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Return to High Court for family of Private Shot for Cowardice in First World War

Harry Farr case


Descendants of a World War One soldier who have been campaigning for over 14 years are going back to the High court on Monday (27th March 2006) seeking to quash the decision of the Ministry of Defence that a posthumous pardon should not be granted to Private Harry Farr. They claim 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.

Private Harry Farr

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 offences 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 and after his Court Martial showed he was treated several times due to being sick with nerves and suffering shell shock and his descendants argue that his eventual refusal to return to the frontline was 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 in June 2004 by the then defence secretary Geoff Hoon not to grant a pardon of any sort.

This led to an application in May of 2005 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 allowed argument that the military authorities should not in all circumstances have imposed the death penalty.

A further hearing at the High Court in October 2005 was adjourned so that the present Defence Secretary Mr John Reid could reconsider the case. Mr Reid has since rejected Mr 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.

Although both France and Germany also shot soldiers for desertion they have since posthumously pardoned all victims of this policy and have even built memorials to them.

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.

Public law solicitor

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 the evidence which was available was not produced at the court martial and ignored when the sentence was confirmed."

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."

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