1914: Frédéric Henri Wolff, the first Frenchman executed during World War I

Add comment September 1st, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1914, Captain Frédéric Henri Wolff became the first French soldier fusillé pour l’exemple during World War I.

One week before, surrounded by the devastating German advance, Wolff had struck a white handkerchief to the tip of his saber and attempted to brandish it for surrendering the 36th Colonial Infantry Regiment. Wolff was no greenhorn a-panic; he was 45 years old, a career officer who received the Legion of Honor and had been decorated for his part in the French campaigns in Indochina.

Other officers pulled down the sigil and orchestrated a successful retreat … after which Wolff was court martialed for cowardice.

Shot at Remenoville, he was not only the first person of nearly 1,000 executed by the French military in the Great War, but also the highest-ranking officer so handled. Attempts to rehabilitate him officially date to the 1930s, but have thus far never been successful.

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1914: The six martyrs of Vingre

4 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 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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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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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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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, 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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1914: Rudolf Duala Manga Bell, in German Kamerun

3 comments August 8th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1914, the Germans hanged D(o)uala king Rudolf Duala Manga Bell for treason in German Kamerun.

European-educated and on retainer by the colonial German government, Bell was hardly the subversive type: rather, as the head of the largest clan of the important Duala tribe, he was the guy that Berlin looked to to uphold its authority.

This mutually satisfactory relationship began unraveling in 1910, with the Reich’s plan to abnegate the 1884 treaty under whose auspices it intruded into Kamerun (Cameroon) in the first place.

Seeking to confine the Duala to a few coastal villages — and subsequently, to push those Duala to less desirable inland territory — Berlin managed the rare feat of uniting the tribe’s various families, and pushing Rudolf Manga Bell himself into (surprising, to Germany) resistance.

When petitions to the Reichstag were ignored, the Duala began (Bell’s own degree of involvement in this seems to be a disputed point) making noises about holding Berlin in breach of the colonial treaty and finding itself a new European patron, like France or England.

Azanwi Nchami’s Footprints of Destiny (“the historical Cameroonian novel par excellence”) tells the story of Rudolf Manga Bell, Martin Paul Samba, and emergent Kamerunian nationalism.

And one notes the year in this post’s title, which would become momentous to Germany for other reasons. “The coming war,” notes Victor T. LeVine, “made it appear that Manga Bell had been plotting with Germany’s enemies.”

Bell was arrested for treason in the first half of 1914, as the Germans seized prime Bell land along the Wouri River.

In the conflict that became remembered as World War I, the first declarations of war were made in the very first days of August; Axis and Ententethe Central Powers and Triple Entente lined up against one another in the colonial territories, too, and German administrators in Kamerun realized that they were about to face an invasion from neighboring British and French colonies.

So it was in an atmosphere of panic and a view towards desperate internal repression that Bell was tried for treason on August 7, 1914, along with his friend and fellow-traveler Martin Paul Samba — and put to death the very next day.

Postscript

The Allied invasion had taken Duala and the other principal cities of Kamerun from the Germans by the end of September; over an 18-month campaign, the Germans were totally defeated in the territory, which France and England claimed as victors’ spoils after the war. (Also inheriting the tense relationship with the Duala; France was still trying to sort out the 1914 German expropriations that started the whole mess decades later.)

As a result, Rudolf Duala Manga Bell’s son, Alexander Ndoumbe Duala Manga Bell, not only inherited his father’s royal position among the Duala — he became Cameroon’s first elected representative to the French National Assembly.* There’s more about that guy here.

It is here that the Germans part ways with Cameroon’s national story, but there was almost a “peace in our time” diplomatic reconquista.

Although Hitler originally held the colonial movement in great disdain, in the late 1930s his regime ‘adopted’ and coordinated this movement. After 1936 the renewed campaign for the recuperation of German colonies had its desired results among the Allied powers. In discussions between the French Foreign Minister, Yvon Delbos, and the American Ambassador, William Bullitt, proposals were considered for the appeasement of Germany including tariff reductions, the involvement of the Third Reich in the development of Africa, and finally the granting of a colony to Germany, probably the Cameroons. In November 1937, during talks between Premier Chautemps, Prime Minister Chamberlain, Eden and Delbos, the suggestion was allegedly made by Chamberlain that France should ‘hand the Cameroons to Germany at once without any quid pro quo’.**

* Ralph A. Austen, “The Metamorphoses of Middlemen: The Duala, Europeans, and the Cameroon Hinterland, ca. 1800 – ca. 1960”, The International Journal of African Historical Studies, Vol. 16, No. 1 (1983).

** Richard A. Joseph, “The German Question in French Cameroun,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 17, No. 1 (1975)

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1914: A French soldier, “yours also is a way of dying for France”

1 comment September 12th, 2009 Headsman

12 September, 1914.

General de Maud’huy had just been roused from sleep on the straw of a shed and was standing in the street when a little group of unmistakable purport came round the corner. Twelve soldiers and an NCO, a firing party, a couple of gendarmes, and between them an unarmed soldier. My heart sank and a feeling of horror overcame me. General de Maud’huy gave a look, then held up his hand so that the party halted, and with his characteristic quick step went up to the doomed man.

He asked what he had been condemned for. It was for abandoning his post. The General then began to talk to the man. Quite simply, he explained discipline to him. Abandoning your post was letting down your pals, more it was letting down your country that looked to you to defend her. He spoke of the necessity of example, how some could do their duty without prompting but others, less strong, had to know and understand the supreme cost of failure. He told the condemned man that his crime was not venial, not low, and that he must die as an example, so that others should not fail. Surprisingly, the wretch agreed, nodding his head. He saw a glimmer of something, redemption in his own eyes, a real hope, though he knew he was about to die. Maud’huy went on, carrying the man with him to comprehension that any sacrifice was worthwhile while it helped France ever so little. What did anything matter if he knew this? Finally, de Maud’huy held out his hand: ‘Yours also is a way of dying for France,’ he said.

The procession started again, but now the victim was a willing one. The sound of a volley in the distance announced that all was over. The general wiped the beads of perspiration from his brow, and for the first time perhaps his hand trembled as he lit his pipe.

Excerpt from the diary of Sir Edward Louis Spears

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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.

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1914: Carl Hans Lody

4 comments November 6th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1914, German spy Carl Hans Lody was put to death in the Tower of London during the opening months of World War I.

Lody‘s was the first execution in the Tower since its heyday as the chopping-block of disfavored nobility had passed in the mid-18th century. Times had changed by the era of trench warfare: Lody was not beheaded, but shot inside a wooden shed erected for the purpose in the Tower yard. Ten more German spies, who seem to have had a harder go of infiltrating Britain than their English counterparts had in Germany, would suffer the same fate by war’s end.

A Berlin-born naval officer, Lody had no experience spying but was tapped for the job because he had traveled abroad and spoke English well enough to pass for an American tourist. He was dead scarcely three months after he entered the Isles, though his work may have helped a U-boat sink a British warship.

According to A.W. Brian Simpson in Domestic and International Trials 1700-2000, the case was a legal landmark as the first espionage trial in England held partly in camera — outside the public view. The outcome, however, was a foregone conclusion, and Lody himself didn’t bother to contest his guilt — seemingly fixated on going to his grave with nothing short of the utmost in romantic gentlemanly decorum.

Part of the Themed Set: Spies.

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