Posts filed under 'Wartime Executions'

1914: The six martyrs of Vingre

3 comments December 4th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1914, a France consumed by the First World War made martyrs of six at Vingre.


The men in this post were rehabilitated in 1921, and this marker dedicated to their memory in 1925. Flickr users have posted some striking photos of the memorial site.

An event horribly underscoring the heartlessness of the brass against frail flesh in their ghastly war of machines, this shooting succeeded a surprise German attack on November 27 whose short-lived push into the French line momentarily drove part of the 298th Regiment to fall back out of their forward trench, before the French rallied and retook their own position to restore the status quo ante. The whole back-and-forth consumed spanned mere minutes — just another snapshot of the trench war stalemate that would become so grindingly familiar to all belligerents in the years ahead.

French commanders in the earliest months of the war had shown a notable lack of empathy for any vexation of plans arising from the fog of war; indeed, exemplary executions became policy for enforcing military discipline to an unrealistic expectation. So, as punishment for their units’ “unauthorized* retreat,” six were selected for execution as an example to their fellows.

Some heartbreaking (or blood-boiling) last letters of the doomed survive.

Corporal Henri Floch (to his wife)

My darling Lucie,

By the time you receive this letter I shall be dead by firing squad. This is why: on 27th November, around 5pm, after 2 hours of heavy shelling in a trench on the front line, just as we were finishing our supper, Germans got into the trench. They captured me and two others. In the confusion I was able to escape from the Germans. I followed my comrades and then I was accused of dereliction of duty in the face of the enemy.

Twenty-four of us went before the War Council last night. Six were condemned to death and one of them was me. I am no more guilty than the others, but they want to make an example of us. My wallet will be sent home to you along with its contents.

In haste I say my last farewell to you, with tears in my eyes and a heavy heart. I humbly beg your forgiveness for all the grief that I will cause you and the difficulties that you will have to face because of me.

My dear Lucie, again, please forgive me. I’m going to Confession now and I hope to see you again in a better place. I die innocent of the crime of desertion of which I stand accused. If, instead of escaping from the Germans, I had remained a prisoner, my life would have been spared. It must be fate.

My last thoughts are for you, right to the end.

Henri Floch

Jean Quinault (to his wife)

I am writing to you my latest news. It’s over for me. I do not have the courage. We had a story in the company. We went to the court martial. We are 6 condemned to death. I am in the six and I am no more guilty than the comrades, but our life is sacrificed for others. Last farewell, dear little woman. It’s over for me. Last letter from me, deceased for a reason of which I do not know well the reason. The officers are all wrong and we are condemned to pay for them. I should never have thought of finishing my days at Vingre, and especially of being shot for so little and not guilty. It never happened, a case like this. I am buried in Vingré

Jean Blanchard (to his wife)

3 December 1914, 11.30 pm

My dear Beloved, it is in great distress that I begin to write to you and if God and the Blessed Virgin do not come to my aid it is for the last time …

I will try in a few words to tell you my situation but I do not know if I can, I do not feel the courage. On November 27, at night, as we occupied a trench facing the enemy, the Germans surprised us, and panicked us, in our trench, we retreated into a trench behind, and we returned to resume our places almost immediately, with this result: a dozen prisoners in the company of which one was in my squad, for this fault our squad (twenty-four men) spent today before the council of war and alas! We are six to pay for all, I can not explain it further to you, my dear friend, I suffer too much; friend Darlet will be able to explain to you better, I have a calm conscience, and submit entirely to the will of God who wants it so; It is this which gives me strength to be able to write to you these words, my dear beloved, who have made me so happy the time that I spent with you and of which I had so much hope to find. December 1 morning we were deposed on what had happened, and when I saw the charge that was brought against us and which no one could suspect, I cried a part of the day and have not had the strength to write to you …

Oh! Blessed be my parents! My poor parents, my poor mother, my poor father, what will become of them when they learn what I have become? O my beloved, my dear Michelle, take good care of my poor parents so long as they are of this world, be their consolation and support in their grief, I leave them to your good care, tell them I have not deserved this hard punishment and we will all find each other in the other world, assist them in their last moments and God will reward you for it, beg my forgiveness of your good parents for the punishment that they will experience by me, tell them well that I loved them very much and that they do not forget me in their prayers, that I was happy to have become their son and to be able to support and care for them their old days but since God has judged otherwise, that His will be done and not mine. Goodbye up there, my dear wife.

