SHOT AT DAWN IN THE GREAT WAR

BY FLORIS TOMASINI

September 19th, 2016

Today’s post looks at a re-evaluation of justice in an emblematic case study; Harry Farr who was shot for cowardice during the Great War.

The historical facts of the case are taken and paraphrased from Cathryn Corns and John Hughes-Wilsons book Blindfold and Alone: British Military Executions in the Great War (2002). The historical reconstruction and subsequent analysis of re-evaluating justice in the Harry Farr case is my own, and for which I take full responsibility.

Shot at dawn: A reconstruction

The condemned private spends his last night in a small room, alone with his thoughts before his execution at dawn. He might be writing painful letters to family and friends. He is also likely to be encouraged to drink heavily; liquid courage to meet his ordeal in the morning. The private is guarded by two military policemen (MPs or redcaps) and ministered by chaplain who listens to his spiritual needs and comforts him by lying next to him and listening.

The condemned man’s commanding officer (CO) orders a company of men to witness the execution, wanting to set an example to other would-be deserters. Meanwhile a firing squad assembles sick with nerves in the dawn light. Some of the men know the condemned and have mixed feelings about his fate; some carrying deep resentment at having to execute him. Their rifles have been pre-loaded – one with a blank – to take some of the individual responsibility away from shooting their fighting pal.

The condemned man is led to a post blind drunk by two redcaps his hands tied to his back. The lieutenant waits at the side of the shooting party, with a medical officer (MO). The lieutenant gives the order to shoot the prisoner. Some deliberately shoot wide. Two of the men vomit on the spot. The MO checks the prisoner over and concludes that the private is mortally wounded but not dead. The young lieutenant, with shaky hands, administers the coup de grace: a bullet to the head.

A military ambulance stands by to take the corpse off to be buried. That same evening the battalion colonel writes a letter to the private’s parents informing them that their son has been shot at the front. He leaves the message deliberately ambiguous, attempting to spare the man’s family any difficult feelings about his execution.

Harry Farr: Shot for cowardice

Harry Farr enlisted in the British Army as regular in 1908 and arrived in France with the 2nd Yorkshire Regiment on 5 Nov 1914. He probably saw action with his battalion at Neuve Chapelle on 10 March 1915.

On 7 May 1915 Farr’s battalion received information of a possible attack for which all men were to be issued gas masks. On the 8 May the battalion took up positions in the assembly trenches and preparatory bombardment took place at dawn on 9 May before the planned assault on Aubers Ridge. Farr’s regiment, the 2nd Yorkshires, became pinned down by continual shellfire in the assembly trenches. This also happened the following day, and on the 10 May the assault was cancelled. Harry Farr was evacuated to Boulogne on the 11 May where his nerves were reportedly so badly affected that he could not hold a pen.

After convalescence he was sent to the 1st battalion of the 1st West Yorkshires. Farr’s battalion was not involved in the initial phases of the battle of the Somme in July 1916. However, in August they moved to advanced positions, and on 16 September took over the front line near the Quadrilateral. On 18 Sept they attacked the Quadrilateral and took 151 casualties. Just before the attack Harry Farr’s nerves failed.

Harry Farr had no ‘prisoner’s friend’ (defence representative) at his trial on 2 Oct. The evidence presented against him was uncontested by Farr, although Farr did add some important details, adding colour and authenticity to the bare facts of the case.

One of the key witnesses was Regimental Sargent Major (RSM) Haking who provided the Field General Court Martial (FGCM) with the following testimony:

Haking first saw Farr at the transport lines at 9am on 17 September 1916. Farr had fallen out from his company because he took sick the previous night. When told to report sick, Farr said he had been refused treatment because he was not wounded. Haking then ordered Farr to the front. Farr did not go and by 11pm that evening when he still hadn’t gone Haking was forced into compelling him under armed escort with the added threat that if he didn’t go he would be shot for cowardice. According to Haking throughout his dealing with Farr, the man said‘I cannot stand it’ and ‘I am not fit to go to the trenches.’ When confronted with being forced to see the MO with the accompanying armed escort, Farr said: ‘I will not go any further that way.’

