ISSUE 1715 Friday 4 February 2000
Villagers against adding deserter's name to memorial
By David Sapsted
THOMAS HIGHGATE, the first British soldier shot for desertion during the First World War, will not - for a while, at least - have his name added to the war memorial in his home village in Kent.
A proposal to add the name of the 19-year-old farm labourer, who deserted after less than two weeks of action during the Battle of Mons, was defeated by eight votes to one at a meeting of the parish council in Shoreham. Instead, councillors have agreed to leave a space for his name to be added if moves by Parliament to grant pardons to executed British soldiers succeed.
Shoreham, near Sevenoaks, became divided by the proposal to add Highgate to the list of 30 names on the stone, engraved memorial, which the council is restoring with a brass plaque.
George Jameson, the council chairman, said yesterday: "Many people felt strongly that he should not be on there. Local members of the British Legion said they would not want to salute a memorial bearing the name of a deserter. Others felt that, given the conditions during the First World War and the effects we now know that shell-shock can have on soldiers in the trenches, his name deserved to be added."
Highgate enlisted as a private in the Royal Kent Regiment in 1913. At Mons, the first real battle involving the British Expeditionary Force, he deserted and was found hiding in a barn. He was wearing civilian clothes and told his captors: "I want to get out of it, and this is the way I am doing it." He was found guilty of desertion under the Army Act and shot at dawn on Sept 6, 1914.
Michael Green, of the Royal British Legion, said: "Many men fought at Mons and stood their ground. Obviously, by deserting, Highgate put his comrades at further risk. Should his name be honoured alongside those who stood and served their country bravely? I don't think so."
The Times February 4 2000
Executed soldier kept off memorial
BY MICHAEL EVANS, DEFENCE EDITOR
THE name of the first soldier to be executed for desertion during the First World War is to stay excluded from the roll of honour on the memorial at the village where he lived.
After an agonising meeting of the local parish council, it ws decided that Private Thomas Highgate did not deserve to be on the same list as the 32 who had died "in the service of their country".
Last year, John Reid, then Armed Forces Minister, announced official regret that about 350 members of the British Expeditionary Force had been shot by firing squad after being charged with desertion. While rejecting a formal legal pardon for the soldiers, he made clear that local communities could include the 350 on their memorials if they wished.
However, seven members of the parish council at Shoreham in Kent decided that it would be wrong to include the name of Private Highgate, who was executed on September 8, 1914, at the age of 19.
The Times March 15 2000
Village votes to remember first shot deserter
BY ADRIAN LEE
THE name of the first soldier to be shot for desertion in the First World War is to be added to a Kent village war memorial after an overwhelming local vote in favour of the move.
Residents crowded outside Shoreham village store yesterday to read a notice posted by the vicar, the Rev Barry Simmons, reporting that eight out of ten voters had approved the placing of a brass plaque bearing the name of Private Thomas Highgate next to those of his fallen comrades.
For years after Private Highgate, 19, was convicted of abandoning his comrades in The Queen's Own Royal West Kent Regiment, mention of his name in Shoreham was taboo. His family is thought to have left the village in shame, and when the memorial was erected in 1922 no thought was given to including his name. The names of three of his brothers who subsequently died in action are honoured on a monument in Sidcup.
Of 51 men from Shoreham who went to fight in the Great War, only two returned. The young Private Highgate survived the Battle of Mons, in which almost 8,000 men were killed. He said that he accidentally became separated from his regiment, but when he was found hiding in a barn wearing clothes taken from a scarecrow, a court martial, at which he defended himself, concluded that he had deserted and ordered him shot "to set an example".
At 6.22am on September 8, 1914, he was visited by a chaplain who informed him that he was to be shot at dawn. An hour later he faced the firing squad - the first of 300 men to die in such a way in the First World War.
Following Shoreham's vote, it is estimated that another 120 communities around the country could be faced with a similar dilemma.
The vicar welcomed the result of the poll. He said: "It seems that Private Highgate was purely and simply a young soldier who was so terrified he deserted. My own feeling is that he fought at Mons so played his part."
Another supporter of the move, Joy Saynor, a local historian, said: "I feel that during the First World War there was no understanding of the mental problems those poor young men suffered. It was quite wrong that they were simply executed. It is important that the village has had its say."
