On this date in 1915, four French corporals were shot at a farm in Suippes for refusing to advance out of their trenches through the carnage of a World War I no man’s land.
It was not only Corporals Theophile Maupas, Louis Lefoulon, Louis Girard and Lucien Lechat who had refused. The entire 21st Company of the 336th Infantry regiment, exhausted and already decimated by combat, was ordered over the trench at dawn on March 10.
Under withering machine gun fire, and with French artillery carelessly dropping shells just in front of their own lines, the 21st stayed put. Frantic to force the advance, the French commander ordered artillery to drive the troops ahead by shelling his own trenches — an order the artillerists refused to carry out unless someone put it in writing.*
In that slaughterhouse of trench warfare, insubordination in the ranks met stern reprisals. Generals with no strategy but to make mincemeat of their countrymen could not well abide the meat’s reluctance to be minced. Examples must be made, especially inasmuch as the impracticality of executing entire companies impressed even the brass.
On March 16, six corporals and 18 soldiers of the intransigent company faced military trial in the Suippes town hall; the four condemned were shot the next day and buried under dishonorable black crosses.
According to Shot At Dawn, a campaign for rehabilitating soldiers executed during World War I, France carried out some 600 military executions during those bloody years, more than any other country. A 1999 study numbered 550 French executions. In an essay in Handbook on Death and Dying, Prof. J. Robert Lilly suggests that many more “unofficial” executions may have taken place, especially during the war’s panicked opening stages.
Whatever their precise number, the shootings, around Europe, of hundreds of men for cowardice — most in obscurity, many chosen arbitrarily, some whose descendants still struggle for recognition to this day — is one of the enduring legacies of World War I: the collision of that most individual penalty with that most faceless and indiscriminate war. A witness to a different French military execution discomfitingly describes the near-total dehumanization of the victims:
The two condemned were tied up from head to toe like sausages. A thick bandage hid their faces. And, a horrible thing, on their chests a square of fabric was placed over their hearts. The unfortunate duo could not move. They had to be carried like two dummies on the open-backed lorry, which bore them to the rifle range. It is impossible to articulate the sinister impression the sight of those two living parcels made on me.
The padre mumbled some words and then went off to eat. Two six-strong platoons appeared, lined up with their backs to the firing posts. The guns lay on the ground. When the condemned had been attached, the men of the platoon who had not been able to see events, responding to a silent gesture, picked up their guns, abruptly turned about, aimed and opened fire. Then they turned their backs on the bodies and the sergeant ordered “Quick march!”
The men marched right passed them, without inspecting their weapons, without turning a head. No military compliments, no parade, no music, no march past; a hideous death without drums or trumpets.
The shootings this day became emblematic of those lost and obscured legions. The circumstances of the “crime” — the senselessness of the advance, the order to bombard their own troops, the fury of the reprisal — recommended it to novelist Humphrey Cobb, and subsequently to a young Stanley Kubrick who adapted a fictionalized form to the 1957 film Paths of Glory. (The title comes from this poem.)
In the film, three soldiers face a firing squad under circumstances very similar to this day’s backstory, including the detail of the general ordering his own men shelled (and that of the order being refused). Kubrick renders the insanity of the resulting court-martial against hapless soldiers each of whom did little but what anyone in their situation would have done, with one of their officers, Kirk Douglas, mounting a vain defense.
This day’s executions, as with many of the others carried out across Europe in those years, sparked a long campaign for posthumous exoneration, in this case led by Maupas’ widow. In 1934, a French panel did exonerate them — awarding the surviving widows a symbolic one franc apiece.
Maupas himself was reinterred in a cemetery in Sartilly, where a monument was erected in honor of the four; just last year, opposite the courthouse where the Frenchmen were condemned, a life-sized white stone sculpture was dedicated, showing Maupas, Girard, Lechat and Lefoulon on their execution posts just after they have been shot.
The surety of the corporals’ posthumous exoneration contrasts intriguingly with the rigor of their sentence and points to the complex and shifting terms upon which the First World War entered subsequent national consciousness in France (and elsewhere) — the never-definitive story of the individual’s right place amid social structures hopelessly beyond individual control.
The history of the struggle over these men’s memory is extensively covered on this French website and the French blog Monuments aux morts pacifistes. The affair also has its own entry on the French wikipedia.