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British soldier Harry Farr executed for cowardice

British soldier Harry Farr executed for cowardice



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At dawn on October 18, 1916, Private Harry Farr of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) is executed for cowardice after he refused to go forward into the front-line trenches on the Western Front during World War I.

After joining the BEF in 1914, Farr was sent to the front in France; the following May, he collapsed, shaking, and was sent to a hospital for treatment. He returned to the battlefield and participated in the Somme Offensive. In mid-September 1916, however, Farr refused to go ahead into the trenches with the rest of his squadron; after being dragged forward, struggling, he broke away and ran back. He was subsequently court-martialed for cowardice and given a death sentence, which was carried out on October 16.

READ MORE: Life in the Trenches of World War I

Farr was one of 306 soldiers from Britain and the Commonwealth who were executed for cowardice during the Great War. According to his descendants, who have fought a long battle to clear his name, Farr suffered from severe shell-shock, a condition that was just being recognized at the time, and had been damaged both physically and psychologically by his experience of combat, especially the repeated heavy bombardments to which he and his comrades at the front had been subjected. The symptoms of “shell-shock”—a term first used in 1917 by a medical officer named Charles Myers—included debilitating anxiety, persistent nightmares and physical afflictions ranging from diarrhea to loss of sight. By the end of World War I, the British army had been forced to deal with 80,000 cases of this affliction, including among soldiers who had never experienced a direct bombardment. Despite undergoing treatment, only one-fifth of the men affected ever resumed military duty.

Several successive governments rejected pleas from Farr’s family and others for their loved ones to be pardoned and honored alongside the rest of those soldiers killed in World War I. Finally, in August 2006, after a 14-year struggle, the British High Court granted a pardon to Farr; hours after informing Farr’s family of its verdict, the government announced it would seek Parliament’s approval to pardon all 306 soldiers executed for cowardice during World War I.

READ MORE: The Last Official Death of WWI Was a Man Who Sought Redemption


British soldier Harry Farr executed for cowardice - HISTORY

Mr Browne said he would be seeking a parliamentary group pardon for the men, executed for offences such as cowardice and desertion.

It is believed 306 British soldiers were shot during the war from 1914-1918.

The BBC News website looks at some of those who are set to receive pardons.

The announcement of the pardon came after years of campaigning from the family of Private Harry Farr.

Pte Farr volunteered to fight for his country in 1914 - the year the war with Germany began.

He had first served in the British Army between 1908 and 1912 but by the time World War I broke out, was working as a scaffolder and living in Kensington, west London, with his wife and one-year-old daughter, both called Gertrude.

Pte Farr fought at the Battle of the Somme and at Neuve Chapelle, but during 1915 and 1916 reported sick four times with nerves, his worst case seeing him spend five months in hospital, with symptoms his family said were consistent with a diagnosis of "shellshock".

He returned to action with the West Yorkshire Regiment but was court martialled after refusing to go to the trenches in September 1916, having asked to return to camp, saying he could not stand the noise of artillery and was not in a fit state.

At his court martial on 16 October 1916, Pte Farr was found guilty of "misbehaving before the enemy in such a manner as to show cowardice" and he was shot the following morning, aged 25.

He refused a blindfold at his execution, preferring to look the firing squad in the eye, and the army chaplain at the execution sent Pte Farr's widow a message saying "a finer soldier never lived".

His daughter Gertrude Harris, who was three years old at the time and is now 93, said: "I am so relieved that this ordeal is now over and I can be content knowing that my father's memory is intact.

"I have always argued that my father's refusal to rejoin the frontline, described in the court martial as resulting from cowardice, was in fact the result of shellshock, and I believe that many other soldiers suffered from this, not just my father."

Private Thomas Highgate, of the Royal West Kent Regiment, was the first British soldier to be executed for desertion during World War I - just 35 days into the war.

His offence, trial, sentencing and execution all took place on the same day - 8 September 1914.

Aged 17, he had been unable to bear the carnage of the Battle of Mons, and had fled and hidden in a barn.

Pte Highgate was undefended at his court martial because all his regimental comrades had been killed, injured or captured.

In 2000, the parish council in his home village of Shoreham, Kent, voted not to include his name on its war memorial.

Phil Hobson, who was council chairman at the time, said: "We had the opportunity of putting the name on it because we were replacing the plaque with all the names on - after nearly 100 years it was very worn.

"We took what we thought to be the best compromise position in that a space was left for his name should people want it to be added at a later date."

Stuart Gendall, of the Royal British Legion, said Pte Highgate's name should be on the memorial: "I think it would be most appropriate and certainly very poignant in this year - the 90th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme."

