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Should the memory of the 1917 Mutineers be honored?

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  • Should the memory of the 1917 Mutineers be honored?

    Monuments to World War's fallen now include dissenters

    By John Tagliabue

    Tuesday, November 25, 2008

    YPRES, Belgium: Ninety years after it ended, World War I still hangs over this small Flemish town, a focal point of slaughter during the Great War, as they called it when they thought it would be the last. Monuments to the war's fallen sprouted like mushrooms after the armistice, but it took nearly 85 years to erect a monument to a different group of dead: soldiers executed by their own side for refusing to continue the fight.

    About eight kilometers, or five miles, from Ypres, in a quiet courtyard in the village of Poperinge, stands a pole of the sort used to support the twining vines of hops, a common local crop. It is about the height of a man. Just behind it is a steel plaque engraved with a verse from Rudyard Kipling: "I could not look on death, which being known, men led me to him, blindfold and alone."

    As the seemingly endless war dragged on, desertion and mutinies became a problem. To combat the problem, commanders began tying deserters and mutinous troops to poles like this one, where they would be executed by firing squad. The British shot 320 men and the French as many as 700. The Germans, by and large, did not shoot deserters.

    In one of two cells near the Poperinge monument, where soldiers were held before their dawn executions, visitors now come to remember not just the heroics of war but its horrors. One chilly afternoon, a scrap of paper lay on a wooden cot where the men spent their last night. Signed only T.T.S., the note, scribbled in English, was one of many that have been left there. "You will always be remembered," it said. "You did us proud."

    As the war approaches its 100th anniversary, Poperinge's monument marks a vast shift in recent attitudes in the European countries that suffered the greatest human losses, recalling not only those who died in combat but those who faced a firing squad for protesting, refusing to fight or fleeing the front.

    In Ypres, this change in attitude has led curators to change entirely the way the local war museum presents the conflict, stressing the war's inhumanity rather than the victors and the vanquished.

    In Britain the shift led in 2006 to a posthumous pardon by Parliament for deserters, after the erection in 2001 of a monument to those shot. In France, long the holdout, this year President Nicolas Sarkozy offered a public acknowledgment that the executed, too, deserved pity - the first time a French president had done so.

    Speaking on Armistice Day at Fort Douaumont, in eastern France, where hundreds of thousands of German and French soldiers died, Sarkozy said that those executed, "were not dishonored, nor were they cowards" - they had gone "to the extreme limits of their strength." But there was no pardon forthcoming, a spokesman for the president later said.

    "This was one of the more difficult issues, the whole discussion about executions," said Jurgen van Lerberghe, a town councilor who helped promote the Poperinge monument. "It is something you cannot hide. There were not only heroic deeds."

    Asked whether the monument would have been possible a generation ago, van Lerberghe said, "If you see it as a question mark, what war can do with people, there would have been a difficult discussion."

    Indeed, old views die hard. "Veterans of the Second World War have trouble with it," Luc Dehaene, 57, the mayor of Ypres for the last 11 years, said of the changed attitudes.

    The war museum here, in the immense Cloth Hall, a 14th-century market that was literally flattened in the war but for a stump where its huge clock tower stood, is no longer called the Ypres Salient Museum. Now it is the In Flanders Fields Museum, so named in memory of the famous poem and its author, Lieutenant Colonel John McRae, and his fellow soldier-poets, many of whom died in the war but not before denouncing its inhumanity.

    "Of course, militarily and diplomatically there were winners and losers," said Dominiek Dendooven, a war historian at the museum. "But the museum has to deal with the fact that in this war, with its 10 million dead, can you really say, 'They won, they lost?"'

    The museum now has a section on the deserters, which grew out of a series of conferences with participants from Britain, France and Germany, including family members of the soldiers executed.

    "Apart from the injustice, most were shot for the sake of an example," Dendooven said. "It was a form of mental coercion."

    Jack Sturiano, 61, a native of New York City, settled in Ypres two years ago after retiring from his job as a medical technician to study the war and its writers. Poets and writers, like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, "got it right," he said. "They emphasized the pity of war, rather than its nobility."

    "The war is still part of our daily life," said Dehaene, the mayor. The unearthing of bombs here is so commonplace that the farmers simply leave the ordnance in front of their homes for pickup by bomb disposal squads. "Nearly every year we have accidents," he said, adding that it was only six years ago that the last farmer was killed by a World War I explosive.

    Today, about 400,000 visitors, many of them school children, are drawn to the city each year, double the number a decade ago. André de Bruin, 63, a native South African who leads tours of the battlefields, said that information available on the Internet enabled people to find relatives who fought or fell here.

    "Suddenly they realize, 'Uncle Bertie fought in Passchendaele,"' he said, referring to the town now known in the more simplified Dutch language of today as Passendale, where vicious fighting took place. The widely publicized court case of Private Harry Farr, he said, a shell-shocked British soldier shot for cowardice in 1916, also stirred recent interest in the war.

    "In our vision there were only losers in this war," Dehaene said. "Our message is simple: See what happened over here. It's not naïve. We know what we can and cannot do. We know, nevertheless, that we have to make our appeal."

  • #2
    For the case of the shell shocked I would say yes, what they had to go through has never been duplicated, and hopefully never will. For an example the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Monument to the Missing of the Somme at Theipval lists 72,009 names of those who died with no known grave, 90% from July to November 1916.


    • #3
      Of course they should be honoured, today we recognise the disorder, then they didn't.


      • #4
        Originally posted by Chaobam Armour View Post
        Of course they should be honoured, today we recognise the disorder, then they didn't.
        Agreed. For what, I hope, we will never experience the hell they went through. Tens of thousands of young men whacked by enemy machine guns, torn down to pieces by the German artillery, and led by inept generals, looking for a "napoleon style offensive", who sent them to a suicide mission for the sake of their own glory. National holocausts, except the victims were consenting.

        Rest in Peace.
        Last edited by Oscar; 27 Nov 08,, 18:29.


        • #5
          Let us never forget.