Farr’s version of events was not dissimilar to the RSM’s. He did add some colour to the RSM’s version of events. According to Farr his refusal incensed the RSM who said: ‘You are a fucking coward and you will go to the trenches – I give fuck all for my life and I give fuck all for yours and I’ll get you fucking well shot.’ Farr added that if his escort had not pushed him around he would have cooperated and gone forward.

The court asked Farr whether he had taken the opportunity of reporting sick between 16 September and 2 October. He replied that whilst he had the opportunity he had not reported sick, because ‘being away from the shell fire I felt better.’

In his defence Acting Sargent Andrews said Farr had reported sick with nerves in April 1916 and the MO had kept him at the dressing station for two weeks. This happened again on 22 July, where he had been discharged the following day. The doctor who treated Farr then was unable to give evidence as he had been wounded.

The court found Private (Pte) Harry Farr guilty as charged. He was sentenced to be shot by the FGCM. Before the sentence was carried out commutation was possible – the case for mitigation going up the line of command. His company commander wrote: ‘I cannot say what destroyed the man’s nerves but he has proved on many occasions incapable of keeping his head in action and likely to cause panic. Apart from his behaviour under fire his conduct and character are very good’. Brigade, division and corps commanders all recommended that sentence be carried out; Lieutenant Lord (Lt Gen.) Cavan, commanding XIV Corps, fatefully added: ‘The General Officer Commanding 6 Division informs me that the men know that the man is no good.’ In some post-trial correspondence Dr Capt. Williams of the Royal Medical Army Corps (RMAC) wrote to the adjutant of the battalion stating: ‘I hereby certify that I examined no. 8871 (Private) Pte H. Farr 1st West Yorks on October 2 1916 and that ‘in my opinion both his mental and physical conditions were satisfactory.’

Harry Farr was shot for cowardice and executed at Carnoy on 18th October 1916. He refused to be blindfolded and looked the firing squad in the eye. The signature of the RAMC doctor (Capt. A. Anderson) that witnessed the execution was shaky suggesting perhaps that that the doctor was shocked by what he witnessed

What should we make of the Harry Farr case?

There are two prisms through which the analysis may be considered.