At the age of 16, Private Herbert Burden lied that he was two years older so he could join the Northumberland Fusiliers and fight in the war.

Ten months later he was court martialled for desertion after leaving his post to comfort a recently-bereaved friend stationed nearby, having seen many other friends killed at the Battle of Bellwarde Ridge.

The officers considering Pte Burden's case heard his unit had been issued orders to make for the front just before he went missing.

By the time he faced the firing squad on 21 July 1915, Pte Burden was 17 - still too young to even officially be in his regiment.

It was Pte Burden's case which led John Hipkin, a retired Newcastle teacher, to set up the Shot at Dawn campaign in the early 1990s.

The campaign fought for soldiers such as Pte Burden to be pardoned.

Mr Hipkin, now 80, fought in World War II, taken prisoner by the Germans at the age of 14, when he was cabin boy in the merchant navy.

He began campaigning after reading about Pte Burden's case and said: "I couldn't believe it was true, but when I looked into it there were others, and this really angered me."

On Wednesday he said of the news of the pardons: "It is great news, I could not believe it. It is well overdue."

A memorial to soldiers shot by their own side during WWI, a statue of a young soldier blindfolded and tied to a stake, unveiled in 2001 in Staffordshire, is modelled on Pte Burden.

The village of Furstow in Lincolnshire did not have a war memorial for the seven local men who died during World War I until 2005.

The delay of 87 years was caused by disagreements over the inclusion of Private Charles Kirman.

Pte Kirman of the Lincolnshire Regiment was shot for going absent without leave after fighting and being injured in two of the war's bloodiest battles - at Mons and the Somme.

He was 32 when he was shot on 23 September 1917, having been called up to fight when war began, after previously leaving the army after nine years' service.

During the war he was injured several times and sent home to recuperate but in September 1917 felt he could not take any more and went absent without leave.

After two days he handed himself in to the military police and was court martialled and shot at dawn.

Villagers decided not to put up a memorial following the war, after some local objection over Pte Kirman's inclusion.

Nicola Pike, who successfully campaigned for a memorial including his name, said: "There would have been somebody in the village who disagreed with it, so the rest of the families said 'if you're not having him, then you're not having our boys, because they all went to school together and worked together'."

Private Bernard McGeehan, of the Liverpool King's Regiment, was executed on 2 November 1916, after being found guilty of desertion.

Aged 28 and from Derry, Northern Ireland, he had been transferred to the front line just after the Battle of the Somme earlier that year.

His second cousin, John McGeehan, is a member of the Shot at Dawn campaign group.

He said: "They suffered from the endless onslaught of the German shell-fire and merciless machine-gunning and Bernard cracked.

"He couldn't cope. He was shell-shocked completely, shaking, bewildered and lost.

"He went for a walk one day out of his lines and five days later walked back in again, looking for his regiment.

"He was arrested, court martialled and shot at dawn - for alleged desertion.

"I've always contended that anybody who walks back into his lines again is not planning to desert."


British soldier Harry Farr executed for cowardice - HISTORY

On Sunday, November 14, the last "Remembrance Day" services of the century were held across Europe to remember the dead of two World Wars. On the day before the official commemoration in London, the capital hosted a much smaller unofficial ceremony to honour those shot for “cowardice” and “desertion”. The crowds at the Cenotaph (a recreation in stone of a structure erected for the first Armistice Day parade in 1919) were largely made up of relatives and friends of the executed men. Some of the people gathered have been campaigning for decades to clear the names of their fathers and grandfathers.

During the First World War, France and Germany also shot men on charges of cowardice or desertion. But whereas Germany executed only 25 of its own soldiers, in Britain the figure was 306, some as young as 14 years old. Both France and Germany posthumously pardoned the men, recognising the extraordinary conditions they fought under, and built official memorials to these soldiers after the war. In Britain, successive governments refused to reconsider the original verdicts or grant an official pardon.

Saturday's ceremony was only the second year that campaigners for the executed have been officially allowed to commemorate their dead. The public address system was turned off, however. Campaigner John Hipkin, 73, said that the Home Office had informed them it would turn off all microphones and loud speakers at the Cenotaph because "they did not know what we were going to say in advance".

The military hierarchy and Ministry of Defence bureaucracy always claimed that the executed men had received a fair trial, but recently released documents prove that this was not the case. In many instances, the accused was not properly represented and evidence presented against them was either contradictory or irrelevant to the charges.

It is widely believed that the majority of those executed were suffering from a form of what is now known as “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder”. At the time of the First World War, this condition, which the military authorities refused to recognise, was known as “shell shock”.

