John Humphries (JH):

A few weeks ago the media was full of stories about
Private Harry Farr the soldier shot at dawn during the First World
War for cowardice, he was one of many, and the big news was that the
government had decided he and the others should be pardoned, well
now a leading psychiatrist Professor Simon Wessely of the Institute
of Psychiatry at King`s College London who is a consultant to the
Army, says he should not be [pardoned]. He`s written an article in
the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine about it and he`s on
the line, so is Lord Dubbs the Labour Peer who argued for the
pardon , why should he not be pardoned Professor Wessely?

Simon Wessely (SW) :

Well I think first of all I think like most people
listening to the programme I wish things hadn`t happened the way
they did because I`m opposed to the death penalty adamantly but I
think the problem we have here is two things first most people
probably don`t have much idea of exactly what happened that night
and why it happened I mean my own children for example get most of
their knowledge of the First World War from the last episode of

JH:And we`re talking about that night being a night in October 1916
when he was in the trenches

SW: He was indeed and he refused three times to go forward with his
comrades to take part in an attack which all of them knew would be
very dangerous and catastrophic for many of them as indeed it was..

JH: Well most of them died it was as simple as that..

SW: Well a quarter of the batallion died and of course he was judged
by many of his contemporaries at the time on that basis but more
importantly I think it`s that, it`s the issue about, it`s not really
for us to, from our extremely comfortable present, to kind of second
guess and judge the past we can understand it and understand why
things happened the way they did and sympathise with both Farr and
also those who were called on to take those decisions and make those
judgements about him but I don`t think we can rewrite histroy simply
because we don`t like the ending..

JH: But are we rewriting history if we say what we now know is that
there is a condition that we now call shell-shock and he, Private
Farr, was clearly suffering from that therefore, to execute a man
because he was ill, which is what he was, we now believe to be wrong
therefore he should be pardoned because even at the time it clearly
wasn`t a crime that he had committed or an offence that he`d
committed, the man couldn`t help it..

SW: There were two things clearly at the time it was an offence that
he`d committed there was absolutely no doubt about that he had
deserted he`d shown cowardice in the face of the enemy

JH: But we now know it wasn`t cowardice, that`s my point

SW: We don`t know that, it`s actually back then they called it shell-
shock, now we call it something different, they did know that he had
a history of shell-shock, but it doesn`t have the same meaning to
them as it did to us

JH: That`s really my point, and Lord Dubbs would you like to come in
on that, I mean, are we rewriting history?

Lord Dubbs (LD):

No I don`t think we are, we`re accepting what happened
and it clearly was an offence at the time, but looking at it now we
believe that executing several hundred people, young men who
volunteered, Private Farr was a regular, but some of them
volunteered to fight, they were below age, and they suffered shell-
shock and then they just couldn`t take it anymore and we shot them
at dawn because of it, don`t forget Private Farr had a trial lasting
twenty minutes, he had nobody to defend him and he`d been ill three
times before with shell-shock, and the doctor who had treated him
before couldn`t give evidence because he was badly injured, so there
was nobody to speak for Private Farr.

JH: So, hard to see why he shouldn`t be pardoned again I repeat
Professor Wessely.

SW: I think, I think it`s because again the people who had to knew
the same information that Lord Dubbs has said, that thats` true, but
they had to weigh up all the various things that were happening both
the events on that night and exactly the circumstances of his
offence which was a very very bad time for him to do this most of
the times he would of course have been reprieved nine out of ten
times those who were sentenced to death it was not carried out
usually the military showed compassion towards people in exactly the
same situation as Harry Farr, on this occasion they didn`t and there
were reasons for it it was partly the nature of his offence, partly
the changing views of shell-shock in 1916, partly the wider issues
in 1916 we shouldn`t read history backwards..

JH: But wasn`t it mostly because they knew that if they let him as
it were, get away with it then others would do the same? That`s a
very bad reason for executing somebody.

SW: Not neccessarily, I mean first of all that`s partly true but
usually they did reprieve he was very unlucky, of those who are
sentenced to death for cowardice only 5% were executed so usually
they did show compassion usually they did judge people who had bad
nerves, but remember this is a terribly difficult judgement John,
that night everybody had bad nerves, they were all scared.

JH: Isn`t that the thing Lord Dubbs?

LD: Well of course it`s a difficult judgement but I`m not
criticising the people who made those judgements at the time,what
we`re saying saying now is that 90 years later these are people who
fought for our country as Private Farr did very bravely for two
years, they fought for our country and in the end we shot them
because they were shell shocked, and it seems to me that the
compassion we should show is for their families. Private Farr`s
daughter is I believe 93 years old, their families and their
relatives are desperate that the stigma should be taken away from
their loved ones.

JH: And isn`t that really the point in the end Professor Wessely,
and it does no harm does it?

SW: No it doesn`t do any harm and you know you could say yes it
makes us feel better but I don`t think that`s what we should be
doing though I do think it`s more important we understand things as
they were, we thank God that we`re never going to be in that kind of

JH: But we can still understand them can`t we?

SW:But we can`t kind of make it better now , those things happened,
things have changed, we don`t see things the same way now..

LD: Look, we are making it better we`re making it better for their
families who`ve argued for years that the stigma should be taken
away and that`s the important thing, we`re doing for doing it for
their families.

See Also:

Sunday Times August 20, 2006,,2092-2320095_1,00.html