by Evelyn McKechnie
International Women’s Day
Throughout history, some women’s bravery and courage have been well recorded – Florence Nightingale, Elsie Inglis, Edith Cavell, Odette Hallowes, Nancy Wake, Flora Sandes, Mairi Chisholm and so many more. But there are women whose history has never been recorded – women’s hidden history – including many from the escape lines in France in WW2. I will return to some of these women in a future blog. For now, this is the story of one small, petite woman, from a small town close to the Belgium border. She became a spy for the British, was captured and who continued to resist even after her imprisonment by the Germans in 1915.
Louise de Bettignies – The Queen of Spies
Louise Bettignies created an intelligence network, called the ‘Alice Network’, for the British in occupied France. She was arrested by the Germans, sentenced to death in March 1916 and deported to the prison of Siegburg. Louise became very ill with pleural abscesses dying in Cologne in September 1918. She was commemorated posthumously as a war heroine.
Life before the war
Louise Marie Jeanne Henriette de Bettignies was born into an aristocratic French family on 15th July 1880 in Saint Amand les Eaux, in Northern France. This commune is very close to the border of Belgium.
When she was 18, Louise left home to study in England. She wanted to improve her education and her already excellent linguistic skills. Louise was a modern, cultivated young woman and spoke several languages including English, German, Italian fluently and to a lesser degree, Russian, Czech and Spanish. She attended Upton College, then at Wimbledon and finally Oxford. It was the death of her father in Lille in 1903 that brought Louise back to France.
She finished her studies at the Faculty of Letters of the University of Lille in 1906. However, the family were facing financial difficulties and she had to earn her living as a governess and tutor to children of wealthy families in various European countries.
Although she was small, Louise de Bettignies, was definitely unlike many of the girls of her class and era. She was athletic, bold and daring. The other girls were very reserved. She enjoyed horse-riding, swimming and was a great walker, all of these would stand her in good stead when she embarked on her spying career, short-lived though it was. One would never imagine that this petite woman would become a spy, estimated to have saved the lives of over 1000 British soldiers.
The German Invasion of France 1914
Louise was in Lille when the Germans invaded in October 1914. The defenders fought hard from 4th to 13th October, but the intense battle destroyed more than 2,200 buildings and houses, particularly around the area of the station.
Running through the ruins of Lille, she helped with the supply of ammunition and gave food to the soldiers who were still firing on the Germans. In the makeshift hospitals, Louise also wrote letters in German dictated by dying German prisoners to their families.
When all was lost, she fled south to Saint-Omer where she continued her work to treat the wounded. It was here she was approached by the 2nd French Bureau ‘Deuxième Bureau‘, France’s intelligence agency, but Louise preferred to work within the Intelligence Service in Britain. She chose Britain for the sake of efficiency: they could place at her disposal sums of money that the French could not provide, which was vital to running a successful network of agents. The Combined Intelligence Bureau was located in Folkestone under the leadership of a British officer, Major Cecil Aylmer-Cameron.
Louise embarked to England where she underwent extensive training during which she was taught the use of codes, how to draw up plans, collect and transmit information. It was in England she took the alias Alice Dubois.
The Alice Network
In 1915, Louise de Bettignies moved to Belgium and got a roofing job in a Dutch company, the Compagnie des Céréales de Flessingue. The mission was to identify the movements of German troops in the Lille region, the main hub of the German army in this part of the Western Front.
Early in 1915, the “Alice” network brought together 80 to 100 people, men and women, from all walks of life. They located gun batteries, watched trains, headquarters residences, and ensured the safe passage of Allied soldiers to the Netherlands which was neutral during the Great War. They even alerted the British to a train which was carrying the German Kaiser, two British aircraft tried to bomb the train but they missed the target, falling on either side of the train.
The ‘Alice Network’ worked mostly in the Lille-Roubaix-Tourcoing region, they were railway or postal employees, valet drivers, people having to travel for their job, and people used to professional or confessional secrecy, like priests or doctors. Many of the messages between the occupied territories and the areas under Allied control were carried by pigeon.
But Louise and her network had ingenious ways of disguising messages— they also used toys, chocolate bars, umbrellas, inside the frames of spectacles, she even once carried a message written in invisible ink on transparent paper placed beneath the glossy surface of a photograph.