A typical case is that of Harry Farr, who joined the British Expeditionary Force in 1914 and fought in the trenches. His position was repeatedly shelled, and in May 1915 he collapsed with strong convulsions. In hospital, his wife Gertrude—who was denied a widow's pension after the war—recalled, “he shook all the time. He couldn't stand the noise of the guns. We got a letter from him, but it was in a stranger's handwriting. He could write perfectly well, but couldn't hold the pen because his hand was shaking.”

It is now thought that Farr was possibly suffering from hypacusis, which occurs when the eardrums are so damaged that the auditory nerve becomes exposed, making loud noises physically unbearable. Despite this, Farr was sent back to the front and fought at the Somme. After several months of fighting, he requested to see a medical orderly but was refused. In Farr's Court Martial papers, the Sergeant Major is quoted as saying “If you don't go up to the f*****g front, I'm going to f*****g blow your brains out” to which Farr simply replied “I just can't go on.”

The Court Martial was over in 20 minutes. Harry Farr had to defend himself. General Haig signed his death warrant and he was shot at dawn on October 16, 1916.

Those soldiers in the firing squad ordered to carry out the execution were often tormented by the experience for the rest of their lives. John Laister, who died two months ago at the age of 101, recalled how he and a number of others were marched into the woods and told they were to be part of a firing squad. Speaking on the BBC television's programme Everyman (screened last Sunday evening), Laister said he was still haunted by the moment that he looked in the direction the rifles were pointed and saw a mere boy stood with his back to a tree. “There were tears in his eyes and tears in mine.”

The Blair government is resisting appeals for a “Millennium Pardon” for the 306 men. The army also seems unlikely to change its position. Earlier this year the Ministry of Defence sent a reply to “Shot At Dawn” campaigner John Hipkin on the question of the under-age soldiers that had been executed. The letter read, “You also state that a number of soldiers who were under-age were illegally tried and executed. This is not the case. Anyone over the age of 14 was deemed legally responsible for his actions and Army regulations provided no immunity from Military Law for an under-age soldier.”


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Sentenced to death for cowardice - this British soldier bravely refused a blindfold so he could see the firing squad

Facing fellow British soldiers who made up a firing squad of 12 men Private Harry Farr refused a blindfold that was offered to him by the officer in charge of his execution.

At the end of his life, Private Harry Farr did something extraordinary.

Facing fellow British soldiers who made up a firing squad of 12 men, he refused a blindfold that was offered to him by the officer in charge of his execution.

Indeed, Rudyard Kipling’s The Coward could have been written about Harry in all but one aspect:

I could not look upon Death, which being known,

Men led me to him, blindfold and alone.

His final act of courage was in contrast to the military crime he had earlier been found guilty of and sentenced to death for – cowardice.

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The case against the West Yorkshire Regiment soldier appeared clear-cut at first glance.

On September 17 1916 during the height of the Battle of the Somme, Harry reported sick, citing a nervous condition.

It was not the first time the young man from West London had sought medical help for non-physical injuries – in 1915 a few weeks after the colossal loss of life at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, he spent more than five months in hospital.

Records show he was suffering from shell-shock, already by this early stage of the war a recognised medical condition, one that we might now refer to as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Harry suffered from a similar nervous collapse earlier in 1916, though this time he spent just two weeks away from his battalion.

These episodes should have been a red flag to the officers who sat in judgement at his trial by court martial and could have been used in mitigation, yet they weren’t and Harry was not represented at his trial.

After falling out sick once again, he was refused treatment by Royal Army Medical Corps soldiers who manned a nearby dressing station on the grounds that he had no physical injury.

What happened next has led contemporary experts to believe he was indeed suffering from battle-induced trauma.

After being discovered warming himself by a brazier when he should have rejoined his battalion at the front, Harry was ordered to return.

He refused, stating simply: ‘I cannot stand it.’

The sergeant-major who made the order then exploded with anger, saying: ‘You are a f***ing coward and you will go to the trenches. I give f*** all for my life and I give f*** all for yours and I’ll get you f***ing well shot.’

After he was again ordered to return, this time under escort, a struggle ensued, leaving Harry disorientated and unable to understand what was happening to him.

He was arrested, charged with ‘misbehaving before the enemy in such a manner as to show cowardice’ and after being found guilty, had his death sentence confirmed by Field Marshal Earl Haig, the British Army’s commander-in-chief.

Records were later to show that of the more than 3,000 cases where a man was sentenced death for military offences, less than 10 per cent were actually executed.