Jean


(cc) image from Soissonnais 14-18.

* The “cowards” contended that a falling-back had been ordered by a lieutenant who no doubt was as war-befogged as everyone else. Since this order could have set up Lt. Paulaud himself to be the guy shot for example, he naturally denied issuing it; when the six were exonerated after the war, Paulaud was indicted for perjury, but acquitted.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Mass Executions,Military Crimes,Posthumous Exonerations,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1944: Victor Gough, of Operation Jedburgh

Add comment November 25th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1944, British Capt. Victor Gough was shot at Ehrlich Forest as a German POW.

Gough had been parachuted into occupied France a few months before as part of Operation Jedburgh — a campaign to grow internal anti-German resistance to complement the Allied push via Normandy.*

Unfortunately as Colin Burbidge details in Preserving the Flame, Gough’s destignated stomping-grounds — the Vosges Mountains on the eastern borderlands — had some of France’s most pro-German populace. (Burbidge is Gough’s nephew.)

His complications were exacerbated when his wireless operator was injured — and the wireless set wrecked — in the parachute jump. The British wireless man was soon captured and their third, a French officer, killed in a gunfight, leaving Gough on his own. “Great difficulty working alone,” he managed to report to SOE headquarters. He was finally captured in October of that year, tortured by the Gestapo, and eventually shipped to the labor camp at Gaggenau.

In accordance with Hitler’s anti-saboteur Commando Order Gough was shot at a nearby forest in a gaggle of 14 POWs — six British special forces, four American airmen, and four French civilians. Their fate was discovered in part thanks to a German fellow-prisoner, a former officer in the Wehrmacht who had been sent to the camps for refusing orders to issue his men sawed-off shotguns, a weapon prohibited by the Hague Convention, who escaped shortly before the executions using a British map that Gough gifted him. That Captain Werner Helfen survived the war and gave evidence to a British war crimes investigation.

Many years later, Helfen gave something else too: according to Burbidge, his mother — Gough’s sister — in 1991 received a package from Germany containing a photo of Werner Helfen by Victor Gough’s grave, and the escape map that Gough had given to Helfen.

* Future CIA director William Colby was a notable Jedburgh alumnus.

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1941: Francisc Panet

Add comment November 7th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1941, “the Romanian Einstein” Francisc Panet was shot with his wife Lili and three other Communists at a forest near Jilava.

A chemical engineer by training, Panet or Paneth (English Wikipedia entry | Romanian) was fascinated by the theoretical research then revolutionizing physics.

While studying in Czechoslovakia, his work on elementary particles brought him to Einstein’s attention, and the two met in 1932 and corresponded thereafter. Panet’s advocates claim that Einstein foresaw for him a brilliant future.

But back in a Romania dominated by fascism, his scientific gifts would be required for more urgent and less exalted purposes: cooking homemade explosives in his bathroom for Communist saboteurs.

Eventually the secret police traced the munitions back to Panet, and he and his wife were arrested in a Halloween raid. Condemned to death in a two-hour court martial on November 5, they allegedly went before the fascists’ guns with the Internationale on their lips.

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1922: Ali Kemal

1 comment November 6th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1922, Anglophile Turkish politician Ali Kemal (English Wikipedia entry | Turkish) was lynched by a nationalist mob at Izmit during the Turkish War of Independence.

Though he is even to present-day Turkey the iconic traitor, it would be more generous to take him as the prophet of a future stillborn in the whirlwind of war.

Although he was of their generation, just a few years older than the “Three Pashas”, Kemal was not at all of their ethno-nationalist outlok. A cosmpolitan with a Circassian mother and a British wife — Kemal happens to be the great-grandfather of British pol Boris Johnson* — Kemal clashed with the Young Turks’ political organ and consequentially found European exile more congenial for much of the run-up to World War I. His book Fetret anticipates an inclusive, liberal, and westernized Ottoman Empire. It was a dream that shellfire pounded into mud, and not only for the Ottomans: these were years for national chauvanism run amok.

