An Irishman’s Diary: The Iron 11, executed in France during the first World War

 

On the morning of February 25th, 1915, 11 British soldiers and a French civilian were taken from their cells and subjected to a savage beating.

Half-conscious they were led into a courtyard at the giant fort of Guise in northern France. All hope was extinguished once they saw that a ditch had been dug.

The men were executed by a German firing squad in batches of six and dumped in a shallow grave. A German officer provided the coup de grâce to the French civilian Vincent Chalandre. When his body was exhumed after the war, he was found to have a bullet in the back of his head.

The 11 British soldiers became known locally as “les onze Anglais d’Iron”, the 11 English of Iron. Iron, pronounced e-ron, was the Aisne village where the men had sought shelter after losing their battalions during the great retreat from Mons in the early autumn of 1914.

The name had an alliterative and therefore memorable quality in both English and French, but it was inaccurate. Ten of the 11 were with Irish regiments and six of the executed men were Irish. They were Ptes Denis Buckley (33) and Daniel Horgan (18) from Cork and Pte John Nash (21) from Sneem, Co Kerry, all with the Royal Munster Fusiliers.

Pte Terence Murphy (29) from Ballisodare, Co Sligo, Pte John Walsh (33) from Tullamore, Co Offaly, and Pte Matthew Wilson (37) from Ahascragh, Co Galway were with the Connaught Rangers.

The rest of the men, including Lance Corporal John Stent from the 15th (The King’s) Hussars, were English. The nuances of national identity in the British army, which made a soldier English, Irish, Scottish or Welsh, were lost on both the Germans and the French. They were all “les Anglais”.

The Irishmen who were executed as British soldiers by the British during the first World War were the subject of a campaign of exoneration. Yet, hardly anybody in Ireland knows about the Irishmen executed by the Germans behind enemy lines.

Long silence

Little wonder that historian Helen McPhail titled her superb book on the subject The Long Silence.

The 11 British soldiers were detached from their battalions in August 1914. For weeks they hid out in woods near Iron and survived on root vegetables. In October 1914, they were found by Chalandre in a state of semi-starvation. He and Léonie Logez, whose family owned a mill in Iron, sheltered them for four months.

Surrender

It was brave in the extreme for the villagers in Iron to shelter these men. They were ultimately betrayed by a 66-year-old veteran of the Franco-Prussian war Louis Bachelet. He was sharing the affections of a married woman in the village named Blanche Marechal with Chalandre’s teenage son Clovis.

When Chalandre’s son taunted him, he took his revenge by selling out the British soldiers and Chalandre.

Prof Hedley Malloch, whose grandfather was from Mitchelstown, Co Cork, first came across the story of the Iron 12 when he joined the Royal Munster Fusiliers Association in 1994.

“It has everything: courage, endurance, duty, suffering, patriotism, jealousy, betrayal. If the story was scripted and cast in Hollywood, nobody would believe it. Yet it all happened.”

He then went about raising the money for a memorial to the Iron 12 and the memorial was unveiled in Iron in 2011.

It is made from Wicklow granite and was created by Feely Stone from Boyle, Co Roscommon, a town associated closely with the Connaught Rangers. Malloch will lead commemorations on Wednesday, 100 years to the day after the Iron 12 were executed. The French speak of le devoir de mémoire (duty of memory) to future generations to remember those who had suffered in conflict. After 100 years, a duty of memory has finally been rendered to the unfortunate victims of this forgotten episode. See irishtimes.com/century for more.

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