Haig’s decision not to spare Harry was to have huge implications for his own legacy and led to one of the most remarkable and ultimately successful campaigns for justice of recent times.

Harry Farr had reached the limit of his endurance and could go no further.

Despite his record of service, his repeated treatment for a recognised illness and claims that no shell-shocked soldier was being executed, he was tied against a post and shot to death in what would become one of the most infamous British punishments of the war.

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Janet Booth was 43 when she discovered a family secret that was perceived to be so shameful, it was kept by her mother and grandmother for almost 70 years.

Gertrude Batstone was just 16 when she married Harry Farr, and was pregnant with their only child, little Gertie.

The new parents had both been raised in degrees of poverty but were slowly improving their situation, with Harry working as a scaffolder on building sites across London.

But they were to be separated forever by the outbreak of the First World War, because Harry, a former regular soldier, was immediately called up to join his old regiment.

Gertie - who would later become Janet&aposs mother - was just two as he left for France in November 1914, and he spent the next two years in and out of the front line as an infantry soldier, apart from his time in hospital. Gertrude received a separation allowance that kept the mother and daughter in their rented accommodation and fed, but little else.

In October 1916, her worst fears were realised when she received a telegram informing her of Harry’s death.

But her heartbreak turned to horror and then to shame when she read its wording – that Harry had been executed for cowardice.

Amid an ongoing surge of fervent militarism despite the losses on the Somme and with some women handing out white feathers to men they deemed to be shirking their duty, cowardice was the dirtiest of words.

Gertrude vowed to keep Harry’s death a secret and with a few exceptions through necessity, she did.

The sense of family shame – felt keenly by Harry’s father who would never speak his son’s name again, was also borne by Gertie, who did not learn of her father’s fate until she was in her 40s.

Once again, the shameful secret was buried and it was not until 1985 when Janet visited the now elderly Gertrude with her mother Gertie that the circumstances of Harry’s death emerged.

Keen to visit France where she knew her grandfather had been killed during the First World War, Janet asked her grandmother for more details so she could locate his grave.

It was then that Gertrude made her astonishing admission which, Janet found both shocking and fascinating in equal measure.

For Gertrude it proved a moment of catharsis and once she began talking about her first love, she couldn’t stop. It was as if a floodgate had opened, and all the hidden memories were revealed. For Janet it marked the start of an astonishing 21-year journey that would see her learn of the injustice of her grandfather’s case and campaign for his pardon.

It took her to the heart of government, to the High Court and would see her become a nationally recognised figure in a truly grassroots campaign to pardon 306 British soldiers who were executed for offences such as cowardice, desertion and casting away of arms.

But most of all it would bring her closer to Harry, the grandfather she never knew whose name had been tarnished during some of the darkest period of a terrible conflict.


A Shell-Shocked Soldier is Executed For Cowardice

Harry Farr was a soldier in the British Expeditionary Force in WWI. He had gone to the hospital in May 1915 for convulsions after a heavy artillery bombardment on his position. He reported himself to the medical station several more times for them. In April of 1916 he was arrested for desertion and was executed by firing squad. Part of his trial transcript is below:

[ In 16th Sept. 1916 when going up to the trenches with my Company I fell out sick. I could not find the Commissioned Officer to obtain permission or the Sergeant I asked has now been wounded. I went back to the 1st Line Transport arriving there about 2 a.m. on 17th September 1916. I would have reported at once to the Regimental Sergeant Major only I was told he was asleep. I reported about 9 a.m. on 17th Sept. The Sergeant Major told me to go to the advanced dressing station - they however would not see me there as I was not wounded. The Sergeant Major told me to go up with the ration party at night.

I started with this party & had to fall out sick - I could not get permission as I was in the rear and the Sergeant Major was in front, but left word with a Private soldier.

I returned to the 1st Line Transport hoping to report sick to some medical officer there. On the Sergeant Major's return I reported to him and said I was sick and could not stand it. He then said, "You are a fucking coward and you will go to the trenches. I give fuck all for my life and I give fuck all for yours and I'll get you fucking well shot". The Sergeant Major, Corporal Booth, and Private Farrar then took me up towards the trenches. We went about a mile when we met a carrying party returning under Lt. Corporal Form - the Sergeant Major asked Lt. Corporal Form where I was and he replied, "Run away, same as he did last night." I said to the Sergeant Major "You have got this all made up for me."

