"Skedaddle!" The Bonnot Gang targets Societe Generale
In the Belle Époque era, the Bonnot Gang terrorised France. They were the instigators of a grim crime spree, now consigned to history, during which Societe Generale was targeted twice. A look back at a harrowing moment in our Group's history.
Friday 21 December 1911, 8:40 a.m. Ernest Caby hastens his pace as the rain resumes. He arrives within view of Societe Generale's AB Branch, located at 148 rue Ordener in the 18th Arrondissement of Paris. The collection clerk, recognisable by his silver-buttoned jacket and cocked hat, is carrying three bags of cash he had been sent to collect earlier in the morning from the bank's headquarters in rue de Provence. Walking beside him is Alfred Peemans, a colleague who had been waiting for him at the tram stop. Suddenly, the collection clerk notices two men approaching with menacing stares. Without warning, one of them pulls a gun from his pocket and begins to shoot. Caby collapses and clings to a tree grate, writhing in pain. Peemans shouts for help. As the second gunman takes aim at him, he sprints to the entrance of the branch, where he arrives unharmed. Caby, shot in the neck, struggles in desperation. A second bullet punctures his lung, and one of the two assailants snatches two of the cash bags from his hands, using a knife to cut the chain securing the bags to his waistcoat. The street is in turmoil. As passers-by look on stunned, the robbers flee to a car where their accomplices are waiting. The car's passengers open fire on their pursuers, forcing them to scatter as the car speeds toward the countryside.
The next day, the daring heist received extensive media coverage. It was all the more newsworthy as this was the first time in history that a car had been used in a bank robbery. "This crime of our times demonstrates a perfect technique, with the perpetrators eluding capture in a speeding automobile", said one press report. Although Ernest Caby miraculously survived his wounds, Societe Generale's management had no intention of letting the crime go unpunished. And not just because the criminals got away with more than 100,000 francs. They were concerned that fear would consume their employees and customers. Preventive measures were taken immediately. Collection clerks were told that they could carry a gun if they wished to do so. As a deterrent only, employees of bank branches with vaults were issued with repeating rifles. For transporting cash, Societe Generale commissioned Renault to build a dozen vans with safes and armoured windows. Another precaution, intended to avoid long journeys for funds, was the creation of "centralising" branches in major French cities that would supply nearby branches and teller windows with cash.
Meanwhile, the crime was investigated thoroughly. The legendary "Tiger Squads" were soon able to identify the perpetrators. Nothing really surprising there: anywhere it struck, the Bonnot Gang left its mark. Theft, assault, threats, break-ins, vandalism – the list of misdeeds grew longer as the weeks went by. The gang leader, Jules Bonnot, a former mechanic, was unstable, hot-tempered and wedded to the anarchist cause. In no time he had assembled a handful of misfits ready to wage war against law, order and the power of money. Societe Generale and Crédit Lyonnais, the two main deposit banks in France during the Belle Époque era, were naturally in his sights, but ordinary citizens were by no means safe. Bonnot made a career out of violence and provocation. He boasted of having inaugurated a new era of banditry. Indeed, it was he who had come up with the idea of using a car for this first big heist. By chance, during his wanderings on the other side of the English Channel, he had once worked as a private chauffeur for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes!
Although tracked by the police, the Bonnot Gang continued to make headlines in France and Belgium. But the noose was drawing tighter with each passing day. Exhausted and plagued by infighting, the robbers needed more money to continue their crime spree. On the morning of 25 March 1912, Jules Bonnot and his accomplices parked near Hospice-Condé square in Chantilly. Five heavily armed men got out of the car and burst into the offices of Societe Generale. One posted himself at the entrance to the bank and shouldered his rifle to disperse passers-by. Inside, events turned bloody. The criminals emptied their rounds and leapt over the counter. The employees were trapped. Roger Guilbert, a young bookkeeper, was seriously wounded. He fell to the floor and pretended to be dead: that saved his life. Joseph Trinquier, the cashier, received a bullet in the chest. He found the strength to crawl a few metres before perishing in a hail of gunfire. His colleague, Raymond Legendre, was shot dead when he threw himself at one of the assailants in an attempt to disarm him. Bonnot and his gang netted a booty of around 50,000 francs in banknotes and gold coins. They went down to the vaults, but were unable to force their way in. Outside, the situation was growing tense. The crowd was becoming restless and drew closer to the Societe Generale's offices. A gang member, his finger on the trigger and his eyes on the watch, held them at bay. "Skedaddle!" he shouted. His four accomplices suddenly emerged from the bank and reached the car, guns blazing. The vehicle pulled slowly away before speeding off in the direction of Asnières, where the police give chase. But once again, the criminals vanished into thin air.
When the news spread, emotions ran high. The public demanded exemplary punishment for the bank robbers. After paying final tribute to the victims, Societe Generale offered a reward of 100,000 francs to "anyone providing information leading to the capture of the gang". Determined to put an end to this once and for all, the Tiger Brigades organised a huge manhunt. Their efforts paid off. One after another, Bonnot's accomplices fell into the hands of the police. On 28 April, Jules Bonnot was killed at Choisy-le-Roi after a full-scale siege. Not without a certain irony, it was two months later that Societe Generale inaugurated the Agence Centrale at 29 boulevard Haussmann, its vaults equipped with the most sophisticated protection devices available. Two years later, the bank opened the Trocadero building, not far from the Eiffel Tower, dedicated to protecting cash and securities on deposit and in transit. Its imposing walls were designed to project the image of a solid bank in step with its times.