Friday, May 31, 2013

The 'Godmothers' of Lille

1. Monument for the poet Alexandre Desrousseaux
Representing the children's lullaby:

"Le P'tit Quinquin" / "L'canchon Dormoire"
2. Monument for the WW1 heroine Louise de Bettignies
Alias "Alice Dubois, the Queen of spies" 
3. The "Catho" (Catholic University of Lille)
[Where wounded British soldiers were treated in 1940]

4. Monument honouring the couriers who lost their lives (1940 - 1945)
Located in front of the Louise de Bettignies monument
[Dedication by the French National Union of Couriers]
For additional information click on 'Comments' below. 


Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

Additional information

A lullaby that became a soldier's anthem

In 1853 the Lille-born poet Alexandre Desrousseaux wrote a lullaby in the patois of his local district - "L'canchon Dormoire". Subsequently it became known in standard French as "Le P'tit Quinquin". This can be translated into English as "The Little Child". Yet, for the French-speaking people it would become more than just a lullaby that a mother might sing to her infant at bedtime.

This is a song that was especially dear to the hearts and minds of the French people of the Nord / Pas-de-Calais region. For the men and women of northern France this song came to illustrate the cultural identity of the region. It was also a reminder of intimate family life.

Part of the song's popularity can also be attributed to war. Why is this the case? During the Franco - Prussian War of 1870 - 1871 it became one of the favourite marching songs for French soldiers from the northern region. As a kind of unofficial anthem for Lille, the region's capital, the song also reminded soldiers on the front line of their home and family.

Below is an English translation of the verse (refrain) of "Le P'tit Quinquin":

"Sleep, my little child,
My little chick, my large grape.
You will give me sorrow,
If you do not sleep until tomorrow."

Far from home, in the dark of the night one can perhaps imagine even the toughest French soldier from the northern region reflecting upon the words of this lullaby and thinking of home. In particular, the song would remind him of the womenfolk and children of his extended family and of mothers, godmothers and children everywhere. These comforting images of the night would have contrasted with the daily experience and reality of war.

The generation of French men and women that experienced the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 - 1871 would not be the last one to be separated by a war with the Germanic people east of the Rhine. They did not know, nor could they have ever envisaged, that two World Wars would bring even longer separation and devastation for the people from northern France and their near neighbours from Belgium.

The lullaby of "Le P'tit Quinquin" and the "Godmothers" of the region would again help the people through the difficult times of these two World Wars.

Tuesday, 18 June, 2013  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

"Le P'tit Quinquin" during the World Wars

During WW1 "Le P'tit Quinquin" became a tune with a deep emotional appeal for the men and women from Lille and the Nord 'departement'. For most of the war this part of France was occupied by German forces. Once again, for those families with menfolk serving in the French army it led to several years of separation. For example the Lille Sedentary Cannoniers, an artillery battalion, were given the important task of protecting the Channel ports of Dunkirk and Calais. At the same time, their own city of Lille fell to the Germans and was occupied for most of the war.

Each time a soldier sang the "Le P'tit Quinquin" whilst he was marching, or he whistled the tune to himself during reflective moments, it would remind him of loved ones back in the family home. Similarly, for the women of Lille and the surrounding area, the song also helped them remember their menfolk who were serving in the Army.

Before WW1 a statue dedicated to Alexandre Desrousseaux and his famous lullaby was unveiled at Lille [Photograph No 1 above]. After the war the statue was moved to its present location in Foch Square. Nearby, is a much larger statue dedicated to Marshal Ferdinand Foch, Supreme Commander of the victorious Allied Forces of 1918.

Once more, in 1940, the Germans arrived as occupiers of the city of Lille and the Nord 'département'. Along with the German soldiers many seriously wounded British soldiers of the B.E.F. were taken to Lille for admission to hospital. Far from home, family and friends these defeated and seriously wounded soldiers had nevertheless arrived among people who knew how to help and encourage them.

