Shot at Dawn: Lest we Forget

Men line up with guns to execute a soldier for cowardice. A still from ‘After Dawn’, the film created by young people at Central Youth Theatre.
Men line up with guns to execute a soldier for cowardice. A still from ‘After Dawn’, the film created by young people at Central Youth Theatre.

Heritage Grants

Wolverhampton, West Midlands
Central Youth Theatre
£10000
British and Commonwealth military command executed 306 of its own men during the First World War for cowardice as well as desertion.
“I understand that men who died at the hand of a firing squad were just as courageous as the men who didn't. They were torn apart by the horrors of warfare and they should be remembered with honour and respect."
Robert Millward, William in the film
Young people from Central Youth Theatre produced a film and exhibition to tell the story of soldiers executed for cowardice in the First World War.

Keen to learn more about this aspect of First World War history, young people from West Midlands Central Youth Theatre participated in a research project at Wolverhampton Archives. They explored shell shock, life in the trenches and how these conditions affected soldiers. More than 300 soldiers were labelled as cowards and then executed due to their inability to cope with the wartime expectation to be brave.

Fifteen youth theatre members aged between nine and 23 produced a film called 'After Dawn' which was based on their research and later screened to the public. The actors were determined to make it an accurate portrayal of trench life. The lead actor researched shell shock in detail and strove to make his acting as authentic as possible.

The production stirred up emotions and encouraged the audience to think about cowardice. Relatives of executed soldiers found the film engaging and recommended it to friends and family to share the message. As a result, people from a range of ages and backgrounds enjoyed the film and learned something about the First World War. Local schools and community groups received copies of the film. 

The young people also interviewed families of executed soldiers and firing squad members. The participants showed the families their relatives’ pardons, which reduced any feelings of shame they may have had about their family history and the stigma surrounding cowardice executions. It also inspired a follow on project and film 'Goodnight My Boys,'  funded by HLF, which told the story of the campaign for the pardon.