Service held in Belgium to honour the Sunderland soldier shot at dawn

Robert Hope's grave in Belgium. Picture by Esther Johnson.
Robert Hope's grave in Belgium. Picture by Esther Johnson.
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A Sunderland soldier shot at dawn 100 years ago this month has been honoured with a ceremony at the former battlefields of WW1.

Robert Hope was shot for desertion after being found sleeping in an empty house near the Somme, 11 weeks after going missing from his company.

Gravestones in Ypres. Picture by Esther Johnson

Gravestones in Ypres. Picture by Esther Johnson

The Deptford-born former shipyard worker, who was more than likely shell shocked by what he had witnessed in one of Britain’s bloodiest battles, was one of 306 men shot at dawn by their comrades in the conflict.

Now, 100 years after that tragic day in July 1917, a service has been held in Ypres, Belgium, to remember his life.

In attendance was film-maker Esther Johnson who was invited to the ceremony after featuring Robert’s story in her film Asunder, which premiered at Sunderland Empire last July.

Esther, who uses local archive footage to tell the story of Sunderland’s involvement in the First World War in the film, said: “When researching the film I wanted to use a good range of stories and one of the lesser-known ones, which I didn’t want to shy away from, was of the soldiers shot at dawn for desertion because they were shell-shocked, or for another reason.”

Film-maker Esther Johnson and producer Bob Stanley

Film-maker Esther Johnson and producer Bob Stanley

Esther was invited to the service by the Friends of In Flanders Fields Museum who host services to honour the dead. Whilst there, she also attended a small service to remember her great grandfather who was killed in Ypres on February 14, 1916.

Since Asunder’s premiere in Sunderland last year, which featured a live sound-track by Field Music, Warm Digits, Royal Northern Sinfonia and The Cornshed Sisters, the film, which was produced by Bob Stanley, has gone on to be screened across the country.

Speaking about why the North East was chosen as the focus of the film, Esther said: “Because of the area’s location on the coast it was in a very vulnerable position and an important part of the film is telling the stories of those on the home front, as well as the Western Front. We wanted that balance of storytelling.”

•The next North East screening of Asunder will be at Jam Jar Cinema in Whitley Bay on August 1. Details at https://www.1418now.org.uk/commissions/asunder/

Robert Hope’s Story

Robert, the eldest son of shipyard driller Robert Hope and his wife Mary Ann, was born in Deptford in 1896 and spent his early childhood at 3 Bright Row.

By the time of the 1911 census, the family had moved to 10 Cornwall Street, and 14-year-old Robert was already working – as an apprentice caulker in the shipyards.

Just four years later, on June 7, 1915, Robert enlisted in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers at Newcastle, under the pseudonym of Private James Heppel/Hepple, which was the maiden name of his grandmother.

Robert was shipped off to Ireland for initial training, where he married 16-year-old Derry girl Rosina McGilloway on August 6, 1915, following a whirlwind romance.

The couple were soon parted, however, when Robert was posted with the 1st Battalion to Gallipoli on November 13. It is possible they never saw each other again. Indeed, following three months in Gallipoli, he was sent to Egypt and, on March 18, 1916, landed with his battalion at Marseilles for service in France and Flanders.

Just four months later, on July 1, 1916, the 1st Inniskillings went into action on the first day of the Battle of The Somme – tasked with capturing three German trenches. It was to prove the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army, with thousands killed in action.

Robert marched with his comrades to front line trenches of the Somme yet again on January 21, 1917.

By the time D Company reached their destination, however, Robert was no longer with them.

No more was heard about Robert until 11 weeks later, when two military policemen stumbled across him sleeping in an empty house in Albert, a town near the Somme battlefields. When asked where his battalion was, the battle-weary soldier replied: “At Bapaume. I’ve come to do some shopping for my Captain.” The men did not believe him.

Instead, they arrested Robert and charged him with desertion at a field court martial on June 9, 1917, at Fienvillers. It is estimated the hearing lasted just 10 minutes. He was shot on July 5, 1917 and has since been posthumously pardoned.