Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Another new source on the French Army of the Great War

With the recent centenary of the outbreak of the Great War, new initiatives are coming thick and fast. On 6 November, a new database was added to the Mémoire des Hommes site, joining the existing databases of deaths, unit war diaries and of French aviation personnel. The new database contains the digitised files of those were executed during the war.

During the Great War, 1008 people, military and civilian, French and non-French, were executed for military offences, for espionage or under other existing criminal laws. Of these were 55 were summarily executed; 825 have their files included in the database; the files of 101 men are now missing, but their fate can be found in other sources, such as war diaries and the Morts pour la France cards; a further 27 were killed without trial for disobeying orders. Searching can be done by name, date and place of birth and of death, unit or place of recruitment.

So, what do you get? A number of individual files are missing, so the contents of each dossier can vary. Each should certainly include the minutes de jugement, a summary detailing the charges and the judgment of the court martial. It should also include summaries of witness statements in the dossier de procédure. Some also include appeal files, which sometimes have information missing from the original; others include files from the Cour spéciale de justice militaire, which re-examined a number of wartimecases between 1932 and 1935, including the notorious case of the Corporals of Souain (the cour spéciale file is here), and corrected a number of miscarriages of justice.

One of those executed during the war was an American - a Leo MacGhastley, born in Sacramento (California) on 2 September 1870, and executed as a spy at Romigny (Marne) on 15 September 1914. At the time of his arraignment, MacGhastley was living in Château-Thierry, and working as an electrician. Also accused were his wife, Marie Biehl, born 1874 in Trier (Germany) and Georges Lecointe, born 1866 in Mailly-Reineval (Somme). The court martial was held at Romigny by the Lines of Communication troops (Directeur des Etapes et Services) of 5th Army, under the presidency of a Colonel Rossert of the Gendarmerie.

Documents in the file show that on 31 December 1904, MacGhastley arrived in Stahlheim (the modern Amnéville (Moselle)). Over the next few years, he was constantly on the move: he married his wife in Rombach (Haut-Rhin), but was living in the Rue Périer in the Parisian suburb of Montrouge in April 1905; from there, on 10 May he moved to Plombières-les-Bains (Vosges); in September he had moved to Goucelin (Isère); in July 1906 he was in Corbeil (Seine-et-Oise); in November 1909, he moved to Chalons-sur-Saône; in June 1910, he was back in Paris, living in the Rue des Archives; in January 1911 he had moved to Saint-Martin-de-Valgalgues (Gard); in 1913 he was in Revel (Haut-Garonne); and he arrived in Château-Thierry on 4 August 1914, and set up house in the Hotel Leroy, 44 avenue de la République.

The main evidence against the trio came from police Inspectors Perard and Roch attached to 5th Army's provost detachment. They had interviewed one Marie Mayer of 37 Avenue de la République, Château-Thierry. She complained that during the brief time that the Germans occupied the town, the couple had been very anxious to socialise with the invading Germans. Biehl in particular went out of her way to talk to the Germans, who always greeted her. Mayer did not know what was said, but she thought it suspicious because none of other inhabitants of that part of town dared speak to the Germans. When the French arrived, Biehl was very friendly towards them, particularly towards the gendarmes. No-one else locally was so enthusiastic about the French, so Mayer thought Biehl's behavious most suspicious.

Another neighbour, Camille Bouyer, at number 32, said 'l'Américaine' had told her she was trying to save her own house and those of others from the depredations of the Germans. The couple moved into number 36, owned by MacGhastley's boss, which had a message in German painted on the wall, 'Leave these people alone - they are poor, good folk'.

Ernest Köchli, a Swiss national, knew MacGhastley from when the latter was installing electrical equipment at the local sugar works where Köchli worked. The owner of the works, M. Thorailler, left before the Germans arrived, and asked MacGhastley to look after his house. German officers billeted themselves at Thorailler's house, where Biehl let them in. She also served the meals, when she talked to the officers, including a general. One day, Köchli observed a bearded man arrive, clutching papers which he gave to the Germans: 'I presume they contained information' he concluded. Throughout the German ccupation, the American had driven a car and a motorbike, that he kept in Thorailler's garage. I know nothing about what was said between the couple and the Germans, but they all seemed to get on well together.

Célestin Houel lived at number 45. She said that when the Germans arrived a note, written by the couple, was stuck on the door of number 36 to protect it from the Germans. The wife was always watching out of the window for German cars, but did not know if she made any sign at them. Biehl offered to give her a note of protection against the Germans because she had lots of influence with them, but never gave Houel the note in the end. She didn't know anything else about them, but thought they were suspect because of their actions towards the German troops.