The Sergeant Major then told Lt. Corporal Form to fall out two men & take me up to the trenches. They commenced to shove me - I told them not to as I was sick enough as it was. The Sergeant Major then grabbed my rifle and said, "I'll blow your fucking brains out if you don’t go." I then called out for an officer but there were none there. I was then tripped up and commenced to struggle. After this I do not know what happened until I found myself back in the 1st Line Transport under a guard. If the escort had not started to shove me about I would have gone up to the Trenches: it was on account of their doing this that I commenced to struggle.]

Harry Farr received a posthumous pardon in 2006. His case was the one that convinced the government to pardon all 306 British soldiers shot for cowardice.

In my spare time I host a true crime history podcast about crimes that occurred before the year 1918. You can check it out here.


Shell Shock and Cowardice in WWI: The Story of Harry Farr.

The Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine has a pdf of a gripping article on Private Harry Farr, a 25 year-old British soldier shot for cowardice during World War I, despite having being treated for shell-shock.

As with all other WWI soldiers executed for cowardice, Farr was pardoned earlier this year by the British Government.

The article is written by Professor Simon Wessley of King’s College London, who puts the Farr’s court martial and execution in context of the history of World War I, and in the context of what was known about trauma-related psychiatry at the time.

There is little dispute about the sequence of events on 17 September 1916 that led to the execution of Private Farr. Harry Farr was a member of 1st Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment, which was taking part in the battle of the Somme. That day his battalion was moving from their rear positions up to the front line itself. At 9.00 am that morning Farr asked for permission to fall out, saying he was not well. He was sent to see the medical officer, who either found nothing wrong with him, or refused to see him because he had no physical injury‚Äîthe Court Martial papers are unclear on this point. Later that night Farr was found still at the rear, and was again ordered to go the trenches. He refused, telling Regimental Sergeant Major Haking, that he ‘could not stand it’. Then Hanking replied ‘You are a fucking coward and you will go to the trenches. I give fuck all for my life and I give fuck all for yours and I’ll get you fucking well shot’. At 11.00 pm that night a final attempt was made to get Private Farr up to the front line, and he was escorted forward. A fracas broke out between Farr and his escorts, and this time they let him run away. The following morning he was arrested and charged with contravening section 4 (7) of the Army Act ‚Äî showing cowardice in the face of the enemy.

The article discusses why Farr was executed, when over 96% of soldiers convicted of cowardice escaped this punishment, and how the concept of psychological disorder was understood in 1916, particularly by a British Army in a precarious military position.


4 thoughts on &ldquo1918: Louis Harris and Ernest Jackson, the last British soldiers shot at dawn&rdquo

The article is incorrect in stating these were the last men to be shot for crimes committed in World War One.

Davids, Abraham
Private 1239
Age: 24

Executed for murder on 26 Aug 1919

Harris, Willie
Private 49
Age: 49

Executed for murder on 26 Aug 1919

They were the last men executed for military offences, such as desertion, disobedience, cowardice etc. Murder wasn’t a military offence. It was a capital crime under civi law aswell.

This is a very interesting entry, but some more background on the tradition of firing squad execution at dawn would have been nice.

“Shot At Dawn” Pardon on Medical Grounds Unsound

After researching this most emotive aspect of the First World War, it has struck me how many widely accepted truths about these executions are simply wrong.

Among fallacies that need to be cleared up:

“The victims were shot for cowardice”. In fact, two-thirds of those shot were convicted of desertion, objectively easier to prove. (One example in the 900-page 1914 Manual of Military Law is of a soldier who while on leave is found on a steamship with a ticket to New York.) The next largest category was murder, which of course carried the death penalty in civilian courts over four years only 18 British soldiers were shot for showing cowardice and two for the archetypal military crime of sleeping on sentry.

“They were sentenced by kangaroo courts”. By the rules and standards of their time, most field general courts martial seem to have been properly constituted, with three presiding officers and the accused not allowed to enter a guilty plea on a capital charge. True, the accused were not guaranteed legal representation, but they could pick any individual they liked as defending officer, who had to take the job unless there was good reason. Legally qualified officers were often available: one such was Captain Louis Crispin Warmington, a 40-year-old London solicitor serving in the Durham Light Infantry, who acted as prisoner’s friend in at least three capital cases.

Condemned men were shot the next morning, with no right of appeal. In fact, death sentences were reviewed at least four times up the chain of command, each stage having the power to ‘mitigate, remit, commute or suspend’. Sentences could be modified only downward, and nine out of 10 death sentences were.

The executed were mainly conscripts. Rather, the majority were either pre-war regulars or new army volunteers. Conscripts did not account for a major part of the army until mid-1917, when the peak of death sentences had already passed. (Statistics are from the authoritative study Blindfold and Alone, by Cathryn Corns and John Hughes-Wilson (Cassell, 2001)).

