Working Paper BETA #2022-18

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Title : The executions of French soldiers during the Great War: A quantitative study

Author(s) : Olivier Guillot, Antoine Parent

Abstract : This paper explores the issue of the executions of French soldiers during the Great War in a quantitative perspective. Based on the “Shot in the First World War” database of the French Ministry of Defense, we first describe the characteristics of these soldiers who were sentenced to death by a council of war or summarily executed, and examine whether their profile has changed over the war years. This statistical portrait is then complemented by two regression analyses. The first one focuses on the temporal distribution of executions. Specifically, we investigate whether the variations in the number of executions over time were related to the intensity of engagements. The second analysis aims to explain the inter-county differences in the proportion of soldiers executed. Two main findings emerge from our study. First, the profile of the soldiers shot in 1914 was quite different from that of those who were executed in the subsequent years: they were more often farmers, enlisted in the infantry, without previous convictions. By contrast, the soldiers executed in 1917, the year of the mutinies, did not greatly differ in their characteristics from those shot in 1916. Secondly, the results of our regressions suggest that the vast majority of the executed soldiers were “poilus” like the others who found themselves before a firing squad for having committed a fault in a moment of weakness, often after being involved in particularly bloody fighting, and sometimes under the influence of alcohol. Their acts were probably, in most cases, much more driven by survival instinct than by pacifist motives or other political considerations.

Key-words : Military executions; World War I; French Army; Military History.

JEL Classification : N44, K14, K42, D74