Léonie Moreau, aged 22, was in service at the Hotel de la Gare in the town. She had seen a chalk inscription on the hotel wall intended to keep the hotel from pillage (she does not say who put it there, but by implication attributes it to 'the American' and his wife). Marie Angéline Roblin was a guest in the hotel at the time, and she saw the inscription and was told the American and his wife wrote it.

Lecointe, the third defendant, was the manager of the hotel. When French troops reoccupied the town, he refused to open the shutters. When he did, the inscription was revealed ('Good people', it said, 'have given everything. Please spare them'.), Lecointe had acted so suspiciously, he was arrested and charged.

Er, that's it. To say that the evidence was 'flimsy' is to rewrite the meaning of the word. On this showing, it seems nothing more than hearsay and neighbours with a grudge. Nevertheless, MacGhastley was found guilty of passing information about French operations to the enemy, and guilty of fraudulently obtaining a pair of binoculars, belonging to M. Thorailler, that were found in his possession. Biehl was equally found guilty of passing information. Lecointe was found not guilty of passing information by a majority of three to two.

On 15 September, Sous-Lieutenant Marcel Braibant, as clerk to the court martial, in the company of Captain Vilette, of the 19th Squadron of the Train des Equipages, read the sentence to MacGhastley and Biehl. The condemned were then taken out and shot by a squad of infantry.

A proper defence lawyer would have demolished this tissue of rumour and innuendo in seconds. But the court-appointed defender, a Sergeant Cayla of the 22nd Administration Section, does not appear to have acted as zealously. But, as I wrote here, in the rear areas spymania was at its height, and normal standards of justice did not always prevail. Unsuspecting individuals came under suspicion for the most trivial of reasons. Warned to be wary of German spies, Robert Deville (17th Artillery) and his fellow officers were enjoying their after-dinner coffee on the evening of 8 August. Suddenly in walked a civilian, 'quite tall, with a blonde beard, a pipe in his mouth, wearing a green cap. We fell upon him and placed him under arrest. On further interrogation he turned out to be from the local highways department. What the devil was he doing wearing a green cap?'

The Express du Midi ran a real scoop on 13 August. Mysterious car drivers had reportedly appeared in several villages deep in the countryside of the Corrèze and the Lot, 'handing out poisoned sweets to children as they pass by. At Figeac seven individuals disguised as women threw their deadly sweetmeats to the little ones.' Seventeen such cases had been reported and in Cahors one child had died. 'Everything leads [us] to believe that we're dealing with Germans,' concluded the Express. 'An absurd tissue of lies,' snorted the prefect; but the stories continued to circulate for several months thereafter. And suspicion continued to fall on the Swiss-owned company Maggi: on 10 September, Le Correspondant warned that pre-war German spy-rings had put up posters for Maggi soups and Kub-brand bouillon cubes to mark points of great strategic significance. The newspaper advised its readers to tear them down immediately.

These episodes have an air of black comedy. But in the febrile atmosphere of the time events could quickly turn sour. Luigi Barzini, a journalist for the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, was travelling behind the front, when a gendarme stopped him and asked to see his papers. 'We have to be very careful,' said the gendarme, 'because we're surrounded by spies. We shot three here just yesterday morning, one of them a woman. I was the executioner, I presided over the court-martial and we didn't hang about.' The whole incident was over in less than half an hour.

Searching for further information on MacGhastley has proved difficult. The French file sometimes gives his forename as Léo, other times as Léon; his surname as MacGhastley or as Ghastley, as if Mac was a middle name. His father was given as Frederick; his mother, Babette Stang. But there is no-one with his distinctive surname listed in California on the Federal censuses on Ancestry.com.

Pictures: the cover of the case file; MacGhastley's driving license and identity card, from the court martial files; the Avenue de la République and the Hotel de la Gare, on what is now the Avenue Wilson (both from delcampe.com)

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

The Grand Mémorial - a new database of the French Army

I take a pause in my Delvert-ing activities to post news of a new database on the French Army of the Great War, launched on 11 November.

The Grand Mémorial is a gateway to two sets of digitized documents. The first is the record cards of those who were killed in action - morts pour la France (MPLF). These are already approachable by name, but recently, an indexing project has been undertaken to include the other fields on each card - unit, place of birth and enlistment, place and cause of death (I originally wrote about it here).

The second set consists of the digitized registres matricules, held in each departmental archives across France. These registers list every man who was called up, by the year of his enlistment, with details of his family, occupation, educational level and military career. Many of these are already digitized, but are available only through the website of the archive. What the Grand Mémorial site does is to combine the index of each departmental archive, to which is added the existing MPLF indexing, to create a grand index covering all those who served.

