Shot at Dawn: this shocking memorial commemorates the 306 British soldiers executed by the British Army for cowardice or desertion in the First World War. They were granted posthumous pardons by the Government in 2006. The statue, by Andy DeComyn, depicts 17-year old Private Herbert Burden of the Northumberland Fusiliers, blindfolded and strapped to an execution post, eternally waiting to be shot in the Belgian town of Ypres in 1915. The names of all those executed are on the stakes that curve behind Private Burden like a supporting chorus.
Shot at Dawn is one of more than 250 memorials, military and civil, on 150 acres of soggy reclaimed gravel pit between the Rivers Trent and Tame in Staffordshire. Inspired by visits to Arlington National Cemetery and the National Arboretum in the USA, Commander David Childs RN CBE wanted to establish a national focus for remembrance in Britain. An appeal was launched by the then Prime Minister John Major in 1994, planting began in 1997 and the National Memorial Arboretum officially opened in 2001. The land was gifted by French building materials firm, Lafarge; and I must say that when I visited, on a cold January afternoon, it was a sodden, frustrating, experience: the lesson is to take sensible footwear or go in dry weather if you want to explore. And explore you should – preferably by foot, though there is a land train for those unable, or too tired, to do that.
Many of the memorials are stunning works of art. But there are thousands – possibly millions - of stories behind all of them. I have arbitrarily selected just three to, briefly, feature in this article.
The evocative half-open gates honour prisoners of war from thirteen nations held in camps Stalag XIB and XID/357 from 1939-45. The memorial is a replica of one built near the sites of the camps in Fallingbostel, Germany, and symbolises the liberation of 17,000 men by the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars on 16th April 1945. Also remembered are those POWs that died, including during forced marches of disease, malnourishment and mistreatment as Allied armies closed in on the defeated Nazi regime.
We also see a detail from the magnificent National Memorial to the Parachute Regiment and Airborne Forces, sculpted by Charlie Langton and Mark Jackson. This shows the Greek warrior hero Bellerophon, slayer of the monster Chimera, mounted on Pegasus – the symbol of British Airborne Forces since 1941. Beneath this, a life-size bronze paratrooper pulls his Bergen up the mound toward the statue. The whole thing took two years to create.
The diversity of memorials at the NMA to those who have served their community, given their lives or who have suffered in some way, is enormous. Military monuments are in the majority and the huge, emotionally charged, Armed Forces Memorial – a living tribute to lives still, sadly, being lost in Britain’s name - dominates the skyline. But there are memorials to people from all walks of life, and a children’s woodland where individual youngsters, and babies, are remembered.
Not all of the memorials are new. It used to be normal for large employers to have plaques in their head offices commemorating the members of staff who served in, and did not return from, the 1st and 2nd World Wars. Some of these memorials could be quite large, and ornate. As businesses and organisations merge, and relocate, I know from professional experience that there is usually no longer any place for these testaments to long-gone employees. So I was very pleased to see that some of them have found a home at the National Memorial Arboretum, rather than being forgotten and consigned to the scrapheap.
It is going to be awhile before the trees at NMA fully justify the name-tag, but that is to be expected – and it is a place that you could visit very frequently without taking it all in. A variety of events are held there all year round and there is a daily service in the chapel near the visitor centre. Of course, you’d expect particular activity around Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day, 11th November. More information from the NMA website HERE.
The NMA is located near the village of Alrewas, just off the A38 between Lichfield and Burton upon Trent.