A dreadful dawn

The Shot at Dawn sculpture at the National Memorial Arboretum. Image from Alchetron.

Since it’s Remembrance Sunday, I’ve a very sad, thought-provoking article here that was brought to my attention just yesterday by Vikki Swain, whose Great Uncle, Lance Corporal Frederick Hawthorne was one of the tragic band of soldiers executed at dawn in the Great War, now commemorated in the Shot At Dawn sculpture at the National Memorial Arboretum near Lichfield.

Frederick was a volunteer, not a coward, and like the majority of the men so executed, was pardoned in 2007. Exhausted, shellshocked and suffering the unimaginable damage inflicted by terrible battles of this most horrific war, this soldier was executed for ‘showing cowardice’. The injustice of this execution, like many others during the same conflict, has echoed down the years, and thanks to the work of historians including Richard Pursehouse and the Aldridge Great War Project, Frederick’s story could be told.

If you want to find out more about Shot at Dawn, see this article on Wikipedia here, which seems quite balanced to me.

I knew little of the incident until yesterday, when Vikki contacted me. She said:

Hello Bob,

I hope you didn’t mind me forwarding the above link. Born & bred Brownhills I thought you may be interested in my great uncles sad story.

My parents are still alive and have a memory box of Fred’s and finally found and visited his resting place .

We love your blogs and wanted to share this with you .

Kindest Regards
Vikki Swain

The article Vikki pointed me to was written by noted local journalist Mike Lockley and first published in the Sunday Mercury of 31st July 2017. I include it in full below, but the original linked article can be found here.

I’d like to thank Vikki and her family, and all the historians who worked on this story; on this most solemn of Sundays it’s a sad, dreadful reminder of the reality of war and of the way ordinary people were sucked into conflict and payed the highest price.

Mike Lockley wrote:


The grave fo Lance Corporal Frederick Hawthorne. Image generously supplied by Vikki Swain.


Lance Corporal Frederick Hawthorne was executed during World War One after refusing an order he considered suicidal. MIKE LOCKLEY tells his story.

FREDERICK Hawthorne was killed by firing squad for daring to bring some rationale to the madness that was World War One.

Tasked with crawling through No Man’s Land to cut the spider’s web of barbed wire, the Aldridge soldier refused, telling his commanding officer: “It’s too light. It’s bloody murder.” His death at dawn only highlights the pitiful waste of life on the Western Front’s killing fields.

In a recent Sunday Mercury article, we revealed how Lance Corporal Hawthorne had belatedly been included on the Aldridge War Memorial after being cleared of cowardice.

Now, thanks to Richard Pursehouse and Lee Dent of Great War historical group, The Chase Project, we have pieced together the jigsaw of Hawthorne’s short life – and his death at the hands of his own men.

Hawthorne was one of eight children born to coal miner Moses Hawthorn and Selina. The 1911 census describes Hawthorne as a brickyard labourer and it is known that he volunteered for action in September 1914. He joined the South Staffordshire Regiment on March 5, 1915, and was immediately thrown into the storm of shells, shrapnel and bullets.

He fought at the costly Loos attack in September 1915, and took part in the 46th Division (North Midland) failed diversionary attack at Gommecourt on the Somme on July 1, 1916.

But it was at the Somme where Hawthorne initially refused a near-suicidal mission to cut the barbed wire that laced No Man’s Land.

Eventually, he relented and left his dugout, later blaming his late return to the trenches on fellow members of the wire-cutting party.

His colleagues’ testimonies. however, did not back up that claim.

Today, Hawthorne would have been diagnosed with shell-shock. Back then, he was simply seen as possessing a yellow streak and was court martialled.

The 22-year-old appeared before that kangaroo court on July 31, 1916, to face the charge of “when on active service, misbehaving before the enemy in such a manner as to show cowardice”.

Hawthorne’s slim chance of surviving the firing squad was dimmed by his decision to conduct his own defence. The hearing descended into an almost Blackadder-style farce, with the young squaddie forced to crossexamine his own officers.

He also called colleague 2nd Lieutenant Snape as a character witness, who told the court martial that Hawthorne was “quite an efficient noncommissioned officer”.

