Four French soldiers of the 96th Régiment d’Infanterie were shot 100 years ago today for resisting an order to return to their World War I trenches on the western front. Their names (per French Wikipedia’s tragically lengthy entry on World War I executions) were Émile Frédéric Lhermenier, Lucien Baleux, Félix Louis Milhau, and Paul Pierre Regoult. Baleux was only 19 years old.
We have an affecting memory of the demoralizing effect of this shooting upon their fellow soldiers in the 55th division courtesy of a remarkable epistolary war memoir. Titled Émile et Léa : Lettres d’un couple d’instituteurs bourguignons dans la tourmente de la Grande guerre (Emile and Lea: Letters of a Burgundy teacher-couple amid the turmoil of the Great War), the book was lovingly assembled in the early 200s by Emile and Lea’s grandson Michel Mauny, from a box marked “GUERRE” that turned out to be heavy with over 1200 letters exchanged by husband and wife during Emile’s years at the front. (See French review here)
Two days after the quadruple execution, Emile heartbreakingly wrote —
Four soldiers of the 96th having been sentenced to death, the companies of the 5th Battalion 246th [regiment] were responsibe for providing the four firing squads. Of my company, we had five soldiers, four corporals, and five sergeants. Fortunately I was not designated for this horrible work.
Our comrades described the scene to us. It was mournful, poignant. All were stunned to have participated in the execution. Perhaps those unhappy four deserved it (I do not know), but we should find another way to enforce the law in the century we live in. One of them it seems had only 18 or 19 years. I think I, who used to live with children and young people, I would have gone crazy had I been forced to participate in this drama.
According to Michel Mauny’s commentary on the incident, a machine-gun captain in the regiment was so overwhelmed he became fixated on the nightmare of being executed himself, and eventually had to be relieved from his duties with dementia. “After twenty months on campaign, the commanders must be truly cruel to put four of our comrades to the post!”
In the first days of the week, there was a morning where four soldiers were shot … I did not hear the volley, but I knew from Bourgoeois and Geoffroy that we had taken the prisoners an hour early before the guns. One of them, a strong lad of nineteen, committed to the war, as strong as an ox, bellowing out “Kill me? Go ahead! It’s impossible!”
Bayon directed the execution; he had prepared four pole with ropes, for he guessed they would resist. It was quickly done, everyone in haste to finish; once all were bound the four platoons were lined up facing left, took aim, and there was not even a command for the first shot caused all the others. Afterwards Bayon imposed eight days’ punishment on a sergeant who was to represent the division and arrived four minutes late: “You made these men die twice, you!”
Such records as remain do not make clear why this quartet joined the 600-plus French troops shot for military offenses during the Great War, but three other soldiers from the same regiment accused of the same offense in the same incident did not have the honor of dying for France but suffered only demotion. Was it that four sufficed “pour encourager les autres” — that three would show a want of backbone, and five would be barbarity?
On this date in 1649, Oliver Cromwell had three leaders of his army’s working-class Levellers movement shot against the walls of Burford church.
The revolutionary army with which Cromwell had overthrown King Charles I came to a crisis in 1649 as the interests of senior officers and the class of landowners and merchants they hailed from clashed against those of the common soldiery.
This democratic and class-conscious Leveller movement has invited the sympathy of later radicals, and it would be hard to flatly call that attention anachronistic; Leveller William Walyn even anticipated Marx’s language in dismissing the Magna Carta as “that mess of pottage.”* This is an England whose capitalist shape is coming clearly into view.
Flint struck steel when the army’s Grandees laid a nasty Sophie’s choice on troops whose pay was deep in arrears: leave the army (forfeiting the back pay) or leave the country (to invade Ireland). Both options redounded to the advantage of the state and its moneyed interests, at the expense of the lower orders.
Army mutinies commenced immediately and the massive London procession that carried the executed Leveller Robert Lockyer to his grave proved the depth and danger of the public sentiment.
