Shame and stigma followed execution of a 'fine soldier': Widow's allowance halted by War Office because husband was shot for cowardice

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The Independent Online
JUST BEFORE she died, Harry Farr's widow tape-recorded a conversation describing her reaction to his death: 'They just sent me a letter. The letter from the War Office. And all it said was: 'Dear Madam, We regret to inform you that your husband has died. He was sentenced for cowardice and was shot at dawn on 18 October.' They were the exact words. That was all I got. I had a blouse on at the time and I pushed it right down in my blouse, in case anybody saw it. I was so affected by it.'

Her War Office allowance continued for six months, then one day she went to the post office as usual to collect it.

'She was a lovely lady, she knew me because she'd known me from a little girl. I went in and she said: 'I'm sorry Mrs Farr, there isn't any money for you this week.' And I said 'Why not?' She said: 'The allowance will be stopped and you are now a war widow with a war widow's pension', so I said 'Oh, I see'.

'I kept looking in, still no money. But then in the meantime I got this letter from the War Office saying 'Owing to the death of your husband . . . owing to the way your husband died, both you and your daughter are not eligible for the pension'. That was all I got and that was all I heard from them, nothing more.'

She did not discuss it. 'Nobody knew. I wouldn't tell anybody. I thought it was terrible I suppose. I felt so awful. I felt it was on my shoulders, all that stigma. That's how I felt. And even . . . I told you . . . my dear mother didn't know, nor his mother. Not till the time came until my pension stopped, then I had to tell them.

'The chaplain who was there when my husband was shot wrote to the vicar at our church, at my church. And it was the vicar from my church who came back to tell me, as he thought, but in fact I already knew. He - the regimental chaplain - said: 'I was with him when he was shot and tell his wife he was no coward. A finer soldier never lived. . . .' When the vicar came to see me he was horrified. 'To think they've sent you that letter,' he said, 'How awful'. '

After her pension stopped, Mrs Farr went to the Soldiers' and Sailors' Orphanage to get relief. They recommended her to service in the Highgate household of Lord and Lady Askwith. One of their dinner guests a few years later was Lord Clarendon, who took the papers and managed to arrange an allowance for her young daughter, though nothing for her.

She later remarried, her second husband being a gassing victim, whom she nursed for the rest of his life before a long second widowhood.

Pte Farr's mother had six sons in the Army in the 1914-18 war. According to family legend she said when war broke out: 'None of my boys are going to be killed by a German bullet.' She was right. Five survived, the sixth was Harry.

Mrs Farr's interview will be broadcast on Radio 4's Document series on 16 September.

(Photograph omitted)