Bournemouth Town Hall Wednesday 8th October, 2014
A volley of shots ring out and another terrified soldier - bound, blindfolded and condemned to death for the ‘crime’ of being driven to the edge of insanity by the brutality of war - dies in a field far from home.
It happened more than 300 times during World War One. The shell-shocked, the shattered and insane who had stumbled away from the blood, gore and bombardment of the trenches, rounded up and convicted of desertion or cowardice.
Courts Martial were swift brutal and had little to do with justice. The ‘guilty’ were shot at dawn by their comrades with an officer standing by with a pistol just in case any of the firing squad might choose to miss.
This gruesome scenario is the subject of John Foster’s excellent drama which is being staged this week by Doppelganger Productions as part of the Bournemouth Arts by the Sea Festival.
It features a cast of just three actors - Adam Jessop, Mark Freestone and Russell Biles - who bewteen them bring to graphic life the fear, hopelessness and complete lack of compassion that greeted those who, even for a few short hours, simply couldn’t stand it anymore.
The play, directed by Kirstie Davis, finds the small but talented cast playing not only the accused but the officers in charge of the hearing, the defence counsel and the firing squad. They do a superb job with a story based on real military records and National Archive transcripts.
It focuses on two fictional soldiers from the Dorsetshire Regiment - a private and a second lieutenant - both trembling shell-shock victims, charged with deserting their posts on the western front.
Staged in the council chamber of Bournemouth Town Hall, this military courtroom drama is given a shot of realism as the hearings play out within a wooden panelled room that exudes the trappings of authority.
Neither defendant is truly guilty of anything other than being human and cracking under intolerable stress. But these were the days before anyone had heard of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and as far as the war’s high commander, Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig, was concerned anyone who deserted, for whatever reason, had to be made an example of. Shooting by a firing squad of their peers was an easy solution and a warning to all.
It’s a difficult subject, and at a time when the nation is commemorating the centenary of the start of the war that was supposed to end all wars, one that is well worth airing. This is a play that says may we never forget that many of the soldiers who were shot at dawn were the bravest of heroes who had gone just a little crazy after enduring unimaginable terrors.
*Shot at Dawn continues its run at Bournemouth Town Hall until Friday 10th October. Tickets are available from www.artsbournemouth.org.uk or can be bought at the Tourist Information Centre, Westover Road, Bournemouth BH1