Monday, 27 January 2014

Paris, March-June 2014. Introduction to an exhibition

(The like of which we are unlikely to see listed officially in the UK)

« Shot as an Example 1914-2014. The Republic’s Ghosts»

In the media the resonance accorded to the victims of military tribunals is immense, almost disproportionate: from the end of the conflict, press, literature, cinema and comic strips took it in turn to tell the story of the suffering of those shot for the sake of example, transformed in the collective unconscious into emblematic victims of the leaders’ presumed incompetence. This process ended with the executed being now merged with the mutineers of 1917.

Detaching itself from polemics and going beyond the components of a collective memory which is often painful, conflicted, and therefore sometimes liable to bias and blockage, present-day historiography is now able to contemplate with clarity the functioning of military justice at the time of the conflict, restoring it to the long-term context of its evolution since the French Revolution and incorporating it in that of the Great War.

Taking into account, but not limiting itself to, the omnipresence in the media  of the 650 or so executed men, over-represented in  collective memory in view of the 1.4 million French dead in te Great War, the exhibition «Fusillé pour l’Exemple 1914-2014.  Les fantômes de la République» aims to present to the public the state of historical research on the subject to shed light on it and enable them to form an opinion.

Arranged in the rooms of the Hôtel de Ville in Paris, it will open in spring 2014 for three months.

To achieve the goal of giving citizens the means to take over their history in order to let them consider calmly the idea of justice in wartime and the results of its application, it was decided to combine a rational and rigorous presentation of the facts and of the exaplanatory work carried out by historians, particularly in the last 15 years or so, with another, more subjective style giving access to war as lived experience, suffering, incomprehensibility, and daily strangeness which are difficult for us to imagine now.

The solution has been to devise a layout to serve this basically educational project. Consequently it made perfect sense for the exhibition’s director (commissaire) Laurent Loiseau, to assemble a scientific management team made up of the leading French specialists on the topic and an artistic team tasked with setting out a sensitive, contemporary arrangement for a public seeking knowledge but also involvement/ to be informed but also to participate.

It’s an ambitious project, in scale and strength, and has surprised the organisers with the evocative power it unleashes.

The emotion engendered by the productions of the associated artists is balanced all along the line by recollection of the facts, supported by archival research.

Further, the exhibition does not limit itself to describing how military justice in 1914-18 worked, it also analyses what happened after the conflict, in the interwar period and in the present day, when civil society and contemporary historiography has difficulty in knowing how to deal with the empathy aroused by the suffering of the ordinary soldier (« poilus »). Beyond the facts, the exhibition goes on to questions the role of the historian in the City: how can we move from a time of conflicted memory, painful for descendants of the executed men, to a time of reconciled (apaisée) history ?

Far from supplying answers, this exhibition sees itself as stimulating questions by appealing to each individual’s rationality and understanding. This approach, appealing to intelligence, a critical mind, and perception, seemed to us a priori a way of evading a risk of divisive discourse,. It makes the most recent knowledge available while giving the visiting citizen the opportunity of forming an opinion on the debate which has already started in the run-up to the 1914 commemorations. What about those shot « by France » ? Were there cases of  injustice ? Can we, should we, redress them symbolically ? The debate couldn’t be.more relevant. The exhibition is meant to contribute to this sensitive discussion.

Those who planned it were bearing in mind Paul Ricoeur’s reflection in his master work La Mémoire, l’Histoire, l’Oubli (Memory, History, Forgetting): « C’est sur le chemin de la critique historique que la mémoire rencontre le sens de la justice. Que serait une mémoire heureuse qui ne serait pas une mémoire équitable ? » (It is by way of historical critique that collective memory meets the sense of justice. How could such memory be happy without being fair?)

Historians and artists have addressed that question, with their own sensibilities and with humility. They will thus present their historical and artistic approach to this particular memory within the vast and painful collective memory of the Great War.

 From an article on the official French site listing 1914-18 centenary events:          
Fusillésés               - > Les Fusillés de la Première Guerre mondiale

See also:       (dated: 2013-10-03):       A new report requested by France's Ministry of Veteran Affairs recommends that French WWI soldiers who were executed by their own side for desertion be officially considered under a new light.

and » 1915: Four French Corporals, for cowardice [Today, i.e. On This Day]:  17 Mar 2008 - A 1999 study numbered 550 French executions. ....

Friday, 24 January 2014

Midinettes, Métallos, Mutineers...

Strikes in the Great War

From an article by historian Jean-Louis Robert:                         Keywords: Centenaire de l'Humanité

Despite the military confrontation devaluing struggles in the « rear », many movements of a pacifist type led to the rise of new forms of radicalism.

Within a few days in 1914, mobilisation depleted the ranks of workers’ organisations. Everywhere the « union sacrée » [sacred union, presumed national consensus for the war effort] took over. But from 1917-1918 a social movement, both significant and unprecedented, broke out in France. Significant, because the level of strikes in  1917 and 1918 exceeded those from 1906 to 1910, a fact made still more noteworthy considering they were in a state of war. Unprecedented because struggles by new segments of the working class came to the fore, and because the forms of those struggles were also new. This article will look at two cases : the « midinettes’ » strike of 1917and the  metalworkers’ (« métallos « ) strike,  1918, both in Paris.