Mr Simmons said he did not believe the referendum, in which one in five of the 1,100 locals eligible voted, would be the cause of any lingering resentment. "It is a very friendly village where we respect one another's opinion," he said.
The inscription on the memorial at Shoreham reads: "Remember as you look on the hill those who gave their lives for their country 1914-1918 and 1939-1945." Some of those who voted in favour lost relatives whose names are already on the monument, the vicar said.
Among those opposing the move was Major Michael Green, the president of the Shoreham branch of the Royal British Legion. He said: "I'm very sorry for this chap and I hope he will be pardoned. But I don't think we should re-write history in this way."
Major Green, who served throughout the Second World War with the First Airborne Division, said: "Most of the people who voted have no idea of what it's like to be in battle and to be let down by a colleague."
The British Legion, which has the final say, has indicated that it will respect the wishes of the village.
The Times April 7 2000
Council delays action on deserter
BY CONAL URQUHART
A COUNCIL has snubbed to wishes of the majority of its residents and decided not to add the name of an executed Great War deserter to its village war memorial.
In a local poll organised by the Rev Barry Simmons, four out of five residents of Shoreham in Kent voted to add the name of Private Thomas Highgate to the plaque.
However, at a parish council meeting on Wednesday, although four younger members of the council voted to add Private Highgate's name to the memorial, four older councillors, including the chairwoman and vice-chairman, were against the change. Further discussion has been postponed until next month.
Private Highgate, 19, was convicted of abandoning his comrades in The Queen's Own Royal West Kent Regiment after surviving the Battle of Mons. He was shot as an example to others on September 8, 1914 - the first British soldier executed in that war.
Jean Lothian, the council chairwoman, said: "My feeling is that the family were farm labourers and travelled around. They never returned to Shoreham after the war. Private Highgate's name is on the memorial at Sidcup with his two brothers and I think that is sufficient."
Michael Nunn, 77, of the local committee of the Royal British Legion, said: "He should not be honoured because he let his comrades down, while those on the memorial died fighting for their country."
12/5/2000 THE TIMES
PARISH AT WAR OVER HONOUR FOR DESERTER
By Adrian Lee
A DISPUTE over the addition of a deserter's name to a village war memorial erupted at a parish council meeting where the vicar was jeered as he pleaded for compassion.
During extraordinary scenes in Shoreham, Kent, one villager burst into tears as the council voted that the name of Thomas Highgate should not be engraved on the memorial.
The case of the 19-year-old private who was shot at dawn for abandoning his comrades has divided the village, placing friendships under strain.
War veterans, supported by the local branch of the British Legion, have resisted the campaign to honour Highgate, who fled the aftermath of the Battle of Mons, the first engagement of the British Expeditionary Force in the First World War.
They accused the vicar and his supporters of attempting to rewrite history and insulting those who stood and fought.
Caught and tried in September 1914, Highgate became the war's first British soldier to be shot for abandoning his comrades. His name already appears on a memorial in Sidcup, southeast London, where he had family connections, but many sought recognition in his home village.
Before the meeting the vicar, the Rev Barry Simmons, organised a referendum in which residents voted 170 to 46 in favour of adding his name to the memorial. It was assumed that the council would respect the result.
To the fury of the vicar, who retires next month and will leave Shoreham, it was ignored. He told parish councillors: "It's an absolute farce. When I held the referendum I wanted to know the views of the village. But then you snub us, just ignore and dismiss all the debates of the past five months."
As the vicar spoke, he was heckled by people shouting: "Rubbish. Sit down and shut up." But he continued to press his case. "The parish council is going to become a laughing stock for this. A few small-minded and vociferous members of the village are simply going to dismiss the views of the overwhelming number of villagers."
Among those opposing the vicar was Peter Budd, a former Army officer in his 70s. Leaping to his feet, he said: "I spent four years in the front line. I lost a lot of comrades fighting in Africa and Burma. I know what it is like to be let down by fellow soldiers. How dare Simmons call me a member of the vociferous minority."
A younger resident of the village, who did not wish to give his name, broke down in tears as he came to the defence of the beleaguered vicar. "I hope I never have to fight. When I think of how those young soldiers suffered in the trenches, I can't imagine what it would have been like."
The council voted 5-2 against including the name. Jean Lothian, the chairman, said: "In 1920 when the memorial was built, it was the villagers of Shoreham who decided whose names should be added. We can't rewrite history in this way."