Soldier shot for refusing to wear the blood-soaked, torn uniform of a dead-soldier
Shot by firing squad, often as an example in front of their fellow soldiers, these disgraced, so-called cowards are now largely seen as traumatised victims of the horror of war.
They were mostly young, rank-and-file soldiers, exhausted and shell-shocked after months of what was considered the world's must brutal war. One day they simply refused to take part in another raid that involved running out over the top of their trench, ignored orders or refused to get in line for inspection.
Shot by firing squad, often as an example in front of their fellow soldiers, these disgraced, so-called cowards – convicted by military tribunals of crimes such as desertion, disobedience or "abandoning their post in the presence of the enemy" – are now largely seen as traumatised victims of the horror of war. But they are not counted in the first world war memorials dotting France, nor are they considered to have died for their country.
The Socialist president François Hollande, who has promised that next year's first world war centenary commemorations will be one of the "great events" of his leadership, is under increasing pressure to restore the good name of hundreds of French soldiers executed by their own army during the war. But the rehabilitation of soldiers shot by firing squad remains one of the most sensitive and controversial memorial issues surrounding the 1914 Great War in France. A report handed to the ministry of veterans' affairs on Tuesday presents a number of options to Hollande, warning of the difficulty of either doing nothing or issuing a blanket pardon to everyone who was shot.
The report, by the historian Antoine Prost, part of a scientific team preparing the French centenary, said that about 600-650 men were shot in France for issues relating to military disobedience, with about 100 more shot for spying or crimes such as murder. Most of the "disobedient" soldiers shot "to set an example" were executed in the early period of the war between 1914 and 1915. The report said many weren't "cowards", but just "cracked" from one day to the next.
About 40 soldiers shot by firing squad had already been pardoned after the war. Those cases often seemed absurd, including one soldier shot for disobedience in 1915 after asking for a pair of trousers to replace his tattered rags in the cold of the trenches and refusing to put on the blood-soaked, torn uniform of a dead-soldier which was offered to him.
The report warned that a blanket pardon of every single person shot and recognition that they had all "died for France" would be problematic because some were convicted for crimes such as murder or rape. Others were shot for espionage, which was just as tricky. The report warned that re-considering each case individually would be difficult 100 years later as 20% of the dossiers had been lost.
Perhaps the option most likely to be taken up by François Hollande is the suggestion of a historic speech in which he could rehabilitate the dead by stressing that "most – but not all – were shot in conditions that were often hurried and arbitrary". The report said this would need to be accompanied by the construction of a memorial at which to remember them and an education drive.
In 2006, Britain amended the armed forces bill to allow for the forgiveness of offences such as cowardice and desertion during the war. About 300 British and Commonwealth soldiers were shot on the orders of the British army during the first world war.
Hollande will launch France's vast first world war centenary commemorations programme at the Elysée in November 2013.
Source: The Guardian