Tuesday, 18 June, 2013  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

The legendary 'Joan of Arc of the North'

A few minutes walk from the town centre of Lille, on the Boulevard Carnot is a memorial statue for Louise de Bettignies (1880 - 1918) [Photograph No 2 above]. She has gone down in the history of the First World War as "The Queen of spies". Even the 'nom de guerre' (alias) that Louise de Bettignies was known by during the time she was involved in espionage - 'Alice Dubois' - combines the imagery of Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and Joseph Ritson's "Robin Hood". In French, the latter character is known as "Robin des Bois".

"Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Robin Hood" are the kind of stories that a godmother might read to a young child at bedtime. There are also analogies within each tale that were relevant to a land occupied by a foreign invader, as this part of northern France and most Belgium were during the 1914 - 1918 war.

Just like Louise in the real world, the fictional Alice in 'Wonderland' can speak French in addition to English (e.g. "Où est ma chatte?"). The fictional Alice also stands up to the severe and ridiculous laws that the King and Queen of Hearts are attempting to impose, including unjustified executions. Louise, in the real world, was also trying to do something similar.

In the legendary tale of Robin Hood, he has been unlawfully dispossessed of his rightful heritage by would-be usurpers. At the same time, Robin Hood supports the rightful rule and law of the country, he is "... feared by the bad and loved by the good", and he leads a band of merry men. Why should there not be a modern-day 'Robin Hood' figure in occupied France and Flanders in the early part of the 20th Century? Why could this figure not be a woman? After all, Joan of Arc was a young woman who had come forward in similar circumstances.

Hence, the time was ripe for 'Alice Dubois' and her network to come into existence. It would become one of the largest espionage networks of the war. Indeed, it may even have been the largest.

The statue on the Boulevard Carnot at Lille has a French soldier on one knee kissing the hand of the sturdy, upright matronly figure of Louise de Bettignies. It evokes the image of eternal thanksgiving to a godmother figure. Louise, or 'Alice', could even be a saint. Indeed, the priestly confessor of Louise de Bettignies referred to her "Joan of Arc of the North". She became a latter-day 'Maid of the North': leading and inspiring others to resist the occupying invading forces.

Thus, Louise de Bettignies was 'feared by the bad and loved by the good'. So just who was this almost legendary figure? What did she do to inspire the men and women of her district? This is what we shall now consider.

Tuesday, 18 June, 2013  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

The noblest French heroine of the First World War

Louise Marie Jeanne Henriette de Bettignies was the daughter of Henri de Bettignies and Julienne de Bettignies (née Mabille de Poncheville). Henri and Julienne married in 1866 and had eight children. Louise was the second youngest of these eight siblings. Her brothers and sisters were: Julienne Marie Louise de Bettignies (1867-1922), Henri Albert Maximilien de Bettignies (1868-1940), Albert de Bettignies (1871-1920), Marie Marguerite de Bettignies (1873-1915), Marguerite Marie Claire Joseph de Bettignies (1875-1908), Germaine Marie Louise Jeanne de Bettignies (1879-1957) and Léon Jean Joseph de Bettignies (1884-1959).

For many years the family had been prosperous but by the time Louise was growing up most of the family fortune had disappeared. Nevertheless, Louise was well educated and highly qualified. Part of her formal education was in Britain and in 1906 she graduated from the Catholic University of Lille (Faculty of Letters), known locally as the "Catho" [Photograph No 3 above].

In addition to this high level of education Louise de Bettignies was fluent in several European languages including English, German and Italian as well as her mother tongue of French. After leaving university she worked as a tutor - housekeeper for a number of wealthy and aristocratic European families. While working in Bavaria it is believed she was offered, but declined, a post working for the Austro-Hungarian Royal Family. There are some researchers who have suggested that at this stage in her life Louise de Bettignies believed she had a calling to join a religious order by becoming a nun. However, her vocation in life turned out to be something completely different.