In early May of 1649, Colonel Scrope’s horse regiment — another of those offered the “opportunity” of serving in Ireland — followed suit, seizing the regimental colors, re-electing its own officers and marching out from Banbury across Salisbury plain to rendezvous with other discontented soldiers. In the words of one survivor,
the whole fabric of the Commonwealth fell into the grossest and vilest tyranny that ever Englishmen groaned under … which, with the considerations of the particular, most insufferable abuses and dissatisfactions put upon us, moved us to an unanimous refusal to go … till full satisfaction and security was given to us as Soldiers and Commoners, by a Council of our own free election.
Cromwell had a different satisfaction in mind.
Aided by an envoy sent to stall the rebels with a diversionary negotiation, Cromwell and Thomas Fairfax were able to surprise the 1,500 Levellers camped at Burford with a midnight attack the night of May 13-14. By morning, 340 soldiers were locked in Burford’s church as prisoners.
The tragic denouement of this Banbury mutiny was the execution of three soldiers, Cornet Thompson, Corporal Perkins, and Private Church. A plaque at the site still commemorates the event.
Maria del Rosario Villa had abandoned her husband Domingo Felix (or Feliz) back in 1834 to take up with a vaquero named Gervasio Alipas (or Alipaz). The honor-stricken husband spent two years fruitlessly trying to reconcile until in 1836 at his behest the alcalde successfully pressured Maria into returning to her husband.
But on the couple’s return trip to their ranch, the lover Alipas intercepted them and did the husband Felix to death. Narciso Botello’s* annals describe that Alipas “took hold of his [Felix’s] horse and threw himself on Felix, grabbed him by his neckerchief, and pulled him off, dragging him along downhill and twisting the neckerchief, strangling him” — then pitched the choking victim into a gully where he finished him off with a machete. “Later it was proven by the tracks that the wife had been present.” (Source) She helped him dump the body near San Gabriel Mission, too.
Outraged both by the dastardly murder and by the wanton violation of matrimony that precipitated it, a gang of 55 organized themselves as a Junta of the Defenders of the Public Safety, led by Victor Prudon, a recent arrival to the area from the Hijar-Padres colony.** As no militia could be mustered inclined to oppose its will, on April 7 the junta forced open the jail where Alipas was interred, stood him up behind a church, and shot him to death. Villa — being held in an apartment at a private residence — was likewise forced out and marched to a nearby stable where she got the same treatment.
The vigilantes deposited the bodies back at the jail with the communique,
Junta of the Defendres of the Public Safety —
To the First constitutional Alcalde:
The dead bodies of Gervacio Alispaz and Maria del Rosario Villa are at your disposal. We also forward you the jail keys that you may deliver them to whomsoever is on guard. In case you are inned of men to serve as guards we are at your disposal.
God and Liberty. Angeles, April 7, 1836.
Victor Prudon, President
Manuel Arzaga, Secretary
And that was the end of the Defenders of the Public Safety, who disbanded a few days later, never to reconstitute. Indeed, while vigilance committees became regular features on the Californian landscape in later years, this is the sole such incident ever known to have occurred there under Spanish or Mexican rule.
* A Mexican who would serve two terms in the state assembly of California after it became a U.S. state in 1850.
** Mexico at this point was still in its first generation of independence; its hold on sparsely-populated California was not strong — and the missions set down there to convert natives to Christianity and project a Spanish presence had Russian competition.
The Hijar-Padres colony (Padres was the name of the colony’s organizer, Hijar its financier) was a nucleus of 200-odd souls dispatched to settle in California by one of the liberal intra-Santa Anna governments. The leaders soon became embroiled in a complex political rivalry with California’s governor and the colony itself failed to take root, its emissaries settling and taking work wherever they could. Many set down roots in California’s “Southlands” where Los Angeles, then just a small town but still the regional capital, would one day splay out its sunlit superhighways. While colonists were involved in the vigilance committee proceedings, no member of the love triangle was a colonist. (See C. Alan Hutchinson, “An Official List of the Members of the Híjar-Padrés Colony for Mexican California, 1834,” Pacific Historical Review, Aug. 1973.)
