U.K. to Pardon WWI Deserters
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
During World War I, the British army executed 306 of its own soldiers, most of them for desertion. Now a 75-year-long campaign to exonerate them has finally paid off.
NPR's Guy Raz reports from London.
GUY RAZ reporting:
Bernard McGeehan was drafted into the King's Army in 1915. The young Irishman from Londonderry would soon witness the bloodiest day in British military history: July 1, 1916. On that day alone, 20,000 British soldiers died at the Battle of the Somme and another 30,000 were wounded.
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RAZ: Walking waves of infantrymen slogged through muddy trenches, sent in columns to fall as cannon fodder before German machine guns and artillery on the battlefields of northern France.
Private Bernard McGeehan grandnephew John says his uncle lasted two months in those trenches, enduring day after day the endless onslaught of German shellfire and the grim sight of decaying corpses on the battlefield.
Mr. JOHN MCGEEHAN (Grandnephew of Bernard McGeehan): And Bernard cracked. He couldn't cope. He was shell-shocked; completely shaking, bewildered, lost. Went for a walk one day out of his (unintelligible) and five days later walked back in again looking for his regiment. He was arrested, court-martialed, and shot at dawn.
RAZ: Shot for the crime of desertion captured in this BBC dramatization.
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Unidentified Man (Actor): (Unintelligible), standing, load.
(Soundbite of rifles being loaded)
Unidentified Man (Actor): Fire!
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RAZ: Ninety years after that day, Bernard McGeehan will be pardoned finally by the British government, along with more than 300 other men shot for desertion, reinstated to their rightful place of honor by Britain's defense minister, Des Browne.
Mr. DES BROWNE (Defense Minister, Great Britain): These men were just as much the victims of the terrible circumstances of World War I as those who died in the battlefield.
RAZ: The term was shell shock, better known today as post-traumatic stress disorder, an affliction that left private Harry Farr literally paralyzed with fear.
Ms. JANET BOOTH (Granddaughter of Harry Farr): It was the sound of the gunfire that set his nerves off, and he just said I can't go on. I can't go any further.
RAZ: That's Farr's granddaughter, Janet Booth. She explains that her granddad fought with valor for nearly a year and watched half of his division die right in front of his eyes at the battle of Neuve Chapelle in early 1916.
Historian John Hipkin has worked the Farr case for two decades.
Mr. JOHN HIPKIN (Historian): He was in hospital for five months suffering from shell shock. Now he was then sent back up the line. You don't send a shell-shocked soldier into battle.
RAZ: Farr was soon court-martialed for refusing to fight at the battle of the Somme and shot for cowardice in 1916. His daughter Gertrude is now 93 and elated to see that her father's finally been exonerated.
GERTRUDE HARRIS (Daughter of Harry Farr): We were determined for my mother's sake because she always said he was no coward, he was a very brave soldier, and he fought for his country and he died for his country.
RAZ: And now enshrined in history as one of the 700,000 fallen World War I soldiers honored each year in Britain on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month for two minutes of silence.
Guy Raz, NPR News, London.
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