[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 August 2006, 14:16 GMT 15:16 UK
Shot at dawn, pardoned 90 years on
More than 300 British soldiers who were shot during World War I for military offences are to receive formal pardons, Defence Secretary Des Browne has announced.

Mr Browne said he would be seeking a parliamentary group pardon for the men, executed for offences such as cowardice and desertion.

It is believed 306 British soldiers were shot during the war from 1914-1918.

The BBC News website looks at some of those who are set to receive pardons.


The announcement of the pardon came after years of campaigning from the family of Private Harry Farr.

Private Harry Farr
Private Harry Farr was 25 when he was executed in 1916

Pte Farr volunteered to fight for his country in 1914 - the year the war with Germany began.

He had first served in the British Army between 1908 and 1912 but by the time World War I broke out, was working as a scaffolder and living in Kensington, west London, with his wife and one-year-old daughter, both called Gertrude.

Pte Farr fought at the Battle of the Somme and at Neuve Chapelle, but during 1915 and 1916 reported sick four times with nerves, his worst case seeing him spend five months in hospital, with symptoms his family said were consistent with a diagnosis of "shellshock".

He returned to action with the West Yorkshire Regiment but was court martialled after refusing to go to the trenches in September 1916, having asked to return to camp, saying he could not stand the noise of artillery and was not in a fit state.

At his court martial on 16 October 1916, Pte Farr was found guilty of "misbehaving before the enemy in such a manner as to show cowardice" and he was shot the following morning, aged 25.

He refused a blindfold at his execution, preferring to look the firing squad in the eye, and the army chaplain at the execution sent Pte Farr's widow a message saying "a finer soldier never lived".

His daughter Gertrude Harris, who was three years old at the time and is now 93, said: "I am so relieved that this ordeal is now over and I can be content knowing that my father's memory is intact.

"I have always argued that my father's refusal to rejoin the frontline, described in the court martial as resulting from cowardice, was in fact the result of shellshock, and I believe that many other soldiers suffered from this, not just my father."


Private Thomas Highgate, of the Royal West Kent Regiment, was the first British soldier to be executed for desertion during World War I - just 35 days into the war.

His offence, trial, sentencing and execution all took place on the same day - 8 September 1914.

Soldiers at the Battle of Ypres in World War I
More than 300 British soldiers were executed by their own side in WWI

Aged 17, he had been unable to bear the carnage of the Battle of Mons, and had fled and hidden in a barn.

Pte Highgate was undefended at his court martial because all his regimental comrades had been killed, injured or captured.

In 2000, the parish council in his home village of Shoreham, Kent, voted not to include his name on its war memorial.

Phil Hobson, who was council chairman at the time, said: "We had the opportunity of putting the name on it because we were replacing the plaque with all the names on - after nearly 100 years it was very worn.

"We took what we thought to be the best compromise position in that a space was left for his name should people want it to be added at a later date."

Stuart Gendall, of the Royal British Legion, said Pte Highgate's name should be on the memorial: "I think it would be most appropriate and certainly very poignant in this year - the 90th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme."


At the age of 16, Private Herbert Burden lied that he was two years older so he could join the Northumberland Fusiliers and fight in the war.

The Shot at Dawn memorial, modelled on Private Herbert Burden
The Shot at Dawn memorial was modelled on Private Herbert Burden

Ten months later he was court martialled for desertion after leaving his post to comfort a recently-bereaved friend stationed nearby, having seen many other friends killed at the Battle of Bellwarde Ridge.

The officers considering Pte Burden's case heard his unit had been issued orders to make for the front just before he went missing.

By the time he faced the firing squad on 21 July 1915, Pte Burden was 17 - still too young to even officially be in his regiment.

It was Pte Burden's case which led John Hipkin, a retired Newcastle teacher, to set up the Shot at Dawn campaign in the early 1990s.

The campaign fought for soldiers such as Pte Burden to be pardoned.

Mr Hipkin, now 80, fought in World War II, taken prisoner by the Germans at the age of 14, when he was cabin boy in the merchant navy.

He began campaigning after reading about Pte Burden's case and said: "I couldn't believe it was true, but when I looked into it there were others, and this really angered me."

On Wednesday he said of the news of the pardons: "It is great news, I could not believe it. It is well overdue."

A memorial to soldiers shot by their own side during WWI, a statue of a young soldier blindfolded and tied to a stake, unveiled in 2001 in Staffordshire, is modelled on Pte Burden.


The village of Furstow in Lincolnshire did not have a war memorial for the seven local men who died during World War I until 2005.

The delay of 87 years was caused by disagreements over the inclusion of Private Charles Kirman.

British troops at the Battle of the Somme in 1916
Private Kirman was injured at the Battle of the Somme in 1916

Pte Kirman of the Lincolnshire Regiment was shot for going absent without leave after fighting and being injured in two of the war's bloodiest battles - at Mons and the Somme.

He was 32 when he was shot on 23 September 1917, having been called up to fight when war began, after previously leaving the army after nine years' service.

During the war he was injured several times and sent home to recuperate but in September 1917 felt he could not take any more and went absent without leave.

After two days he handed himself in to the military police and was court martialled and shot at dawn.

Villagers decided not to put up a memorial following the war, after some local objection over Pte Kirman's inclusion.

Nicola Pike, who successfully campaigned for a memorial including his name, said: "There would have been somebody in the village who disagreed with it, so the rest of the families said 'if you're not having him, then you're not having our boys, because they all went to school together and worked together'."


Private Bernard McGeehan, of the Liverpool King's Regiment, was executed on 2 November 1916, after being found guilty of desertion.

Aged 28 and from Derry, Northern Ireland, he had been transferred to the front line just after the Battle of the Somme earlier that year.

I've always contended that anybody who walks back into his lines again is not planning to desert
John McGeehan, Pte McGeehan's second cousin

His second cousin, John McGeehan, is a member of the Shot at Dawn campaign group.

He said: "They suffered from the endless onslaught of the German shell-fire and merciless machine-gunning and Bernard cracked.

"He couldn't cope. He was shell-shocked completely, shaking, bewildered and lost.

"He went for a walk one day out of his lines and five days later walked back in again, looking for his regiment.

"He was arrested, court martialled and shot at dawn - for alleged desertion.

"I've always contended that anybody who walks back into his lines again is not planning to desert."

Village finally honours war dead
19 May 05 |  Lincolnshire
Tribute to WWI 'cowards'
21 Jun 01 |  UK News


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific