DOUAUMONT, France (Reuters) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy paid tribute Tuesday to hundreds of World War One soldiers shot for disobeying orders, in a change of tone on the first Armistice Day without a living French veteran.
More than 600 French soldiers were executed by their own side during World War One, many for refusing to obey orders to continue to fight after a bloody and failed series of offensives in northeastern France in 1917. "France will never forget its children who died for it," Sarkozy said in a speech paying tribute to the French and allied war dead that explicitly included those shot for cowardice or acts of mutiny.
"I think of these men of whom too much was asked, who were too exposed, who were sometimes sent to be massacred through mistakes by their commanders, of those men who, one day, no longer had the strength to fight," he said.
The 1917 mutinies, in which many regiments refused to move from their own lines, raised fears among French leaders that the army could collapse and led to harsh reprisals against soldiers who disobeyed orders to fight.
World War One, fought out in large part on French soil between 1914and 1918, cost some 1.4 million French lives and remains firmly anchored in French memories but there has been growing debate about the best way to mark the event.
This year's Armistice Day was the first without a French veteran after the death earlier this year of Lazare Ponticelli, an Italian-born immigrant who joined the Foreign Legion as a 16- year-old and who was the last French survivor of the war.
In his speech, delivered on the site of the Battle of Verdun rather than at the traditional site before the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, Sarkozy said the time had come to recognize that many of those executed had been pushed beyond endurance.
"That total war ruled out any indulgence, any weakness but 90 years after the end of the war, I wish to say in the name of our nation that many of those who were executed at the time did not dishonor themselves, were not cowards but went to the extreme limits of their strength."
The speech made no mention of a possible posthumous pardon but the minister in charge of veterans affairs said earlier this year that France would consider clearing the names of many of those shot for refusing to obey orders.
In 2006, Britain posthumously pardoned 306 men shot for desertion or cowardice during World War One, many of whom were believed to be suffering from psychological trauma.
There have been several previous attempts in France to rehabilitate soldiers shot as an example and dozens were cleared during the 1930s, but the most recent serious bid was rejected by former President Jacques Chirac in 1998.
Writing by James Mackenzie; editing by Ralph Boulton