UK seeks pardon for executed World War I soldiers

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Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The UK Defence Secretary Des Browne has announced a plan to seek approval from Parliament to grant a group pardon to more than 300 British soldiers executed during the First World War for offences such as cowardice and desertion.

The proposed pardon will include the case of Pte. Harry Farr, whose family had appealed to the Defence Secretary to grant a full, posthumous pardon. The Ministry of Defence informed the family lawyers of the decision hours before making a public announcement.

Farr's family members said in a statement that they were "overwhelmed".

The government proposes to pardon all those executed in World War I under the Army Act 1881 and the Indian Army Act 1911, for what are considered "battlefield offences", such as cowardice or desertion, which may have been influenced by the stress of the battle. The proposal involves several Commonwealth and former colonial countries whose troops also fought alongside British troops. Mr. Browne said that he intends to introduce a suitable amendment to the current Armed Forces Bill to request Parliament's approval.

Announcing the plan, Mr. Browne said, "I am conscious of how the families of these men feel today. They have had to endure a stigma for decades. [...] I believe it is appropriate to seek a statutory pardon."

Campaign to clear soldiers' names

Pte Farr's family have fought for 14 years to obtain a pardon, saying Farr's refusal to fight was a direct result of the mental stress caused by his experience in the trenches. They had argued that Pte. Farr was suffering from shell shock, he should have not been sent back to the trenches and that the court martial was unfair because it did not take shell shock into consideration.

In June 2004, Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon refused to grant a pardon to Pte Farr, but the family sought a judicial review. After a High Court ruled against a pardon, the family appealed to the Defence Secretary for a review of the case. In May 2005, a judge opined that there was "room for argument" that they had been wrongly refused a conditional posthumous pardon. A further hearing scheduled for October 2005 was delayed while Defence Secretary John Reid reconsidered the case.

The Ministry of Defence said in June that Mr. Reid, who had earlier sympathised with the cause, was prepared to look at Pte Farr's case in the wider context of the whole posthumous pardon issue.

Relatives of many soldiers convicted of desertion or cowardice have been calling for pardons since 1990 when the Public Record Office declassified case documents. Campaigners claimed that most of the soldiers were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by their experience of trench warfare and that they were unrepresented or defended by those with no legal training at trial, where relevant medical history, including mental health, was ignored.

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In 1993, John Major rejected an appeal for a pardon, while John Reid, Armed Forces Minister in July 1998, refused a request for all executed soldiers to be pardoned. The government had always said it would consider each case on its own merits.

Announcing the decision today, Mr. Browne said that he believed it was better to "acknowledge that injustices were clearly done in some cases, even if we cannot say which - and to acknowledge that all these men were victims of war.", adding that "I do not want to second guess the decisions made by commanders in the field, who were doing their best to apply the rules and standards of the time."

He said that 90 years after the events, the evidence doesn't exist to assess cases individually. Speaking to BBC Radio 4, Mr. Browne said "We can't be in a situation morally where we cannot redress injustices because we don't have paperwork in relation to an individual case. But we can in other cases where we have some paperwork."

Private Harry Farr

Pte. Harry Farr was from Kensington in London and enrolled in the West Yorkshire Regiment, serving in France for two years. He saw fighting at Neuve-Chappelle, where his battalion was shelled repeatedly. In May 1915, he collapsed with shell shock and was evacuated to Boulogne. He returned to see action in the Battle of Somme. In September 1916, he refused to 'go over the top'.

He appeared before a court martial, where he represented himself. Medical evidence presented at the court martial and found later showed that he was treated many times for being "sick with nerves" and "shell shock". He was found guilty of "misbehaving before the enemy in such a manner as to show cowardice", the decision was reached in 20 minutes.

On October 16, 1916 Pvt. Harris was shot dead by a firing squad, on the orders of his own officers. He was 25 years old.

Declassified army documents described him as a diligent soldier. An Army chaplain who witnessed his execution wrote to his widow, Gertie Batstone "A finer soldier never lived" and that Pvt. Farr had refused to wear a blindfold during the execution, the Independent newspaper reported. The Times reports that nurses at the hospital where he was treated for severe shell shock said that he was unable to hold a pen in his trembling hand.

After his execution, his military pension was stopped and Ms Batstone was forced out of their house, according to the Independent. Pvt Farr's grave is unmarked and its whereabouts are not known.

Family "owerwhelmed"

After being informed of the Secretary's decision, Farr's granddaughter Janet Booth told the BBC "We don't know if it's a full or a conditional pardon yet. We are over the moon,".

Pte Farr's daughter Gertrude Harris was seven days old when her father went to fight in France. Now aged ninety-three, she said on learning of the decision, "I'm overwhelmed. I prayed that it would happen in my lifetime but I never realised really that it would. It's come really as a shock today.", adding that the whole family were celebrating.

"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 front line, described in the court martial as resulting from cowardice, was in fact the result of shell shock, and I believe that many other soldiers suffered from this, not just my father." Mrs. Harris said, and hoped that "others [...] who had brave relatives who were shot by their own side will now get the pardons they equally deserve."

Sources

External links

  • Webpage on Pte Farr at the advocacy group Shell Shocked and Shot website. includes a verbatim transcript of the proceedings of Pte Farr's court martial.
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