Louise de Bettignies: 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-Léonie 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.