HUNDREDS of soldiers shot for "cowardice" during the First World War are finally set to be pardoned after the Defence Secretary ordered an urgent review of government policy on executed deserters.
In the run-up to the 90th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, Des Browne is reviewing "as a matter of priority" his department's rigid opposition to a general amnesty for the more than 300 British troops shot at dawn.
Scotland on Sunday revealed last month that earlier in his career Browne had signed a parliamentary motion calling on Tony Blair to grant pardons to 306 soldiers executed by firing squad for offences including cowardice, desertion and sleeping at their posts.
Campaigners and relatives have consistently argued that the men were victims of shell shock after suffering artillery bombardments and witnessing the horrors of the trenches.
Although Labour supported the 'Shot at Dawn' campaign in opposition, successive Defence Secretaries have since ruled out any relaxation in the MoD's resistance to a mass pardon.
Blair hinted at a relaxation in the stance after he was challenged on the issue at Prime Minister's questions last week, when he told London MP Andrew Mackinlay that he understood his concerns.
He added: "I know that what happened still causes people a great deal of distress and hurt, even after all these years."
Senior figures at the MoD have now made it clear the department is considering a U-turn, driven by Browne's long-held sympathy with the Shot at Dawn campaign.
Defence minister Lord Drayson confirmed his boss was "considering the subject as a matter of priority".
He added: "He has asked officials to make the history of past policy decisions available to him."
Browne also instructed Drayson to inform the House of Lords last week that he was "considering all the options and is aware of the strong feelings of the House on this matter".
Browne, who was a lawyer with a close interest in human-rights causes before entering Parliament, is believed to maintain a great deal of sympathy with the campaign. "He's big on humanitarian things," one colleague said last night.
The fate of the 306 soldiers - including almost 40 Scots and dozens from the various outposts of the British Empire - remained a secret for decades after the war, as they were omitted from official histories of the conflict.
Many relatives of the executed men refused for years to talk about the circumstances in which they met their deaths, often because it was a source of great shame for their families.
Doris Conroy, whose uncle, Private Charles Nicholson, was shot for cowardice in 1917 while suffering from shell shock, said she believed having a more sympathetic face at the top of the department could help the cause.
Conroy, who lives in Glasgow, said: "It can't but help. None of the people who've been in charge so far have shown much sympathy, so this one might be able to do something. We shouldn't need to argue about this. These men were not treated fairly.
"My family didn't talk about this for years because they were ashamed of it, but we are sure Charles was ill. The Army never took that into consideration."
Shot at Dawn campaign organiser Harry Templeton said: "We can only hope that Des Browne acts in accordance with his previously stated position of being in favour of pardons.
"This will obviously prove a personal challenge to him and we can only trust he follows through with the right decision."
Many of the men were sentenced to death after hearings lasting less than 30 minutes. They were often denied legal representation and sometimes put forward their case scribbled on scraps of paper. Research has also suggested that military justice on the Western Front was tarnished by a "class bias", which allowed many officers guilty of similar crimes to escape the firing squad.
The demand for posthumous pardons was first debated in Parliament under John Major's government in the 1990s, and it was supported by most Labour MPs. But hopes of forcing through a mass pardon were dashed when the Tories voted to maintain the status quo.
Labour's solution was to order a review of the cases, under the supervision of the then armed forces minister, John Reid.
But the outcome, a decision to officially removed the "stigma" of the men's executions and call for their names to be added to war memorials and books of remembrance, fell far short of the full pardons demanded by campaigners.
The MoD's final decision will be closely tied in with the result of an ongoing court case brought by the daughter of one of the executed men.
Gertrude Harris, whose father Harry Farr was shot for cowardice after refusing to return to the trenches on the Western Front, has been seeking a legal right for a posthumous pardon through the High Court.