The life and death of Private Harry Farr

private_harry_farr.jpgThe Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine has a pdf of a gripping article on Private Harry Farr, a 25 year-old British soldier shot for cowardice during World War I, despite having being treated for shell-shock.

As with all other WWI soldiers executed for cowardice, Farr was pardoned earlier this year by the British Government.

The article is written by Professor Simon Wessley of King’s College London, who puts the Farr’s court martial and execution in context of the history of World War I, and in the context of what was known about trauma-related psychiatry at the time.

There is little dispute about the sequence of events on 17 September 1916 that led to the execution of Private Farr. Harry Farr was a member of 1st Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment, which was taking part in the battle of the Somme. That day his battalion was moving from their rear positions up to the front line itself. At 9.00 am that morning Farr asked for permission to fall out, saying he was not well. He was sent to see the medical officer, who either found nothing wrong with him, or refused to see him because he had no physical injury‚Äîthe Court Martial papers are unclear on this point. Later that night Farr was found still at the rear, and was again ordered to go the trenches. He refused, telling Regimental Sergeant Major Haking, that he ‘could not stand it’. Then Hanking replied ‘You are a fucking coward and you will go to the trenches. I give fuck all for my life and I give fuck all for yours and I’ll get you fucking well shot’. At 11.00 pm that night a final attempt was made to get Private Farr up to the front line, and he was escorted forward. A fracas broke out between Farr and his escorts, and this time they let him run away. The following morning he was arrested and charged with contravening section 4 (7) of the Army Act ‚Äî showing cowardice in the face of the enemy.

The article discusses why Farr was executed, when over 96% of soldiers convicted of cowardice escaped this punishment, and how the concept of psychological disorder was understood in 1916, particularly by a British Army in a precarious military position.

For more information on shell-shock, and a paper by pioneering WWI military psychiatrist W.H.R. Rivers on the condition, there’s a good overview available here.

pdf of article ‘The life and death of Private Harry Farr’.
Link to shell-shock info from FirstWorldWar.com

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