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Saturday, 23 June, 2001, 14:07 GMT 15:07 UK
One in 10 was shot, age was no barrier
Those who deserted stood to be executed
A memorial has been unveiled to the hundreds of British soldiers shot by their own side during WWI. It depicts Private Herbert Burden, one of the youngest of the executed men.

At 17, Private Herbert Burden was legally too young to be facing the German guns in the trenches of the Western front.

However, his age did not save the teenager from facing a deadly volley of bullets on the morning of 21 July 1915 - fired by his own comrades.

The memorial, which depicts Private Herbert Burden
Burden was one of the more than 300 British and Commonwealth soldiers to be executed by firing squad during World War One.

Though the British military handed out death sentences for an array of offences - including murder - most of those executed on the Western front had been found guilty of desertion or "cowardice".

An absence of little more than 48 hours saw Private Herbert Burden brought before a Field General Court Martial, pleading for his very life.

While stationed behind the lines, near the Ypres Salient, Burden had left his regiment, the Northumberland Fusiliers, with permission to visit a friend in a neighbouring unit.

Head for the front

"I heard he had lost a brother. I wanted to inquire if it was true or not," the teenager told his military judges.

A plaque to one of the hundreds shot by their own side
A plaque to one of the hundreds shot by their own side
The officers considering Burden's fate heard that the boy's unit had been issued orders to make for the front just before he went missing.

"Burden was warned for duty with a working party. Their duty was to dig at night in the vicinity of the firing line... liable to the usual dangers to be met with in the vicinity of the trenches," testified the boy's officer Lieutenant Colonel Clement Yatman.

It seems that although Burden had been a soldier for some considerable time, possibly enlisting as a drummer boy prior to the outbreak of the war, he had not seen any major action.

Asked to comment on his subordinate's character, Col. Yatman said neither he nor any of his officers knew the accused, but added that Burden was "of inferior physique, reported as untrustworthy".

The Army shot them to stiffen moral after a major cock-up or when they were about to launch a major attack

Julian Putkowski
It seems Burden was also sickly, having spent at least 11 days of his three months in France in hospital. Indeed, army doctors had only discharged him the day before he was ordered to the front lines.

On 2 July 1915, a guilty verdict was passed and Burden's death sentence was sent up through the chain of command to be approved.

While admitting that the fighting spirit of his men was good, Brigadier General Douglas-Smith said a few other cases of desertion had occurred in the area and "the death penalty is the only means by which it can be stopped".

Former soldier
A former soldier observes a minute's silence at the remembrance service
It seems Private Burden was to be made an example of, says historian Julian Putkowski, co-author of Shot At Dawn.

"Only one in 10 of the 3,000 men sentenced to death were actually shot. The Army shot them to stiffen moral after a major cock-up or when they were about to launch a major attack."

Burden's last day was scheduled to coincide with another assault on the German positions along the Ypres Salient.

"It seems the Army executed only every 10th condemned man because it thought that was all public opinion would stand," says Mr Putkowski.

Hauled off

It was common for condemned men to be returned to their units, often to fight in the trenches, while awaiting their fate, says Mr Putkowski.

Queen laying a wreath
Last year, deserters were recognised for the first time at Remembrance Sunday
"They would then be hauled off to a barn or out building. There a chaplain - often in a worse state than the condemned man - would come along for the 'death watch'. A doctor might offer them a half grain of morphine to knock the man out."

At sunrise on 21 July, Burden may well have been brought before a firing squad taken from the ranks of his own friends, says Mr Putkowski.

"Some of the condemned knew their executioners. One man even called out: 'Make it a good one, Jim'."

Facing certain death, soldiers such as Private Burden reacted in a number of ways.

"Some were hysterical, screeching, some seemed comatose. Others would take it fatalistically, knowing their comrades would possibly be dead soon anyway."

The blank round

The firing squad's rifles would have been loaded by an NCO, with one of the weapons being primed with a blank round - the thinking being that the marksman could cling to the hope they had not fired a fatal shot.

"A blank round sounds completely different to a live one and because it's not propelling anything there's no 'kick' either," says Mr Putkowski. "The firer would have known which was which. It was just intended as consolation."

Although his age was officially recorded as 19 when he died, it seems Burden was only 17 and had presumably lied so he could see active service abroad.

Mr Putkowski says it's likely the Army colluded in this deception, since Burden's real age would have been known to recruits when he first signed up before the war.

"They must have known he was underage, but he was executed anyway."

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