Thomas James Highgate
|Born||13 May 1895|
|Died||8 September 1914 (aged 19)|
No known grave
|Years of service||1913 - 1914|
|Unit||1st Battalion, Royal West Kent Regiment|
|Battles/wars||World War I|
Private Thomas James Highgate (13 May 1895 – 8 September 1914) was a British soldier during the early days of World War I, and the first British soldier to be convicted of desertion and executed during that war. Posthumous pardons for over 300 such soldiers were announced in August 2006, including Highgate.
Born the only son of a farm labourer at Oxbourne Farm in the Kent village of Shoreham, Highgate was himself a farm labourer before enlisting as a regular soldier in 1st Battalion, Royal West Kent Regiment on 4 February 1913, aged 17 years and nine months. Prior to mobilization his battalion was based in Dublin's Richmond Barracks and it crossed to France on 15 August 1914. The battalion first saw action at the Battle of Mons, being engaged in both the battle and the subsequent retreat.
Trial and execution
In the early hours of 6 September, as his battalion moved forward to take part in the First Battle of the Marne, Highgate was apprehended in a barn on the estate of Baron de Rothschild at Tournan-en-Brie by the gamekeeper. He reportedly informed the latter, 'I have had enough of it, I want to get out of it and this is how I am going to do it.' Highgate had changed into civilian clothes and his discarded uniform was found nearby. Highgate was tried by court martial (convened at Chateau Combreaux, near Tournan in northern France), convicted of desertion and the death sentence was confirmed on 6 September 1914. Highgate was undefended and called no witnesses in his defence, but claimed that he was a 'straggler' trying to find his way back to rejoin his regiment, having got separated from his comrades.
Highgate's execution was almost as hasty as his trial, as senior officers insisted that he be executed "At once, as publicly as possible." Highgate was informed of his fate at 6:22am on 8 September in the presence of a Church of England clergyman. An officer then ordered a burial party and a firing squad to prepare, and Highgate was shot at 7.07am witnessed by men from the 1st Dorset Regiment and 1st Cheshire Regiment. News of his fate was published in Army Routine Orders and distributed to the remainder of the British Expeditionary Force.
It was discovered that Highgate's name already appeared on another memorial. His mother, who lived in Sidcup, Kent, lost three sons in the war; unaware of the circumstances of Thomas' death, she submitted the names of all three sons to the Sidcup War Memorial Committee, and his name appears there.
The mass pardon of 306 British Empire soldiers executed for certain offences during the Great War was enacted in section 359 of the Armed Forces Act 2006, which came into effect on royal assent on 8 November 2006.
- Great War Forum entry by Andrew Marshall, 27 June 2005
- Edmonds, James. Military Operations France and Belgium, 1914. London: 1937. pp. 79–80.
- James, Lawrence (2001). Warrior Race. London: Abacus. p. 462.
- Royal British Legion refuses to honour executed deserter, Independent, 15 March 2000 Archived 30 September 2007 at the Wayback Machine
- "Shot at dawn, pardoned 90 years on". BBC News. 16 August 2006. Retrieved 8 August 2008.
- Appealing to honour soldier on memorial Archived 27 September 2007 at the Wayback Machine
- Tears for the families who lived with shame, Daily Telegraph, 17 August 2006
- "NZ Herald: New Zealand's Latest News, Business, Sport, Weather, Travel, Technology, Entertainment, Politics, Finance, Health, Environment and Science". The New Zealand Herald.
- A Straggler's Fate: No. 10061 Private Thomas James Highgate, by Julian Putkowski
- [[:fr:Soldat fusillé pour l'exemple|(in French) Soldat fusillé pour l'exemple]]