As we are soon coming up to the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, I took the time to immerse myself in A Dawn with no Birdsong, a novel by Australian author Tony Matthews, which is set during the First World War but with a rather unique element.
A Dawn with no Birdsong is a work of fiction but it has been inspired by real historical events as is Tony Matthew's style.
In talking with Tony, a resident of Queensland, he said of the book "Few people today know of the hidden statistic of the First World War, but it is a fact that the British were executing their own soldiers and members of their allied forces at the horrific rate of one man approximately every four days for the entire four years of the war."
Above: Author Tony Matthews with his new book: A Dawn with no Birdsong.
A Dawn with no Birdsong introduces the reader to the Western Front during the First World War as a place closer to hell than any one could imagine. Throughout the novel Tony Matthews tells the story of an incredible struggle for survival. "The soldiers fighting in the trenches at that time were faced with not one, but two murderous enemies: the German forces facing them across No-Man’s-Land comprised their principal foe but there was another insidious adversary and this was the British military system itself."
A Dawn with no Birdsong has been inspired by real historical events. Tony told the Beagle "Few people today know of the hidden statistic of the First World War but it is a fact that the British were callously executing their own soldiers and members of their allied forces at the rate of one man approximately every four days for the entire four years of the war."
November 11 this year marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War but one of the least known aspects of the war is that 121 men serving with Australian military forces were sentenced to death during the conflict, many of them just lads from the bush who had volunteered for service without really knowing what they were letting themselves in for.
The Australian Government during the war banned the use of capital punishment and no Australians were legally executed with the exception of several who were serving with the New Zealand or South African military forces. One man, a former miner from Dubbo, was shot arbitrarily without trial after he had refused to carry ammunition or fight. He is the only Anzac known to have been shot to death on orders from a superior officer.
A Dawn with no Birdsong delves deeply into the policy of the British military in executing soldiers for misdemeanours such as sleeping at a post, shell-shock, striking an officer, and other similar ‘crimes’. During the four years of war a total of 346 men were executed by British firing squads for just such offences.
Some of the victims were as young as seventeen years. Most of the executed men were subsequently pardoned posthumously by the British Government but for many decades the families of those soldiers had been forced to live with the shame and ignominy. Additionally, the men who had been forced to form the firing squads also had to live with their actions, and the guilt never left them. Some in later life committed suicide.
"A Dawn with no Birdsong is a novel,’"Tony Mathews says,"but it is also an examination and, I hope, a powerful indictment of the British military system of field punishment at that time. I wrote A Dawn with no Birdsong as a tribute to all those soldiers who were killed unnecessarily by their British masters."
In 2001 the poignant ‘Shot at Dawn Memorial’ to the executed men was unveiled at Alrewas, Staffordshire, England. It is a stark memorial depicting a statue, some eight feet in height, of a blindfolded soldier standing waiting to be shot. The statue was created by British sculptor Andy DeComyn.
Above: The ‘Shot at Dawn’ memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum near Alrewas, Staffordshire, England. The memorial was designed and created by British sculptor Andy DeComyn. There are 309 wooden stakes around the central statue bearing the names of those men who were executed and subsequently pardoned posthumously.
A Dawn with no Birdsong is available at Moruya Bookstore or directly from the author Tony Matthews has been writing for more than fifty years and is the author of thirty books, thirteen television documentary films and more than five hundred historical radio programs.Tony has researched the war extensively and this work has resulted in a best selling non-fiction book: Crosses, Australian Soldiers in the Great War; an anthology, of war poetry, When Goodbye Means Forever, originally written in 1984, and also a major television documentary film which was broadcast nationally on ABC Television. He has, additionally, based two of his previous novels during the period of the Great War: Cry of the Stormbird, set in Portuguese East Africa, Australia and Gallipoli; and his classic novel, A Cleft of Diamonds which was set on the Western Front and also in East Africa during the war years. His radio documentary, What Passing Bells, told the story of the war from an ordinary soldier’s perspective. It took its title from the opening line of Anthem for Doomed Youth, that tragic poem by Wilfred Owen who had been killed in action on 4 November, 1918, just one week before the end of the war. Additionally, Tony has written his hauntingly beautiful short story for two voices titled, The Ridge which has been broadcast on radio stations around Australia.The author has been writing this book, A Dawn with no Birdsong, for twenty-eight years,beginning the first draft in 1990 and continuing periodically with dozens of drafts over the following decades while also working on many other major projects such as films and books. For many years he has been keenly interested in researching the injustices inflicted upon those men who had mainly been suffering from shell-shock but were executed having been found guilty of cowardice, desertion, quitting a post, disobedience, sleeping at their posts or other minor‘offences’. It has always been his intention to write a book to commemorate and honour those men who were tragically shot for ‘crimes’ that today would be regarded largely as psychological issues in need of compassionate counselling. The real tragedy is that so many were executed during the war, 346 of them – and until the British Government finally pardoned most of them posthumously the stigma had to be carried continuously by the families of all those wonderful heroes who went needlessly to their deaths. Today there is a poignant memorial to all the men executed in this way, and subsequently pardoned, at the National Memorial Arboretum near Alrewas, Staffordshire, England.