1918: Boris Donskoy, Left SR assassin

1 comment August 10th, 2018 Headsman

One hundred years ago today, the Germans hanged Russian revolutionary Boris Donskoy.

Donskoy was not a Bolshevik but a Left Social Revolutionary — the party faction most closely aligned with Team Lenin. And his offense was a revolutionary crime, but one that events soon swept into irrelevancy.

In March of that same year, Russia’s revolutionary government had fulfilled its promise to exit the charnel house of World War I, ceding in exchange for peace the huge territorial gains that Germany had exacted in the bloodlands in-between empires.

These prospectively gigantic territorial gains were not long held by Berlin, whose wartime government would collapse suddenly before the year was out … but in the short interim where we lay our post, the Baltic States, Belarus, and Ukraine are under firm German control.

The last of these stood under the authority of Field Marshal Hermann von Eichhorn. Donskoy, a radical sailor who had served on the Executive Committee of Kronstadt when it demonstrated against the Revolution’s initial, too-moderate Provisional Government, on July 29 assassinated the field marshal — declaring to his captors that the old Prussian warhorse had been condemned by the Left SRs for suppressing the Ukrainian revolution.

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1916: Henri Herduin and Pierre Millant, “cry against military justice”

Add comment June 11th, 2018 Headsman

Cry, after my death, against military justice!

-Henri Herduin, in his last letter to his wife

On this date in 1916, which happened to be Pentecost, two French lieutenants were shot on the Western Front for not surrendering.


“Le ravin de la mort a Verdun”, by Ferdinand Gueldry.

During the endless Battle of Verdun, which spanned most of 1916, the Germans at one point overran a French bunker called Fort Vaux. German bombardment of the Thiaumont Farm area during this attack smashed the 347th Infantry Regiment to which both Henri Herduin and Pierre Millant belonged. With the regiment commanders killed into the bargain, Herduin and Millant found themselves at the head of a remnant of 40 or so survivors spent of both energy and ammunition, forced to fall back to avoid German encirclement.

“Our division is broken, the regiment annihilated; I have just lived five terrible days, seeing death at every moment,” Herduin wrote to his wife Fernande on June 9th after he had presented himself at Anthouard barracks. He had not yet any inkling that he too would be a casualty of those terrible days. “Four days without drinking or eating, among the mud and the shells, what a miracle that I’m still here!”


Anthouard barracks during World War I. (U.S. Library of Congress)

Fate and the brass had a perverse sense of humor, for when the two lieutenants presented themselves and their fellow survivors to the reassembled remains of their regiment, about 150 men strong, they discovered that they’d survived all that mud and shelling only to die for France at the stake.

Their unit’s captain held a standing order to execute Herduin and Millant on sight for deserting their post: no need for even the pro forma proceedings of a tribunal. Indeed, the extrajudicial command might have been a fuck-you to civilian authorities who had recently attempted to curtail the army’s enthusiasm for executions. The captain, having no pleasure himself in this order, suffered Herduin to write a hasty explanation/appeal, to which the captain appended his own attestation of good character. Their missive was returned unopened, coldly marked Pas d’observation. Exécution immédiate. Had they not endured those privations to retreat but simply surrendered to the Hun, they would have been better off.

Herduin, a career soldier aged 35, gave his last service as an officer steadying the nerves of his own younger comrades in the firing squad with a demand to “hold to the end for France” — before issuing the firing command from his own lips.

Fernande made good on her husband’s own dying plea to her, and once the Great War’s guns fell silent she waged a public, and embarrassing for the army, fight to clear the men’s names. She eventually achieved a formal posthumous exoneration in 1926, as well as the honor- and pension-clinching appellations “Mort pour la France” applied to their death certificates. She even got a still-extant Rue Lieutenant Herduin christened in that man’s native city of Reims. On Armistice Day 2008, a marker to both men was unveiled on that street; yet another memorial stands to them in Fleury-devant-Douaumont, near the place they were shot.

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1916: Eamonn Ceannt, Michael Mallin, Con Colbert, and Sean Heuston

Add comment May 8th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1916 — following a Sunday respite — executions in the aftermath of the Irish Republican Easter Rising against British power resumed with four more shootings at Dublin’s Kilmainham Gaol.

