Shot at dawn

For some God-forsaken reason they did it at dawn, that precious beginning to each new day when hope runs highest. Three hundred and seven times between 1915 and 1918, they came in the pre-dawn for sad, sick and disturbed British soldiers, who were then marched through the mud, blindfolded, tied to a post and shot dead.

The victims were perceived as the "low-bred dregs of humanity, degenerate and worthless". They were not murderers, rapists or criminals; they were, in most cases, men whose crime was to fear death or suffer from psychiatric injury caused by the hell that was the First World War. The reality of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome was not known about. These men were branded cowards and deserters.

This Sunday, when we remember the millions who were sacrificed in that conflict, there will be few left to mourn those who did not, according to their military records, die with distinction.

They are men like Private Lawrence Elford, 28, from Paisley, Renfrewshire, one of the 307 British soldiers, 39 of whom were Scots, who lie in unquiet graves in foreign lands. Elford, of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, was the last soldier to be shot at dawn.

He had received news that his father had died and his new wife was seriously ill at home in Huddersfield, Yorkshire. The combination of war and worry unbalanced the young man’s mind and he decided to walk home from France. The very notion that he believed he could do such a thing must surely have pointed to a disturbed mental state.

The upper echelon of Britain’s military command and the politicians at home did not take that view. He was recaptured and executed.

There are no pictures of Elford, no sepia-tinted remembrance. His wife is dead; he has no relatives, but this weekend, a group of old soldiers in Paisley will, for the first time since the armistice, pay their own tribute to the man and remember how he was so spitefully made an example of.

The Paisley Comrades branch of the Royal British Legion adopted Elford after a memorial dedicated to the executed men was created in the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire. It depicts a blindfolded soldier seconds before he is shot dead. "Around the base of the statue are posts bearing the names of all the British soldiers who died in this way," says Sam Morrell of the Paisley Comrades.

Morrell, who is involved in the Shot At Dawn UK campaign to win posthumous pardons for the disgraced men adds: "It brings the enormity of it home when you see this small reminder of lives lost to a terrible policy. They were just boys, sickened and disturbed by the war. It is appalling what happened to them and they deserve to have their names cleared. "Nowadays, we would counsel them, not kill them."

Counselling played no part in the Great War. General Routine Order No 585 of the British Expeditionary Force in 1915 decreed the presumption of innocence would not apply in cases of desertion.

Over the next three years, young soldiers would be the victims of kangaroo courts, denied proper legal representation, their lives and deaths decided in the space of a 20-minute hearing.

It was a farce. Legal representation was perceived by senior soldiers as a "sinister piece of cleverness". Courts martial abnegated their true responsibilities. On one occasion they could not find a bible, so witnesses were sworn in on a French cookery book.

Lord Haig, the army’s commander-in-chief, who promoted the execution of troops as an "example" to others, had to ratify every death sentence. Significantly, of the 307 soldiers shot, only two were officers.

The commander, known as Butcher Haig, probably believed that shooting a few soldiers sat dawn was no big deal when he was already sending hundreds of thousands to their death.

John Hipkin of the First World War Pardons Association says: "In 1999, the Scottish Parliament asked the Government at Westminster to award posthumous pardons to these men. However, their plea fell on deaf ears and cold hearts. "These men were stained with shame and disgrace, which was visited upon their relatives. For decades, the manner of the deaths was kept secret and it was only when records were revealed that the truth - the shameful truth - became known."

Morrell adds: "On Sunday, when we remember the many, we should spare a thought for those few who were the victims of politics and not war."