A New Legacy in Belgium for World War I Deserters






YPRES, Belgium — Ninety years after it ended, the First World War 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.

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 troop mutinies became an increasing 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 contrast, shot about 50....

As the war approaches its 100th anniversary, Poperinge’s monument reflects a vast recent shift in 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.



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