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The Dave Woodhall column

SOLDIERS FAMILIES WIN BATTLE FOR JUSTICE

17-08-2006

Following on from my piece about the Battle of the Somme a few weeks ago,(click link) it's good to see that the government, and in particular Home Secretary John Reid, are considering something with compassion, rather than repression, as the motive.

Defence Secretary Des Browne has announced that he is to seek Parliamentary approval for the posthumous pardon of over 300 soldiers executed during the First World War.

This move is long overdue, and comes after years of campaigning, during which time Defence Secretaries John Reid and Geoff Hoon refused to grant pardons and members of the Conservative party voted to reject a Parliamentary motion on the issue.

No doubt there will be people who say that these men were cowards and to pardon them demeans the sacrifices made by those who were killed in action. However, I fail to see how a modern society can judge men such as Private Harry Farr, executed for cowardice a year after he had endured five months of treatment for shell-shock, or Lance Corporal Will Stone, accused with two others of fleeing from the enemy when they were, in fact, acting under orders, as anything other than victims.

Or Private Herbert Burden, who joined the army at 16 and was executed as a deserter, aged 17, after going to comfort a friend in a nearby trench whose brother had just been killed.

Private Abraham Bevistein, who also joined the army under-age, without telling his family. Less than a month after suffering wounds that required three weeks hospital treatment, he saw a grenade explode nearby then, after being refused medical attention, Abraham wandered around, dazed, until he was arrested. It is thought that over thirty children who would now be considered too young to vote or drink were shot, the fact that they lied about their ages in order to volunteer for the army being ignored in the army's thirst for vengeance.

The bare facts of these cases make horrific reading; the agonies these men suffered, both in the trenches and later, when they were attempting against impossible odds to maintain their innocence, can only be imagined.

There were many others, sometimes men whose only crime was to get drunk and lose their way back to their post, or become detached from comrades during a forced march.

You could compare them with the story of Lt Col. A.E. Mainwaring, tried for cowardice, yet acquitted of this charge and pensioned out of the army at his old rank. Of the 346 British soldiers executed during World War One, just three were officers.

Like all those in similar circumstances, Private Farr's widow, Gertrude, was refused an Army pension. As a consequence she struggled to bring up her family in poverty and in the face of hostility from those who regarded her late husband as a coward whose family should share in his punishment. Their daughter, also named Gertrude, is now 93. She's led a commendable battle to see that justice is done in the case of her father, and, by implication, of all those judicially murdered in what remains one of the most shameful episodes in the history of the British Army.

This new move by the Defence Secretary is welcome, although long overdue. Many people have died knowing in their hearts that their husbands, fathers, brothers, grandfathers, were as brave as any other man who fought in the trenches. It's too late for them to see justice being done. But it's not too late, yet, for Gertrude Harris.

There's no reason why Des Browne, or John Reid, couldn't stand up in the Commons and announce a full pardon for all soldiers of the British armed forces executed for no other reason than to encourage the others.

It may not be in keeping with Parliamentary procedure, but it might show that this Labour government has not, entirely, lost touch with its roots.

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