  1. Historical justice – military justice according to the accused’s circumstances and legal standards of the time. Historic justice is time- and context-specific and while it ideally reflects something of natural justice, it may, in some instances, diverge from it considerably.
  2. Natural Law and Justice – Persons have certain rights or values inherent to their human nature and which are determinate through human and moral reasoning. Natural justice is universal and while it does influence and intersect common law and historic justice, it stands above it. Natural justice prevents historic/common/military law from becoming an arbitrary exercise of power by ensuring fair play and safeguarding impartiality. In the case fair play it requires the defendant to be adequately defended. In the case of impartiality it requires those judging the case to have no interests or bias that may prejudice the verdict and skew sentencing.   Mitigation on medical grounds was difficult because there was no expert evidence to corroborate that Farr suffered from shell-shock (only anecdotal evidence from non-experts who had some knowledge of his character in action). The belated medical evidence against him suffering from shell-shock (he was given a clean bill of health) whilst from the benefit of hindsight proves unreliable, was at the time damning. Furthermore Farr did not contest the events that led up to his court martial, just the interpretation of his refusal to fight – he was unfit to fight in the trenches. Again, without medical evidence this self-assessment was not enough to prove unfitness, despite his previous record and the testimony from fellow soldiers that supported it. While Farr’s case is unremarkable in terms of the standards of military justice at the time, it is much more difficult to defend the verdict and execution in terms of natural justice. The fact that Farr was unjustly treated becomes more apparent with the benefit of hindsight, when there is more understanding available of natural justice and how Farr’s case falls so very far short of it. Farr was in all probability shell-shocked. Even though this could not be proven medically at the time, there was sufficient evidence to give him the benefit of the doubt. Most importantly perhaps is the misunderstanding that shell-shock might masquerade as cowardice. We know today that shell-shock should under no circumstances be conflated with cowardice. In simple terms shell-shock is a failure to cope under fire. It manifests what we understand today as post-traumatic-stress-disorder (PSTD) and battle fatigue. It is a collapse of the will and the inability to cope in the stress of battle. This is quite different from cowardice, which is fearfulness and faintheartedness, where one is unwilling to fight. There is an important difference between rewriting and re-evaluating the past in light of the present, which historians like Corns and Hughes-Wilson do not seem to fully appreciate. We need to distinguish one from the other. The former requires re-writing historic justice which is jejune, while the latter requires re-evaluating the natural justice of the past in light of our deepening understanding of it in the present.
  3. There is a place to second guess historic judgments, only when there is factual error or judgment that runs roughshod over natural justice. This does not mean we have to re-write history: that is, it would be foolish to condemn Farr’s wrong diagnosis for example, on the grounds of inadequate expertise or insufficient knowledge of shell-shock at that time. The tragedy of not knowing then what we know now is tragedy of natural justice, which can and should not be limited by historical justice and context. We need to distinguish between accepting the limits of historic justice (and not re-writing it) and revaluating natural justice by re-evaluating what we know now but couldn’t then. This amounts to rehabilitation of the memory of Harry Farr. In doing so, we know now that Harry Farr was almost definitely shell-shocked, and that it was as true then as it is today. The fact that it was not recognised then is a tragedy that cannot be rectified by an appeal to historic justice. It can however, be made on the grounds of an appeal to natural justice, where we do not have to re-write the past, but simply re-evaluate certain historic facts that can only be properly understood with the benefit of hindsight.
  4. This is especially true regarding the extra-judicial unfairness of post-sentencing which was something of a lottery and also true given of what we now come understand shell-shock to be like.
  5. On the question of fair play, Farr did have adequate defence representation (he had no prisoner’s friend). Also he had little time to prepare an expert defence, as the MO that could testify to his shell-shocked past lay wounded. Also, it seems unfair that the anecdotal evidence in defence of Farr being prone to shell-shock was not taken into account, especially in the post-sentencing remarks, where his commanding officer who knew him corroborated the Non-Commissioned Officers (NCO’s) defence, about Farr’s nerves being shot. The swiftness of military justice and post-sentencing procedure went against Farr. Most worryingly is the arbitrariness of military justice post-sentencing, in times of great military stress like during the Somme offensive. Extra-judicial judgments comments may very well have prejudiced any case for being merciful towards Farr: mercy being waived in the face of military expediency when an example had to be shown for the sake of regimental discipline.
  6. Procedurally speaking, according to the standards of the time, historic justice was served. The post-sentencing procedure was also typical of military justice and the FGCM process, which gave latitude for generals up the chain of command to make extra-judicial comments on the fate of the prisoner. Harry Farr, in this instance was unlucky, given damning comments, especially by Gen. Lord Cavan. This would have probably impact with Commander-in-Chief who had the power commute the death sentence. Because Farr’s offence took place during the Somme offensive, Army Commanders would have been less inclined to show mercy, and more likely to recommend execution in order to maintain regimental discipline.
  7. In terms of historic justice there seems to be nothing obviously untoward about Farr’s conviction and trial. His refusal to fight could have warranted the subjective judgment that he was a coward. This is likely to have been more compelling given the absence of concrete medical evidence that Farr’s actions were a result of shell-shock. One of the tragedies of the Farr case is that he wasn’t seen by an MO directly after he had reported sick after his nerves failed on 17/18 Sept. His later diagnosis, two weeks after he had originally reported ‘sick’, failed to pick up on his condition. This was probably by a lack of expertise and knowledge of the condition in its less overt form. This is inference is corroborated by Farr himself: that is, ‘being away from the shell fire I feel better.”

Floris Tomasini

For the last twenty years, Floris has worked in applied philosophy, working on: belonging and sense of place; trust and health-care, bioethics, philosophical aspects of genomics, philosophy of mental health, philosophy of disability, vulnerability and death. Before turning to academia, Floris worked: as a deckhand on trawlers; as a ‘roadie’ for Queen and David Bowie; in prisons and secure mental health facilities and as a full-time volunteer in a night shelter for the homeless in London. He was also once a history teacher and military journalist.


BANNER IMAGE: Shot at Dawn, National Arboretum. Image by Harry Mitchell. Used under Creative Commons Licence.


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