Politically sidelined within Turkey as the Young Turks steered the empire into war and genocide, Kemal re-emerged post-1918 — when the former empire lay supine before its conquerors — as a minister of state not merely acceptable to the Allied occupation but actively collaborating in its objectives. (Quite impolitic was his co-founding The Association of the Friends of England in Turkey even as England was occupying Istanbul and carving up the defeated empire.)

It is from this that his reputation as a Quisling figure derives, though there is little cause to believe that Kemal undertook these actions in anything other than a spirit of sincere public-service. The fact that he did so under the aegis of foreign domination, however, underscores the futility of his position: that Anglo-friendly, polyglot Turkey of his imaginings was not in the cards.

He and the nationalists were anathema to one another now, and though he resigned from the government in 1919 his university position gave him a platform to continue writing and lecturing against the Ataturk’s growing Turkish National Movement. Curiously, he did not join the sultan in flight from Turkey when the nationalists took the capital in hand and abolished the sultanate. Instead he was arrested having a placid shave at a barber shop by minions of Gen. Nureddin Pasha. The Nov. 13, 1922 New York Times described the horrific aftermath:

Ali Kemal Bey, editor of the anti-Nationalist newspaper Sabah, who was arrested at Ismid on the charge of subversive actions, was killed by a mob after having been officially condemned to death.

He was taken before General Nureddin Pasha who pronounced the death sentence dramatically: “In the name of Islam, in the name of the Turkish nation, I condemn you to death as a traitor.”

Ali Kemal remained passive, uttering no word of protest. His hands tied, he was led to a scaffold.

Before he reached the gibbet, however, an angry mob of women pounced on him, attacking him with knives, stones, clubs, tearing at his clothing and slashing at his body and head with cutlasses.

After a few minutes of excruciating torture, the victim expired. His body was dragged through the streets by the mob and exposed to public gaze on the scaffold for several hours.

The editor’s death has caused profound resentment and emotion in Constantinople, where he was known as one of Turkey’s most enlightened and most impartial citizens.

* Johnson, the former Mayor of London and (as of this writing) Britain’s Secretary of State, embraces this part of his ancestry but things were a little touchier when the Ottoman Empire and British Empire took opposite sides in World War I: at this awkward juncture, Ali Kemal’s English in-laws Anglicized his children’s names, using the surname of his late wife’s mother — Johnson.

Kemal also had a Turkish son by a subsequent marriage; his grandsons via that line, Boris Johnson’s cousins, are a major Istanbul publisher and a Turkish diplomat.

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1591: Brian O’Rourke, Irish lord

Add comment November 3rd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1591, Brian na Múrtha Ó Ruairc — Brian O’Rourke to the English who killed him — was drawn and quartered as a rebel at Tyburn.

O’Rourke was a chieftain in a disappearing world, the Gaelic Ireland that the English had been engaged in reducing ever since King Henry VIII realized that he was King of Ireland back in 1542.

O’Rourke’s patrimony in this Tudor conquest was the kingdom of West Breifne, with a lineage going right back to its 12th century founder. As far as the Tudors were concerned he was just one more truculent local lord to subdue — even if the very “proudest man this day living on the earth.” (per Nicholas Maltby)

O’Rourke’s pride put him into oppositin against the English satrap and even to succor sailors taking refuge from the shattered Spanish Armada in 1588. But fighting in his environs and eventual outright occupation steadily constrained the scope of his autonomy.

In the end it was his brother-Celts in Scotland who finished him: when O’Rourke turned up there in 1591 seeking license to recruit sword-arms there from King James VI (James was not yet James I of England at this point), Queen Elizabeth successfully prevailed upon her Scottish counterpart to arrest and extradite the man — an incident that triggered a riot in Glasgow.

Tried on the highly dubious grounds of treason against England committed in Ireland — plus a lese-majeste incident of having the queen’s image dragged in the mud tossed into the indictment for good measure* — O’Rourke scornfully refused to plead, or to defend himself unless Elizabeth herself would deign to sit in judgment — sovereign to sovereign. The court required only O’Rourke’s body, not his assent, to proceed.