Eamonn Ceannt was an Irish Republican Brotherhood leader and was the fifth of the seven men who signed the Proclamation of the Irish Republic to be executed. (The remaining two, James Connolly and Sean Mac Diarmada, were shot on May 12th.) On the night before his execution, he wrote a ferocious although arguably counterproductive summons to future Irish revolutionaries

never to treat with the enemy, never to surrender at his mercy but to fight to a finish. I see nothing gained but grave disaster caused by the surrender which has marked the end of the Irish Insurrection of 1916 — so far at least as Dublin is concerned. The enemy has not cherished one generous thought for those who, with little hope, with poor equipment, and weak in numbers, withstood his forces for one glorious week. Ireland has shown she is a nation. This generation can claim to have raised sons as brave as any that went before. And in the years to come, Ireland will honour those who risked all for her honour at Easter in 1916 …

I wish to record the magnificent gallantry and fearless, calm determination of the men who fought with me. All, all, were simply splendid. Even I knew no fear, nor panic ,nor shrank fron no risk [sic], even as I shrink not now from the death which faces me at daybreak. I hope to see God’s face even for a moment in the morning. His will be done.

His firing squad failed to kill him cleanly, necessitating a gory coup de grace.

Michael Mallin was the co-founder with the pacifistic Francis Sheey-Skeffington of the Socialist Party of Ireland, and the second-in-command for the aforementioned James Connolly of the socialist union militia Irish Citizen Army. In the latter capacity Mallin led the detachment which seized St. Stephen’s Green during the Easter Rising.

A devout Catholic as well as a revolutionary militant, Mallin’s last letter to his family urged two of his children to take up holy orders. They indeed did so, and his youngest son, Father Joseph Mallin SJ, died only days ago as of this writing at the age of 104.

Con Colbert was another deeply religious rebel; an Irish Republic Brotherhood officer, he commanded rebels at several locations including the Jameson’s whiskey distillery at Marrowbone Lane.

The youngest of the group — who were, like all the Easter Rising rebels, shot sequentially rather than en masse — was 25-year-old Sean Heuston, also known as Jack or J.J. James Connolly had dispatched him to hold the Mendicity Institution for a few hours to delay the British advance; Heuston’s garrison of 26 ended up defending it for two days against several hundred enemy troops until, food and ammunition exhausted, they surrendered at British discretion.

His confessor cast the young patriot in a positively beatific light at the end:

A soldier directed Seán and myself to a corner of the yard, a short distance from the outer wall of the prison. Here there was a box (seemingly a soap box) and Sean was told to sit down upon it. He was perfectly calm, and said with me for the last time: ‘My Jesus, mercy.’ I scarcely had moved away a few yards when a volley went off, and this noble soldier of Irish Freedom fell dead. I rushed over to anoint him; his whole face seemed transformed and lit up with a grandeur and brightness that I had never before noticed

Never did I realise that men could fight so bravely, and die so beautifully, and so fearlessly as did the Heroes of Easter Week. On the morning of Sean Heuston’s death I would have given the world to have been in his place, he died in such a noble and sacred cause, and went forth to meet his Divine Saviour with such grand Christian sentiments of trust, confidence and love

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1922: Cemal Azmi, the butcher of Trabzon

Add comment April 17th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1922, a Turkish official implicated in the Armenian genocide had a death sentence enforced upon him … by an assassin’s bullet.

Cemal Azmi, wartime governor of the Black Sea littoral of Trabzon,* was the point person in his region for the murder of some 50,000 Armenians. One distinctive twist in Trabzon (though by no means confined to that locality) was the prevalent use of drowning for cost-effective wholesale murder.

The Italian consul in Trabzon, Giacomo Gorrini — a veteran diplomat who hereafter would become consumed by the Armenian community’s travails until his death in 1940 — gave a heartbreaking account. His accounts of systematic mass drownings were corroborated by many other witnesses, including Turkey’s wartime German allies.

The passing of the gangs of Armenian exiles beneath the windows and before the door of the Consulate; their prayers for help, when neither I nor any other could do anything to answer them; the city in a state of siege, guarded at every point by 15,000 troops in complete war equipment, by thousands of police agents, by bands of volunteers and by the members of the “Committee of Union and Progress”; the lamentations, the tears, the abandonments, the imprecations, the many suicides, the instantaneous deaths from sheer terror, the sudden unhingeing of men’s reason, the conflagrations, the shooting of victims in the city, the ruthless searches through the houses and in the countryside; the hundreds of corpses found every day along the exile road; the young women converted by force to Islam or exiled like the rest; the children torn away from their families or from the Christian schools, and handed over by force to Moslem families, or else placed by hundreds on board ship in nothing but their shirts, and then capsized and drowned in the Black Sea and the River Deyirmen Dere — these are my last ineffaceable memories of Trebizond, memories which still, at a month’s distance, torment my soul and almost drive me frantic.

