A remembrance they’d rather forget: WWI’s executed soldiers

A remembrance they'd rather forget: WWI's executed soldiers

At least 918 French soldiers were executed between 1914 and 1918. This image is taken from the Stanley Kubrick film Paths of Glory. Released in 1957, the film was banned in France for 18 years.


On 11 November we commemorate the 1918 armistice that brought an end to the First World War, which broke out a century ago. As we remember the victims of this conflict, there is an issue that continues to stir controversy in several countries: the men “executed to set an example”.

At least 918 French soldiers were executed between 1914 and 1918, making it the army that shot the greatest number of its own soldiers, with the Italian Army, and placing it far ahead of Germany and the Anglo-Saxon countries, according to official figures.

The vast majority were not executed during the mutinies of 1917, but during the first year of the war, between September 1914 and October 1915. The figure of 918 men executed to set an example may seem statistically inconsequential in comparison to the 1.3 million who “died for France”.

But this practice established by the General Staff constituted a permanent threat in the mind of the troops, even though recourse to capital punishment was never systematic. Facilitated by the restoration of the courts-martial between 1914 and 1916, the death sentence was coldly regulated by a 1909 decree.

The regulation even specifies the method by which the deathblow should be delivered: “... with a revolver, the barrel of which shall be placed just above the ear and five centimetres away from the cranium”.

A century later, those shot as an example continue to haunt the world of literature and cinema.

The rehabilitation of the memory of these soldiers is still a source of debate, revealing a de facto continuity between the military institution capable of shooting its own soldiers and a Republic that refuses to repudiate its acts.

During the interwar period, around 40 soldiers were pardoned, on a case by case basis. In June 2014, a bill on the subject, presented by the Communist group in the French Senate, was rejected, despite the support of the Greens.

Making this all the more surprising is the fact that, according to a poll conducted at the end of 2013, Socialist Party supporters are by far the most in favour of pardoning these soldiers, at 87 per cent (75 per cent of the overall population).

The limitations of macabre accounting

The issue is not exclusive to France and is a source of contention in other European countries. Any attempt to research the phenomenon and make a comparison between the various warring parties is immediately confronted with the huge gaps in the studies and the sources available.

Figures are lacking for key actors in the war, such as Austria-Hungary and, above all, Russia, where the phenomenon may have been huge, with or without sentence being passed, considering, for example, the summary executions of 1914.

A recent study has also revealed that the Bulgarian army carried out large numbers of executions: 600 between September 1915 and October 1916, out of “just” 650,000 soldiers.

Amongst the warring parties for which an overall estimate can be made, only the Italian army proved to be as cruel as the French, with around 750 recorded cases, plus the hundreds of summary executions and decimations (the shooting of every tenth person in a unit to punish a group of soldiers for mutiny or desertion), bringing the total to around 1100.

These figures are all the more staggering given that the Italian army mobilised 40 per cent fewer soldiers than the French, and that Italy entered the war almost a year later, in May 1915.

In Great Britain and its Dominions, official figures record 306 cases, of which 26 were Irish, 25 were Canadian and five were New Zealanders. The United States executed 35 men during its one year at war – of which only ten were in the field – and Belgium executed 12, although the number sentenced to death was twenty times higher.

With regards to Germany, there is a general consensus that the official figure of 48 executions is vastly underestimated.

Research is, however, made difficult by the number of records destroyed during the Second World War.

This matter, as with the 6,000 victims of the atrocities committed by the German army during the summer and autumn of 1914, has, moreover, been eclipsed by the horrors of Nazism: around 20,000 German soldiers are estimated to have been executed between 1933 and 1945.

Of all the countries involved in the Great War, Australia was the only one not to conduct any executions, having only sent voluntary soldiers to the front in Europe.

The question of the incompetence of senior officers is another important factor. Patrick Cabouat, in his documentary Fusillés pour l’exemple, comments that, “In all the Allied armies, there is a systematic correlation between command failures and the rise in the number of men executed to set an example.”

One unknown factor remains, and illustrates the limitations of any numerical survey: how many summary executions were conducted without any written order or trace?

A tricky debate

From an institutional perspective, the post-war debate, so spirited in France, was not able to take place in Italy under the fascist regime.

Historian Irene Guerrini expressed her satisfaction at seeing this issue being raised in the run-up to the centenary of the Great War: “In recent months, the issue of the executed soldiers has become a topic of discussion among historians, on the radio and in a number of newspapers.

“It is a good thing, as before we are able to talk about rehabilitation or pardon, we need to take a closer look at the subject from a scientific perspective, in order to inform the general public about how the events unfurled.

In the United Kingdom, the military records were declassified in 1990, but it was not until 2006 that Parliament approved the granting of a pardon. It was, however, stated that the pardon did not “affect any conviction or sentence”.

In 2001, the Shot at Dawn Memorial was unveiled in Alrewas in Staffordshire.

Generally speaking, the Anglo-Saxon countries, at the same time as being relatively selective and progressive in the use of conscription, also allowed room for conscientious objection – as was the case for certain religious communities in the United States – or at least showed greater tolerance towards those “refusing war”.

Amongst contemporary historians, views are divided on the issue of rehabilitation.

The opinion of André Loez, the French Great War historian, is split when it comes to the issue of a blanket decision: “What sense does it make for the memory of a pacifist to receive the mention "died for France?”

However, he adds that: “Such rehabilitation would be an extremely strong political choice.”

In the new edition, published in 2009, of his book on soldiers executed during the First World War, Fusillés de la Grande Guerre, Nicolas Offenstadt, who has nonetheless dedicated many articles and radio and TV presentations to the subject, goes much further: “We have every right to be astonished that critical minds, anti-militarists above all, attach so much importance to the word of the military authorities and its verdicts.”

He concludes: “We are able to observe once again that the commemoration of past horrors risks serving to mask the indifference towards those of the present, and to concoct appeasing consensuses.”

It is, indeed, astonishing that such confusion is still present between the Republic and a military court acting without restriction or supervision from September 1914 to January 1915, the date when the President of the Republic was informed of the executions.

In practice, the special courts martial continued to operate until April 1916. In June 1917, General Pétain secured the government’s agreement to suspend the right to appeal for those condemned to death during the repression of the mutinies.

It is not, therefore, about deciding on a case by case basis, one hundred years on, who was the victim of an arbitrary decision – and there were many – or who expressed a genuine “refusal of war”, but about grasping the simple words written by Anatole France in 1909:

“As the army is a department just the same as agriculture, finance or public instruction, one cannot conceive of there being such a thing as military courts when there are neither agricultural, financial or university courts. Any peculiar form of justice is directly opposed to the fundamental principles of modern law.”

This article was originally published on Basta! in French.