After decades of campaigning, the families of the men who were shot at dawn on the Western Front are finally in sight of their goal. Yesterday the Defence Secretary, Des Browne, announced that the 306 soldiers executed for cowardice and desertion during the First World War - many of whom we now understand were suffering from shell shock - will be granted posthumous pardons. An amendment will be added to the Armed Forces Bill that makes its way through the Commons in the autumn.
We must concede that this is not a clear-cut issue. There is a practical problem with judging cases from the past by the standards of the present, or through the prism of modern scientific expertise. That problem is: where to stop? Should we now re-evaluate every public hanging in Britain for signs that the condemned might have been insane? For why should executed soldiers and not civilians benefit from our new medical knowledge? And does it not follow from this decision that a good many soldiers and commanders should be posthumously condemned for war crimes, in light of what we feel today about their conduct? Retrospective justice is a tricky area.
Yet notwithstanding all this, the Government has done the right thing in granting this blanket pardon. The accusation from some quarters that this is an attempt to "rewrite" history is overblown. There is no suggestion that the original verdicts will be expunged from the record, merely that a modern pardon will be added after their names.
There are also grounds for granting First World War executions special status. The government of New Zealand pardoned five soldiers in 2000. France and Germany have done the same. There seems to be a general acceptance that the practice of shooting soldiers for "cowardice" was an unjust punishment, even by the standards of the time.
Mr Browne is also right to argue that this is not simply a historical issue, but a moral one too, with practical implications for today. After all, the judgment of cowardice did not simply affect the executed soldiers. When the military pension of Private Harry Farr, who was shot at dawn in 1916, was stopped, his widow and daughter were forced to leave their home. They went on to suffer hardship and stigma for many years. Crucially, Private Farr's daughter is still alive. Indeed, she has been deeply involved in the long campaign for her father to be granted a pardon.
This is as much about securing justice for the surviving relatives of those shot at dawn as it is about rehabilitating the reputations of the soldiers themselves. Ninety years is a long time to wait, but the delay does not make these pardons any less welcome.Reuse content