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from The Toronto Star Friday 5 January 2001

War deserters memorial nears completion

LONDON (CP) - It was likely a flush of patriotism that caused Pte. Herbert Burden to lie about his age so he could join up to fight with his comrades in the First World War.

In the trenches of France, his lie and his true age caught up with him. Panicked at what spread before him at Ypres on June 26, 1915, the teenage boy from the London area fled.

Aged 17, the son of a gardener was convicted of desertion and executed.

What many now see as one of the great injustices of the First World War is about to be honoured in Britain as a memorial to 306 deserters, including 23 Canadians, nears completion in the English Midlands.

It's a memorial that wouldn't have got off the drawing board that many years ago, said David Childs, director of the arboretum and a retired British naval commander.

''It's interesting that there has been a sea change in attitude towards more understanding,'' he said in an interview.

''I was a bit nervous that objections would be raised.''

Childs said now that it is understood so many deserters were teenage boys and more is known about the psychology of trauma, people take a different attitude.

''I think people have realized that before the thing that cracked most of these people up, these days they would have been taken quietly away and been given some sort of help.''

The public has been asked to support the National Memorial Arboretum in Alrewas, Staffordshire, by donating $45 in the names of individual deserters. The memorial has received funding from Britain's Millennium Commission.

The arboretum serves as a memorial to all who served and were lost in both of the 20th century's world wars. The area set aside to honour those shot for cowardice is one part of the wider memorial.

''In our opinion, the youngsters, and they were mostly youngsters, were as much victims of conflict as many others,'' said Childs. ''And we felt at least we could acknowledge the fact that they had suffered in this way.''

Each donation goes to sponsor one of 306 pine stakes that will stand around the blindfolded statue of a deserter, hands tied behind his back, as he would have faced a firing squad. It is inspired by the stories of Burden and Pte. Herbert Morris, two soldiers who enlisted at 16, below the legal age for service.

Army records show Burden was 19 at the time he was executed, but his birth certificate indicates he was 17.

It wasn't unusual at the time for teenagers to lie about their age and newspapers often told the story of heroic boy soldiers, some as young as 14, who were injured on the front lines as official Britain turned a blind eye.

No Canadian soldiers have yet been directly sponsored, Childs said, possibly because of a lack of publicity. Just 68 stakes still needed sponsorship on Friday.

John Hipkin of the Shot at Dawn Campaign said every deserter will be recognized with a stake bearing their name, rank, age and date of death, even if they do not receive direct sponsorship.

Hipkin is a retired teacher from Newcastle who has read more than 100 court martial files of soldiers who deserted since the records were first made public in 1990.

''I'm sick to my stomach with what I read,'' said Hipkin, who was taken prisoner during the Second World War while he served as a cabin boy in the merchant marine at the age of 14.

''The Canadian Expeditionary Force, like the British Expeditionary Force, had a lot of underage soldiers. There were thousands of them on the Western Front, really there were. My uncle was one of them at 16.''

The arboretum is due to open to the public in May. The memorial to the deserters has attracted support from a range of veterans organizations in Britain, said Childs.

Most of the soldiers shot for desertion were British. In addition to the 23 Canadians, five New Zealanders, four Africans and one Jamaican were executed.

Canadian Veterans Affairs Minister Ron Duhamel has recently raised the possibility of pardoning posthumously Canadians who were executed for cowardice in the First World War.

Editor's note: Donations can be made to sponsor Canadian soldiers who were executed for desertion in the First World War. Organizers ask that donations be made with cheques or money orders made out in pounds sterling to the National Memorial Arboretum with a reference on the cheque to the Shot at Dawn memorial. Donations should be sent to P.O. Box 10, Tisbury, Wilts, England, SP3 6TH.

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