The outbreak of the First World War came about with the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir presumptive of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife Sophie, the Duchess of Hohenberg. With the advent of war, Louise de Bettignies was to serve France, the country of her birth, rather than the Austro-Hungarian Royal family. Together with one of her sisters, Louise de Bettignies helped the British and French defenders of Béthune (Pas-de-Calais). They helped with provisions as well as assisting the wounded and the dying. Louise de Bettignies had returned to Lille for a time before going to St Omer to assist there. The Germans invaded Lille in October 1914 and would remain there for most of the war.

It was at St Omer in February 1915 that Louise de Bettignies was approached, firstly by the French and secondly by Major Kirke of the British Intelligence Service (I.S.). They believed she was the ideal person to serve her country and the Allied cause by becoming an intelligence agent. Already, in Brussels, the German-occupied capital of Belgium, the British born nurse and patriot Edith Cavell (1865 - 1915) was involved in sheltering wounded or escaping British, French and Belgian soldiers. Edith Cavell made the arrangements for the escaping soldiers to be smuggled into the neutral Netherlands and thus re-join their units.

Tuesday, 18 June, 2013  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

The background of Edith Cavell and Louise de Bettignies

There were many similarities in education, qualifications and sentiment between Edith Cavell and Louise de Bettignies. This may be a noble undertaking but it was not going to be one without great personal risk to all those involved. If proof of this was required about this, the fate of Edith Cavell showed what could happen.

In August 1915 Edith Cavell was treacherously denounced. She received a court-martial, was sentenced to death and ultimately executed on 12 October 1915. She was 49 years old. The fact that Edith Cavell was a woman was no protection against the death sentence being pronounced or the sentence being carried out.

As a woman with a deep personal Catholic faith, Louise de Bettignies discussed the situation with her confessor and spiritual adviser, the Jesuit priest Father Boulengé. It was he who first referred to Louise de Bettignies as the 'Joan of Arc of the North'. She based herself in Lille, the regional capital and within easy reach of Belgium. From here Louise, by now going by the 'nom de guerre' of "Alice Dubois" began to operate the 'Alice' network which extended through occupied Belgium and the unoccupied Netherlands.

The 'Alice' network in the First World War

'Alice' worked with the Duc de Charost and the network was able to provide escaping soldiers with false identity papers, a 'safe house' while they were on the run and usually couriers to guide them on their way to safety. This was the pattern used in the First World War and a similar model would be used by the escape and evasion networks of the Second World War in northern France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

'Alice' was one of those who travelled personally throughout Belgium and the Netherlands and was able to pass information about German troop movements to the British and French. Among others, she was assisted in this clandestine work by Marie-Léonie Vanhoutte (alias "Charlotte Lameron") who had been working on installing ambulances since the first days of the war in August 1914. Consequently, "Charlotte" had a degree of freedom to move around German-occupied territory and obtain information likely to be useful to the British and the French as well as acting as a courier delivering mail and news to relatives of soldiers. This too, was a model of clandestine activity that would be repeated in occupied France and Flanders during the Second World War.

At its peak it is estimated that the 'Alice' network had somewhere between 80 - 100 agents working for it and that it saved a least 1000 British lives as well as many French and Belgian lives. Some members of the network were involved in sabotage, such as the blowing up railway lines.

As might be expected, there was a German counter-intelligence organisation attempting to identify the agents running this espionage network and ultimately to break it up. The first real break for the Germans occurred with the arrest of "Charlotte" (Marie-Léonie Vanhoutte) in Brussels on 24 September 1915. During the resultant interrogation 'Charlotte' was forced to identify 'Alice' from photographs held by the Germans. This led to the arrest of 'Alice' on 20 October 1915 while attempting to cross the French-German border with false identity papers.

