We made our first visit to the National Memorial Arboretum on Thursday. It was one of those clear, crisp days that we get in early October; a perfect day to be outside. The Arboretum doesn’t charge an entrance fee, but it does ask for donations, which we were happy to make; the three of us are keen supporters of our armed forces. There is plenty of parking space at the Arboretum, with disabled parking near to the entrance.
The Arboretum is built on a 150-acre site that used to be gravel workings, the brainchild of former Royal Navy officer, David Childs. He says that the idea came to him in a dream, after visiting Arlington Cemetery in Washington DC. We do pomp and ceremony better than any other nation here in the UK but we are utter rubbish at honouring our war heroes. (Let’s get this out of the way now: I know that not every soldier, sailor, airman or marine is a hero. My Dad told me that, and he should have known, he fought in the Second World War. He told me that some of the things our troops did were awful, what we would nowadays treat as war crimes. I don’t and won’t glorify any of that. But the majority of our troops, just the same as the majority of other men and women, try to do their best. They hurt when they are wounded, they bleed when they are cut. Young men and women, too young in so many cases, go to fight wars in which they have no personal investment, sometimes because joining up is the only job they can get. If you don’t believe me, come meet me for a drink one night, and I’ll prove it to you.)
So, now I’ve got that out of the way, I take my hat off to David Childs, but I really think that this should have been a government led initiative. It wasn’t. We are where we are. Let’s move on. Childs managed to get the site and the Arboretum pays £1 per year in rent. Way to go, David.
The location of the Arboretum is almost fated – it is adjacent to the confluence of the River Tame and the River Trent. The waterways nestle against the grounds nicely on one side, it gives the impression of protecting the grounds from any interference; like a moat round a castle.
As you enter the Arboretum, there is a chapel on the right hand side, where a little service, an Act of Remembrance, takes place every day at 11am. This is the only place in the country where a service like this happens daily, and it’s quite rightly a non-denominational service, incorporating the Last Post and Reveille. We went to the service on the Friday, it was very moving, and a charming little chapel.
Back to the Thursday, we wanted to find the police memorial area – known as The Beat. We’d been told that there was a memorial there to someone we knew, so we wanted to pay our respects. We walked down one side and the memorial we were seeking was on the other side, so it took us quite a time to find it, with the help of one of the volunteers, but the memorial to Detective Constable John Fordham was there. It was fortuitous that the volunteer helped us because he told us that he was giving a short lecture shortly after, at the Shot at Dawn memorial.
Geoff decided to take a trip on the land train, whilst Kate and I went to the lecture. The memorial is dedicated to the 306 soldiers who were executed for desertion during World War I. The talk was given by one of the 200 odd volunteers at the Arboretum, Martin Turner.
The memorial is headed by a statue of Private Herbert Burden, who enlisted just before World War I started. Like so many other young men, Herbert lied about his age in order to be able to sign up.
He was trained in England and posted to France. There is a certain irony to this – had he not lied about his age, he would not have been posted overseas. On 26 June 1915, Herbert was directed to join a party that was extending trench lines, but he went missing. He was picked up a couple of days later, and told the authorities that he had gone to meet a pal of his who was stationed nearby. They clearly didn’t buy his story because he was court martialled and executed on 21 July 1915. It is believed that Private Burden was the youngest of those executed – although the army thought he was 19, he was actually only 17 years and three months old. The first soldier to be executed was Private Thomas Highgate, on 8 September 1914; the last two soldiers were Privates Louis Harris and Ernest Jackson, on 7 November 1918, just four days before the war ended.
There are 306 posts at this memorial, one for each of the men who were executed. There is a small plaque on each one giving the name, age, regiment and the date of execution of each of the soldiers. Another 40 soldiers were executed for committing what are known as non-military crimes – for example, murder.
During World War I, a number of soldiers were said to suffer from Shell Shock, a poorly defined condition that covered physical or psychological symptoms, and was also sometimes just defined as cowardice or lack of moral fibre. By World War II, the term Shell Shock was replaced with Combat Stress Reaction, but the symptoms may not have been exactly the same. Different war, different fighting conditions, so in a way, we’re comparing apples and pears. I suppose nowadays we’d use the term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but if I’m honest, I still think these conditions are poorly understood. Human beings are so diverse, it’s difficult to specify these things.
