When France Executed Its Own Soldiers

In the beginning of World War I, hundreds of French soldiers were executed by the French army “to set an example” and keep other soldiers in line. Only now, more than a century later, has France’s National Assembly voted for their rehabilitation.

French soldiers using gunfire and rocks to attack Germans on the hillside, 1916, colorized. (Central Press / Getty Images)

Souain-Perthes-lès-Hurlus is one of the many small settlements of northeastern France where the buried soldiers of World War I outnumber the population of the living. A commemorative stone bears the grim legend “Here lie 429 unknown Frenchmen,” followed by a list of fourteen identified bodies, whom, it tells us, also “died for France.”

Yet the last name on this list rather complicates the story. François Laurent was cut down by the French army’s own bullets, as one of hundreds of soldiers shot “as an example” for supposed indiscipline. This twenty-nine-year-old had not fallen for France but been executed in disgrace; his widow was denied a pension and had to raise their two children destitute and humiliated.

Laurent’s fate was set on October 1, 1914, just eight weeks into hostilities, when he received a bullet wound to the hand while serving in the trenches. Twelve days later — after an order by General Fernand de Langle de Cary decreeing the arrest of any man suspected of wounding himself in order to escape the front line — Laurent was hauled before a military tribunal.

Orders had been given for “simplified” trials with as few participants as possible, to allow a “rapid and severe repression”; coupled to the instruction that courts-martial not be subject to appeal, this posed high odds to any defendant. But this soldier from outlying Brittany also couldn’t understand French — and received no help to explain himself.

Executed along with twelve of his army comrades on October 19, Laurent was one of hundreds of French soldiers shot during the war’s opening months to set a disciplinary “example” able to send a chill up other men’s spines.

After the armistice, some such cases were reopened under pressure from families and veterans’ groups, critical of this hasty “justice”; in 1933, the verdict against Laurent was overturned. But the impossibility of retrieving evidence from memories sunk in mud and blood left hundreds of families without even such a belated reprieve. This ended on January 13, 2022, as France’s National Assembly voted to rehabilitate all those “shot as an example.”

No Case to Answer

The bill was tabled by Bastien Lachaud, an MP for France Insoumise and member of the National Assembly’s defense commission. He used an opposition day motion to seek the rehabilitation of the men shot for supposed refusal or insubordination. He tells me that, while he has only been an MP since 2017, the fight for justice for these poilus (as the French refer to their “Tommies”) has been ongoing for over a century.

From 1918, figures like Henri Barbusse — a soldier whose book Under Fire dramatically portrayed conditions on the Western Front — and other veterans sought to redeem the name of men branded cowards simply because they were too in shock to continue fighting. Lachaud explains:

They said that those who did not live the experience of the trenches have no right to judge the soldiers who lived it — those who broke down, or were just shot as an example. I think that’s really what we need to keep in mind. Who are we to judge these men, who lived through something that nobody today has experienced?

In the postwar years, the factual basis of judgments holding that men like François Laurent had deliberately sustained minor wounds was itself thrown into question. The France Insoumise MP tells me:

No forensic evidence could show that it was really self-mutilation. The doctors of the time who said that it was took the black marks around the wounds for traces of gunpowder fired at close range. But as early as 1925, a forensic scientist showed that it could just as easily have been the dirt picked up from the muddy trenches or the soldiers’ clothing. So, according to this 1925 expert insight, all the people who were condemned and shot for self-mutilation should have been rehabilitated, but they were not.

But if the unreliability of the court-martial rulings was recognized even in the 1920s, why was rehabilitation so long in coming? Lachaud explains how initial mobilization around the issue came to a halt:

As early as 1921, laws were passed to facilitate the rehabilitation of those who had been shot, giving the Court of Cassation — the highest court of appeal — the go-ahead to reopen cases on the basis of new facts. Some of the shot men were rehabilitated by this procedure. Then, in 1932, a new law created a specific military court on this question.