According to the tribunal that tried him in absentia in 1919, Governor Azmi personally ordered many such mass drownings. He also used the Red Crescent hospital to lodge young Armenian girls for his use as sex slaves, only to have them killed late in the war to tie up loose ends. To complete his cycle of deadly sins, Azmi also took liberal advantage of the looting opportunity afforded by the speedy vanishing of Armenian subjects.

Azmi absconded rather than face postwar prosecution but his symbolic death sentence gained bodily force via Armenian revolutionaries’ Operation Nemesis: a campaign to assassinate the chief authors of the genocide.

Nemesis’s most famous targets were the “Three Pashas” who ruled the Ottoman Empire during World War I. (They successfully murdered two of the three.) But Azmi was on the list as well, and on April 17, 1922, a pair of Armenian hit men gunned him down on the Berlin’s Uhlandstrasse along with another genocidaire, Behaeddin Shakir. The assassins weren’t even arrested.

* Centuries before, Trabzon’s Byzantine precursor, Trebizond, had been the last redoubt of the vanishing Roman Empire.

** Vahakn Dadrian, “Children as Victims of Genocide: The Armenian Case,” Journal of Genocide Research, 2003, 5(3). The same author has written widely on the Armenian genocide, including but not limited to Azmi’s conduct in Trabzon; also see his “The Turkish Military Tribunal’s Prosecution of the Authors of the Armenian Genocide: Four Major Court-Martial Series” (Holocaust & Genocide Studies, 1997 11(28) and “The Armenian Genocide as a Dual Problem of National and International Law” (University of St. Thomas Journal of Law and Public Policy, 2010, 4(2)).

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1917: Marguerite Francillard, seamstress and spy

Add comment January 10th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1917 — with the parting cry, “Je demande pardon à la France! Vive la France!” — 18-year-old Grenoble seamstress Marguerite Francillard was shot at Paris’s St. Lazare prison as a German spy.

Her lover, a German agent posing as a traveling silk salesman, had induced the naive young woman to act as his courier and in this capacity she shuttled his messages treasonably between Paris and Geneva. Eventually, German intelligence sacrificed her: a nothing loss for an empire at war.

The cell Marguerite Francillard inhabited while awaiting execution was subsequently occupied by a more famous (albeit similarly marginal) German asset, Mata Hari.

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1917: Herbet Morris, British West Indies Regiment deserter

Add comment September 20th, 2017 Headsman

At dawn on this date in 1917, 17-year-old Jamaican soldier Herbert Morris was shot in a courtyard behind the town hall in the Flemish town of Poperinge.

He’d volunteered the year before, 8,000 kilometers away from the terrible trenches, to cross the Atlantic and stake his life for the 6th Battalion of the British West Indies Regiment but in the end it was the guns of his own countrymen who would fell him.

Like numerous front-line troops, Morris became disordered by shellshock, and despite a generally commendable service record, routed during a bombardment to be discovered days later wandering at Boulogne. With that (non-capital) precedent already to his name, Morris’s second desertion on August 20 met a very much harsher response.

When on active service deserting His Majesty’s Services, in that he, in the Field on the 20th of August 1917, when warned for duty, in the neighbourhood of the front line absented himself from his detachment until apprehended by the Military Police at Boulogne on the 21st of August 1917.

-Morris’s death sentence, endorsed by Douglas Haig, 15 September 1917

“I am troubled with my head and cannot stand the sound of guns,” Morris explained to his very brief court-martial, unavailingly. “I reported to the Dr. [sic] and he gave me no medicine or anything. It was on the Sunday that I saw the doctor. He gave me no satisfaction.” Two character witnesses from his unit comprised the entirety of his defense.

During the week between Morris’s hearing and his Field Marshal Haig-confirmed sentence, a violent mutiny by British Empire troops in Etaples, France shook the high command. Nobody can say if it was determinative for Morris’s fate, but it cannot have weighed in favor of leniency.

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1917: James Smith, Early One Morning

Add comment September 5th, 2017 Headsman

One hundred years ago today, a Bolton private (formerly lance corporal) named James Smith fell to his countrymen’s guns on Belgian soil during World War I.

