Posts filed under 'Chosen by Lot'

1649: John Poyer, the lucky winner

5 comments April 25th, 2009 Headsman

On this date* in 1649, John Poyer, late the mayor of Pembroke, was shot at London’s Covent Gardens for switching sides in the English Civil War.

John Pembroke had earned his Round head by taking Carew Castle from King Charles‘ forces in the First English Civil War.

But the silly hats in Parliament wanted much of the potentially dangerous army to demobilize, and do so without settling the small matter of its back pay. Poyer refused to hand over his command and Pembroke Castle to a Parliamentary agent, and sought a better deal from monarchists.**

Only with a painstaking siege was the imposing medieval fortress of Pembroke reduced. Poyer, his superior Rowland Laugharne, and Rice Powell were hauled to London and condemned to death.†

In an interesting twist, it was decided that one example would prove the point as well as three, and to allot the clemencies by chance. When the three refused to draw their own lots, a child was given the job instead, and distributed three slips of paper. Laugharne and Powell read “Life given by God.” Poyer’s was deathly blank.

Mark Twain latched onto the singular role of a child in this deadly lottery, and wrung it for every drop of pathos in a short story, “The Death Disk”.

Unlike the proposed victim of that story, Poyer did not benefit from any last-second Cromwellian pity. His death is related in the zippily titled “The Declaration and Speech of Colonell John Poyer Immediately Before his Execution in Covent-Garden neer Westminster, on Wednesday, being the 25 of this instant April, 1649. With the manner of his deportment, and his Proposals to the people of England.”‡

Having ended his speech, he went to prayers, and immediately rising up again, called the men designed for his execution to him, which were six in number, and giving them the sign when they should give fire, which was by holding up both his hands, they observed his motion, who after some few expressions to his friends about him, prepared an embracement for death, and casting his eyes to Heaven, with both hands lifted up, the Executioners (with their fire locks) did their Office, who at one voley bereav’d him of his life, his corps being taken up, was carryed away in a Coach, and the Souldiery remanded back again to White-Hall.

* A few sources say April 21, but the overwhelming majority concur on the 25th — as do the primary citations available in 17th-century comments on his death (e.g., “he was upon the 25 of this instant Aprill being Wednesday, guarded from White-Hall in a Coach, to the place of execution” in “The Declaration and speech of Colonell John Poyer before his execution…”)

** D.E. Kennedy observes that the divide between Parliament and Royalist was not so bright as might be imagined — and that Cromwell himself was at this time negotiating with the future Charles II as an expedient to get around Charles I.

† The rank and file of Welsh insubordination basically skated, a display of clemency from the Lord Protector that Ireland would not enjoy.

‡ The title promises much more scaffold drama than two and a half forgettable pages deliver — basically, that Poyer died (a) penitent; (b) Anglican; and (c) wishing for peace.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Chosen by Lot,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Shot,Soldiers,Treason,Wales

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1914: Regiment Mixte de Tirailleurs decimated

2 comments December 15th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1914, the French army decimated a regiment of its Tunisian soldiers for retreating.

Seriously, decimation? In the 20th century?

Even the most jaded navigator of World War I’s extensive stock of horror may be gobsmacked to find that military executions in this conflict extended to the Roman-pioneered practice of imposing collective punishment on a unit by killing a random tenth of it. Little more is evidently available about this situation online, but the idea of the French military selecting randomly for salutary executions is used in Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory where one officer, charged with providing an enlisted man for trial, simply has them all draw lots.

And according to Gilbert Meynier’s L’Algérie Révélée: La guerre de. 1914–1918 et le premier quart du XX sie`cle (French review), African soldiers’ experience in the Great War with incidents like this tended to underscore France’s colonial domination … and helped contribute to the national identity-forming that would break the French grip on North Africa as the century unfolded.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Chosen by Lot,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,France,Hanged,History,Known But To God,Mass Executions,Military Crimes,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Piracy,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Theft,Tunisia,Uncategorized,Wartime Executions

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1915: Four French Corporals, for cowardice

10 comments March 17th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1915, four French corporals were shot at a farm in Suippes for refusing to advance out of their trenches through the carnage of a World War I no man’s land.

