ALH Anna Lee Huber

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La Dame Blanche
February 6, 2019

After deciding that the heroine of my newest historical mystery series—Verity Kent—had worked in the foreign division of the British Secret Service during the Great War, it wasn’t long before I determined I also wanted her to have served in some capacity abroad, perhaps even behind enemy lines. Uncovering exactly what role I wanted her to play as a field agent was the trickier part, particularly as I wanted it to be realistic. But it was as I was perusing the history section of MI6—British Secret Intelligence Service’s website—that I stumbled upon my answer. There, listed among its achievements during the First World War, was a brief mention of a spy network called La Dame Blanche. This immediately piqued by curiosity, and I went in search of more information.

La Dame Blanche was an intelligence gathering network at work in German-occupied Belgium and northeastern France during the latter years of the Great War. The network derived its name from the legend of the White Lady whose appearance was supposed to herald the downfall of the Hohenzollern dynasty—a dynasty which the German Kaiser was part of. In order to better assist the Allied forces, the group elected to attach itself to the British War Office, so they could pass along the information they gathered.

La Dame Blanche utilized citizens of all ages and social classes, from the elderly to young children working in concert with their parents to furtively record information about German troop and equipment movements in their homes along the rail-lines, all under the enemies’ watchful eyes. Midwives used their abilities to travel great distances at odd hours to act as couriers of the network’s reports. Nuns from convents where wounded German soldiers were being treated passed on information they gleaned from their patients.

Members of La Dame Blanche were militarized and brilliantly organized, keeping companies and battalions as separate from each other as possible, so that if one were caught by the German Secret Police, the rest of the network would not be compromised. And while it may have been conceived and established by three men, the group also employed thousands of women as well as men. The leaders understood that in such an endeavor there was no space for niceties or concerns over gentility and gender roles. The dangers of war affected everyone, and the best person for the job must be tasked with it. As such, women were often used to an advantage, exploiting the fact that the enemy often dismissed them as harmless. They also held leadership positions, outranking the men who served beneath them.

Given these facts, it was easy to see Verity working as an attachment and a liaison to La Dame Blanche when it became necessary for her assignments to send her into the German-occupied territories. Those tasks which send her under the electrified fence separating Belgium from neutral Holland are the most treacherous she must undertake, though not more precarious than the reality of the woman who are forced to coexist side-by-side with the enemy endure every day.

In researching the network, I was fortunate enough to stumble across the books written by Captain Henry Landau. He was placed in charge of the military section of the Secret Service’s Rotterdam Station in 1916, which included coordination of all intelligence-gathering inside the German-occupied territories. His writings gave invaluable insight into how La Dame Blanche worked, and shared fascinating anecdotes about the network’s daring undertakings. I was also assisted in crafting Verity’s war experiences by tales of the exploits of other female spies at work in the German-occupied territories earlier in the war, namely Gabrielle Petit and Louise de Bettignies. While La Dame Blanche proved to be the most successful intelligence gathering network in the latter years of the war—collecting what one officer estimated to be more than 75% of the intelligence gathered from behind enemy lines—de Bettignies organized the most successful network during the early part of the war before being captured by the Germans and imprisoned in late 1915.

By 1918, La Dame Blanche was such a well-oiled machine that almost daily reports were being smuggled across northeastern France and Belgium over the frontier into Holland, all under the eyes of the enemy. Very few members were ever caught, and the safeguards put in place kept the remainder of the network safe from suspicion. Fiercely patriotic, La Dame Blanche agents saw themselves less as spies and more as resistors to the German occupation. Resistors who would have to reassemble their network but two decades later into the Clarence Network in order to resist the Germans again, this time in the forms of the Nazis, at the outbreak of the Second World War.

Before beginning my research, I knew nothing about the existence of these incredibly brilliant and tenacious men and women who resisted their enemy oppressors despite incredible hardships and near starvation. It was because of their bravery and efficiency that I chose to attach my heroine, Verity, to La Dame Blanche near the end of the war. We owe them much.

 

This article was first published at Between the Chapters.



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