I’ve just been watching an intelligent TV programme about the recent blanket pardons for Great War deserters. It was presented by Ian Hislop as an addendum to his Not Forgotten series, investigating war memorials.
It was a very even-handed programme. First we heard about some hard cases, and met relatives who felt a deep injustice had been done. These included the descendants of Harry Farr, a hard case, but one where one can see how the military authorities felt the death penalty was justified.
The next section of the programme explored the other side of the question, making the crucial point that Haig commuted nearly 90% of death sentences. Hislop asked the right question: “It was tragic, but was it unjust?”
In the last section he met descendants of Private Longshaw, who had a long record of minor disobedience, and had finally deliberately deserted, together with his friend, Private Ingham. The descendants hadn’t heard of their relative’s story, but went to France to see where the two men were buried. Ingham’s gravestone is the one which his father had insisted should bear the words: “Shot at Dawn / One of the First to Enlist / A Worthy Son of his Father.”
The nice lady (wife of Longshaw’s great-nephew) gave a deeply felt verdict – that after all this time they should be pardoned. She felt the tragedy of the whole business, and probably she spoke for England.
Hislop finished by reminding us that a pardon wasn’t a declaration of innocence. It was a gift of mercy. So he just about came down on that side of the argument. My final decision would be just on the other side – because I don’t like the implied retrospective adjustment of history (or the easiness of the political gesture) – but I thought this was an intelligent and serious programme. And it was good to see and hear Haig’s son.