The lollards at the Times make it incredibly complicated to access their articles online, so here’s a repost from their review of Janet’s book in the weekly edition.
The review from the Sunday edition doesn’t seem to be online :/.
Robert Bruce had little idea what his father had done in the First World War until he stumbled across classified papers, hidden in a chest of drawers, that revealed the existence of a little-known allied spy network
WHEN ROBERT BRUCE and his wife Janet Morgan (otherwise known as Lord and Lady Balfour of Burleigh) decided to open the narrow Victorian chest of drawers that had stood for years in the study of the family home in Clackmannanshire they had only the slightest inkling of what they might find inside.
The handsome piece of furniture, known as a Wellington chest, had a slim wooden panel that folds over the drawers and locks them immovably in place. It had once belonged to Robert’s father George Bruce, who died in 1967. Since then the key had been lost amid the flotsam of a house removal, and Robert did not want to ruin the piece by forcing the panel with a crowbar.
It was not until the Easter holidays of 1995 that Robert and Jane finally gathered together more than 200 possible keys and began trying them one by one. “And it was extraordinary,” says Robert. “Because the thing opened with only the third key we tried. We took that to be a very good omen indeed.”
Out of the Wellington chest tumbled an extraordinary story, lost for almost 80 years. In a series of slim paper files filled with War Office documents ” densely scrawled letters, diagrams, makeshift code books and maps ” existed a full account of a little-known First World War spy network established by Captain George Bruce in 1917, and managed by a 49-year-old housewife from occupied Luxembourg named Lise Rischard.
On top of the papers lay a photograph of a man called Albert Baschwitz Meau, his hooded eyelids and slick moustache the very image of a slippery secret agent, whom Robert remembered visiting his father in London during the late 1930s.
“We saw the picture of Baschwitz and the file labelled Codes and we both sort of gasped with shock,” says Janet. “But to begin with, of course, we had no idea what all these papers really meant.”
Over the next eight years they devoted every minute of their spare time to unravelling the story. Janet, an experienced researcher and biographer, spent hours deciphering the complex code used by Madame Rischard and her British employers, who wrote to each other across enemy lines under the guise of a well-heeled set of French-speaking female relatives.
Mme Rischard’s job was to recruit agents to observe railway trains carrying German troops and weapons to the Western Front. Using her information and that gathered farther along the line, the Allies could trace the German order of battle and know when and where to expect an attack.
Chosen because she was an extremely unlikely candidate for an Allied network chief, she was trained at great length by George Bruce and his colleagues to identify enemy regiments, uniforms and types of weapon and rolling stock. Later, as her group of agents grew, she hired the services of a local journalist to plant coded intelligence in a provincial Luxembourg newspaper.
Later still, Bruce decided to send Baschwitz Meau, a Belgian sous-lieutenant who had escaped from a German prisoner-of-war camp, into Luxembourg to extend the network farther.
“Every time I dug a bit deeper I seemed to stub my toe on another remarkable character and another amazing adventure,” says Jane. “Baschwitz Meau was a magical sort of man.”
Getting into Luxembourg by conventional means was impossible for someone like Baschwitz, so instead the British sent him over the French border in a hot-air balloon ” at night, with no means of steering and in a gently changing wind that might easily have blown him into Germany. “It was an extraordinarily heroic and quite mad thing to do. And it was amazing that it worked,” says Janet.
“Nobody but a lunatic would go up in a balloon in the dark near enemy lines,” says Robert, who remembers his father talking about Baschwitz and his balloon.
Before the war, having failed the Foreign Office French oral exam by six points, the tall, aristocratic George Bruce worked in various commercial ventures, but found none of them particularly exciting. “And then the war happened when he was in his early 30s and this intelligence work came along,” says Robert, who is now 77 and officially retired from his various jobs in business, which have included being deputy governor of the Bank of Scotland.
“I suspect if I’d asked Dad in his old age what was the most important thing he ever did, he’d have said it was that.”
But hardly anyone did ask George Bruce about his life as a secret agent. Nor did the six Bruce children question their remarkable mother Dorothy (nÃ©e Done), who was his secretary in the secret British Intelligence office on the Rue St Roch in Paris, from which the Luxembourg network was run.
Dorothy Done had led a much more exciting prewar life than her future husband. Her parents liked to travel, and on one expedition became acquainted with the famous French tragedienne Gabrielle Reju, who wanted an English companion for her daughter Germaine. Dorothy was plucked from rural Cheshire and set down in 1900s Paris, where she met Proust, Cocteau and Lautrec, and quickly learned the fashions and habits of the bohemian Parisienne.
