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Schoolteacher Louise Thuliez Became a Key Resistance Fighter in 2 World Wars

Driven to help, Louise Thuliez aided underground networks in France despite facing an all-too-real threat of execution.

Louise Thuliez in front of jail bars
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  • Photo Credit: Public Domain

Louise Thuliez’s story is a truly remarkable one. There were many who performed resistance work in World War I or World War II, but far fewer were active in both conflicts. Louise Thuliez was one of them. 

Despite having been caught, condemned to death, and narrowly escaping a German firing squad during World War I, Thuliez volunteered again in World War II. The risks were high during World War I were undoubtedly high. Known internationally for her previous activities, the risks second time around were even higher.

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Born in December 1881, she somehow survived until October 1966, dying in Paris as an award-winning writer. In both wars, she helped run an underground railroad helping escapers return to England via neutral territory. After two World Wars and a death sentence, she had helped defeat both Kaiser Wilhelm II and Adolf Hitler and somehow remained alive. At times she probably wondered how.

When war first came, Thuliez had been working as a schoolteacher in Lille. While holidaying in the Belgian town of Saint-Wast de Vallee, she signed up to work with the Red Cross—but was denied a slot. Asking her brother, a priest, for assistance finding a place to use her skills to assist the war effort, she was rebuffed once more.

Driven by her belief that she must help in some manner, Thuliez became a leading member of the escape network run by British nurse Edith Cavell. Cavell’s group also included Phillippe Baucq and Princess Marie of Croy and existed to help Allied escapers and military-age civilians escape occupied areas into neutral Holland. Princess Marie’s network codenamed ‘Yorc’ (‘Croy’ backwards) soon merged with Cavell’s.

Related: The Women Who Volunteered to Make Doughnuts on the Front Lines of World War I

Her main functions were those of a nurse during the day and guide by night. Thuliez regularly finished long days only to spend her nights escorting would-be escapers from Baucq’s safe houses to Cavell’s hospital. If the hospital was full or German patrols too numerous, Thuliez found them other places until escape could be arranged. 

It was dangerous work especially with enemy occupation, a nightly curfew, and soldiers patrolling the area. The greatest threat of all was betrayal either by a group member, accomplice or infiltrator. With so many people vanishing from Cavell’s hospital and the network’s security so easily compromised, it was only a matter of time until something went wrong. 

Louise Thuliez's book, Condemned to Death
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  • The frontispiece of Thuliez's 1935 memoir.

    Photo Credit: Biblio

On July 31, 1915, French collaborator Gaston Quien infiltrated the network posing as a refugee. The next day, over 30 staff members were arrested including Cavell, Baucq, the Countess Jeanne de Belleville, Severin, and Princess Marie. Thuliez was the first member arrested and she already knew her likely fate. As a non-combatant, Thuliez was not protected by the Geneva Convention or international law. If the occupiers wanted to shoot her, they could—and she knew it.

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A military tribunal condemned Cavell, Baucq, Thuliez, Albert Libiez, Louis Severin, and Countess Jeanne de Belleville on October 7, 1915. Accomplice Francois Vandievoet was acquitted. Princess Marie received 10 years hard labor, pleading for clemency for her comrades having narrowly escaped a death sentence herself. She would work with Thuliez again during World War II, but remained imprisoned until November 13, 1918. The Kaiser himself offered to free her but she refused any preferential treatment.

On the morning of October 12, 1915, Cavell and Baucq were shot and buried at the Tir Nationale rifle range outside Brussels. Both died bravely, their courage impressing even their executioners. Their executions, especially Cavell’s, did not impress foreign press and politicians. Thuliez and the others just had to wait their turn, their fates undecided and their outlook extremely bleak. They were unaware of the backlash—or the fact that their circumstances were about to improve drastically.

Cavell’s execution saw senior diplomats, politicians, and even monarchs pressure the Kaiser to show mercy, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and Pope Benedict XV among them. A clemency plea from King Alfonso XIII of Spain saw Thuliez’s death sentence commuted to life imprisonment. The executions had been entirely legal under international law at the time, but world opinion had hardened significantly as a result. Thuliez, next in line for execution and as active a resister as any, was spared.

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Libiez, Severin and de Belleville were equally fortunate, though Thuliez’s new home was a particularly foul one. Like most French prisons, Cambrai doled out poor food, bad conditions, hard labor, and harsh punishment for rule-breakers. A transfer to Siegfeld Prison within Germany itself was no better. Thuliez had been spared execution only to endure prisons where inmates regularly died. Thuliez herself did well to survive.

On November 11, 1918 the guns fell silent. World War I was finally over. Thuliez had been imprisoned until November 8, 1918, being released just in time to celebrate peace. Thuliez’s visit to Death Row and the First World War were now behind her. Informer Gaston Quien’s prison sentence was about to begin. 

Arrested shortly after the Armistice, Quien was exposed to the French authorities by British intelligence investigating Cavell’s case. They had not saved Cavell, but did quietly avenge her. Tried for treason in 1919, Quien’s death sentence was commuted to 20 years. He was released in 1936. Petty thief Quien was already in prison when the Germans recruited him.  

louise thuliez
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  • Thuliez receives an accolade from French General Maxime Weygand.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In 1935, Thuliez published her memoir Condemned to Death, a critically acclaimed best-seller earning the prestigious Montyon Prize. Awarded annually by the Academie Francaise, French Academy of Sciences and Academie Nationale de Medicine, there are prizes in several categories. Thuliez received one for the book which, to the awards committee, rendered the greatest service to humanity that year. 

By this time, there were already ominous rumblings of another World War. Beginning in 1939, Thuliez again worked with Princess Marie, this time helping run an escape line through the Auvergne region. Princess Marie was caught, tortured and condemned although her death sentence was commuted. Thuliez was luckier, as she managed to avoided the Gestapo during World War II.

Related: Meet the French Resistance

Living through yet another world conflict without coming to lasting harm, Thuliez seems to have settled into a quiet life after the close of WWII. Few records about her exist after 1945.

Louise Thuliez died in Paris on October 10, 1966, nearly 50 years after Cavell’s execution. Her birthplace of Preux-au-Bois honored her with a statue in 1970. In 1974, a street in Paris, the Rue de Louise Thuliez, was also named for her. Though never as famous as her comrade Edith Cavell, Thuliez remains one of the bravest resisters to operate in both World Wars.