No coward

The posthumous pardon

Gertrude Harris was 40 when she finally learnt what had happened to her father.

Harris, now 93, was at a dinner with her extended family when an aunt asked: “What's all this I hear about Harry?”

The aunt had left home after the first world war, ignorant of the details of her elder brother's death. But her surviving brothers declined to comment. “They said, ‘Oh, we don't talk about that',” Harris recalls. That dinner took place in the early 1950s. Afterwards, Harris confronted her mother, Harry Farr's widow.

“And she said, ‘Well, I've kept it to myself all these years, but now I will tell you that your father was shot for cowardice'.”

This week the Ministry of Defence announced a pardon for Private Farr, along with 305 other servicemen executed between 1914 and 1918.

In the light of modern ideas about soldiery and a somewhat clearer understanding of shell shock, or post-traumatic stress disorder, most people have greeted the news with approval.

After all, the number of soldiers deserting and absent without leave has more than doubled since the start of the Iraq war. Nearly 2,800 went missing from their units between 2003 and 2005. These days the army tends to write them off in their absence, not even bothering with a court martial. Just imagine the outrage, today, if they were rounded up and shot. Or if the same fate attended the 800-odd troops who have been sent home from Iraq for treatment at the Priory clinic after developing psychiatric illnesses in the war zone.

Sceptics argue that a retrospective pardon of soldiers executed 90 years ago is meaningless. Correlli Barnett, the military historian, says the decisions were taken from a different moral perspective. Another, Sir John Keegan, says a pardon essentially seeks to impose “a sanitised version of the past”.

Farr's family has campaigned in the courts for years to achieve this. The news, conveyed to Harris by telephone by John Dickinson, her lawyer, on Tuesday, was utterly unexpected. “He said, ‘Gertie, you've got it.' I didn't understand. I said, ‘Sorry?' And he said, ‘You've got the pardon for Harry'.”

That night she was unable to sleep at her home in Harrow, northwest London. She kept the radio on and hourly news bulletins reminded her that her father had been cleared.

Government figures, including John Major, the Conservative former prime minister, and Geoff Hoon and John Reid, the Labour former defence ministers, have persistently opposed a pardon, presumably on the grounds that it might present an unwelcome precedent.

Des Browne, the current defence minister, was careful to emphasise that the pardon was aimed substantially at easing the suffering of the executed men's families: “Although this is a historical matter, I am conscious of how the families feel today. They have had to endure a stigma for decades.”

Gertrude Harris was born a year before the war started. Her mother, also called Gertrude, had met Farr when she was 16. Having already served in the army as a regular soldier, he was among the first troops sent to France.

He saw action at the battle of Neuve Chappelle in March 1915, when 11,500 British soldiers died or went missing in three days. In just 35 minutes, more ammunition was fired than in the entire Boer war. In May he fought at Aubers Ridge, in which another 11,000 British soldiers were lost. Shortly after, he was diagnosed with shell shock. Officers in similar situations were sent home to recover, but not Farr. After five months of treatment in France -during which time nurses had to write letters home because he could not hold a pen in his shaking hand -he was sent back to fight at the Somme in July 1916. But he was not ready and by September he had lost his nerve irretrievably.

He told the court martial: “On the sergeant-major's return I reported to him and said I was sick and could not stand it. He then said, ‘You are a f****** coward and you will go to the trenches. I give f*** all for my life and I give f*** all for yours and I'll get you f****** well shot'.”

Two men were ordered to conduct Farr to the front. “They commenced to shove me. I told them not to as I was sick enough as it was. The sergeant-major then grabbed my rifle and said, ‘I'll blow your f****** brains out if you don't go'. I then called out for an officer but there were none there.”

A captain in the 1st West Yorkshire Regiment reported that Farr had shown good conduct and character -except under fire: “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.”

The tribunal disregarded Farr's medical history. “He was in hospital for five months,” says his daughter now. “Would they have kept him there if he was well enough to fight? No, he was a helpless mess.”

Farr represented himself at the tribunal, which lasted just 20 minutes. He was shot at Carnoy at 6am on October 18, 1916. He refused to wear a blindfold.

Shortly afterwards his widow received an official letter: “It is with regret that I have to inform you that Pte Harry Farr has been shot for showing cowardice.” It would have been bad enough to learn that he had been killed in action. This was much worse. She shoved the letter away and told nobody.

However, she started to look unwell and as people challenged her over this she admitted the truth to her parents and in-laws. Harry's own father was a military man. As soon as he was told, the blinds of the home were drawn in shame. Nobody mentioned Harry in front of him again.

Soon after, Farr's widow went to the post office to be told that her pension had been stopped. She was 21 with a three-year-old girl to support. Unable to pay rent, she was turned out onto the streets. So she went looking for a job in service, eventually finding a post as kitchen maid at a house in Hampstead, north London, where she was allowed to take her daughter.

She had only one photograph of her husband and every year at Armistice Day she suffered terribly. “Nobody knows the feelings,” she once said. “Every year I feel worse because I look at all those men who've been through it and came home and I think my husband should be with them.”

Mother and daughter kept the secret until the late 1980s when Gertrude Harris's daughter, Janet Booth, said that she was taking her family to France and wanted to visit her grandfather's grave. “There was a look passed between my grandmother and my mother,” Booth recalls. “And my grandmother said, ‘He hasn't got a grave'.”

In 1990 the government released papers relating to the first world war courts martial. Farr's widow watched a television interview with Andrew MacKinlay, the Labour MP for Thurrock, who said that he was going to try to secure pardons.

Booth got in touch with him and introduced him to her grandmother, then 99 years old.

They brought Julian Putkowski, a military historian who had written extensively about the executed men. Putkowski recorded an interview with Farr's widow in which she poured out her memories for the first time. It was broadcast on Radio 4 and a copy remains in the archive of the Imperial War Museum.

Three months later she died. But the campaign was unstoppable, Booth says. “The reason I started was for my grandmother, and when she died it was for my mother.

It's been 14 years. It's taken a long time, but we can't take all the credit. We have had so much help. We're delighted that not only have we got a pardon for my grandfather but also for the other 305. That's the icing on the cake.”

Later on in the war, relatives of executed men got letters saying they had been killed “in action”. Many relatives remained ignorant of the truth for decades, Booth says: “One chap found out only two days ago what had happened to his relative.”

Of the 306 men who will now be pardoned, 266 were executed for desertion, 18 for cowardice, seven for quitting their posts, six for striking or showing violence to their superiors, five for disobedience, two for sleeping at their post and two for casting away arms. Another 37 were shot for murder and three for mutiny.

Gary Sheffield, professor of history at King's College London, says a general pardon fails to distinguish between those who deliberately let down their comrades and those who did not.

Would the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four have been satisfied to learn that “all Irishmen imprisoned in the 1970s” were innocent after all? Of course not. For similar reasons, it might have been more satisfying if Farr's ill health and unfitness to stand trial -let alone return to the front -had been proved in court.

Does the pardon set a precedent? If a future government decides that Britain was wrong to invade Iraq, will it retrospectively “overturn” the prison sentence imposed on RAF medical officer Malcolm Kendall-Smith for refusing to serve there?

As the military historians have pointed out, a pardon does open the way to further revisionist history. The next step would be to offer financial compensation to the executed men's families, then strip honours from the officers who condemned them – perhaps even start a war crimes tribunal.

So far as that goes, the descendants of Harry Farr are not interested. “Right from the beginning,” says Harris, “we've always said that we are not looking for compensation. We thought that might have been what the government was worried about, so we were quite clear about it.” She is absolutely satisfied with what she has been offered: “We've said all along that we just wanted to clear his name.”