The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) Vis-en-Artois Memorial to the Missing and Cemetery are both located near the village of the same name in Pas-de-Calais, France. The memorial wall lists 9,843 British and South African soldiers with no known grave who were lost between August 8th and November 11th, 1918 in the area officially described as “Picardy and Artois, between the Somme and Loos”. Canadian, Australian and New Zealand missing in this area during the same period are commemorated elsewhere.
Unlike the sites of many other CWGC memorials, there was no particular battle fought here. The cemetery is a concentration site, with 2,369 burials of which 1,458 are unidentified.
The memorial has a screen wall divided in three parts. The middle part of the screen wall is concave and carries stone panels on which the names of the missing are carved, listed by regiment and rank. It is 26 feet high and flanked by pylons 70 feet high. The cemetery’s Stone of Remembrance stands in front of the wall exactly between the pylons, and behind the Stone, in the middle of the screen wall, is a carved relief of St. George fighting the Dragon. The flanks of the screen wall are also curved and carry stone panels bearing more names. Each of the flanks forms the back of a roofed colonnade, and at the far end of each flank is a small temple-like building.
The site was designed by the architect John Reginald Truelove (1886 – 1942), a protégé of Sir Edwin Lutyens, who had served as an officer on the Western Front with the 1st /24th County of London (The Queen’s). Truelove also designed the Le Touret Memorial for the CWGC and was an assistant on 29 other CWGC cemeteries, working with Lutyens, Sir Reginald Blomfield and Sir Herbert Baker. The sculpture was by Ernest G. Gillick (1874 – 1951), who also created the Cenotaph in front of Glasgow’s City Hall, and Vis-en-Artois is his only work for the CWGC. The site was dedicated on August 4th, 1930.
Entered on Panel 3 of the wall is Pvt. Frederick C. Butcher, 7th The Buffs (Royal E. Kents), who was shot for desertion on August 27th, 1918. This is noteworthy because Butcher was one the last eight British soldiers executed for desertion and he is one of only 21 such soldiers who has no known grave.
In the U.K. ‘Shot at Dawn’ has become just as synonymous with WW1 as trenches or gas. Starting in the late 1980’s public awareness became keen about the likelihood that these unfortunate men were victims of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and should have been hospitalized or discharged. In 2001 a memorial park was constructed at the National Arboretum in Staffordshire, and books, stage plays, a documentary film and episodes of many popular British television series resulted in a symbolic Act of Parliament in 2007 that pardoned all of the men ‘Shot at Dawn’ (except the murderers).
It seems worthwhile to consider the statistics at this point. The total number of British, Colonial, Canadian and New Zealand soldiers shot (again excluding murderers), was 309, of which 281 were British, 22 were Canadian, 5 were New Zealanders and one was a Colonial. No Australians, Indians or South Africans were executed for offenses against military discipline.
In the course of the war, about 20,000 Commonwealth soldiers were found guilty of an offense that was subject to the death penalty and about 3,000 of these actually got the death penalty. However, most had their sentences suspended or commuted to a lesser punishment. Of the 309 who were shot, 266 were deserters and 91 of these had previously been court-martialed for desertion and received a lesser punishment.
While the British came to regard this as a national shame, it is worth mentioning that the record of other armies in the Great War was significantly worse. Just among the Allies, the Italians executed about 1,100 men for offenses against military discipline and the French over 900.