Poperinghe execution cells and shooting post

One of the lesser-known facts of the First World War was that 320 men of the British and Imperial Forces  were executed between August 1914 and November 1918 – 308 for military offences such as desertion and cowardice, and 12 for murder. No Australians serving with the AIF never met this fate, although two Australians who were serving with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force were executed.

One of the major places where these executions were carried out was in the small Belgian town of Poperinghe, located seven miles due west of Ypres. 70 executions – 50 British and 20 French were executed in the area.

During the First World War Poperinghe was the centre of a large concentration of troops, and there were many camps in the countryside around it. There was generally at least one Division billeted in the town, and it was described in a very early battlefield guide as “a [wartime] centre for recreation, for shopping and for rest”. The population before the War was about 12,000, but in 1917 there were as many as 250,000 soldiers billeted in the area. The imposing Town Hall, built in 1911, can be found on the main square. It was used as a Divisional Headquarters during the War.

Within the town hall are execution cells where some of the British soldiers condemned to execution during the Great War were kept awaiting their fate – to be shot at dawn. There were originally four cells, which were used by the police here before the war. Two of these small rooms have been restored; one with a simple pallisade bed and a lavatory bucket.

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Exterior view of Poperinghe execution cell.

Although the exact number of men shot here at the Town Hall is unknown, there is firm evidence for five. There are photographs of some of those executed on the wall, part of an artwork located here. The two small rooms have small barred windows and are very dark, even on a bright sunny day.

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Interior of Poperinghe execution cell.

The cells have brick floors, and many people have left wreaths here. On the walls are graffiti, scratched into the surface, much of which dates back to the Great War. The cells were used to hold many men who were taken into custody for a number of reasons, such as drunkeness, as well as to hold some of those awaiting execution.

In the courtyard outside stands a very grim reminder of the Great War – the post to which at least one soldier was tied before he was executed.  The execution post stands next to a large silvered panel on which a few words from a Kipling poem (The Coward) are inscribed – including the words ‘blindfold and alone’.

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Poperinghe execution post.

The executions of British soldiers during the Great War is a subject on which emotions run high. There are many viewpoints; often today the men are seen as those who simply could not cope with the horrors of warfare and were victims. However amongst those executed were murderers, and also some who had deserted many times and been given many previous chances. It is also true that some of those executed were men who deserved another chance, or who perhaps should not have been at war at all. But it is easy to judge this by the standards of our own times and forget that this was a time when the country was quite literally fighting for its future, and even in peacetime at that period the laws and punishments seem harsh to us today.

The nearby Poperinghe New British Military Cemetery has the graves of 18 executed soldiers – more than any of the many other British military cemeteries that are located along the site of the Western Front.

The book “Guide to Australian Battlefields of the Western Front – 1916-1918” by John Laffin, Kangaroo Press, Sydney, 1999, p. 196 was used as the source for this blog post.

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The man who sold the Eiffel Tower – twice!

Circus promoter PT Barnum is alleged to have said “There’s a sucker born every minute”, and as long as there are gullible people, there are cons and crooks who will exploit that stupidity for their own financial gain. One of the most famous of these cons was Victor Lusing.

“Count” Victor Lustig was born in Bohemia, on January 4, 1890, in what is now known as the Czech Republic. He was originally known as Robert V. Miller, one of several children born into the upper-middle class Miller family. His father was the mayor of the small town of Hostinne, Czechoslovakia, and under his care Lustig proved to be a bright child with a penchant for trouble.

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“Count” Victor Lusig

By the time he was 19, Lustig was taking time away from his studies at the University of Paris to gamble in poker, bridge and billiards. Around this age he also earned a scar across the left side of his face from a jealous man, who though Lustig was paying too much attention to the man’s girlfriend. Using his quick wit and his fluency in the Czech, German, English, French and Italian languages, Lustig left school and began committing dozens of petty crimes under countless aliases across Europe. His favorite, however, was that of “Count” Victor Lustig. Under this name he traveled Trans-Atlantic cruise ships, gambling and bilking wealthy passengers out of their money. When World War I put an end to pleasure cruises, Lustig’s con career also dried up. He decided to head to the United States, during the height of Prohibition.

By 1922, Lustig had conned his way to Missouri, where he learned of a repossessed ranch. Posing under the alias Robert Duval, Lustig offered the American Savings Bank $22,000 in Liberty bonds, and convinced them to exchange an additional $10,000 of the bonds for cash, so that he would have some extra capital to run the ranch. The deal was struck, and the money was placed in two identical envelopes. Through a sleight of hand, however, Lustig had switched envelopes and made off with both the bonds and the cash. He was tracked to Kansas City, where he was arrested, but Lustig managed to talk his way out of an indictment and walked free.

