Any visit to the National Memorial Arboretum is bound to be a day of mixed emotions, and so it proved for the 24 members and guests of Stumperlowe Probus Club who made the two-hour journey to the 150-acre national centre of remembrance at Alrewas, Staffordshire.
The NMA honours the fallen, recognises service and sacrifice, and fosters pride in our country.
And it does it very well, with more than 300 memorials in the beautifully landscaped grounds, a chapel of remembrance where we heard the Last Post before observing two minutes’ silence at 11o’clock, the Royal British Legion poppy field and what is intended to be the centrepiece of the whole site, the Armed Forces Memorial.
Featuring no fewer than 30,000 trees, the arboretum is an evolving, maturing woodland interspersed with long, sweeping grass terraces and walkways and bounded on two sides by the River Trent and River Tame. It is therefore a living, growing tribute to those who have served and continue to serve their country.
Sadly for us, the Armed Forces Memorial – which was dedicated in the presence of Her Majesty the Queen in 2007 – was closed for refurbishment at the time of our visit, but facsimiles of the 16,000 names recorded on the memorial have been mounted on display boards in front of the chapel of remembrance.
While cities, towns and villages throughout the country have memorials to their men who died in the two World Wars, this is dedicated to those who have died in the service of their country since the end of WWII. But I was left wondering why such a stunning piece of architecture should need to be closed for major maintenance work less than ten years after it was built.
Of the smaller memorials, each would have a special significance depending on which branch of the armed forces family members served. It might be the Far East Prisoners of War building, the Russian Convoy Veterans memorial, the British Korean Veterans’ Association memorial or others honouring such groups as the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, the Merchant Navy Association, the Normandy Veterans or the Suez Veterans’ Association.
Few, however, provoked more emotion than the Shot at Dawn memorial, tucked away in a wooded copse on the very eastern fringe of the site, where dawn first breaks.
It commemorates the 306 British and Commonwealth soldiers who were shot for desertion or cowardice during World War I. Most were suffering from shell shock, or what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder, and all were granted posthumous pardons by the British Government in 2006.
All 306 are represented by posts, like those to which they would be tied before facing the firing squad, and each with a name plate attached. The memorial statue itself is modelled on Private Herbert Francis Burden, of the 1st Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers, who was shot at Ypres on 21st July 1915. He was just 17.