One century ago today, a Polish Jew from east London named Aby Bevistein was shot for cowardice in Calais — four weeks shy of his 18th birthday.
Abraham Bevistein was among an estimated quarter-million Brits who bore arms as minors in World War I. Fired by patriotism, these boys dodged the military’s 18-year-old minimum by … telling their recruiters they were 18. No documentation necessary.
Bevistein, whose family had moved to London from Warsaw when he was a small child, was British through and through enough to surge into the army with the first wave of pie-eyed volunteers in September 1914. He had 16 years and four months, and if he was like many of his new comrades in arms he probably reckoned on being back home by 17 — a bonny hero of a speedy war.
Instead, he spent most of 1915 navigating the labyrinth of trenches in France, and all their attendant horrors. He was wounded in December of that year but soon passed fit for duty again. On February 12-13, 1916, shellshocked and deafened by German grenades, he again sought medical help but was directed back to the lines by a harried medical officer. Instead, Bevistein wandered away to the rear, and took temporary refuge at a French farm.*
“We were in the trenches and I was ill so I went out,” he wrote to his mother by way of all-too-nonchalant explanation. “They’ve taken me to prison and I’m in a bit of trouble now.”
Although it would not be publicly known until two years later, the retired Soviet Gen. Dmitri Polyakov was on March 15, 1988 executed for treason.
A World War II artillerist, Polyakov (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) was a military intelligence officer working as an embassy attache when he made contact with American agents in New York in 1961. For the next quarter-century — across assignments to Burma, India, the U.S., and back in Moscow — he would ship to the CIA and FBI some of its choicest morsels of the Cold War.
“Polyakov was the jewel in the crown,” former CIA chief James Woolsey lamented of his loss. Polyakov-supplied documents underscoring the extent of Russia’s split with China have been credited with spurring Richard Nixon’s overtures to Beijing.
The spy code-named Bourbon, Roam, and Top Hat had idiosyncratic motivations; he was not an ideological true believer like a Sorge nor a man afflicted by demons like a Vetrov. He accepted only a little bit of money from his handlers, mostly to support an innocuous wordworking hobby.
This Russian article indulges a variety of hypotheses — contempt for Khrushchev, the death of a son, an appetite for risk-taking — but nothing his U.S. contacts could learn of him rebutted the presentation he made of himself as a Russian patriot chagrined at the prospect that the corrupt Communist state could win the Cold War.
His revelations did much to check that possibility.
Polyakov retired as a general in 1980, having operated under the Kremlin’s nose for a phenomenally long period of time. (His U.S. contacts made sure to feed him some career-advancing secrets, too.) But he was betrayed in the 1980s by the USSR’s own moles, Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames and arrested in 1986.
His fate, imposed by the Military Collegium of the Soviet Supreme Court, thereafter was a mystery to his former handlers. Two months after his secret execution, U.S. President Ronald Reagan sought Polyakov’s pardon or his exchange for a captured Soviet mole at his May-June 1988 arms control summit with Mikhail Gorbachev. The solicitation was politely deferred.
The small Baltic state had won a two-decade interwar independence rudely terminated by Soviet occupation in 1940 under the carving-up done by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Moscow did not have long to enjoy its mastery of the place before Germany’s invasion swapped one occupation for the other.
German mastery appeared the more congenial than Russian,* and vice versa: Tallinn-born Nazi race theorist Alfred Rosenberg celebrated “the true culture bearer for Europe … the Nordic race. Great heroes, artists and founders of states have grown from this blood. It built the massive fortresses and sacred cathedrals. Nordic blood composed and created those works of music which we revere as our greatest revelations. … Germany is Nordic, and the Nordic element has had an effect, type forming, also upon the western, Dinaric and east Baltic races.”**
Once Germany was pushed back out by the Red Army in 1944 there were thousands of Estonian fighting-men prepared to bear arms against the new-old boss: one part a desperate hope of resuming the pre-war independence, two parts fatalistic principle. “We understood that it is better to die in the forest with a weapon in your hands than in a Soviet camp,” an ex-Forest Brother pensioner told the New York Times in 2003.
