Posts filed under 'Wartime Executions'

1942: Coastwatchers on Tarawa

Add comment October 15th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1942, the Japanese military occupying the atoll of Tarawa beheaded 17 New Zealand Coastwatchers, along with five civilians.

Tarawa, a fishhook-shaped atoll that belongs to the Republic of Kiribati, was one of many specks of South Pacific land to which Australia and New Zealand deployed World War II Coastwatchers.

These small teams of mixed civilian and service personnel, as well as locals, kept up 24-hour watch for Japanese naval movements.* The tips provided by coastwatchers in the Solomon Islands during the Guadalcanal campaign led Vice Admiral William Halsey to exclaim that “the coastwatchers saved Guadalcanal, and Guadalcanal saved the Pacific.”

But their lonely forward positions also potentially exposed coastwatchers to considerable danger.

Even as Guadalcanal was unfolding in August and September in 1942, Japan was fortifying the occupied Gilbert Islands** (present-day Kiribati) in the wake of the Makin Island raid. Seventeen coastwatchers in the Gilberts were swept up in the process, and transferred to Tarawa along with five civilians (three British, one Australian, and one New Zealander). There they were held at the atoll’s old lunatic asylum, on the islet of Betio.

On Oct. 15, Allied planes bombed Tarawa. One of the captives got loose and ran onto the beach, frantically trying to signal the bombers. Instead, the Japanese — who fretted prisoners on their occupied islands becoming a fifth column in the event of an attack — summarily executed not only the signaler but all their captives.

“I saw the Europeans sitting in line,” one Tarawa local remembered later.

One Japanese started to kill the Europeans. He cut off the head of the first European, then the second, then the third, then I did not see any more because I fainted. When I came to, I saw the Japanese carrying the dead bodies to two pits.

In November 1943, a U.S. amphibious invasion took back the island at the bloody Battle of Tarawa. Twelve hundred Americans, and several times that many of the island’s Japanese defenders and Korean war slaves, were slain.

Old gun emplacements from that battle — as well as a monument to the New Zealand coastwatchers — can still be found on Tarawa.†

Catch these sights while they last. The average height above sea level for Kiribati is two meters, making global climate change liable to send the nation’s scattered islands to Atlantis. Kiribati residents have already begun turning up in Australia and New Zealand as climate change refugees.


(cc) image from Nick Hobgood.

* When the occasion arose, coastwatchers also rescued stranded Allied servicemen. After LTJG John F. Kennedy’s torpedo boat was rammed by a Japanese aircraft carrier in August 1942, it was a pair of Solomon Island natives dispatched by an Australian coastwatcher who found the future U.S. President and his surviving crew.

** Seven other coastwatchers besides those beheaded this date had been captured in the Gilberts when Japan first (but lightly) occupied it following Pearl Harbor. They survived the war as POWs in mainland Japan.

† There was a monument to the dead coastwatchers from shortly after the war. The remains of the seventeen, however, were long neglected by the New Zealand government, and have only recently been turned up … by Americans scouring Betio for casualties from the Battle of Tarawa.

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1990: The October 13 Massacre

Add comment October 13th, 2014 Headsman

This date is the dolorous anniversary of the “October 13 massacre”, a bloodbath wrapping up the Lebanese Civil War when the Syrian army executed hundreds of captured Lebanese.

The intractable war, which dated back to 1975 and made “Beirut” a 1980s watchword for conflict, had boiled down* to two rival governments: a Maronite military government based in East Beirut under the leadership of Michel Aoun, and the Syrian-sponsored Muslim government in West Beirut putatively headed by Selim al-Hoss. Over the course of 1989-1990 Aoun’s “war of liberation” against the occupying Syrian army all but emptied the city of Beirut.

Thanks to a complex political schism, Aoun was also ensconced in the city’s presidential palace from which he issued decrees denouncing and rejecting the political settlement that was supposed to return the country to normalcy.

Unfortunately for him — and moreso for the prisoners who are the day’s topic — Aoun was also supported by Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein. In August 1990, Hussein invaded Kuwait, precipitating an American attack on Iraq in response.

As this latter operation involved the U.S. attacking a Muslim oil-producing state with military resources it deployed for that purpose the politically sensitive sands of a neighboring Muslim oil-producing, the U.S. spent the last months of 1990 working the Middle East diplomatic circuit to bring the region’s governments on board for the impending bout of ultraviolence.

