Not all the First World War’s stories of courage and sacrifice took place amidst the blood and horrors of the trenches. Some were hidden away in little villages and quiet towns of Northern France – villages and towns occupied by German troops.
Trooper Patrick Fowler’s war ended on Wednesday, 26 August 1914 – and his long struggle for survival behind German lines began. A struggle that lasted until October 1918 and his safe return to his family in Devizes.
He spent many, many months of those four years sitting in a cramped and dark cupboard in the living room of a small house in a village that was surrounded by cornfields, small woods – and railway lines.
Fowler had been born and brought up in Ireland. He joined the British army when he was a labourer aged 19 – enlisting in the 5th Royal Dublin Fusiliers. In 1914 he was 38 and a seasoned member of the 11th (Prince Albert’s Own) Hussars and had served abroad – in India and Egypt.
His cavalry regiment had left its Aldershot barracks on 15 August 1914 for the short journey over the Channel to meet the retreating British Expeditionary Force and join the desperate Battle of Le Cateau. As Fowler’s troop picked their way across a railway junction, they came under friendly artillery fire and were scattered.
His troop commander was Lieutenant Frederick Drake – a name to remember. He and another trooper decided to risk all and start out immediately in a bid to get back to England – they succeeded.
Patrick and Corporal Bert Hull chose to wait. During autumn and early winter they hid in woods and stole and scavenged food. They were then taken in by separate families in the village of Bertry.
Any enemy soldier hiding in German occupied France was liable to be tried by a militarty court and shot – as was anyone who hid enemy soldiers.
Madame Belmont-Gobert and her 19 year-old daughter Angèle took Patrick into their home at rue de 11 Novembre. In the living room they made a hiding place in the armoire – a two-door cupboard they knew as a ‘buffet’ or, in the local patois, an ‘amare’.
They kept one door shut and piled up food and linen on the shelves in the other half so it looked as though the whole cupboard was full.
Just try to imagine keeping still and silent for hours at a time. Once when an inquisitive visitor’s inquisitive dog took too much interest in the cupboard, Madame blamed mice and Fowler poked a hat-pin through a crack in the door to repel the dog.
And then imagine keeping still and silent through the night when German soldiers were billeted upstairs, a few feet above his head, or when German officers marched into the living room demanding food.
Meanwhile at home in England Patrick’ wife Edith despaired of ever seeing her Patrick again and moved with their two daughters back to Devizes, into her parents’ home near the canal.
On Christmas Eve 1915, the War Office told her that Trooper Fowler was considered to be dead – Army Form “B” 2090C said so. And shortly after she received notification that she was now a ‘War Widow’.
Some months later an officer she knew slightly – Patrick had been his regimental servant – said it was now known that Trooper Fowler had been killed in August 1914 four miles south of Cambrai. The fog of war can leave nasty trails of phoney certainty behind it.
In occupied France it got so dangerous for Fowler that for several months he was moved to an underground grain store at a lonely barn on the village outskirts. Once he was back in the Belmont-Gobert home, the Germans decided to requisition the house.
The family transported the cupboard to Madame and Angèle’s new, smaller house – with Fowler inside it.
Earlier, during his first year in Bertry, Fowler had become so lonely and fearful that he insisted on making a risky night-time visit to Hull’s hiding place in the roof space of the Cardon family home.
Soon afterwards, Hull was betrayed. A neighbour of the Cardons, Madame Tournay sold information about Hull to Irma Ferlicot who wanted to win favours from German officers. To this day she is known in Bertry as “la mauvaise française”. (After the war both women were tried and imprisoned – details of their trials are still closed.)
Hull was tried and brutally put to death – though the exact circumstances remain unclear.
The Cardon family was ruined. Gustave escaped – a wanted man. Living rough left him sick and unstable of mind. His wife Marie Louise’s death sentence was eventually reduced to 20 years hard labour in Germany. Their three children were as good as orphaned.
The National Archives at Kew still hold a letter from Gustave (dated 17 November 1918 and presumably written by a friendly priest or school teacher) to the British Foreign Secretary telling the story of ‘Herbert Hulle’ and begging the Foreign Secretary to get his wife out of the prison in Germany.
In case the British Foreign Office needed to check his story, he even told the Foreign Secretary in which French prisons the two women who betrayed Hull were being held.
Gustave died soon after the war – a broken man.
Despite the amazing bravery of Madame, Angèle and carefully selected members of their wider family, Fowler’s condition worsened seriously. They watched their ‘Patris’ carefully and worried as his health suffered from poor food and little of it, no exercise, too much sitting, too little sleep and extreme stress.
Then Dr Eloire, who had been privy to the Belmont-Gobert’s secret and was treating Fowler’s ailments, was deported from Bertry by the Germans – on the thinnest of grounds.
However, Fowler did survive. By the beginning of 1918 his skin was almost translucent, his eyes sunken and he was dangerously thin. His hair had turned white and was far from the required cavalry shape. He was weakened in body in and mind.
When Bertry was finally liberated by Allied troops on 9 October 1918, he rushed out of his hiding place looking wild and weird and shouting dementedly. A South African officer thought he was a spy and ordered him to be taken away and shot.
Across the road a group of officers stood chatting. Among them Fowler recognised a face. There stood Major (now) Frederick Drake who vouched for his fellow Hussar and Fowler was saved again.
The odds on an officer like Drake even surviving so many years of that dreadful war were extraordinarily long. The odds on Fowler’s troop commander standing outside his hiding place at that vital moment were astronomical. It was a coincidence you usually find in fiction.
On Friday, 1 November Fowler arrived home to his wife Edith, two daughters and a hastily arranged reception ceremony at Devizes railway station.