After confirmation, a sentence was ‘promulgated’ to the unit and the victim, who was given 12 hours for prayers, letters or rum. One victim had a stay of 75 minutes because of ‘thick fog at 4am’.

Court martial officers would not have been required to attend the final act, but probably some did. They would have seen a firing squad of 12 men paraded and ordered to load a single round. It seems to have been usual for the officer in charge to unload one or more rifles while the men’s backs were turned. The condemned man was brought out blindfolded and tied to a chair or a post. One participant’s account notes that the condemned man was the calmest one present.

To make life easier for presiding medical officers, a death certificate was pre-typed: the only detail that needed to be added was whether death was instantaneous or not. On one such document, dated 24 March 1917, the doctor has heavily underlined the word ‘not’.

Afterwards, the squad was marched away to clean their rifles and, a fatigue party buried the victim along with other casualties.

In 2006 after many years of persistent protests, the British government was finally forced to rehabilitate those British soldiers (many) and officers (a few) who, because of cowardice in the face of the enemy or desertion, were executed during The Great War, or in some cases even afterwards.

It is a fact is that the decision who was shot at dawn, and who was not, was highly arbitrary. But even this is not the main problem. That is, that a general pardon on psychological grounds is medically unsound, historically incorrect, and, in so far as the term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is mentioned, even completely anachronistic.

Of course, it is the historian’s job to point at ‘other times and other values’, at ‘different circumstances’. And in his work, his main and probably only job is to describe and explain, not to judge. But this does not imply that as a private person he is not entitled to have opinions on what is being described and explained. All this, however, does not imply that the reason behind the pardon – to wit, those involved were all ‘disturbed’ – is sound. Of course, this reason fits perfectly well in the current medicalisation of social problems: let’s call it a disease, and everybody is happy.

For a start: 38,630 British and Dominion solders were convicted for desertion, not 306 soldiers were condemned to death, but 361 (2) soldiers were brought to death. 3,118 soldiers heard the sentence ‘death penalty’. The 306 are ‘just’ the ones who were actually executed because of desertion or cowardice. And even this is questionable. For desertion 268 were shot, for cowardice: 18, leaving post: 7, disobedience: 5, hitting a superior officer: 5, mutiny: 4, sleeping on duty: 2, throwing down arms: 2, violence: 1. (Putkowski and Sykes, Shot at dawn.). But how to get from these figures to a total of 306, I honestly do not know as the figure if to be believed is 313 not 306. But that is not the main point. That point is reached when answering questions like: who decided who was actually brought to death, and why? Where all those other 2600 convicted soldiers mad as well?

PTSD is not older than 35 years and can only be diagnosed after a prolonged examination of a living patient. Hence, diagnosing PTSD in a group of executed soldiers from the beginning of the twentieth century solely because they were accused of desertion or cowardice, and of whom, moreover, hardly any medical records or even none at all exist, in fact is utterly ridiculous.

Even in the case of Harry Farr, who supposedly was clearly shell-shocked and for this reason never should have been send back to the front – even though sometimes this was part of the treatment –, it is doubtful if he really was shell shocked.(2)

But even if he was, then it is of course a very sad, but not a typical case. Some of the soldiers involved will have suffered from some kind of neurosis, but they were never diagnosed neurotic before their execution, let alone treated. Officially, medical inspection was indeed part of the trial, but in practice very often there was no doctor present. And if there was one, seldom did he have any knowledge of psychological problems at all. Or he was, in view of his military career, more interested in supporting the judicial officers rather than the soldier on trial.

But there were many soldiers too, who had no psychological or neurological problems at all. Some of them simply were too scared to go over the top, but anxiety – and certainly the perfectly justified and understandable anxiety of soldiers in the trenches of Belgium and France – is not the same as cowardice. And it certainly is something else than madness quite the contrary, I would say.

Others, again fully understandable, thought obeying a given order was nothing but a kind of suicide, be it in a heroic jacket. They jumped into the very first protecting shell hole they could find, which mostly did not take very long. Next, there were those who refused to obey orders because it would bring not only themselves, but also others in mortal danger, without any chance of military success.

And, of course, there were those who were picked out of their group more or less ad random because this group had failed to reach its objective, an objective pointed out on a map miles behind the front. They had fought, but were shot nonetheless, as an example, ‘pour encourager les autres’, as the French put it. ‘More or less’ ad random, because some men were accused of cowardice, solely because the officers did not like him. Again: no cowardice, no madness.

