Facing the Firing Squad to Save Humanity
Right or wrong, Paul Savigny had the courage of his convictions
American writer Richard Schayer heard this story from an old schoolmaster in Montdidier, France, and he retold the story in American Magazine. Paul’s stand is still debated.
In 1913, the young man came to the old schoolmaster in Montdidier, France, fresh from three years of military service with his regiment. He had excellent letters of recommendation. The old schoolmaster quickly hired him as an assistant instructor.
Paul Savigny Is Caught Up In World War I
Paul Savigny was the young man’s name. He was pale from studying late into many nights, but his body was strong from the rigors of soldiering. His black eyes flashed when he talked of thoughts and ideas, but he was quiet, studious and kind. Although he kept very much to himself, his pupils adored him and so did the rest of the villagers. He treated the students with gentleness and humor, but still remained firm enough to inspire their respect and obedience.
Then World War I, called the Great War, came to France. Paul held himself apart from the public meetings, the speeches, and the excitement. The morning of August 3, 1914, when Germany declared war on France, the old schoolmaster asked Paul how he felt about the declaration. Paul met the old schoolmaster’s glance with honest eyes. “War is without reason or excuse, a hideous, a shameful thing, and I shall have nothing to do with it!” Paul said.
Paul’s words hit the old schoolmaster with the force of a fist. “But you will have to go all the same, when the call for the reserves of your class comes,” he said.
Paul smiled. “Nothing will ever force me to take up arms against my fellow men.”
The old schoolmaster protested and protested again. He told Paul that the French army would force him to go. He warned Paul that the army would put him in prison or worse if he didn't.
The Army Promises Paul a Commissary Position
The old schoolmaster appeared to be correct, for when the call to arms came a few days later, Paul’s friends convinced him to report to the recruiting office and receive his orders. Some influential friends in Paris had arranged for Paul to be detailed for clerical work in the commissary department where he wouldn’t have to fight. Paul came to the old schoolmaster to say goodbye. He wore his uniform and told the old schoolmaster of his assignment.
Paul Returns to Montdidier
The following weeks were filled with terror for the old schoolmaster and his fellow Frenchmen. The Germans swept down in their march to Paris. Column after column of duty German troops in gray-green uniforms thundered through Montdidier. The residents of Montdidier kept to their homes and did not resist. Every moment they expected to hear of the fall of Paris and of France. But instead, from the south came the news of the Marne and the Aisne and the German retreat. Everywhere in Montdidier flags and ribbons and cheering and singing crowds celebrated. Troops were welcomed at every house in the city.
One morning the schoolhouse door opened and Paul walked in, dressed in his old black suit. His face looked haggard and drawn and his tan coat was shabby, but his eyes still blazed with spirit. The children shouted with joy and rushed to greet him. Finally, the old schoolmaster let them scamper off shouting the news of Paul’s return to everyone they met on the street.
The Old Schoolmaster Pleads with Paul
Paul told the schoolmaster a grim story. The army had tricked him with the false promise of a clerical position. Instead, his regiment had been ordered to the front and Paul went with the regiment hoping that the army would keep its promise. That night the regiment camped within a mile of the trenches and prepared for battle the next day. Paul decided to come home.
Paul put on his school teaching suit and walked to the schoolhouse. “May I stay with you as of old until they come for me? It will not be long,” he said to the old schoolmaster. The old schoolmaster pleaded with Paul. In tears, he warned Paul of the dangers of his position, the contempt and anger he would receive from his fellow citizens. He warned Paul that he would be tried, convicted, and probably shot.
The Soldiers Come for Paul
Again Paul begged to stay and with tears running down his face, the old schoolmaster agreed. Paul finished the afternoon session and walked around town, greeting people. By night, everyone in town knew that Paul Savigny had left his regiment, put on his civilian clothes, and was again teaching school.
The next morning the soldiers came for him.
Before he left Paul reached up to the top of the blackboard and wrote in his firm, clear hand in French: "War is a wild beast that devours civilization.” He shook the schoolmaster’s hand and walked firmly through the door, the soldiers behind him.
Paul Faces the Firing Squad for "the future regeneration of mankind"
The trial was swift and brief. Paul made no excuses or evasions, merely explaining that he would not fight and that when the army did not keep its promise of a clerical position, he left the army and returned to teaching. The court martial found him guilty of cowardice and desertion in the face of the enemy and condemned him to be shot.
The soldiers marched Paul to a grave dug close to a wall of a hillside cemetery where it met a country road beyond Montdidier. The soldiers laid eight rifles out in the dusty road. Four were loaded with ball cartridges and four with blanks. Eight ashen reservists, none of whom had ever shot anything bigger than a hare, took up the rifles.
Paul embraced the old schoolmaster. His last words were, “Someday France will know that I died, not as a traitor or coward, but in protest against tyranny and evil and my faith in the future regeneration of mankind.”
At Paul's request, the soldiers did not blindfold him or bind his hands. He faced them, with his head held high, his eyes shining.
"The First World War," John Keegan, Vintage Books, 2000
"The First World War," Gerard De Groot, Palgrave Macmillan, 2001 Posted by Kathy Warnes No comments: Email ThisBlogThis!Share to TwitterShare to Facebook