To say that life in the trenches, where the soldiers spent a fair bit of their time, was grim, is a massive understatement. The trenches would often be ankle deep in water, and soldiers would frequently be standing next to the corpses of their fallen colleagues. The trenches were also infested with rats; two types, black and brown. The brown rats were particularly feared and disliked, they fed on the remains of the dead soldiers, and could grow to the size of a cat! Rats reproduce at a terrifying rate, and a female can birth to up to 900 offspring a year. No wonder the trenches were overrun with them.
As if rats weren’t enough to contend with, the soldiers were infested with lice, largely because standards of hygiene were, understandably, so poor. The lice caused what was known as Trench Fever, a disease that started with pain and then went onto to produce a high fever. It could take up to twelve weeks to recover from Trench Fever, away from the trenches, and sadly, the cause wasn’t discovered until 1918. There were also frogs, slugs and any other creepy crawly things that you find in stagnant water. Many soldiers chose to shave their heads completely to avoid getting head lice.
I’m honestly not sure how well I’d cope with all of this, and I’m not sure that struggling with coping with it constitutes cowardice, although of course I understand why the military authorities didn’t want people going on the trot. In any event, the families of the 306 men executed for desertion started a campaign to have them posthumously pardoned. These 40 were not pardoned, but the other 306 were, as a result of a campaign by the families.
Martin explained to us that the firing squad was comprised of at least six men, mostly from the same regiment as the man to be executed (I wonder whether that was done as a deterrent?). One of the rifles (and none of the firing squad knew which one it was) did not have any ammunition, so the squad members could tell themselves that they had not fired the fatal bullet.
The memorial is situated at the far end of the Arboretum because it is where the morning sun is first seen. Some small comfort for the families, I suppose.
After this very sobering event, Kate and I went back to meet Geoff, who had been hugely impressed with the Land Train ride. We decided that we would all take a trip on it the following day. We spent the rest of the day looking around that side of the Arboretum, the side we’d been in all day.
The following day, we got to the Arboretum early so that we could attend the service in the chapel. It was a very moving service and a fitting tribute to service personnel from the whole world over. Then we all went on the land train, which goes slowly enough for you to see all the memorials it passes while a recorded message explains what you are seeing. I’ll be honest, I love walking but I would never have known where to go without going on the Land Train.
The Land Train ends at the piece de resistance, the Armed Forces Memorial, situated at the top of a little hillock. The memorial, made from Portland Stone, commemorates all of those who have died whilst serving since the Second World War. I’m not sure which is more of a leveller: the number of names that are already there or the fact that there is still so much space for more names.
We spent the rest of the day exploring zones 1, 2, 3 and 4. (They mark it clearly in zones on the maps, which is really helpful.)
Highlights for me in the Arboretum were the Royal Engineers memorial (because my Dad was in the Royal Engineers), the Royal Naval memorial, more correctly known as the Naval Service Memorial. The latter was commissioned by the Royal Naval Association, is made of 13 glass panels of different colours, described by designer Graeme Mitcheson as “sails of coloured glass,” representing the Oceans of the world. A bowed figure stands at one side. We were told, although we didn’t see it ourselves, that when the sun shines through the spaces in the panels the shadows form the shape of a warship.
Also the woodland area made up of an oak tree planted for each merchantman sunk during the Second World War. An incredible tribute and good for the environment too!
Truth to be told, there is so much at the Arboretum, and I wholeheartedly recommend it as somewhere to visit. Two days probably wasn’t enough, and there is so much work going on at the Arboretum, that I will need to go back again in a couple of years. It is an amazing memorial, and made me feel very proud.
Our trip to Staffordshire ended on the Saturday, my birthday, by going back to the Waterfront at Barton Marina for lunch. We didn’t need the car to get home after that, we could have rolled home, we ate so much. Kate and I went for a walk along the canal when we got back home, and chatted to a few people in the narrow boats. Kate got her first taste of closing a lock gate; I’ll get those two out on a narrow boat yet.
We drove home on the Sunday, having had a tremendous week. Back home to normality and everything else that life throws at us.
© Susan Shirley 2015