French pardon 1917 mutineers

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The Independent Online
THE FRENCH government yesterday informally pardoned 49 French soldiers shot for mutiny and desertion during one of the the most bloody French offensives of the First World War.

Earlier this year, Tony Blair's government refused to give pardons to British soldiers convicted and executed for desertion or disobeying orders between 1914 and 1918.

Speaking close to the Chemin des Dames battlefield in the Aisne, scene of the disastrous offensive in April and May 1917 in which 200,000 French soldiers died, the French Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, said that it was time to bring the executed men "fully back into our collective, national memory".

Mr Jospin said that the soldiers had been victims of orders which threw them against an "impregnable objective". He said: "Exhausted, condemned in advance, sliding into mud soaked in blood, plunged into bottomless despair, they refused to be sacrificed."

It was time to remember them - and 4,000 other men condemned to lesser penalties - as heroes and victims of the war like any other soldiers, he said.

Mr Jospin's remarks yesterday do not amount to a formal pardon, as that would be the prerogative of the French president.

But this is the first time that any French government has faced the question of the mass mutinies which shook the French armies on the western front in 1917. Mr Jospin was the first French leader even to visit the Chemin des Dames area since the battle, 81 years ago.

He was speaking during a ceremony ahead of next Wednesday's 80th anniversary of the armistice which ended the war. Afterwards, the Prime Minister, walked up the Chemin des Dames - the line of the repeated and fruitless French attacks - to unveil a 12ft-high statue on the ridge which was defended by the Germans. The bronze statue, a jumble of men's faces, was dedicated, the Prime Minister said, "to all those faceless people who lost their youth and their future".

His informal pardon for the French mutineers may refuel efforts to reopen the cases of scores of British soldiers convicted of similar offences.