Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, April 20, 2015

100 Years Ago: Four French Soldiers Executed As Examples at Flirey

Contributed by Terrence Finnegan

On 18 March Général Joffre informed Général Dubail that he wanted IVe armée to undertake the operation to reduce the St. Mihiel salient as soon as possible, employing all means at his disposal in this attack. Unfortunately for the French, the April weather turned to rain. At first sight it seemed to Général Joffre that the weather supported the French thanks to the lack of effective German aerial reconnaissance. The Woëvre became a quagmire and the trenches within flooded. The artillery found it difficult to take up position, observation of fire was almost impossible, and the shells buried themselves in the spongy ground. A feeling of uneasiness spread to both troops and staffs.

Général Auguste Dubail, Commander IVe armée 

In an attempt to salvage the failing offensive, Général Dubail ordered his armée to change its tactics of intense assault to “methodical progression”. The new directive did not include the previous advantage of surprise. The result of the campaign was disastrous.  From 26 March to 30 April 1915, the French lost 65,200 officers and men. In comparison, German losses suffered in the same period throughout the entire Western Front were slightly over 80,000.

The abortive effort by a single company of poilus (infantrymen), the 5e compagnie du 63e régiment d’infanterie, on 19 April 1915, was the last act of a failed offensive.  At at 0600 only 40 of the 250 men in the 5e compagnie left the trench and advanced toward the German lines.  After a few metres they were devastated by German heavy artillery.

French commanders in the southern Woëvre front immediately took extreme measures. Lieutenant Colonel Paulmier, battalion commander, was ordered to make an example and have the entire 5e compagnie executed. After complaints and quibbling amongst the generals, it was decided that five soldiers were to be shot on the spot for refusing orders to advance. Adding to the misery, Général Joffre, just passing through the area, learned of what had transpired and refused to grant clemency to any of the convicted. In the same breath Joffre threatened the 63e régiment d’infanterie with dishonour and loss of their battle flag.

Lieutenant Mesnieux, 5e compagnie officer in charge, was tasked to come up with the list of five to be executed. Mesnieux’s counterpart in charge of the 4e Section, Sous-lieutenant Boulant, refused to accuse any of his men. Mesnieux then came up with a cowardly methodology. Two men were chosen by lot, the other three were nominated by their superiors, arrested, and charged with the capital offence of cowardice under fire. Lieutenant Mesnieux turned to a nearby soldier and asked for a random number. The soldier responded “17.” 

Unlucky Number 17,  Soldat François Fontanaud

Soldat François Fontanaud, the 17th soldier on Mesnieux’s roster, was immediately arrested and charged. Mesnieux’s enlisted senior sergent Chaufriasse selected the name of caporal Antoine Morange randomly from a personnel roster. Soldat Félix François Louis Baudy was a stonemason working the roads in Lyon prior to enlisting in the armée. He belonged to la Confédération Générale du travail (CGT), a union organization that was believed to be socialist. The association was enough to condemn him. Soldat Henri-Jean Présbot was also a CGT member from Villeurbanne. A fifth soldier, Caporal Coulon, was also chosen by lot. He was spared execution for being labelled simple d’esprit (a simpleton) when in fact he was able to bribe his way out of the mess.  

A conseil de guerre (court martial) was held with Capitaine Minot chosen to defend the accused. Minot was not a lawyer and had only  five minutes to talk with the accused before the conseil commenced. The next day, on 20 April 1915, Lieutenant Colonel Paulmier carried out the execution order on the edge of Bois de Manonville. He did not order comrades in the 5e compagnie to complete the task. New recruits to the unit who had just arrived and did not know the victims manned the firing squad. After the execution, Paulmier told Capitaine Minot that he had done everything he could to prevent this travesty. Bois de Mort-Mare would haunt the French military leadership for the remainder of the war.

From Terrence Finnegan's new work:  A "Delicate Affair" on the Western Front: America Learns How to Fight a Modern War in the Woëvre Trenches

Click here to see our review of his full work:


  1. A novel by Humphrey Cobb was published in 1937 about this incident.Cobb's novel had no title when it was finished, so the publisher held a contest.[2] The winning entry came from the ninth stanza of the famous Thomas Gray poem "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard".

    The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow'r,
    And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
    Awaits alike th'inevitable hour.
    The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

    The book was a minor success when published in 1935, retelling the true-life affair of four French soldiers who were executed to set an example to the rest of the troops.
    A movie by the same name staring Kirk Douglas was done in the '50s Amazingly well done for that period. Certainly worth seeing today

  2. Sad. The film Paths of Glory was based on this travesty.

  3. The film - directed by the very great Stanley Kubrick - remains excellent and moving.

  4. Nice line: "The new directive did not include the previous advantage of surprise."

  5. The Paths of Glory is one of the finest films I have seen. I had no idea there was a real story behind it.