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)

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