DCMS blog

International Women’s Day and the spy who saved a thousand lives

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Helen Grant MP

Helen Grant is the Minister for Sport and Tourism

Keen eyed readers of this part of  the DCMS blog may recall that, this time last year, I marked International Women’s Day with a blog about how women’s lives were changed by their role in the First World War. The emphasis I chose 12 months ago was to look at women’s overall position in society and the way in which attitudes and aspirations were never the same again after that war.

This time, though, I’d like briefly to look at just one woman and show how her intelligence, determination and heroism made a huge contribution to the outcome of the war, and saved many hundred of lives as she did so. Then, as now, gallantry was not entirely a male preserve.

Firing Squad

Most of us know the story of Edith Cavell, her bravery and the grim circumstances of her death before a firing squad, but she was by no means the only woman we should remember from that time. French-born Louise de Bettignies was another. A spy for Britain, she sent vital information about German troop movements back to London, a role that led to her being described by the Germans subsequently as ‘worth an entire army division.’

There was a fascinating programme about her, and other intelligence workers, recently on BBC Four. In many ways she had the perfect CV for the role: highly educated, multi-lingual and a passionate desire to avenge the damage done to Lille, her nearest home town, which had been invaded and devastated by the Germans in October 1904.

Sitting Targets

Working under the code name ‘Alice Dubois’, she developed a group of informers – the ‘Alice Network,’ as it came to be known – whose intelligence became so valuable that, in time, it meant that German military units had to be more or less continuously on the move in order to avoid becoming sitting targets.

As well as providing information to the British Intelligence Service, who dubbed her the ‘Queen of Spies,’ she also smuggled men to England and prepared a grid map of the region around Lille to indicate German troop movements precisely for the British commanders. When the German army installed a new battery of artillery, and even carefully camouflaged it, this position was bombed by the RAF within eight days.

Kaiser’s Secret Visit

She was even able to pass on the date and time of passage of the imperial train carrying the Kaiser on a secret visit to the front at Lille, allowing two British aircraft to bomb the train although, disappointingly, they missed the target.

And this is not the only example of her best intentions being thwarted by those she passed information to: her intelligence, that a huge German attack on Verdun was planned for early 1916, got as far as the French generals, but they did not believe her.

Croix de Guerre

Like Edith Cavell, she too was finally caught and arrested by the Germans on 20 October 1915, and sentenced to death on 16 March 1916 in Brussels. Her sentence was reduced to forced labor for life. In the end, though, she died on 27 September 1918 in St. Mary’s Hospital in Cologne.

In time her body was repatriated and on 16 March 1920 a funeral was held in Lille. She had been awarded The Croix de Guerre in 1916 and the Légion d’Honneur in 1918 before news of her death was known in France. Here in Britain she was awarded “The British War Medal” and an OBE a while after her death.

I’m pleased to be able to tell her story, however briefly, for International Women’s Day. The role of women in that terrible era is sometimes overlooked, but the Centenary, thank goodness, gives us a chance to start putting that right.


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