For Armistice Day 2001 - Under-Age Soldiers
Five months after the unveiling of the Shot at Dawn Memorial statue, modelled on one under-age soldier of World War One, it is appropriate to remember Herbert Burden and his very young comrades
'...You also state that a number of soldiers who were under-age were illegally tried and executed. 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.'
'The army was repeatedly criticised for failing to curb under-age enlistments. It also broke its' own rules by sending under-age soldiers overseas and knowingly executing those who deserted after being unable to withstand the rigours of war.
The age of criminal responsibility may have entitled civilian courts to hang teenagers but civil courts also permitted defendents to have an open trial, a defending counsel, a jury who would take account of the defendent's immaturity and the right to appeal to a higher court against the death sentence.'
'... That British army officers sentenced to death and supervised the dawn execution of at least two 17 year-old under-age patriotic boy soldiers, who, lying about their ages, had enlisted at 16. They were Private H F Burden 1 Northumberland Fusiliers and Private H Morris of the 6 British West Indies Regiment.'
'Private Herbert Burden served at Belward Ridge at the Ypres Salient. His battalion was decimated but he survived. And in the midst of the terror, the death, the inhumanity, he did a very human thing. He heard that a friend stationed nearby had lost his brother in the fighting, so he went to comfort him. He left his post. He was court-martialled for desertion. Other ranks were not allowed legal representation, so no-one put his case. He was sentenced to death and shot at dawn - aged 17 years, three months.
Like Private Abraham Bevestien of the Middlesex Regiment. On Christmas Eve, 1915, he was admitted to hospital suffering from wounds and shock. A few weeks later he was back in the lines and a few weeks later he was shot at dawn for cowardice. He was 17.
Like Private Herbert Morris of the British West Indies Regiment. He enlisted in Jamaica, aged 16. He was shot at dawn on 20 September 1917. He had just turned 17.
Like another three dozen children in the British Army.'
Wilfred Owen 1893 - 4 November 1918
(c) Photographs copyright EFE/Nick Walmsley