PETER FROST mourns Thomas Highgate who was shot for desertion a century ago this month
Young Tom Highgate was terrified. Nothing had prepared the boy from a farm village in Kent for the horrors of the battle of the Marne early in the first world war.
Certainly not the recruiting sergeant who had signed him up aged just 17. He had told him about the fine uniform and the comradeship, how the girls all love a soldier, but hadn’t mentioned the actual fighting.
He had even hinted that Highgate might earn a place in British military history. Sadly he was only too right.
Nothing had steeled young Highgate for the heavy artillery bombardment from the German guns. Nor the fact that the German infantry appeared to far outnumber British troops.
Highgate, along with his comrades, had done his best. Hand-loading their Lee-Enfield rifles 15 times a minute, he and his fellow heroes stemmed the German advance.
But then the French had retreated leaving the British flanks exposed.
All around him his young friends were lying in the mud, blown to bloody pieces in the huge shell craters.
Then came the ultimate humiliation. The British forces were ordered to retreat. All the fright, the blood, the gore, the death, the suffering were for naught.
The terrified young soldier tripped over the edge. Today we would call it post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A hundred years ago they had harsher, crueller names — shell shock, cowardice and desertion.
Private Thomas James Highgate was about to earn his place in British military history. He would become the first British soldier shot for desertion in World War I.
Highgate was discovered and arrested by a gamekeeper in a barn on the estate of Baron de Rothschild.
He told the gamekeeper: “I have had enough of it. I want to get out of it and this is how I am going to do it.”
He had abandoned his uniform and weapon. They were found hidden beside the barn.
The army moved fast. He was court-martialled and convicted of desertion and the death sentence was confirmed on a single day in September 1914. The war had been on for only a month.
Highgate had no-one to defend him. Indeed all of his comrades had been killed, injured or taken prisoner. He called no witnesses in his defence.
His account was that he was a straggler trying to find his way back to rejoin his regiment having got separated from his comrades. No-one believed him.
Highgate’s death was almost as hasty as his trial. Senior officers insisted that he be executed at once. They wanted it to be as public as possible.
The next day Highgate was told of his fate at 6.22am on that September morning, in the presence of a Church of England clergyman. An officer then ordered a burial party and firing squad to prepare, and the 17-year-old lad from Kent was shot at 7.07am.
News of his fate was published in Army Routine Orders and distributed to the remainder of the British Expeditionary Force. The example had been made.
Highgate was the first of over 300 Tommies shot for desertion. By contrast most shell-shocked officers were shipped home and treated in officer-only hospitals.
Shell shock, also called war neurosis or combat stress and today recognised as PTSD, was deliberately misdiagnosed by the officer class.
Victims were picked out and convicted as a lesson to others.
Charges included desertion, cowardice or insubordination. Often the symptoms were just walking around dazed and confused.
Most of those shot were young, defenceless and vulnerable teenagers who had volunteered for duty like Highgate.
General Haig — or Butcher Haig as he was known — when questioned declared that all men accused of cowardice and desertion were examined by a medical officer and that no soldier was sentenced to death if there was any suspicion of him suffering shell shock.
As so often, he lied.
Haig not only signed all the death warrants but when questioned later on this issue lied repeatedly.
The general’s stubborn and ignorant belief was that anyone suffering shell shock was malingering. In fact in Butcher Haig’s mind, shell shock and malingering were one and the same thing.
Highgate has no known grave. As recently as 2000, the caring folk on Shoreham Parish Council voted not to include his name on its recently restored war memorial. His only marker is on the British memorial to the missing at Seine-et-Marne.
The Armed Forces Act 2006 allowed the mass pardon of 306 British empire soldiers executed for certain offences during the first world war.
One of them was Highgate.
Today between 9,000 and 10,000 British soldiers who served in various foreign wars are homeless and numbered among our rough sleepers. Many have PTSD.
Many have medals, commendations and other awards, but that doesn’t stop the likes of supermarket giant Tesco putting down spikes to stop them sleeping in some kind of shelter.
Shockingly, ex-service personnel account for one in 10 rough sleepers across Britain, according to homeless charity Crisis.
Simon Weston OBE, who suffered serious burns in the Falklands war, has accused the government of betraying veterans after learning of the disturbing numbers without a home.
“A huge amount of rhetoric comes from politicians, but they never actually do anything,” he said. “Ultimately, it’s a betrayal.”
In so many cases it has led to a cycle of family break-up, addictions to drugs or alcohol and homelessness.
In a particularly crass case last year Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith used his notorious bedroom tax to take away the room in his mother’s home of a soldier serving in Afghanistan. His mother was told she could not keep his room.
“He had a bed in a barracks in Germany,” declared the government.
Defence cuts have reduced the number of soldiers by over 10,000 in recent years.
A total of 20,000 are due to be axed by 2017. The RAF and Royal Navy are each shedding 5,000.
In themselves these reductions are good news but unless adequate resources are put in place a flood of redundant ex-service personnel will end up on the streets.
Jim Jukes, founder of charity Homes 4 Heroes told us there were an estimated 9,000 homeless ex-servicemen in Britain, including rough sleepers and those in hostels and B&Bs.
He said: “With the redundancies coming up and more with PTSD, this is only going to get worse. It’s a ticking time bomb.”
His charity helps ex-service personnel in London, Brighton, Birmingham and Northampton, giving them sleeping bags, blankets and food.
In 2011, when body bags were being paraded in the streets of our garrison towns, David Cameron and Nick Clegg tried to claw back some popularity with the much-heralded Armed Forces Covenant. Not so much hopping on the bandwagon as hopping on the hearse.
It was, like most Con-Dem initiatives, a hollow promise. Numbers of homeless, unemployed, traumatised and distressed service personnel have soared since then.
In reality the Cameron and Clegg coalition has enforced further austerity measures that have reduced help to ex-soldiers and indeed increased the time handling compensation claims to up to two years.
In their own way, they are just as cynical and unfeeling as Butcher Haig and the officers who shot young Thomas Highgate a century ago.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 29 Septermber 2014