'Shell-shocked' private given death sentence: Infantryman told superiors he was too sick to move up trenches when order was given

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The Independent Online
PRIVATE HARRY FARR, 25, of the 1st Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment, was shot at dawn on 18 October 1916 for refusing to move up to the trenches, although apparently shell-shocked at the time.

For more than 70 years his widow, Gertrude, had hoped he would be pardoned. She was still alive to hear that John Major had ruled out a pardon for any of the British executed by the Army on the Western Front between 1914 and 1918. She died last month, aged 99.

Mrs Farr was probably the only widow who lived long enough to be able to examine her husband's court martial record, which was kept secret for 75 years. She disagreed with Mr Major's conclusion that 'No evidence was found to lead us . . . to think the convictions were unsound, or that the accused were treated unfairly at the time.'

The original document, released last year and available for inspection at the Public Record Office in Kew, south-west London, is handwritten by a soldier recording the proceedings in France in October 1916, during the Battle of the Somme.

A sergeant tells how, on 17 September 1916, at 9am, he had seen the accused turn up at the transport lines of his battalion saying he had been taken sick and had fallen out from his company when it had been marching to the trenches the previous evening. He told Pte Farr to report sick to the dressing station, but he came back later saying he had been refused an examination because he was not wounded.

At about 8pm the sergeant sent Pte Farr with a ration party going up to the front. By the time they arrived, Pte Farr was missing again. The sergeant wrote that at about 11pm: 'I saw the accused standing near a brazier. I asked him why he was there. He replied 'I cannot stand it'. I asked him what he meant. He again replied 'I cannot stand it'.

'I told him he would have to go to the trenches that night. He replied 'I cannot go'.'

Pte Farr was then escorted towards the trenches. 'After going 500 yards the accused commenced to scream and struggle with his escort to the trenches. I told him he would have to go to the trenches or be tried for cowardice. He replied 'I am not fit to go to the trenches'.' The sergeant offered to take him to a medical officer, but he reportedly replied: 'I will not go any further that way.'

The escort was ordered to let him go and he ran back to the first line. He apparently made no attempt to escape and was placed under arrest. The account is confirmed to the court martial by three other soldiers.

Pte Farr gave evidence on oath. He told the court martial he 'fell out sick' and had been unable to find anybody to give him permission to report sick. He confirmed that the medical station had refused to see him because he was not injured, being escorted back to the front, and leaving his escort to go back again to try to report sick.

He said he told the sergeant that he was sick, but claimed the sergeant replied: 'You are a fucking coward and you will go to the trenches . . .' As he was being escorted to the front he told his escort not to take him as 'I was sick enough as it was'. He continued: 'The sergeant major grabbed my rifle and said: 'I'll blow your fucking brains out if you don't go. I called out for an officer but there was none there. I was then tripped up and commenced to struggle. After this I do not know what happened until I found myself back in the first line transport under a guard. If the escort had not started to shout at me I would have gone up to the trenches. It was on account of their doing this that I commenced to struggle.'

The court asked why he had not reported sick between the date of his arrest and the court martial, 2 October. He replied: 'Because being away from the shell fire I felt better.'

He called one witness for the defence, a Sgt J Andrews from his regiment, who said that Pte Farr had reported sick with nerves in April 1916, and had been kept back by the medical officer for two weeks. He had reported again for the same cause on 22 July and was discharged the following day. He was not medically examined before the court martial passed the death sentence.

Character witnesses said Pte Farr had six years' service. He had enlisted in 1910, aged 16 or 17, after lying to the recruiting officer that he was three years older. He was drafted in the British Expeditionary Force to France in November 1914 and fought in the trenches at Chapelle d'Armentiers. In May 1915 he was evacuated with shell-shock from the front line, and five months later he returned to serve at Ypres.

Pte Farr's company commander wrote for the court martial: 'This man came out with the 2nd Battalion West Yorks Regt, and was sent down to the base with shell-shock 9.5.15. He joined the first Battalion West Yorks regiment 20.10.15. He remained continuously with this regiment until the trial by cm (court martial). 'I cannot say what has destroyed this man's nerves, but he has proved himself on many occasions incapable of keeping his head in action and likely to cause a panic.

'Apart from his behaviour under fire, his conduct and character are very good. Signed Capt A Wilson. In the Field, 9.45pm, 7/10/16.'

Pte Farr's case is an example where the consensus 'gathers momentum' as it goes up the line, so it becomes increasingly unlikely that decisions made lower down the chain of command will be overruled.

On 6 October, the general commanding XIV Corps recommended the death sentence, saying the charge of cowardice 'seems to be clearly proved'. This was confirmed on 14 October by the Commander- in-Chief, General Sir Douglas Haig.

Attached to the papers is a typed certificate confirming that Pte Harry Farr was executed by shooting at 6am on 18 October 1916 at Carnoy. 'Death was instantaneous'.

(Photograph omitted)