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Friday, 2 July 2010

The court martial of Private Harry Farr

“... the hand of Time rested on the half-hour mark, and all along that old front line of the English there came a whistling and a crying. The men of the first wave climbed up the parapets, in tumult, darkness, and the presence of death, and having done with all pleasant things, advanced across No Man's Land to begin the Battle of the Somme."

John Masefield, The Old Front Line, 1917


At first light on 16 October 1916, Private Harry Farr of the 1st Battalion, the West Yorkshire Regiment, was led by his colleagues into a forest in the region of the Somme River in France. The eponymous allied offensive, the most bloody battle of the most bloody war in British history, was nearing its end. For all the blood spilt, the achievement of the battle had been limited to say the least: little ground had been gained, the general stalemate would thereafter resume, and the war would not be over for another two years and several million more deaths.

Private Farr would live to see none of that, for he was being taken into the woods that day for his own execution, having been found guilty of failing to take his place in the front line. In a gesture reminiscent of Charles I, who chose to wear two shirts on his final walk lest he shiver from cold and be mistaken for suffering cowardice, Private Farr declined the usual procedure of wearing a blindfold and chose instead to look his executioners in the eye. He faced twelve of his comrades, one of whom would have been issued with a blank bullet so that none could be absolutely sure he had killed one of his own. The order was then given by the commanding officer and the final act carried out: Private Farr was shot at dawn.

His trial by court martial a couple of weeks earlier had lasted only about 20 minutes. It resulted in a guilty verdict and a sentence of death. Unlike 90% of British soldiers who received the death sentence in the Great War, his sentence was not commuted, but instead was upheld on review by senior officers and then authorised by General Haig, Britain’s Commander-in-Chief on the Western Front, before being carried out as described on that grim October morning.

It is, one might reasonably suggest, fairly safe to assume that no-one present at Private Farr’s trial or execution would have even begun to imagine that almost ninety years later his daughter would be in attendance at the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand to hear a judicial review of their actions. Nor would they have anticipated that Parliament would cut the litigation short by issuing a blanket pardon for Private Farr and all others executed for cowardice or related crimes in the Great War. Still less would they have imagined that Private Farr would have a Myspace page devoted to him.

All those things did come to pass, however, and thus in 2006 the trial of Private Harry Farr came to public attention as a reminder of the small part he played in the conflict which inflicted incalculable misery on the nations involved and changed all of them forever.

The context of the Great War

To understand properly the circumstances under which Private Farr’s trial and sentence were undertaken, it is necessary to say something of the nature of the war itself.

Britain actually differed quite markedly in her pre-war armed forces from the Continental powers. Most of the latter – including France, Germany and Russia – maintained a substantial standing army by way of national conscription. Britain did not. Her focus was on her empire, which depended on sea routes for trade, and her military focus was therefore on the navy, still the largest and most respected in the world in 1914. Her “contemptible little army” in the words attributed to Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm (a badge the British subsequently adopted with honour) was by European standards not much more than a small, highly professional colonial police force. It was not designed for major-power conflict on the continent, for the simple reason that Britain’s strategic planning was aimed directly at avoiding such an event. Since the Napoleonic wars of a century earlier, Britain had intended that in any future general European conflict her contribution would be primarily naval and financial, with the army playing a limited role. The navy would secure the vital Empire trade routes and ensure that no invading army could cross the channel. The rise of Germany as the predominant industrial power was alarming to Britain chiefly because of the High Seas fleet, not the massive standing army.

In turn Britain was not of the greatest concern to Germany. Germany’s pre-war planning centred around the Franco-Russian alliance, which threatened her with war on two fronts. To avoid this Germany devised the Schlieffen plan, by which it hoped to defeat France before Russia had had a chance to mobilise fully.

In the event, of course, both Britain and Germany’s strategies failed completely. Germany was unable to knock out France in the first months of the war and was landed with war on two fronts. Meanwhile, realising that France would never hold Germany on its own, Britain became drawn totally into the land battle. The war was supposed to have been over by Christmas. As it happened, the guns were silent on Christmas Day 1914 – but only because men from both sides were famously meeting in an ad hoc truce in No Man’s Land between static trench defences. They would remain in the same trenches with remarkably little movement, despite enormous loss of life, for almost four more years.

