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.
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.
On this date in 1870, a spy of the Franco-Prussian War was shot in Paris.
Barely a month old at this point, the Franco-Prussian War was a fast-unfolding fiasco for the Franco side. For three weeks, Frenchreverses as the Prussians pressed through the frontier had been the talk of the capital.
The action at this moment was the huge Prussian siege of Metz, for whose relief the French emperor Napoleon III — Marx’s original “first as tragedy, then as farce” guy — was even then mobilizing a relief force. Napoleon was ridiculously out in the field, personally “leading” the army; on September 1, his column would be intercepted by the Germans and the resulting Battle of Sedan ended with the emperor’s own capture and the demise of his Second French Empire.
“Discussing the War in a Paris Cafe”: Illustrated London News, September 17, 1870. Within a few months the burghers will have fled these uproarious cafes with the rise of the Paris Commune.
For the moment, however, that empire is still alive in its final hours; Charles Harth must number among the last executions it ever carried out. The London Standard reported the story under an August 27 dateline (we excerpt here from the Milwaukee Daily Sentinel‘s reprint of September 16):
Prussian blood has been drawn for the first time since the declaration of war within the enceinte of Paris.
Charles Harth, found guilty of having visited France for the purpose of spying out its weakness, died the death this morning. His trial took place on Monday, as you will remember, and after a very brief procedure, the court martial that tried the man condemned him without a single dissenting voice. The Prussians (who, by the way, are accused in the Paris Press to-day of having hanged a woman at Gorse) will protest, no doubt, against the manner in which their countryman was treated, but military law is short and sharp in its decrees, and his judges were satisfied of Harth’s culpability. If he was guilty, as we are bound to believe, there is no room for protest. He deserved his fate.
After his condemnation, in the first instance, he had the privilege of appeal, which was availed of, on his behalf, by his council, but the Court of Revision, which considered the case on Thursday, found no reason to reverse the judgment. M. Weber, the advocate assigned by the prisoner, appears to have stuck generously by him, and even to have forwarded a petition for mercy to the Empress Regent. However much it must have cost the Empress to refuse it, as Regent no other course was open to her. Mercy could not be extended to the enemy’s spy, while the enemy himself was on French soil, and French blood was bieng shed in torrents on the battle-field.
Accordingly the order was given that the sentence should be carried out. At 5 o’clock this morning Harth was awakened in his cell in the military prison in the Rue du Cherche Midi by a messenger, who announced to him that his hour had come. He received the news calmly, like a man who had given up all hope, and was expecting it; more than that, like a man who was prepared to meet the worst, with the courage of dogged resignation.
M. Roth de Lille, the Protestant pastor of the gaol, was shown into the cell of the doomed man, and remained with him until the cellular van that was to convey him to the scene of his execution drew up with a rumble and a clatter of horses hoofs at the prison gate. Harth entered it boldly, and the vehicle drove off through the quiet streets with their early freshness upon them escorted by twelve mounted gendarmes, armed cap a pie, and making music to the ride of death with their clunking accoutrements.
The Ecole Militaire, that huge pile of barracks that will be familiar to those who visited the Exposition of 1867, from its position facing the Champs de Mars, was fixed on as the place of execution. The Polygon of Vincennes is the spot usually designed, but the Ecole Militaire was nearer, and this is no time for the formalities of precedent. Whatever is done to paralyze the invader had better be done quickly.
The courtyard of the barracks was occupied by all the troops quartered there in marching order. The battalion of the Grenadiers of the Guard, that serves as depot, was there in line with fixed bayonets, and detachments of Lancers with their gay pennons, and brown, brawny Cuirassiers, and the guides — the daintiest of all the French cavalry — in their heavily-embroidered jackets, were there too. A pretty sight for a military man, these flashing arms and helmets and polished cuirasses in the cheerful morning sunshine.
How did it strike Charles Harth, for he had been a military man by his own admission, a Lieutenant in the Prussian infantry. When the prisoner stepped from the van and threw a rapid look over the assembled troops, he gave a few nervous twitches of his head.
The clock over the centre of the building chimed the quarter to six. Six precisely was the hour fixed for the shooting. The prisoner had yet fifteen minutes to live.
He was led into an angle of the court yard, where the troop horses are usually shod, and which forms a quiet corner to itself. Here he was placed close to the wall, and in front of a squad of twelve men of the Forty-second Regiment of the line, namely, two sergeants, four corporals, and half-a-dozen privates. The firing party stood in two ranks, the two sergeants being stationed in the rear.