It was not only Corporals Theophile Maupas, Louis Lefoulon, Louis Girard and Lucien Lechat who had refused. The entire 21st Company of the 336th Infantry regiment, exhausted and already decimated by combat, was ordered over the trench at dawn on March 10.

Under withering machine gun fire, and with French artillery carelessly dropping shells just in front of their own lines, the 21st stayed put. Frantic to force the advance, the French commander ordered artillery to drive the troops ahead by shelling his own trenches — an order the artillerists refused to carry out unless someone put it in writing.*

In that slaughterhouse of trench warfare, insubordination in the ranks met stern reprisals. Generals with no strategy but to make mincemeat of their countrymen could not well abide the meat’s reluctance to be minced. Examples must be made, especially inasmuch as the impracticality of executing entire companies impressed even the brass.

On March 16, six corporals and 18 soldiers of the intransigent company faced military trial in the Suippes town hall; the four condemned were shot the next day and buried under dishonorable black crosses.

According to Shot At Dawn, a campaign for rehabilitating soldiers executed during World War I, France carried out some 600 military executions during those bloody years, more than any other country. A 1999 study numbered 550 French executions. In an essay in Handbook on Death and Dying, Prof. J. Robert Lilly suggests that many more “unofficial” executions may have taken place, especially during the war’s panicked opening stages.

Whatever their precise number, the shootings, around Europe, of hundreds of men for cowardice — most in obscurity, many chosen arbitrarily, some whose descendants still struggle for recognition to this day — is one of the enduring legacies of World War I: the collision of that most individual penalty with that most faceless and indiscriminate war. A witness to a different French military execution discomfitingly describes the near-total dehumanization of the victims:

The two condemned were tied up from head to toe like sausages. A thick bandage hid their faces. And, a horrible thing, on their chests a square of fabric was placed over their hearts. The unfortunate duo could not move. They had to be carried like two dummies on the open-backed lorry, which bore them to the rifle range. It is impossible to articulate the sinister impression the sight of those two living parcels made on me.

The padre mumbled some words and then went off to eat. Two six-strong platoons appeared, lined up with their backs to the firing posts. The guns lay on the ground. When the condemned had been attached, the men of the platoon who had not been able to see events, responding to a silent gesture, picked up their guns, abruptly turned about, aimed and opened fire. Then they turned their backs on the bodies and the sergeant ordered “Quick march!”

The men marched right passed them, without inspecting their weapons, without turning a head. No military compliments, no parade, no music, no march past; a hideous death without drums or trumpets.

The shootings this day became emblematic of those lost and obscured legions. The circumstances of the “crime” — the senselessness of the advance, the order to bombard their own troops, the fury of the reprisal — recommended it to novelist Humphrey Cobb, and subsequently to a young Stanley Kubrick who adapted a fictionalized form to the 1957 film Paths of Glory. (The title comes from this poem.)

In the film, three soldiers face a firing squad under circumstances very similar to this day’s backstory, including the detail of the general ordering his own men shelled (and that of the order being refused). Kubrick renders the insanity of the resulting court-martial against hapless soldiers each of whom did little but what anyone in their situation would have done, with one of their officers, Kirk Douglas, mounting a vain defense.

This day’s executions, as with many of the others carried out across Europe in those years, sparked a long campaign for posthumous exoneration, in this case led by Maupas’ widow. In 1934, a French panel did exonerate them — awarding the surviving widows a symbolic one franc apiece.

Maupas himself was reinterred in a cemetery in Sartilly, where a monument was erected in honor of the four; just last year, opposite the courthouse where the Frenchmen were condemned, a life-sized white stone sculpture was dedicated, showing Maupas, Girard, Lechat and Lefoulon on their execution posts just after they have been shot.

The surety of the corporals’ posthumous exoneration contrasts intriguingly with the rigor of their sentence and points to the complex and shifting terms upon which the First World War entered subsequent national consciousness in France (and elsewhere) — the never-definitive story of the individual’s right place amid social structures hopelessly beyond individual control.

The history of the struggle over these men’s memory is extensively covered on this French website and the French blog Monuments aux morts pacifistes. The affair also has its own entry on the French wikipedia.

* Wisely.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Chosen by Lot,Death Penalty,Execution,Fictional,France,History,Military Crimes,Posthumous Exonerations,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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