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Shot at Dawn

This page has been dedicated to those people who lost their lives by being "Shot at Dawn" (SAD). Those who died were wrongly accused of cowardice when in fact they were ill from shell shock and what we now commonly refer to as PTSD. It should be noted that this page is a "work in progress" page as it will be edited and added to as we continue to receive information kindly donated to us.

It is such an irony that an expression some of us grew up with was in fact taken from such a horrific reality. You may remember people around you using the phrase in the context of "oh you'll be shot at dawn if your caught doing that" etc. In fact it was often used with an almost comical meaning to exaggerate a situation where a person may get into trouble. How awful to find out so many years later that it originated from this most shameful period.

The immediate question is why has it taken so long for us to learn that it was so, that it was one of the most awful injustices in war and yet it has been kept buried for so long, too long.

Much of the information on this page was kindly given to us by Mr John Hipkin (see below for more on John) a special thank you to John who for many years has been campaigning for justice and for giving us his permission to publish the information given on this page. It is great news that these people have now received pardons but after all this time with the shame and pain it brought, the victory is almost bitter sweet.

If you wish to make any comments on this topic please go to our forum and register here and then visit here to say what you feel.

Mac Macdonald

For Forces Poetry



Shot at dawn headline in the Journal, The voice of the North, 16/6/01.

Sub Heading, The hardest word.
If ever there was a place that thoroughly fulfilled the oft used description “Hell on Earth” , then it was the Western Front 1914-18.  There was glory, there was heroism, and there was death.   Some could not cope and for them awaited the disgrace of the dawn firing squad. For years the families of these young soldiers have waited for them to be pardoned. It has been a fight tirelessly championed by a North East man John Hipkin.  He deserves to succeed. It really is time that somebody said sorry.

Finally he has succeeded; I raise my glass in salute.


John Hipkin

No words of mine can do justice to the work of this man, a little about him. John was Britain's youngest prisoner of WW2, like so many of the WW1 under aged he wanted to serve his Country, and aged 14 went to sea as a cabin boy, his career  was short lived, his ship was sunk and the crew taken prisoner. He served 1500 days as a prisoner, released on his 19th birthday. Continued his education, and entered the teaching profession.

For the past 16 years he has carried on with the SAD campaign, tirelessly writing to so many politicians, even to the queen, and standing in all sorts of weather sun snow and rain with his protesting placard, and if that were not enough also attending meetings at home and abroad . Some politicians especially those out of Office promised help, only to regress after gaining power. Yes he was arrested on occasions often unjustly. More of his efforts will emerge later.

The shot at dawn never asked for a blanket pardon, as claimed by many. They only asked for pardons for under aged soldiers, those suffering mental illness, and in cases of doubtful or illegal Courts Martial.
The Guardian published an article on 19th.   Mar.1998

Heading “Killing their Own”.

Death sentences and executions British and Empire armies.


No of death sentences

No of executions







Second Sub lieutenants









Only 5 Officers were sentenced to death, and none above that of the rank of Lieutenant. This is a low number compared to the number of Officers actually serving, and dramatically with the fate of other ranks and soldiers in particular. 

More later   Military Executions. WW1

France,     600.
Italy.        500.
British,     346. Includes Commonwealth  troops.
German,   48.
Canada,    25.
Belgium.  13.
U.S.A.      10. For non military offences, murder and rape.
New Zealand 5.
Australia.  Nil.
Russia.      Nil.  ???.


Extract from a letter to me from John Hipkin, regarding the court martial and execution of  Fusilier Joseph Byers,15576, 1st.Royal Scots Fusiliers, aged  16and 4 months.
Dear David, Now that the 79 day air war against Yugoslavia has ended, perhaps Mr,Blair  can turn compassionately to the 79 day war of Fus. Joseph Byers, the first Kitchener  Volunteer to be shot at dawn--     a  patriotic boy aged 16 years and 4 months on 6/2/1915, and his court martial papers kept secret for 75 years.

