SHOT AT DAWN
"The number of soldiers in the British army who were executed by firing squads during the First World War is utterly insignificant compared with the massive carnage at the front… At the time of their condemnation [these soldiers] were branded as ‘shirkers’, ‘funks’ and ‘degenerates’, whose very existence was best forgotten. Yet, ever since, the manner in which they were tried and their subsequent treatment have given rise to a profound unease in the national conscience. Death did not come to them, random and abrupt, on the field of battle; it came with measured tread as the calculated climax of an archaic and macabre ritual carried out, supposedly, in the interests of discipline and morale."
Anthony Babington - For the Sake of Example: Capital Courts-Martial 1914–1920
'Shot at Dawn' focuses on the sites at which British, French and Belgian troops were executed for cowardice and desertion between 1914 and 1918. The series comprises twenty-three photographs, each depicting a location at which the soldiers were shot or held in the period leading up to their execution. All are seasonally accurate and were taken as close as possible to the precise time of day at which the executions occurred.
In Britain, the files on soldiers executed for cowardice and desertion were closed to the public until the 1990s. When they were finally made available, it became clear that in addition to the French, Belgian and German armies who shot their own side, around 1,000 men were executed by firing squads between 1914–18. Although this figure is minute in relation to the vast number of casualties on the frontline, the manner in which these soldiers met their end has generated a great deal of controversy. In some cases, shell shock or years of good service weren’t taken into account when verdicts were reached and official pardons have since been granted.
For months Chloe Dewe Mathews researched these cases, trawling through courts-martial documents, using old aerial photographs and monastery diaries to pinpoint the precise locations where each man was executed. Academics, military experts, museum curators and local historians enabled her work and although many of them have dedicated their lives to researching the subject, none have comprehensively visited the sites of execution in such a systematic fashion. Whether slag-heap, back of a primary school, churchyard, town abattoir or half-kempt hedgerow, these places have been altered by a traumatic event. By photographing them, Dewe Mathews is reinserting the individual into that space, stamping their presence back onto the land, so that their histories are not forgotten.
For more information, please see the dedicated project website - http://shotatdawn.photography