O’Rourke had a sharp enough tongue when minded to deploy it, however. On the scaffold, he witheringly abused the notoriously avaricious bishop Miler Magrath who had been sent to minister to him. Then …

Upon Wednesdaie the 3 of November, Bren O’Royrke was drawne to Tyborne, and there hanged, his members and bowels burned in the fire, his heart taken out, and holden up by the hangman, naming it to be the archtraytors heart, and then did he cast the same into the fire, then was the head stricken off, and his bodie quartered

-John Stowe, The Annales of England (1605) (via)

O’Rourke’s son Brian oge O’Rourke inherited his position, and his struggle, until younger brother Tadgh O’Rourke deposed him with English support. Tadgh died young in 1605 — and with him, West Breifne expired too.

* Enjoy an itemized list of the naughty O’Rourke’s many offenses against English sensibilities from page 144 of this public domain volume.

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1914: Lt. Jean-Julien Chapelant, mort pour la France

2 comments October 11th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1914, the French army shot Lt. Jean-Julien Chapelant as a coward.

Most resources about Lt. Chapelant are in French, as are almost all the links in this post — but within France this case has been contested since the interwar years when his father fought in vain ferocity to reinstate the honor of his son.

Four days before his execution, Chapelant, commanding a machine gun section near a village in the Somme, was captured with four other gunners when the Germans overran their position. Though he’d been shot in the leg, Chapelant managed to escape his captors and return to French lines. (Three of the other gunners escaped, too.)

While the categorical rehabilitation of Great War soldiers “shot at dawn” as cowards or deserters has been a going concern in recent years, Chapelant also has a compelling individual argument that he ought not have been construed such even by the standards of his time.

The luckless lieutenant was shot for “capitulating in open country”. This was at best an extremely prejudicial interpretation of the facts, seemingly one that commanding officers themselves still adjusting to the unexpected prowess of German arms had already settled upon before any proper investigation, out of their pique at losing the position. The verdict was so certain that Chapelant’s commanding officer gave him his revolver back urging him to “burn out his own brains” and save everyone the trouble.

Chapelant refused, insisting that he had done his proper duty, and military justice was edified by the spectacle of a crippled man who could not stand propped up in his stretcher against an apple tree for the tender ministry of his firing squad.

“I die innocent. You will all know it later,” he told his executioners — then added, futile wish, “do not tell my parents.”

Although we have been treated in these pages to the heartbreaking scene of an officer comforting a man about to be shot with the remark that “yours also is a way of dying for France,” the idea has until very recently been confined to the precincts of personal sentiment and certainly not to the institutions responsible for the dying.

On November 11, 2012the centennary of Lt. Chapelant’s execution* — he was ceremonially rehabilitated and his death officially ascribed to that same cause that laid so many of his comrades low: “mort pour la France.”

* Adding round numbers is hard, apparently.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,Execution,France,History,Military Crimes,Ripped from the Headlines,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1802: Sanite Belair, tigress

Add comment October 5th, 2016 Headsman

On October 5, 1802, Haitian soldier Suzanne Bélair, called Sanité Bélair, was shot with her husband by the French.

This “tigress” is the most famous of the Haitian Revolution’s numerous female protagonists. A free black woman, she married Charles Belair, the nephew and aide of the man who in the 1790s established pre-eminence on Saint-DomingueToussaint L’Ouverture.

L’Ouverture tragically vacillated when the French made their move in 1802 to reverse the revolution’s gains and re-establish slavery, but the tigress rallied General Belair to take the field in resistance — and not only rallied him, but fought alongside him as a regular in his army, attaining the rank of Lieutenant.

It’s said that at her capture, when threatened with beheading, she successfuly asserted the right to an honorable soldier’s death by musketry, and standing before their muzzles cried “Viv libète! Anba esclavaj!” (“Long live freedom! Down with slavery!”)

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,France,Haiti,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Revolutionaries,Shot,Soldiers,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1921: Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg

Add comment September 15th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1921, the Mad Baron* of the Russian Civil War was shot in Novosibirsk.


“Before fleeing the Red Army, Whites torch the grain”: civil war propaganda poster from this spellbinding collection.

