On this date in 1918, Belgium carried out its last execution for ordinary crimes — in fact, its only one since 1863.
Now, that figure excludes a reported 242 people executed from 1944 to 1947, in revenge for the Nazi occupation. (To say nothing of those conducted by the Nazis themselves.) But that’s quite a stunning run, considering that death penalty statutes were on the books until 1996: it’s just that the sentences were routinely commuted.
According to the information in this thread on the lively Francophone guillotine.cultureforum.net (it does what it says in the url), Ferfaille murdered his pregnant girlfriend to further his career tomcatting with his other not-yet-pregnant girls. (This being the fourth year of the Great War, a lot of his competition was fertilizing no-man’s lands.)
And as disreputable as hammering one’s lover to death and stuffing her in the vegetable garden is, we’re comfortable averring that it was probably not the single most villainous act to transpire in Belgium the whole of this past century and a half.
Farfaille’s exceptional fate was a consequence of his committing his particular atrocity during that same Great War that gave him such great odds with Flemish females.
Ferfaille was executed in Veurne, just up the road from Dunkirk in the tiny corner of Belgium not occupied by Germany … and he was executed during Germany’s Spring Offensive on the Western Front, its last desperate (and ultimately unsuccessful) gamble* to secure battlefield victory before the recently-committed Americans threw their corn-fed thumbs on the scale.
Despite the conventionality of the crime, Ferfaille’s capital punishment was decreed by military court, since the perp was a soldier. With shells kerploding in the distance, the rakish junior officer was set up to face a tribunal with a particular shortage of patience for his shenanigans. (Belgium also carried out military executions in World War I — it’s just that the others were for military crimes, like desertion.)
Although what remained of Belgium was not jumpy in the execution of its sentence. Quite the opposite.
Actually conducting this beheading** required requisitioning from France prolific belle epoque headsman Anatole Deibler (French Wikipedia entry), and his assistants, and their portable guillotine. (Belgium had a guillotine of its own, but it would have had to cross the front to get to Emile Ferfaille. War is hell that way.)
This party of death made a hazardous journey skirting the charnel house of the Western front, protected by all the might of two nations’ armies for their mission to kill one man in a season where thousands died namelessly day by day … sort of a Bizarro World Saving Private Ryan.
The train took these rather small-time ministers of doom to Dunkirk, where they transferred to a truck for Veurne, then under direct German bombardment. The execution crew stood in only a little less danger than its client, but it carried out the sentence, “publicly” in the town’s all-but-empty square. Due to German shelling, barely anyone in the public witnessed this milestone event.
* The manpower for a western push was facilitated by the recent removal of Germany’s eastern enemy consequent upon the Russian Revolution.
** The penalty demanded by law. Post-World War II executions all seem to have been firing squad affairs even though the letter of Belgian law still apparently prescribed beheading even then.