As the prisoner was approached by the turnkeys of the military prison whose duty it was to tie his hands behind his back, he shrunk back and said, ‘No! I wish to die like a soldier.’ But on representations being made to him that there was no exception to the rule, he yielded. His eyes were then bandaged, when he expressed a wish to be allowed to give the word ‘fire.’ Adjt. Codont, who had acted as registrat to the court-marshal [sic], came forward and read the sentence amid an impressive silence.
At a pause at one of the paragraphs in the document, the prisoner, fancying the reading had been finished, cried” ‘Tirez, coquns, et ne me manquez pas.’ ‘Fire, you rascals, and mind you don’t miss!’ But the squad did not stir; it was waiting another signal.
As the last syllable died away on the Adjutant’s lips the officer commanding the firing party drew his sword, the soldiers raised their Chassepots to their shoulder and took aim, the sword was lowered, and a dozen shots went off like one, with a sudden startling detonation. Before the report of the discharge had smitten the straining ears of those who looked on, the prisoner fell forward with an inclination to his right side. Over his left breast, in the region of his heart, his shirt was torn into a jagged hole, where the bullets had entered.
As he lay motionless on the ground one of the sergeants in the rear of the firing party advanced through the little cloud of smoke and discharged his piece into the dead man’s brain. Dead man, I say, for Harth must have died before he reached the ground in his fall.
The troops were marched past the body, which was then lifted, limp and warm, and put, dressed as it was, into a coffin, and trotted off to the Cemetery of Mont Parnasse, where it was dropped into a grave which had been opened to receive it, and hastily hidden from view.
Ancien regime minister Arnaud de La Porte was guillotined on this date in 1792* by the new order.
Stock of a long line of Versailles courtiers, de La Porte (English Wikipedia entry | French) followed his father into administration with a specialty in naval finances. He knocked around maritime bureaus from the time he was a whelp of 18 in 1755; he was at last named Louis XVI‘s Minister of the Navy on July 12, 1789 — two days before the Bastille fell.
He had both the wisdom to immediately expatriate himself to Spain, and the loyalty to answer his harried sovereign’s summons to return; by December 1790, he was appointed intendant of the Civil List and minister of the king’s household.
This made de La Porte the bagman in the king’s campaign to buttress the Revolution’s moderating forces — writers, thinkers, and artists in the constitutional monarchist camp, as against the Marats — to which end some 200,000 livres dropped from his fingers every month. All was to little avail.
De La Porte’s position made him a close confidante of the royal family. When the latter attempted the ill-starred flight to Varennes, it was de La Porte who was entrusted to present the absconded king’s Dear John note to his jilted subjects in the Constituent Assembly.
With the king’s embarrassing capture, the Capets’ confinement became ever more uncomfortably close, and with them that of a loyal aide who must have passed a few moments contemplating the Iberian charms he had abandoned to share this bitter draught — until the following summer when Danton et. al. finally overthrew the monarchy on August 10, 1792.
A bad day for Arnaud de La Porte: the storming of the Tuileries Palace on August 10, 1792, by Jean Duplessis-Bertaux.
De La Porte was overthrown with them.
While revolutionary Paris is synonymous to posterity with frightful political trials, it was in the aftermath of the August 10 revolution that they began, and then as novelties. (The guillotine at this point was itself just a few months old.)
Endeavoring to cement their triumph, the revolutionaries constituted a tribunal to try the deposed royalist ministers as traitors for their maneuverings. (They also obviously blocked any prosecution of their own number for massacring hundreds of Swiss Guards who fought to defend the king.) These can be accounted among the first overt political trials of the revolution, the harbingers of the coming Terror and ill omen for the judgments the Revolution would levy against king, queen, and royals all. De La Porte in his closing address to the court fervently hoped his nation would not follow that dark road.
Citizens — I die innocent, notwithstanding that appearances are against me. May my blood, which is to be shed for the expiation of a crime of which I am not guilty, restore tranquility to this empire: And may my sentence be the last unjust arret which shall be pronounced by this Tribunal. (via the London Times, Aug. 30, 1792)
With the post-Napoleonic restoration, the man’s son — also named Arnaud — was created a hereditary baron in recognition of his ancestor’s service to the crown.
* The dates for these trials are very sloppily accounted for; this is also true of Durosoy, whose head was chopped off the next day.