Fus. Byers lied about his age to enlist on Nov.20th, 1914.,was shipped to France on Dec. 5th.1914, after only 2 weeks basic training, was later charged with desertion,(a military capital offence abolished by parliament in 1929)  and as an under aged soldier was  illegally executed , drugged or drunk, by a reluctant firing squad made up of his own comrades.

The Officers of his court martial received a letter from Gen. Sir Horace-Dorrien, commander of 2nd,army dated 2/1/1915, (public records office WO71/397) stating he would urge that discipline in the 1st Batt. Royal Scots Fusiliers had been very bad for some time past and that a severe example is very much wanted, Buyers after 79 days in the army was shot at dawn  6/2/1915.

Fus. Byers like most soldiers was undefended , and like all defendants was not allowed  to see what had been written about him, Most  courts martial officers were without any legal training, and were in fact Judge and Jury, No appeals were allowed.
Pardons for these boys and and 303 adolescent and adult soldiers were blocked in parliament in 1996, 1998,and 1999 by both Lab.and Con. Governments.  


Extracts from a letter sent to John dated 24th.Mar.1999, from Miss.A.J.Ward OBE.  Ministry of Defence, Army Historical Branch.

I write in response to a number of letters which you have sent in recent months on the subject of pardons for those executed during the First World War.


I wish to answer particularly the letter you sent to Her Majesty the Queen, and also various letters to the Prime Minister, Dr. Reid and defence ministers.

The current position on the subject of these executions was set out in a letter of 2 .March 1999, which the Prime Minister’s  Private Secretary sent you. There are a few further points I would like to make.

The first and most important is in reply to your letter to Her Majesty the Queen. I must explain that The Queen is a constitutional Sovereign and therefore acts on the advice of her Ministers, which is why your letter was passed to the Right Honourable George Robertson MP, the secretary of state for defence that he might consider the points you have raised. These points have been considered but in the light of the careful and sympathetic review which Dr. Reid conducted, the Secretary of State feels unable to advise the Queen to take the action you have requested.

You mention in a letter which you sent to a number of people your wish to , make a formal complaint to the Ombudsman. I should advise you that this must be done through your member of Parliament.

You also mention that a number of Soldiers who were under age were illegally tried and executed, I am afraid this is not the case. Anyone over the age of 14 was deemed legally responsible for his actions, and Army regulations provided no immunity from Military Law for an under age soldier. While measures were taken to remove under age soldiers from the front line when their ages were discovered, anyone who had voluntarily placed himself - albeit through fraudulent  enlistment- under Military Law, could  not exempt himself  from the legal consequences of doing so.----- John Reid paid particular attention in his review to the views, and representations which you ,the Veterans, and especially the families of those executed made to him,  ---     He also consulted  and took advise from  a number of people outside the Ministry of Defence  on historical, legal, and  medical aspects of the matter.  
Signed, Yours sincerely, A.J.Ward.

This like so much previous spin doctoring blocked the work of The SAD campaign time and time again. The stated experts who advised Dr. John Reid remain nameless and hidden.


Shot at Dawn Western Front.

Pte.J Byers. First under age British Soldier to be shot at dawn by British Firing Squad
Illegally enlisted age 16 on Nov.20th 1914.
Unjustly sent to France Dec. 5th 1914
Unjustly executed age 16 Feb. 6th.1915.
Pte.H.F,Burden,3832, 1st  Northumberland Fusiliers.
The second under age soldier to be shot at Dawn by British Firing squad for desertion.
Illegally enlisted age 16, unjustly shot age 17 ¼.
Fought on Belwarde Ridge, Ypres Salient,
Battalion decimated.
Unjustly tried for desertion by 3 Court Martial Officers, they without legal experience.
He without defending Officer.
No appeal against death sentence.
No known Grave.
1995 Name entered on 1sr, Northumberland book of remembrance, 80 years late.









Head Stone


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