The story of the Irishmen executed by the Germans is a compelling drama

The execution of the Iron 12, six of whom were Irish, by the Germans remains one of the great unknown stories of the first World War. Here Hedley Malloch tells how he came across the story and organised a memorial to the unfortunate men.

The memorial commemorating  what happened at Iron

The memorial commemorating what happened at Iron

 

As a piece of Western Front drama the story of the Iron 12 is unsurpassed. The story has many epic elements: battles, escape, flight, solidarity, fortitude against all odds, humanity, endurance, courage, betrayal, death and tragedy. Even sex has a part to play. If it was scripted and cast in Hollywood, it would scarcely be believed.

The executions of 12 men, 11 British soldiers, six who were Irish, one Liverpool-Irish, and a French civilian, were committed in cold blood and almost certainly after some judicial or quasi-judicial process. Today the episode remains the largest single execution of its type of British soldiers by the German army in the first World War.

Apart from its chilling drama the story is important for other reasons. The incident underlines the courage of the soldiers concerned. They could have surrendered to the German search parties scouring the countryside for them, and done so with honour, having acquitted themselves with distinction in battle.

The French families who sheltered them could have asked the soldiers to move on, arguing that their presence in the midst of a French village endangered those who were looking after them; that the burden of their care should be shared with others. They did not do so.

The drama draws attention to a hitherto neglected aspect of Western Front history: the fate of those British and French soldiers cut off in the summer and autumn of 1914.

From early 1915 the Germans became increasingly intolerant of British soldiers on the run. Those caught were at risk of being executed.

The fact that more than half of the men were Irish reflects the heavy dependence of the British army on Irish-born soldiers.

The eldest was Matthew Wilson from Ahascragh, Co Galway, who was 36; the average age was about 24: the youngest appears to have been Daniel Horgan, from Co Cork, who would have been 18 or 19.

It is beyond doubt that these soldiers were stragglers from two encounters between the German and British armies in the last week of 1914. These were at Le Grand Fayt and Etreux. On the afternoon of 26 August the 2nd battalion of the Connaught Rangers were deployed about two miles east of Landrecies; they had been detailed to act as rear-guard to the brigade’s retreat. Misinformed as to the Germans’ position, 2/CR was encircled by them in an area around Marbaix and Le Grand Fayt. They emerged with nearly 300 men missing.

The next day (27 August) the 2nd battalion of the Royal Munster Fusiliers and two troops of the 15th Hussars were defending the crossings of the Sambre Canal between Catillon and Etreux, about six miles south-west of Le Grand Fayt. They were deployed along the road linking Bergues and Chapeau Rouge.

They came under German attack during the morning. Orders to retire from Brigadier-General Maxse, GOC 1 (Guards) Brigade never reached them. They were left isolated as other units in the brigade on their flanks withdrew and by early evening their line of retreat across the canal to the relative safety of Guise had been severed. Surrounded by a much superior German force, they lost their CO, Major Charrier.

Such large numbers of missing soldiers were made possible by both natural and man-made causes. The natural causes can be found in the nature of countryside. The area in which both of these battles took place is quite unlike the plains of Picardy, Champagne, Flanders and the Somme where the bulk of Western Front fighting took place. This is L’Avesnois, where the last vestiges of the Ardennes meet the plains of north-west France.

The sight of people living rough in the forests would not attract any special German attention, nor would anyone, given the presence of numbers of Flemish-speaking Belgian refugees, who was unable to speak French.

The first contact came on October 15th, 1914 when Vincent Chalandre came across nine British soldiers in the fields near Iron, a small village of 500 souls about three miles to the south of Etreux. The soldiers, still in possession of their rifles, were scavenging for raw carrots and other root crops. They asked Chalandre for bread.

Chalandre was a retired silk weaver living in Iron but he worked as a casual labourer for Monsieur and Madame Logez, smallholders who owned a mill in the same village. Touched by the plight of the nine, reduced to rooting in the fields for vegetables, Chalandre resolved to help them.

Monsieur Logez had suffered a stroke and appears to have been mentally incapable; in these circumstances Madame Léonie Logez had taken over the running of the family business. As well as her husband, she had a son, Oscar, aged 16, and daughter Jeanne, aged 15, to help her.

Cometh the hour, cometh the woman. She set about the task of saving the “pauvres enfants”, as she continually called them, with rare resolution. Her first response was to organise shelter for the nine soldiers in a large hut belonging to her, located in fields she owned. This was very dangerous as there were Germans billeted in the village.

Whether they were in the hut or at the mill, Madame Logez remained responsible for feeding them. Her smallholding enabled her to move around carrying meat and cereals; her mill gave her access to flour, which she used to bake bread for the soldiers.

She organised a network of women, rendezvous and pick-up points to furnish the considerable supplies demanded by the daily task of feeding the nine soldiers.

The first portent of doom arrived on December 15th, 1914 when forty German military police arrived on motorcycles at the mill. Madame Logez, displaying considerable bravery and nerve, delayed them just long enough for her daughter, Jeanne, to warn the soldiers who were asleep in the loft to escape through the rear. They managed to get clear of the mill, crossed the river and hid in a copse on the other side.

In the village lived a woman named Blanche Maréchal. She was married and she was generous with her sexual favours. Her lovers included Clovis Chalandre, the 16-year-old son of Vincent Chalandre. There was some very indiscreet pillow talk during which Clovis told her about the British soldiers. Blanche told her husband who made his own enquiries, and he stimulated gossip. One way or another the news reached one of Blanche’s other lovers, Bachelet, a 66-year-old veteran of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. To be fair to all concerned everyone in the village knew - except the Germans.

Clovis was jealous of Bachelet. On the night of 21 February Clovis went to M.Maton’s brasserie where Bachelet lodged and threw stones at Bachelet’s window. Bachelet’s response shocked Clovis. Bachelet shouted, ‘You’ll pay for this; tomorrow I am going to inform on you and the English - you will all be shot!’ Clovis returned home - and told no one. Bachelet was to be as good as his word.

On 22 February Bachelet, driven by ‘a thirst for revenge, and a madness born of senility’ went to the German military headquarters in Guise. There the Rear-Zone Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Waechter and his adjutant Kolera, received him. To these two, Bachelet denounced the soldiers and those who were sheltering them.

Waechter began his preparations to take the British troops. The eleven soldiers were in Chalandre’s large attic busy washing themselves and repairing their clothes or shoes. They had guns and about 1,000 rounds of ammunition between them.

They could have fought the Germans, but they went quietly, perhaps reasoning that any resistance on their part would only lead to reprisals against the villagers. The Germans tied their hands behind their backs, and then bound them in pairs. Along with Chalandre, they were punched, kicked and beaten into the waiting lorries. Before they left the Germans torched the Chalandre family home and all their possessions. The villagers were forced to witness the incineration.

The soldiers were then taken to the German HQ in the Guise Town Hall located then, as now, in rue Chantraine.

According to one newspaper report, the soldiers were badly beaten up on the night of February 24-25th , to such an extent that their cries woke the residents of Rue Chantraine. On the morning of February 25th the twelve were woken and subjected to ‘a terrible beating with punches, whips, cudgels; blunt instruments and rubber hammers in an orgy of joyous and strictly administered callous cruelty’. Half-conscious, the twelve were put in a cart and taken into the Château at Guise by the porte-secours, a gate at the rear of the castle specially built to allow the admission of reinforcements in times of crisis.

On the other side of the relief gate a ditch had been dug. Everyone understood its significance. The soldiers were made to stand along the edge of the ditch in two batches of six. The order to fire was given twice; gunfire rang out. Their bodies were then covered with soil.

The members of the Logez and Chalandre family were brought before a military tribunal. Madame Logez’ life was spared. She was given five years’ imprisonment, Jeanne, her daughter, one year’s imprisonment, Oscar, her son, was sentenced to penal servitude for an unspecified period.

Madame Chalandre was sentenced to four years’ forced labour. Her health deteriorated and she died after the war. The three youngest Chalandre children, Marthe, Marcel and Leon were turned out onto the street where, according to one account, ‘they existed by begging until the armistice’. All three children died in the next 10 years as a result of their deprivations during the War. In all the tragedy claimed 16 lives.

“My grandfather came from Mitchelstown, Co Cork and was a soldier in the Royal Munster Fusiliers in the first World War. In the early 1990s I joined the Royal Munster Fusiliers Association (RMFA) to find out more about him. The story first came to my attention in about 1994 when the RMFA published a one-page version of the story in their association magazine. I have since found out that they republish the story every 20 years or so. It impressed me deeply.

My first reaction was how did M. Chalandre and Madame Logez think they could get away with hiding eleven British soldiers in a village with a heavy German presence and with a death penalty for anyone who tried it?

It was the RMFA who kept this story alive and they deserve a lot of credit. It was virtually unknown in the 1990s and if it were not for them it would have passed out of memory if it were not for them

At that time I was living and working in north-east England and did not have much opportunity to research the story. But in 2000, purely by chance, I came to Lille to work which was, not far from Iron. I resolved to go down there and have a look around. I did not know what to look for or what I would find, but I am a great believer in serendipity.

Sure enough, there was the village war memorial with M. Chalandre’s name on it - but nothing else. But then by chance a man came of his house and asked me what I wanted. He introduced to M. Gruselle, the Mayor of Iron and the great-grandson of Léonie Logez, one of the two main carers for the soldiers. He talked to me and started a dialogue about the story which is still on-going.

The other development from 2004 onwards has been the internet. This has opened so many doors.

What interests me in the story? First, it deals with neglected aspects of the first World War: what happened to the soldiers left behind the lines? Who helped them - and why? It shows that there was more to the Western Front than two armies facing each other over no-man’s land.

This other war involved women and children, many of whom died as a result of their efforts

The memorial commemorates not just what happened at Iron; it commemorates all soldiers trapped behind the lines and who did not or could not surrender, as well as all the French and Belgian people who helped them, and suffered as a result.

I hope, too, that the memorials stands as a strong symbol of Franco-Irish co-operation and friendship. This appeals to those parts of me which are Irish and working and living in France. Despite the linguistic barriers, the French families who were sheltering the soldiers had picked up knew that many of them were Irish. For this reason, if no other, I am so pleased Ireland is starting to take an interest in this story.

The monument has an Irish feel to its design. It was carved by Feelystone who live of Boyle, Roscommon. The bronze plaque was made by Seamus Connolly, Ireland’s best bronze artist.”

Commemorations to mark the centenary of the execution of the Iron 12 will take place in Iron and Guise on February 25th, 1915.