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  • Christina Drummond

Private Thomas James Highgate, 3rd Battalion, the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment

Remembering the Fallen: on this day in 1914, Private Thomas James Highgate, 3rd Battalion, the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment, was the first soldier to be executed during the Great War.

One of three sons of a farm labourer, he had worked with his father after leaving school at an early age, then served as a deck-boy for two years before enlisting as a regular soldier in 1912 at the age of seventeen. Before the outbreak of the Great War his battalion was based in Richmond Barracks, Dublin, and on the 15th of August, 1914, they crossed to France. They saw action at the Battle of Mons, during which 8,000 men were killed, and also during the subsequent retreat. Of the fifty-one men from Private Highgate’s home town who joined up, only two survived.

On the 7th of September, 1914, after the retreat from Mons, Private Highgate was given permission to fall out. He was discovered two hours later by a gamekeeper, asleep in a barn on the estate of Baron de Rothschild (near Tournan-en-Brie), and wearing clothes taken from the property’s scarecrow, his uniform beside him. The gamekeeper – a former English soldier - reported that Private Highgate told him he “had enough of it” and wanted “to get out of it,” but Private Highgate insisted at his hearing that he had every intention of rejoining his unit. He couldn’t understand why he had changed his clothes. He was, however, exhausted and disoriented, and had seen most of his comrades killed, wounded or captured.

He was charged and found guilty of desertion at a brief trial, although he had referred to himself as a “straggler” and had no intention of deserting. It is not clear if he mentioned that he had been allowed some time to rest. However, in later court-martials the defendant having been given permission to eat or rest after being in combat did not make any difference to the court-martial panels. Senior officers insisted that Private Highgate be executed as quickly as possible, so he was shot at 7:07 a.m. the following morning (only minutes after being told of his fate), witnessed by the men from the 1st Battalions of the Dorset and Cheshire Regiments, as the officers of the court-martial panel wanted his execution to be as public as possible.

Private Highgate has no known grave. His name is on the British memorial to the missing at La Ferte-sous-Jouarre on the south bank of the River Marne – the memorial contains the names of more than 3,000 British soldiers who also have no known graves. He was pardoned in 2006 and is commemorated at the Shot At Dawn memorial in the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire. His two brothers did not survive the war: Lance Corporal Robert Highgate and Private Joseph Highgate were both killed in action, Robert in January of 1915, and Joseph in June of 1916.

Thomas, from Shoreham in Kent, was 19 years old.

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