Pressure falls on France to pardon shot “coward” soldiers in WWI

At the height of preparations for the WWI Centenary, France is faced with pressure over issue of shooting own soldiers by firing squad for “cowardice” during the war.
At the height of preparations for the WWI Centenary, France is faced with pressure over issue of shooting own soldiers by firing squad for “cowardice” during the war.

Around 600 to 650 which served France during the World War I were executed by own firing squad for “cowardice”. During the WWI Centenary next year, France is under pressure to remember those young men.

These young soldiers, mostly among the rank-and-file, were said to have defied orders. They defied orders to run on top of their trenches to raid enemies. They also refused to follow their authorities by skipping attendance in line formation for inspection.

The said soldiers were moved to inaction traumatized by months of carnage and brutal fighting during the war. Exhausted from fighting, they simply lost the morale to fight. The soldiers who ignored orders were subjected to yet another battle in military court. The tribunal charged the soldiers with desertion, disobedience or “abandoning their post in the presence of the enemy.”

As punishment, they were sentenced to death by firing squad. The action was said to teach the other soldiers a lesson. Today, they are not regarded as heroes in the memorials of WWI of France. Socialist President Francois Hollande has publicly announced that the WWI Centenary of next year will be one of the “great events” under his leadership. Part of the memorial might include remembering the soldiers slain by French firing squads during the First World War. While the president feels pressured of recognizing the contributions of those soldiers to their country, a report by historian Antoine Prost, to the Ministry of Veterans’ Affairs saw it difficult to undo the decision made during the 1914 Great War involving shooting own soldiers by firing squad. The issuance of a pardon to those who were shot by firing squad in the WWI is one controversial memorial concern that France handles with great sensitivity.

The report said that the soldiers should not be branded as cowards or seen as a disgrace shot “to set an example” to other soldiers meditating on abandoning their posts or defying orders. Rather, they should be remembered for offering their lives for France who “cracked” under the traumatic circumstances.

The report stated that aside from the 600-650 soldiers shot for military desertion and disobedience, 100 more were also subjected to firing squad for other crimes such as spying and murder. France is careful not to issue a blanket pardon to all soldiers because some of them committed crimes that involved rape and murder. Others found guilty of espionage should also not be included in the memorial of those who “died for France”. Another problem posed is the loss of about 25% of the dossiers of WWI soldiers.

However, pardon has been issued to around 40 soldiers who were subjected to firing squad during the First World War. One case involved a soldier assigned at the cold trenches who requested a pair of new trousers. He refused orders to wear the torn and blood-stained uniform of a dead soldier to replace his old, threadbare ones. These forty soldiers died in the hands of their comrades for mostly “absurd” reasons.

The series of Centenary activities has been announced months before. By next month, Hollande will spearhead the launching of France’s vast first world war centenary commemorations programme at the Elysée. This will mark the start of the many activities for the anniversary of the First World War. His speech is likely to include the rehabilitation of “most but not all” soldiers shot arbitrarily during the First World War.


Siegphyl is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE