On 22nd February 2015 my wife and I flew out of Dublin Airport bound for Beauvais 50 miles north of Paris, an airport in much need of investment and used by lots of budget carriers from North Africa and especially by our very own Ryan Air. A hundred years ago on the 25th February 1915 five 2nd Battalion Connaught Rangers, five 2nd Battalion Royal Munster Fusiliers, a cavalryman from 15th (The King’s) Hussars and a Frenchman, Eugene Vincente Chalandre were executed by firing squad at Guise Chateau by the newly occupying German forces. These men’s story was published in our 2012 edition of New Ranger magazine but I will give you here a brief synopsis of their final months in late 1914 and very early 1915. It is a story with everything, helplessness, starvation, empathy, bravery, jealousy, lust, immaturity, evilness, cruelty but above all outstanding humanity.
On 26th August 1915 just three days after the Great War started for the British Army, the 2nd Battalion Connaught Rangers part of the rearguard of the retreating British forces from Mons and because of bad intelligence, ran into a German ambush in the village of Grand Fayt in Northern France. About 15 men were killed but a sizeable number went missing, most as it turned out, about 290 of them, became prisoners of war. A few escaped capture, of these some were spirited back to England by the Edith Cavill group in Brussels while others took to the countryside, hoping to join up with their unit once the retreat stopped. Five of them found themselves in a wooded landscape south of Grand Fayt, easily hidden from German Forces but without food and being joined up by stragglers, five Munster Fusiliers and an NCO from the King’s Hussars, all from the brave and worthwhile attempt at Etreux on 27th September 1915 of halting the German advance for a very useful few hours. After about three weeks of this rude existence, eating raw vegetables not daring to light a fire in case discovered, they were found on the outskirts of the little village of Iron by a retired silk weaver, Vincente Chalandre. Unconcerned with the danger he was putting himself in, Vincente asked Mme Logez, owner of a small mill if he could hide these men in the mill and give them food. And this they did with the little they had for about five months over the bad winter of 1914/15, the whole village pitching in to help these vulnerable men ignoring the German Army calls for an amnesty. It seems that the Germans were aware of lots of these groups of British soldiers wandering round the countryside behind their lines and wanted to rid themselves of this nuisance.
At the same time nature being nature, lust and jealousy were also at work. There was a lady in Iron who gave her comforts freely to whoever male was present. An old soldier, a veteran of the Franco Prussian War of 43 years previously, a M. Bachelet, had been receiving his oats frequently from this lady but had been put out when some new blood had appeared on the scene in the form of Clovis Logez, the 17 year old son of Mme Logez, the mill owner. So encumbered with his lust for this woman and so jealous of the young man, Bachelet decided to get back at the Logez family by reporting them to the German HQ in Guise, a large town about five miles away. The German soldiers came out in force on the 23rd February 1915 and captured these soldiers and Vincente Chalandre and brought them back to the chateau at Guise.
After a night of torture on 24th February, they were led out, shot and their bodies thrown into a prepared grave. The Chalandre and Logez houses were burnt to the ground, Vincente’s children thrown on the streets and the Logez family imprisoned in Germany. After the war the bodies of the soldiers and Vincente were exhumed and buried with due ceremony in Guise Communal Cemetery across the town. Bachelet was tried and sentenced to death but died in prison before his sentence was carried out.
We had been aware of this incident for some time and donated monies from our sparse funds when Hedley Malloch, an English man with roots in Ireland and teaching at Lille University decided to set up a committee to construct a monument in the village of Iron. This was done and we were there in 2011 at the opening ceremony. In January of this year with the centenary of this tragic event about to happen, Hedley invited the Association back for the ceremony. It was thought that it was important that we were present at this ceremony so I volunteered myself and that was why Helen and myself found ourselves at the dilapidated excuse they call Beauvais Airport. We were shortly to be joined by my daughter Katy, another member of the Association,who was flying in from Marakesh in Morocco, where she now lives accompanied by her two daughters. Three generations of our family here to honour the unnecessary deaths of 12 brave men a century ago.
We stayed in St Quentin, a large town about 20 kilometres from Guise, a town that saw some action at the beginning of the war, was in German hands for most of the war and was nearly destroyed in the Allied advance in late 1918. It boasts a magnificent basilica which on a clear day can be seen from miles away and must have been some sight and it reflected the riches of the area when it was built in 1509. Nowadays the whole of this area of the Aisne Department is taken over by the growing of beet, the sweet sickly smell hangs over the whole area which is populated by many sugar distilleries. Money is scarce it seems in Northern France, a little like Northern England, the towns are grey ugly places and I suppose St Quentin is the pick of the bunch, lying on a ford of the River Somme. On the 24th February we visited Peronne, another grey town on the Somme but it boasts probably the finest Great War museum that I have ever seen and I have seen a few.
