1940: Tirailleurs Senegalais, for France

8 comments June 20th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1940, German forces even then completing their rout of France — the humiliating capitulation was mere hours away — massacred a detachment of African soldiers who mounted a doomed resistance at Lentilly.

Tirailleurs Senegalais were recruited not only from Senegal but from throughout France’s domains in sub-Saharan Africa. (There were also Algerian, Tunisian, and Moroccan tirailleurs.)

Though these soldiers’ own lands were occupied, they were instrumental to defending the freedom of their occupier on European soil: over half a million African tirailleurs are thought to have served les couleurs in the two World Wars, and died in all the horrible ways those slaughterhouses could devise.

In 1940, black troops represented some 9% of the French army, a fact pilloried in German nationalist proaganda.

It’s hardly a surprise that the black man couldn’t catch a break from skull-measuring Aryan race warriors, but then, France too had its own less than comfortable relationship with these dark-hued citizens summoned from distant villages to bleed in the trenches of Europe. The military’s official guidelines emphasized (French link) the “Senegalese’s” special value as cannon fodder.

If a sacrificial mission is necessary, a defense to the death to provide cover for forces to regroup, appeal to the valor of the black fighter.

On the other hand, French authorities put up a monument to black soldiers in the aftermath of World War I. (The occupying Nazis vengefully dismantled it.) Such are the contradictions of colonialism.

Racial reservations notwithstanding, colonial troops were employed throughout the army if for no other reason than that they constituted nearly the tenth part of that army.

Their service record naturally included (French pdf) the over-before-it-started French defense against the Nazi blitz in 1940.

In this instance, knowing full well that the campaign was lost, French officers flipped open the “sacrificial mission” playbook and ordered their African charges to oppose a German march near Lyon “without thought of retreat.”

Since victory was equally out of the question, that left death. Wehrmacht troops duly prepared by Nazi racial typecasting to see their foes as savages were all too ready to wipe out African troops they greatly outclassed.


A monument to the Tirailleurs in Lentilly, France. Image (c) filoer and used with permission.

The Lentilly cemetery “Tata”, final resting place of 188 Senegalese riflemen who died under German artillery or were massacred after the battle by the 3rd SS Division Totenkopf June 19 and 20. Image (c) filoer and used with permission.

For more on the tirailleurs, there’s an extensive French-language blog.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,France,Germany,History,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1962: Marthinus Rossouw, for services rendered

5 comments June 20th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1962, Marthinus Rossouw was hanged in Pretoria after an unusual defense strategy failed to repel a headline-grabbing murder charge.

Rossouw shot dead Baron Dieterich Joachim Gunther von Schauroth, a rich farmer (dude was born in a castle) who had been forced into city living by a long run of drought and was known for the life expectancy-compromising habit of toting around large sums of cash.

Rossouw insisted at trial that the killing had been at Von Schauroth’s own instigation, so freighted with care was the victim’s life that he implored his younger friend to end it. The defendant hoped thereby to mitigate the sentence as a case of murder by consent.*

Whether telling the truth or not, Rossouw didn’t make a very credible witness; caught in several lies and omissions, and naturally lacking any corroborating witness to the alleged murder pact, the jury gave him no slack.

Neither did the noose.

* The proper legal handling of a case where the victim of a homicide has freely desired to die is a longstanding salami-slicing juridical problem — witness a whole chapter in an 1897 British primer on consent issues in the law.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Pelf,South Africa

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1864: William Johnson, a bad example

9 comments June 20th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1864, the Union army in the American Civil War hanged a black deserter outside Petersburg, Va., for — in the delicate words of the army dispatch — “an attempt to outrage the person of a young lady at the New-Kent Court-house.”

The Union army was just taking up position for the coming monthslong siege of the Confederate capital, Richmond. Johnson, who confessed to deserting another unit, offered savvy blue commanders a win-hearts-and-minds opportunity: a public reassurance that the Old Dominion’s dim view of Negro outrages upon young ladies would be honored by its soon-to-be occupiers.

Not bad in theory. The execution left something to be desired.

The field of public relations being very much in its infancy, the upshot of this salutary demonstration seems not to have been conveyed to its target audience; so, when a defending Confederate battery caught sight of the gallows being thrown up in brazen view of its own lines, it jumped to the not-unreasonable conclusion that the Yanks were about to make an example of a southern spy. Rebel guns promptly made the Union detachment their “target audience.” An artillery shot struck one Sgt. Maj. G. F. Polley (or Polly) and “tore him all to pieces” before

[a] flag of truce was sent out to inform the enemy that a negro was to be hung who had insulted a white woman the day before; they stopped firing. We then marched back and saw the negro hung.

The return on investment for the souls of Johnson and the misfortunate NCO was altogether unsatisfactory:

The incident was cleverly turned to advantage by the Confederates, who had been losing hundreds of Negro laborers by desertion. The Rebels marched Negroes past the spot, pointing out to them the perils of fleeing their lines, saying that the Yankees hanged all ‘Contrabands.’ For weeks nocturnal escapes of Negroes ceased on that front. (Source)

It wasn’t a total loss, however. The Library of Congress ended up with some striking archival photos.

(There’s a better touch-up of this last photograph of Johnson’s body being cut down here.)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Confederates,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Mature Content,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Political Expedience,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Soldiers,U.S. Military,USA,Virginia,Wartime Executions

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