The National Memorial Arboretum - We Will Remember Them

PUBLISHED: 11:55 04 August 2014 | UPDATED: 11:55 04 August 2014

'Shot at Dawn'

'Shot at Dawn'

copyright National memorial arboretum

As we commemorate the start of the First World War this month, Nigel Powlson visits the National Memorial Arboretum

The Gallipoli memorialThe Gallipoli memorial

It was the war that introduced slaughter on an industrial scale. It was the first mechanised war and the first conflict in which whole populations experienced the full tragedy of war.

It began on 4th August 1914 and 100 years later the consequences, sacrifices and lessons of the First World War still ripple down through history. That’s why the 100th anniversary of the war is provoking so much interest, analysis and reflection.

Playing a key part in that is The National Memorial Arboretum, a 150-acre site dedicated to remembrance on the Staffordshire/Derbyshire border, near Alrewas. The Arboretum’s landscaped grounds contain many reflections on the First World War, from the poignant tribute to the shell-shocked soldiers who refused to return to the trenches and were ‘shot at dawn’ to the senseless slaughter at Gallipoli.

To mark the centenary, the Arboretum is hosting a series of special events including poetry and music recitals as well as First World War trails around the site.

A detail from the Durham Light Infantry memorialA detail from the Durham Light Infantry memorial

On a perfect sunny day, the centre is a place of endless peace with a quiet reminder around every corner of the horrors and sacrifices made 100 years before. More than any dry old history lesson the works of art that remember those who gave their lives paint a haunting picture of the past.

The most moving of the First World War memorials you can explore on the special trails is perhaps Shot at Dawn – dedicated to the 306 British and Commonwealth soldiers who were executed for desertion or cowardice; placed before a firing squad as the sun came up.

Few received a proper trial, many were suffering from shell shock and all died in a volley of bullets because they could no longer force themselves to go back to the mud, sickness, squalor and blood of the trenches. The memorial features a blindfolded soldier with his hands tied behind his back, waiting for the order to fire. It is modelled on Private Herbert Burden, of the 1st Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers, who was shot at Ypres in 1915. Herbert was aged only 17 and not even officially old enough to have signed up for service but this boy who was asked to do the most difficult of men’s jobs was executed all the same. Only in 2006 was a posthumous pardon granted.

The Gallipoli Memorial marks the tragic mass loss of life on both sides during a 1915 campaign to capture a peninsula guarding the Dardanelles. It was a monumental disaster for the Allies costing 58,000 lives with nearly 200,000 hospitalised. The losses were just as heavy on the Turkish side.

Managing director Sarah MontgomeryManaging director Sarah Montgomery

The memorial was designed by Turkish architect Nadir Imamoglu, long based in the UK, and features a central glass mosaic map of the Gallipoli peninsula – but it’s the bare tree limbs designed to resemble arms held aloft looking for salvation that hammers home how the dying lay in the mud calling for help that often never came.

The Durham Light Infantry memorial is a statue on a limestone plinth of a soldier with a face typical of battle-hardened veterans from any era. The Durhams were involved in all major campaigns of the First World War, losing more than 12,000 men. An astonishing number from one locally recruited regiment.

Indeed, it’s hard not to wander along the First World War trails without thinking how lucky we are to have escaped a war that robbed our nation of a generation of ill-prepared young men.

The Arboretum’s place as a focal point for remembrance means that it will be marking the official start of the First World War a century ago on 4th August with a candlelit vigil on the Armed Forces Memorial. This moving service will include prayers, readings and poetry, as well as musical performances from a choir.

The inauguration of the Quaker Memorial, April 2013, courtesy of David FaulThe inauguration of the Quaker Memorial, April 2013, courtesy of David Faul

The Derbyshire-based chief executive of the Arboretum believes that it’s only right and proper that it takes an important lead in this anniversary.

Sarah Montgomery says: ‘The Arboretum is a place of remembrance and those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the First World War are part of a long history of people who have committed their lives on behalf of their country. It’s part of a continuity but because of the scale of the loss in the First World War, the centenary has led to a strong public response. I think that’s because there is such a strong connection right up to the present.

‘I think what strikes home for me is that there were more soldiers killed on the first day of the Somme than all the names on our Armed Forces Memorial put together. It gives you a strong visual impression when you see 16,000 names up there but then translate that to any major battle in the First World War and you see what I mean.

‘One of the features of the Arboretum is that we highlight the sacrifices of the individual and that makes it more personal. We have memorials with large numbers of names on them but each one is a person with their own history.’