But the defendant sealed his own fate by declining to provide any mitigation. The court’s presiding officers – Major Odling of the Middlesex Regiment, Captain Lister of Hawthorne’s own 1/5 South Stafford, a territorial force, and Lieutenant CA Ashford, 1/6 South Staffords – unanimously decided on the death sentence.

Their decision was rubber-stamped by Brigadier Williams.

What’s more, the brigadier – known to be highly suspicious of territorial soldiers – added his own statement, refuting the soldier’s claims that it was too light to cut wire.

The court papers were passed ever higher up the chain of command and there was a glimmer of hope for the doomed prisoner when 46th North Midland divisional commander Brigadier General Thwaites recommended the sentence be “commuted with suspension of sentence” because he questioned the organisation of the wirecutting operation.

But he added that such a move could damage morale among junior officers who gave evidence at Hawthorne’s trial.

“A very deep feeling amongst the officers as a whole may be engendered and the battalion will consequently become valueless,” he wrote.

The call for leniency was snubbed by Corps Commander Lieutenant General D’Oyly Snow, the grandfather of historian Dan Snow.

He stated: “The effect of the sentence being carried out would be to bring home to the whole battalion the enormity of such behaviour in the face of the enemy. An example is needed and I therefore recommend the sentence be carried out.”

Snow had famously dubbed the 46th North Midland Division as “lacking offensive spirit” during the opening day of the Somme, July 1. And when it reached the very top on August 7, Sir Douglas Haig confirmed the death sentence.

There was no possibility of an appeal and Hawthorne was executed four days later.

Thwaites’ tribute to the soldier’s bravery as he faced the firing squad only underlined the injustice of the whole sorry affair. “I should like to place on record that Lance Corporal Hawthorne met his death like a man and a soldier,” he wrote.

Hawthorne was buried at Warlincorte Halte CWGC Cemetery, close to Arras. It was to be many, many years before he got the pardon he so richly deserved.

He will be remembered at a ceremony at Alrewas’ National Arboretum on October 29. Three more stakes, representing soldiers executed for mutiny, will be placed at the “Shot at Dawn” memorial, created by Birmingham artist Andy de Comyn.

One of those stakes is a tribute to Hawthorne.

Sue Satterthwaite of the Aldridge Great War Project said: “Fred Hawthorne had been at the Front for 18 months and had seen a lot of action. He went ‘Over the Top’ on July 1 and saw many of his mates killed and injured.

“Shortly afterwards, his battalion moved to an area a few miles north of the Somme when the incident which led to his court martial occurred.

“Many historians believe that Fred was shot as an example to others and as a scapegoat for a failed operation.

“My husband and I were pleased to be able to visit Fred’s grave in 2014 and to lay a cross saying that Aldridge does not forget.

“So far we have laid crosses at the graves of about 40 local men and will visit more later this year.”

Many historians believe that Fred was shot as an example to others and as a scapegoat for a failed operation

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5 Responses to A dreadful dawn

  1. aerreg says:

    re the shot at dorne how true are the coments made i visit the arbourime regulary l pause and pay my respects at this point espescialy and read the age and ranks of those rememberd they were not cowards in my eyes to be crude they were canon foder two other points if i may the changy memoriel as you enter it a sense of emotion over comes y0u finaly as you leave the chapel turn left and walk through coppice note the small placks on tree trunks to the memory of ships lost on the convoys to helpus survive there is no glory in war the ships i refer to is the merchant navy and mankind must remember we do not own this but care takers for our future children of ever creed and race bless them what will they thank us for god bless all who tried to make it good and gave their lives and limbs

  2. aerreg says:

    care takers of this world

  3. John Darke says:

    You might enjoy “The Prisoner’s Friend” by “Peter Drake” of Hexham Northumberland, which is about a young WW1 solder who was shot for “cowardice”. It was produced as both a novel and as a one-man play. There’s a nice review here: https://www.thenorthernecho.co.uk/news/6991337.wills-legacy/

    • Jonathan Denby says:

      Yes, I saw this in the form of a one-man play (a monologue, essentially) up in Hexham a couple of years ago. I think it was based on a real case involving volunteer in the Northumberland Fusiliers. I believe “Peter Drake” is a pen-name, but it really was an entrancing evening. Kind regards, Jonathan Denby.

  4. Leanne Weekes says:

    Frederick Hawthorne was my Grandad Fred’s uncle. I must visit the memorial and grave as soon as I can. RIP

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