It was a war crime. 306 damaged and terrified men and boys shot dead, as a warning to others. The order didn’t come from Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi, Assad or Isil. It came from the British Army during World War 1. The victims were our own soldiers.
2016 saw the continuing centennial commemoration of the Great War, and the National Theatre of Scotland staged the world premiere of Oliver Emanuel’s devastating The 306: Dawn. The NTS is the only national theatre without a permanent performance space – a budget-driven situation which allows them to perfom outside of the more obvious locations – which is why this production takes place in a farmer’s barn near Pitcairn Green in deepest Perthshire. The effect of this is that the audience feel like they are shipping out to meet an unknown fate, as the subjects of this play had to do.
One hundred years ago cowardice, desertion and mutiny were considered crimes so grievous that they could be punishable by death.
3000 British soldiers were convicted of these charges during the Great War. Of these, 306 were executed, at dawn, by firing squad. The 306: Dawn tells the story of three: Harry suffers from paralysing shellshock, interpreted by his superiors as cowardice; Joseph blocks a trench with his rifle to prevent the enemy from entering and is accused of abandoning his weapon, interpreted as mutiny; and then there is fifteen year old Joe who lies about his age in order to enlist. Once on the front line the experience is nothing like the recruiting Sergeant’s patriotic descriptions. Disoriented by the noise and traumatised by the carnage, he stumbles away from his unit. Finally found and returned to his unit, he is accused of desertion. All are tried in a battlefield court without lawyers, and sentenced to death by firing squad. High command wanted to deter other potential deserters and so Joe, Joseph and Harry, like many others, were effectively chosen at random. It seems unbelievable but all three stories are true. These soldiers were executed by the hierarchy they had volunteered to protect.
All three stories are heartbreaking, and beautifully played and sung by the small but excellent cast, each of whom has several parts to master. Special mention should go to Becky Minto whose extraordinary design creates a totally immersive experience, trapping us in the story as these men were trapped by their duty. There are several waist-high stages creating irregular islands on the floor of the barn. These are separated by audience seating. The space is criss-crossed with wooden duckboards, and once seated we are in trenches peering out onto no-mans land. Raised walkways cling to the four walls of the barn. These are clad in wooden slats which on closer examination are cut into silhouettes of rifles. The actors run between, above, and behind us. At one point Director Laurie Sansom allows the sounds of bombardment to take over and we get the tiniest taste of what must have been felt by the men on the front line. The cacophony of explosions, gunfire, whistles, and shouting lasts just thirty seconds before a huge detonation snuffs it all out, leaving dead soldiers lying at our feet. No last chance. No last words. No last rites. Just… gone.
As the time of execution approaches, the huge barn doors open to reveal the firing squad (special late performances were timed so that the play actually ended at dawn). The tension is real. When Joe cries outs for his mother, the unstoppable certainty of his situation becomes horrifying. We are not spared. The entire dreadful drill is performed before finally, three shots ring out. For once in the theatre, applause feels wrong. As I left, many people remained rooted to their seats, silent or sobbing.
Regardless of the politics of the day, these were surely war crimes. But, you realise, ALL war is a crime.