A long weekend in Normandy in August 1997 allowed me to visit some more lesser known Great War sites that I had found out about.
Memorials to the four Corporals of Souain, shot "for the sake of example"
The department of the Manche contains some sites which concern one of the saddest incidents involving the French Army of the Great War. This is the story of the four Corporals of Souain who were executed, "pour encourager les autres" on 17 March 1915 after the failure of an attack near Souain in Champagne. (See the page describing this part of the Front.) The episode was the basis of the 1935 novel Paths ofGlory by Humphrey Cobb, which later became the 1957 film starring Kirk Douglas.
More recently the incident has been researched by the local historian Jacqueline Laisne whose book 'Pour l'honneur de Theo et des caporaux de Souain fusilles le 17 mars 1915' was published in November 1996. (Editions Isoete, 123 rue Emile Zola, 50100 Cherbourg, price 140 FF, ISBN 2-905 385-70-7) With the aid of this I was able to find the sites described below.
The story of the four corporals began at St. Lo, the principal town of the department, where they reported for duty on mobilisation in August 1914. They served in the 136th R.I. which was quartered in the Caserne Bellevue which can be found near the southern edge of town on the Rue 136eme R.I. The barracks appears to have been decommissioned in the last year or two and looks as if it is being turned over to civilian use. However the gate and guardroom survive.
After the Great War, there was a long fight to clear their names and they were eventually cleared by the French military and legal systems on 3 March 1934. Blanche, the widow of Corporal Theophile Maupas, was one of the leading campaigners, and she had succeeded in getting them rehabilitated at a local level several years before. She lived at Sartilly, a large village a few miles north-west of Avranches.
In the communal cemetery at Sartilly I found the Monument to the Corporals of Souain which was unveiled on 20 September 1925. The monument consists of a bronze bas-relief set into a block of dark granite. The inscription reads 'Souain - aux Caporaux Maupas, Lechat, Girard, Le Foulon 17 Mars 1915'. The bas relief depicts a background of four soldiers standing tall and dignified, but blindfolded as for an execution. A young woman personifying Justice is kneeling and weeping in the foreground and a set of scales has been knocked over in front of her.
Corporal Maupas is buried beneath the monument. On 10 June 1923 the municipal council of the commune, acting with the advice of the Ancien Combattants, gave Blanche Maupas permission to have his body reinterred in the communal cemetery. In early August 1923 she travelled to the military cemetery at Suippes in Champagne to collect his remains. He was reburied at Sartilly on 9 August 1923 with an "unending cortege" in attendance. Her efforts and those of the Ancien Combattants of the commune led to the construction of the monument. Blanche Maupas died in 1962 and, fittingly, she occupies the grave to the immediate left of the monument.
The church and mairie at Sartilly appear to have changed little since1923. The monument aux morts in front of the church lists Corporal Maupas as one of the villagers who died 'pour la patrie' but there is nothing to suggest that he was not killed in battle.
South of Avranches, on the road to Fougeres, is the small village of Le Ferre. (Technically this village is about a mile over the department border in Ille-et-Villaine, and therefore in Brittany, but it makes more sense to describe it here.) The monument aux morts displays the surname of Corporal Lucien Lechat. As with Corporal Maupas, there is nothing to suggest that his story was in any way different from the other dead of the village. This village appears not to have changed since the cortege carrying Corporal Lechat's body passed through the village on the day of his reinterrment in the commune on 16 October 1924.
The vast American Cemetery which overlooks Omaha Beach at Colleville-sur-Mer houses 9,386 dead, almost all from the summer of 1944. However there is one Great War grave here. This is the grave of Quentin Roosevelt, son of President Theodore Roosevelt, who was shot down near Chamery north-east of Chateau Thierry on 14 July 1918. (See the page on The Second Battle of the Marne 1918.) He was reinterred at Omaha beside his brother, a brigadier-general and medal of honour winner who was killed in July 1944. (The Roosevelts are buried in plot D, in the corner of the plot that is furthest from the entrance.)
Rouen was important to the BEF as a Base Supply Depot and as the base for the 3rd Echelon of GHQ. Many hospitals were also based in the city, including "eight General, five Stationary, one British Red Cross and one Native Labour Hospitals, and No.2 Convalescent Depot" (see 'The Silent Cities' p. 211).
Two miles south-west of the city centre is St Sever Cemetery and Extension. The cemetery houses a monument aux morts, which includes a long curved wall listing all the local dead. This is in a rather sorry state of repair and many of the names are barely legible. There is a large plot of French soldiers, and their graves are marked with the wrought iron crosses of the Souvenir Français rather than the more common concrete variety. The cemetery is also one of the largest CWGC burial grounds in France with 11,420 Great War casualties (according to 'The Silent Cities'). Unusually for a CWGC cemetery, there are two plots which consist only of officers' graves, and a small plot of graves of Jewish soldiers.
Above all, I came to pay my respects to the 47 men of my grandfather's regiment, the 19th London Regiment (St. Pancras) of the 47th (London) Division, who are buried here. Thirty of these men died of wounds received at Bourlon Wood where the battalion was on the receiving end of a gas bombardment on the night of 30 November to 1 December 1917. The cemetery register for many of them records simply: died of wounds (gas). I cannot help feeling that this must have been a particularly nasty way to die, even by Great War standards. Their dates of death show that these unfortunates died between three days and a fortnight after the bombardment. A similar number of the battalion's gas casualties from Bourlon Wood are buried at the base cemetery at Etaples.
Copyright © Charles Fair, November, 1997.
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