Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Book Review: "An English Governess in the Great War: The Secret Brussels Diary of Mary Thorp"

I have commemorated the First World War for as long as I can remember because Grandfather was an Old Contemptible, but I never realised before reading this book how awful life was for those trapped in the occupied areas of Belgium and France.   I knew about the many Belgians who took refuge in Britain during WW1 but this book is a real eye-opener about the situation of those who were unable to flee.

The diary, which spans the period September 1916 to January 1919, was left as “an anonymous woman’s diary” with the “In Flanders Fields Museum” in Ypres in Belgium in 1989.  American historians De Schaepdrijver and Proctor, who edited the diaries, managed to find valuable clues in the diary as to the identity of the writer of the clandestine diary during such a dangerous time.  Their background research is fascinating.

Mary Thorpe was born in Marylebone, London, UK, on 1st January  1864, the first child of Thomas Thorpe, a horse-drawn carriage driver, and his wife Annette, nee Townshend.   Like my own Great-Grandfather, Thomas had married his deceased wife’s sister at a time when that was forbidden by the Church, according to the Deceased Wife’s Sister Act of 1835.   The family went to live in Belgium in 1873.   Mary went to America in 1881 to visit family and in 1887 began working as a governess.

In 1910, Mary started work as a governess for a wealthy family who lived in Brussels – Paul Wittouck, a sugar refinery owner, and his wife Catherine de Medem, a Russian aristocrat.  The Wittoucks had three sons who needed “… the firm guidance that only an English governess with a command of the French language could give”.  The Wittouck family also owned a house called ‘La Fougeraie’ in the Brussels suburb of Uccle, where they spent the holiday period, taking Mary with them.

With the threat of war, Mary elected to remain with the family in Belgium and in September 1916, she began keeping a diary of her war-time experiences.  In spite of the privations of food, coal, clothes, etc. – tea was particularly hard to come by and expensive - and the restrictions in communication with the outside world, Mary remained positive and never gave up hope that Britain would win through.   Mary had a nephew – Dick Dodson – who was interned in the camp at Ruhleben in Germany and occasionally managed to get parcels of food sent to him and to receive letters from him.

But the diary does not only contain information about the day-to-day problems of those living under German occupation, the Wittouck family were important members of Brussels society and entertained VIPs such as American diplomats who remained in Brussels until just prior to America’s entry into the conflict in April 1917.  You will also find interesting information gleaned during the entertainment of such visitors. I did not realise that the British had “mounted a “coup d’Etat” to dethrone the Czar” (p. 184) prior to the Russian Revolution.

Among the photographs reproduced in the book is a map that clearly marks the German occupied area of Belgium and shows the line of the Western Front.   I was interested to read that Mary referred not to tanks but ‘cistern Land dreadnoughts’  and to discover that Belgian men who were out of work were sent to Germany for forced labour and many died as a result of harsh treatment.    As the war progressed, so did the rationing and the requisitioning of all metal such as cooking utensils which were sent to German to make guns.   At one point even people’s mattresses, which at that time were filled with wool, were taken away and sent to Germany (p. 185). 

With frequent house searches by German soldiers, it was difficult to hide anything and the danger involved in trying to smuggle messages or letters to other parts of Belgium is highlighted on page 47 where we learn that Madame Wittouck “spent a night in prison in Liège for her intent to carry two personal letters from Vielsalm (a small town south-east of Liège) to Brussels.”

The diary contains fascinating insights as to the progress of the war – the guns could be heard in Brussels and planes and Zeppelins were frequently overhead – as well as everyday details of life at that time.   The German authorities at one point closed down schools.  The only newspapers permitted were the neutral Dutch ones and those published under the direction of the Germans.   The Belgian authorities banned skating on frozen ponds in public places because the Germans would take photographs and films to demonstrate to the world that they were on friendly terms with the Belgians.   I was also interested to read that the Germans, with a ‘divide and rule’ tactic, encouraged the differences between the French and Flemish Belgians.

After the Armistice in November 1918, Mary was able to visit some English soldiers in a local hospital and was shocked to find the awful conditions they had to endure – “no care, no nursing, next to no food, dirt & squalor…”.   In the Epilogue is mention of a letter sent to Mary by one of the soldiers she visited.   Mary remained in Belgium, where she died on 2nd December 1945.     

This book is definitely required reading for anyone seriously interested in the history of the First World War.

“An English Governess in the Great War:  The Secret Brussels Diary of Mary Thorp” Edited by Sophie De Schaepdrijver and Tammy M. Proctor (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2017) £25.00 available from Amazon or the Oxford University Press Website http://global.oup.com/?cc=gb

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