As of this writing, de La Porte’s Wikipedia entries both French and English misdate his execution to August 23 (actually the date his examination began), and one will find sources placing it as late as August 28 whose attribution traces all the way back to the erroneous initial publications of the tribunals. To be sure, the trial against de La Porte had an unusual internal clock reflecting the revolution’s ad hoc process: it unfolded over the two days, and after conviction the accused was beheaded the same day, but not immediately — instead, de La Porte was returned from his court to prison for a few hours, where he dined before going to the scaffold in the evening.
By way of substantiation, we find that under an August 25 dateline (printed in the August 29 edition), the London Times correspondent reports from the scene thus:
The new criminal Tribunal, instituted for the trial of persons supposed to be concerned in treasonable correspondence with the late Executive Government, proceed in a very summary manner on the trial of those persons who have been so unfortunate as to fall into the hands of the mob. M. de la Porte, the late Intendant of the Civil List, was yesterday convicted, after a trial of 37 hours. Sentence of death was immediately passed on him, and at night he was conducted to the Place de Carrousel, where he was executed. During the whole of his examination at the bar, as well as at the place of execution, he behaved with great firmness, and declared his innocence to the last …
The principal evidence against M. de la Porte was, that he had employed the public money to libel the new Constitution, by employing different Journalists to write down the Jacobin faction … The proof against him was so slight and contradictory, that it was with great surprise and indignation that the sober part of the citizens heard of his conviction. He certainly fell a victim to the Royal cause and to justice.
August 16 is a day of reverence in France for the execution on that date in 1944 — just days ahead of the allied liberation of Paris — of 35 young Francs Tireurs partisans.
In a dastardly operation, a French collaborator known as “Jacques” — actually Guy Glebe d’Eu, who was himself executed after the war — who had insinuated himself into resistance networks lured the youths, all aged about 18 to 22, to a purported weapons-smuggling operation. They were unarmed when they arrived, but the Gestapo was not.
On this date in 1546, which was his 37th birthday, the French linguist and translator Etienne Dolet was burned at the stake in Paris over a few little words.
Dolet (English Wikipedia entry | French) was a young polymath with a pugilistic streak both literary and literal. While a law student at Toulouse, he won both a stint in prison and the patronage of King Francis I.
Dolet might have rated the latter a sturdier shield than it proved to be in practice, for his satires — so irreverent as to be heretical in a time when heresy really mattered — landed him back in the clink in Lyons from 1542 to 1544, charged with atheism.
Dolet’s real concern was language: he was a prolific translator of books into French (including some of his own work in Latin), and he produced a lengthy commentary on classical Latin and, in 1540, Europe’s first vernacular treatise on translation.
But for a smart guy he could be a little dumb.
Having pulled strings with the bishop to weasel out of his dungeon, Dolet made tracks for Italy … but then cockily returned to Lyons where he was once again arrested as a heretic. He didn’t get a second chance to learn his lesson.
Dolet’s condemnation turned on a philistine misapprehension of the humanist art of translation.
“While translating, you must not be enslaved to the extent of rendering word for word,” he had counseled in his treatise. “Concentrate on the meaning and handle things so that the intention of the author is expressed, while heedfully maintaining the propriety of both languages.” This is nearly a banality for the modern art of translation, but at the time pitted him against a long Christian tradition that prized textual fidelity over literary elegance.
Rendering a complex bit of Plato into French, Dolet reworked the passage into his target language thus:
Since it is certain that death is not at all among the living: and as for the dead, they no longer are: therefore, death touches them even less. And hence death can do nothing to you, for you are not yet ready to die, and when you have died, death will also not be able to do anything, since you will no longer be anything at all.
If you’re going to be executed over a block of text, that’s a pretty good block.
It’s the anything at all (we added the emphasis) that got Dolet in this instance: Plato had not literally said that, and Dolet’s hostile interlocutors decided to read this flourish of artistry and emphasis as proof of a sly atheist denying the immortality of the soul. No less an authority than the Sorbonne theological faculty signed off on this reading. (Calvin also denounced Dolet; he’s sometimes regarded as a freethinker martyr, which is a more generous spin than “clever asshole.”)
Dolet’s surname chances to double as a declension of the apt Latin verb “to hurt”; en route to the stake, the impious polyglot is said to have exploited the overlap in one final — shall we say dolorous? — witticism:
Non dolet ipse Dolet, sed pia turba dolet
Dolet himself does not suffer, but the pious crowd grieves
On this date in 1943, the French executioner Jules-Henri Desfourneaux guillotined Marie-Louise Giraud as an abortionist.
