suffered a day’s illness’. Sarah worked for a clothing factory, while still managing to look after their six children, the youngest only a few months old in 1914. But when war began many factories closed. Frank was forced by his employer to ‘enlist or go’: he went, and so did his wages. There were many men like him, who willingly volunteered because they were unemployed.

After Sarah had pawned everything she could, and had nowhere to turn, she was persuaded to go to Sylvia Pankhurst for help. Sylvia’s intervention meant that Sarah at last received some of the benefit she was entitled to under War Office rules. But issuing of funds to the dependent families of soldiers was mired in bureaucracy and budget problems: most government money was being spent on the war. When Sarah wrote to the authorities asking for arrears still due to her, her letters went unanswered. But at least she and the children now had food to eat.

In the autumn of 1915 Sarah developed a hacking cough that didn’t go away. She was told she needed hospital treatment; but there was no-one else to look after the children, and they needed the few extra shillings (about £27 pounds a week in modern money) she could earn at the sewing-machine now some factories were open again. She pretended that she was fit. But in May 1916 she collapsed and was taken to hospital; her eldest daughter, now 14, was left to cope with the younger children alone. Sarah had tuberculosis.

In July she came home, if anything more ill. So did Frank, discharged from the army because he too was ill. His army pay was stopped, and (because he was now at home) so was Sarah’s allowance. He was also refused a pension. There was nothing for it: he had to work. He grew well-practised at hiding his own poor health both at home and at work. Meanwhile Sarah’s doctor could only provide palliatives for her by paying for them himself.

Sarah was the sort of person who doesn’t wish to trouble others, so it was only accidentally that Sylvia Pankhurst heard of the Browns’ straits. She at once brought free milk for the children to their tiny two-roomed home. She found Sarah lying in bed, desperately thin and pale – and still working: sewing table mats for the factory to help feed the family’s eight mouths. She was only 38 years old, and about to die. ‘It was a shame and scandal to humanity,’ wrote Sylvia.

The eldest and youngest children huddled together listening to the two women talking about Sarah’s story. ‘For them, as for her, it was part of the history of the Great War. She saw her life shipwrecked in the whirlpool of the immense tragedy wherein millions had lost all; and she asked, with wistful pity for those who would live on after her, when this cruel war would end.’

‘A shame and scandal to humanity’
It would be 2 years before prime minister David Lloyd George famously promised to make Britain ‘a fit country for heroes to live in’, though the thousands of disabled soldiers who made it back home found a poor welcome and little to hope for. It would be 30 years and another world war before the British welfare state was founded. Today, spending on war is still a greater priority than removing the causes of human suffering, of which war is one.

On Remembrance Day we are asked to remember ‘the dead of two world wars’. That roll of millions must also include the people who died on the ‘home front’. And there is no morally valid justification for such ways of death.




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