Tuesday, 18 June, 2013  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

The trial, imprisonment and death of Louise de Bettignies

Louise de Bettignies was imprisoned, firstly in the prison at St Gilles. At the resultant trial, in March 1916 Louise de Bettignies received the same death sentence for espionage as Edith Cavell. However, the sentence for Louise de Bettignies was commuted to life imprisonment. She was then taken to Germany and imprisoned in Sieburg prison near Cologne. The following year Louise de Bettignies was placed in solitary confinement for firstly, refusing to carry out prison work that would aid the German army and secondly, for inciting other prisoners to do likewise.

Then, in September 1918 Louise de Bettignies became seriously ill with pneumonia. She was eventually operated upon but then died on 27 September 1918 as the result of complications. Louise de Bettignies was first buried in Bocklemünd cemetery, Westfriedhof, Cologne. A simple wooden cross marked her grave.

After the war, the mortal remains of Louise de Bettignies were repatriated to France on 21 February 1920. The re-interment of Louise de Bettignies took place in the cemetery of her birthplace, Saint-Amand-les-Eaux. Her coffin was borne to the cemetery on a gun-carriage.

A few weeks later, on 16 March 1920 at Lille, Louise de Bettignies was posthumously awarded with the Legion d'Honneur, the 'Croix de Guerre avec Palme' by the French and the Military medal and OBE by the British. At the instigation of Marshal Ferdinand Foch and General Weygand the statue of Louise de Bettignies was unveiled at Lille. The date of its unveiling was Armistice Day, 11 November 1927.

The original wooden cross that marked Louise's grave at Cologne was placed in the church of Notre Dame de Lorette near the village of Ablain-Saint-Nazaire where it is still displayed. From its dedication in 1920 the Basilica of Notre Dame de Lorette and the mainly French War Cemetery that it overlooks became a sacred place, particularly for the women of France. More than 35,000 French soldiers are buried in the War Cemetery. Following the dedication what it would symbolise was summarised by the Bishop of Arras:

"She (Notre Dame de Lorette) must become the voice which weeps for her youth cut down in its flower, the voice which prays for the Eternal Rest of their souls, the voice which talks to the widows, fiancées and parents ...".

Yet, 20 years afterwards, there would be another war and fighting and killing in northern France and Flanders. Another generation of "Godmothers" from Lille would follow the example that Louise de Bettignies set during the First World War. Once again, many of the women of Lille and district would accept the challenge and become a "Godmother" to wounded soldiers.

Tuesday, 18 June, 2013  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

A new generation of 'Godmothers'

After France and Britain declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939 a new British Expeditionary Force made its way to France. Some of them were billeted in the area in and around Lille. Lille is also close to the frontier with Belgium, which was still a neutral country during the early months of the war.

It was after the British and French troops were forced to withdraw towards Dunkirk that the new generation of 'Godmothers' from Lille and district came forward. They assisted many of the seriously wounded soldiers left behind from the Dunkirk evacuation. Many of these wounded soldiers from Britain, France and Belgium - some of them close to death - were hospitalised at Lille, such as at the Military Hospital.

It was due in no small part to the 'Godmothers of Lille' that kept up the spirits of these seriously wounded soldiers who were living through one of the darkest periods of their lives. For example, after being repatriated to the UK in 1943 Lance Corporal John Gill, 5th Battalion The Border Regiment (126 Brigade, 42nd Division) who was hospitalised after having a leg amputated, paid a tribute to "... some of the most wonderful women of the war". According to Lance Corporal Gill, the rations given to wounded prisoners by the Germans did not amount to much. But, the women of Lille "adopted" the severely wounded Britishers in the hospitals. Additionally, in spite of threats from the German invaders, the women fed the wounded from their own scanty supplies:

Lance Corporal Gill went on to add:
"Those 'Godmothers', as they called themselves were wonderful and they saved the lives of untold British prisoners".
[Reported in 'The Whitehaven News', Thursday 4 November 1943].

