Louise Thuliez is one of twenty-three case studies included in my book, Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the First World War, published by Pen and Sword in October 2015.
Louise Thuliez was born on 12 December 1881 in a small village in the Nord department of France, close to the border with Belgium She was brought up in Mauberge and recalls receiving a very patriotic education at a time when the memory of the Franco-Prussian war was still fresh in the public consciousness. Indeed the map of France in a Geography textbook showed the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, taken during that war, as coloured in black. Her brother was a priest
Having qualified as teacher, holding a post in Lille, in July 1914 she was on hoilday in Saint-Waast-la-Vallee in Northern France, close to her birthplace.
She was not accepted to work in local Red Cross Hospital. Her brother told her that God would have a task marked out for her in the war, and that should would be given a chance to serve.
Early on 24 August most of the British wounded were taken by ambulance to the rear, except six men for whom there was not room. It was expected that an ambulance would return for them but none arrived. At this time, due to the near evacuation of the village, there was a shortage of food. Louise gained permission from the mayor to break open a locked and deserted bakery to make some bread, challenging some of her own countrymen when she insisted that the first priority was to feed the British troops.
Once the village was under occupation, Louise and her friend Henriette hung a makeshift Red Cross flag from a window to indicate that wounded troops were in the house. However, apart from an occasional desultory check, no effort was made by the German authorities to remove the men into captivity. A new house was found by a local nobleman, Prince Reginald de Croy, one situated in a remote part of the countryside. The six men were given civilian clothing and when they reached the `safe house’, they found an English soldier who had already been hiding there for two months. A decision was made to attempt to get all seven men back to the front. En route they met up with other, larger, collections of fugitives until eventually the group number around forty.
Louise Thuliez outside her prison cell at Siegburg
Louise travelled to Brussels to make arrangements and then came back into France to escort a Captain Preston and a Lieutenant Bushell into Brussels, carrying long batons of bread in order to look like local civilians. False passports were provided for them in Mons and eventually they reached Brussels and then onto Holland and England and active service again.
Her duty done two these two men, Louise did not consider that this was the end of the matter in helping fugitive British and French soldiers. Many more were still hiding out in the nearby Forest of Mormal area and many of the people involved in the escape plans were priests, due to their connections within the communities. One bonus for Louise was that on establishing her headquarters at the house of a Canon Flament, she had the happiness of hearing Mass every day and described it like having a private chaplain. By 1915 Louise was in contact with Edith Cavell, and would frequently deposit soldiers at her Brussels nursing home for Edith to send them on the next stage of their journey. These journeys to Brussels were undertaken at night, walking close to hedgerows so the men could throw themselves into a ditch to hide.
In time the serving soldiers were joined by local French youths who wished to escape from German control and join their country’s army. Again, the strength of the Catholic church in this part of France was put to good use, as Monsieur l’Abbe Lothigier had organised a group of these youths who wanted to leave. As Louise could not attract too much attention by visiting his presbytery too often, she suggested that he come to her to hear her confessions, as this method meant they discuss the details of the operation without being overheard.
As the numbers of men seeking to escape increased at the same time as German surveillance became stricter, Louise was obliged to undertake more journeys all the way to Brussels. On these occasion she would hand the men over to the care of Edith Cavell at her nursing-home on 149 Rue de la Culture, and sometime to a small café-hotel in the Rue Haute.
However on 31 July 1915 whilst meeting at the Brussels home of architect Phillipe Baucq, himself later executed at the same time as Edith Cavell, Louise was arrested during a German raid. She was taken to the prison of St Gilles in the city and locked in a cell whilst a search of Baucq’s house revealed a huge amount of incriminating evidence against them and many others involved with the work of helping allied soldiers across the Dutch border. From this evidence further arrests, including that of Edith Cavell, were made in the following week.
Louise’s trial began on 7 October 1915 at the Senate building, co-accused with thirty-four others. When asked why she had performed her actions, she answered, `Because I am a French-woman’. She was accused of high treason, with the prosecutor demanding the death sentence for her and seven others, including Phillipe Baucq and Edith Cavell. Court proceedings were conducted in German, with translations being made for the prisoners and no access to their defence counsels being permitted. On hearing the demand of the death sentence by the court, she remarked that, `For every cross is given the corresponding strength to bear it.’
