By Alison Mounter
The National Memorial Arboretum started to form as an idea when founder David Childs, supported by the late Group Captain Sir Leonard Cheshire VC OM DSO & 2 bars, DFC, were both concerned about the future of Remembrance. Following a visit, whilst in the Royal Navy, to the Arlington Cemetary and National Arboretum in Washington DC, USA, he believed that such a concept could be created in the UK. In 1994, the then Prime Minister, John Major, gave the project his full backing and when Redland Aggregates (now Lafarge Tarmac) generously donated 82 acres of reclaimed gravel land with a peppercorn rent (now increased to 150 acres), the idea started to become a reality.
With support from the National Forestry Commission, the land was transformed into a peaceful, contemplative, and a living and growing environment for a variety of trees and wildlife. The National Memorial Arboretum opened to the public on the 16th May 2001.
The main memorial – The Armed Forces Memorial – takes centre stage and now has 16,100 names engraved, starting in 1945, and the last names to be engraved to date are from 2016. The memorial starts in 1945 as it was agreed that the fallen from WW1 and WW2 are already commemorated in villages, towns and cities around the country.
However, there are various memorials dedicated to World War One, with a moving monument to the Christmas Day truce, depicting two hands clasped. This can be found in front of the replica trench, which, as you wander through gives a taste of the experiences the soldiers must have had.
As you move inwards, you find yourself inside the officer’s dug out, with wooden bunks, a desk littered with documents, a Princess Mary tin and a gas rattle.
As you venture deeper, there is a postbox where letters home would be sent and received, and then you are faced with dreaded climb over the top.
As you turn behind you find the “dump” and a wooden bunk for the soldiers to get some rest in turns, with socks drying in the breeze. A bell, made from an empty shell, rings out eerily as a child passes and grabs the rope.
You can only imagine the way it would have been, with shell fire booming in the distance, mud up to your ankles, the smell of cigarette smoke, the clatter of the rattle warning of gas.
At the other end of the park, where the sun rises in the east, the “Shot At Dawn” memorial can be found. As you approach the hairs on the back of your neck prickle as you see your first sight of the white statue, hands tied behind his back, blindfolded and stripped of his buttons, shoulders slightly hunched. Behind him stand posts with plaques of those soldiers shot at dawn for desertion, cowardice, disobeying an order, casting away arms or sleeping at post. Many of these soldiers are shown as “age unknown” because they had lied about their age when enlisting. In front of the young soldier, modelled on Private Herbert Burden of the 1st Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers, who was shot at Ypres in 1915, aged just 17, stand six small trees, representing the firing squad. The six men would aim for the medallion around the soldiers neck, with none of them knowing who had fired the fatal bullet.
As I moved through the posts, I came across Lance Sergeant Joseph Stones of the Durham Light Infantry who was shot in 1917.
A small amount of research tells that Stones enlisted in Crook in 1915; he was only 5’2”, weighing 128lbs, but in light of the number of casualties, every man was now being accepted.
Stones proved to be an exemplary soldier, rising to Corporal and then Lance Sergeant. In November 1916 the 19th Batallion of the DLI were holding a section of the front line. He was ordered to undertake a raid with Lieutenant Mundy one night and they were ambushed, with Mundy being shot. Stones ran for his life and was found unarmed by the battle police. He was tried by a court martial and found guilty of “casting away arms in the presence of the enemy” and subsequently executed at dawn.
Finally, as we left the “Shot at Dawn” memorial, we walked down one of the many avenues to find the Durham Light Infantry memorial. It shows a soldier with his bugle and engraved on the rear of the monument are Montgomery’s words: “There may be some regiments as good but I know of none better”.
A truly memorable, thought provoking, informative and inspiring day; I would recommend a visit to everyone.