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World War Two's Darling Spy
By Penny Starns
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Penny Starns
All rights reserved.
Europe during the late nineteenth century was characterised by rapid industrialisation, wars of unification, a quest for colonial expansion, newly emerging ideologies such as nationalism and socialism, and a steadily increasing population. Epidemics were rife, and scientific discoveries and Darwin's theory of evolution had prompted an almost obsessive preoccupation with the health and fitness of individual nations. Due to a fundamental misapplication of evolutionary theory, colonial conquest, wars and disease were all viewed as part of an essential global struggle that ensured the survival of the strongest of human races. Some scientists even believed that wars were vital because they supposedly acted as a purification process that eliminated inferior beings. By the turn of the century, nationalism had usurped both liberalism and socialism to become the dominant ideology across the continent, and nations forged a system of alliances in preparation for war. The German economy grew rapidly stronger, and fuelled by intense waves of nationalism the Kaiser embarked on a policy of Welpolitik in order to gain colonies for his country. An Anglo-German naval arms race began, and France became England's closest political ally. Events in Russia and Serbia also contributed to the increasing tension. Thus, by the time Odette Marie Celine Brailly made her entry into the world, in Amiens on 28 April 1912, a tumultuous Europe was already preparing for a major conflict. Her father Gaston Brailly had been secretly wishing for a son, but he quickly became besotted with his first-born child. Odette resembled her mother Yvonne, and was a very attractive baby, with deep brown eyes and fine curly hair. Gaston did not have to wait long for his secret wish to be granted, as Odette's brother Louis was born barely a year later.
The siblings were emotionally very close, despite the fact that their temperaments were as different as chalk and cheese. They were also reasonably obedient children, perhaps because the whole family were strict Catholics. Their mother Yvonne was a young, slender, petite woman with deep-set brown eyes and angular features. By nature she was reserved and painfully shy. In contrast, their father Gaston was, by all accounts, a proud, intelligent but volatile man with a finely tuned sense of justice. He had worked tirelessly in a tedious but secure position in a local bank until the First World War broke out in 1914. Then, like many of his fellow countrymen, he volunteered for military service. His innate intelligence and character ensured that he was often extremely critical of his superior officers, and of French military strategy. Consequently his commanders regarded him as subversive and potentially mutinous. Although his superiors in the 52nd Regiment of Infantry undoubtedly regarded him as a disruptive influence, his military career was littered with numerous exploits of extreme courage. Indeed, Sergeant Gaston Brailly died a hero. During the battle of Verdun two of his soldiers went missing; refusing to continue to a safe position without them, he went back to the front line. He eventually discovered them lying in agony, groaning from the pain that had been inflicted upon them by their severe wounds. But, as he attempted to drag the men back to the safety of their platoon, they received a direct hit from a shell that claimed the lives of all three. Gaston was killed just thirty days before the Armistice of 11 November 1918, and was duly awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille Militaire for his courage on the field of battle. His young wife Yvonne was left to bring up Odette and Louis alone.
Lest they forget their father and his sense of heroic duty to France and his comrades, both children were taken to Gaston's graveside in La Madeline cemetery every Sunday by their paternal grandparents. Neither of the latter believed that the Armistice marked the end of a war to end all wars. In fact, both of these staunch Picardy folk firmly expected the Germans to initiate another world war during their lifetimes, despite political optimism to the contrary and the presence of a newly formed League of Nations. They constantly reminded their grandchildren of the handsome, eager French soldiers who had departed for war full of youth and vigour, only to be returned to their homes dismembered, disfigured and disillusioned. Too many fathers, sons, husbands and brothers had been taken to early graves by the prolonged and utterly miserable conflict. Others, they said, were physically, emotionally and psychologically damaged beyond repair; men whose permanent, silent and catatonic expressions were only broken by intermittent screams of terror as they were momentarily transported to the horrors of the battlefield. Those who were not obviously suffering from shell shock or dismemberment often bore the deep but invisible scars of chemical warfare. These unseen lesions on the lungs killed them slowly and painfully, a long time after the hostilities of the First World War had ceased. As Odette recalled, she and her brother were never allowed to forget these men who had given so much for France and the world.
My family had always lived on the battlefields of war. I was brought up with the image of my father who had been a very brave man. Every Sunday after church I was taken with my brother to his grave. My grandfather used to say, 'in another twenty years there will be another war and it will be your duty, both of you, to do as well as your father did.' Of course, I listened to this for years. I was always brought up with a sense of duty. I was not war minded, but the seed was there, that like my father, when the time came, I had to do what I could.
