High Court Hearing for Private Shot at Dawn For Cowardice in First World War

Private Harry Farr

25.10.2005

Descendants of a World War One soldier who have been campaigning for over 14 years are going to the High court today to hear whether their call for a posthumous pardon will be considered by the Ministry of Defence, claiming that the Court Martial which led to him being executed for cowardice in 1916 ignored crucial evidence of 'shell shock'.

Private Harry Farr of North Kensington London fought in France with the 2nd Battalion Yorkshire Regiment. He was convicted of cowardice on 2 October 1916 by a Field General Court Martial and executed on 18 October 1916.

The family argue that Pte Farr's refusal to rejoin the frontline, described in the court martial as resulting from cowardice, was in fact the result of "shell shock". There is a fear that many soldiers convicted of cowardice were in fact suffering what is now known as post traumatic stress disorder.

The evidence shows that Pte Farr served continuously in France from 1914 to 1916 and saw many horrors at Neuve-Chappelle and the Battle of the Somme. Medical evidence at his Court Martial shows he was treated several times due to being "sick with nerves" and suffering "shell shock" and his eventual refusal to return to the frontline was, argue his descendants, a direct result of the mental stress caused by warfare.

His daughter Gertrude Harris, 92, and his grand-daughter Janet Booth, 63, have campaigned tirelessly to have Pte Farr pardoned. They applied for permission to seek judicial review of a decision last June by the then defence secretary Geoff Hoon not to grant a pardon of any sort. This led to an application in May of this year where Mr Justice Stanley Burnton found that there was "room for argument" that he had been wrongly refused a conditional pardon.

Despite declaring that the family lacked the legal grounds for a free pardon, Mr Justice Burnton's comments indicate that the military authorities should not in all the circumstances have imposed the death penalty.

Mrs Harris, of Harrow, says that her father never showed signs of cowardice:

"Once my father went to France he never returned on home leave. He received treatment for the condition then known as "shell shock", but the Court Martial simply didn't take into account the evidence of his illness or his previous good record as a soldier. Instead, they convicted and executed him when his Company Commander described his nerves as 'Destroyed' " says Mrs Harris.

John Dickinson, of national law firm Irwin Mitchell, who represents Pte Farr's family said:

"Shell shock is now more widely understood and is a form of post traumatic stress disorder. The effects it had on soldiers was well known in the First World War and was often cited as a defence to a charge of cowardice because it could affect an individual's responsibility for his action, but this was ignored at Pte Farr's trial despite the evidence which was available. It is clear that the effect of his medical condition was ignored when the sentence was considered."

John Hipkin Speaking on behalf of the Shot at Dawn campaign, which fights for pardons for soldiers fighting for the British who were executed in the First World War, said

"I cannot believe that these 'Officers & Gentlemen' sat in judgement on these soldiers, sentencing them to death despite their obvious mental wounds. We hope that this case will continue to highlight the plight of these men and boys who lost their lives in this manner.

Irwin Mitchell responds to the verdict today in the case of Harry Farr

Descendants of a World War One soldier who have been campaigning for over 14 years have welcomed the latest stage of their battle at the High Court today, where the judge adjourned the case so that new grounds could be considered by the Ministry of Defence, in relation to the family's plea for a posthumous pardon.

National Law Firm Irwin Mitchell, represented the family of Pte Harry Farr and argued that his refusal to rejoin the frontline, described in the court martial as resulting from cowardice, was in fact the result of "shell shock" and that the Court Martial which led to him being executed for cowardice in 1916 ignored crucial evidence of this. There is a fear that many of the 305 other soldiers convicted of a capital offence were in fact suffering what is now known as post traumatic stress disorder.

Commenting on the verdict to adjourn the case today John Dickinson, the Lawyer at Irwin Mitchell who represented the family said:

"Given the evidence of shell shock, the death sentence should not have been imposed. We welcome the fact that the case has been adjourned so that new submissions can be considered, these submissions we believe will show there was sufficient grounds for something less than the death penalty to be imposed by court martial. We will be continuing with our challenge for a conditional pardon, and we welcome the Defence Secretary keeping an open mind on the case."