Were you a Bolshevik propagandist during that war, interested in portraying the tsarist rearguard as literally a gaggle of psychopathic foreigners, Roman von Ungern-Sternberg was some kind of godsend. (Here’s his English Wikipedia page | German | Russian)

A German-descended lord in Estonia whose family owed its ennoblement to the exercises of the “crusaders and privateers” (the baron’s words, perhaps holding more of self-promotion than truth) up the family tree. One ancestor was supposedly a notorious Baltic Sea pirate.

Ungern — he’s often known simply by the one name — had the courage of rash irascibility; as a tsarist officer in the years ahead of the Great War he was notorious for his hard drinking and penchant for fighting duels.** Expelled from his regiment, he wandered in the transbaikal and beyond, picking up the Mongolian tongue and Buddhist occultism into the bargain.† He returned to fight in the European front up to 1917 like a loyal Russian, and got court martialed for attempted murder after one of his furies, but his destiny lay in the East.

The man was a ferocious monarchist and a disdainer of the “morally deficient” West — unto which he would make a terrible scourge when the hated Communists seized the state. Ungern had been at that time collaborating with Grigory Semenov to raise non-Russian troops from the peoples on the fringes of Moscow’s empire; now they would become with those troops warlords holding out against the Reds, Ungern returning to establish himself in Mongolia — indeed, as the power in an unsettled frontier itself between two revolutions. Prior to his execution in 1921, he was the dictator of Mongolia, the power behind the throne of the very last khan — and that wasn’t the half of it for Ungern also positioned himself as an avatar of the very God of War.

Certainly he strove to justify this colorful apotheosis by dint of a legendary bloodthirstiness, now that he had armies and states into which to pour his violent passions instead of merely rival barracks-mates.

Reports of Ungern’s sadism almost beggar belief and might have profited by extra embroidery since both the man and his enemies inclined to show him in the most implacable light imaginable. As James Boyd points out in “‘A Very Quiet, Outspoken, Pleasant Gentleman[sic]': The United States Military Attache’s Reports on Baron von Ungern-Sternberg, March 1921″ in Inner Asia, vol. 12, no. 2 (2010), much of what we think we know of his behavior traces ultimately to the less than reliable (albeit firsthand) pen of a traveler named Ferdinand Antoni Ossendowski.

The latter was a Polish wanderer who went to Mongolia. Ossendowski became Ungern’s friend, but he’d already been born a prose-purpler. Ossendowski’s account of his and his soon-to-be-ex-traveling companion first encountering “the terrible general, the Baron” would curl your hair.

After a talk with Kazagrandi the Baron invited Colonel N. N. Philipoff and me into his presence. Colonel Kazagrandi brought the word to me. I wanted to go at once but was detained about half an hour by the Colonel, who then sped me with the words:

“Now God help you! Go!”

It was a strange parting message, not reassuring and quite enigmatical. I took my Mauser and also hid in the cuff of my coat my cyanide of potassium. The Baron was quartered in the yurta of the military doctor. When I entered the court, Captain Veseloffsky came up to me. He had a Cossack sword and a revolver without its holster beneath his girdle. He went into the yurta to report my arrival.

“Come in,” he said, as he emerged from the tent.

At the entrance my eyes were struck with the sight of a pool of blood that had not yet had time to drain down into the ground — an ominous greeting that seemed to carry the very voice of one just gone before me. I knocked.

“Come in!” was the answer in a high tenor. As I passed the threshold, a figure in a red silk Mongolian coat rushed at me with the spring of a tiger, grabbed and shook my hand as though in flight across my path and then fell prone on the bed at the side of the tent.

“Tell me who you are! Hereabouts are many spies and agitators,” he cried out in an hysterical voice, as he fixed his eyes upon me. In one moment I perceived his appearance and psychology. A small head on wide shoulders; blonde hair in disorder; a reddish bristling moustache; a skinny, exhausted face, like those on the old Byzantine ikons. Then everything else faded from view save a big, protruding forehead overhanging steely sharp eyes. These eyes were fixed upon me like those of an animal from a cave. My observations lasted for but a flash but I understood that before me was a very dangerous man ready for an instant spring into irrevocable action.

He is a warrior in the 20th century’s great ideological battle, yes, but it is difficult to capture in an excerpt like this the spellbinding and queer monster that Ossendowski presents us, a European landlord able to bend Asiatic mythology to his person until charges who were convinced that Ungern could not be slain were “rushing about in long blue coats; Mongols and Tibetans in red coats with yellow epaulets bearing the swastika of Jenghiz Khan and the initials of the Living Buddha.”