On Christmas Day 1918 a picture of Gaston smiling in his full military regalia was positioned in pride of place on the living-room mantle-piece. Festivities were quiet and reflective with occasional outbursts of tears from the subdued women and bewildered children. But with a fixed determination and a good deal of stoical inner strength it was Grandfather Brailly who successfully rallied the family to focus on the future. He had never been inclined towards the destructive emotion of self-pity and firmly believed that there was probably some rhyme or reason behind whatever life threw at him. Perhaps, he reasoned to himself in his more thoughtful moments, these challenging life events were dictated by a greater being for the education of the soul. His Catholic upbringing strongly supported this view and he saw no reason to argue with the wisdom of God. He was a meticulously clean, tall and upright gentleman of impeccable manners and kindly disposition – though he did not suffer fools gladly, and always gave the appearance of an overly strict patriarch whose authority could not be questioned. He had a fashionable well-trimmed moustache, sturdy figure, kind deep brown eyes and a sprinkling of grey hair, and he hid his sorrow well. There was no doubt in his mind that God or fate had dealt him a severe blow. But he consoled himself continually with the thought that his son was a national hero. He had died honourably trying to save the lives of others. During the wet, blustery Amiens winters, when the family huddled around the warmth of a roaring fire, he would embrace and patiently reassure his grieving wife of this fact. As the months passed and the initial pain of his loss was dulled he took quiet delight in noticing the same lopsided smile of his son flickering across the face of Odette. Then he marvelled that the serious expression and frown lines he remembered so well from the heated political discussions he had shared with Gaston were clearly visible across the furrowed brow of young Louis. There were times when his son seemed almost palpable in the idiosyncrasies of his offspring. However, both children differed dramatically in their looks and temperament.
Louis was strong, lively, outgoing and energetic, whereas Odette was an introverted, temperamental and somewhat sickly child. The moment any virus inhabited her body it seemed to stay for the duration and inflict maximum damage upon her small physique. But at least the family had managed to survive the devastating 1918 influenza pandemic that had claimed the lives of 25 million people across Europe. Throughout her childhood, Odette's immune system was considered to be weak. Indeed, many of her earlier days were spent looking out of her bedroom window from her sickbed. In addition to fighting a seemingly continual flood of minor illnesses, Odette contracted poliomyelitis at the age of seven. This condition left her totally blind for three and a half years and paralysed for over a year. Speaking of this difficult period Odette credited her grandfather for cultivating her strength of mind.
I had a wonderful grandfather who did not suffer weaklings very easily. One had to learn to endure pain and suffering. Even when I was blind he was absolutely marvellous and would never accept that I could not be as clever and as good at everything as I could be.
There was no doubt that during her prolonged periods of illness and distress Odette's grandfather was a rock of dependability. He studiously ignored her stubborn sullenness and frequent outbursts of rage because he knew that they were born of childish frustration and despair. He patiently coaxed her to play the piano and fostered her love of Chopin and Mozart. He was extremely tough with her, instantly squashing the seemingly inevitable sense of gloom and self-pity that reared its ugly head from time to time. Her grandmother was equally firm, and insisted on teaching her granddaughter to bake bread and clean the house like any other Picardy girl. Between them they encouraged her strong wilful nature, believing that her stubbornness and volatile outbursts would, in some way, offset the restrictions of her sickly physical disposition. They had also, perhaps unwittingly, nurtured Odette's own indomitable and steely determination to overcome adversity.
In the meantime, Odette's mother Yvonne diligently traipsed the streets of Amiens in the hope of finding a medical specialist and a cure for her daughter's blindness. Just when all hope seemed to be lost, an unlikely cure emerged as a result of a visit to an aged and eccentric local herbalist. Yvonne was highly dubious of the man's credentials, dressed as he was in old, grimy clothes, and displaying an unnerving habit of talking quietly and quickly to himself as he brewed his foul-smelling concoctions. He lived in a narrow back street and his standard of hygiene left a lot to be desired. Apparently, even his neighbours gave him a very wide berth when they saw him out shopping for his potions or wandering around in the woods and fields collecting his herbs. His constant muttering both alarmed and disturbed them. But Yvonne was ready to try anything by this stage.
