1916: Private Billy Nelson

5 comments August 11th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1916, 19-year-old Durham Private William Nelson was shot for desertion by the British military.

The Pity of It
by Thomas Hardy

I walked in loamy Wessex lanes, afar
From rail-track and from highway, and I heard
In field and farmstead many an ancient word
Of local lineage like “Thu bist,” “Er war,”

“Ich woll,” “Er sholl,” and by-talk similar,
Nigh as they speak who in this month’s moon gird
At England’s very loins, thereunto spurred
By gangs whose glory threats and slaughters are.

Then seemed a Heart crying: “Whosoever they be
At root and bottom of this, who flung this flame
Between folk kin tongued even as are we,

“Sinister, ugly, lurid, be their fame;
May their familiars grow to shun their name,
And their brood perish everlastingly.”

According to the archive capture of the lamentably defunct Shot at Dawn site — which campaigned (successfully) for clearing the names of World War I soldiers who had been executed for military failings like desertion or cowardice — Nelson gave a pitiable account of his situation. It was less the horror of trench warfare and mustard gas than desperation on his own home front that undid Nelson’s “nerves”.

“I have had a lot of trouble at home, and my nerves are badly upset. My father is a prisoner in Germany and is losing his eyesight there through bad treatment. My mother died while I was still in England, leaving my sister aged 13 and my brother aged 10. I am the only one left. I had to leave them in charge of a neighbour. I had no intention of deserting. I did not realise what I was doing when I left the camp. When I did so I went and gave myself up. When I went to the store my object was to get a night’s sleep and then go and surrender in the morning. I thought it was too late to do so that night. I did not know when the battalion was coming out of the trenches.”

Hap
by Thomas Hardy

If but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: “Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love’s loss is my hate’s profiting!”

Then would I bear it, clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased in that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.

But not so. How arrives it joy lies slain,
And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
–Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan. . . .
These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.

That 13-year-old sister whom Nelson worried over long suffered her brother’s senseless death. In 2004, that woman’s daughter (Billy Nelson’s niece), Nora High, told the Guardian:

Every Armistice Day, my mother shed buckets of tears. We’ve got Billy’s Bible, I got that when mother died. She used to lay that out on a piece of blue satin cloth, and she would cry. She always said: ‘I won’t cry any more because that only upsets Billy. He doesn’t want me to cry. Everything’s fine for him now.’

In Time of “The Breaking of Nations”*
by Thomas Hardy

Only a man harrowing clods
In a slow silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
Half asleep as they stalk.

Only thin smoke without flame
From the heaps of couch-grass;
Yet this will go onward the same
Though Dynasties pass.

Yonder a maid and her wight
Come whispering by:
War’s annals will cloud into night
Ere their story die.

* The title is a Biblical allusion to Jeremiah 51:20.

As a slight stretch, part of the Themed Set: Thomas Hardy.

On this day..

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

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

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

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Next Posts


Calendar

August 2022
M T W T F S S
« Nov    
1234567
891011121314
15161718192021
22232425262728
293031  

Archives

Categories

Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!