BEHIND THE LINES: THE STORY OF THE IRON TWELVE
PART 1: INTRODUCTION
This is the story of eleven British soldiers, trapped behind the lines in the retreat from Mons to the Marne in the summer of 1914. It tells how they became encircled behind the German lines, how they were sheltered by French villagers, and later captured and shot by the Germans.
As a piece of Western Front drama it 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. It has been described as a ‘very remarkable story about a terrible episode of the War’. The executions 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 Great 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. They had no further points to prove. The relative peace of a quiet war in a prisoner of war camp beckoned. That they refused in such numbers says much about the motivation and tenacity of the ‘Old Contemptibles.’ 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. One book has appeared which detailed the fate of four of them at Villeret, not far from the location of this story. Some authors mention them in passing  but it remains a neglected topic.
Nevertheless it is clear from both McPhail’s account, and from the research conducted for this study, that there were considerable numbers of British and French soldiers trapped behind the lines. The areas around Guise, St. Quentin, Le Cateau and Nouvion seem to have been thick with them, doubtless attracted by the presence of dense woods in which to hide. Their number is unknown, but they were a problem for the Germans. They were, for the most part, current regular army or recently recalled from the reserves, all trained and armed. Should the Allied armies ever return they had the potential to create serious problems for the Germans. The Germans had to try to capture them; their efforts used men and material that could otherwise have been used at the Front. Those encircled by the Germans contributed to the Allied war effort in their own unique way.
From early 1915 the Germans became increasingly intolerant of British soldiers on the run. Those caught were at risk of being executed. The number captured and executed by the Germans is not known. Today the only evidence is the Commonwealth War Grave Commission (CWGC) headstones in some quiet corner of a communal cemetery carrying a date of death long after the tide of battle had passed by. One informed estimate puts the figure at ‘more than 50’.
A further reason for studying this subject is that it prompts a re-evaluation of the place of women on the Western Front. To say that women are typically portrayed in much of the Western Front literature as members of a ‘back-up team’, performing a ‘support function’, either as nurses in a base hospital, or in a munitions factory, far removed from the trenches where the ‘real’ war is fought is something of an exaggeration – but it is not much of one. In this account women step out from behind the capstan-lathe, they lay aside the bedpan, and move centre-stage. It is impossible to study the experiences of escapees behind the lines without being struck by the central role taken by women. In The National Archives (TNA) at Kew there is a register of the awards given by the British government to Belgian and French citizens who helped Allied escapees. It contains hundreds of names, just under half of who were female. This was as much a woman’s war as a man’s. Views of women at war based on stereotypes of the ‘roses of no-man’s land’ and the chirpy ‘canary’ working in a munitions factory have to be laid aside here. In this war the front line was behind the lines and many of the troops wore petticoats.
Caption: A Woman Must Fill a Man’s Place. This poster captures a popular stereotype of the role of women in the First World War. This saw women as filling in the civilian jobs left by men as they departed to the armed forces to fight the ’real’ war. The experiences of women in communities behind the lines, such as Iron, challenge this view.
McPhail argues that this was because women could move about without attracting German attention, but this story shows that their sex was much more than battle-dress. In essence McPhail sees female attributes as essentially negative – women succeeded because they were not men, rather than because of their own competences. Nor does the camouflage argument account for the zeal with which they carried out their mission. With their gender came the key attributes demanded by their new duties. Caring, organising, sheltering, nurturing, feeding, protecting, nursing – these qualities are feminine rather than masculine. In addition these women had those intangible personal characteristics of endurance, improvisation and sang-froid essential for the very dangerous work they were undertaking, qualities which, in another context, Tom Wolfe  labelled ‘the right stuff’. And they had them in abundance.
This article describes the sources of information used. The soldiers at the heart of this story are named, along with what personal information is known about them. It then moves into an account of how the tragedy unfolded and its aftermath, including how the British government honoured the French families concerned. It concludes by raising some unanswered questions about the affair, and proposes possible answers to them.
THE SOURCES OF INFORMATION USED
The existing written accounts were read and where necessary translated into English. Likely Great War Internet sites were scanned, as were the War Diaries of the two battalions most concerned. Information about the soldiers was gleaned from the CWGC database, Soldiers Died in the Great War (SDGW), the War Survivors and War Dead file in the Public Record Office, Medal Rolls, Irish genealogy websites, and the 1901 and 1911 Censuses of England and Wales. The Mayor of Iron was interviewed. The families of two of the executed soldiers were contacted: one gave access to family letters and recalled family history. Finally, several site visits were made and photographs taken of places of interest. Because of their importance the existing written accounts are first reviewed and evaluated. The other sources will be referenced as the story unfolds.
The Existing Written Accounts:
There are three main written sources. These are:
Les onze Anglais d’Iron. This pamphlet was published locally. The author(s) are unknown (but almost certainly French). The date of publication appears to have been in the early 1920s. It is important as the other accounts appear to use it as a source document. It seems to have been written by someone who had access to some of the surviving French participants. It does not attempt to be impartial: the Germans are vilified on every occasion, as are the French people who in any way helped to betray the soldiers. In places it contradicts itself. For this article the document was fully translated into English; this gave a fuller picture of the events and enabled some small corrections to be made to existing accounts.
Its strengths are that it gives the most detailed and entirely plausible account of what happened to the soldiers up until the moment of their arrest. It is the earliest account of the disaster and its proximity to the events it describes increases its credibility. Its weakness is that it is not obvious how the author(s) could have known what took place during the three days the soldiers were in German hands. As yet no German account of this has been traced. For this reason the version of the detention and execution of the eleven British soldiers offered in Les onze Anglais appears clichéd and perhaps should be treated with caution.
The Secret of the Mill. This appeared in the late 1920s. It is based on local documents and interviews with civilian survivors. Its strengths are that it provides a more detailed picture of the involved French families, their personalities, and of the post-war aftermath. It has two weaknesses. When compared with Les onze Anglais the story it relates omits several key events and this leads it to make important mistakes. Second, like Les onze Anglais, it is very vague about what happened to the British soldiers once they passed into German custody. The Secret is strong on character but weak on fact.
Shot by the Enemy, at the Château. Written by a Branch Chairman of the Western Front Association, Derek Smith, it is a detailed and painstaking account of the tragedy. Smith is not specific about his sources, but Shot by the Enemy seems to draw on both The Secret and Les onze Anglais, more on the latter than on the former. It uses British military history sources to give a short account of the two British military disasters in August 1914 (Etreux and Le Grand Fayt), which form the prelude to the story. It is very strong on the history of the French families and other participants in the years after the war, drawing both on material published in a local newspaper, and on an interview with M. Gruselle, the Mayor of Iron, the great-grandson of Madame Léonie Logez, the principal carer for the British soldiers. His recollections of the story as retold over the years in his family have been a vital source of information. Shot by the Enemy’s importance is not only in the detailed and comprehensive account of the tragedy, but because it raises two still unresolved questions about this affair, namely:
- Was there a twelfth British soldier who escaped the clutches of the Germans?
- Why did the soldiers stay in Iron rather than try to escape back to the UK?
Brief details of the soldiers are given below. In the Edwardian army soldiers were required to serve up to nine years on duty in an army garrison, followed by up a period of up to four years as a reserve. As a reserve they could resume normal civilian life, but could be recalled to duty if needed, as all of them were in August 1914. Most of the eleven in Iron were in the reserves.
Details of the Eleven British Soldiers Executed at Guise on 25 February 1915
|No.||Rank||Name||Unit||Brief Personal Information|
|6240||Private||Denis Buckley||2nd Royal Munster Fusiliers||Born and lived in Cork. Joined 1/RMF in 1899. A highly decorated veteran of the Boer War and Afghan campaigns. The oldest of the eleven British soldiers. A reserve, aged 34.|
|9852||Private||Daniel Horgan||2nd Royal Munster Fusiliers||Born in 1896, he was brought up in the slums of Cork, the son of an casually employed docker. A regular, aged 19.|
|9381||Private||George Howard||2nd Connaught Rangers||Born in Sheffield, he worked for his father as a cutler. Joined Army in 1907. Two of his brothers were killed on the Western Front. A regular, aged 28.|
|7845||Private||Fred Innocent||2nd Royal Munster Fusiliers||Born, enlisted and lived in Nottingham, In 1914 he worked as a clerk for a wine merchant. A reserve, aged 27.|
|7925||Lance Corporal||James Moffatt||2nd Royal Munster Fusiliers||Liverpool-Irish, with a record of ill-discipline. Probably the leader of the group. A reserve, aged 30.|
|8713||Private||Terence Murphy||2nd Connaught Rangers||Born, enlisted in Co. Sligo, Ireland. The only soldier in the group who was married. He had a son. Probably a reserve, aged 29.|
|10084||Private||John Nash||2nd Royal Munster Fusiliers||Born, Co. Kerry, Ireland. One of nine children. A regular, aged 23.|