For a few years** after World War II, the harassment of Forest Brothers pricked Soviet authority, but as elsewhere in the Baltics the contest was impossibly unequal for guerrillas far from any hope of aid in a post-Yalta world. Ants the Terrible was captured in 1949 by which time the movement, ruthlessly hunted, was waning away. It was finally stamped out in the early 1950s, but in the post-Soviet Estonia — independent once again — these resisters have been belatedly celebrated as patriots.
** From Rosenberg’s magnum opus, The Myth of the Twentieth Century. It’s not all sunshine for the eastern Baltic race in Rosenberg’s cosmology; “mixed as it is with a Mongol element,” these types are “pliant clay either in the hands of Nordic leadership or under Jewish and Mongol tyrants. [The eastern Baltic] sings and dances, but as easily murders and ravages.”
† One of the last Forest Brothers in the field, August Sabbe, was only caught in 1978 at the age of 69. He died in the arrest, either murdered by his KGB pursuers or resolutely quick-witted enough to drown himself to escape interrogation.
Hofer (English Wikipedia entry | German) was the heir to his father’s Sandhof Inn in tiny St. Leonhard — a village today that’s just over the Italian border but was in Hofer’s time part of a Tyrol undivided by nation-state borders.
Hofer emerged as one of the leaders of the anti-Bavarian party in the Tyrol’s south, and joined an 1809 delegation to Vienna to secure Habsburg support for an internal rising.
The Tyrolean Rebellion broke out in March 1809 with direct coordination from Austria — which declared war on April 9, and attacked France on several fronts hoping to regain Tyrol and various other baubles of Germanic patrimony lately lost to Napoleon. Unfortunately for the irregulars in the south Tyrol, who under Hofer and others won several early skirmishes, the French once more handed Austria a decisive defeat at Wagram July 5-6 of that year, knocking Vienna out of the war almost as speedily as she had entered it.
The consequences of Wagram were far-reaching: still more choice provinces (Salzburg, West Galicia, Trieste, Croatia) stripped away from an empire stumbling into second-ratehood. Not yet numbered among them, one could readily discern the imminent fate of our party — as did the English editorialist who cried, “O, the brave and loyal, but, we fear, lost Tyrolese!”
By this time the self-described “Imperial Commandant”, Hofer’s successful engagements could not disguise an increasingly untenable position. The militiamen who had so brightly embarked on national liberation that spring withered up and blew away in the ill autumn wind. Hofer himself hid from his enemies in one of the panoramic mountain refuges that still decorate his homeland’s inviting hiking-grounds — but the price on his head could reach him even there, and a countryman betrayed his humble hut to the French. He was surprised there and removed to Mantua for a condemnation that was allegedly came ordered straight from Napoleon.
Hofer’s martyrdom has lodged firmly in Tyrolean lore. A plaque in the town of Menan marks the spot where he was kept overnight en route to his fate in Mantua. A folk song that emerged in the 1830s and 1840s, Zu Mantua in Banden, celebrates Hofer’s sacrifice and is now the official Tyrolean anthem. (“To Mantua in chains / Loyal Hofer was led / From Mantua to Death / The enemy had him sped …”)
On this date in 1940, Soviet writer Mikhail Koltsov was shot at Lubyanka Prison.
Maybe the premier journalist of the early Bolshevik state, Koltsov (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) founded several magazines in the 1920s — including the still-extant Ogoniok.* His stylistic flair set him apart in an age oppressed by leaden, censorious prose. “If Pravda featured a readable piece in the 1930s, Koltsov was probably the author,” Donald Rayfield puts it in Stalin and His Hangmen. And the man’s charisma didn’t end with pen; he was the lover of (among others) the wife of security chief Nikolai Yezhov.