And last but not least, of course, there were those who, completely of sound mind, began to see the war or the way it was fought, as unjustified or inhuman. They as well were convicted because of cowardice and sentenced to death – unless they were decorated officers like Siegfried Sassoon. He was – how ironic – not disturbed at all, but nevertheless sentenced to an involuntary stay in a psychiatric hospital, to save his life. Again: this had nothing to do with madness. Quite the contrary.

The truth of the matter is, that all these hundreds of executed men have hundreds of different stories, and because all those different stories can never be retold again in all their details, a general pardon is justified. The medical reasoning behind it, however, is idiotic.

But although the political reasons behind the pardon are perfectly understandable, a general pardon on psychological grounds is not justified. It does an injustice to those who were indeed neurotic. It does an injustice to those who were of completely sound mind.

However over century later, it is easy to understand why these dawn executions have such a hold. It was, after all, the British army, and, down the decades, it is easier for many to put themselves in the shoes of the condemned men rather than the generals.

For the moment, I will go along with Corrigan’s verdict: “it was harsh justice, but it was generally justice, in a very harsh war.”.

(1) The figures cited here should not be regarded as definitive but rather as indicative. Note: The figures for Canada, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa are included in the totals for Great Britain.

(2) Edgar Jones, Professor of the History of Medicine and Psychiatry, Institute of Psychiatry and King’s Centre for Military Health Research.

Shot at dawn: time to look at the truth. By Michael Cross – The Law Society Gazette – https://www.lawgazette.co.uk/

Dr. Leo van Bergen – Medical historian of the VUmc-Amsterdam, Netherlands, department of Medical Humanities (Metamedica). http://www.wereldoorlog1418.nl/shell-shock/pardon.html

Great Britain War Office (ed.): Statistics of the military effort of the British Empire during the Great War, 1914-1920, London 1922: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.


War shame ended by plea of a daughter

The tears and testimony of a 93-year-old woman whose father was shot for cowardice during the First World War led to a pardon for him and other soldiers, a new book reveals.

In October 1916 Irish-born Private Harry Farr was executed for cowardice while serving with the West Yorkshire regiment. Ninety years later an emotional encounter between his daughter, Gertie Harris, and a British government minister started the process of overturning decades of Ministry of Defence policy.

For the first time, former War Veterans' Minister Tom Watson has admitted his meeting with Harris in the summer of 2006 prompted him to force the MoD to change policy and grant her father and other shell-shocked troops a pardon.

A new book on Irish soldiers 'shot at dawn' for cowardly behaviour in the Great War has revealed it was this 40-minute discussion between Harris and the minister that led to the government pardoning the men in 2006.

Talking to the minister, Harris revealed that her family was left penniless and homeless because her mother was not entitled to a military pension. Harris recalled how her father's execution was kept a family secret for decades because her mother was deeply marked by stigma and shame.

According to the author, Stephen Walker, at the end of Harris's 40-minute speech on how the execution had blighted her family's life, Watsonhad tears in his eyes and MoD officials who accompanied him were surprised at his emotional reaction.

When Harris left Whitehall, Watson turned to his civil servants and said: 'We will have to sort this out.'

Until then, successive Labour and Conservative governments had refused to pardon soldiers executed for cowardice. In 1993 John Major rejected the call for pardons, saying it would rewrite history. Five years later John Reid, then a junior defence minister, concluded pardons were not necessary as there was insufficient evidence.

However, Watson was so moved by Harris's story that he asked to see the files on executed soldiers. Watson was said to have been 'staggered' that there were more than 1,000 pages of files and notes on the men.

'However, I did read every single piece of paper that was placed in front of me,' Watson recalled.

He then pledged to influence his ministerial colleagues to grant men such as Farr a pardon. Watson's tearful response to Harris's story became known throughout the MoD, with civil servants, according to Walker, offering the new minister 'tea and sympathy'.

Watson enlisted Des Browne, the Secretary of State for Defence, who also became convinced policy must change.

Harris's father was a veteran of the Battle of the Somme and spent five months in hospital suffering from shell-shock. Farr faced a court-martial in the autumn of 1916 for refusing to go back to the front line. His family insisted he had been ill with battle fatigue and had not been given a fair trial.

Farr himself was so determined to prove he was no coward that when brought to face his firing squad he refused to wear a blindfold because he wanted to see his killers. All soldiers who faced a similar fate for refusing to fight were routinely blindfolded. Many were given alcohol before being led to the post or chair where they were executed.

