Although not nearly as big as the Dreyfus Affair, the Maupas Affair was a ‘cause célebre’ in France in the years after WWI, thanks to the strenuous efforts of Mme. Blanche Maupas in fighting to clear her husband's name.
Théophile Maupas was the schoolmaster in the village of Le Chefresne, Lower Normandy.
His first wife had died of tuberculosis and he had a daughter, Suzanne, from that marriage and another daughter, Jeanne, with his second wife Blanche Maupas née Herpin.
He had enlisted as a bandsman in the ‘Territorials’ in 1895 and had received some military training. When war broke out in August 1914 he was immediately called up. The 336th. Infantry regiment marched out of St. Lo in a big parade, with a brass band and carrying banners saying ‘A Berlin en quinze jours’ – ‘To Berlin in a fortnight’. The regiment took part in several phases of open warfare in the Battle of the Marne. The war soon became deadlocked. After five winter months in the trenches Maupas was court-martialed, with others, for refusing to send his men 'over the top' at Souain in Champagne.
The charge of refusal to obey an order in the face of the enemy was laid by General Réveilhac against six corporals and eighteen of the youngest men arbitrarily chosen from the ranks. The motivation was made clear: ‘pour encourager les autres’, for the sake of example. The preceding weeks had been chaotic in the trenches with high death rates of officers and men and the chain of command in disarray. The ‘Top Brass’ was anxious to regain control, set an example and counteract serious incidents of mutiny in the French Army. The original tribunal took under an hour to reach a unanimous decision that four corporals should be stripped of their military rank and executed.
Corporal Théophile Maupas defended himself in court and explained why he had seen fit to disobey orders: “The orders were that I was to attack the enemy as soon as the bombardment finished, when the barbed wire would be broken. In my section the wire was entirely unbroken. I therefore declined to lead my men to their certain deaths”. (At the hands of German machine gunners). In effect, he signed his own death warrant by admitting that he had refused to send his men over the top. He also explained the reasons, viz.: the exhausted condition of his men; their low moral after many failed attacks; the high death and injury rate of the 21st Company; that dead men were hanging on the unbroken wires and uncollected bodies littered No Man’s Land; that French shells were landing short, with the result that the German machine gun positions and the barbed wire, which was 8 to 10m. wide, remained unscathed.
[Later evidence emerged that an acting General believed that the distance between the trenches at Souain was a mere 25m. when in fact it was up to 150m. It was possible that violent March winds had caused the shells to fall short but testimony was submitted that General Réveilhac had previously threatened to shell his own trenches to force out recalcitrant men].
The four corporals, all with Normandy connections, were shot at 1300 hours rather than at dawn in front of the assembled 336th. Infantry Regiment at Chalons-sur-Marne. The executions were carried out hurriedly and the ‘stripping of rank’ was ignored. After their executions the soldiers were buried in unmarked graves. Pressure from relatives and others after the war saw them reinterred in the French war cemetery at Suippes.
Blanche Maupas was familiar with the dire situation in the trenches as Théophile had written to her regularly giving some of the details. After his arrest he wrote to her: “I have done nothing to reproach myself for, I am neither a thief nor a murderer. I have not sullied the reputation or the honour of another person. I can walk with my head held high”.
Blanche was not told about the death, or the reason for it, for nine days. The news came as a terrible shock. She could have hidden in shame as others in her position understandably did. Instead, believing that her husband had been unjustly executed, she spent many years fighting local officials, the military authorities and petitioning the League of Nations in order to clear her his name. She also fought to have the right to a war pension and to have the right to continue teaching in the village school where she had replaced her husband when he went to war.
Blanche was assisted by a group of well-wishers and a Teachers’ Union representative but she also suffered at the hands of the inevitable gossips and trouble-makers. Blanche wrong-footed officials by presenting her business card which announced that she was a schoolteacher and the widow of Corporal Maupas, an executed man.
She made progress with the local officials thanks to her well-run campaign, but the military authorities ‘stonewalled’ her request for a review of the judgment and ignored her bulky dossier of evidence for many years. She felt obliged to go over their heads to the League of Nations. Some people thought that she was obsessive but she had to be both obsessive and persistent to go through so many years of petitions and endless meetings, ignoring the numerous setbacks along the way. All this at the same time as she was looking after her children and being a successful Head Teacher in a number of schools in the Manche area.
Her persistence paid off. Sixteen years after the war at a special League of Nations Court a judgment over-ruled the decision of the 1915 military tribunal. The ‘decimation’ of soldiers initially ordered by General Réveilhac was condemned by the League of Nations as being ‘flagrantly illegal’. The Court accepted that Corporal Théophile Maupas did not willingly disobey an order. The decision was based on:
The fact that the order was unrealisable in practice;
that the men were weakened by a long stay in the trenches;
that they were discouraged by the failures of previous attacks;
that they were very demoralised by the high number of losses of their comrades.
The Court made a further important ruling: '… an order to sacrifice his life cannot be forced on someone when it surpasses the limits of human capability to comply with it’.
Nineteen years after the initial court martial the highest military court in France finally overturned the 1915 decision. Unfortunately Corporal Maupas was not alive to benefit from these rulings.
During the years of waiting for the League of Nations to act Blanche had successfully fought to have her husband’s name added to the names on the war memorials at Le Chefresne and at Sartilly, her husband’s native town.
In June 1923 the municipal council of Sartilly, with the approval of the Anciens Combattants, gave Blanche Maupas permission to have his body reinterred in the communal cemetery. In early August 1923 Blanche travelled to the military cemetery at Suippes in Champagne to collect her husband’s remains. He was reburied at Sartilly on 9th. August 1923 with an ‘unending cortege’ in attendance. Her efforts and those of the Anciens Combattants of the commune led to the construction of a monument.
The Monument to the Corporals of Souain was unveiled on 20 September 1925. It consists of a bronze bas-relief set into a block of dark granite. The inscription reads : 'Souain - aux Caporaux Maupas, Lechat, Girard, Le Foulon 17 Mars 1915'. The bas-relief depicts a background of four soldiers standing tall and dignified, but blindfolded and awaiting execution. A young woman personifying Justice is kneeling and weeping in the foreground and a set of scales is knocked over in front of her.
Corporal Maupas lies beneath the monument and Blanche Maupas, who died in 1962, occupies the grave immediately to the left of the monument.
Over the years schools and streets have been named after Blanche and Théophile. The names of the four corporals have been added to all the lists and monuments from which they were initially omitted. Films, plays and television programmes have been made on the subject and books written.
In the year 2000, for the millennium, the war memorial at Le Chefresne was refurbished and in 2003 Maupas was further honoured in Le Chefresne when the square in front of the Mairie was named ‘Place Théophile Maupas’. In 2007 a monument was built opposite the town hall in Suippes where the original court martial took place. It portrays the execution of the four corporals.
Oct. 2010 updated October 2014