A convinced communist who had participated in the revolution, his reliability led Stalin to dispatch him to the Spanish Civil War — as a Pravda correspondent but also, of course, a Soviet agent. His role and his many fraught relationships are treated at some length in We Saw Spain Die; one officer of an international brigade wrote that Koltsov and his fellows seemed to breathe freer amid the wild danger of the front — “Here there was none of the slavish terror of the Moscow intellectual. Under the hail of Fascist bullets they forgot the bullet in the back of the neck, the secret executions of the GPU. Their talk was relaxed, uncharged with double meanings, un-Asiatic.”
But Koltsov lived ever in the shadow of Stalin’s terror, and to hear his friend, English correspondent Claud Cockburn tell it, Koltsov too knew it very well: a man for his time who could be a true believer by day and by night crack gallows humor at the creeping purges among friends. “I cannot say I was surprised” by his fall, Cockburn wrote when his onetime comrade disappeared. “And, oddly, I doubt if he was much surprised either. He had lived — and talked and joked — very dangerously, and he had absolutely no illusions so far as I know about the nature of the dangers … He would not, I thought, have been otherwise than satirically amused by some of the almost hysterically sentimental outcries which greeted his removal.” Though difficult to establish with certainty, it is thought that Stalin and Beria broadly suspected their Spanish Civil War emissaries of exposure to Trotskyite machinations, western spies, and other indulgences characteristic of men too far removed from that bullet in the back of the neck. Veterans of this conflict who retured to the USSR were a heavily purged demographic.**
Arrested as a Trotskyite at the end of 1938, he had a year to savor the terrors of interrogation and was made to denounce as western agents former friends like director Vsevolod Meyerhold — who was eventually executed on the same Feb. 1-2 night as Koltsov himself.
His brother, the cartoonist Boris Yefimov,† tried to inquire about him in March 1940 and was told that Koltsov had been interned in the gulag for ten years “without right of correspondence” … a secret police euphemism for a man who would in fact never correspond with anyone again.
* In 1923; this was a re-founding of a periodical dating to 1899, and the magazine naturally claims the earlier vintage for itself.
** Koltsov’s fall also corresponds to Moscow’s pre-World War II rapprochement with Berlin; one of the people his tortured denunciations helped bring down was the Jewish pro-western foreign minister Maxim Litvinov, for whom an anti-fascist alliance had been the policy. Litvinov was succeeded by Molotov — he of the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany.
† Their surname by birth was Fridlyand; their father was a Jewish cobbler in Kiev.
One last coda to our recent Iraqi coup series occurred after a day’s pause in the hecatombs, as reported by the New York Times on Jan. 25, 1970:
BEIRUT, Lebanon, Jan. 24 — Three more men were executed in Baghdad at dawn today bringing to 44 the number shot or hanged since the leftist Baath Government in Iraq headed off a rightist plot on Tuesday.
The three-man special court that has sentenced 37 conspirators said the three were the last of those apprehended. Others, it added, are still at large.
An Iraqi military aircraft landed here this afternoon with a token gift of 30 submachine guns confiscated from the plotters. Iraq has promised to turn over all 3,000 submachine guns captured to the Palestinian commandos.
More blood was spilled in Baghdad this week than after any comparable attempted coup since World War II, and many Arab commentators expressed dismay and horror.
OTHER MASSACRES RECALLED
The nearest approach was 18, shot after a Nasserite rising against a Baathist Government in Syria in July, 1963.
The Baghdad executions fitted the context of Iraq’s violent history, which has led some historians to compare the current regime with that of the eighth-century Abbasid governor Al Hajjaj Ben Yussef, who declared, when he took office, that the Iraqis were a mean people and he was “going to wring their necks.” Great numbers of executions followed.
In more recent times the Iraqis in 1933 killed several thousand Assyrians who had volunteered for armed service with the British. In 1941 several hundred Jews were killed in a major pogrom in Baghdad.
In contrast to Egypt’s bloodless overthrow of King Farouk, the Iraqis in 1958 shot King Faisal and his family in the garden of their palace and went on to drag the bodies of Prince Abdul Illah and Premier Nuri al Said through the streets.