It sounds good, doesn't it? But we know it's not quite as simple as that. I already noted the incompleteness of the MPLF indexing (although this is being remedied by volunteers); further, not all the indexes of the registres matricules have been added to the site. Frustratingly for my Delvert project, those of Eure-et-Loir (where his regiment had its depot) are still only available through the departmental archive website. The plan is to have everything complete by November 2018.

The map shows the current state of the registres matricules. The palest blue indicates those departments whose registers are digitized but not indexed, and are available through their own website. The slightly darker blue indicates departments whose registers are indexed and on the Mémorial. The slightly greener blue (eg 36 and 37) indicates departments whose registers are digitized but access is only available in their respective archive search rooms. The dark blue are those departments with registers that are digitized and indexed, but not yet on the Mémorial (and by implication, the next to be included?). The yellow are those departments with no registers. I hope that's clear ...

The departments currently included, then, are: Ain, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, Côtes-d'Armor, Haute-Marne, Pyrénées-Atlantiques, Hautes-Pyrénées, Mayenne, Saône-et-Loire, Sarthe, Seine-Maritime, Yvelines, Somme, Tarn, Var, Vaucluse, Vendée. Plus Algeria and French Polynesia, from the Archives Nationales d'Outre-Mer at Aix-en-Provence (with the following promised soon: Madagascar, Comores, Côte française des Somalis (1889-1918), Réunion (1889-1918), Guyane (1890-1914), Afrique occidentale française (1893-1917), Polynésie (1894-1919), Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon (1901-1921) and Nouvelle-Calédonie (1907-1918)).

What can you do? Search by name, obviously. The Advanced Search option also permits searching by place of birth, of enlistment, of abode or of death; you can limit this by date, by educational level and by occupation, using drop-down menus. From this, you find, amongst other things, that ten men on the database gave their occupation as 'acrobat'. Their origins were equally divided between the south (Nice and Toulon) and Brittany (Saint-Brieuc and Guingamp) - was there no call for acrobats elsewhere in the country? 

Some 234 men in the database were born in the UK - most from the Channel Islands and enlisting in Brittany. You just search under 'Royaume-Uni' - there is no need to also search under the constituent parts. And one man came from Ireland - the unfortunate Corporal John Joseph Barrett, born in Ennis (Co Clare) in 1890, enlisted at Dunkerque in 1914, and killed in action on 20 April 1917 at Auberive (Marne), serving with the Foreign Legion.

Helpfully, you can download your results as a comma-delimited file, giving your own research database. I'll go further into the registres matricules, and the information they contain, in my posts about Charles Delvert.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Charles Delvert - his writing

Delvert's first book, Quelque héros (Paris: Berger-Levrault), was published in November 1917. It is simply a collection of factual accounts of gallantry at the front. Occasionally the author's experiences emerge, but all material that will appear in his later books. Perhaps it was Delvert simply dipping his toe in the water of publishing. Nonetheless, it went through at least six editions within a year.

Delvert had always kept a diary, and it is these notebooks that form the basis for his most important works. The first was Histoire d'une compagnie: Main de Massiges - Verdun: novembre 1915-juin 1916: journal de marche (Paris: Berger-Levrault), published in July 1918.

In December 1920, Delvert used his diaries from his time on the staff of 5th Army to write L'erreur du 16 avril 1917 (Paris: L. Fournier). It was this army that took one of the major parts in the disastrous Chemin des Dames offensive. On the opening day, Delvert was able to observe the progress of the attack (or, rather, non-progress) from XXXII Corps' position at Point 186, west of Cormicy.

In January 1921, Delvert provided the text to accompany fifty-nine reproductions of paintings by Joseph-Félix Bouchor, published as Verdun (Paris: L. Fournier). Again, there was little personal in the text, although it did include a section on the defence of redoubt R1, in which the 101st took part.

His next book, Les opérations de la 1re armée dans le Flandres, appeared in June 1921 (Paris: L. Fournier). Delvert was once more on the staff of the attacking forces, and details the build-up and progress of the offensive of 31 July-2 November 1917 across the river Lys towards Houthulst Forest.

Delvert then temporarily abandoned military history. His next published work was actually a speech given at a prize-giving at the Lycée d'Amiens in 1924: Discours prononcé par M. Charles Delvert, professeur agrégé d'histoire, à la distribution des prix, le samedi 12 juillet 1924, sous la présidence de M. Armand Tumel, avocat, président de l'Association des anciens élèves (Amiens: imprimerie du Progrès de la Somme).

He used his trip around the world to inform his next book L'Algérie (Paris: Hachette), published in July 1930.

In October of the same year, he published another work of history, a school textbook intended for baccalauréat students - Memento. Histoire contemporaine depuis le milieu du XIXe siècle (1848-1920) (Paris: Emile Croville.