But there remained the case of these 639 who were not rehabilitated, simply because there were no witnesses, because there were no new facts that allowed their cases to be reopened. Then came World War II, which overshadowed this history.

As well as veterans’ groups such as Barbusse’s Association Républicaine des Anciens Combattants (Republican Ex-Combatants’ Association), the campaign for justice was driven by associations like the Ligue des droits de l’Homme (League for the Rights of Man) and the Fédération nationale de la libre pensée (National Freethinkers’ Federation). Overall, some 2,000 local councils as well as thirty of France’s 100 départements have voted to rehabilitate the men “shot as an example.” Yet only today have they received general recognition at the national level.

Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin had already taken up the issue in a November 1998 speech, insisting that the fusillés pour l’exemple should be “reintegrated into the collective national memory.” Yet legislative moves in this direction failed under Parti socialiste (Socialist Party) governments in both 2001 and 2015–16. Opponents of such a measure often cited individual cases where soldiers had been convicted of crimes including rape and murder.

This changed in recent years thanks to the work of army historians who distinguished the reasons for which men had been sentenced. This, in turn, produced a list of men who had been executed for offenses such as alleged self-mutilation, refusal of orders or “cowardice faced with the enemy.” It was these soldiers who were rehabilitated by the National Assembly’s vote this Jauary: victims of what Jospin called a “discipline whose harshness was equaled only by the harshness of combat itself.”


Five months after François Laurent’s execution, tiny Souain-Perthes-lès-Hurlus was the scene of another of the most infamous cases of men being “shot as an example.” On March 10, 1915, the Twenty-First Company of the 336th Infantry Division were ordered to mount a bayonet charge against the German positions just north of the village.

The heaped remains of dead comrades starkly counseled against a further rush toward enemy fire, and the men refused to go ahead. Six corporals and eighteen privates were selected almost at random, as a “representative” sample of the men who ought to have gone over the top.

During the interrogation, one of the defendants, Théophile Maupas, protested that “anyone who went over was literally bound to be mowed down — by the German machine gun fire, or by our own.” He, along with the three other corporals known to have heard the orders, were sentenced to death and executed in front of the other men.

The case of these corporals is illustrative of how discipline was enforced, with an unfortunate few plucked out for exemplary punishment that would sow terror among many others. After the war, Maupas’s case became doubly symbolic, as his widow Blanche began a fifteen-year campaign to rehabilitate him — ultimately receiving a symbolic one franc in compensation. She told her story in her 1934 book, Le Fusillé [The Shot Man], also inspiring Humphrey Cobb’s Paths of Glory, later adapted as a Hollywood film starring Kirk Douglas.

The fact that troops “shot as an example” were often unwilling or unable to fight means that they are often counted among the mutineers of World War I. Yet such a reading conflates — often ill-founded — accusations of indiscipline with a more strongly politicized idea of soldier revolt drawn from the mutinies that spread across the Western Front in spring 1917, when a deeper crisis of morale gripped the French war effort. Ironically, by this point the fast-track justice of the initial war years had already been largely phased out. Lachaud tells me:

There were 40,000 to 60,000 mutineers, but there were only thirty or so people shot for mutiny. Mutineers were only a minority of the men who were executed as an “example.” Already in 1916, the military justice system had been reformed, with President [Raymond] Poincaré regaining the ability to commute capital cases, and he did so 90 percent of the time. Most of the men executed before then would likely have been reprieved, had only they been judged by these standards.

Upon the centenary, even official memorialization made space for the executed men, telling a story of PTSD and the horror of the trenches rather than just glorifying the cause in which troops fought. In November 2014, deputy armed forces minister Kader Adif opened a space at Paris’s Les Invalides army museum devoted to the 639 men “shot as an example.”

Some historians denounced an undue “politicization” of the past by the center-left government of the day, insufficiently devoted to honoring France’s victory. Yet the National Assembly vote this January is also a way of freeing the victims’ memory from the war fervor of their own time. They died neither for France nor as traitors against it, but as victims of an inhuman system of repression.