Ossendowski would describe the Baron’s savagery in lurid reverence in his Beasts, Men and Gods

Thus lived this camp of martyrs, refugees pursued by events to their tryst with Death, driven on by the hate and contempt of this offspring of Teutons and privateers! And he, martyring them, knew neither day nor night of peace. Fired by impelling, poisonous thoughts, he tormented himself with the pains of a Titan, knowing that every day in this shortening chain of one hundred thirty links brought him nearer to the precipice called “Death.” also permit Ungern to have his own say for himself.

— but also sympathetically channel Ungern’s self-vindication:

“Some of my associates in the movement do not like me because of my atrocities and severity,” he remarked in a sad voice. “They cannot understand as yet that we are not fighting a political party but a sect of murderers of all contemporary spiritual culture. Why do the Italians execute the ‘Black Hand’ gang? Why are the Americans electrocuting anarchistic bomb throwers? and I am not allowed to rid the world of those who would kill the soul of the people? I, a Teuton, descendant of crusaders and privateers, I recognize only death for murderers!”

Ungern’s khanate became increasingly squeezed between the Red Army and Chinese nationalist forces, and he was finally driven out by a mutiny to eventual capture by the Soviets — who found the white War-God alone in the deserts that had answered his mastery, clad in the saffron robes of his deposed estate. There was none of his rage on display at his short trial; Ungern full well knew his fate, and when mockingly offered his life by the judge if he would humiliate himself by singing the “Internationale,” the defendant cleverly countered by daring the judge first to sing the tsarist national anthem. As it should for any mystic, Ungern’s enigma outlived his fleshing form.

“You can interpret Ungern as you wish,” Leonid Yuzefovich wrote,‡

as a hero of the anti-Bolshevik struggle, a brigand-chief, a Eurasian in the saddle; as a predecessor to fascism, a medieval fossil, a herald of future global clashes between East and West, a creator of one of the darkest utopias of the twentieth century; as one of the tyrants that grow on the remnants of great empires, or as a maniac, inebriated with the crude extracts of great ideas. But whatever you think, in all these variants the fate of that Baltic baron who became the ruler of Mongolia, in all its frightening unreality conceals some answers to the crucial questions of the epoch.

* Not to be confused with the Black Baron, a stone-faced Germanic nobleman named Peter Wrangel who wound up commanding White forces in southern Russia during the same war. Wrangel (as “Vrangel”) enjoyed a prominent role as public enemy no. 1 in anti-White propaganda.


“Vrangel is coming!” (same site)

** In one such fray, Ungern-Sternberg picked up a nasty saber knock to the noggin. It’s been speculated that the unbalanced behavior of his later life owed a lot to that head injury: concussions are no joke.

† Biographical details heavily cribbed from Canfield Smith, “The Ungernovshchina — How and Why?” in Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas, Bd. 28, H. 4 (1980), pp. 590-595.

‡ Quote via a review of The Autocrat of the Desert by Julia Latynina in History Workshop Journal, no. 39 (Spring 1995).

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Mongolia,Nobility,Power,Russia,Shot,Soldiers,Treason,USSR,Wartime Executions

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9: The Battle of Teutoburg Forest

Add comment September 11th, 2016 Headsman


Zum Kampf! Zum Kampf! from Max Bruch‘s 1877 oratorio about Teutoburg Forest victor Arminius. Also be sure to check out the Handel opera.

September 11 in the year 9 AD marked the bloody conclusion of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest — the engagement that permanently scared the Romans off Germany.

One of history’s true turning-point battles, Teutoberg Forest abruptly stanched decades of expansion that had seen Roman arms ascendant from Britain to the Levant. Indeed, the Roman commander who had the dishonor of falling on his sword at this legendary defeat, Publius Quinctilius Varus, was an experienced imperial patrician as well-traveled as the Roman standards who has been seen in these very pages collaborating with the Judean King Herod to execute Herod’s former heir.

But it was in the shadows and bogs of Germany’s primeval forests that Varus made his legacy to the world, which was to have his name famously bemoaned by facepalming Emperor Augustus once news of the disaster made its way back to the Eternal City.