In May of 1925, Lustig traveled to Paris to plan another con, the one which would make him famous. While reading the newspaper, Lustig noticed an article about the run-down condition of the Eiffel Tower. At the time, the Eiffel Tower had become an expensive nuisance left over from the 1889 Paris Exposition. The original plan was to move the monument, but time and money prevented the transfer. The tower had instead fallen into disrepair, and Parisians lobbied for its removal. Lustig saw an opportunity, and forged government credentials naming him Deputy Director General of the Ministère de Postes et Télégraphes. He met with a small group of scrap metal dealers, and explained that the city wanted to sell the Eiffel tower for scrap but that officials wanted to keep the plans a secret to avoid backlash from citizens.

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The Eiffel Tower, the site of Lusig’s most brazen confidence trick.

 

One of the dealers bought the story and put down a cash bid to tear down the tower. Yet when he went to city officials to cash in on the deal, they had no idea what he was talking about. The dealer realised he was duped, and was so embarrassed that he refused to go to police. A month later, Lustig returned to Paris and ran the whole scam yet again. Lustig barely managed to elude authorities the second time around, and was forced to flee to America to prevent his own capture.

But Lustig seemed incapable of keeping a low profile, and in 1926 he became even more infamous for a con known as the Rumanian Box. Lustig had a cabinetmaker in New York City make a handcrafted mahogany box with a narrow slot cut in either end. One side of the box, Lustig had installed a series of complicated handles and levers. Lustig told his marks that the mahogany box was the world’s only “money-duplicating machine.” He would place an authentic $1,000 bill in one end, along with a piece of paper, and then turn a series of cranks and knobs. The only problem was that the process, he told his victims, took six hours to complete per bill.

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The Rumanian Money Box.

Together, he and his victim would wait six hours then Lustig would turn the crank to produce another, authentic $1,000 bill. Lustig would then have the victim take both bills to a local bank to confirm their authenticity. They were real bills in actuality, because Lustig had concealed a second real $1,000 bill in the box. Once his mark, sensing high profits, paid a remarkable sum for the box, Lustig would disappear-and no real money would ever come out of the box again.

By 1934, Lustig had gained too much attention as a counterfeiter in the U.S., and the Secret Service put together a special squad to find out who was flooding the United States market with counterfeit bills. Lustig was arrested, and a search revealed a set of money-printing plates and $51,000 in fake currency. Lustig was sent to the Federal House of Detention in New York City.

On December 5, 1935, he stood trial, and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Lustig received and additional five years for his escape attempt a few months earlier. According to The Evening Independent in Massillon, Ohio, Lustig died in prison on March 11, 1947, after suffering a brain tumor. Other sources claim Lustig died from complications of pneumonia. Lustig was 57 years old at the time of his death. Secret Service agents said that the occasional counterfeit bill, known as “Count Lustig Money,” still managed to turn up in the years after his death.

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The Medical Centre for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri, where Lustig died in 1947.

 

The biography of Lustig at http://www.biography.com was used as the basis for this blog post.

Ariès

Baron Charles Petiet founded the Sociètè Anonyme Ariès at the age of 24 in 1903, having worked briefly for Panhard et Levassor. Ariès had a capital of 500,000 francs, increased to 1 million by 1905, and a small factory at Villeneuve-la-Garenne, not far from the Aster factory at St Denis which supplied many of its engines.

It employed about 100 men and was best known for commercial vehicles, although cars of good quality were made in small numbers, some sold in England by Sydney Begbie as Asters while others were sold by a firm in Beccles from 1904 to 1906 as Anglians. Initially most had chain drive, although Cardan drive and separate drive shafts above a dead axle were soon adopted. Chain drive persisted on the largest commercials into the 1930’s. Six-cylinder and V4 engined cars were available by 1908 and were joined by the world’s smallest six in 1910.

The firm opened an additional factory at Courbevoie and up to World War 1 made consistent, albeit modest, profits averaging about 100,000 francs a year. Production in 1913 totalled 350 vehicles. Shortly before the war Aster-engined lorries were approved for government subsidy and the company produced 3,000 of these plus searchlight vehicles for the armed services. Hispano-Suiza aeroplane engines were also built.

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An example of the trucks that Ariès built for the French Army during World War 1.

Cars were promoted with the slogan “Made with the precision of an aero engine and the strength of a lorry”. They continued to play only a small part in the affairs of Ariès. Models produced in the 1920’s included the 5/8, 8/10, 12/15 and 15/20 CV, and in 1931 a new range was designed by H Toutèe, who had been responsible for mid-1920’s Chenard-Walckers.

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1929 Ariès CB-4 2-door cabriolet.

