Six poplars stand in a row, straight and true. They represent the firing squad.
In front of them, the figure of a young soldier, cast in stone. He has been blind-folded
and he wears a target around his neck. His great-coat has been stripped of all badges, buttons and decorations, as a mark of his disgrace. The last words he will ever hear in this life are deadly indeed: "Ready. Aim. Fire!"
His name is Private Herbert Burden and he was shot at dawn at Ypres in 1915 for cowardice.
He was seventeen years old.
Mr B and I are at the National Memorial Arboretum in Alrewas, Staffordshire. We have walked to the eastern edge of the 150 acre site - the first place to see the dawn each morning - to see the Shot at Dawn Memorial and to hear its story, told by one
of the knowledgeable and ever-helpful volunteer guides. It is one of many poignant moments of the many we are to experience over the course of our visit.
Behind the figure of Herbert Burden are 306 posts,
each representing a soldier similarly executed by firing squad during the 1914 - 1918 War. Each post bears a name, a date, the soldier's age - where it is known: some may well have been under age when they signed up to serve their country, without the slightest
notion of the horrors ahead. The posts are arranged like a Greek theatre, symbolising the tragedy of it all. These men were convicted of cowardice, desertion, disobeying an order, sleeping at their post and sentenced to death after summary trials with no adequate
defence. Their deaths were intended as an example to their comrades.
Our guide reminds us that we should not apply our 2014 thinking to the circumstances of a century ago. Post traumatic stress disorder, from
which many of these shell-shocked men will have been suffering, was not recognised as a medical condition until 1980. In 2006, a posthumous pardon was granted to the 306 men. It was the result of a campaign led by Janet Booth, who sought a pardon for her grand-father,
Private Harry Farr. Her loving persistence paid off.
We had arrived in time for the daily Two Minute Silence in the Millennium Chapel of Peace and Forgiveness where Mr B confessed to a lump in his throat listening
to the note perfect Last Post and Reveille. This is the only place in the UK where there is a daily act of remembrance at 11 a.m. After that, a trip all round the site in a land train as an introduction to this amazing and inspirational place "Where our Nation
I hadn't realised just how many memorials can be seen at the Arboretum - over 300 in all, many of them unexpected. There's a memorial commemorating members of the Showmen's Guild, complete with
a brightly coloured carousel horse; a Golden Grove of trees marking couples who have celebrated their Golden Wedding; a walkway of scented plants remembering Blind Veterans UK - just think, we are off to visit their Brighton home with our Questers group next
week. The very first memorial to find a home at the Arboretum was the Polar Bear Memorial, a tribute to the 49th Infantry West Riding Division. Snowed in 20 feet of snow in Iceland for most of a World War 2 campaign, the commanding officer nicknamed his men
his "Polar Bears" and the name stuck. The bear is 9 foot long, 5 foot high and weighs 2.5 tonnes. Apparently there was much hilarity when this unusual wide load was transported to the site, with traffic announcements warning of a "large polar bear travelling
along the M6..."
Towering above the site is the central Armed Forces Memorial, a six metre high earth mound on top of which are walls constructed of 200,000 bricks on which are the names of the 16,000 service
men and women who have been killed since the end of World War 2. Bold sculptures tell a story of loss and sacrifice. A gap has been left in between two walls, allowing a shaft of sunshine to fall onto the central bronze wreath at 11a.m. on the Eleventh Day
of the a Eleventh Month.
Everywhere we look there are names. Projected on the wall of the Far East Pavilion, the names of all those who died horrible, lingering deaths while prisoners of the Japanese; in the
SANDS (Stillborn and Neo-Natal Deaths Society) garden, dozens of brightly painted pebbles bearing the names of lost babies - "Never Seen - Always Loved," reads one.
Most sobering of all, there is so much white
space on the walls of the Armed Forces Memorial. There will be other names added, other tragedies, other families ripped apart.
I fear we will never learn.
we can - and we must - remember.