Prior to this cataclysm, the empire had been working a years-long plan to annex fringe chunks of the vast Magna Germania beyond the Rhine and Danube rivers with its customary view towards eventually bossing the whole place. “Upper Germania” and “Lower Germania” to the west of Magna Germania already answered to Rome, testament to recent campaigns launched from neighboring Gaul;* the vast frontier beyond peopled by fractious warring barbarian tribes, with whom Rome cut strategic divide-and-conquer alliances, appeared to promise a future march of Roman glories all the way to the Baltic Sea.

This imperial hubris was shattered at a blow by the Cheruscan chief Arminius, who thereby made his name immortal to Germany.**

He had the element of surprise on his side, because his family had been such loyal Roman allies that Arminius had been trained up in the Roman army as a youth, and even held Roman citizenship. Whatever it was he experienced seems to have nurtured an implacable desire him to keep it away form his homeland. When the time came his familiarity with Roman military orders would be a high card in his hand, too.

Back in Germania, Arminius maintained his overt affiliation with Rome but started sending out feelers to assemble a confederation against the legions. He played this double game so adroitly that Varus still trusted his “ally” implicitly when Arminius reported a Germanic uprising that wanted Roman chastisement. Blind to his danger, Varus duly (and with casual discipline that would read very culpably in retrospect) marched his 17th, 18th, and 19th legions out through the unfamiliar glooms of the Teutoburg Forest.

It was a right massacre.

Their column broken up by rough terrain and pounding autumn rains, the Romans were ripe pickings for German sorties beginning on September 9. Harried by the Germans over two days’ panicked marching, the Romans were pressed into a dead end where palisades trapped the desperate legions at the edge of a slough and put them to slaughter. A bare handful escaped to tell the tale, and no future legion would bear the numerals of those annihilated on this day.


Varusschlacht, by Otto Albert Koch (1909).

The scale of the defeat, by rude tribesmen the empire always counted on being able to bully, beggared the Roman imagination.

“An army unexcelled in bravery, the first of Roman armies in discipline, in energy, and in experience in the field, through the negligence of its general, the perfidy of the enemy, and the unkindness of fortune was surrounded,” Paterculus lamented. “Hemmed in by forests and marshes and ambuscades, it was exterminated almost to a man by the very enemy whom it had always slaughtered like cattle, whose life or death had depended solely upon the wrath or the pity of the Romans.”

To judge by Roman reports — and what gives this event a purchase on the annals of Executed Today — the battlefield rout transitioned directly to the ceremonial butchery of captives. (As well as the posthumous beheading of the suicide Varus.) While some suffered torture and execution, others were offered as ritual sacrifices to the Germanic gods who had so magnificently delivered the day.

Several years later, a Roman force out to re-capture the lost standards of the Teutoburg legions reached the site of the empire’s humiliation. Tacitus describes the scene as a horror.

In the center of the field were the whitening bones of men, as they had fled, or stood their ground, strewn everywhere or piled in heaps. Near lay fragments of weapons and limbs of horses, and also human heads, prominently nailed to trunks of trees. In the adjacent groves were the barbarous altars, on which they had immolated tribunes and first-rank centurions.

Some survivors of the disaster who had escaped from the battle or from captivity, described how this was the spot where the officers fell, how yonder the eagles were captured, where Varus was pierced by his first wound, where too by the stroke of his own ill-starred hand he found for himself death. They pointed out too the raised ground from which Arminius had harangued his army, the number of gibbets for the captives, the pits for the living, and how in his exultation he insulted the standards and eagles.

And so the Roman army now on the spot, six years after the disaster, in grief and anger, began to bury the bones of the three legions, not a soldier knowing whether he was interring the relics of a relative or a stranger, but looking on all as kinsfolk and of their own blood, while their wrath rose higher than ever against the foe.

Despite the devastation, Teutoburg Forest was no extinction-level event for the Roman Empire. The Rhine and Danube frontiers remained an ongoing source of action for the many centuries to come, but despite raids and incursions here or there Rome never more seriously aspired to Magna Germania.

A few books about the Battle of Teutoburg Forest

* The future emperor Tiberius campaigned heavily in Germania, the last of which was post-Varus operations from 10 to 12 AD sufficient to permit the Romans to declare an honorably victorious conclusion to the project. (Tiberius celebrated a Triumph afterwards.)