The midinettes’ strike has to be located in a wider context, first and foremost that of the notable increase in women’s employment. And this « féminisation » of work was accompanied by a feminisation of strikes. During the war women were involved in as many strikes as men, in fact in more in some years, as in 1917. Suddenly they were there in the front line of struggle, leading active, often victorious strikes, more concerned with demands than with politics. This struggle was generally also spontaneous, which was certainly the case with the midinettes’ movement of 1917. On 11th May, a few days after the spectacular failure of the Chemin des Dames offensive, the [haute couture, up-market] dress-makers went on strike for « the English week » [Saturday afternoons off].  They were to be seen on 15th May « in serried ranks » in the rue de la Paix and rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré. There were no unions involved when this started. But there was another unusual feature, which was that those wartime strikes ran up against the State, which could not ignore them, and the whole trend of wartime government policy was to put into effect forms of social control in which the unions would have their set place. So if the unions were absent at the start of the strike, they were present when it came to negotiations, which ended by achieving perceptible successes. And the strikers joined the ranks of organised labour.

The second strike to be considered is that of the 100,000 metalworkers in the war factories in May 1918. Let’s have a quick look back at the context here too. Within a few months, industrial mobilisation established a system of war factories where there was massive weapons production with hitherto unprecedented speed-up of work. It was the First World War that saw the earliest bastions of industry, first of all being Renault Billancourt with as many as 20,000 workers. In those factories, new work practices developed, and a new labour force (unskilled) appeared. At the same time the state took control of the labour force, aiming to install new forms of social relations with, for example the creation of workshop delegates [shop stewards, more or less] at the end of 1917. But these factories soon also became the seed-beds for new developments in radicalisation of struggle, and of pacifism too – which in  France had never been revolutionary defeatism. This is what the 1918 movement, kicking off on the morning of 13th May at the instigation of delegates from  Renault, signified. The strike was basically an assertion of pacifism, demonstrated in opposition to moves to re-assign the young men eligible for call-up from the factories to the front.* And from then on the metalworkers of Paris became the spearhead; they provided the majority in subsequent strikes (instead of the building workers, as before 1914), bringing in their own forms of struggle such as factory occupation – already frequent in 1918 – and building a dynamic and determined trade unionism [syndicalisme].

At the same time those two conflicts had uneven effects on unionism. It must never be forgotten that the war was on and that the primary sacrifice was at the front: hundreds of thousands killed, wounded, mutilated, gassed, with smashed faces, driven mad, losing their memory. Everything is viewed through this prism that creates a latent opposition between the front and the rear (all seen as dodgers on a cushy number). Women first and foremost. This is Péricat, one of the leading revolutionaries and a future founding member of the French CP, yelling at workers on 16th December 1917 « Go and see them in the suburbs, covered in furs, with boots up to their knees! In the cinema, in the theatre, women all laughing, having a good time. French women have no guts. They’re neither mothers nor wives nor fiancées ». Like a war of the sexes. And the women who joined the trades union for a time in 1917 very soon left. The problem with the metalworkers was the same: those workers assigned to the rear were certainly on strike for peace, but were also suspected of defending their privilege [of being in a reserved occupation]. So they were not qualified, at least during the war, to claim any vanguard role.

So, social history can never be reduced to the simple black-and-white contrasts that people sometimes attribute to it. Like life no doubt.

*[At an earlier stage conscripts had been withdrawn from combat to work in mines and war industries].

[About Mutineers, see previous post]

Thursday, 23 January 2014

France 1917 continued: Mutinies in the Trenches

And at the front…

… news of the Russian [February] revolution had been known since March. The Nivelle offensive opened on 16th April in the Chemin-des-Dames was the spark that ignited the powder. The general headquarters (GQG, grand quartier général) had promised a decisive breakthrough; in the end it was only one more episode of slaughter to gain a few kilometres.

It was this excess of slaughter that brought the discontent in the trenches to a height.

Towards the end of April units deployed in difficult sectors refused to take part in suicidal attacks that were doomed to failure. In May refusals to obey orders multiplied, and the unrest spread in rest zones for troops returning from the front line and also reached transit depots for those going on leave. Their anger found expression in demonstrations of differing importance. Often short-lived, they sometimes developed into riots. The Internationale was sung, the Russian revolution hailed, the  high command  and those settled in the rear denounced ; they shouted « Down with War, Long Live Anarchy ! » and marched behind the red flag. But the overwhelming majority of mutineers rebelled for modest, immediate demands, the main one being to claim the right to go on leave at long last. There are no links with the strikers on the home front, and instances of fraternisation with German soldiers were very rare.  A few attempts to organise the movement and give it a more radical or revolutionary direction were not successful.

