Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Louise de Bettignies: A Message for British Intelligence

Louise de Bettignies in 1905
Beginning in August 1914, streams of French and Belgian refugees who had managed to escape the German invasion began to flood into Great Britain. But they weren’t the only ones landing on British soil. German spies often tried to mix in with the refugees. In order to weed them out, the British government quickly set up a system whereby, on first entering the country, refugees had to answer a series of questions from a panel of British officers and officials. They were not only attempting to prevent German spies from entering the country, they also wanted to know what was happening in the German-occupied areas.

One day, early in 1915, a petite woman in her late 30s was on a boat approaching Folkestone, a frequent entry point on the coast of England. Though she understood the importance of the process that would await her there, she was concerned that it might slow her down, and she had a desperately urgent message to deliver.

She had been roused out of bed at 11:00 pm the night before by a man with terrible news. A French family had learned, through a German officer they had been forced to house, that the Germans were digging tunnels under a portion of the British trenches, which they planned to fill with explosives.

The woman immediately left Lille for England. She traveled all night across Belgium and made the dangerous crossing into the neutral Netherlands, where she was able to radio a warning message to British intelligence. But just to make sure it had been received, she boarded a boat bound for England.

When the ship arrived and the woman stepped onto the pontoon boat that connected to the shore, she was greeted by an English officer. He knew who she was and why she was there. “Madame,” he said, “before your foot touches the ground, please accept the congratulations and the thanks of the British army that you have saved!” The British army had received the message, and the German plan had been thwarted.

The woman's name was Louise de Bettignies.

Opening paragraphs from "Louise de Bettignies: Intelligence Organizer Extraordinaire" from Women Heroes of World War I.

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