The relevant point to be taken from the above is that the British army during the war faced a task of almost indescribable complexity and difficulty, for which it was almost completely unprepared. It went on to make many mistakes, some of calamitous proportions, and incur casualties on a scale which remains unprecedented in the nation’s history. And yet it was the only army engaged throughout the war which did not suffer a collapse at any point as well, of course, as emerging victorious. Moreover, by 1918 it had become the most powerful field army in the world – the only time in history that it has qualified for that description.

Two points follow. First, the popular image of the Generals in charge of this process as nothing more than bungling butchers, “donkeys leading lions”, (1) is not sustainable in the face of the army’s ultimate achievement, for all the undoubtedly serious, indeed horrific, mistakes they made in the process. Secondly, to expect military justice to achieve the same standard in the ghastly circumstances of 1914-18 as in peacetime is simply not realistic. The men who judged Private Farr in 1916 would have known that no significant breakthrough had occurred on the Somme, and that they would all be severely tested for some time to come, as proved to be the case. Indeed, the French army effectively collapsed the following year and Germany’s Operation Michael offensive in early 1918 all but broke the allied line.

Civilian life in the 1910s also requires mention. The understanding and ethos of what modern readers would call health and safety, employment rights and the welfare state were entirely different to that enjoyed by citizens of twenty-first century Britain. Life expectancy was far shorter. The soldiers who fought the Great War were born in Victorian times, and their attitudes to duty and character, particularly in the context of the armed forces, corresponded. The death penalty was the mandatory punishment in civilian Britain for murder and a possible punishment for a number of other offences as well.

It follows that it cannot be assumed that the majority of civilians or soldiers at the time would have viewed the execution of soldiers for cowardice (or any other crime) in the same way as those in the present day might. Nor was the issue of military casualties generally viewed the same way as it is today – indeed, the Great War itself is perhaps the primary reason for the change in attitude towards incurring casualties in war. (2)

Private Farr’s war

Harry Farr enters the story of the Great War at the beginning, volunteering for the British Expeditionary Force in 1914. There is no dispute that he was subjected to shell fire. An excellent article by the psychiatrist and medical historian Simon Wessel describes in more detail the actions which led to Private Farr’s death:

At 9.00 am [on 17 September 1916] Farr asked for permission to fall out, saying he was not well. He was sent to see the medical officer, who either found nothing wrong with him, or refused to see him because he had no physical injury—the Court Martial papers are unclear on this point. Later that night Farr was found still at the rear, and was again ordered to go the trenches. He refused, telling Regimental Sergeant Major Haking, that he ‘could not stand it’. Then Hanking replied ‘You are a fucking coward and you will go to the trenches. I give fuck all for my life and I give fuck all for yours and I'll get you fucking well shot’. At 11.00 pm that night a final attempt was made to get Private Farr up to the front line, and he was escorted forward. A fracas broke out between Farr and his escorts, and this time they let him run away. The following morning he was arrested and charged with contravening section 4 (7) of the Army Act—showing cowardice in the face of the enemy.

The Field General Court Martial took place 2 weeks later. Four soldiers gave evidence against Farr, confirming the general sequence of events, which Farr did not deny. Farr was not represented by a so called ‘prisoner's friend’ (this was not unusual), but spoke in his own defence. He was asked by the president of the court whether he had the opportunity to report sick between the night of the offence and now; Farr replied that he had indeed had the opportunity but had not done so. When asked why Farr replied, almost certainly unwisely for his future, that this was because ‘being away from the shell fire I felt better’. The Court then heard about his medical history and his disciplinary record, which, apart from a brief period of going absent without leave in 1914 had been exemplary. Private Farr had spent several months in a rear hospital in 1915 with a diagnosis of shell shock, had been treated by the medical officer with the same diagnosis in April 1916, and again for one day in July 1916. Unfortunately, the medical officer who had treated Farr was not able to give evidence: he had been severely wounded.

As Dr Wessel points out, on those facts, from the perspective of military law Private Farr did not stand a chance. He had willingly gone absent in the face of the enemy. His colleagues had not spoken in his defence, although it had been acknowledged that his service record was mostly exemplary. But the inevitable verdict on the facts was guilty, and the customary sentence was death.

