Monday, 19 September 2011

News - Tragic victims of wartime betrayal finally get memorial (Lenton/Iron,France)

LENTON squaddie Fred Innocent, executed in 1915 just for being a British soldier, will be honoured tomorrow in the French village where is buried.

He will not be alone. Ten more soldiers were shot on a cold February morning in 1915, along with the local man who had helped them hide from vengeful German troops.

This weekend, after a year-long fundraising campaign, a memorial will be unveiled in Iron, a village in the Aisne region of northern France, which is trimming up for the biggest event in its history.

The story of Fred Innocent, who lived at 16 Marcus Street, Lenton, and his comrades – the majority from Ireland – was told by Bygones last year.

But the tragedy is worthy of repeating here.

Private Innocent, aged 27, of the 2nd Battalion Royal Munster Fusiliers, and his comrades, had gone on the run after the Battle of Mons in 1914.

It had been the first serious confrontation of the First World War between the 80,000-strong British Expeditionary Force and a numerically stronger German army.

After a day's brutal conflict, the British were forced to retreat, survivors marching 175 miles in full kit for two weeks to escape destruction.

Although it was, theoretically, a German victory, the Kaiser's troops had missed a golden chance to destroy the cream of Britain's professional army. They were not best pleased.

And as pockets of British soldiers were cut off, they became the target for German brutality.

The Iron 11 were among the victims of the German purge.

For months they hid from their pursuers, living rough in the forests and then one day they were discovered by a Frenchman, Vincent Chalandre, who lived in the nearby village.

Chalandre took pity on them and, with the help of another villager, Madame Logez, they were sheltered in a barn.

Under the noses of the ever-watchful Germans billeted in Iron, supplies of bread, milk and soup were smuggled to them.

For many weeks, the soldiers were helped by local people but in December 1914, the village was roused by the roar of German motorcycles as a force of around 40 military police arrived.

Warned by Madame Logez's daughter, the soldiers were able to sneak away undetected. But loose tongues brought the Germans back, alerted by the French mistress of an old soldier who betrayed the 11 men.

The Germans returned to arrest them and, although well-armed, the escapees did not put up a fight, perhaps fearing for the safety of the villagers who had helped them.

They were bound and taken away... after watching the Chalandre family home burned to the ground by the Germans.

Soon after, Madame Logez was arrested, beaten and her home was torched.

On the morning of February 25, 1915, the 11 British soldiers and their French saviour Vincent Chalandre were awoken by their captors, beaten savagely, and then lined up on either side of a freshly-dug ditch in the grounds of a nearby chateau.

The order to fire was given and all 12 fell into the ditch where a German soldier delivered the coup de grace.

Tomorrow, from 10am, a day of events will be held in Iron, culminating in the unveiling of a memorial to the 11 soldiers and their French companion.

Among those attending the event will be Fred Innocent's great-niece Janet Arrowsmith, formerly of Clifton but now living in Sussex.

She said: "We had always known about Fred and that he had been captured, but the story was that he had been lost in a barn fire. That turned out not to be true.

"It was a shock to learn what really happened," added Mrs Arrowsmith, who left Farnborough Road, Clifton, with her parents, Robert and Majorie Craig, when she was six.

"It was very sad that my grandmother and mother never learned the truth."

The facts emerged in 2006 through research by her husband, David, which led him to a website dedicated to the 12 executed men and the appeal for a permanent memorial.

Mr and Mrs Arrowsmith have since travelled to France to lay flowers at Fred Innocent's grave in Guise, northern France, and visit the place where he and his comrades were lined up and shot.

And they have taken part in fundraising efforts for the memorial.

Tomorrow, they will take their place alongside relatives of many of the 12 victims for an emotional ceremony to remember their sacrifice.

"We became aware of the story for the first time in 2006 and we were the first members of Fred's family in nearly 90 years to visit his grave and those of his comrades," said Mrs Arrowsmith.

"We are indebted to the villagers of Iron for keeping this story alive with copies of certificates, articles and reports over the years.

"Now, nearly 100 years after the event we are going to have permanent memorials that pay homage not just to Fred and his comrades, but also to the bravery of the French citizens that shielded the soldiers from the Germans in the winter of 1914-1915."

Professor Hedley Malloch, chairman of the Iron Memorial Trust Fund, added: "I am so pleased that the memory of these 12 men will now be appropriately commemorated.

"I am pleased for them all, but especially for Vincent Chalandre, the Frenchman who was shot with them for his part in this drama.

"He is one of the great, unsung civilian French heroes of the First World War – but largely forgotten."

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