Assistant curator James Shallcross has been responsible for creating the First World War trails. He says: ‘It was an incredibly important conflict in so many aspects. It was the first time we had submarines, tanks and planes. It was the first time we had slaughter on such a huge scale.

‘There are several different trails. The Shot at Dawn Trail picks up the infantry regiments. The Poppy Field Trail picks up that it was a world war, that it was the first really mechanised conflict and on the symbol of poppies.

‘I hope the trails help shed some light on the sacrifices made and I’m sure many people will be moved by what they discover.’

For more information on the National Memorial Arboretum, the First World War centenary programme and the special trails go to or call 01283 792333.


The family-friendly Discovery Trail (2km) will give visitors the opportunity to explore some of the key memorials linked to the First World War and the remarkable stories behind them. It will enable young visitors to better understand some of the key events that took place during the war and the role of various regiments and individuals.

History enthusiasts will enjoy the more detailed Shot at Dawn Trail (2km), created to provide a deeper understanding of many of the trees and memorials connected to the First World War by fascinating stories and symbolism. This trail takes about an hour and a half to complete and incorporates the iconic Shot at Dawn memorial.

The third route, known as the Poppy Field Trail (2.5 km) passes though some of the Arboretum’s woodland avenues, the poppy field and alongside the beautiful River Tame. Incorporating a number of significant memorials, it is ideal for those interested in exploring the outlying areas of the grounds, particularly during the summer months when the poppies are in bloom.

A national focus for remembrance

The National Memorial Arboretum is a 150-acre site built on reclaimed land which was created in 1997. It features trees and memorials devoted to the concept of remembrance. Some 50,000 trees have been planted with the aim of creating a living memorial to those who have given their lives for their country.

Managing director Sarah Montgomery has been in her post a little over 18 months but has admired the centre and its ambitions since first coming as a visitor. She said: ‘Even then I thought it was an amazing place. The most common response when people come here is how incredible it is and what a complete revelation as they had no idea how much there is to see here – both in terms of scale and the diversity of the memorials.

‘There is also a big contrast between the landmark memorials that draw people in initially and the smaller ones tucked away in a lovely setting in a corner of the grounds. When people haven’t visited for five years or more they have been amazed at the transformation as the trees have matured and there is now a real sense of things being established.

‘The memorials themselves have become more diverse as time has gone by and I think people have become braver with the designs. They are works of art in their own right and we have been very good at encouraging people to think laterally and to understand there are many different ways of creating a memorial which is inspiring. We have some extraordinary memorials that really uplift the spirits. We have amazing, elaborate sculptures which contrast with Shot at Dawn, which is striking because of its simplicity and starkness.’

The Arboretum has ambitious plans for a new visitor centre which would help it become more sustainable and less reliant on grant aid. Sarah says: ‘The British Legion is looking at the range of future investments in the Arboretum and what order the work can be done in. The Heritage Lottery Fund is still very supportive so things are moving ahead.

‘It’s about having a more sustainable future and giving us the ability to generate more of our own income. The problem with grants is that they fluctuate and are often a rollercoaster ride.’

What is certain is that there isn’t anything quite like the Arboretum anywhere else.

Sarah says: ‘The closest are perhaps major cemeteries like Arlington but we absolutely aren’t a cemetery. There is nobody buried here. There are unusual sculpture memorials around the world but not the range we have here.

‘Despite the fact that nobody is laid to rest here we have people who come because it embodies the spirit of their lost loved ones. For example, we have a widow whose husband is buried on the Falkland Islands but his name is on the Armed Forces Memorial so for her it’s a place of peace and thinking that has helped her personally through her grief.

‘We are about the spirit of remembrance and we have created something very special here.’

Looking after the centre

Assistant curator James Shallcross looks after the grounds at the Arboretum, a sizeable task at the ever-changing centre. He says: ‘Many of the trees were planted 18 to 20 years ago and are now getting to canopy height so we are having to start a woodland thinning programme.

‘The grass cutting season is really busy as it really can get away from us if we aren’t careful. That also always clashes with the time of year when people generally have new memorials dedicated.

‘The last couple of years we have concentrated on getting more colour into the gardens, some areas were green deserts really with no colour and we want people to have something to look at. We have very poor soil so we have to use a lot of compost. There’s a lot of digging to loosen the soil and put some organic matter back in it before you can plant.

‘It’s also a non-stop job maintaining the existing memorials and clearing sites ready for new ones.’

Visitors though don’t do a lot of damage. ‘Our visitors are very good and disperse quite quickly over the site so we don’t tend to get muddy trails. That’s one problem we don’t really have to cope with.’

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