Monuments to World War's fallen now include dissenters

Ninety years after it ended, World War I still hangs over this small Flemish town, a focal point of slaughter during the Great War, as they called it when they thought it would be the last. Monuments to the war's fallen sprouted like mushrooms after the armistice, but it took nearly 85 years to erect a monument to a different group of dead: soldiers executed by their own side for refusing to continue the fight.

About eight kilometers, or five miles, from Ypres, in a quiet courtyard in the village of Poperinge, stands a pole of the sort used to support the twining vines of hops, a common local crop. It is about the height of a man. Just behind it is a steel plaque engraved with a verse from Rudyard Kipling: "I could not look on death, which being known, men led me to him, blindfold and alone."

As the seemingly endless war dragged on, desertion and mutinies became a problem. To combat the problem, commanders began tying deserters and mutinous troops to poles like this one, where they would be executed by firing squad. The British shot 320 men and the French as many as 700. The Germans, by and large, did not shoot deserters.

In one of two cells near the Poperinge monument, where soldiers were held before their dawn executions, visitors now come to remember not just the heroics of war but its horrors. One chilly afternoon, a scrap of paper lay on a wooden cot where the men spent their last night. Signed only T.T.S., the note, scribbled in English, was one of many that have been left there. "You will always be remembered," it said. "You did us proud."

As the war approaches its 100th anniversary, Poperinge's monument marks a vast shift in recent attitudes in the European countries that suffered the greatest human losses, recalling not only those who died in combat but those who faced a firing squad for protesting, refusing to fight or fleeing the front.

In Ypres, this change in attitude has led curators to change entirely the way the local war museum presents the conflict, stressing the war's inhumanity rather than the victors and the vanquished.

In Britain the shift led in 2006 to a posthumous pardon by Parliament for deserters, after the erection in 2001 of a monument to those shot. In France, long the holdout, this year President Nicolas Sarkozy offered a public acknowledgment that the executed, too, deserved pity - the first time a French president had done so...

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