Thursday, February 22, 2007

Disgraced no more

Lots of news tonight about the Great War. Some people undoubtedly know what "shot at dawn" means in the context of this war. The phrase refers to the fate of people executed for cowardice or desertion--you were arrested, imprisoned, tried, then "shot at dawn."

This punishment was very severe in its implications--it meant that widows and families were ineligible for death benefits or pensions the executed soldier would otherwise have been entitled to. It was also the cause of great grief, anguish and shame. Lots of people never found out about their relative "shot at dawn" for decades, maybe only after the widow or mother's death. In recent years, there has been a movement to clear the names of those so punished, because so many people suffered unending trauma and psychological stress in repeated battles in which thousands and thousands of soldiers were slaughtered or blown to pieces. This campaign hasn't been without controversy, but last fall, in an armed forces bill, Parliament finally granted posthumous rehabilitation to all 300 "shot at dawn" casualties. Two of these 300--Harry Farr and James Swaine-- were honored this week with an official ceremony near their homes in London. The Guardian's account read, in part:

"Family members were among those at the dedication and remembrance service at the Wealdstone war memorial in north-west London. Pte Farr's daughter Gertrude Harris, 94, said: "I have always argued that my father's refusal to rejoin the front line, described in the court martial as resulting from cowardice, was in fact the result of shell shock. I believe many other soldiers also suffered from its effects." She said the service was "the icing on the cake" after his pardon. "I cannot believe that his name is now going to be remembered for future years, proving that he wasn't a coward but a very brave soldier."

Pte Farr fought on the front line for more than two years and served at several of the bloodiest conflicts, including the Battle of the Somme, before refusing to return to the front on September 17 1916. He was accused of cowardice and told a court martial that he could not bear the shell fire. He had been taken to hospital for shell shock on several previous occasions.

Pte Swaine was on the front line for 17 months but failed to return from home leave after falling sick. He was arrested and sent back to France where he was found guilty of desertion and shot at dawn. His grandson, Terry Morrish, said he only found out after his mother died in 1975. "I was handed some papers at the funeral which provided details of my grandfather's execution. It was a family secret and I was completely taken aback by the news."

By summer, Farr and Swaine's names will be added to their neighborhood war memorial, in official recognition of their having served their country honorably in the most horrific circumstances.

1 comment:

german said...

a fitting tribute but sadly 90 years too late. Some guys did get too go home but were not the same after that. i know of one french pilot that disappeared one day and wanted to quit flying but couldn't because he was so decorated that if he did he was afraid that they would say he quit because he could not earn any more medals since he had them all already.