Hundreds of soldiers shot for 'cowardice' to be pardoned

Pte Harry Farr, shot for cowardice during the First World War, is to be granted a pardon posthumously. His pardon came as Des Browne, Minister of Defence, said all 306 soldiers executed during the First World War for cowardice and military offences would be issued a group pardon.

Mr Browne said that the Armed Forces Bill will be amended . "Although this is a historical matter, I am conscious of how the families of these men feel today. They have had to endure a stigma for decades. That makes this a moral issue too, and having reviewed it, I believe it is appropriate to seek a statutory pardon," he said.

Pte Farr's family have fought for 14 years to clear his name, arguing that the soldier, from Kensington in London, who was 25 years old when he was executed for refusing to fight, had shell shock.

His daughter, Gertrude Harris, aged 93, said: "I am so relieved that this ordeal is now over and I can be content knowing that my father's memory is intact. I have always argued that my father's refusal to rejoin the front line, described in the court martial as resulting from cowardice, was in fact the result of shell shock, and I believe that many other soldiers suffered from this, not just my father. I hope that others now who had brave relatives who were shot by their own side will now get the pardons they equally deserve."

Pte Farr, from the 1st Battalion, the West Yorkshire Regiment, died on 16 October 1916, one of 306 British and Commonwealth soldiers executed for cowardice during the First World War. He served in France for two years, fighting at Neuve-Chappelle. His battalion was shelled repeatedly, and he collapsed with the shakes in May 1915.

He was briefly evacuated to Boulogne suffering shell shock, but after returning to the front line and surviving the Battle of the Somme, where 420,000 British soldiers died in battle, he refused to go over the top, saying: "I just cannot go on."

Medical evidence, both at and after the court martial, showed he was treated several times due to being "sick with nerves" and suffering " shell shock". His descendants have argued that his eventual refusal to return to the front was a direct result of the mental stress caused by warfare.

After Pte Farr's execution, an Army chaplain's message to his widow, Gertie Batstone, read: "A finer soldier never lived". He told the family Pte Farr had refused a blindfold when he was shot.

Because of his supposed "cowardice", his military pension was stopped and Ms Batstone was forced out of their house.

Representing Mrs Harris, John Dickinson, from law firm Irwin Mitchell, said: "This rightly acknowledges that Pte Farr was not a coward but an extremely brave man. Having fought for two years practically without respite in the trenches, he was very obviously suffering from a condition we now would have no problem in diagnosing as post-traumatic stress disorder, or 'shell shock' as it was known in 1916."

Janet Booth, Pte Farr's 63-year-old granddaughter, said: "We don't know if it's a full or a conditional pardon yet.I'm so happy for my mother and for everyone."

The family had been appealing against a High Court decision not to grant a conditional pardon posthumously. In 1998, John Reid, then Armed Forces minister, turned down calls for executed soldiers to be pardoned. Again, in June 2004, the then Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, refused to grant a pardon to Pte Farr, but the family sought a judicial review.

Earlier this year it emerged that Mr Reid, as Defence Secretary, was reconsidering the decision.

In June this year, the Ministry of Defence said that Mr Browne, who had expressed sympathy for the cause before taking over as Defence Secretary in May, was prepared to look at Pte Farr's case in the wider context of the whole posthumous pardon issue.

Last night, Mr Browne announced that all soldiers would be pardoned.

"I do not want to second guess decisions made by commanders in the field, but circumstances were terrible," he said. "I believe it is better to acknowledge injustices were clearly done in some cases, even if we cannot say which ­ and to acknowledge that all these men were victims of war." It was not clear whether those shot for murder would be included in the pardon.

Farr case opens way for First World War victims

Following the pardon of Pte Harry Farr, Secretary for Defence Des Browne has said he will issue a group pardon for the 306 soldiers shot at dawn for alleged desertion and cowardice in the First World War

These soldiers include Pte Thomas Highgate from the Royal West Kent Regiment, the first British soldier to be convicted of desertion and executed during the First World War.

On 8 September, 1914 his trial took place. He was not provided with a " Prisoner's Friend" (defending officer).

Another soldier, Pte William Nelson, from the Durham Light Infantry, was shot at the age of 20. He deserted the Army three time.

At the court martial, he said he had left for the night hoping to get sleep and intended to return to the Army in the morning. "My father is a prisoner in Germany," he said. "My mother died while I was still in England, leaving my sister aged 13 and my brother aged 10. I am the only one left. I had to leave them in charge of a neighbour. I had no intention of deserting"

His defence did not receive sympathy. On 11 August 1916, he was shot at dawn.

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