Private Farr was one of 306 in the British army to be executed in the Great War. Of those 266 were shot for desertion, 18 for cowardice, seven for quitting their posts and two for casting away their arms. The remaining 13 were executed for other, unrelated crimes such as murder. As mentioned the 306 constitute only approximately 10% of the total number actually sentenced to death following a court martial in the War; the rest had their sentences commuted.

The aftermath

Private Farr’s widow, Gertrude, was not told of the circumstances initially, and therefore believed he had died in action. In fact she only discovered the truth when her war pension was stopped. For the Farr family, as for the families of all of the executed soldiers, the manner of Private Farr’s death was kept as a shameful secret for years afterwards. His daughter, Gertrude Harris, born two years before the outbreak of the war, did not learn what had happened until she was 40. She in turn kept the secret for another 40 years, and it was not until the British Government’s decision in 1992 to lift the classification of the relevant surviving documents for all the executed soldiers that a public campaign began in earnest to clear his name.

As it happened, only some half a dozen documents were found relating to Private Farr’s trial and as Dr Wessel states his full medical records had been lost. Based on what was known, however, his relatives and their supporters formed the view that in modern medical terminology he had been suffering from hyperacusis/misophonia, or category 4 acoustic shock, which renders the ear incapable of softening and filtering sound and makes loud noises physically unbearable.

Nevertheless, the initial response of the government of the day was to refuse a pardon for any of the executed soldiers. Its reasoning concerned the paucity of documentary evidence and the fact that almost all relevant witnesses were long deceased, as well as opposition in principle to passing official reinterpretations of the actions of soldiers in a war which had taken place almost eighty years previously.

The change of government in 1997 brought no immediate success for the campaign. The then-armed forces minister, Dr John Reid, considered the possibility of pardons under the royal prerogative, and concluded in 1998 that few if any of the individual cases would meet the standard requirements, again due to the quality of evidence. (3) It was considered that as far as could be discerned the law as it then stood seemed to have been followed. It was, however, declared that “those executed were as much victims of war as the soldiers and airmen who were killed in action ..." (4)

That last gesture did not satisfy Private Farr’s relatives and in March 2006, all other avenues having failed, they appeared in the High Court seeking judicial review of the refusal to grant a pardon. Parliament was spurred into action and, following an adjournment of the proceedings, responded with the final act in the legal saga, s 359 of the Armed Forces Act 2006. It was freely acknowledged in the House that the inherent difficulties in the issue rendered the solution a compromise.

Section 359 is headed: “Pardons for servicemen executed for disciplinary offences: recognition as victims of First World War”. Subsections (1) and (2) provide:

(1) This section applies in relation to any person who was executed for a relevant offence committed during the period beginning with 4 August 1914 and ending with 11 November 1918.

(2) Each such person is to be taken to be pardoned under this section in respect of the relevant offence (or relevant offences) for which he was executed.

Subsection (3) defines “relevant offence” as including various offences along the lines of cowardice, then subsection (4) states somewhat casually:

(4) This section does not—
(a) affect any conviction or sentence;
(b) give rise to any right, entitlement or liability; or
(c) affect the prerogative of mercy.

And that was that. No individual soldier’s conviction or sentence was overturned and no surviving relatives or anyone else was to be given any compensation. It was simply that each of the executed soldiers was, by legal fiction, “taken to be pardoned ... in respect of the relevant offence ... for which he was executed”.

The Act was not passed without opposition. For Gerald Howarth MP, the fudge represented by s 359 achieved nothing. Since it did not overturn any conviction and could not commute the sentence, he argued, “we are entitled to ask what it does do.”(5)

For Gertrude Harris, however, by then 93 years of age, it was enough:

Well to be truthful, 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.

We were determined for my mother’s sake because she always said he was no coward, he was a very brave soldier and he fought for his country and he died fighting for his country.

Reactions in the media were mixed. Corelli Barnett, a military historian, told the Telegraph newspaper:

These were decisions taken in the heat of a war when the commanders' primary duty was to keep the Army together and to keep it fighting. They were therefore decisions taken from a different moral perspective.

"For the people of this generation to come along and second-guess decisions taken then is wrong.

"It was done in a particular historical setting and in a particular moral and social climate. It's pointless to give these pardons. What’s the use of a posthumous pardon?