Louise made good connections including a mapmaker in Lille, who wrote so minutely that information written on tissue paper could be delivered in tiny containers to the British. Another contact was Belgian called De Geyter, the owner of a chemical factory in Mouscron who was able to forge documents.
When the German army installed a new battery of camouflaged artillery, the network was so efficient, this position was bombed by the Royal Flying Corps within just eight days.
Louise later joined forces with another woman called, Marie-Léonie Vanhoutte, her alias was “Charlotte Lameron”. A few months later, the ‘Alice Network’ expanded into the Cambrai-Valenciennes-Saint-Quentin sector.
From her job based in Belgium, Louise passed documents she received from the agents to British Intelligence. It was on 24th September 1915, that Marie-Léonie (Charlotte) was caught in a trap by German Intelligence in Brussels, who were working hard to destroy the ‘Alice Network’. She was forced to identify Louise from photographs. It would be just a few weeks later that the same fate would befall Louise. She was captured on 21st October 1915 near Tournai.
One of Louise’s last messages before she was captured, detailed the preparation of a massive German attack on Verdun early in 1916. When the information was eventually relayed to the French commander, he refused to believe it. The Germans launched their offensive at Verdun on 21 February 1916. It would last for 300 bloody days and nights with nearly a million casualties.
Louise and Marie-Léonie were sentenced to death on 16th March 1916 but later their sentences were reduced to forced labour, fifteen years for Marie-Léonie and life for Louise. They were then both deported to the women’s prison of the fortress of Siegburg near Cologne. Louise continued to show spirit and determination while in prison, encouraging dissent and protest among the prisoners.
Louise de Bettignies wrote many times to the German Minister of the Interior, and also to the Spanish Ambassador, to complain about the mistreatment of their jailers against the prisoners in the fortress. On many occasions, she would receive stays in the dungeon for encouraging her fellow prisoners not to work for the German Army making munitions nor sing in German.
There is little doubt her periods in solitary confinement in the dungeons of the fortress of Siegburg contributed to her pleural abscesses.
She was operated in the prison infirmary in April but never recovered from the operative consequences. She was hospitalized in Cologne hospital at the end of July and died there on September 27, 1918. Louise was buried by the Germans in the Bocklemünd cemetery in Westfriedhof.
On April 20, 1916 just after her death sentence was announced, the general-in-chief, future Marshal Joffre, awarded Louise a citation to the order of the army:
“Miss Louise de Bettignies has voluntarily devoted herself for several months, driven only by the highest patriotic sentiment, to render her country a most important service for national defense. Has faced with unyielding courage all the perilous difficulties of her patriotic task. Overcome for a long time these difficulties, thanks to her capacities and her dedication, risking her life on several occasions, assuming the most serious responsibilities, displaying in a word a heroism which was seldom surpassed”
The intelligence network she established, over 40 kilometres of it, remained in place until the end of the war.
Lille’s ‘Queen of Spies’ was repatriated on 21 February 1920 and laid to rest in the family vault in Saint-Amand-les-Eaux. A service was held in Lille on 16 March 1920 where she was posthumously awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honor, the Croix de Guerre 1914-1918 with palm and the British Military medal, Louise was also made an Officer of the British Empire. On November 7, 1926, the Belgian authorities put a plaque on the wall of the café “au Canon d´Or” in Froyennes, where Louise de Bettignies was arrested.
Louise Bettignies was a brave woman who helped soldiers from both sides in the very early stages of the war in Lille, then tended to the wounded at St Omer, and organised a successful intelligence network. During the nine months she was active as a spy, it is estimated that the ‘Alice Network’ saved over 1000 British lives. After being caught, she still continued her fight, encouraging her fellow prisoners to strike and to desist from making munitions for the German Army.
She was only 38 when she died. She was little in stature but what a heart, what courage – she was an inspiration to all those whose lives she touched. I think she is one of the women in history I would have liked to have met. There are so many women in history I admire, one of those is Mairi Chisholm and I will be doing a blog on her this month for Women’s History Month. I also hope to include the story of a young Scots woman, who was only 19 when she died serving during the Great War. She like so many brave women have no medals, and there is no mention of them in the grand scheme of things but who in their time alive made a huge contribution to humanity.
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