Syria’s particular carrot was the green light to finish off Aoun — who, simultaneously, had of course been deprived of aid from the now-preoccupied Iraqis. This the Syrian army did with a massive attack on Beirut’s presidential palace beginning at 7 in the morning on October 13th. The palace was overcome by 10 that morning, but resistance continued elsewhere throughout the day from pro-Aoun militias who had not received word of that gentleman’s surrender and escape to the French embassy.**

Several hundred people were killed during the onslaught into pro-Aoun enclaves. An unknown number of these ballparked to around two or three hundred are thought to have been killed by summary execution after capture (or after intentional rounding-up). A Lebanese nurse claimed that at the nearby village of Dahr al-Wahsh “I counted between 75 and 80 [executed] … Most of them had a bullet in the back of their heads or in their mouth. The corpses still carried the mark of cords around their wrists.” Other captured Lebanese fighters were reportedly deported to Syria and never heard from again.

There are several other atrocity accounts collected here. This two-part documentary on the end of the Lebanese civil war available on YouTube has several participants’ perspectives (including Aoun’s) on the chaotic situation marking the war’s last days: 1, 2.

* This is quite a gross oversimplification of a fractious civil conflict in which innumerable blocs continually rearranged their alliances.

“I had a chart on my wall of the constantly proliferating militias — four dozen or so by the time I left in 1985 — and their constantly shifting alliances and enmities,” one former Beirut denizen wrote recently. “Allies one day could be trying to kill one another the next, even within sects, over issues that had digressed far from their common cause.”

** Aoun went into exile in France, returning in 2005 when the Cedar Revolution finally drove the still-occupying Syrians out of Lebanon. He has served in the Lebanese parliament since that time, leading the country’s largest Christian party.

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610: Phocas, “will you rule better?”

Add comment October 5th, 2014 Headsman

It was on this date in 610 that the Byzantine Emperor Phocas was overthrown and put to summary execution — by the very hand, legend says, of his successor Heraclius.*

Perhaps Byzantium’s most anathematized emperor — one Byzantine historian elided his whole 8-year reign because “speaking of suffering is itself suffering” — Phocas’s own rise to the purple owed itself to extrajudicial executions.

That gentleman was a mere army officer of no regal proximity during the previous emperor’s campaigns to ward off the incursions of the Slavs and Avars into the Balkans. While this campaign on the whole enjoyed its successes, Phocas enters the historical scene about 600 as the leader of a delegation sent from the legions to Constantinople to object when the cash-poor imperial court refused to pony up ransom money for comrade soldiers taken prisoner. Phocas was abused at court, and the Avars executed their hostages.

By 602 the policy of having the soldiery take it in the braccae (soldiers’ own allotments had also been pinched by the same budget strictures) blew back when the foul-tempered army was ordered to winter on the far side of the remote Danube. The government collapsed in the face of a military mutiny; Phocas was crowned emperor; and he executed the former emperor Maurice, plus Maurice’s six sons. Much as we are accustomed to think of the old Roman emperors ever on the edge of violent overthrow, this event was for its contemporaries a great novelty and a dangerous precedent. There had not been a regime change by coup d’etat in Constantinople since that city’s namesake set it up as his capital nearly three centuries before.

This fact is a small part of Phocas’s vile reputation for later historians. But — and we will come to this — that reputation is also heavily colored by the perspective of the regime that would eventually overthrow Phocas himself. For Phocas’s subjects, while he had subjects, he was very far form universally hated. He found particular favor with the church, delivering the gorgeous pagan Pantheon to the pontiffs for use as a church. When touring the Rome, you might learn that the very last imperial monument in the Forum is the Column of Phocas.**


Erected in gratitude by the Exarch of Ravenna.

Phocas’s reign, however, was defined by war with the Persians. And it was in the time of Phocas that King Khosrau, who actually owed his throne to previous Roman support, started breaking through the weakened Byzantine frontiers and tearing off huge pieces of territory.