Others endorsed the move, citing Mrs Harris’ arguments with approval.

The pardon: right or wrong?

The length of time it took for Gertrude Harris to obtain the pardon given by s 359 indicates the extent of the controversy involved. Those in favour of the pardon argued that given that so few of those sentenced to death had actually been executed, to be shot at dawn was a form of random chance rather than the application of legal principle. Moreover, they considered that there were strong indications that a miscarriage of justice had occurred in at least some of the executions. Understanding of shell-shock had increased out of all recognition since 1916. Thus, the argument ran, even if the executions were justified on the understanding of the time, the families of the deceased should not have to live with the feeling of shame when, by the standard of knowledge in the present day, no wrong had been committed. The fact that there were readily identifiable direct descendants such as Gertrude Harris was used to distinguish the case of the Great War executions from the countless predecessors. (6) Further, Germany, France, Ireland and New Zealand had already pardoned their soldiers who were executed in the Great War.

Some concessions were made along the way which rendered the 2006 Act much less than a full acquittal for all the dead. Section 359(4)(a) explicitly stated that the convictions stood, in order to acknowledge that the men who sat on the courts martial were undertaking conscientiously the duty of maintaining military discipline in accordance with the law then applicable; indeed they were doing what they were legally bound by military law to do.

Those opposed, of whom this author remains one, always maintained that it could not be right for a generation that had not known the horrors of the First World War to be casting judgement on those that had. A number of modern historians have challenged the idea that conduct of the Great War was little more than a serious of disastrous blunders by uncaring and antediluvian Generals (7). The courts martial should be seen in the context of the extraordinary crisis that the British army faced, and if there is to be judgement with hindsight it surely has to include the knowledge that the British army eventually won.

That there were identifiable and living descendants of the men shot at dawn was not necessarily persuasive for considering their cases as opposed to any other alleged historical injustice. The actual victims were the soldiers themselves, who were obviously all dead. One could trace living descendants of countless other supposed historical injustices. Instead of picking and choosing on the happenstance of living relatives, or trying to decide the most worthy historical causes, it cannot be too callous logic to argue that judicial and Parliamentary resources should be prioritised for the living and to allow the rights and wrongs of the past to remain the preserve of historians.

It is not as though the offences themselves were contrary to modern morals: the crimes of desertion and cowardice remain just as much a part of military law in 2006 as in 1916. The main objection therefore has to be the correctness of the individual convictions – which Parliament itself regularly found impossible to judge given the paucity of surviving evidence – or the use of the death penalty (the public campaign used the phrase “shot at dawn” not “convicted of cowardice or desertion”).

Two points are relevant to the death penalty: first, by abolishing capital punishment completely (8) the Government had already made clear that no-one would be shot at dawn in today’s army even in a reprise of the Great War. If anything, that was a more concrete gesture than the watered-down pardon under the 2006 Act. Secondly, given that the death penalty in 1914-18 was a generally accepted and regularly used form of civilian punishment, there does not seem to be a justification for a specific pardon for those executed during wartime. The pardon did not extend to those who were sentenced to death but whose sentences were commuted, despite the fact that their names were just as shamed. The offences of cowardice and desertion are also still considered to be severe offences, particularly for soldiers on active duty, rather than some of the trivial offences which attracted capital punishment in centuries past.

The prior objections of the state to a pardon had focused primarily on the quality of evidence, and those objections were never fully answered. Indeed, they were cited as a reason for the pardon in the form it eventually appeared. Whatever the qualifications in the 2006 Act, however, the reality was and remains that most of the lay public would read the granting of the pardon as being exculpatory of the executed.

Some 5.7 million served in the British army and it would be statistically improbable for there to have been no instances of cowardice or desertion amongst them. The authorities during the Great War decided that there had been approximately 3,000 such instances, but applied the ultimate sanction only to 10% of them. That seems less arbitrary and cruel than humane. Indeed, the statistics point to an unknown and unknowable further probability. More than 80,000 veterans were diagnosed with shell shock after the war, prompting the Government of the day to establish a commission on the subject, and indeed shellfire caused the majority of all casualties on the Western Front. One can assume therefore that there must have been thousands of instances of minor shell shock, the sufferers of which did not actually become recorded casualties. Some would have become disorientated for a short while at least, and been separated from their units. Technically they would or might have been considered deserters. And yet what must have happened on many such occasions (for, if it had not, there would have been far more prosecutions than there were in fact) is that sympathetic soldiers from other units would have ushered the men back to their own units, where they would have been received without many questions being asked.

