Dispute erupts over executed first World War mutineers

Today's 80th anniversary of the first World War armistice has triggered a bitter political dispute over the execution by firing…

Today's 80th anniversary of the first World War armistice has triggered a bitter political dispute over the execution by firing squad of 49 mutineers who refused to participate in the April-May 1917 "Chemin des Dames" offensive.

In April 1917, Gen Robert Nivelle, the newly appointed chief of staff of the French army, decided that (against the advice of other officers) he should attack the best fortified German positions on the whole western front, the prettily-named Chemin des Dames. He would give his troops 48 hours to break through. If they failed, he promised, he would abandon the offensive.

In freezing, foggy weather, Gen Nivelle sent his men up steep mountain faces where they were caught on German barbed wire and picked off by machinegun fire. Seventy years before Ayatollah Khomeini sent boys to die on Iraqi minefields, Gen Nivelle had invented the human wave attack.

He refused to stop the battle, and in one month 271,000 French soldiers were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. When word of the catastrophe reached Paris, Gen Nivelle was relieved of his command and replaced by Gen Philippe Petain. Gen Petain was confronted with a strike by 40,000 soldiers. The poilus did not desert their positions or fraternise with the enemy. They just wouldn't go forward.


The great French journalist Albert Londres wrote at the time: "The soldiers are willing to die, but not to commit suicide." The French command was terrified that the Bolshevik revolution was spreading to their trenches, and the soldiers were - wrongly - said to be under the influence of "revolutionary and defeatist propaganda".

Military tribunals sentenced 554 soldiers to death and 1,400 to five years' forced labour. Forty-nine were chosen arbitrarily to be shot by firing squads. As the first World War leader, Georges Clemenceau, said: "Military justice is to justice what military music is to music."

The song of the mutineers, "Farewell to life, farewell to love, farewell to all the ladies . . . ", was sung by French pacifists in the 1920s and 1930s. But for nearly 82 years, no French politician visited the site of the battle - until last Thursday, when Prime Minister Lionel Jospin went to the Chemin des Dames as part of France's armistice commemorations.

"Some of these soldiers," Mr Jospin said, "exhausted by attacks that were doomed to fail, slipping in mud soaked with blood, plunged into deepest despair, refused to be sacrified. May these soldiers, `shot as an example' . . . be fully reintegrated today into our collective national memory."

President Jacques Chirac waited until Friday night to issue his rebuttal. "At a time when the nation is commemorating the sacrifice of more than one million French soldiers who gave their lives between 1914 and 1918 to defend their invaded homeland, the Elysee finds inopportune any public statement that could be interpreted as rehabilitation of the mutineers," the presidential statement said.

The tragic deaths of 49 men were reduced to that political banality known as "a hitch in cohabitation". The Gaullists claimed that Mr Jospin had overstepped his brief and impinged on the president's role as "guardian of the collective memory".

Nonsense, the left-wingers retorted. France's "collective memory" is the exclusive property of no one. What really annoyed the Elysee, it emerged, was that Mr Jospin had not forewarned them.

In Britain, homage was paid on Saturday to 306 soldiers who were shot during the first World War for "desertion and cowardice". Government and opposition agreed on the ceremony.

As the French dispute developed into trench warfare between Socialists and Gaullists, the press noted how British sang froid contrasted with French inability to agree on their own history.

The battle has been led by proxy generals - the Socialist and Gaullist (RPR) party leaders, Mr Francois Hollande and Mr Philippe Seguin. After Mr Seguin accused the prime minister of "neo-revisionism" and of campaigning for the 2002 presidential election, Mr Hollande claimed Mr Seguin (who advocates a confrontational cohabitation between left and right) had put pressure on the president to criticise Mr Jospin. Mr Chirac was, the Socialist leader said, "the victim of Philippe Seguin".

This was too much for the irritable Mr Seguin. During a pilgrimage to Gen de Gaulle's grave at Colombey-les-deuxEglises on Monday, the Gaullist party leader attacked the Socialists. "If we justify disobedience in the army, we're opening ourselves up for all serious consequences," he said. As his temper heated, so did the rhetoric.

Mr Seguin accused Mr Hollande of "verbal delirium" and asked sarcastically whether the Socialists also intended "to rehabilitate the Waffen SS".

Virtually everyone who is anyone in France is now taking sides in the Chemin des Dames debate. "We must leave history to the historians," the bland centrist politician Mr Francois Bayrou said. Gen Marcel Bigeard, of Indochina and Algeria notoriety, said "it wasn't worth stirring up the cesspool" of first World War memories.

But public sentiment has sided with compassion and the prime minister. The Green Party is demanding that military archives - closed for 100 years - be opened so the full truth can be learned about Chemin des Dames.

The Italian defence minister and French directors known for their films on the Great War also declared support for Mr Jospin. Even the descendants of Gen Nivelle, the man whose disregard for life inspired the rebellion, have spoken out in favour of him.

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe is an Irish Times contributor