Presented by Offaly History
The men 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.
On 23 February 2015 the Irish Times published a story of how eleven British soldiers and a French civilian were executed, allegedly as spies, by the German army on 25 February 1915. One of the executed men was Private John Walsh of Kilbride Street, Tullamore. Ireland was then part of the British Empire but promised Home Rule when the war ended. Walsh was aged 33 and was buried in the Guise Communal Cemetery in France.
The Times went on to describe how his shocking death with his ten colleagues and the French civilian helper who came to their aid came about:
‘The men 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.
The Iron 12 is one of the great, largely unknown, stories of the first World War. Indeed, the fate of the civilian population during the German occupation of northern France has been strangely forgotten.
Little wonder that historian Helen McPhail titled her superb book on the subject The Long Silence. [The story is also told in Cooksey and Murland, The retreat from Mons (see web). And see also the postings of Paul Malpas of the Connaught Rangers and Adrian Foley of the Munster Fusiliers]
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.
The local German commander Lieut-Col Richard Waechter issued warnings to Allied soldiers hiding behind enemy lines and those who were sheltering them. Surrender and be a prisoner-of-war (POW) or be captured and shot as a spy. Civilians were warned that they too risked execution if they hid Allied soldiers.
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.’
Back in Tullamore where many families had relatives at the Front (possibly as many as one in ten based on the1917 estimate) Mrs Mary Anne Walsh knew nothing of how this son (one of three in the war) had fared. In fact her poor circumstances and how she was misinformed about the fate of her three boys in the course of the war was heart-breaking. Mary Anne Walsh was aged fifty in the 1911 census when only one child was with her. Back in 1901 she had Joseph (17), James (15), Michael (12), Edward (4) and Anne (10) – all living in a two-roomed third-class house in Lower Barrack Street, now Kilbride Street, Tullamore.
Tom Burnell in his work, The Offaly War Dead, notes that John Walsh was one of three sons of Mrs Mary Ann Walsh, of Barrack Street [presumably this refers only to those in the army]. The others being Joseph and James. All the sons were in the Connaught Rangers which was less common for midlanders, many of whom joined the Leinster Regiment with its Birr depot. Burnell quotes a story from the local press as to how Mrs Walsh had to seek relief from the guardians of the Tullamore Workhouse as she was destitute and had no one to earn for her as her boys were in the war. No reference is made to her husband at the time or in 1901-11 and the relief was granted with mutterings about it being a War Office problem. This application for relief was made in January the month before her first son, John, was executed as an alleged spy.
Over a year later Mrs Walsh still did not know what had happened to him but her hopes were dashed by a letter received from Germany, which told her that John was not then a prisoner in the camp where she understood him to be. Did she ever know what happened to him and when?
An account of her receiving the bad news of his being missing or dead’ was produced in the Chronicle (for the three brothers on 8 June 1916, p. 1) and in Burnell’s book.
John Walsh -A Brave Man ‘Private John Walsh, 2nd Connaughts, served with the battalion two years in South Africa, was on the reserve when the war broke out, and called up, rejoining the colours on 5th August, 1914. He fought in the battle of Mons, in which the Connaughts suffered so heavily, and has been missing since then, inquiries having failed to trace him. Sorrow and anxiety regarding his fate which was thus shrouded in doubt and mystery, filled the mind of his mother, who resides in Barrack Street, Tullamore, when, one day, her thoughts, as usual fixed on her son (Mrs Walsh has three [sic] other sons serving their King and Country) a Dublin evening newspaper was brought to her joyously by a neighbour, which contained a notice of John’s career, in the list of Irish heroes, and the glad intelligence that he was a prisoner of war in Germany. The long pent-up feelings of the mother found vent in tears of joy, as hope returned that she would yet welcome again her favourite son; and with her own hand she wrote him a true mother’s letter, saying “Oh, John, John, I am still your mother, as I ever will be even unto death!” and asking him to write and she would send him anything he asked for.
But it was not to be. That reply was anxiously awaited from day to day and, at length, a post-card was delivered, bearing the mark of the German Eagle. It was from Sergt. Hogan, detained at the prison camp to which she had written – a kind-hearted Irish soldier, who expressed his regret to have to inform her that the only soldier in camp of the name of Walsh was a native of Listowel, Co Kerry. Tears well up in her eyes, and blot out from her the vision of the resolute yet kindly face of a brave man which smiles from the photo in the poor woman’s hand, as a mother’s heart is moved with its strongest emotion.’
Curiously, in the same month the local press carried details of the heroics of her second son, Joseph, who was also in the Reserves and was then a prisoner in Germany, but more fortunate.
Mary Anne Walsh is one of many mothers who suffered greatly during the war years with the death of one son and injuries to the other two. Did they come back to Tullamore or what became of them and the rest of her family? A Private John Walsh is shown in the November 1915 Roll of Honour but stated to be a brother of Luke Walsh who was killed. However, this Luke Walsh was from Ballycowan so this needs revision. The War Dead may also need revision as it states that Patrick J. Walsh was also a brother of Luke Walsh.
In 1930 there were seven of the Walsh surname listed as voters in Kilbride Street including a Mary Anne and a Joseph. After 100 years her son John is now recalled in the new memorial in Guise, France. Is the picture of John Walsh from the 1915 Roll correct – we may never know.
More needs to be done to research the Walsh family of Kilbride Street, Tullamore and perhaps there are readers who can make a contribution. We owe it to John Walsh, who faced a firing squad 100 years ago with his brother soldiers and the Frenchman who turned to help them.