Over the previous three years she had already paid numerous, but quite useless, visits to spanking clean medical clinics with their neatly laid-out modern equipment. They had all been inhabited by doctors with clear credentials who had displayed long arrays of letters after their names; yet with all their combined medical knowledge they had not been able to devise a cure. Thus, with a growing sense of desperation she had found herself at her wits' end and reluctantly placing her faith in a muttering old man. But once he had peered and prodded Odette several times and asked Yvonne numerous questions, he had triumphantly produced a bottle of opaque liquid. He then proceeded to issue a set of strict instructions as to the application of his 'medicine' and a stern warning not to let the light back into Odette's eyes too quickly. Yvonne had politely expressed her thanks for the consultation and had paid the man a few francs. In truth, she had very little faith in the miniature bottle of liquid she had wrapped in a handkerchief and placed in her small brown bag. There was considerable surprise and joy in the Brailly household therefore, when only two weeks after this consultation Odette was able to make out the outlines of faces and furniture. Gradually, over the following weeks and months, her sight improved. Two years later her visual clarity was restored.
Odette recounted this story of her childhood battle with poliomyelitis and blindness as accurately as she could; but it is possible that her sight may have returned without the help of the backstreet herbalist. Poliomyelitis often produced encephalopathy, which could be accompanied by blindness. Once the poliomyelitis virus had run its course the swelling in the brain eventually subsided and sight was sometimes restored. Odette's herbal treatment may simply have coincided with the time at which the swelling in her brain was subsiding naturally. Nevertheless, her 'miracle cure' resulted in an unshakeable faith in the elderly herbalist, who was successfully consulted once again some time later when Odette contracted rheumatic fever. This particular illness confined her to bed for the whole of one summer and left her extremely weak. The herbalist was able to effect a dramatic improvement in her condition by teaching her special exercises for her joints and administering a mixture of foul-smelling potions. At this point in her life her brother Louis was dispatched to school in Lycée, and, at the end of the summer when she had recovered from rheumatic fever, Odette was sent to the convent of St Thérèse.
Odette's sickly disposition was often a topic of family discussion, and the elders in the Brailly family believed the stronger air of Normandy would in some way strengthen her health and nurture her in a way that the damp climate of Amiens could not. Yvonne was inclined to agree, and in 1925 she settled in a house in Saint Sens and a year later moved to Boulogne. By the time she was fourteen, therefore, Odette was living in Boulogne with her mother. Her face and body had gained some much-needed weight and her health had indeed improved. Louis remained in school in Lycée but joined them for holidays. The siblings spent their vacation periods rock climbing, exploring the rugged coastline and watching the English tripper ships travel to and fro across the Channel.
As young children they had gradually developed affection for the English. During the First World War their home had often been occupied by wounded English soldiers. Most of these had been nursed back to health by their mother and grandmother. Odette and Louis remembered vividly that when these soldiers were fully recovered, they would bounce them on their knees, laugh and play with them. Odette in particular loved their impeccable manners and soft spoken voices.
During their summers in Boulogne brother and sister would mimic the English accents, laugh at their clothes and discuss English and French history. The siblings always remained close but Odette developed an increasing desire for solitude as she grew older. Subsequently, she began to wander the cliffs of Normandy alone and immerse herself in the peace and tranquillity of the coastal countryside. Perhaps because of her previous years of enforced blindness, changing seasons were noted with relish and keen observation. No tree in blossom, budding flower or blade of grass escaped her fond attention. It was as though her earlier period of imposed darkness had made her appreciate every subtle beauty nature had to offer. Long country walks increased her stamina and her health continued to improve dramatically. As she walked, random thoughts about creation and other deep philosophical questions drifted, undisturbed, in and out of her mind. Gradually she found herself staring out towards the silver sea more frequently, and by the time she was sixteen Odette had made up her mind that she wanted to marry an Englishman and experience what life was like on the other side of the Channel. Furthermore, being a decidedly strong-willed young girl, she informed her mother accordingly!
Yvonne Brailly took her daughter's vow to marry an Englishman in her stride, since there was certain logic in her plan if she genuinely wanted to live in England. Besides, she knew her children well and had no doubt whatsoever that her daughter would follow a path of her own choosing. Even her school reports suggested as much. As far as she could tell, the nuns had observed her daughter and recorded her character traits with a great deal of accuracy. They had noted her intelligence, sense of humour and enthusiasm for life, along with her extreme obstinacy, occasional petulance and wilful determination. All these traits were marked in her final end of year report. The nuns had also observed with a hint of amusement that she was unlikely to embark on an ecclesiastical career! Yvonne meanwhile had recognised that in addition to her scholarly prowess Odette was accomplished in the art of cooking and in needlework. Nevertheless, she did not immerse herself in domestic duties very often, preferring instead to roam the countryside every evening until darkness descended.
Excerpted from Odette by Penny Starns. Copyright © 2013 Penny Starns. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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