Perhaps too the soldiers who carried out the courts martial and executions would have felt slurred by the pardon, or at least an inference that they been doing other than their lawful duty in a conscientious fashion. Or perhaps they would have approved of the pardon – certainly one who spoke eighty years after the war, John Laister, may well have done if his reported comments were accurate. Laister, speaking to the BBC in 1999, said of his experience as part of a firing squad: “There were tears in his eyes and tears in mine”. He also described his victim as “looking no more than a boy.” But by 2006 all involved had died (since then all remaining veterans of the Western Front have as well) and the majority never spoke of the events, and so we will never know.

Which of course brings one back to the fundamental objection: the pardon was imposing a judgment on men who were not there to defend their actions, who acted in circumstances which the people of 2006 never knew for themselves, and who were prosecuting acts which remain military offences to this day. We should hesitate long before deciding for ourselves before passing judgment on them. (9)


On one view Private Farr’s case could be seen as a mere footnote in four years of unprecedented bloodshed. But it certainly came to be of the foremost importance to the relatives and descendants of the men who shared his fate, and, moreover, it served to bring to a later generation’s attention the war which had an incalculable and irrevocable effect on Britain and her Empire. It brought again to public attention the debates over the competence of those who ran the war and whether it had been a just war.

As to those involved, General Haig was made Field Marshal in January 1917. He returned from the war a national hero, and had the choice of virtually any peacetime role he might have chosen. He declined official posts, however, and spent the remaining ten years of his life dedicating himself to the welfare of veterans. Among other things he was instrumental in the formation of the British Legion. Of course public opinion turned against him, and his family too fought for many years to defend his name, though unlike Private Farr there was no official condemnation to challenge. (10)

Private Farr’s wife died in 1993, but their daughter, Gertrude Harris, as we have seen, lived to hear of her father’s pardon. Private Farr’s name appears on one of the many Great War memorials, and the Shot at Dawn campaign has since been represented, not without some controversy, at the Remembrance Sunday parade. The legal debate having been concluded, the matter now rests once more with military historians, who will doubtless continue to debate the merits of the pardon for many years yet.

Note: the above was written for a forthcoming book, though it is not now going to be included. I am considering various other places which might be appropriate.


(1) The phrase “lions led by donkeys” is often wrongly attributed to a German general speaking of the British army of the First World War, when there is no evidence for that. Nevertheless the image it creates is one still found in the popular imagination, thanks no doubt in part to fictional works such as the film Oh! What a Lovely War or the television series Blackadder Goes Forth. This part of the essay seeks very briefly to counter the view; the further reading list contains a rather fuller account.

(2) At the outset, when Germany invaded neutral Belgium, there was a great public outcry demanding that Britain intervene. When she did, news of the declaration was greeted with public celebrations in Trafalgar Square and elsewhere. By the end, of course, the war had come to be known as the “war to end all wars”. The subsequent decade saw the rise of the pacifist movement, and there was no celebration whatever when Britain found herself manoeuvred into the Second World War.

(3) See Hansard HoC debates 7 Nov 2006 : Column 766.

(4) Richard Holmes, The Western Front 1999, p 176.

(5) Hansard, HoC debates, 7 November 2006, col. 772

(6) See eg “End of Shame” by Stephen Moss The Guardian, 19 August 2006

(7) One rather churlish comment was made in Parliament about the absurdity of reviewing alleged injustices committed during the battle of Agincourt (Hansard, HoC debates, 7 Nov 2006 : Column 778).

(8) See eg John Terraine, Gordon Corrigan, Richard Holmes and Gary Sheffield.

(9) The last remaining provisions for the death penalty under military jurisdiction (including during wartime) were removed on 9 November 1998 when s 21(5) of the Human Rights Act 1998 came into force. On 10 October 2003, effective from 1 February 2004, the UK acceded to the 13th Protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits the death penalty under all circumstances.

(10) In this respect Francis Bennion’s article Rewriting history in the Court of Appeal 148 NLJ (1998) 1228 makes cogent points.

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