World War 1 History: General Orders Artillery Strike on Own Troops
Movie Based on Fact
Paths of Glory
You may have seen the 1957 movie “Paths of Glory” starring Kirk Douglas and directed by Stanley Kubrick. In it, a French General orders an artillery strike on French troops because, having sustained heavy casualties, they refuse to leave their trenches. When the artillery strike fails to materialize, the general orders the execution of three soldiers chosen randomly to set an example. Sadly, the movie is based on a real incident that happened in March 1915.
On March 7, 1915, companies of the 336th Infantry Regiment began a series of attacks against a strong German position near the village of Souain in northeast France. Despite their attempts, they were repelled each time and every attack meant having to stumble past more and more of their dead comrades lying in No Man's Land. Some of the rotting corpses in their faded blue uniforms had lain there since September, 1914. And still the German machine gunners waited on the other side, secure in their trenches behind their barbed wire entanglements. On top of that, defective shells fired by French artillery fell short, sometimes bombarding the hapless French soldiers in their own trenches.
French Infantry Charge
Fire on Them!
On March 9, the 21st Company was ordered to renew the attack with another suicidal bayonet charge, but by then the survivors were exhausted and had had enough. They refused to leave the trenches. Enraged, divisional General Geraud Reveilhac ordered his artillery to purposefully target the French trenches and kill or drive the cowards toward the Germans. Colonel Berube, commander of the divisional artillery, refused to do so unless he received the order in writing. This, General Reveilhac would not do.
The Four Corporals
Determining that the 21st Company had not sustained a sufficient number of casualties based on the “percentage of eligible losses”, General Reveilhac ordered yet another attack. In preparation, four corporals, Corporal Theophile Maupas, Corporal Louis Lefoulon, Corporal Louis Girard and Corporal Lucien Lechat, were ordered to cross 150 yards of No Man's Land in broad daylight and cut through the German barbed wire. The four climbed out of the trench and made their way toward the enemy line, but when it was obvious that they couldn't reach the wire, they took refuge in a shell crater before turning around and heading back.
The four corporals were then arrested and taken before a War Council of thirty rear-echelon officers on March 16. A number of officers requested to speak for the accused but their testimony was refused. Only the battalion commander was allowed to speak and he was repeatedly interrupted and insulted by the council. The War Council then found the four men guilty of cowardice and sentenced them to be executed by firing squad within 24 hours.
On March 17, the entire 336th Regiment attended the executions near a Souain farmhouse, its officers and soldiers openly weeping. Other French units were ordered to surround the 336th, in case the regiment revolted. Some time after the verdict had been announced the day before, the president of the War Council had subsequently issued clemency for the four men, commuting their sentence to hard labor. The document arrived two hours after the four had been executed.
French General Reveilhac
General Reveilhac continued in command for another year until February 1916, when he was forced to take a leave of three months by the French General Staff. General Joffre, French Commander-in-Chief, wrote privately that Reveilhac was “at the limit of his physical and intellectual abilities”. He was then reassigned to command a reserve unit where he quietly spent the rest of the war.
Reveilhac Honored and Retired
After the war, Reveilhac was awarded the Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor and cited as a “General Officer [of] high value, possessing brilliant service, [who] has shown since the beginning of the campaign, in command of a division, the best military qualities”. He retired to his country estate where he lived out the rest of his life, dying peacefully in bed on February 26, 1937. The only disturbance to his idyllic retirement came in 1921, when the widow of Corporal Maupas attempted to rehabilitate her husband's good name.
The Corporals Cleared
The widow Maupas's efforts forced the military to reveal the circumstances of the four corporals' deaths. The general's conduct was denounced widely in the press-- even the military press-- but it would take 13 years before they were officially cleared by the court in 1934. The Lechat family finally received the diploma awarded to soldiers killed in battle. Lefoulon's father was allowed to transport his son's remains free of charge. Back-benefits were paid to all four families and the four widows were awarded a symbolic one franc each, which allowed them to collect war widows' pensions.
Memorial to the Four Corporals
Corporal Maupas was re-buried at Sartilly in Normandy in 1923 where a monument to the Souain corporals now sits.
In 2007, outside the courthouse where the four corporals were condemned, another monument was erected. The life-sized stone sculpture shows Maupas, Girard, Lechat and Lefoulon slumped against their execution posts after being shot dead.
Paths to Glory Trailer – based on the execution of four French corporals
Questions & Answers
© 2014 David Hunt