Thomas Highgate – first British soldier executed during World War One

On 5 September 1914, the first day of the Battle of Marne, Thomas Highgate, a 19-year-old British private, was found hiding in a barn dressed in civilian clothes. Highgate was tried by court martial, convicted of desertion and, in the early hours of 8 September, was executed by firing squad. His was the first of 306 executions carried out by the British during the First World War.

Shot at Dawn memorialThe only son of a farm worker, Thomas Highgate was born in Shoreham in Kent on 13 May 1895. In February 1913, aged 17, he joined the Royal West Kent Regiment. Within months, Highgate fell foul of the military authorities – in 1913, he was he was upbraided for being late for Tattoo, and ‘exchanging duties without permission’. In early 1914, he was reprimanded for having a rusty rifle and deserting for which he received the punishment of forty-eight days detention.

(Pictured is the ‘Shot at Dawn’ Memorial, National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire).

First Battle of the Marne

On 5 September, the first day of the Battle of the Marne and the 35th day of the war, Private Highgate’s nerves got the better of him and he fled the battlefield. He hid in a barn in the village of Tournan, a few miles south of the river, and was discovered wearing civilian clothes by a gamekeeper who happened to be English and an ex-soldier. Quite where Highgate obtained his civilian clothes is not recorded but the gamekeeper spotted his uniform lying in a heap nearby. Highgate confessed, ‘I have had enough of it, I want to get out of it and this is how I am going to do it’.

Having been turned in, Highgate was tried by a court martial for desertion. The trial, presided over by three officers, was brief. Highgate did not speak and was not represented. He was found guilty. At 6.20 on the morning of 8 September, Highgate was informed that he would be executed. The execution was carried out fifty minutes later – at 7.07, he was shot by firing squad.

Highgate’s name is shown on the British memorial to the missing at La Ferté-sous-Jouarre on the south bank of the River Marne. The memorial features the names of over 3,000 British soldiers with no known grave.

Shoreham

In 2000, the parish council in Highgate’s home village of Shoreham replaced its war memorial plaque bearing the names of those who had fallen during the war of 1914-1918 as the original had become worn. After some debate, the council voted not to include Highgate’s name. However, a space was left should, at some point in the future, the people of Shoreham want his name added.

In November 2006, the UK government pardoned all 306 servicemen executed in the First World War but, to this day, the name Thomas Highgate still does not feature on Shoreham’s war memorial.

1914Rupert Colley

Read more about the Great War in World War One: History In An Hour and 1914: History In An Hour, both published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats and as downloadable audio.