Born in defeat, the Vichy regime had a program of renewing an enervated nation by restoring its values — families and proper sexual mores foremost among them. Marshal Petain famously diagnosed the reasons for France’s quick collapse under German guns: “Too few children, too few arms, too few allies.”
Interest in the fertility rate was not a Vichy innovation; worries about depopulation had become acute following the bloodbath of the First World War, and birth rates in the interwar years fell conspicuously too low for regenerating the cannon fodder. France’s scolds saw her as decadent, and eventually as deserving prey to the neighboring power that had regenerated both hearth and national purpose through fascism.
Petain placed a similar regeneration at the center of his broken nation’s agenda, and designed policy around cultivating traditional families with fecund and obedient wives.
One remarkable plank in that platform was to ramp abortion up to the stature of capital crime. Even though abortion was technically illegal before Vichy, it had long been winked at in practice.
During the war years, the Vichy state plucked our principal Giraud from the seaside Norman village of Barneville-Cateret to prove they were serious about never again letting France get caught out with too few children.
Giraud had performed 27 illegal home abortions for hire, under hygienic conditions perfectly compatible with death by septicemia, which one of her patients suffered in January of 1942. Since the legitimate part of her economic life was as a hosteler to prostitutes, she was way out of strikes with the morals police.
On this date in 1617, Italian noblewoman Eleonora Galigai was beheaded in Paris for witchcraft.
Continuing the French crown’s glorious tradition of importing dubious Italians in the train of a Medici, Eleonora (also known as Leonora or Dianora) shipped over from Tuscany with her mistress Marie de’ Medici when the latter was dynastically married off to Henri IV. Like many in its time it was a marriage of convenience: Henri brought the kingdom — and Marie the money.
Detail view (click for the full panoramic panel) of Peter Paul Rubens‘s Coronation of Marie de’ Medici in [the Basilica of] St. Denis, part of a cycle of Marie de’ Medici paintings Rubens produced on the queen’s commission beginning in 1622.
The coronation depicted above occurred on May 13, 1610 after ten quarrelsome years of marriage, and it was noteworthy timing (some thought suspicious timing) because her husband was assassinated the very next day, leaving Marie to rule France in the stead of her eight-year-old firsborn Louis XIII.
To the boundless irritation of France’s native optimates, the import queen now bestowed an incommensurate favor on her own people, and were the French nobility to draw up their bill of particulars for us the very first name might be Eleonora Galigai’s husband.
This character, Concino Concini by name, was the quick-witted son of a Florentine notary who had hustled his way into that same nuptial entourage. Marrying Eleonora, who was one of Marie’s favorites, put him squarely in the limelight among the regal expats; indeed it was he who had the honor of informing Marie of her late husband’s murder with the cold words“L’hanno ammazzato”: they killed him.
Now (runs an English traveler’s epistle), Marie’s “Countenance came to shine so strongly upon him, that he became her only Confident and Favourite, insomuch that she made him Marquis of Ancre, one of the twelve Mareschals of France, Governor of Normandy; and conferr’d divers other Honours and Offices of Trust upon him.” He lived with his wife in splendor at the Louvre, both of them in the constant orbit of the queen whom they dominated.
Haughty, insolent, low-born, foreign, and possibly complicit in regicide, D’Ancre was widely loathed in France; certainly he had few greater enemies than the growing young king, who would already have been disposed to chafe under his mother’s regency. In Louis’s eyes, this adventurer-marquis was both emblem of his mother’s misrule and (as Marshal of France) a substantive roadblock to his own power.
At last in 1617 — not yet 15 years of age — Louis seized his own realm* by having D’Ancre ambushed crossing in front of the Louvre and murdered by palace guards. Afterwards, a crowd long hostile to the noxious favorite brutally vented its rage on his naked corpse, gleefully shouting at Eleonora those words Concino had made so notorious: l’hanno ammazzato! They were really baying for her blood, too.
With France in hand and public opinion at his back — “I cannot represent to the king one thousandth part of joy of all these people who are exalting him to heaven for having delivered the earth from this miserable burden,” one toady reported; “I can’t tell you in what execration this public pest was held” — Louis’s party began purging the remaining dregs of his mother’s regency.** They soon shut up Eleonora in the Bastille, and had her charged as a sorceress.
