Chloe Dewe Mathews
Shot at Dawn
Madrid, Spain: Ivorypress, 2014
Edition size unknown
A macabre pun, Shot at Dawn records the sites of the executions of British, French and Belgian soldiers during the first World War. The result of two years research, the book features images of forests, fields, a town hall, a primary school, an abattoir, a cemetary, and other now mostly serene locations where soldiers were executed by firing squad. They were not the victims of enemy combatants, but were killed by their fellow soldiers, as punishment for cowardice or desertion.
Suffering from shell shock, the soldiers felt unable to continue fighting and fled. Senior military commanders believed that if such behaviour was not harshly punished, the discipline and morale of the entire army might collapse. The disgraced soldiers were charged with “fleeing in the face of the enemy”. It is unlikely that they received a fair trial or an adequate defence. Many were minors. The cause of death was rarely shared with the relatives of the deceased.
Dewe Mathews' photographs are seasonally accurate and were taken as close as possible to the precise time of day at which the executions occurred, typically around dawn.
"Initially, I was wary of taking on a project about the first world war as I have no personal connection with it, but, from a documentary photography perspective, I was drawn to the idea of arriving somewhere 100 years afterwards. It's almost the opposite of war photography. So, instead of the photographer bearing witness, it is the landscape that has witnessed the event and I who am having to go into that landscape in the hope of finding anything tangibly connected to the event. It was almost like having to find a new language or way of seeing."
"I had studied the first world war at school and knew about the terrible suffering and slaughter, but I had never heard about the executions and so I was really shocked. It seemed incredible to me that young men who had signed up to fight for their country and who were sent out to the trenches and exposed to this unimaginable horror, should be executed by their own men because something went wrong in their heads or they simply couldn't do it any more. From today's perspective and our understanding of soldiers returning from Iraq or Afghanistan with post-traumatic shock, it just seems brutally unjust."
- Chloe Dewe Mathews, interviewed by Sean O'Hagan, The Guardian
From the Unshelved event at the AGO Library and Archives on Wednesday (see previous posts).