During World War One, in the midst of winter, a company of French soldiers was ordered over the top. The soldiers had watched the company that preceded them mown down by machine gun fire. As a unit, they refused. The soldiers saw the carnage and saw their bodies’ as fodder to it, one presumes. They argued they were too tired and ineffective, says photographer Chloe Dewe Mathews.
The company didn’t go over the top that day in December 1914, but death was not stayed for long. Their refusal qualified as desertion and the French military ordered executions. For practical reasons, the entire unit could not be snuffed out, but the command needed to show that mutiny could not and would not be tolerated. A decimation was ordered.
A decimation (from Latin word decem, meaning ten) is the killing of every tenth soldier in a mutinous battalion. These days, decimate is a term we associate more with natural disaster (fires decimate forests, earthquakes decimate cities) but the ominous term in fact originated as a descriptor of the Roman army’s brutal response to rebellion within the ranks — a very manmade type of violence.
And, so, there in Flanders fields, in the early 20th century, the same response was ordered. A company was decimated.
For the series Shot At Dawn, Chloe Dewe Mathews spent years researching and revisiting the sites and circumstances of allied soldiers’ executions. Once she felt she had a grip on the facts of a case, Dewe Mathews would make a photograph of the place at the same time of day and the same time of year as the killing. The majority of executions were carried out at daybreak — allied bullets dispatched before the matters of enemy bullets and skirmish took hold. As such Dewe Mathews found herself, often, breathing early morning air.
“There is a beauty and ethereality about that time of day,” says Dewe Mathews about the dawn light. “It’s an absent time and so it feels relevant for this project.”
In the same way she occupied those silent landscapes, she hopes her photographs provide not only a mood but an entry point for her audience.
“100 years later, there is so little you can grasp,” explains Dewe Mathews. “These executions are so far away. You try and take hold of the only things you know were definitely the case — that they were at dawn, that they occurred in this place and that it may have been a similar temperature.”
Allied executions of soldiers has typically been a quietened topic. Indeed, it was not something that was on Dewe Mathews’ radar until she was approached by the University of Oxford to make work to mark the centenary of the beginning of WWI (July 2014). She went in search for a topic and during an early investigative trip to Belgium and northern France met Piet Chielens the curator of the In Flanders Fields Museum, who described the invisible past, horrors and memories of the countryside.
“I knew nothing about people shot for cowardice and desertion before,” says Dewe Mathews who felt a need to amplify discussions on the subject matter. “It was driving around those battlefields and cemeteries and talking to Piet that I went with it and took on the commission.”
During her six trips to mainland Europe and throughout the research phases between, Dewe Mathews relied on a network of academics and informal experts, including André Bach and Julian Putkowski. From local historians to town mayors, from tour guides to a little old lady in tiny French village. “So many recommendations and happenstance,” she says.
The case of Private James Crozier, killed in February 1916, sticks in Dewe Mathews mind. Probably because he was allegedly only 16-years-old when he was executed but also because his case reflects the unfathomable and the tragic typical of the stories she depicted.
Crozier enlisted in the army, against the will of his mother, in September 1914.
“A registering officer recruited him promising to take care of him,” explains Dewe Mathews. “He fought in the Sommes, went missing at 18. Then found. He was confused but still court-martialed and sentenced to death. The original registering officer was contacted and asked if he could recommend Crozier’s sentence. He said yes.”
Crozier was — like many soldiers scheduled for execution — plied with drink throughout the night to ensure his docility during the grizzly event. He couldn’t stand so was hooked to a post. Members of his same company all fired wide when instructed to shoot the young man and eventually it was left to an officer to deliver a final killing blow through the head.
This is farce amid tragedy of course. Beyond the fact that deserters were given no legal representation is the fact that many were simply not in their right minds.
“Today, there seems little doubt that at the time of their offenses at least some of these men were suffering from psychiatric illness brought on by the horrors of trench warfare,” writes Paul Bonaventura — who commissioned the project — in the Shot At Dawn statement. “There is now recognition and understanding within military institutions that psychiatric conditions can be attributed to military service, which can help to explain erratic and uncharacteristic behavior, including conduct that could be classed as military crime.”
Dewe Mathews’ Shot At Dawn builds upon a campaign of the same name that sought to get information about executions released and furthermore to win official pardons. Academics were given access to the files [pertaining to killings] and the files only became accessible to the public in the 90s.
There were approximately 1,000 soldiers killed at the order of their own commanders. Current research has accounted for 600+ French; 306 British; 12 Belgian; and 35 German deaths.
These are tiny numbers compared to the 16 million that were killed during the WWI conflict as a whole. As Geoff Dyer writes in the intro to the book, “Each is a place where something happened, enormous and terrible in itself, but easily, perhaps deliberately, overlooked in the context of the larger cataclysms of the first world war.”
“For 1,000 people to lose their lives that way is still shocking,” says Dewe Mathews.
For a long time, the relatively low number of victims aided the silence. Small problem, no urgency, presumably was the logic. A thousand men were written into the history books as traitors and that version was hard to challenge and even harder to reverse. The war ended for those men in distinctly different circumstances, but they fought in those hell-like trenches all the same. Yet, they never received the honor and remembrance bestowed upon other deaths of the Great War.
Shot At Dawn campaigners and relatives of the dead men won a collective pardon on 8th November 2006 for British soldiers. France has yet to deliver a pardon. In the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire, a Shot At Dawn memorial now stands in Crozier et al’s honor.
Dewe Mathews photography has consistently been about people’s relationships to land, and so as soon as she learnt about allied summary executions and their hushed history it was a natural fit. She learnt that the French military would shoot sentenced soldiers at companies marched by.
“It was seen as a means to instruct the rest of the troops about their duty.”
These photographs allow us to process the callousness and rigidity of war, made all the more horrific when paired with our growing knowledge of conflict trauma.
“Shell shock and PTSD are different things but they share the same generalized root,” says Dewe Mathews.
The work has met with huge public approval. The fact that we’re a century on from the horror helps; some wounds have healed. But we can’t take anything from the fact that Shot At Dawn is a haunting and beautiful series. And therein lies the tension, the ultimate success and the potential pitfall of the work. How do you make pretty pictures of untold terror? Dewe Mathews walks the line.
The morning light gives the images aesthetic coherence, “a certain glue and a feel” as she puts it, but these are not romantic images. For all their atmospheric presence, we looking at photos of crime scenes. Dewe Mathews wants us to keep that front and center. Caption info includes the soldier’s names, the time of execution, the date of execution and the location.
“It’s the relationship between the text and image that really makes the point,” says Dewe Mathews.
Shot At Dawn was included in the Tate Modern’s landmark and award-winning photography exhibition Conflict, Time and Photography. Dewe Mathews was the youngest artist represented in the show. Simultaneously, Shot At Dawn travelled as its own show, which has been through a handful of locations and still has two stops in Europe in 2016.
Particularly on this day, Armistice Day, Memorial Day, it is worth meditating on Shot At Dawn. The history of photography is indelibly tied to that of war. Too often we’ve seen graphic images from which we turn away and too often photography has been used as a tool by murderous regimes. Yet, we must seek out photographic projects that bring context, calm assessment, forgiveness of ourselves and empathy for our enemies. It’s take great skill to make relevant and poetic images about death that resonate; it takes greater skill to illuminate the suppressed personal histories of the past’s forgotten victims. Shot At Dawn is an artwork for the ages.
The book Shot at Dawn is published by Ivorypress.