Shellshock or Cowardice?

Thursday, 01 May 2014

Medico-Chirurgical Hall

The Life and Death of Private Harry Farr

Professor Sir Simon Wessely - Professor of Psychological Medicine - Insitute of Psychiatry, King's College London


Minute of meeting held on Thursday 1st May 2014 in the Society Hall, Foresterhill.

The President, Dr Colin Hunter presided.

The President introduced his guest speaker, Sir Simon Wessely, President elect of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. The subject of his talk was Shellshock or Cowardice: The life and Death of Private Harry Farr.

Sir Simon started by giving brief details of Private Farr:- he had joined as a professional soldier in 1908 at the age of 18, making him 26 at the time of his death. Little is known about his early service since records were destroyed in a WW2 bombing raid but the records of his Court Martial still exist.

On 17th September 1916, during the Battle of the Somme, Pt Farr's battalion was ordered to move forward. He fell out and asked to see the Medical Officer (MO). There is doubt as to whether he did see the MO but he was ordered back to his unit. He disappeared, was found again about noon and was again told to return to his unit. That evening he was found in the rear, again said that he was sick, but was told by a Sergeant Major that he would have to go forward to see the MO. Pt Farr refused and was explicitly ordered by the Sgt Major to return to the front line and that if he did not do so, he would be shot.

He ran away, was found at about 6 a.m. the next day, was arrested and charged with cowardice in the face of the enemy. Another MO saw him and declared that he was fit both mentally and physically.

The Court Martial was held 2 weeks later at which he had no defence representative. Evidence was heard from the RSM who had ordered him forward and from other privates who had been present. The President of the Court asked supportive questions including enquiring how he then felt. He replied 'fine now that he was away from the guns'. Evidence of previous character was good but he had been treated for 'shell shock' three times including spending 6 weeks in a 'shell shock hospital'. His own RSM had been killed and could not give evidence.

The 3 officers judging the case retired, and were in no doubt that he had disobeyed a clear order which had included explicit warnings of the consequence of disobedience. They found him guilty and he was sentenced to death.

There was then a series of reviews, all of which agreed with the verdict and sentence. His CO described him as being 'likely to cause panic in those around him' and finally the Commander in Chief (France) confirmed the sentence which was carried out. His widow received no war pension and was disowned by her father. She and her daughter fell on hard times.

Having detailed the facts, Sir Simon then discussed the case from the point of view of Earl Haig (C in C France), the wider context of military discipline and from the psychiatric point of view.

90% of all death sentences were commuted by Haig but Pt Farr was a regular soldier and thus expected to show an example to the volunteer army and later the conscript army neither of which were professional soldiers. Haig would have been worried about how the war would develop (other armies would indeed go on to collapse under the strain); military discipline was important and the death sentence was accepted in both civilian and military circles at that time.

The particular battle from which Pt Farr reneged was the start of the third phase of the Battle of the Somme and his battalion had actually gone on to achieve its objective of capturing the Quadrilateral, with the loss of 25% of the men killed or injured. They had known what they were facing and Farr's offence took place whilst they were advancing. Their advance would have been through British artillery lines, a noisy and frightening experience, and Sir Simon suggested that Pt Farr's comment about being unable to stand the sound of the guns probably related to the British artillery barrage rather than the German fire. By the time of the Court Martial, it was known that the advance had been successful and there would have been a strong feeling that Pt Farr had let his colleagues down.

Shell Shock was recognised at the time but it was felt that it was a short term condition so sufferers were treated locally and rapidly returned to combat if possible. Many did recover but if they didn't it was ascribed to their defective character, a view also taken by a Royal Commission after WW1. The solution was held to be better selective recruitment and leadership. In addition, there was a moral judgement in that the Commission said that people could not be cowards if they had previously shown bravery, a view still held by modern military, as is the strong feeling that comrades must not be let down.

Prof Wessely emphasised that both Pt Farr and those who had to judge him, should not be viewed by modern standards and several campaigns for posthumous pardons had failed because of that. Pt Farr's daughter (who is still alive) took the issue to judicial review and Sir Simon was to have been an expert witness for the Ministry of Defence. There was little likelihood of her winning, so for political reasons the government withdrew, changed the law and granted a pardon.

After several questions, the President thanked Sir Simon for what had been a fascinating, informative and deeply thought provoking talk. An issue which Sir Simon said oided head and heart - the head knows why such decisions were made but they break one's heart.

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