Genes Reunited Blog
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The British Newspaper Archive
Read about historical events at the time they were happening. Perhaps you'll discover your ancestor in their local newspaper?
During World War One, 306 British Soldiers were sentenced to death for cowardice or desertion. These men were taken out, tied to a post, and shot at dawn by their own side. Today it is believed that many of them were suffering from shell shock and in 2006 all of them were officially pardoned by the Government.
This week's episode of Find My Past looks into the lives of three men who all served in WW1. We meet descendants of Harry Thomas Farr, Sergeant Major Herbert Laking and Field Marshal Douglas Haig.
Lizzie discovers that she is the great granddaughter of Harry Farr. Harry was part of a regiment lead by Sergeant Major Laking, who is the grand uncle of David.
Harry Farr and Herbert Laking took part in some terrifying battles. On 10th March 1915 they were both in France and part of an assembly of 400 guns that fired constantly at the Germans for 35 minutes. In this time more shells were fired than throughout the entire Boer War!
We also meet Peter Johnson. Peter is the grandson of Douglas Haig, the man responsible for the largest Army Britain has ever seen. He had to manage and command an army of more than 2 million men and make judgement calls on how to discipline and organise the army.
On 1st July to 18th November 1916, the Battle of the Somme raged. During this time there were over 1 million casualties and no major advancement. Harry Farr had been on sick leave from the army suffering with nerves, but was sent back and was under the command of Herbert Laking. Harry would have heard of the horrors of the Somme and would have been understandably terrified.
Harry Farr reported sick and was sent to the hospital, but with no obvious sign of injury and thousands of other serious casualties, he was sent back to his regiment. He continued to claim he was sick and refused to take part in the attack being planned. Laking was forced to have Harry arrested and in documented conversations is recorded to have called Harry a coward.
At this point we have to wonder what the options were for both men. Laking is trying to control a regiment of terrified men under constant fire living in unbearable conditions. He needs to keep morale high and discipline instilled. Harry is understandably terrified and possibly suffering from shell shock. Shell shock was not widely understood at this point in history and only a total breakdown would make you unfit for service. When questioned by a Senior Officer, Harry says he felt well when away from the shell fire. This did not do him any favours. Harry's officer says that he has good character and conduct, but that he loses his nerve under fire and is likely to cause panic with the other men.
Unfortunately, none of Harry's friends came forward to defend Harry. By this point, all of his fellow soldiers had fought in the Battle of the Somme and many had lost friends and comrades. In their eyes, Harry had let them down when they needed him the most and because of this, they stayed silent when they could have spoken out.
Harry's report was sent up the ranks and landed on the desk of Douglas Haig who had the final say on the recommended sentence of death. Haig had commuted 97% of all death penalties sent his was, but unfortunately Harry's was not one of them. Harry was sentenced to death by execution.
Because of the events surrounding Harry's death, his widow was not entitled to a pension. She kept the circumstances of his death a secret from all her family for many years. To be considered a coward when men were giving their lives every day was considered shameful.
All three men focused on in this episode were under unbelievable pressure. Hindsight allows us to look back and judge the decisions made by these men, but we will never fully understand what made them make the decisions that led to the execution of Harry and 305 other men. All in all an emotive and thought provoking episode that covers a topic shrouded in controversy even today.
Find My Past - It's on every Thursday at 9pm on the YeSTERDAY channel - 12 on freeview, 537 on Sky and 203 on Virgin. You can also see it here too - http://www.tvcatchup.com/.