By the last years of Phocas the Persians had taken Upper Mesopotamia and Armenia, and begun pressing into Anatolia where resistance collapsed with frightful ease. A Persian raid reached as far as Chalcedon in 608. There’s just something about having an enemy army in the suburbs of your capital that tends to overwhelm the value of any goodwill you got from cozying up to the pope.

In that same year (and this was surely a factor in the Persians’ shocking penetration into Anatolia) the Exarch of Africa began a revolt against the former centurion wearing the purple. From his position he was able to cut off grain shipments to the capital from the empire’s breadbasket, Egypt, which put Phocas in a truly desperate position. This exarch’s name was Heraclius but it was the man’s son, also named Heraclius, who would do the usurping.

Approaching the capital in 610, the Heraclii were able to quickly gather allies. Even the Excubitors, Constantinople’s Praetorian Guards under the leadership here of Phocas’s own son-in-law, saw where the winds were blowing and deserted immediately.

The rebels took Constantinople without a fight, and two patricians seized Phocas and presented him to the new sovereign.

“Is this how you have ruled, wretch?”

To which Phocas sneered,

“And will you rule better?”

Heraclius wasn’t in in the mood to be upstaged by his doomed predecessor, and got the latter’s execution, together with his own immediate coronation, enacted straighaway.

his right arm was removed from the shoulder, as well as his head, his hand was impaled on a sword, and thus it was paraded along the Mese, starting from the Forum. His head was put on a pole, and thus it too was paraded around. The rest of the body was dragged along on the belly, and was brought in the direction of the Chalce of the Hippodrome … And about the ninth hour of the same Monday, heraclius was crowned emperor in the most holy Great Church by Sergius patriarch of Constantinople. And on the following day, Tuesday … the head of Leontius the syrian [the former finance minister] was brought in and burnt in the Hippodrome, along with the image of Phocas which during his lifetime, foolish men wearing white robes had conducted into the Hippodrome with lighted candles. (Chronicon Paschale, as quoted here)

As if in retort to Phocas’s dying taunt, Heraclius held power for 30 distinguished years — “the brightness of the meridian sun,” in the estimation of Gibbon, for “the honor of Rome and Heraclius was gloriously retrieved by the exploits and trophies of six adventurous campaigns” that rescued Byzantium from the brink of destruction, drove back the Persians, enlarged the empire, and even returned the True Cross to Jerusalem. Heraclius himself commanded the army in the field, a practice long out of fashion for emperors. “Since the days of Scipio and Hannibal, no bolder enterprise has been attempted than that which Heraclius achieved for the deliverance of the empire.”

Phocas’s reputation did not profit from the comparison, and for Heraclius the last guy made a convenient foil to whom every evil of the realm could be attributed. We know Phocas almost exclusively through the accounts of later historians dating to this period, which is undoubtedly a factor in the black name our principal enjoys all the way to the present. The excellent History of Byzantium podcast attempts a balanced portrait of this era in an episode aptly named “In Fairness to Phocas”. The subsequent episode, “Heraclius to the Rescue”, deals with Phocas’s unpleasant exit from the scene.

* The new emperor personally executing his rival had a Roman precedent.

** Other Phocas achievement: he re-introduced the beard onto the imperial fashion scene. His predecessors had almost universally gone for the clean-cut look.

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1925: Shi Congbin, grievance

Add comment October 4th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1925 the Chinese warlord Sun Chuanfang had a captured enemy commander beheaded. In so doing, he signed his own death warrant too.

Deep into China’s Warlord Era, the chaotic decade-plus after the collapsing empire gave way to a fractured republic. From 1916 to 1928, leagues of rival generals cut China into jigsaw pieces.

The chiefs of these shifting statelets, being warlords, fought numerous wars.

Sun Chuangfang, one of the generals of a warlord party known as the Zhili clique, was engaged in the south in 1925 in a campaign whose successful resolution would ultimately install him in Nanking with effective control of five provinces. In the service of achieving such a power base he must have thought little about destroying an enemy commander caught in a counterattack and mounting the man’s severed head on a pike to cow any opposition.