The 25th February arrived as we gathered in the pouring rain at the monument in Iron. There was some quality there besides the population of the village. Descendents of the main families, especially the Logez and Chalandre families, an attaché from the Irish Embassy in Paris complete with chauffeur driven BMW, reporters from the Irish Times and Irish Independent and other local newspapers and Hedley Malloch, who seems to be treated with great respect by the locals for his part in raising this incident to international interest. Also there to give a touch of colour were the Essex Regiment re-enactors who were there at the opening in 2009 and have fallen in love with the story and the place plus relatives of some of the soldiers who were shot. The locals had over the years taken these executed soldiers as their own and very much treated the little ceremony with due dignity although a decision was made because of the weather to hold it in the Community Hall adjacent to the lovingly tendered two monuments outside. One for the people of Iron who were killed in the war and one for the Iron 12.
All speeches were given in both languages. The English thanked the villagers for looking after their men and the villagers thought the soldiers were given to them and considered them to be their own sons. Speeches over, a volley of shots from Lee Enfields of the Essex Regiment was fired over the memorials and glasses of cider and cakes were offered round with a chance of talking to the locals. It came over quite clearly how both the Logez and the Chalandre families suffered after this. The Chalandre children were put on the street and the Germans insisted the villagers did not care for them, they eventually found an orphanage that took them in. The Logez family were interned in a prison in Germany and contracted TB which saw most of them off in the 1920s, Clovis the 17 year old son became a victim of a mental condition brought on by conditions in the prison which saw him die prematurely. Some sad ends to some brave people.
Back to Guise for the second half of the proceedings and after lunch in the 1960s version of a French Hotel, we assembled at the Execution site at the Chateau. It was now my turn on behalf of the Connaught Rangers Association to give an oration on the spot. The place had been improved since our visit in 2011 with a stone tablet laid over the sparse concrete slab that marked the spot explaining what happened on 25th February 1915. The undergrowth had been cut back and a concrete edging had been fixed round the slab and decorative stone placed between edging and slab, making it a less forbidding place than it was three years ago.
I said ” It is a great honour and a privilege to stand here today as a representative of the Connaught Rangers Association to commemorate the heedless loss of 12 men’s lives 100 years ago. As I stand amongst you worthy people of Iron and Guise who have put so much work into remembering the deaths of our brave soldiers of years ago and also that of Monsieur Eugene Vincente Chalandre, one of your own, I weep. Vincente did not have to do what he did but his love of his fellow man drove him on, whilst the soldiers of the Connaught Rangers, The Munster Fusiliers and the King’s Hussars had their duty thrust upon them on enlistment.
The five Connaught Rangers had 50 years of soldiering between them, experienced men no doubt, but they had never in all those 50 years fired a shot in battle. Perhaps these soldiers had a perceived fatalism of their lives when they became detached from their units in the long chaotic retreat from Mons in August 1914. For the Connaught Rangers, its defining moment came at Grand Fayt on 26th August, for the Munsters and the Hussar, at Etreux the following day, the 27th. These helpless yet independent men followed the ever retreating Allied armies until as they thought they found relative safety in Iron helped by Monsieur Chalandre and Madame Logez until they were betrayed by Bachelet.
The German Commandant could and should have shown mercy but war throws up some strange decisions. The poor men did not deserve to die this way, on this spot, shot in cold blood by an avenging enemy, shot without mercy, when all they were trying to do was exist, but through psychopathic intransigence they were.
We in Ireland and I am sure you people of Picardy will never forget them. God bless them all especially their executioners.”
Katy my daughter gave the same words in France and said it sounded more poetic in that language, certainly I noticed many a tear coming from French eyes as she spoke.
Then off to the cemetery, we were going to march there as we had done in 2011 but it was spilling down and the decision was made to drive. At this place we had two little ceremonies, one at Vincente’s grave which had been wonderfully inscribed by the municipality of Guise, where Michael Chalandre, Vincente’s grandson emotionally described his family’s thoughts and stressed that Vincente had only done what any right man would have done. Then it was the turn of the Irish attaché to thank the people of Iron and Guise. We then went over to the communal grave of the soldiers, lovingly tendered by the CWGC, where the granddaughter of Pte George Howard 9381 Connaught Rangers gave a very good speech about her grandfather. George who was from Sheffield had enlisted in 1908 and had had a relatively easy life in barracks in Ireland and England until confronted by German aggression. They had only found out about the details of George’s death a year ago. There was another volley of shots over the grave by the Essex Regiment and the day was over. We were invited back to the Town Hall in Guise for refreshments, the Mayor thanked us all for coming and we had time to think. Time to ponder over how marvellous it was that 100 years after their death, citizens of three countries were still admiring and remembering and soberly thinking to ourselves would the same call to duty apply to oneself if faced with the same dilemma. My wife Helen was moved by the raw emotion displayed on the day and Katy and her two daughters were equally impressed. Long may these feelings remain and long may we remember not only those men but all people who die in stupid conflict.
One last night in St Quentin, a trip down to Compiegne where the Armistice was signed, a remarkable lunch in the town and it was time to head off. For the kids the Eiffel Tower in Paris was calling before jetting off for Morocco, for us the gloominess of Beauvais airport, finally arriving home at 2.00am Friday morning. Sleep was the definite order of the day.