Book reveals brutal execution of Sheffield troops during First World War
This is an account of the largest execution of British soldiers on the Western Front – known as the Iron Twelve.
In the late summer of 1914, in the face of an overwhelming German onslaught, the British army was in full retreat from northern France to the River Marne. Such was the pace of withdrawal that many hundreds of British soldiers were left behind, trapped in occupied German territory.
Among them were two Sheffield men, both Connaught Rangers. The first was Private George Howard who lived at View Road, Heeley, Sheffield with his parents and two brothers, Arthur and William. His father, Elijah, was an independent sub-contractor working in James Dixon’s works at Cornish Place, Sheffield. George went to work for him when he left school. He left in 1907 to join the Connaught Rangers and was sent to France on the outbreak of war in August 1914.
The second Sheffield Connaught Ranger was Private William Thompson, the eldest of nine children living at Dutton Road, Owlerton, Sheffield. He was a forgeman. His family was a part of the ‘American trade’ which saw Sheffield supply steel, equipment and workers to serve the furnaces in the USA. He enlisted in 1908. A keen marksman, he was a key member of the regimental shooting team.
After weeks of wandering amongst the forests of northern France they teamed up with seven other British soldiers similarly lost. The nine of them were taken in by the villagers of Dorengt where they were hidden in caves under the village. The Germans knew that they were many British soldiers in hiding and threatened harsh penalties, including death, to anyone who sheltered them. These threats forced the soldiers to abandon Dorengt to live in the fields between that village and Iron, its neighbour. There they built a wooden hut and covered it with horse-manure as a disguise and to discourage German attentions.
In mid-October 1914, a man from Iron, Vincent Chalandre, found the soldiers in the field. He was working as a labourer for an Iron mill owner called Léonie Logez, who was renting the field from a Dorengt farmer. The soldiers were in an appalling condition: starving, ragged, verminous and living on root vegetables grown as cattle fodder and swill in farm troughs. Moved by their plight he told Léonie and she agreed to feed all of them, and to shelter four in the top floor of her mill; others including George and William were taken to the Chalandre house where they lived in the attic.
The soldiers lived like this for the next two months. They occasionally went out and contacted another group of British soldiers on the run living in a hole in the ground in a field about five miles to the north. Otherwise they stayed in the mill and did what bored British soldiers did everywhere – they played cards. Their presence in the Iron was an open secret, but for the moment it held – until December 15, 1914, when the Logez mill was raided by the Germans.
On this occasion the soldiers escaped. They returned and moved into the attic of the Chalandre house. By this time another two British soldiers had been found swelling the number to eleven. On February 22, 1915 a cruel and malicious German CO, Richard Waechter, raided the Chalandre house, and caught all of the soldiers. The soldiers and Vincent Chalandre were tried on February 24, 1915, and sentenced to death, even though they were in uniform and had surrendered peacefully. There was one further refinement, one final piece of malicious cruelty – before they were shot they would be required to dig their own graves. The reason for this was that Waechter had been humiliated. The Iron Twelve, eleven soldiers and Vincent Chalandre, were shot on February 25, 1915 and buried where they fell in Guise Château. Nobody in Iron took care of the three youngest Chalandre children. They were turned loose on the streets of Iron to fend for themselves.