According to Eugenia Lean’s book about the amazing incident,

On October 3, 1925, while leading the Superior Iron Brigade (Tiejia jun), a brigade of mercenary troops, in an attempt to capture Guzhen, Shandong, Shi Congbin was surrounded by Sun Chuanfang’s troops with no support in sight. Shi’s four thousand soldiers were slaughtered, while Shi himself was taken prisoner and beheaded the next day upon Sun’s personal order. Shi Jianqiao [Shi Congbin's daughter] related in heart-wrenching detail how her family would not have learned the truth except for the bravery and loyalty of one of Shi Congbin’s personal servants. “Only a single servant was able to flee home. When we asked him about news from the front line, he threw himself to the ground in tears. We knew the news was not good.” The servant had been too grief-stricken to speak. Only after he Shi family had gone to Tianjin did they learn all the facts behind Shi Congbin’s death.

The named daughter Shi Jianqiao was about 20 years old when she received this devastating news.

Years elapsed. The general, as we have said, rose to his acme, and then fell, and retired, and like as not he had never in the following decade tarried over the destruction Shi Congbin.

But Shi Jianqiao did. She nursed her grievance and her sense of filial honor until when she was 30, she at last found her opportunity to strike back at her father’s slayer. Approaching the by-then-long-retired general as he performed Buddhist meditations, the faithful daughter shot him three times.

The supporting cast in Shi’s tale of revenge included the grieving widow and the suffering family her father had left behind. Even though there is little indication that the Shi family underwent any real financial strain, Shi Jianqiao nonetheless insisted that Shi Conbin’s death meant that a poor widow and six children, four of whom were still young, were left to fend for themselves. Sun Chuanfang was directly to blame for her family’s plight. The way in which Shi portrayed her mother was particularly important. Traditionally, dutiful daughters and chaste wives were expected to commit suicide if their fathers o husbands were killed unjustly. Such an extreme gesture was meant as an ultimate expression of loyalty and protest against injustice. But in this twentieth-century tale, Shi Jianqiao did not commit suicide and, moreover, justified her decision to live in terms of her filial piety to her mother. She portrayed her mother as particularly grief-stricken by the affair and argued that she needed to right the wrong committed against her father on behalf of her mother. In her GGRS, Shi declared, “Although all I wanted to do was die, my elderly moter’s illness gave me the will to live.” In her will, she stated, with similar effect, “To my dear mother … what I have been hiding from you for years, I can no longer hide. Our enemy has not yet been retaliated [against]. Father’s death can no longer be obscured … A sacrifice should be made for father’s revenge. In the future, five children will still be able to wait on you. They are all dutiful.” Shi Jianqiao’s act of revenge would be the ultimate gesture of filial piety, while her remaining siblings would be able to wait on her elderly mother in more mundane ways throughout the rest of her mother’s life.

Shi Jianqiao’s family loyalty attracted so much sympathy in China that she received a free pardon and even became a symbol of national resistance against the Japanese occupation. She died in 1979.

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1469: Humphrey and Charles Neville, Lancastrians

Add comment September 29th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1469, Lancastrian nobleman Sir Humphrey Neville and his brother Charles were beheaded at York under the eyes of King Edward IV.

These Nevilles — cousins to the Bastard of Faulconbridge, who we have met previously in these pages — lost their heads in the Lancastrian cause during England’s War(s) of the Roses over royal legitimacy.

For the Nevilles, as indeed for the House of Lancaster in general, everything had gone pear-shaped with the 1461 deposition of the feebleminded Lancastrian ruler Henry VI. That seated on Albion’s throne the Yorkist contender Edward IV; the imprisoned Henry’s queen, Margaret of Anjou — who had already been the effective sovereign in view of Henry’s mental incapacitation — retreated to Scotland. Humphrey Neville was among the irreconcilable Lancastrians who went with her; he would be captured raiding into England later that same year of 1461.

The House of Neville being one of the greatest in northern England (and having under its roof adherents to both white rose and red), Neville had his life secured by royal pardon and even received a knighthood from the usurping king — just the messy expediency of court politics.

The problem was that Neville just wouldn’t stay bought. 1464 finds him back in the field on the wrong team when the Lancastrians were routed at the Battle of Hexham; it is said that he hied himself thereafter to a cave on the banks of the Derwent and survived an outlaw, for five long years.

In 1469 Neville reappeared on the scene along with the shattered Lancastrian cause when the “Kingmaker” Earl of Warwick (yet another Neville) turned against King Edward and took him into custody — with the invaluable assistance of various northern disturbances in favor of the Lancastrian cause, a ruckus that Humphrey Neville probably helped to raise.

