19 February 2006

Family anger as 'coward' soldier is refused pardon


Mark Townsend, legal affairs correspondent
Sunday February 19, 2006
The Observer

The family of a First World War soldier shot for cowardice are furious after their legal appeal for a posthumous pardon was turned down by John Reid, the defence secretary.

After a hearing at the High Court last October, Reid had asked for more time to review the case of Private Harry Farr, raising the hopes of scores of other families who want to clear the names of British troops who were executed by firing squad during the war. Farr's 92-year-old daughter, Gertrude Harris, said she was 'very disappointed' by Reid's decision. She remains convinced that her father displayed no signs of cowardice. 'He received treatment for a condition then known as shell shock, but this was ignored.'

John Hipkin, of the 'Shot At Dawn' campaign group, said that the rejection of the appeal was 'indefensible'. He added: 'I cannot understand or believe this decision. It's absolutely horrific.'

Farr was shot for refusing to return to the trenches on the Western Front 90 years ago. The 25-year-old had been in hospital for five months, suffering from severe shell shock. Farr's medical records were not shown to the officers at his court martial, which lasted 20 minutes, and he was not represented.

Hipkin added: 'Why have the MoD done this when it is proven that Farr was suffering from shell shock?

Despite the time he spent in hospital, where nurses noted that he trembled so severely he was unable to hold a pen, Farr was found guilty of cowardice and sentenced to death.

In September 1916 the soldier confided to colleagues that he had become 'sick with nerves' before breaking down and saying that he could not go on. However, his superiors ordered him back to the trenches, where he had spent two years fighting. His sergeant-major was quoted in court-martial papers as saying: 'You are a fucking coward and you will go to the trenches', and 'If you don't go up to the front, I'm going to blow your fucking brains out.'

Reid rejected Farr's case on the grounds that it could not be proven conclusively that shell shock was behind Farr's refusal to go back to the front. However, lawyers acting for the soldier's family claim that any mitigating medical factors should have been sufficient to question the death sentence.

John Dickinson, of Irwin Mitchell, the law firm representing Farr's family, said that the government had been alerted to the case of an officer who was dismissed from the army for cowardice, but whose sentence was subsequently deemed too severe in 1922. 'The government seems to have come from entirely the opposite direction in this case, perhaps because one involves a private and the other an officer,' said Dickinson.

Sir Douglas Haig, later the 1st Earl Haig, the British commander-in-chief notorious for his reluctance to visit the front line, signed Farr's death sentence. On the day Farr was shot, Haig enjoyed lunch with the poet John Masefield. At his execution Farr refused a blindfold, preferring instead to look the firing squad in the eye. An army chaplain who witnessed the execution said: 'A finer soldier never lived.'

At least 306 soldiers were shot for desertion during the First World War. None has been pardoned. Although France and Germany also shot men on charges of desertion, both countries have decided to posthumously pardon and build memorials to them. By contrast, Farr's grave is unmarked, its whereabouts unknown.

Farr's family plan to appeal to the High Court next month against Reid's decision.

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