On February 25th 1915 six Irishmen were executed in the inner courtyard of a chateau in Guise, northern France.
They were Private Denis Buckley and Private Daniel Horgan, both from Cork city, Private John Walsh from Tullamore, Co Offaly, Private Matthew Wilson from Ahascragh, Co Galway, Private John Walsh from Rossmore Island, Co Kerry and Private Terence Murphy from Ballysadare, Co Sligo.
Before they were shot, they were savagely beaten with cudgels, whips and rubber hammers by their German interrogators. They were then made to dig their own graves though half-conscious from the beatings they had received.
They were shot alongside five Englishmen and a French civilian named Vincent Chalandre who had sheltered them behind enemy lines since the previous autumn in the little village of Iron (pronounced e-ron).
Ten of the men were with Irish regiments, the Royal Munster Fusiliers and the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, five from each. It was the largest execution of its kind on the Western Front. The shooting of prisoners of war was against the Hague Convention to which Kaiser Wilhelm II had been a signatory on behalf of Germany in 1908. It made no difference to the fate of these unfortunate men.
The story of the Iron 12 had been largely lost to history until it was rediscovered by Hedley Malloch in 1994. His grandfather was from Mitchelstown, Co Cork and served with the Royal Munster Fusiliers in the first World War.
He set up the Iron Memorial Fund which gave Chalandre a proper gravestone after almost 100 years. The fund also raised money for a memorial to the Iron 12. It was erected in 2011 and stands in the middle of the forlorn little village of the same name and beside the memorial to its dead of both world wars.
Malloch, a former business lecturer in the Catholic University of Lille, has now completed his acts of remembrance with the publication of The Killing of the Iron 12.
My book Wherever the Firing Line Extends: Ireland and the Western Front, which was published in 2016, tells the story of Irish involvement in the first World War through the memorials left behind on the Western Front.
My chapter on the Iron 12 was a reasonable synthesis of what was is in the public domain at the time, but Malloch has gone much further in uncovering this tragic story.
There are hundreds of books on the first World War published every year. This is one of the most significant ones because it centres on the reality of an unjustly neglected aspect of the war – the German occupation of France and Belgium.
Germany had never anticipated occupying large swathes of both countries. The Schlieffen Plan envisaged a swift capitulation. When it didn’t happen, the German army found itself in occupation of an area of 10 million civilians.
It instigated, Malloch writes, “a regime of cruelty and barbarity with has few equals in the history of warfare”.
Malloch makes clear in the book that German conduct was governed by the exigencies of war not the niceties of international treaties such as the Hague Convention.
The German occupiers were guided by the principle of l'exhaustion. Put simply this involved crippling occupied France so that it could not constitute a rival to Germany at the end of hostilities.
The German army took everything it could – cattle, crops, firewood, factory machinery, coal and steel. It deported hundreds of thousands of able-bodied French and Belgian men to Germany to work as slave labour.
It renamed streets and towns. It adopted German law and even German time despite the problems that had for farmers who worked by daylight not the clock. It resorted to petty measures too, fining the locals who did not tip their hats to German officers. It was literally, as Malloch points out, a law unto itself and unaccountable.
Individual commanders were given leeway to behave as they saw appropriate according to circumstances. This had tragic consequences for the Iron 12.
The story of these unfortunate men began during the retreat from Mons in the early days of the war when British and French forces fell back under the German onslaught until it was stopped at the Battle of the Marne.
Many exhausted soldiers lost their units and ended up trying to escape or in the case of the 11 British soldiers, they hid out in woods near Iron in the Aisne region of France. Locals smuggled food to them. Eventually as the weather worsened, they were taken in by the Chalandre and Logez families in Iron.
In February 1915 they were betrayed by an embittered old Franco-Prussian war veteran named Louis Bachelet who was in his 60s. He was having an affair with a young woman in the village, Blanche Griselin, a 22-year-old mother whose husband was away at the front. She was also have an affair with 16-year-old Clovis Chalandre, Vincent Chalandre’s son.
When Bachelet discovered he was sharing the woman’s affections with a teenager, he went to the German headquarters and told them all he knew about the fugitive men.
Malloch lists 16 people who died as a consequence of that betrayal. Along with the Iron 12, Vincent Chalandre’s wife Olympe spent the rest of the war in a German prison and died shortly after her release from tuberculosis meningitis.
The Germans burnt their family home and threw her three youngest children out on the street with nowhere to live. The youngest was just seven. They all died in their twenties. Clovis Chalandre died on Armistice Day 1948 at the age of 50. He drank himself to death.
I met two of his sons, Denis and Michel Chalandre, at the centenary commemorations in 2015. Even at the remove of 100 years the event still haunts the family.
Malloch has told a gripping tale which reads like a Hollywood thriller. As he says himself, you could not make this story up, but it all happened.
Of the 24 British soldiers executed by the Germans during the war, 10 (or 40 per cent) were Irish though they were only 10 per cent of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) which went to war in 1914.
This was a coincidence. The Irish were not deliberately targeted. They just happened to be in the wrong place (Etappe 2) at the wrong time (early in the war). Etappe 2, which covered the Aisne region, was the only German occupation zone in which fugitive British soldiers were shot.
However, Malloch notes the executions stopped in May 1916 in the aftermath of the Easter Rising. The timing was not coincidental. When it was brought to their attention that so many executed British soldiers were Irish, the Germans stopped the executions completely as they believed it would hamper their ultimately fruitless attempts to get Irish prisoners of war to swap sides and fight with the Germans against the British.
Malloch notes the poverty that drove so many Irish into an army that their peers regarded as an enemy. Denis Buckley and Daniel Horgan were the sons of casual labourers. Horgan grew up in a tenement building with three other families. Matthew Wilson was the son of domestic servants. Terence Murphy’s father died young, leaving his mother to bring up seven children on her own. A sister of his ended up in an industrial school. John Nash was brought up with 12 other people in a three-room house on Rossmore Island. Perhaps the saddest story of all was that of John Walsh’s mother, who had to petition the Board of Guardians of Tullamore Union for financial help though three sons were away at the front. She believed her son was alive in a German POW camp until she discovered it was another John Walsh. The English soldiers profiled, by contrast, were not driven by financial necessity into the British army.
It is fashionable now to decry the first World War as a tragic waste of life and surmise that both sides were basically the same. Nothing justifies the appalling slaughter of that conflict, but it doesn't follow that there was nothing at stake. The killing of the Iron 12 illustrates what might have happened had Germany won the first World War. This is a powerful morality tale and Malloch has told it brilliantly.
The Killing of the Iron 12 by Hedley Malloch is published by Pen & Sword priced €15.