At least 60,000 mutineers

If we want to categorise these mutinies, it’s more like a trade-union struggle carried on by « workers in uniform ». Furthermore the term « strike » was the one they used; « mutiny » was rarely employed at the time.

The GQG responded with strong-arm tactics. To break the revolt they had to make some examples. Military courts hurled down guilty verdicts in hundreds, sometimes at random, or else targeted ringleaders. There were many death sentences but in the end few were carried out. The government was afraid that too many executions would provoke a general explosion, so the President made extensive use of his power to pardon.

At the end of the day the repression had a limited impact and if the mutinies began to decline from mid June, it was mostly because the intermediate levels of the military hierarchy gave in to the demands. Increasing the number of passes for leave soon restored calm to the mutinous units, and the allocation of long rest periods to units drained by combat halted the movement’s spread. The general application of these measures as a matter of urgency by the top leaders of the GQG gradually calmed things down. From the end of April until the beginning of September between 60,000 and 90,000 ordinary soldiers mutinied, and at least twenty of them were shot, not counting summary executions that left no trace. Thousands of others were imprisoned or deported to the colonies; those who survived were granted amnesties in the 1920s.

from article by Hervé (AL Marseille)     [Libertarian Alternative].

Il y a quatre-vingt-dix ans
11 avril 2007 par CAL Marseille / 3629 vues

A mainstream view from Britain, c.2014
(Imperial War Museum) 

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Paris in the Spring, 1917

Spring 1917. As the Great War moved towards its 4th year, the vast scale of the sacrifices undergone weighed on all the belligerents. From the Eastern Front the first rumours were arriving of the collapse of the edifice of tsarism. Spring and summer were marked by strikes in the rear as well as mutinies at the front...

Away from the front, the situation of male and female workers mobilised en masse for the war effort had got steadily worse, In Paris, for the first time since 1914 the first of May was taken as a holiday , thousands of trade unionists came out on strike and 4000 demonstrators assembled in the rue de la Grange-aux-Belles where the CGT [General Confederation of Labour, the large general union] was based, for a meeting. Starting on 11th May, the women (« midinettes ») employed in the big fashion houses gradually stop working.

The midinettes’ strike  triggered a movement that spread all over the country and into all sectors, including the war industries. Everywhere the demands were the same : relief from the high cost of living, and no work on Saturday afternoons.  The movement grew until the end of May, and when one strike ended, another started. It declined slowly from the beginning of June and came to an end in July, contained by the partial satisfaction of its demands. This was far from signifying a return to social peace, however; there would be further strikes in September, and especially in 1918.
Translated from article by
Hervé (AL Marseille)     [Libertarian Alternative].

Thursday, 2 January 2014

January 3rd was Festival of Sleep Day

(according to a fairly reliable source - not Sheep as previously stated)

Never mind, a day for counting sheep perhaps.

In celebration whereof, further snippets from ‘As Safety Saw It’:


            “The hungry sheep look up and are not fed.”  And if Milton were in Stornoway and writing today – although he wasn’t talking about the same kind of sheep – he could say that the not-so-hungry sheep look up, and down, and in, and round, and all over the place, poking here, there, and everywhere seeking what they may devour.

            It would not be true, however, to say that they are not fed – because they are; often at the expense of diligent gardeners. Long practice, plus a native resourcefulness and ingenuity, has made them expert in finding means of entry to almost inaccessible places. Tender and carefully nurtured young plants, spring cabbage, and all the delicacies for which generations of marauding ancestors have given them a hereditary palate suffer the inevitable consequences. “They” can be seen now morning and evening on their rounds with the intention of breaking and entering patent in their every move and look.

            But the local gardeners are active too. Compelled by the wary nature of the warfare to follow the unmilitary principle that defence is the best form of attack, they are busily preparing for a state of siege and barricading themselves in for another “gridless” season.

            To be a keen gardener in this part of the world one, I think, must also be an incurable optimist. And it is this optimism which keeps the gardener, as he looks for results from his own efforts, at the same time looking each year for cure or amelioration of the sheep problem. This hope has now become centred upon “grids”. Perhaps as a decision to provide these has been taken, the project will be started reasonably soon and quickly completed.

            “Close the door, they’re coming in the windows!”          [A novelty hit song of the time].

M.S. in Stornoway Gazette, 20 & 23/03/1956:

 As I See It column, p.3

The full collection of these articles may be read on pdf here (this one is on p.31 of the booklet):

And (no urban foxes, but...):

            On a street [in Stornoway] that will remain nameless meantime, where the majority of refuse bins that lined the pavement were lidless, it was surprising to see one rook, two hoodie crows, numerous seagulls, a cat, two dogs and several sheep all nimbly searching for unhygienic sustenance among the ashes. An enterprising sheep, showing the initiative which is a characteristic of the local breed, had butted over a large bin, and the remainder of the birds and beasts were making high and amicable holiday.
as above, 18 & 21/10/1955.

Lewis Castle Grounds, April 1957

Sheep on the Isle of Lewis
They're everywhere... British Library Piazza, January 2014