Peter Mortimer: Haunted by story of North Shields boy shot as a deserter in First World War

Cullercoats writer Peter Mortimer talks about his new play, Death at Dawn, which is being performed in North Shields this week

Writer Peter Mortimer from Cullercoats
Writer Peter Mortimer from Cullercoats who is opening his home to the public for heritage open days

Look at the novels, films and plays coming out about the First World War, and one thing is apparent.

They are based either round fictitious characters or real ones who were famous.

The latter category is smaller, though Pat Barker’s brilliant Regeneration trilogy of books focuses on the time spent in Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh by the poets Wilfred Owen and Siefgried Sassoon. Craiglockhart treated soldiers for the then only partially understood condition of shell shock.

Most every other WW1 film book or play falls into the first category; as if truly to express the horrors of that war the artist needs the freedom to invent character.

Millions of men were swallowed by the mud, blown apart by shells, died of poisonous gas or suffered similar gruesome fates. But we take it for granted that when the creative artist gets to work, their WW1 characters are fictitious, (albeit in a setting all too horribly real).

So William Hunter of North Shields is special. He fits neither category – he was a real person, but one that no-one had heard of. Now there’s a full-length play about him and plenty of people will – hear about him, that is. It’s unlikely that Hunter was anything extraordinary – a working class Shields lad in and out of trouble. What makes his story interesting is that he was one of only two British Army soldiers in the entire war to be executed after claiming he had been underage when signing up.

This fact was unearthed by the Tynemouth World War One Commemoration Project and was what led project founder Alan Fidler, almost four years ago now, to approach me to write a play.

That long process is complete and the play, Death at Dawn is in rehearsal and opens today at The Linskill Centre, North Shields for a week.

Army executions tend to polarise people; some felt the soldiers (more than 300 were shot) had it coming and were little more than skivers and cowards.

Others argue it was a barbaric and primitive practice to shoot your own soldiers, especially given the extreme circumstances those young men had to operate in, circumstances which were likely to result in unpredictable behaviour.

Several people did not want me to write the play at all and only this week on Facebook there were comments that it was in bad taste (though of course those writing the comments had not seen it).

I have been haunted by Hunter these last few years. He travels with me everywhere. I sense myself talking to him and him replying.

Of course, much of what I write about him is supposition, woven into the few facts we do know. No one could find a photo of him until recently when a long-distant relative from Leicestershire emailed one to me.

I was almost too nervous to open the attachment. The photo, though poor quality and blurry, unnerved me. It was as if my own sense of Hunter was now being challenged by this documented reality. A young man I know intimately in one way, but in another don’t know at all.

Hunter was executed for desertion when serving on the Western front in France. He was shot by members of his own platoon, an interesting fact for a playwright, as also is the fact that when arrested he was in the company of a French woman.

“I did not like to leave her,” he states in his written defence, seven words which sent me off on a whole train of thought.

The play starts and ends in North Shields, but en route journeys through Montreal, Liverpool and Northern France as Hunter travels his own inner and outer journeys. It both starts and ends with his execution. Several relatives will be there to see it. Hunter is still a common family name in North Shields but how many are directly related to William (whose family lived in Coronation Street) is uncertain.

Though we are awash with World War One material at present, Death at Dawn (as far as I can tell) is the only professional new WW1 stage work from the region. It’s about a North Shields man, performed in North Shields by a North Tyneside company (Cloud Nine) and written by a North Tyneside-based writer.

The professional cast of six are backed up by several drama students, also North Shields-based. Soberingly, they are roughly the same age as Hunter when he was shot.

It’s not a happy tale, often hard-hitting and, almost inevitably given the subject matter, controversial. Writing it was often uncomfortable. Viewing it may be uncomfortable too (though it does have its humorous moments). But so be it.

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