In 1916, as World War One raged, Private Harry Farr was condemned as a coward and shot. More than 300 British soldiers died this way, but now they will be pardoned. His family campaigned for years, insisting he was sick from shellshock. The decision’s comfort for daughter Gertrude, but too late for her mother: “She’s been gone 13 years but she was alive for the first year of the campaign so she knew what was going on, and if she’s up there looking down on us I’m sure she’s very happy today”.
Farr’s case has opened the door to official recognition that a mass pardon is the only way forward, but this past tragedy is still a present pain for many relatives, like Nora High, the niece of Private Charles Nicholson. She said: “This has come far too late for people who were close relatives, like my mother”.
Shellshock was a little-known medical condition in 1916, triggered by the unprecedented horror of massive artillery bombardment. It provoked uncontrollable shaking, misinterpreted by officers desperate to stiffen their troops’ morale as the trembling of fear, or even playacting. However very few officers were shot, and it has been argued class played a role, as they were often deemed sensitive enough to have been traumatised, whereas the ordinary soldier was not shown such leniency.
Officers were also more valuable, in shorter and shorter supply as the carnage continued, and more easily moved away from the frontline to desk jobs. Others, still sick, also returned to battle, driven by their sense of duty, but few lasted long. Bravery was not in short supply among the ranks, either. As Private Farr’s family reminds us, he died refusing a blindfold facing his firing squad.
Some historians warn we should not condemn the authorities from a 21st century standpoint as, in the heat of war, maintaining discipline was paramount, and add the fact that the British army was the only member of the allies not to suffer a mass crisis in morale during the four-year conflict. In the end, no-one who died on the Somme or Passchendale did so in vain, and the pardon campaigners argue this decision finally cements that fact in history.