Cry, after my death, against military justice!
On this date in 1916, which happened to be Pentecost, two French lieutenants were shot on the Western Front for not surrendering.
“Le ravin de la mort a Verdun”, by Ferdinand Gueldry.
During the endless Battle of Verdun, which spanned most of 1916, the Germans at one point overran a French bunker called Fort Vaux. German bombardment of the Thiaumont Farm area during this attack smashed the 347th Infantry Regiment to which both Henri Herduin and Pierre Millant belonged. With the regiment commanders killed into the bargain, Herduin and Millant found themselves at the head of a remnant of 40 or so survivors spent of both energy and ammunition, forced to fall back to avoid German encirclement.
“Our division is broken, the regiment annihilated; I have just lived five terrible days, seeing death at every moment,” Herduin wrote to his wife Fernande on June 9th after he had presented himself at Anthouard barracks. He had not yet any inkling that he too would be a casualty of those terrible days. “Four days without drinking or eating, among the mud and the shells, what a miracle that I’m still here!”
Anthouard barracks during World War I. (U.S. Library of Congress)
Fate and the brass had a perverse sense of humor, for when the two lieutenants presented themselves and their fellow survivors to the reassembled remains of their regiment, about 150 men strong, they discovered that they’d survived all that mud and shelling only to die for France at the stake.
Their unit’s captain held a standing order to execute Herduin and Millant on sight for deserting their post: no need for even the pro forma proceedings of a tribunal. Indeed, the extrajudicial command might have been a fuck-you to civilian authorities who had recently attempted to curtail the army’s enthusiasm for executions. The captain, having no pleasure himself in this order, suffered Herduin to write a hasty explanation/appeal, to which the captain appended his own attestation of good character. Their missive was returned unopened, coldly marked Pas d’observation. Exécution immédiate. Had they not endured those privations to retreat but simply surrendered to the Hun, they would have been better off.
Herduin, a career soldier aged 35, gave his last service as an officer steadying the nerves of his own younger comrades in the firing squad with a demand to “hold to the end for France” — before issuing the firing command from his own lips.
Fernande made good on her husband’s own dying plea to her, and once the Great War’s guns fell silent she waged a public, and embarrassing for the army, fight to clear the men’s names. She eventually achieved a formal posthumous exoneration in 1926, as well as the honor- and pension-clinching appellations “Mort pour la France” applied to their death certificates. She even got a still-extant Rue Lieutenant Herduin christened in that man’s native city of Reims. On Armistice Day 2008, a marker to both men was unveiled on that street; yet another memorial stands to them in Fleury-devant-Douaumont, near the place they were shot.