Warwick, however, found his own position as jailer of the king untenable. Neither could he himself quell the Lancastrian ultras who intended a proper restoration and not merely leveraging the royal prisoner — so to Warwick’s chagrin, he was forced to release King Edward in order to raise the army needed to move against the Lancastrian rebels who were supposed to be his allies.

Neville’s rising, and then Neville himself, were dispatched with ease — but the cost of doing so was the imminent failure of the entire Lancastrian movement.

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1944: A Dutch Kapo named Raphaelson

1 comment September 27th, 2014 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On an unspecified Saturday afternoon in September 1944, a Dutch Jew was hanged before a crowd of thousands in Blechhammer, a Nazi forced-labor camp that was a subcamp of Monowitz, which was in turn a subcamp of Auschwitz.

Witness Israel J. Rosengarten, describing the event forty-five years later, identified the executed man as “Raphaelson” and described him as “about twenty-four years old … a very capable carpenter.”

Yad Vashem’s Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names includes an entry for a Rudolf Israel Raphaelsohn that seems to fit: he was born in Berlin in 1922, spent the war in the Netherlands, and perished in Blechhammer in 1944. His individual page of testimony describes his occupation as “sawmill owner.” This is probably, but not definitely, our man.

Rosengarten wrote about Raphaelson’s execution in his book Survival: The Story of a Sixteen-Year-Old Jewish Boy, published in 1999. According to him, Raphaelson was a Kapo, meaning he had certain privileges and a position of leadership over other Jews in the camp, sort of like a prison trusty.

He met his death through sheer bad luck.

By 1944, Blechhammer was being bombed by the Americans on a regular basis. As Rosengarten records,

Book CoverThis Kapo had seen a bomb lying on the ground, which had not exploded. It was split open, but the mechanism had not detonated. The Kapo saw a yellow powder lying in the middle of the split bomb. He obviously did not realize it was dynamite. Because we had no washing powder in the camp, he got the idea of smuggling some of that yellow powder into the camp in a parcel to see if it could be used as a washing powder.

While he was busy taking the powder in, he was caught by an SS man. He was whipped until he fell down. Next, when he came into the camp he was sent to the Politische Abteilung. The SS of the political department drew up a protocol in which it was stated that Raphaelson … had “plundered” the dynamite and that he had done it with the intention of committing “sabotage.” His deed was stamped as a “terror against the Third Reich.” Raphaelson was then forced to sign the statement.

And then … the SS let him go.

He was not relieved of his position as Kapo. He was not transferred to a punishment detail. A whole four weeks passed by and the incident was never mentioned, and the inmates, who had enough to worry about in their difficult day-to-day existence, forgot all about it.

Raphaelson’s execution took everyone completely by surprise. Everyone came back to camp after a hard day’s work and noticed the SS were all in dress uniform and parading them around as if some important holiday was being celebrated.

The inmates weren’t allowed to go to their barracks as normal. Instead they were assembled in the center of camp, where a gallows had been set up.

It turned out the confession Raphaelson had been signed had been sent all the way up to the leadership of Auschwitz for them to decide what to do about it, and they had taken their time. Only now, a month later, had the SS in Blechhammer gotten their answer, and now the “saboteur” had to pay the price for his “crime.”

“The whole thing,” Rosengarten noted sardonically, “had the appearance of a lawful trial and a truly democratic tribunal.” He happened to be standing in the front row, so had an intimate view of the proceedings:

After a very long wait, the stool was pushed away from under his feet with a firm kick. A panicked chill passed through us as if time were falling away. But then it seemed the rope was not holding. Suddenly, it broke in two. Raphaelson fell unhurt to the ground. Everybody present stood amazed.

We all hoped now that Raphaelson would be given mercy because of that unusual event. But such a thing was, of course, unthinkable for the SS. The rope was repaired and once again the boy was placed on the stool. Again it was kicked away. But the unbelieveable happened again! The rope broke in two a second time!

