At dawn on October 18, 1916, Private Harry Farr of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) is executed for cowardice after he refused to go forward into the front-line trenches on the Western Front during World War I.
After joining the BEF in 1914, Farr was sent to the front in France; the following May, he collapsed, shaking, and was sent to a hospital for treatment. He returned to the battlefield and participated in the Somme Offensive. In mid-September 1916, however, Farr refused to go ahead into the trenches with the rest of his squadron; after being dragged forward, struggling, he broke away and ran back. He was subsequently court-martialed for cowardice and given a death sentence.
Farr was one of 306 soldiers from Britain and the Commonwealth who were executed for cowardice during the Great War. According to his descendants, who have fought a long battle to clear his name, Farr suffered from severe shell-shock, a condition that was just being recognized at the time, and had been damaged both physically and psychologically by his experience of combat, especially the repeated heavy bombardments to which he and his comrades at the front had been subjected. The symptoms of “shell-shock”—a term first used in 1917 by a medical officer named Charles Myers—included debilitating anxiety, persistent nightmares and physical afflictions ranging from diarrhea to loss of sight. By the end of World War I, the British army had been forced to deal with 80,000 cases of this affliction, including among soldiers who had never experienced a direct bombardment. Despite undergoing treatment, only one-fifth of the men affected ever resumed military duty.
Several successive governments rejected pleas from Farr’s family and others for their loved ones to be pardoned and honored alongside the rest of those soldiers killed in World War I. Finally, in August 2006, after a 14-year struggle, the British High Court granted a pardon to Farr; hours after informing Farr’s family of its verdict, the government announced it would seek Parliament’s approval to pardon all 306 soldiers executed for cowardice during World War I.