The company was in severe financial difficulties by 1932 and gave up heavy commercials soon afterwards, although a 10hp chassis, for car or van use and with the unusual feature of a two-speed back axle, remained in production until 1938. The Ariès founder, Baron Petiet, died in 1958.

The source for this blog post is “The World Guide to Automobiles – The Makers and Their Marques”, by Nick Baldwin, Macdonald Orbis Publishing, London, 1987, p. 36.

The last Le Mans start at Le Mans

The Le Mans 24 hour race for high performance sports cars is one of the most famous motor races in the world. The Le Mans Grand Prix d’Endurance, to give it is full name, was first run in 1923 on a circuit around the roads near the French village of Le Mans. The race lasted 24 hours and the format became a favourite with motor racing enthusiasts. Apart from the duration of the race, which required more than one driver for each car, swapping over at regular pit stops, the Le Mans race was famous for its start.

The cars were lined up in front of the pits on the main straight, while the drivers were lined up on the other side of the main straight. At the starting signal, which was a dropped flag, the drivers ran across the road, jumped into their cars and raced off to start the 24 hours. It was a spectacular if dangerous way to began the most competitive 24 hour race in the world.

As cars became faster with every tear, safety became an increasingly important consideration. It became obvious that many drivers were trying to save a few seconds at the start by driving off without fastening their harnesses. The organisers of the race decreed that 1969 would be the last year of the Le Mans start. In 1970 all drivers would be securely fastened in their cars before the starting flag was dropped.

So, on the 14th of June 1969, 45 drivers made the final dash across the track to start the race, whose starting time had been brought forward to 2 pm instead of the usual 4 pm, because of voting in the final round of the French presidential election the following day.

Of the 45 drivers, Belgian Jacky Ickx decided to show his opposition to the Le Mans start by slowly walking across to his car and slowly fastening his belts, which meant that he was in 45th and last place after the start, a seen in this footage of the start:

Ickx’s protest to the danger of the start was demonstrated immediately when the Porsche 917 of John Woolfe and Herbert Linge crashed on the first lap. Woolfe had not fastened his belts properly in order to get a good start, and it is believed that this action had a major role in his death.

The two factory Porsche 917s of Rolf Stommelen/Kurt Ahrens Jnr and Vic Elford/Richard Attwood led for much of the race, but by early on Monday morning both cars had retired. The battle for victory was now between the Porsche 908 of Hans Hermann and Gerard Larrousse, and the Ford GT40 of Jacky Ickx/Jackie Oliver, which had made up all of the ground lost due to Ickx’s safety-first start to the race.

Both cars shared the lead in the final stages, with Ickx managing to pass the Porsche on the Mulsanne Straight on the last lap before the 24 hours expired, and holding on to win by a margin of approximately 120 metres (393 feet), the closest finish in the history of the race (excluding the staged finishes where team cars cross the line side-by-side). Both leading cars covered 372 laps in the 24 hours, with the 3rd placed Ford GT40 of David Hobbs and Mike Hailwood covering 368 laps. Only 14 of the original 45 starters were still running at the end of the 24 hours.

Ickx’s victory was the first of six wins for him in the race (1969, 1975, 1976, 1977, 1981 and 1982), and the last of four consecutive victories in the 24 hours race by the Ford GT40, which is still considered one of the greatest sports cars of all time.

The other victor on the day was Georges Pompidou, who was elected as French President over an ageing Charles de Gaulle.

 

 

S.E.F.A.C. – 1930’s French Grand Prix disaster

In 1930 a company was formed in France known as Societé des Études et de Fabrication d’Automobile de Course, which, as its name implied, was for the study and building of racing cars. It was not a very successful firm, for they only built one racing car, and that has gone down in history as one of the biggest flops of all time. Using the initials of the firm the car was called the S.E.F.A.C., and it had been designed by Émile Petit, who had designed the successful Salmson cars in the 1920’s.

The object was to provide a French challenger for Grand Prix honours in the 1934-37 period of racing, which had a weight limit of 750 kilograms for cars. The S.E.F.A.C. was certainly different compared to other cars that were going to race in the mid-1930’s, such as the Mercedes-Benz, Auto-Union, ALFA-ROMEO, Bugatti and Maserati, especially in regard to its engine.