|6943||Lance Corporal||John William Stent||15th (The King’s) Hussars||Born, Bromley, Kent. His sister, Edith was a key figure in the development of the story. His brother in law was killed on the Somme. A regular, aged 24|
|9472||Private||William Thompson||2nd Connaught Rangers||Born, enlisted in Sheffield in 1907, where he worked as forgeman. A member of batallion rifle-shooting team. A regular, aged 24.|
|6594||Private||John Walsh||2nd Connaught Rangers||Born, enlisted in Tullamore, Ireland. A veteran of the Boer War, a bemedalled ‘old sweat’. A reserve, aged 33.|
|7010||Private||Matthew Wilson||2nd Connaught Rangers||Born and enlisted Galway, Ireland. He served in India, later worked as a miner. A reserve, aged 30.|
All of these soldiers were stragglers from two encounters between the German and British armies in the last week of August 1914. These were at Le Grand Fayt and Etreux. Both the 2nd Royal Munster Fusiliers (2/RMF) and the 2nd Connaught Rangers (2/CR) were part of 1 Corps; 2CR were part of the 2nd Division, 5th Infantry Brigade; 2/RMF were a 1st (Guards) Brigade battalion in the 1st Division. On the afternoon of 26 August 2/CR were deployed about 2 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 were encircled by them in an area around Marbaix and Le Grand Fayt. They emerged with nearly 300 men missing.
The next day (27 August) 2/RMF and two troops of the 15th Hussars were defending the crossings of 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 1st 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. His successor, Lieutenant Gower, surrendered at about 9.15 pm. He was subsequently interned in Holland.
During the fighting the Munsters were supported by John Stent’s unit, C Squadron of 15th (The King’s Hussars). His squadron was heavily involved in the fighting to relieve those Munsters encircled at Bergues (see Map 1), which enabled some 170 soldiers to escape. The regimental history notes that Hussars were killed in this operation. Stent was erroneously presumed to be amongst them, the regimental history stating that he died at Bergues on 27 August 1914. To this date he is the only one of the eleven whose location on the battlefields can be stated with any degree of precision.
From his internment Gower wrote an account of the battle and of its aftermath. It appears from this that the Germans had considerable difficulties in locating the missing Munsters after the battle. Whilst he was their prisoner Gower observed that the Germans were still bringing in Munsters from the battlefield up to nine days after the battle. Using the information in Gower’s letter, McCance’s regimental history and the Soldiers Died in the Great War (SDGW) data-base, it is possible to estimate the number of Munsters who escaped the action and the subsequent German round-up. This is presented on Table 2.
Table 2: Estimate of the Number of the 2nd Battalion Royal Munster Fusiliers
Missing and Unaccounted for on 4 September 1914
|Strength||No.||Casualties, Missing and Survivors|
|On embarkation 13 August 1914||1008 (1)||Stragglers lost between Mons and Etreux||30 (2)|
|Killed: 14 August – 4 September 1914||108 (3)|
|Present at Roll Call on 29 August||201 (5)|
|Missing and Unaccounted For||119|
Sources and Notes:
- McCance S., History of the Royal Munster Fusiliers 1861 to 1922, p.112.
- Author’s estimate. On 24 August 1914 2RMF were in reserve at the battle of Mons. From there they fell back to Fesmy, near Etreux. McCance notes that stragglers were lost en-route, but does not say how many, stating only that the losses ‘compared favourably with that of other units’ (p.113).
- Soldiers Died In The Great War 1914-19 CD-ROM Version 2.0
- WO 95/1275 War diary of the 2nd Battalion the Royal Munster Fusiliers, Letter from Captain W. Gower to Lieutenant-General to Sir H. Botfield 14 December 1914.
- McCance S., op.cit., p.121.
Assuming 30 stragglers became lost before the battle of Etreux, then there were about 120 Munsters still on the run one week after the battle. Gower’s letter can be further used to estimate the minimum numbers of 2/RMF in hiding. He knew the numbers of prisoners and wounded (he uses the word ‘exactly’ to describe the number of wounded), but he could neither have known the number of dead; bodies would be scattered over quite an extensive area, others obliterated; nor could he have known how many were on the run. Gower estimated that there were 159 Munsters killed in action during the Etreux battle. With the benefit of hindsight it can be seen that that figure is incorrect. SDGW gives the number of RMF who died between 27 August and 4 September 1914 as 108. The difference of 51 between Gower’s estimate and the more accurate count in SDGW is probably a good indication of the minimum number of Munsters who went into hiding at the end of the battle. An alternative explanation is that Gower well knew that there were numbers of 2/RMF in hiding but writing from his place of internment he chose to conceal it by inflating his estimate of the number of dead.