* This coup was naturally big news in England as well; there’s evidence of a now-lost play about it within weeks of D’Ancre’s murder.
** The eminence grise himself, Cardinal Richelieu, first attained the summit of the state as a loyal aide to Marie and Concino. Briefly banished from Paris in the wake of Louis’s coup, Richelieu bided his time and won his way back into the confidence of the young king with whom he was to become so closely identified.
Degueldre, 37 years old at his death, was one of only three OAS men executed by France for the terrorist excesses in the end game of the Algerian War in 1961 and 1962. Fittingly, that conflict wrenched to a conclusion five days before Degueldre’s death by musketry, with a referendum confirming Algeria’s independence from France. After the January 1960 “Barricades Week” revolt failed, Degueldre swore he “took an oath to keep Algeria French. As far as I’m concerned the oath will be kept. I’ll go to the limit.” He certainly did.
Like many men who joined the French Foreign Legion, Degueldre was the product of a murky past: either a Belgian who joined the SS Wallonie and fought on the Russian front, or a Frenchmen who served in the Resistance in occupied France.
What is known is, he joined the regular Army towards the end of the war, and then enlisted in the Foreign Legion under a nom de guerre. He served in Indochina and was wounded at Dien Bien Phu. In Algeria, he assumed his real name. After being suspected of taking part in the December 1960 riots during President de Gaulle’s visit to Algeria, Degueldre deserted from 1er REP, the French Foreign Legion parachute Regiment, in early 1961. The French Army, after crumpling against Germany, losing in Indochina and being humiliated at Suez, was determined to make a stand in Algeria. But the army’s resolve proved to greatly exceed the nation’s.
As France’s commitment to the fight against the Moslem rebel FLN began to crack, the army’s simmering resentment turned into open revolt, culminating in the failed Generals Putsch of April 1961 and the formation of the Secret Army Organization (Organisation Armee Secrete or OAS) that spring. It was comprised of disaffected soldiers and pieds noirs (black feet, a nickname for the European population of Algeria).
The OAS was structured in early May 1961, and Degueldre was assigned to the Organisation-Renseignement-Operation (ORO) section which was responsible for most of the OAS terrorist violence.
Degueldre’s OAS codename was Delta, and his commandos within the ORO became known as the “Deltas”; they carried out the majority of operation punctuelle (assassinations) from the failed Putsch to Algerian Independence in July 1962.
In Algiers, betrayed, Degueldre was identified slipping away from a OAS meeting in Algiers and arrested by French authorities on 7 April 1962.
“At Caserne des Tagarins, gendarmes toasted Degueldre’s arrest with champagne. They were very relieved. The Captain in charge approached the long, grim, sun baked figure and offered to wager a case of champagne that French Algeria would no longer exist within a few months.
“I won’t be here in a few months to drink it” Degueldre replied simply.
Degueldre went on trial on 27 June at Fort de Vincennes in Paris. After legal maneuvers to unseat a second judge (the first judge resigned, and committed suicide two days after the trial), Degueldre went essentially undefended, refusing to answer questions. After providing no defence witnesses, and hearing the testimony of four prosecution witnesses, Degueldre was convicted by the military court of ten murders and sentenced to death. Upon hearing the verdict, Degueldre smiled.
In Fresnes Prison after the conviction, fellow prisoners discussed going on hunger strike in protest of the death sentence meted out to Degueldre. When Degueldre was informed of the plans for the strike, he curtly replied “there’ll be no strike for me.”
On 6 July 1962, Degueldre was driven to Fort d’Ivry Prison outside of Paris where the sentence would be carried out. An 11-man firing squad delivered a volley of shots, the captain in charge administered the traditional coup de grace, and it was over (there are several versions of the fusille hier matin au Fort d’Ivry; one had it that only one shot of 11 hit Degueldre, and the Captain had to empty his revolver into him). The man described by Jean-Jacques Susini, an OAS leader, as “a magnificent revolutionary” had pour l’honneur de la parole donnee: he kept his oath.
On 23 November 1961, French President Charles de Gaulle delivered a speech to 2,000 assembled military personnel in Strasbourg. This “Lost Soldiers” Speech sought to quell discontent in the Army over the direction of French policy in Algeria after eight years of war.
it’s an illusion to think one can make things be what one desires and the contrary of what they are … at that moment when the state and the nation have chosen the way, military duty is traced out once and for all … outside these limits there can be — there are only — lost soldiers.
