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France mulls pardon for World War I 'cowards'

Dan MacGuill · 1 Oct 2013, 18:18

Published: 01 Oct 2013 18:18 GMT+02:00

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Some broke down exhausted, refusing to go back over the top to certain slaughter in the First World War, others revolted, and all these French soldiers were executed.

On Tuesday, a prominent group of historians submitted a report to France's veteran affairs minister Kader Arif calling for many of those soldiers executed for insubordination during the "war to end all wars" to finally be rehabilitated.

The minister has promised "consultations" on the issue.

Nearly 100 years after the start of the 1914-1918 war, "there is a big consensus in our society to consider that most were not cowards" but "good soldiers, who had done their duty and did not deserve to die," the report said.

Some 600 to 650 soldiers were shot dead for insubordination, according to the text submitted by an organisation set up by the government to prepare for next year's World War I centenary commemorations.

SEE ALSO: British WWI soldiers to be buried in France, 95 years after their deaths 

"The executions had to have a dissuasive effect on troops...They had to set an 'example', which is not to say that the executed soldiers were innocent, but means that their sentence aimed also to avoid more insubordination, given that the execution was carried out in front of the troops," it says.

The 71-page report lays out several poignant examples, such as four soldiers sentenced to death and executed in 1915 for having refused to go back onto the battlefield when they had already exhausted themselves in unsuccessful assaults.

The report lays out four options for the government, and immediately rules out the first two – "to do nothing" or a "general rehabilitation", pointing out that some were executed for reasons such as spying.

"One can't honestly say that Mata Hari, shot following a war council decision, died for France," it says.

The third option – to study individual cases one-by-one – would be costly, leaving only the fourth possibility of a broad, official declaration.

Story continues below…

This would announce "in a very strong manner that many of those who were executed, but not all of them, were shot in rushed, sometimes arbitrary conditions," the report says.

"To declare that these soldiers also in a way 'died for France' would be a moral, civic and public-spirited rehabilitation.

The First World War was one of the deadliest conflicts in world history, marked by a reliance on human wave attacks that saw soldiers mowed down in their millions.

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Dan MacGuill (dan.macguill@thelocal.com)

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