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Harry Farr

Private Harry Farr (1891 to 16 October 1916) was a British soldier who was executed during World War I for cowardice at age 25. He came from Kensington in London and was in the 1st Battalion, the West Yorkshire Regiment.


Harry Farr was born in 1891. Farr joined the British Expeditionary Force in 1914 and fought in the trenches. His position was repeatedly shelled, and in May 1915 he collapsed with strong convulsions. In hospital, his wife Gertrude (died in 1993 aged 99), who was denied a widow's pension after the war, recalled, “he shook all the time. He couldn't stand the noise of the guns. We got a letter from him, but it was in a stranger's handwriting. He could write perfectly well, but couldn't hold the pen because his hand was shaking.”

It is now thought that Farr was possibly suffering from hyperacusis / misophonia / category 4 acoustic shock, which occurs when the olivocochlear bundle in the inner ear is damaged by sound causing it to lose its ability to soften and filter sound, making loud noises physically unbearable (auditory efferent dysfunction). Despite this, Farr was sent back to the Front and fought at the Somme. After several months of fighting, he requested to see a medical orderly but was refused.

After Farr refused to return to the Front Line, he was sent to a court martial. This lasted only 20 minutes, and some questions have been raised about its competence, and Private Farr had to defend himself. General Sir Douglas Haig signed his death warrant and he was shot at dawn on October 16, 1916. His family have always argued that he was suffering from shell shock at the time. He was tried in court for misbehaving before the enemy in such a manner as to show cowardice and found guilty and was sentenced to be executed.

Those soldiers in the firing squad ordered to carry out the execution were often tormented by the experience for the rest of their lives. John Laister, who died in 1999 at the age of 101, recalled how he and a number of others were marched into the woods and told they were to be part of a firing squad. Speaking on the BBC television programme Everyman in 2006, Laister said he was still haunted by the moment that he looked in the direction the rifles were pointed and saw a mere boy stood with his back to a tree. “There were tears in his eyes and tears in mine.”


Harry Farr's wife Gertrude, then living in Kensington, London, was first told her husband had been killed in action, but later when her pension was stopped, she was informed he had been shot for cowardice and she was not entitled to it. In 1992, Gertrude and her family discovered that some execution papers were being released by the government and that Andrew MacKinlay MP was involved in a campaign for justice for those in similar positions to Farr. Soon they got hold of the court martial papers and were horrified to discover that Farr had been dragged screaming and kicking back to the front, when he in fact needed urgent medical treatment.

Despite a sustained campaign, Prime Minister John Major refused a pardon. In 1993 Gertrude Farr died.

On August 15, 2006, Harry Farr's family announced that Farr was to be granted a pardon,. The announcement came as Des Browne, the Defence Secretary, said that he would seek a statutory group pardon; i.e. one achieved through an Act of Parliament for all those executed regardless of the individual merits of the case. Des Browne told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that, after 90 years, "the evidence just doesn't exist inside the cases individually". It has been suggested that the move would avoid numerous court cases. A group pardon would also exonerate those who had been properly found guilty of cowardice. An historian said that of cases in the Royal Norfolk Regiment he had examined there was at least one who had a history of desertion. Historians have criticised such a move in the past as trying to apply modern standards retroactively.

The mass pardon of 306 British Empire soldiers executed for certain offences during the Great War was enacted in section 359 of the Armed Forces Act 2006, which came into effect on royal assent on 8 November 2006. This number included three from New Zealand, twenty three from Canada, two from the West Indies, two from Ghana and one each from Sierra Leone, Egypt and Nigeria.

Tom Watson, then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Ministry of Defence, was instrumental in including this in the Act. He was said to have acted having met the relatives of Private Farr.

However section 359(4) states that the pardon "does not affect any conviction or sentence." Since the nature of a pardon is normally to commute a sentence, Gerald Howarth MP asked during parliamentary debate: "we are entitled to ask what it does do." It would appear to be a symbolic pardon only, and some members of Parliament had called for the convictions to be quashed, although the pardon has still been welcomed by relatives of executed soldiers.

'Song For Harry Farr', written by Huw Pudner and Chris Hastings in 2006 is about Harry Farr's execution on the western front. The UK rock group, Stray included the song, "Harry Farr" on their 2009 album, Valhalla.

BBC News
Articles in the Eastern Daily Press (17 August 2006)

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Source: WikiPedia

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