On 11 October the prisoners were assembled in the central hall of St Gilles prison. After five names, the word `todestraffe’ was read out, meaning death penalty. Those five names were Phillipe Baucq, Louise Thuliez, Edith Cavell, Louis Severin and Jeanne de Belville. Louise later described feeling a great calm and relief at that moment due to her Catholic faith and her belief in the afterlife. She thought of those dear to her who had died, including her parents, and that she would soon be meeting them again. The Countess de Belleville told Louise that she considered the death sentence for them God’s judgement, whereas the latter thought it a sacrifice for their country which would balance out their other human imperfections.
The five were then returned to their individual cells, but Louise and the countess were allowed to join together in one cell. They were joined by the prison chaplain, a Father Leyendecker who suggested they submit an expression of regret for their actions and a formal appeal for mercy but at this point they were not of a mind to do so. The next morning, 12 October, they were reading their prayer books in their cell when Louise felt an overwhelming rush of anguish on behalf of Edith Cavell. She had already been executed that morning. Unbeknown to Louise, the orders for her own execution were for the morning of 13 October.
Louise continued to receive Holy Communion and have confessionals whilst awaiting the death penalty. On 17 October she asked the prison chaplain if he would tell her in the evening if she were to be shot in the morning, which he agreed to do. Finally on 27 October she was informed that a reprieve had been granted after the intervention of the Marquis de Villobar, the Spanish ambassador in Brussels, who had gained an intercession from his king, Alphonse XIII. Further appeals had been made directly to Kaiser Wilhelm II by Pope Benedict XV and indirectly from President Woodrow Wilson of the then neutral USA.
Louise was then transferred not to Siegburg in Germany, her ultimate destination, but back to Cambrai in northern France, where her prison conditions were considerably worse than those in Brussels. There she was accused of the `crimes’ she had committed on the French side of the border, but despite being found guilty, word came through the Kaiser’s clemency had been extended to these cases too. By the end of January 1916 Louise arrived in the prison at Siegburg to begin nearly three years of monotonous incarceration. Medical care was inadequate and many of the female prisoners died, one in Louise’s arms as she comforted her, and another whose husband had also died in prison the previous week leaving behind a four-year-old orphaned boy. As in the prisoner of war camp inhabited by Joe Garvey, typhus spread and trenches were dug to bury the victims near the exercise yard.
Louise copied down the inscription that she saw when entering the German prison, one which to her was a distortion of the true meaning of Christianity:
You are now a prisoner. Your barred window, your bolted door the colour of your cloths, all bear witness that you have forfeited your liberty. God did not wish you to continue to defy Him by sinning against His laws and the law of men. He had brought you here so that you ay expiate the crimes of your life.
So, incline yourself under the all-powerful hand of God, incline yourself under the iron laws of this house. If you will not obey of your own will, your will shall be broken and bent. But if you receive humbly the punishment that is inflicted on you the fruit of your submission will be a chastened heart and a peace conscience. God has willed it so.
For Louise, the repentant sinner was always pardoned by God, and for society to withhold this pardon was a crime.
She undertook small acts of private protest, including sewing buttons on military uniforms deliberately loose, so they would fall off at the first hint of pressure. Religious neutrality was not permitted in the prison, so each Sunday all prisoners attended either a Catholic or Protestant service. As in St Gilles, each worshipper was kept in an isolated stall whereby only the top of the heads of the others were visible above the partitions. This amused Louise and reminded her of a picture she had seen of St Francis of Assisi speaking to the fishes. However the services were held in German, and despite requested for a French or Belgian priest, Louise was unable to make confession or hear the words of consolation and hope which she craved. However patriotic sentiment was shown each 14 July when threads of red, white and blue material were worn on their uniforms. She also wrote a letter of protest to the German Minister for Home Affairs against political prisoners like herself being forced to undertake munitions work.
In 1919 Louise had the Legion d’Honneur and the Croix de Guerre conferred on her by Georges Clemenceau, President of the French Republic. He cited that she was:
Model of the purest patriotism, she rendered signal services to the Allied Armies in the invaded regions. Spent herself in caring for the wounded, and in the midst of the gravest danger, probed herself to be actuated by heroic courage and complete disregard for personal safety. Victim of her devotion to our country, France, she was condemned to death by the Germans. This sentence was later commuted into one of transportation with hard labour.
Louise with her Legion d’honneur and Croix de guerre
She wrote her memoirs in the 1930s and they were translated into English in 1934. During the Second World War she was active in the French resistance, helping more English and French soldiers to safety and receiving the Order of the British Empire. She died in 1966.