History of demonstrative executions.
During the entire conflict, the morale of the troops and the civilian population often gave up slack. Some refused to fight, leading to desertion and rebellion. The army needed to stop such inclinations in order to prevent the leakage of forces and to maintain discipline and submission. And the punishment was to be quick and hard.
At the beginning of the war, the army obtained from the government the consideration of cases in military courts without preliminary investigation, and also ruled out any opportunities for pardon and review of decisions.
Moreover, Joffre secured the formation of field courts called "special military councils", which consisted of three people (the regiment commander and two officers) and rendered a decision as soon as possible (without the testimony of witnesses).
Most of them were extremely tough (as they were supposed to be indicative), and the death penalty orders were executed within 24 hours.
The largest riots occurred in the spring of 1917, after three years of bloody, protracted, exhausting war, in terrible conditions of life at the front (cold, mud, shelling, rare layoffs).
The Nivelles offensive cost the army 200,000 dead and caused outbursts of frustration and anger. When in early May, the troops received an order to continue fighting in the same conditions, many soldiers, including even the most courageous of them, refused to go to the front line.
Riots went all summer (their apogee fell on the period from May 20 to June 10) and covered more than fifty regiments. Appointed instead of Nivel, Petain managed to reassure the soldiers a little only by improving their food supply and expanding the number of layoffs.
The exact figures are still unknown to us, but it is believed that the military councils issued at least 3.5 thousand decisions: 1381 people were sentenced to hard labor, and 554 were executed (49 sentences were carried out).
Despite pessimistic forecasts, there was only about 1.5% when mobilizing draft dodgers. Then no one took into account their considerations (religious, ethical, etc.), and they did not have any status that could somehow protect them: the first movement for its recognition began only in 1923. Thus, anyone who refused to defend the homeland was sent to hard labor.
The situation was different with cases of desertion during the conflict, which were particularly frequent during the riots in 1917. During this year, more than 21 thousand deserters were counted. Most often they were shot.
The French army shot about 600 people, the Italian - 750, and the English - 300. In addition, it’s also worth adding 60 shot Canadians and 5 New Zealanders. At the same time in the German army, according to official data, only 23 death sentences were carried out.
In total, the military courts handed down 140 thousand decisions, including 2.4 thousand death sentences: three-quarters of the convicts were subsequently changed to penal servitude, and a quarter (here they are, our 600 people) were actually shot.
These figures, of course, do not include hasty executions, which were arranged by the officers right on the battlefield, sometimes even with the help of a staffed revolver.
Soldiers could earn such a sentence for desertion, rebellion, refusal to go into battle or obey orders, resignation or negligence. And sometimes for intentional self-harm.
All these situations, of course, were considered in a hurry, which led to controversial decisions, the main purpose of which was only to keep the troops in submission and not to allow panic.
The press and associations criticized such abuses and ultimately forced parliament to reform the system: in 1917, special military councils were abolished. And for good reason: almost two-thirds of the death sentences, which had already been announced by that moment, dealt a serious blow to the image of the army as flagrant injustices.
Among the innocent victims, mention should be made of Breton Francois Laurent, who was accused of deliberately mutilation after a hasty examination of a doctor, or the innocent Corsican shepherd Joseph Gabrielli, who was sentenced to death in 1915 for being lost after an attack and hiding in a basement.
Some of those sentenced to demonstrative executions were chosen completely arbitrarily.
“Dear Lucy, when this letter reaches you, I’ll be shot. And this is why. On November 27, at five o'clock in the evening after a two-hour bombardment, we ate the soup in the trench. At that moment, the Germans who came to us with two comrades attacked us captivity.
I managed to take advantage of the mess and escape from the Germans. I followed my colleagues, and then they accused me of leaving the post in the presence of the enemy.
Last night there were 24 of us in the military council. Six, including me, were sentenced to death. I am no more guilty than everyone else, but they need an example ...
My portfolio and everything that lies in it will reach you. I say goodbye to you with tears in my eyes and pain in my soul. Humbly asking you for forgiveness for all the pain that I cause you, the difficulties that await you ... I think about you, to the very end. "
This is a letter from Henri Floch, one of those who were later called "martyrs from the Hungarians."
A similar fate befell the "four corporals from Swan." In March 1915, a whole company of soldiers refused to leave the trenches (because there they were waiting for the inevitable and aimless death).
Then her captain received an order to choose from the youngest fighters six corporals and 18 soldiers (two for each unit). As a result, four corporals were sentenced to death and executed the next day just two hours before the arrival of the order for their pardon and the replacement of punishment for hard labor ...
Even more famous became the tragic case of Lucien Bersault. When enrolling in the army, this blacksmith from Besançon was not able to pick up the red pants that were laid out according to the regulations (there was simply nothing left for his size), and therefore he had to be content with white ones.
In February 1915, when there was a terrible cold in the trenches, he asked for woolen pantaloons, and the sergeant-kaptenarmus gave him blood-soiled rags, which they took from the corpse of another soldier. Bersault refused them, for which he received a week of a guardhouse.
However, Colonel Oru considered the punishment insufficient and sent him to a special military council to make an example of him for all new recruits. This husband and father of a six-year-old daughter were sentenced to death, and two colleagues who spoke in his defense were sent to 10-year hard labor in North Africa ...
For the soldiers who were shot for an illustrative example, the families were harder because they were ashamed of their son, husband, father or brother for faint-heartedness.
“We lived in a terrible atmosphere of unfounded suspicion and shame,” Brother Henri Floch would later say. The son of one of the martyrs of Wengra will tell you that he was kicked out of school, and his mother always took a pistol with her because of constant insults and threats.
This is not to mention the fact that families of convicts were deprived of any help and benefits. Therefore, after the war, many began to fight for the rehabilitation of relatives.
It was a long (sometimes it took more than 10 years) and exhausting struggle with the support of veterans' associations and the French League for the Protection of Human Rights and Citizens. In addition, victories in it were rare: only about 40 out of 600 people who were executed were rehabilitated.