Saturday, November 11, 2017

Veterans Day for a Forgotten Hero: The Farrier at Compiègne

The memory of war is harsh, but the memory of a hero's deeds often improve with age. An anonymous World War I hero is still in the books but you have to dig to find him.

World War I began on August 1, 1914 when Germany declared war on Russia. Three days later, Great Britain declared war on Germany. And three days after that, the first British troops arrived in France. They would soon become mired in one of the longest, bloodiest wars in history.

Britain had sent some elite cavalry units directly to the front in August, including the Sixth Dragoon Guards, known as "The Inniskillens".  They had been at Waterloo with Wellington, and at the Battle of Balaklava in Crimea. Going forward, they would be in most of the major battles of World War I.

But first, there was the matter of one of their farriers, who had a war of his own to wage.

Here's how it is described in a gazetteer-type book of the day, The War Illustrated (1920):

A newspaper clipping from Australia
"At the French battle of Compiègne on September 1st, during the great retreat, when the overwhelming odds of the Kaiser's hosts forced the little British army back and back and back, fighting one of the most brilliant rearguard battles in the history of war, the 6th Dragoons charged the Germans.

"The regimental shoeing smith was, of course, not a combatant, but he was a man of undaunted courage and brilliant daring, as well as being possessed of a forearm with the strength of an engine piston.

"He was unarmed with any conventional weapon of war. But that did not prevent him joining the charge. He took the first weapon that came to hand--the hammer with which he shod the horses of the regiment, and which he knew so well how to wield.

"And he put it to a use for which it was never intended. It was essentially a weapon of attack, not of defense, and was by its very nature unsuited to afford its bearer protection against the bayonets and swords of the enemy attacked. 

"Nevertheless, in the hands of the intrepid blacksmith, who wielded it as if inspired by ten thousand devils, it cracked many German skulls, and no man in the charge had a greater toll of German loss to his credit than the farrier turned warrior for the nonce.

"He came through his adventure unhurt and with the head of his hammer moist and red with the evidence of his prowess. He returned to his anvil, prepared to repeat the performance should need arise."

Who was this farrier? What was his name? So far, there is no name written anywhere, even though the story appeared in newspapers as far away as Australia and New Zealand.

But the farrier of Compiegne has gone down in history as a legendary hero, perhaps the very hero that the people at home needed to read about in the dark days when they began to realize what they'd gotten into. The war would drag on for five more years. 

But heroes live forever.

--Fran Jurga

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