The pro-British 'Joan of Arc': Louise de Bettignies assisted the Allies in the Great War by establishing a vital information network in northern France. Patricia Stoughton recounts her extraordinary bravery.
The northern French town of Saint-Amand-les-Eaux is preparing to celebrate the 130th anniversary of the birth in July 1880 of the First World War spy, Louise de Bettignies, a woman who was a heroine for Britain too.
During a few short months in 1915 de Bettignies, working for British Intelligence, set up one of the most effective information-gathering networks across Occupied northern France and Belgium. With the support of her lieutenant and fellow patriot Marie-Leonie Vanhoutte, she organised recruits to watch trains, report on German troop movements and locate ammunition stores. At one time they were able to pinpoint enemy gun positions around Lille with such accuracy that the guns had to be moved every few days to limit damage from Allied attacks.
De Bettignies was arrested by the Germans at Froyennes in Belgium on October 20th, 1915, transferred to Saint Gilles prison in Brussels and sentenced to death on March 16th, 1916. Her sentence was commuted to forced labour for life and she was moved to the notorious women's prison at Siegburg near Cologne. De Bettignies never fully recovered after a crudely performed operation under appalling prison conditions to remove a tumour in April 1918. She died shortly before the Armistice, on September 27th, 1918. Her remains were repatriated to Lille in February 1920, where, accompanied by French and British troops, she was given a funeral service with full military honours. She was buried in the family tomb at Saint-Amand-les-Eaux.
Documents show her to have been feisty, intelligent and intensely patriotic. She turned down a job as governess to the children of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria because it demanded that she relinquish her French nationality. She was a devout Catholic, consulting her confessor as well as her family before agreeing to work for the British.
She first came to England in 1898, attending convents in Upton and Wimbledon, before studying mathematics and English at Oxford. She returned home in 1903 when her father died, completing her education in the arts faculty at Lille University in 1906. Her knowledge of English and German attracted both the British and French intelligence services, who each approached her in early 1915.Though she worked sporadically for the French as 'Pauline', she felt she could achieve more for the British with a new network of handpicked agents and couriers.
When the British first spotted de Bettignies in January 1915 she was working independently, carrying letters recopied in invisible ink from families trapped in occupied northern France to their relations beyond the battle lines. Her route took her through Belgium and Holland, to Britain and back across the Channel to Boulogne.
Major Walter Kirke, a senior British Intelligence officer who kept brief records of their meetings in his war diaries, interviewed her in Saint Omer on February 12th, 1915. Shortly afterwards she began creating her network, 'Service Alice', after her nom de guerre, 'Alice Dubois', or 'Service Ramble'. Kirke refers to her as 'Ramble' throughout. His notes on de Bettignies show how much her opinions were valued and give an insight into her modus operandi. Kirke writes on June 20th, 1915: 'None of the system receive any payment except small out of pocket exps, as Ramble says they work better for an ideal': Louise too worked without charge.
After one of de Bettignies' visits to Folkestone, from where Allied intelligence was directed, Kirke writes: 'She is doing splendidly' and notes in detail her report on the situation in Lille. Later, after the loss of four agents there, his admiration turned to anxiety, writing on September 27th that there are '... fears for Ramble. If anything happened to her it would be nothing less than a calamity.' On October 7th, he mentions the commander-in-chief's remark on seeing the latest letter from de Bettignies. 'He said she was a regular modern Joan of Arc.' This description chimes with how de Bettignies was already being seen by her compatriots in northern France, an epithet that remains with her to this day.
Kirke seems to have paid particular attention to de Bettignies. He kept her mother in touch, visiting her when Louise was missing and inviting her to lunch. On October 23rd, 1918 he initiated the posthumous award of an OBE for Louise's 'very exceptional services' and arranged a letter of condolence from George V to accompany the medal received by Madame de Bettignies in January 1919.
France recognised de Bettignies' achievements by awarding her the Croix de Guerre in 1916, given to her mother to await her release and, posthumously, the Croix de la Legion d'Honneur in 1919. Marshal Joffre wrote that 'driven only by the highest patriotic sentiment, she rendered her country the most important service for national defence'. The extent to which the Germans suffered from Louise's network is underlined by the refusal of officials in Berlin to allow her to go to Switzerland when she was dying. Their reason: 'She did us too much harm.'
After the war, Louise was feted in the press with articles in French, British, American and Australian newspapers. Several books were published in France, and in Britain The Queen of Spies, an admiring but inaccurate story of her life by Thomas Coulson, was published in 1935. There was also a film, a play and an Ouverture Dramatique composed in her honour for the bugle. At one time she was as well known as Edith Cavell but her fame was eclipsed by the Second World War.
In Saint-Amand-les-Eaux the de Bettignies family home is currently being restored and plans are underway to establish a museum and research centre dedicated to female resistants in both wars. This commemoration is particularly significant in northern France with its experience of turmoil and harsh occupation during both conflicts. In the words of Alain Bocquet, mayor of Saint-Amand: 'Peace is permanently at stake so it's important to keep memories alive by educating children and interesting them in their history.' In September, an exhibition will open celebrating the lives of de Bettignies and Angele Lecat, another local heroine who assisted the Allies and who was shot in Saint-Amand on March 25th, 1918. As Bocquet comments, these projects are a homage to 'women who chose to resist and to risk death rather than to give in to the humiliation and dishonour of the two Occupations'.
For further articles on this subject, visit: www.historytoday.com/firstworldwar
Louise de Bettignies et Angele Lecat: des femmes resistantes
September 19th to January 2nd, 2011
Grande place 59230
Tel: 03 27 22 26 91
Patricia Stoughton is a journalist specialising in French culture and history.
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|Title Annotation:||History Matters|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2010|
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