A sort of providence seemed to have insinuated itself. Everything we saw was so unusual, so unreal! But the Nazis did not give up. For the third time, the Kapo was placed upon the stool, and the noose was put around his neck. Because of what had happened, Raphaelson came more and more to his senses. He seemed to be more clearly aware of what was going on. All of the sudden he yelled, “Friends! Do not lose courage! Those who today want to murder us will themselves soon be kaput!” The two SS who stood next to him could not believe what they were hearing. “Hold your beak, you!” they shouted. Quickly they again kicked the stool away. And then Raphaelson sank down. For a couple of long minutes we had to look him in the eyes. After that, he was no longer among the living.

After Raphaelson finally expired, the six thousand prisoners were required to stand there another fifteen minutes, then march around the scaffold so everyone could see him. “Only after this,” Rosengarten recorded, “were we allowed to crawl quietly and dejectedly to our barracks.”

Israel Rosengarten survived several concentration camps and death marches before he was liberated in Buchenwald on April 11, 1945. By then, he was near death from starvation and exhaustion.

After he recovered his health he went home to Belgium and discovered he was, at eighteen years of age, the sole survivor of his large family.

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1904: Newly caught Herero prisoners-of-war

Add comment September 26th, 2014 Headsman

“Newly caught Herero prisoners-of-war were hung by the neck. Since that day, I would often see Herero swaying from the branch of a tree.”

-Diary of German soldier Emil Malzahn, writing of prisoners captured and summarily executed 26 September 1904 at the waterhole of Owisombo-Owidimbo during the Herero genocide

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1306: Nigel de Brus, brother of the King

Add comment September 18th, 2014 Headsman

On an uncertain date in September of 1306 — sometime after the mid-September English capture of Kildrummy CastleNigel de Brus was drawn and quartered at the border town of Berwick.


The present-day ruins of Kildrummy Castle. (cc) image from Stu Smith.

As his name indicates, Nigel, Niall, or Neil — as your taste may run — was kin to Robert the Bruce, his brother in fact, and a key supporter of Robert in the latter’s fight for the Scottish crown.

Someone must have put the Bruces under that old Chinese curse about living in interesting times. Though the extremely interesting First War of Scottish Independence would indeed put Robert the Bruce on the Scottish throne, it was achieved in a period of devastation. Not only Nigel, but every single one of Robert’s brothers, died violently: three in all were executed, and a fourth slain in battle.

None of the five had reached his teens when times started getting really interesting with the shock 1286 death of Scotland’s King Alexander III, who got lost in the dark riding to Fife in bad weather and had a fatal fall down an embankment.

All three of Alexander’s children had predeceased him, so the hope of succession settled on a three-year-old* granddaughter, the Norwegian princess remembered as Margaret, Maid of Norway. Margaret now became for several years a chesspiece of diplomacy between the Scottish, Norwegian, and English courts, and was slated for marriage to the crown prince, the future King Edward II.** But we can slide right past the delicacies in all that because Margaret, too, dropped dead — in her case, at sea while en route to Scotland in 1290.† Little Margaret had never once set foot in the country she putatively ruled.

With no clear successor to Margaret, a free-for-all scramble for power ensued with no fewer than 14 noblemen claiming the throne for themselves. This “Great Cause” soon coalesced into John of Balliol (the claimant by primogeniture) vs. Robert the Bruce (the claimant by proximity of blood) — and the Guardians solicited the arbitration of the English King Edward I.

Having been balked of his goal of bringing Scotland into his dynastic thrall by means of the marital arrangements, Edward did not mean to miss the diplomatic opportunity and twisted the candidates’ arms to accept the suzerainty that Edward claimed over them. The disunited Scots had little choice but to do so.

(The Great Cause is covered in this episode of the History of England podcast.)

Edward ruled for Balliol, but his impositions and concomitant Scottish resistance soon brought the situation to open warfare. Incensed at a Scots-French alliance to oppose them, the English invaded in 1296‡ — forcing Balliol’s deposition (he’s known as “Toom Tabard”, or “empty coat”, for the regal insignia torn from his raiments) and provoking the celebrated resistance of William Wallace.

We know what happened to that guy, but Edward’s bloody pacification of the north came undone in 1306.

In February of that year, Robert the Bruce summoned the successor Balliol claimant, his rival John Comyn, to Greyfriars Church in Dumfries and sacrilegiously stuck a knife in him.


19th century illustration of John Comyn’s murder. Since we’re citing the handy History of England podcast, here’s the relevant episode.