About 32 at his death, the “Bon Chevalier” was a member of the prestigious (and still-extant) Order of the Golden Fleece on the strength of a remarkable 1440s ramble around European where he would theatrically stage combats with local knights and never fail to win them. Celebrity and emoluments followed in their turn.
“Above all else, he knew the business of arms,” sighs a chronicle detailing his feats, and on its evidence it would be difficult to disagree.
He achieved his fame besting great champions in Aragon, Castile, Scotland, and Flanders, then set up a pas d’armes — the Monty Python-esque open challenge/invitation to battle all comers who dared him at a set location. In Jacques’s case the challenge lasted a full year at a statue of a weeping woman from which our pugilist derived the brand the Passage of the Fountain of Tears.
These were not intended to be fatal bouts but they featured expert fighters with real weapons so life and limb certainly stood in peril; occasionally our protagonist even deliberately courted danger by suiting up in only partial armor. Some challengers managed to emerge with a satisfying draw, but none could defeat him. At his last tournament in 1452, he even jousted the young future Duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold. (There’s an enjoyable detailed recap of Jacques’s career here.)
As this warrior par excellence was simultaneously noted for the perfection of his outside-of-armor knightly conduct — fidelity, generosity, piety, swooning ladies — Jacques de Lalaing had a fair claim on his contemporaries’ admiration as the very apex of the age of chivalry.
And his own fate poignantly embodied that of his era.
“This hero-worship of the declining Middle Ages finds its literary expression in the biography of the perfect knight,” Huizinga wrote — like our Jacques de Lalaing, “that anachronistic knight-errant” of “fantastic and useless projects.”
The realities of court life or a military career offered too little opportunity for the fine make-belief of heroism and love, which filled the soul. So they had to be acted. The staging of the tournament, therefore, had to be that of romance; that is to say, the imaginary world of Arthur,† where the fancy of a fairy-tale was enhanced by the sentimentality of courtly love.
A Passage of Arms of the fifteenth century is based on a fictitious case of chivalrous adventure, connected with an artificial scene called by a romantic name, as, for instance, the Fountain of Tears or the Tree of Charlemagne. [the latter was another famous pas d’armes defended in 1443 by another Burgundian knight, Pierre de Bauffremont -ed.] … There is an unmistakable connection between these primitive forms of warlike and erotic sport and the children’s play of forfeits. One of the rules of the “Chapters” of the Fountain of Tears runs thus: he who, in a combat, is unhorsed, will during a year wear a gold bracelet, until he finds the lady who holds the key to it and who can free him, on condition that he shall serve her.
Jacques de Lalaing and his ritual delights came to a savage end at the siege of Poucques when he had the apt misfortune to be struck by a ball from a defending veuglaire. The romantic master of the lists thereby became one of the first European elites slain by a cannon: for a junction to modernity one could do a lot worse than this moment.‡
The untimely end of Jacques happens to have hit the news in recent months when the Getty Museum acquired a precious Renaissance manuscript illustration of the event by Simon Bening, never previously exhibited.
In this extraordinarily bright and detailed miniature, our courteous doomed glances upward at the citadel, forming a sharp compositional diagonal with the fatal cannonball speeding towards him … and the fiery plume belched by the chivalry-smashing device that has hurled it.
Detail view (click for the full image) of the Bening miniature.
* The precise date on which this minor siege concluded is elusive and perhaps ambiguous; I’m basing Executed Today‘s dating on the July 13, 1453 correspondence in this archive reporting that “Poucques est tombée en son pouvoir le 5 courant; qu’il a fait démanteler ce deux places fortes et livrer au dernier supplice leurs défenseurs.”
One hundred years ago today at Bussy-les-Daours on the Somme, Canadian Trooper Alexander Butler was shot for the unprovoked murder of another soldier during World War I.
Butler was a veteran soldier with six-plus years in the 7th Hussars. For obscure reasons possibly tracing to multiple head injuries he had sustained in falls from horse during World War I, Butler on June 8 approached a fellow Hussar named Mickleburgh and suddenly poured five rifle rounds into his chest.
Butler was one of only two Canadian soldiers executed for murder during the Great War. (Twenty-two others were shot for desertion, and one for cowardice.) Those two soldiers were excluded from the 2006 posthumous pardon of Commonwealth servicemen who were “shot at dawn” during the war.