Sending parcels to the British Prisoners of War

The help of these 'Godmothers' did not end when the prisoners left Lille and were transferred either to other hospitals or eventually to prison camps in Germany or Eastern Europe. Many of these women sent parcels of food and other provisions via the Red Cross. These additional parcels and letters of support helped the British POWs enormously.

Below is a transcription of a postcard sent by Lt. Charles S. Madden, 2nd Bn. King's Royal Rifle Corps, a seriously wounded British officer to his 'Godmother of Lille', Sister Olga Baudot de Rouville, a nursing sister working for the Red Cross. Lt Madden thanks Sister Baudot de Rouville for sending a parcel of woollen garments to him at the POW camp hospital in Germany where he has been sent. He also sends news of the some of the other British POWs for whom Sister Baudot de Rouville had become their Godmother.

Here is the transcription of the postcard:

"To: Miss de Rouville,
95 bis, rue des Stations,

From: Lieut. Charles S. Madden,
POW No: 30913,
POW camp: Oflag IX A
Deutschland (Allemagne)

Date: 19.12.1940

Dear Sister,

This is the first chance I have had to write to you to thank you for the excellent pullover you knitted me and also for sending all the other woollen garments. They have been so useful. Thank you!

I am still in hospital as my knee in plaster, comfortable and warm. Heslop and others have gone elsewhere. Carter and I and the others join in sending our best Christmas wishes.

C. Madden"

Sister Olga Baudot de Rouville was also actively involved in the escape and evasion network for Allied soldiers and airmen. She was a Lieutenant in the Garrow / 'Pat' / Françoise escape network, firstly in Lille and the north, secondly in Marseille and thirdly in Toulouse. The spirit and example of Louise de Bettignies had carried through to the Second World War.

Tuesday, 18 June, 2013  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...


The "wonderful women of Lille" who came forward in 1940 to become "Godmothers" (marraines) for seriously wounded British, French and Belgian soldiers were following in the tradition of their forebears. At a time when many of these wounded and defeated soldiers were hospitalised, demoralised and seemingly without hope these "Godmothers of Lille" came forward and gave what little they had.

What did the 'Godmothers of Lille' give to their adopted godchildren? Firstly, in practical terms, they provided food and clothing. Beyond this they also gave their time, care and attention. Arguably, the most important thing the 'Godmothers' gave their adopted 'godchildren' was hope. It should not be forgotten that this was at a time when all hope seemed lost.

Nor did the 'Godmothers' of Lille cease to provide help after the wounded POWs were taken to prison camps in Germany. Many of these women of Lille went on to become more active within the French Resistance. Some of them acted as couriers for escaped prisoners or ran 'safe houses' for those on the run. Inevitably, some of these courageous women paid the ultimate sacrifice.

A monument to those who died in the Second World War between 1940 and 1945 was later erected at Lille [Photograph No 4 above]. Fittingly, this is also located on the Boulevard Carnot. It is just a few paces in front of the Louise de Bettignies memorial, the woman from an earlier war inspired many of the WW2 generation to follow in her footsteps. --------------------------------


"Don't walk behind me, I may not lead.
Don't walk in front of me, I may not follow.
Just walk beside me and be my friend".

Albert Camus (1913 - 1960)

This article is dedicated to the 'Godmothers' of Lille and district. They helped the wounded and demoralised soldiers of the B.E.F. The soldier's "Godmother" became his friend and his saviour when all hope had seemed lost. It was the "Godmother" of the wounded prisoner who walked beside him at the time when he was most in need of one.


Musée de la Résistance (Resistance Museum)
16 Place de l'Abbé Bonpain
59910 BONDUES,

Cumbria County Archives & Local Studies Centre,
Whitehaven Records Office,
Scotch Street,

'The Whitehaven News'

Tuesday, 18 June, 2013  
Anonymous Alta said...

This is cool!

Friday, 26 July, 2013  

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