It can be stated with some confidence that the numbers of 2/RMF missing one week after Etreux was between about 50 and 120. Anecdotal evidence supports the idea that there were considerable numbers of Munsters trying to escape. Beaumont, another soldier trying to return to the UK, describes a night passed in Edith Cavell’s shelter in Brussels in the spring of 1915. Of the fourteen or so soldiers there that night, ten were Munsters.
Estimating the number of Connaught Rangers trapped behind the lines after the disaster at Le Grand Fayt on August 26 is more difficult. What is known is that of the 300 Rangers missing, 17 were killed or died between 26 August and 4 September. How many of the remaining 280 or so ended as PoW, on the run, or escaped to rejoin their units is not known. 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. Now, as then, it is a combination of lush, undulating, well-watered small fields, surrounded by thick hedges with few gaps, interspersed with the great, dense forests such as Nouvion and Mormal. The term bocage is often used to describe the countryside and indeed the region is much more like Normandy than the Nord and Pas-de-Calais. Further, in late August the crops would have been well grown but unharvested due to the war providing escapees with further cover.
Nature sometimes receives a helping human hand and the German Army provided this. First, there is some evidence that at least one of the eleven soldiers, William Thompson, spent some time in German custody. According to a posting on The Great War Forum one of Thompson’s relatives is quoted as saying that he, along with other British soldiers, was ‘taken prisoner by the Germans at a place called Bo[ué]. They were taken to a forest nearby but it was bombed by the British and in the confusion the men escaped and hid themselves in the woods till October the 21st.’ This evidence shows that German prisoner security arrangements were possibly lacking. Yet as some of the eleven soldiers were armed when they were finally captured, it is likely that not all of them passed through German hands.
Map 1: Iron, Etreux and the Surrounding Area as they appeared on a 1917 German Army map.
La Queue de Boué is the western end of the Nouvion Forest. To the east, south of Wassigny can be seen the Andigny Forest. Both of these forests provided shelter for Allied soldiers behind the lines. The Munsters held the line on the road from Bergues north to Chapeau Rouge, just off the map, and fell back to Etreux. Le Grand Fayt lies just to the north of the map; Guise just to the south. (Extract from No.59 (Sept 1917) Strassenkarte de 2 Armee. Gedruckt v.d. Zentral-stelle d. Vermessung dienste der 2.Armee. Source: Army Trench and Operations Maps from the National Archives, CD-ROM published by the Naval and Military Press: map of Arras-Valenciennes-St. Quentin area in General 2nd, 4th, 6th and 17th Army folder)
Second, the Germans forced many local residents into the forests around Nouvion. McPhail cites a diary kept by a M. Leduc a local head-teacher in which he describes how, on 24 August, the Germans entered Nouvion and set fire to the town as a reprisal for alleged sniping by the locals against the Germans. Whether or not there had been such attacks is not clear; possibly the Germans were fearful of a repetition of the damage inflicted by francs-tireurs, or civilian sharpshooters, on German forces during the Franco-German war of 1870-71. The locals, and the refugees who had taken shelter with them, were forced to move into the fields and the forest. This happened three days before the battle at Etreux, and two before that at Le Grand Fayt. Thus any fleeing British soldier would find camouflage in numbers. The sight of people living rough in the forests around Nouvion would not attract any special German attention. Further, given the presence of Flemish-speaking Belgian refugees, neither would anyone who was unable to speak French. In this sense the Germans had already prepared relatively safe havens for the British soldiers before the two battles had started.
Caption: After the Battle: German Soldiers in Etreux
In late August and early September the woods and fields were hiding Belgian, French and British soldiers, as well as refugees. A local woman, Aline Carpentier who was, according to McPhail, an ‘assiduous observer and diarist’, noted in her diary entry of 4 November that, ‘men hid in the woods and abandoned houses torn between remaining concealed and trying to rejoin their units.’ On the same day her son found a group of twenty British soldiers hiding in the undergrowth. Local villagers appear to have kept soldiers in hiding supplied with food, and acted as guides, scouts and lookouts for them.