The campaign to pardon a total of 28 Irishmen who, their families claimed, were shot unjustly and labelled cowards was championed by the Irish government from 2003 onwards. That is ironic, because for most of the 20th century the Irish Great War experience had been edited out of Irish history. Until the early 21st century the Irish state held no official ceremonies marking the sacrifices of 35,000 Irishmen who died in the Great War. But in early 2003 Brian Cowen, then Irish Foreign Minister, announced that the Republic's government would be supporting the 'Shot at Dawn' campaign, which had been established to clear the executed men's names. For the next three years Cowen and later his replacement, Dermot Ahern, petitioned the British government for pardons.

When Britain relented and pardoned the men, Watson had already been sacked as a minister after calling on Tony Blair to resign before the 2006 Labour conference. Watson said he first heard about the pardons on holiday in Ireland.

'That night as I watched the television news I saw Gertie Harris and I felt really pleased for her and knew we had done the right thing,' he said. 'I was drinking Guinness, so my wife and I toasted Harry Farr, and my wife turned to me and simply said, "Well done, love."'

The book - Forgotten Soldiers - details several cases of soldiers shot for desertion. They include the story of Belfast teenager James Crozier, recruited in 1914 by Colonel Frank Percy Crozier (no relation). Col Crozier assured James's mother in the Belfast recruiting office: 'Don't worry, I'll look after him, I will see no harm comes to him.'

Two years later Col Crozier had James executed in France for desertion. The book claims James was also badly shell shocked when he left his billet.


Executed WW1 soldiers to be given pardons

All 306 British first world war soldiers executed for desertion or cowardice are to be pardoned, Des Browne, the defence secretary, will announce today.

For 90 years, families, friends and campaigners for the young soldiers have argued that their deaths were a stain on the reputation of Britain and the army.

In many cases, soldiers were clearly suffering from shellshock but officers showed no compassion for fear that their comrades would have disobeyed orders and refused to go "over the top".

Mr Browne decided to pardon them mainly on moral grounds, defence sources said last night. He will say a grave injustice was done at the time given the "horrific circumstances" in which they were shot.

One particular case brought to his attention was that of 25-year-old Private Harry Farr, executed for cowardice after the battle of the Somme, whose 90th anniversary was commemorated last month. On October 18 1916, after a 20-minute court martial where he represented himself, he was shot at dawn for "misbehaving before the enemy in such a manner as to show cowardice".

His case was seized on by campaigners seeking a posthumous pardon for all those executed. Pte Farr's daughter Gertrude Harris, 93, and his granddaughter, Janet Booth, 63, sought a judicial review in the high court to overturn a decision in 1998 by Geoff Hoon, defence secretary at the time, who argued that there was no case in law to issue a posthumous pardon.

Mr Browne - a lawyer like Mr Hoon - has taken a different view. It would be invidious, indeed impossible, given the lack of evidence, he believes, now to distinguish the precise details and circumstance of each case. He has thus decided that all the soldiers should be pardoned.

Defence sources said last night that Mr Browne regards all of them as victims of the first world war. Whatever the specific legal and historical considerations, it was fundamentally a moral issue which had stigmatised the families involved for more than a generation, he concluded.

The only distinction he is likely to make is between the soldiers shot for cowardice and desertion and others who were executed for murder.

The pardons will need a decision by parliament and Mr Browne is likely to append it to the armed forces bill on what ministers hope will be a free vote.

The pardons are also likely to affect former soldiers from other Commonwealth countries - such as Canada - and their families now living there.

John Dickinson of Irwin Mitchell, the Farr family's lawyer, said last night: "This is complete common sense and rightly acknowledges that Private Farr was not a coward, but an extremely brave man. Having fought for two years practically without respite in the trenches, he was very obviously suffering from a condition we now would have no problem in diagnosing as post-traumatic stress disorder or shellshock as it was known in 1916."

Pte Farr's daughter, Gertrude, said: "I am so relieved that this ordeal is now over and I can be content knowing that my father's memory is intact. I have always argued that my father's refusal to rejoin the frontline, described in the court martial as resulting from cowardice, was in fact the result of shellshock, and I believe that many other soldiers suffered from this, not just my father".

Pte Farr volunteered for 1st Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment in 1914. After he was executed, his family received no military pension and his widow and daughter were forced out of their house, suffering financial hardship, stigma and shame.

Andrew Mackinlay, Labour MP for Thurrock, who has campaigned for the pardon, welcomed the move last night and said that public opinion had "moved remarkably in support of a pardon".

He said: "All the courts martial were flawed. People did not have a chance to produce evidence or call witnesses. Full marks to Des Browne, but the point is that it has taken the British establishment 90 years."