** Arminius — whose name has been held equivalent with “Hermann” — has been the subject of many literary celebratins in a nationalist vein, great business especially in the 19th century.


The Hermannsdenkmal nomument in the Teutoburg Forest, the life’s labor of sculptor Ernst von Bandel who was able to finish it thanks to a mood of national exultation after the triumph of the Franco-Prussian War. For some reason it has a sister in Minnesota. ((cc) image by Hubert Berberich.)

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Cycle of Violence,Execution,Germany,History,Known But To God,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Put to the Sword,Roman Empire,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Torture,Uncertain Dates,Wartime Executions

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1914: Thomas Highgate, the first shot in the Great War

Add comment September 8th, 2016 Headsman

The British military shot 306 soldiers for desertion or cowardice during World War I, but the very first of them was 19-year-old Thomas Highgate on September 8, 1914.

This Kent farmhand and former seaman had enlisted back in 1913, before the world fell apart and that meant that even though Highgate was a trained up and ready to go when the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment deployed to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force. Young Master Highgate had the honor of participating in the first British engagement of the Great War, the Battle of Mons.

The ensuing Retreat from Mons scrambled the BEF, sprinkling the French countryside with stragglers, though there is little evidence that these men represented a trend towards wholesale desertion as against the disorder inherent to the retreat. The horrors of trench warfare still lay in the (very near) future but perhaps British commanders who aspired to put the Hun to jolly rout were already shaken by the dawning reality of a long and inglorious slog.

“Everyone has a plan ’til they get punched in the mouth,” Mike Tyson once quipped. In Blindfold and Alone: British Military Executions in the Great War, Cathryn Corns and John Hughes-Wilson suggest that BEF Commander-in-Chief John French had become a bit unmanned by the punches the Germans had thrown at his beautiful army* and fired off the memo that would doom Thomas Highgate in an embarrassed panic.

The C in C views with grave displeasure the straggling which still continues … and has reason to think that in certain cases sufficient effort is not being made to rejoin units. … All ranks will in the event of being detached from their units use every effort to [rejoin] … and [will face] severe punishment if there is reason to suppose that every effort has not been made.

“I have the feeling that what we are looking at here is a crisis of confidence amongst the senior officers and not necessarily anything to do with Highgate himself,” said historian Julian Putkowski, author of Shot at Dawn: Executions in World War One by Authority of the British Army Act.

On September 5, Highgate slipped away from his unit to relieve himself, then just stayed away. “I got strolling about, went down into a farm, lay down in an empty house,” he would explain to his court-martial. (For whom Highgate’s inability to account for doffing his military duds played very ill.**) A few hours later, he had the rum luck to be found by a manor gamekeeper who happened to be a former British soldier. “I have lost my army,” Highgate declared, “and I mean to get out of it.” The private suggested to his judges that the sense of this remark was to express his intent to return (i.e., get out of the barn).

The court martial didn’t buy it: here was the public example to make as a sop to the boss’s anti-straggling ukase. There was little time wasted.

Highgate was condemned on the 6th, the death sentence endorsed by superior officers on the 7th, and it was carried into effect on the morning of the 8th — Highgate having the benefit of only 47 minutes’ advance notice, just enough time to scribble a tear-jerking “will” leaving the remains of his salary due to a girlfriend in Dublin. His execution was published in army orders a few days later — a little warning to the rest of the team.

* French would be relieved of BEF command in 1916.

** Dressing in civvies reads pretty badly, but slumming in more comfortable French peasant gear too was a (disturbingly, to the brass) common indiscipline in these days. Adrian Gilbert in Challenge of Battle: The Real Story of the British Army in 1914 quotes a cross directive of Brig. Gen. Forestier-Walker: “No unauthorized articles of dress should be allowed. Articles of civilian pattern are absolutely prohibited … The crime of throwing away clothing must be severely dealt with.” To be fair, Forestier-Walker had in mind ad hoc amendments to the gear, like tossing the army cap in favor of a shady straw hat, more so than wholesale wardrobe changes.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,England,Execution,France,History,Milestones,Military Crimes,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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