As a nation we must properly honour the 306 soldiers unjustly executed during WWI
At the start of the First World War, Private George Hunter enlisted in the 4th (Reserve) Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry. Subsequently, in 1915, he was sent to fight for France, leaving his wife and two toddlers behind in Stockton.
Before the war, Private Hunter was putting together railway equipment at Anderson’s Foundry in Port Clarence. It was reported that during his time there, he had suffered from a severe industrial accident which left him with a mental impairment and affected his short-term memory.
Because of his accident, Private Hunter suffered from an inability to remember orders. Alongside the likely severe effects of shell shock which he suffered as a direct result of the carnage during the war, his mental health led to him being perceived as a trouble-maker by his superiors.
Private Hunter and his comrades should have received the 1914-15 Star, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal
George tried on numerous occasions to be discharged, culminating in a desperate attempt on Christmas Eve where he raised his hand above the trench so that it was shot to pieces by German snipers. He was also one of the very few soldiers who managed to cross the Channel and escape to England.
After his trial on 22 June, records revealed that Private Hunter had been punished for being absent on 10 different occasions. Despite his claims that he suffered from a “wandering mind” and his commanding officer noting that he believed George suffered from a mental abnormality and should be seen by a specialist doctor, no notice was taken. Subsequently, only a year later on 2 July 1916, Private Hunter was taken to a back area of the Ypres Salient. He was duly executed by firing squad for “cowardice” and “desertion”.
As a direct result, his family were phased out of society. His children were taken away from his grieving widow and his name was intentionally omitted from Stockton’s Book of Remembrance. This country did all it could to erase the memory of George Hunter and many like him.
George’s story is just one of over 300 who the British government now recognise were wrongly and unjustly “shot at dawn” during the First World War. In 2006, after a long campaign, all 306 of those were officially pardoned. Their grandchildren have been vindicated and their family names restored.
Nowadays, we thankfully recognise the importance and impact of mental health on soldiers. The destruction and horror that many of these troops witnessed understandably took their toll on their mental stability and, whilst I am glad that these heroes have been pardoned, there is still some way to go.
Importantly, this country has yet to recognise the efforts of these 306 soldiers. They have not been awarded the medals they deserve. Not only does this maintain the stigma around mental health, particularly for armed forces personnel, but it is also an affront to those who did contribute to the Allied victory in 1918 and were, frankly, murdered by their own.
Private Hunter and his comrades should have received, as a minimum, the 1914-15 Star, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal to recognise their service.
The first signs from the government are positive. I have been informed by the Ministry of Defence that their position on this matter is now under official review. But until these medals are officially awarded and these brave soldiers are finally placed on an equal footing to their comrades, I and many others in my constituency will ensure that the memory of George Hunter as a war hero lives on.
Matt Vickers is the Conservative MP for Stockton South.
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