The Petit-designed engine was probably all right in theory, but was not very good in practical terms. There were two 4-cylinder blocks mounted side by side on a single crankcase, each block having a cylinder head with twin overhead camshafts. In the crankcase were two crankshafts mounted side by side and geared together, so that they ran in opposite directions. The right-hand crank drove a large supercharger from its rear end, and the left crank drove the gearbox, so that the propeller shaft ran down the left side of the wide chassis frame. This allowed the driver to sit low, but made for a wide car. The channel-section stell chassis frame, designed by Edmond Vareille, carried independent front suspension and a rigid rear axle, coil springs being used at all four corners. The whole car was far too heavy, weighing in at approximately 930 kilograms, while the bodywork made the S.E.F.A.C. one of the ugliest cars to grace the Grand Prix scene. The biggest failing was the engine, which produced only 250bhp, the lowest amount of power of any of the cars eligible for Grand Prix racing.

The first appearance of the S.E.F.A.C. was at the French Grand Prix at Montlhery, on the 23rd of June 1935. The car was to be driven by local driver Marcel Lehoux.

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When Lehoux took the car out on the track and made a couple of slow laps, he found the S.E.F.A.C. to be extremely ill-prepared. The engine was short of power, the brakes did not work properly and the road holding was miserable. After Lehoux returned to the pits to explain the situation the car was pushed away and the entry was scratched.

The S.E.F.A.C. made no further appearances until 1938. A new formula for Grand Prix racing had been introduced in the same year, limiting supercharged engines to a maximum capacity of 3 litres, with no weight limit for the cars. This time the S.E.F.A.C managed to start the French Grand Prix at Reims on the 3rd of July, but its appearance was only marginally better than its 1935 debut. Driven by Eugene Chaboud, the S.E.F.A.C only managed two laps before retiring due to mechanical problems.

The third and final appearance of the S.E.F.A.C was at the 1939 Pau Grand Prix, held on the 2nd of April in the town located in the Pyrenees. Practice times show how uncompetitive the S.E.F.A.C. was. Fastest qualifier was Mercedes-Benz driver Manfred von Brauchitsch with a lap of 1 minute 47 seconds. The fastest time recorded by Jean Tremoulet in the S.E.F.A.C. was 2 minutes 14 seconds – 27 seconds slower! The S.E.F.A.C started on the 15th and last place on the grid. At least this time the S.E.F.A.C managed to actually do some laps, before retiring after 35 of the 100 scheduled laps due to mechanical issues.

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The failure of the S.E.F.A.C was neatly summed up by a British driver who said: “I went to see the S.E.F.A.C. and could SEFAC-ALL.”

There however was one final twist in the S.E.F.A.C story. In 1948 the French press announced a new Grand Prix contender, from the firm Dommartin. On closer inspection, the Dommartin was found to be the S.E.F.A.C., fitted with a non-supercharged 3.6 litre engine and new, but no less ugly body.

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The Dommartin never raced, and for many years it languished in a French museum, until it was purchased by English enthusiast Richard Lines in the mid-1990’s, who undertook a complete rebuild which lasted for 10 years. Lines restored the car to its 1938/39 specifications, but then sold the car before emigrating to Australia. I have no idea as to the current whereabouts of the S.E.F.A.C, nor if it actually managed to reappear on the track in historic racing. I hope that it did, as a “lemon” like the S.E.F.A.C. is part of the rich history of Grand Prix racing.

While this was the end of the line for the Dommartin racing car, they did attempt to produce another vehicle, at the other end of the motoring spectrum. The Petit design was an unusual curious open all-terrain vehicle. Under the 4-seater forward-control bodywork lay an 800cc flat-twin air-cooled engine in the tail, and a 5-speed gearbox. Production was minimal.

Montparnasse train derailment

I have always had an interest in railways, and with my general interest in all things historical, I like to look back at railway history – the companies, lines and rolling stock that made railways the pre-eminent form of land transport from the mid-19th up to the mid-20th century. One of the more extraordinary stories I came across was the derailment at the Gare Montparnasse in Paris.

The derailment occurred at 4 pm on 22 October 1895 when the Granville – Paris Express hulled by 2-4-0 locomotive number 721 overran the buffer stop at the Gare de l’Ouest (later renamed the Gare Montparnasse) Terminal in Paris. With the train several minutes late and the driver trying to make up for lost time, it entered the station too fast and the trains air brake failed. After running through the buffer stop,  the train crashed through 30m (100 ft) of station concourse, smashed through a (0.6m) (two feet) wall and sailed two stories to the ground below.

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A woman in the street below was killed by falling masonry; and two passengers, the fireman, two guards and a passerby in the street sustained injuries. The locomotive driver was fined 50 francs for approaching the station too fast. One of the guards was fined 25 francs as he had been preoccupied with paperwork and failed to apply the handbrake. The train was outside the station in this position for several days. While it was easy to move the carriages, the locomotive and tender was another matter. It eventually took a 250 tonne winch with ten men which first lowered the locomotive to the ground and then lifted the tender back in to the station.

Modern signalling and safety devices make it almost impossible for a train to run through a buffer like this today.