A career soldier since 1909, Smith had served honorably in India and Egypt before the war. He had the hardiness and luck to survive Gallipoli and the Somme — but their horrors broke him mentally.

According to this biography, “Jimmy almost lost his life on the Somme on 11 October 1916 when a German artillery shell exploded, burying him alive and causing a shrapnel wound ‘the size of a fist’ on his right shoulder.” When he returned from two months’ convalescence leave his mates could see that shellshock had destroyed the old Jimmy Smith.

Erratic behavior that cost him his good conduct badges culminated in a break on July 30, 1917, the eve of the frightful Battle of Passchendaele, when Smith deserted his post and disappeared from the front — to be found later, wandering in a nearby town. In World War I, such an offense invited the brass to make an example of you.

Smith’s own comrades from the 17th Battalion King’s Liverpool Regiment were drafted into the firing squad. Pitying their victim, the executioners pulled their shots and missed the target, only succeeding in wounding the brutalized private. When the firing squad commander faltered at his duty to deliver the coup de grace, the task monstrously fell on a close friend of Smith’s, Private Richard Blundell, to press the revolver to Smith’s temple and blow out his brains. For its service to the war effort, the firing detail got 10 days’ R&R … and a lifetime of shame.

In the weeks before his own death, in February 1989, Blundell was often heard by his son, William, to murmur deliriously: ‘What a way to get leave, what a way to get leave.’

According to historian Graham Maddocks, in his book Liverpool Pals, William Blundell asked his father in a more lucid moment what he meant.

Still desperately upset seven decades after the incident, the dying Richard told his son what had happened. It was clear, that as he faced his own death, Richard had never forgiven himself.

Jimmy Smith was the subject of a 1998 play, Early One Morning.

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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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1917: Dragutin “Apis” Dimitrijevic, of the Black Hand

3 comments June 26th, 2017 Headsman

A century ago today* Dragutin Dimitrijevic — better known by his code name “Apis” — was shot on the outskirts of Salonika (Thessaloniki) along with two lieutenants in his legendary Serbian terrorist organization, the Black Hand.

Not to be confused with mafia extortionists of the same name, the Black Hand was the cooler brand name of Ujedinjenje Ili Smrt — “Union or Death” in the Serbo-Croatian tongue, referring to the network’s objective of aggrandizing the small Kingdom of Serbia with their ethnic brethren who, circa the fin de siècle, still answered to the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

This national aspiration would midwife the First World War.

Though it wasn’t formed as an institution until 1911** — it had its own constitution and everything — some of the Black Hand principals had entered the chessboard dramatically by conspiring in the 1903 assassination of the unpopular King Alexander Obrenovic and his consort Queen Draga. This operation is remembered as the May Coup and numbered among its leaders our very man, Apis. (English Wikipedia link| Serbian) Apis caught three bullets in the chest during the murderous palace invasion, but the hand wasn’t the only thing tough about him.

In victory, these conspirators grew into a powerful faction of a more bellicose state, the most militant exponents of Pan-Serbism — a spirit perforce directed against the Austrian polity, which called South Slavs subjects from Trieste to Montenegro. Belgrade, then as now the capital of Serbia, was at this point a border city, with the bulk of the future Yugoslavia lying to its north and west, in Austria-Hungary.

“We do not say that this war is declared yet, but we believe that it is inevitable. If Serbia wants to live in honour, she can do so only by this war,” Apis predicted to a newsman in 1912. “This war must bring about the eternal freedom of Serbia, of the South Slavs, of the Balkan peoples. Our whole race must stand together to halt the onslaught of these aliens from the north.”

I, (name), by entering into the society, do hereby swear by the Sun which shineth upon me, by the Earth which feedeth me, by God, by the blood of my forefathers, by my honour and by my life, that from this moment onward and until my death, I shall faithfully serve the task of this organisation and that I shall at all times be prepared to bear for it any sacrifice. I further swear by God, by my honour and by my life, that I shall unconditionally carry into effect all its orders and commands. I further swear by my God, by my honour and by my life, that I shall keep within myself all the secrets of this organisation and carry them with me into my grave. May God and my brothers in this organisation be my judges if at any time I should wittingly fail or break this oath.

-Black Hand induction oath

On the pregnant date of June 28, 1914, the Black Hand grasped at its historical destiny to redraw that noxious border when a cell of Bosnian Serbs whom Apis — a mere captain at the time of the 1903 coup, he by now commanded Serbian military intelligence — had dispatched for the purpose assassinated the Austrian heir presumptive Archduke Franz Ferdinand during his visit to the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo.