Extraordinarily, he was then told to leave his family in Devizes and was sent back to the British Expeditionary Force in France and then made to serve as a steward in the officers’ mess. His army record stated the matter somewhat bluntly: “Rejoined Regiment from Missing/Dead List.”
When he was finally allowed to end his 23 years service and leave the army, a former Adjutant of the 11 Hussars, Major the Honourable Robert Bruce gave the Fowlers a house on his Morayshire estate and Patrick became an estate worker and forester.
Fowler found it difficult enough to readjust and regain his mental and physical health. Worse was to come. Edith had their third daughter in February 1920 – she was named Norah Angèle.
But before Norah was a year old, Edith died in hospital of septicaemia. Like the Cardons and so many other families in war torn Europe, Patrick Fowler’s family was shattered.
Seven years later, the stories of Fowler and Hull surfaced again. It was learned that the French women who had risked so much in Bertry had been reduced to penury. Funds were launched and the owner of the Daily Telegraph, Lord Burnham, took up their case and his paper ran a series of long articles in February 1927.
The Daily Telegraph’s fund received £2 sent from Morayshire by ‘P.F.’ and by the end of February, that fund had reached £1,500 – over £80,000 in today’s money.
Madame Belmont-Gobert was awarded the OBE and Angèle the MBE – in versions appropriate for non-British subjects.
Lord Burnham arranged for the women to come to London where they were feted by the Lord Mayor, received thanks for their bravery and later visited the King and Queen at Windsor Castle.
Four women came on the visit – the three women from Bertry: Madame Belmont-Gobert, her daughter Angèle (now a married woman – Madame Lesur) and Madame Cardon. The fourth was Madame Julie Célestine Baudhuin from Le Cateau.
A young and wounded soldier, Private David Cruickshank – of 1st Battalion The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) – was taken in by the Baudhuin family. Julie Baudhuin probably saw him as a replacement for her son Jules who had joined up and was feared killed.
She believed the only way to keep him safe was to dress him as a young girl. Young women never aroused suspicion as they walked round the town, but any young man should have been in uniform and would be accosted or even arrested as a spy.
Aimée Olivier, a friend of the Baudhuin children, taught David how to dress and to walk like a girl. They fell in love. Maybe because he then rejected the advances of another woman in Le Cateau, Cruickshank too was betrayed.
He and Madame Baudhin were tried by the German army. Only her pleas to the court saved him from being shot. They both spent years in prison. When he was released he returned to Le Cateau, married Aimée and took her first to Paris and then to Britain – finally settling in Stroud. They had two children.
After the war, Fowler would never speak of Cruickshank. It is not clear whether that was because of his marriage or the rumour that the Scot had left his regiment and sought a hiding place rather too soon or for some other and more complex reason.
When the four Frenchwomen – all dressed in peasant black – came to London newspapers ran stories under such headlines as “Four years in a French wardrobe – Trooper’s own story – wonderful escapes.”
Aside from the well-merited eulogies to the four women, the Mansion House ceremony was marked by one sad and poignant moment.
Bert Hull’s father Samuel attended the ceremony. When he came, under the watchful eyes of so many very important personages, the mayors of Le Cateau and Bertry, the French ambassador and the press, to meet and thank Marie Louise Cardon for all she had done and suffered for his son, he found himself unable to speak. So he fell to his knees and kissed her feet.
He had lost his son in tragic, murky circumstances he did not comprehend. He had failed to get the German General Nieber (Kommandant of Caudry when Bert Hull was tried and killed there) onto the ‘black list’ of potential German war criminals. Despite Fowler being called to London to give evidence and however flawed the war crimes trials in Leipzig turned out to be, his family had received no redress. And he had lost his wife.
Sarah Hull had died a few days before the ceremony. Terribly scarred by the loss of Bert, she had been admitted to Severalls Mental Hospital in Colchester on 16 March 1927 and died there nine days later aged 57 – her death certificate included the dread words ‘confusional insanity’.
The details of her death were unknown to those at the Mansion House ceremony on Friday, 8 April 1927. Though one newspaper thought it could indulge in some Fleet Street embroidery: “…when told that her son’s benefactress was coming to London, her joy was too great, and she fell back dead.”
Sarah Hull’s death was directly attributable to the fate her son suffered. No wonder Samuel Hull was speechless when he came face to face with Madame Cardon and her fellow ‘femmes héroiques’.
Patrick Fowler died in 1964 aged 87. He is buried in Cluny Hill Cemetery, Forres – alongside his wife and one of their elder daughters.
Bert Hull’s grave is in Caudry’s Old Communal Cemetery – the town’s British Commonwealth cemetery commemorates the deaths of 700 servicemen.
Madame Belmont-Gobert died in 1948 – the headstone of her grave in Bertry’s cemetery proudly bears a replica of her O.B.E.
Aimée Cruickshank died in 1964 and David, who, it is said, never got over her death, died in 1973.
The cupboard in which Trooper Fowler was hidden is still on display at the Hussars’ museum in Winchester. The Daily Telegraph bought it from Madame Belmont-Gobert for 6,185 francs (then about £50) so it could be a central attraction at the Mansion House ceremony.
It was later given to the Imperial War Museum who loan it to HorsePower – the museum of the King’s Royal Hussars at Peninsular Barracks, Romsey Road, Winchester, SO23 8TS.
The museum is open Tuesday-Saturday 10am to 12.45pm and 1.15pm to 4pm; Sundays noon to 4pm. But telephone first – since the Ministry of Defence cuts, it is now run by volunteers: 01962 828539.