Viewed as a series of mundane-looking sites—a stretch of brick wall, parts of fields, a water-filled dyke, a bunker—there is little on the face of it that is remarkable about Chloe Dewe Mathews's photographs in Shot At Dawn. What invests them with meaning is our knowledge that at these exact locations, by this gate into that field, on this stretch of paving stone up against that wall, a young British, French or Belgian man was executed by his fellow soldiers.
How was justice served? These men were sentenced by their respective military courts for desertion or cowardice, regardless of their mental state (battle-induced trauma was not uncommon). Many of these individuals were under eighteen years of age. Although the executions are numerically insignificant compared to WWI's total fatalities—the haunting individuality of each story makes the locations hugely resonant. Even today, while we debate issues such as state-sanctioned murder and grapple with memory and loss in the context of last year's commemorative events marking the outbreak of the war in 1914, these pictures help us think through the things we should remember about past wars.
Each of Mathews's 23 photographs packs a hundred years of memory by frame-freezing precise spots where something terrible took place. The British photographer, taking two years to complete this project, took her shots as close as possible to the anniversary of the day an execution occurred, and at the same time, usually at dawn. Weak, early morning light creates a sombre look to her photographs and this complements the stark simplicity of the mise en scènes her camera captured. In the book, a blank space, marked only by a few words identifying the place, comes between each illustrated spread and each of these consists of a photograph on one side and dates and names of those executed on the other. The blank spreads carry their own meaning: the intervening years of silence about what happened (only coming to light in recent decades) and the lost years of the victims' lives.
One of the photographs is different in that it show a chalky wall with barely discernible graffiti. The wall is part of the cell where Eric Skeffington Poole spent his last night, one of the few officers to be executed and one whose court martial was shrouded in secrecy due to his rank. Like all the photographs in this haunting collection, its mute stillness finally speaks for what for so long was kept out of the public eye.
Sean Sheehan is a freelance writer and the author of Jack's World, with photographs by Danny Gralton and Ciaran Watson.