The German reaction to these unwanted guests was initially tolerant. Any Allied soldier could come out of hiding and surrender and expect to be treated as a POW. The Germans began issuing a series of proclamations giving Allied soldiers a period of grace (usually one or two weeks) in which to surrender. This could indicate a growing concern on the part of the Germans about the number of Allied soldiers on the run behind their lines. Numerous pronouncements appeared stating that after a period of grace any British soldier caught in or out of uniform would be regarded as a spy and shot. Smith cites four such proclamations: 2 November 1914, 8 November 1914, 1 March 1915 and 15 October 1915. McPhail states that according to German pronouncements any Allied soldier taken after 4 December would be shot. A reward of ten francs per head was offered to anyone turning in an Allied soldier on the run. This was hardly exorbitant, about the same as the average daily wage for a skilled worker in France in 1913. The small amount of reward money suggests that greed would not determine whether or not informers turned in British soldiers.
German attitudes were not the only factor to change. Spending late August and September in the woods and fields, fed and guarded by villagers could have been an idyllic experience. Yet as late summer gave way to the rain and mists of a cold Aisne autumn, many soldiers felt forced to seek somewhere warmer, drier and where food was more assured. This need appears to have been a compelling one, which forced the eleven British soldiers into the arms of the villagers of Iron.
 Walton, Herbert A: The Secret of the Mill in The Wide World magazine c.1928, p.414.
 Macintyre, Ben: A Foreign Field (HarperCollins, 2001).
 McPhail, Helen: The Long Silence: Civilian Life under the German Occupation in Northern France (I.B. Tauris, 1999).
 Macdonald, Lyn: 1914 (Michael Joseph, 1987).
 McPhail, op.cit..
 Reed, Paul: Irish Soldiers Executed 1914-1918.invisionzone.com/forums, 2005 [cited October 23 2006]. Available from http://184.108.40.206/search?q=cache:dytqiwahHegJ:1914-18.invisionzone.com/forums.
 PRO WO 329/2957: Prisoner of War Helpers Medal.
 McPhail, op.cit.: p.137.
 Wolfe, Tom: The Right Stuff (Vintage, 2005).
 Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Casualty Details CWGC, [cited 26 January 2009]. Available from http://www.cwgc.org./cwgcinternet/casualty-details.
 Soldiers Died in the Great War 1914-19 Cd-Rom Version 2.0 Naval and Military Press.
 PRO WO 363. War Survivors and War Dead.
 Les onze Anglais d’Iron, written by R.Minon and L. Lancon, published by R. Minon, Guise, no date, probably 1922.
 Walton, op.cit..
 Smith, D., Shot by the Enemy, at the Château. Gun Fire (Journal of the Yorkshire and Humberside Branch of the Western Front Association), c.1997(44).
 A Notebook of a Guisard, in L’Aisne, 22 April, 1922.
 Edmonds, S.J.E., Military Operations: France and Belgium 1914: Mons, the Retreat to the Seine, the Marne and the Aisne August-October 1914. History of the Great War (MacMillan, 1937), pp.202-3.
 Edmonds, ibid.,pp.225-26.
 Cox and Co and (Compilers), List of British Officers taken prisoner in the various Theatres of War between August 1914 and November 1918. no date.
 Cannock, MC, The History of the 15th Hussars, Crypt House Press, 1932, pp.25-26.
 Op. cit., p.27.
 Op. cit., p.248.
 PRO WO 95/1275 Letter from Captain W. Gower to Lieutenant General Sir. H. Botfield, 14 December 1914.
 McCance, C.S.: History of The Royal Munster Fusiliers: Volume 11 From 1861 to 1922 (Disbandment) (Naval and Military Press, no date).
 Beaumont, H.: Old Contemptible (Hutchinson, 1967), p.147.
 Today nine British soldiers are buried in Le Grand Fayt Communal Cemetery in a common grave with three German soldiers under a headstone erected by the German army. Of the nine, six are either named or unnamed 2CR; the remaining three unknowns are almost certainly Rangers’ casualties of 26 August 1914.
 Soldiers Died … : op.cit..
 Wargraves. 10 Executed British Soldiers. 2005 [cited 23 October 2006]; Available from: http://209.85.104/search?q=cache:IIu44v96KGAJ:1914-1918.invisionzone.com.forums.
 Boué is a village about two miles east of Etreux – see Map 1.
 McPhail, op.cit., p.20.
 Loc cit..
 McPhail, op.cit., pp.29-31.
 Smith, op.cit.,p.44.
 McPhail, op.cit., p.35.
 Ibid, p.36.