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France may pardon executed World War I 'cowards'

Photo: AFP

A new report requested by France's Ministry of Veteran Affairs recommends that French WWI soldiers who were executed by their own side for desertion be officially considered under a new light.

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A report delivered to France’s Ministry of Veteran Affairs on Tuesday has suggested the country officially review the history of First World War soldiers who refused to fight and were executed by the hundreds as an example for other troops.

As France prepares to mark the 100th anniversary of the “Great War” next year, the new text highlights the double injustice suffered by many soldiers who were killed by firing squad and went down in history books as “cowards”.

One century after the start of the bloody conflict, “there is a large consensus in our society that the majority of them were not cowards, but decent soldiers, who performed their duties and did not deserve to die,” the report read.

It said that between 600 and 650 French soldiers were executed by their own side after disobeying orders from commanding officers, while around 100 others were put to death for espionage and other crimes.

It said that with 100 years of hindsight about the “dreadful circumstances” at the frontline, it was understandable that some men “broke down”.

The report discourages case-by-case probes to uncover the guilt or innocence of each executed WWI soldier, a process it said would have “disproportionate costs” and produce uncertain results.

Rather, it recommended a “formal declaration” by the state with perhaps a subsequent educational programme meant to clear the soldiers of dishonour.

“To declare that these soldiers also, in a certain way, ‘died protecting France’, would serve as a sort of moral and civic pardon," the report concluded.
 

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