Shot at Dawn: Honour Our Dead – Get the Facts Right

Henry Farr wasn’t shot the next day – but one month later, and eighteen days after his court martial. Getting the facts right is important.

Mr Farr had already suffered and been treated for shellshock in 1915, then again for two weeks in April 1916, then in July. Up to this point he’d been properly treated.

However on 17 September 1916 he was refused treatment by a harassed medical orderly on the grounds that he wasn’t physically injured – and as part of the Battle of the Somme, lots of others were. At 11pm that day, Mr Farr refused to return to the front.

His court martial on 1 October lasted 20 minutes and was an incompetent disgrace. It’s likely that none of the panel thought he’d be executed. Nevertheless, Mr Farr was one of the selected 10% of those condemned to death, who were actually executed.

By 1916 General Haig believed that his soldiers and officers were not up to the job, and that more officers should be executed as examples to anybody else thinking of refusing to go to the front line. This was a massive lack of understanding by the highest Headquarters.

Modern medical specialists now think that (apart a wide range of possible psychological conditions) Mr Farr was suffering from damage to the ears. This shell blast injury made loud noises unbearable for him.

We can try to do justice to the memory of the 306 executed soldiers who were pardoned in 2006, by understanding the facts. (Some forty other British soldiers executed during World War One were not pardoned on 2006, as they’d been convicted of murder.)

Out of the 306 executed for desertion or similar military offences, all were privates or lance corporals – except for four sergeants and three officers. One of these officers was shot for murder.

The numbers don’t tell the story. Here’s some more as background: Officers comprised less than 7% of the British Army of World War One. 12% of other ranks were killed in action and 17% of officers were killed in action – mostly below the rank of captain.

Platoon commanders lasted the shortest time before being killed or wounded, because part of their job was to go round the trenches checking on their men, and lead the patrols.

A total of British officers and other ranks 20,000 were convicted of capital offences, of which 3,000 were sentenced to death, but only 10% were actually executed. The French shot 700 of theirs.

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