Chloe Dewe Mathews - Shot at Dawn
For her Shot at Dawn project, photographer Chloe Dewe Mathews visited First World War sites where soldiers were executed for desertion or cowardice.
Credit: Guardian News and Media Limited 2014

Shot at Dawn

Stuart Gillespie

Private Thomas Highgate was just 17 when he became the first British soldier to be executed for desertion during the First World War.

Unable to cope with the horror and carnage of the Battle of Mons, he fled to northern France, where he was discovered hiding in a barn. He was tried, convicted and executed the following day.

Private Highgate was one of more than 300 soldiers executed by the British and Commonwealth military command during the course of the war.

Now, to mark the centenary of the conflict, award-winning photographer and Ruskin School of Art graduate Chloe Dewe Mathews will present a series of images focusing on the sites of these executions.

Titled Shot at Dawn, the project was commissioned by the Ruskin as part of 14-18 NOW, WW1 Centenary Art Commissions, the official cultural programme for the First World War centenary commemorations.

Chloe's series documents the locations at which British, French and Belgian troops were executed for cowardice and desertion during the First World War. Her photographs were taken as close as possible to the precise time the executions took place, which was usually at daybreak. Drawing on meticulous research, she has been able to locate the exact sites at which scores of soldiers found guilty of breaching military discipline were executed by firing squad.

Chloe told BBC Radio 4's Front Row programme: 'Part of what was so fascinating about the process was working with a real broad range of people – academics, local historians, people who have dedicated 20 years of their lives to researching these stories.

'So I collated all that information and research and then spent the next year and a half going on a number of visits to Flanders and France to find these locations. I stayed in hotels and got up very early in the morning, in the darkness, to make my way to these places, setting up my tripod and waiting for the dawn, for the light to rise. That was the moment when I'd take the photograph.'

Chloe, who described the commission as 'challenging', visited 23 sites in total, ranging from fields and slag heaps to former abattoirs.

Paul Bonaventura, senior research fellow in fine art studies at the Ruskin, said: 'Chloe's commitment and dedication to Shot at Dawn, which has been more than two years in the making, has been nothing short of remarkable. It is a privilege for the Ruskin School of Art to have collaborated with such a talented photographer on such a uniquely special undertaking.'

The photographs will be launched in book form at Flanders House in London on 14 July before embarking on a two-year international exhibition tour including Tate Modern, Stills: Scotland's Centre for Photography, and the Irish Museum of Modern Art.