Writing about Pat Barker’s new novel, Life Class, I mentioned an episode where a French soldier is brought to the hospital, in pain and rage, with horrific facial wounds resulting from attempted suicide. The characters discuss him:
“What’ll happen to him?”
“He’ll be shot.”
Lewis gapes. “I don’t believe it.”
“‘Course he will, Suicide counts as desertion.”
I questioned this, knowing that no British soldier had been executed for this offence during the War. Was this an example of Pat Barker representing the War as even worse than it was?
I’ve now done a small amount of research on French executions. Nicolas Offenstadt’s Les Fusillés de la Grande Guerre et la Mémoire collective (1914-1999) has a short chapter on “Mutilations volontaires” and the soldiers who were so keen to escape from the front that they shot themselves, usually in the hand.
Offenstadt quotes General Dubail as early as 1914 expressing his disquiet:
“I gather that these cases of self-inflicted wounds are becoming more and more numerous, notably among 8th and 14th Corps. I invite the generals and corps commanders to deal with this with the greatest rigour. There must be immediate examples and court martials. I hold generals and high-ranking officers personally responsible for the execution of these strict measures, which are simply measuresof public health.”
On another occasion Dubail linked self-inflicted wounds with robbing the dead as signs of low morale and inadequate control. He ordered doctors to be vigilant in inspection of wounds, and to report any that seemed suspicious.
Offenstadt cites several cases of soldiers executed for trying to escape their duties by this means – technically it counted as quitting one’s post. He mentions Auguste Gonsard, Francois Laurent and Elie Lescop “entre autres”, but he doesn’t give statistics. As a writer, he is stronger on denunciation (especially of doctors who complied) than he is on detailed figures.
From what I can gather, however, the executed were all men with relatively slight wounds which the military authorities deemed to be self-inflicted (though the soldiers themselves may have denied this). He doesn’t mention any cases where horrifically mutilated attempted suicides were later shot.
So – as far as I can see at the moment – Pat Barker is technically right, in that the man could have been court-martialled for what he did to himself, and the maximum possible penalty would indeed have been death. But I think her novel gives a misleading impression, in that dialogue like the fragment quoted above suggests that execution would be an automatic consequence of the situation.
General Dubail’s aim was deterrence rather than punishment, and I suspect that even he would have made a distinction between the man who sacrifices a finger to save his life, and the man who blows off half his face in an attempt to do more damage.