Executed WW1 soldiers to be given pardons

Executed WW1 soldiers to be given pardons

Families of 306 shot for cowardice or desertion to be told of decision today

Richard Norton-Taylor
Wednesday August 16, 2006
The Guardian

Harry Farr, who was shot for cowardice during the first world war, is to be given pardon. Photograph: PA

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."

the main point here is what the hell difference does it make? those people were still killed for not doing something they were probably incapable of doing, despite the fact it was wrong to do it in the first place. The government/military/anyone who, god forbid, might claim some respinsibility for such things could get down on their knees and beg for forgiveness and no-one would feel much different.

I think this goes down under the heading of "$hit happens".
It means the Familys, will possibly be able to get pensions that they deserved. It will also clear the soldiers names.....

**** happens? Not in this case, the soldiers were rarely given a proper court martial, and post-trumatic stress was usally the cause, something that today we can easily regonize compared to back int he early 20th century.
It's merely a sign of the modern approach to such matters, as was our pardoning of Louis Riel.
**** happens? 25 Canadian soldiers were drug out of their trenches, tied to a post, and shot by the pompous, inept, British, during the First World War. To me, that isn't a matter of "**** happens", it's a matter highlighting how out of touch the British Army was (and in some ways still is). Note the lack of pardons for the Canadian, Belgian, and New Zealand troops shot by the limeys.
This is trying to right a wrong. But you cant. Whenever someone is offended they "demand an apology". But then you hear "it's not enough". You cant right a wrong. Every country has skeletons in it's closet.
Quote: Originally Posted by Gonzo

This is trying to right a wrong. But you cant. Whenever someone is offended they "demand an apology". But then you hear "it's not enough". You cant right a wrong. Every country has skeletons in it's closet.

that's the point i was trying to make. nothing can be done to make things good and pardoning them at this late stage may well be just poking fun. although i didn't think about the whole pensions thing..

I think it's shocking that the foreign soliders werent pardoned, i had no idea.

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