For his final major work, he returned to his wartime diaries. Carnets d'un fantassin was published in 1935 (Paris: Albin Michel). It covered his service from the outbreak of war until August 1916, and so overlaps his first book. It has been through several subsequent editions, in 1966, 1981, 2003, 2008 and 2013 - all in French, so my translation will be the first in English.

The cover illustrations are taken from the websites of assorted dealers.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Charles who?

So who was this Charles Delvert?

Charles Laurent Delvert was born in the Third Arrondissement of Paris on 27 April 1879, the son of Antoine Delvert, a shoemaker, and his wife Anna Servant, a furniture finisher. A talented student, he attended the Lycée Charlemagne before going to the Ecole Normale Supérieure, from where he graduated in history.

In common with all young men of his age, he saw service in the Army. He actually volunteered in advance of his call-up, and on 10 November 1899, was posted to the 46th Infantry. He was promoted to corporal on 28 May 1900. After his period of service, he spent periods of reserve training with the 96th (Béziers) in 1910, and the 301st Infantry (Dreux) in 1912 (moving around the country in 1908-9, he was also briefly borne on the books of two other infantry regiments, the 100th (Narbonne) and the 17th (Lyon)). He was commissioned as a sous-lieutenant on 16 December 1908.

After graduation, he became a school teacher. Recalled to the colours, he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the 101st Infantry, whose depot was in Dreux (Eure-et-Loir), while also maintaining a detachment in south-west Paris. He saw action almost immediately, on 6 August around Ethe, in command of a platoon. He was later mentioned in divisional orders for his leadership during the battle: 'Remained alone with his platoon on the position to which they were assigned, even though the rest of the battalion had withdrawn behind the village [of Ethe]. Wounded at Marville on 29 August, but refused to be evacuated. Was wounded again on 21 September at the head of his company.' Over the autumn and winter of 1914-15, his division (the 7th) served on the Ourcq, the Aisne, at Roye and in Champagne.

In June, the 101st transferred to a new division, the 124th. It took part in the autumn offensive in Champagne, around the Main de Massiges feature, before heading for Verdun in May 1916. His company was committed to the defence of Fort Vaux, where it endured very heavy casualties. Delvert was made a chevalier of the Légion d'honneur for his leadership during the battle. Army Orders of 20 June 1916 read: 'wounded twice at the beginning of operations, but returned to the front despite not being completely healed, contributing to the destruction of violent enemy attacks on a neighbouring sector. Was strongly attacked in his turn, putting himself at the head of his bombers, and with a desire not to cede an inch of ground, inflicted very heavy losses on the enemy and maintained his position intact.'

Delvert was wounded four times: on 25 August and 23 December 1914 (both by rifle fire), and on 9 July and 16 August 1916 (by a German grenade and a minenwerfer respectively). He was given the temporary rank of captain on 9 December 1915, made permanent on 4 July 1916.

On 28 August 1916 he was posted to GQG, and then two months later, to the staff of 5th Army. He was still on 5th Army's staff during the Chemin des Dames offensive in April 1917. In July 1917, he moved to 1st Army staff, and so was on hand for the Flanders offensive. He was moved again at the beginning of 1918 to the staff of the French army in Italy.

He was demobilised on 19 March 1919. After the war, he resumed teaching, first at the prestigious lycée Janson-de-Sailly, and then at the lycée Henri IV. Still an Army reservist, he was promoted to major in 5th Tirailleurs in 1925, and was made an officer of the Légion d'honneur in 1927.

He married Andrée Leduc in Paris on 28 June 1920. During the 1920s and 1930s, he devoted much time to writing (more on that in another post) and travelling, including an around-the-world voyage. He died as a result of the long-term effects of his wounds, on 10 July 1940.

As a postscript, on 12 December 2013, a further honour was bestowed on Delvert. Every year, each intake at Saint-Cyr, the French Military Academy now at Coëtquidan (Morbihan), chooses a name for their class, chosen from French battles and distinguished officers. The 2013-14 class of the 4th Battalion (largely composed of cadets heading to the Engineers and supporting services) chose to commemorate Delvert. A video of the naming ceremony (the 'baptism') is on Daily Motion here; the class song, which makes a brief appearance on the video here.

Illustrations: Delvert in c.1917 (from the Saint-Cyr site here); the young Sergeant Delvert (second from right) (from centenaire.org.fr here); Delvert (centre, in the side cap) and some of his men of the 101st (likewise from centenaire.org.fr); Delvert's medals (top row, left right: Légion d'honneur, Croix de guerre, Ordre des Palmes Académiques, Croix du combattant, (bottom row) Victory Medal, 1914-18 War Medal, Italian Croce al Merito di Guerra, Spanish Cruz del Mérito Militar; the badge of the Promotion Charles Delvert; and a scene from the baptism ceremony, on a cold and misty December night (all from the Saint-Cyr site).