In this affray the relative measures of perfidy by Bruce and by Comyn, both of whom were scheming nobles angling for the throne, are down to your choice of parties and sources. The consequences, however, can hardly be mistaken.

Bruce had himself defiantly crowned King of Scotland just weeks after soaking his hands with Comyn’s blood, but a furious Edward I was smashing up the outclassed Scottish by springtime. The Bruce himself had to flee to hiding, and eventually to Ireland, while many of his supporters wound up hemmed in in Kildrummy Castle, commanded by our man Nigel. The English soon overwhelmed it (legend has it, as legend usually does, that the fortress was treacherously betrayed). Nigel was hauled off to Berwick for more or less immediate punishment; his fellow-commander at Kildrummy, the Earl of Athol, suffered the same in London on November 7.

One could forgive Nigel if, in the midst of having his entrails ripped out of his trunk by the executioner of Berwick, he indulged a moment’s despair for the family’s Great Cause. Robert himself was reduced to feeling out whether any English terms could be had.

But from this nadir of his fortunes, Robert the Bruce gloriously (nigh miraculously) returned to lead a successful guerrilla campaign against the English beginning in 1307, crucially aided by the death that same year of Edward I. He would sting the English repeatedly over the ensuing years before his gathering strength finally forced the English to recognize Scottish sovereignty in 1328.

* Margaret was actually just two years old at the time Alexander died. Alexander’s second wife was thought to be pregnant at the time — that turned out to be a nonstarter — so official succession didn’t settle on Margaret until she was three.

** Though this proposed union, never realized, raised the prospect of uniting English and Scottish realms, the Guardians of Scotland who called the shots while waiting for their sovereign to grow up insisted that the relevant document’s language assure that even if ruled by the same monarch Scotland would “remain separate, apart and free in itself without subjection to the English Kingdom.”

† A “False Margaret” posting as the lost Scottish queen would later turn up in Norway, and be executed for her charade.

‡ Among other things, this invasion seized the previously Scottish city of Berwick — Nigel’s eventual execution-place — for the English. Berwick changed hands repeatedly between the Scottish and the English for several hundred years before settling permanently into English possession in 1482.

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1814: Not William Beanes, anthem enabler

Add comment September 14th, 2014 Headsman

On this date two centuries ago, a man on a mission of mercy found his accidental entry into history.

The mercy in question was required for a Maryland fellow named William Beanes. During the War of 1812, the British had seized this 65-year-old doctor on their march back from torching the White House, on grounds of his role jailing British soldiers who were doing some freelance plundering around his beloved Upper Marlboro.

They were making worrying (possibly empty) threats about hanging the man for infringing the laws of war as they held Dr. Beanes in the Chesapeake Bay aboard the H.M.S. Tonnant.* Beanes’s friends recruited a respected lawyer (and amateur poet) to get the venerable gentleman out of the soup.

This was accomplished easily enough. Approaching the British warship under a flag of truce, the lawyer and a buddy who was the government’s designated prisoner exchange agent managed to convince Gen. Robert Ross to parole his “war criminal” by producing a packet of testimonials from previous British POWs affirming the honorable treatment Dr. Beanes had accorded them. Problem solved.

There was one minor hitch.

Because the British were preparing to attack Baltimore, and the visiting envoys had perforce become privy to some of the forthcoming operational details whose exposure might complicate matters, the hosts detained the whole party at sea pending the encounter’s conclusion.

There the Americans looked on, helplessly entranced, as the Battle of Baltimore unfolded. On September 12, there was a land battle (the munificent Gen. Ross was slain by an American sharpshooter as he directed troops in this affair). Then at dawn on September 13, the British fleet commenced a withering bombardment of Baltimore’s principal harbor bulwark, Fort McHenry. Safely out of range of the fort’s guns, British cannons rained ordnance on the fort throughout the day, 1,500 bombs in all. At one point a missile ripped a white star from the fort’s gigantic American flag.

The firing continued into the night. The American bystanders, who could do nothing but watch, now could catch nothing but the fleeting illumination of exploding shells. Could the fort possibly survive the assault? As morning approached, the fleet’s firing came to a virtual stop. The Americans could only surmise that this abatement might indicate Fort McHenry’s capture by the British. The suspense over the course of the long, dark night must have been near unbearable.