“It’s the most maddening thing,” says Robert. “I’d visit my parents in London and we”d chat, of course, but I never thought of sitting them down and saying: “Now tell me all about what happened to you.” My father would have told me factual things but my mother would have told me how awful this person was in the Paris office, and how terribly delightful this other person was.”
Armed with the papers and maps from the Wellington chest, and with a vague idea of writing a book about the Bruce-Rischard-Baschwitz network, Janet began to trawl the archives, interview experts and search for relatives of the Luxembourg trainspotters, squeezing the sleuthing in between her commitments as a director of high-profile companies, including WH Smith.
At times she and Robert felt as though they were in a film, pacing the streets of the tiny duchy, knocking on strangers’ doors. Most helpful was the nephew of Mme Rischard, Charles Edouard, who at 85 had been “just waiting to tell Lise”s story”.
“People told us how important this was to Luxembourg,” says Robert. “It’s commonly thought that the Germans walked into the country in the morning and had the job done by teatime, and that they kept the people in total subjection throughout the war. But in fact there were people, like Mme Rischard, who did put up a resistance, and at great personal risk.”
But why did Mme Rischard do it? Stranded in Paris in 1917, she needed the help of the British to get back to her husband in occupied territory â€“ but this does not fully explain her motives for undertaking such dangerous work. Had the Germans discovered her, she would have been imprisoned at the very least, and possibly shot.
“We’ve thought about this question a lot,” says Janet. “A lot of people don’t like being bullied, and I think that’s sometimes the trigger that makes them take this kind of step. No one knows how brave they will be or how they will respond to a moral dilemma until they are asked to do it.”
Unsurprisingly, Lise Rischard was changed by her work during the war. “She went back to her life as a housewife, but running the network had made her realise exactly what she could do beyond that,” says Janet.
Robert adds: “A lot of women like Mme Rischard were lit up by the war. They suddenly realised the huge satisfaction in doing something really useful.” His mother, Dorothy, was one such woman. She became an ardent feminist. Robert has a snip of old cine film in which she can be seen sitting in a chair reading the Socialist Worker avidly.
It is difficult to know exactly how important the Luxembourg network was in the context of the Allied effort as a whole. The Rischard ring of agents is mentioned just once elsewhere, in a report compiled at the end of the war by Colonel Reginald Drake, an intelligence officer who headed the Paris office, and who describes the network as the best train-watching service there was.
In the months leading up to the mighty German spring offensive of 1918, report after report was secretly filed from Luxembourg to Paris and forwarded to Allied GHQ. On occasion telegrams came back marking the intelligence as “useful”.
“Drake’s report singles out the Luxembourg operation as one of the most successful pieces of intelligence work known to him,” says Janet.
“But the point is, as we have been reminded recently (by the Butler Report), what’s terribly important is to have a reliable stream of regular intelligence coming through that can then be used to confirm other sources.
“Intelligence like this is very pointilliste, forming part of an overall pattern…the observation of trains in Luxembourg, for example, was able to give early warning of the arrival from the Eastern Front of certain tough German regiments that could then be confirmed later down the line.”
But a measurable level of success is only part of the story, says Robert.
“There will be historians out there who will have views on whether it was useful,” he says. “But to us it’s just as much a story about bravery and about the difficult moral choices that ordinary people have to make.”
Several mysteries remain. Despite writing to every Baschwitz they could find, the Balfours have been unable to trace any descendants of Baschwitz Meau. They fear that, because of his Jewish ancestry, he may have been sent to a concentration camp by the Nazis.
Equally baffling are the reasons why George Bruce chose to secrete those papers away in the old Wellington chest, rather than destroy them as he was surely instructed to do.
“It’s something I’ve spent ages thinking about,” says Robert. “He was a very law-abiding person and the idea of him doing something like this is strange. In the end, I think it was such a terrific episode in his life that when it was over, although it was a great relief, everything afterwards was something of an anticlimax. It was a gem of an experience for him, and I think he just had to keep the evidence of it.
“So he packed it up and brought it back, and went off to work in the City. And for years and years none of us knew it was here, right beneath our noses.”
The Secrets of Rue St Roch, by Janet Morgan, is published by Allen Lane, Â£18.99.