Their objective was the same as it had ever been, to avenge themselves upon their occupier. Moreover, Serbia had allied herself with Russia, and Vienna’s inevitable declaration of war over the provocation could be expected to draw Russia into a Great Power war, perhaps with the effect of shaking loose Austria’s Balkan provinces.

It did that, and it drew in the whole of Europe besides.

Apis’s assassins shattered the Habsburg empire and made possible a postwar Yugoslavian kingdom. That the Black Hand itself was one of the Great War’s casualties in the process was the littlest of ironies.

Its aggression had long placed it in a delicate relationship with the state which could never really be expected to acclimate to a permanent network of enragees looking to author wars and political murders.

By 1917 the Prime Minister Nikola Pasic saw an opening to move against Apis. Perhaps he feared resumed Black Hand subversion if Serbia negotiated a peace with Austria, or wanted to get rid of the guy who could tell exactly how much he, Pasic, knew about the Archduke’s assassination before it happened.

It was an effective ploy, no matter the reason. Alleging a bogus Black Hand plot to kill Serbia’s prince regent, a Serbian military investigation rolled up Dimitrijevic along with one of his original May Coup cronies, Ljobomir Vulovic and the alleged would-be assassin Rado Malobabic, a man who really had been involved in planning the Archduke Franz Ferdinand hit. Dimitrijevic was known to remark privately that whatever the charge sheet said, he was really being executed for that fateful day in Sarajevo.

The three condemned men stepped down into the ditches that had been dug for the purpose, and placed themselves in front of the stakes. Dimitrijevic on the right, Vulovic in the middle, and Malobabic on the left. After being blindfolded, Dimitrijevic and Vulovic cried: “Long live Greater Serbia!”

Malobabic succumbed after the first five shots, while the two others suffered longer, twenty shots having to be fired at each of them. No one was hit in the head. The execution was over at 4.47 in the morning.

Witness’s account of the execution

* Different sources proposing numerous different dates in June and even July can be searched up on these here interwebs. We’re basing June 26 on primary reportage in the English-language press (e.g., the London Times of June 28, 1917, under a June 26 dateline: “The Serbian Prince Regent having confirmed the death sentences passed on Colonel Dragutin Dimitriovitch, Major Liubomir Vulovitch, and the volunteer Malobabitch for complicity in a plot to upset the existing regime, these were executed this morning in the outskirts of Salonika”). The sentences were confirmed on June 24, and both that date and its local Julian equivalent June 11 are among the notional death dates running around in the wild.

** The Black Hand from 1911 was the successor to Narodna Odbrana (“National Defense”) which formed in 1908 in response to Austria-Hungary’s annexation of Bosnia.

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1919: Rudolf Egelhofer, Bavarian Soviet commandante

Add comment May 3rd, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1919, the commandante of the “Red Army” of the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic was shot by the German soldiers and Freikorps that had just overrun the revolutionary republic.

The son of a pauper basketweaver, Rudolf Egelhofer enlisted in the navy in World War I and was involved in a naval revolt in the war’s closing days. Transplanting to Munich in the chaotic postwar environment, Egelhofer joined the Communist Party and became a fixture of the revolutionary movement; the socialist writer Oskar Maria Graf would record of Egelhofer’s stature at a parade that he stood “determined and sincere, in a sailor’s uniform, sometimes raising his fist. Those who heard him, had to believe in him.”

After a left-wing coup claimed Bavaria in early April, Egelhofer’s magnetism was entrusted with the impossible task of organizing an armed forces for the Soviet before Munich went the way of the Paris Commune. But the Bavarian Soviet was overwhelmed in less than a month.

In the first days of May, Egelhofer’s fate was shared by something like 700 supporters of the defeated Soviet.


The fierce “victim” dominates his executioner in Execution by Firing Squad of the Sailor Egelhofer, by Heinrich Ehmsen (1931). This is only the central panel of a triptych depicting the White storming of Red Munich; the piece is described in this post.

Ehmsen has a similar idea about relative stature at work in Execution by Firing Squad (Red Jacket) (1919).

Though little memorialized at the place of his glory and martyrdom — which fell on the western side of the Iron Curtain — numerous East Germany streets, public buildings, and naval vessels bore Egelhofer’s name in tribute during the Cold War.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Execution,Germany,History,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Treason,Wartime Executions

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