Dawn’s early light on September 14, 1814 brought for the Yankees a wonderous sight: the tattered American banner somehow still fluttered over the fort, where they had watched it all the day before.


On September 14, 1814, Francis Scott Key beholds the American flag still flying over Baltimore, just as it had at the previous twilight’s last gleaming. (1912 painting by Edward Moran.)

Overjoyed now, Beanes’s deliverer Francis Scott Key put his poetic gifts to patriotic use and dashed off a poem celebrating Baltimore’s fortitude. Originally known as “The Defence of Fort McHenry”, you know it today as “The Star-Spangled Banner” — the American national anthem. We owe it all to Williams Beanes’s capture and prospective hanging.

* A French-built ship captured in Egypt by Horatio Nelson. (Cool painting.) She would go on to fight in the naval prelude to the Battle of New Orleans.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Doctors,England,Hanged,History,Innocent Bystanders,Maryland,No Formal Charge,Not Executed,Notable Participants,Occupation and Colonialism,USA,Wartime Executions

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1914: Seven retreating Frenchmen, with surprising results

Add comment September 7th, 2014 Headsman

One hundred years ago today, during the Battle of the Marne, seven French soldiers were shot without trial for retreating. Most of the resources about this Gallic tragedy are in French, and so are most of the links in today’s post.

The French book Fusille Vivant traces the life of Francois Waterlot, a prolific correspondent who wrote some 250 letters after surviving this date’s execution, before finally dying at the front the following year.

All were enlistees of France’s 327th Infantry Regiment. On the night of September 6, German shelling panicked their sister 270th Regiment into a disorderly retreat away from the front lines. That rout ran right into the 327th, behind them, and panicked that regiment too.

Further in the army’s rear, by the hubbub awoke from his farmhouse bivouac division commander Gen. Rene Boutegourd. Boutegard had a simple solution, and ordered seven of the soldiers caught away from their posts to be executed the next morning by way of example. While the war’s later years would feature notoriously unfair courts-martial with predetermined sentences, Gen. Boutegourd didn’t even see the need to pay that much tribute to procedural regularity in this case.

The Battle of the Marne was still ongoing, and the situation in the field, pre-trench warfare, was fluid. Shoot them out of hand and be done with it! Then, the rest of the division will understand the consequences of unauthorized retreat.

Barbieux, Caffiaux, Clement, Delsarte, Dufour, Hubert, and Watrelot were stupefied to learn that they suddenly had mere hours left to live.

According to a postwar newspaper article — printed in 1922, when the bizarre case came to public attention and led to a posthumous pardon — they immediately began pleading for their lives. “Put us in the first wave of the next attack, but I beg you not to subject us to French balls,” Delsarte cried.

In those opening weeks of what was supposed to be a short war, with men’s minds still half at home in the pleasurable prewar idyll, the cruel frequency of the execution pour l’exemple had not yet set its stamp on things. The first such instance had occurred only the week before.

Maybe the men detailed to kill the “deserters” were equally stunned: it is hard to put down the results of the shootings merely to the uncertainties of technology or the hardiness of flesh and bone.

Palmyr Clement survived the fusillade and only died two agonizing days later from his firing squad injuries. This is a bizarre outcome even for those occasional cases where a fellow survives the scaffold. Implicit in such a fate is that there was no coup de grace administered after the volley. Is this oversight intentional — even an expression of distaste for the justice of the sentence soldiers had been tasked with visiting on their comrades?

And could distaste extend so far as an intentional or an indifferent failure of marksmanship by the firing details?

Such doubtful speculation can point to Francois Waterlot, who did Clement one better: he survived the execution full stop (dropping to the ground with the volley even though he was actually uninjured) and returned to the ranks, dying in battle on June 10, 1915. This uncommon feat earned him the nickname “le fusillé vivant”, “the shot alive” (somewhat literally) or “the living corpse” (more to the sense of it). That sobriquet is the title of a French book about Waterlot.

France executed about 600 of her own soldiers during World War I, the second-most (to Italy) of all belligerents in that conflagration. There is a great deal about this particular execution on this French page.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Executions Survived,France,History,Mass Executions,Military Crimes,Not Executed,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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