The Secrets of Rue St. Roch: Hope and Heroism Behind Enemy Lines in the First World War

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9780141016832: The Secrets of Rue St. Roch: Hope and Heroism Behind Enemy Lines in the First World War

Paris, 1917, and war is raging across Europe. Lise Rischard, an ordinary housewife stranded in the city, is desperate to return to her husband in Luxembourg. But her homeland is occupied by the enemy and she must pay a high price to get there: undertaking a dangerous spying mission for intelligence officer George Bruce of 41 Rue St Roch. As the fate of the war hangs in the balance, she and an intrepid group of men and women, including priest Father Cambron, schoolteacher Joseph Hansen and, above all, dashing adventurer and balloonist Albert Baschwitz Meau must risk their lives infiltrating German territory to bring vital information back to the allies

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Review:

When Janet Morgan, author of Secrets of Rue St Roch, opened Captain George Bruce’s Wellington chest, little could she have imagined the unparalleled archive of correspondence and documents related to his work recruiting and operating agents from an unmarked office on Rue St. Roch in Paris from 1917. At the end of the war, officers in the Intelligence Corps were instructed by the War Office to burn nearly all files, and it was believed that any remaining were destroyed in the Blitz. Significantly, Captain Bruce retained all documents relating to this operation. How apt then for a story about bringing crucial information back home, that it has taken detective work across Europe to allow Morgan to skilfully and compellingly reconstruct a rare full and detailed account of a First World War espionage operation from conception to completion.

Morgan has done us and those she writes about admirable service in unlocking coded secrets to recreate actions of ingenuity and bravery whilst keeping the human drama foremost. In a cast of remarkable characters, Morgan’s protagonists are two of Bruce’s most outstanding, and in at least one case, most unlikely recruits. Madame Lise Rischard was a middle-aged Luxembourg housewife who took some persuading to report on German troop and weapon movements to and from the Western Front though the pivotal train marshalling yard in Luxembourg. She was aided by the gloriously intrepid Baschwitz Meau, a Belgian soldier who sailed over enemy lines in a balloon. In a story like this, even back-stories and asides are treasures, rather than narrative formalities and it is to Morgan’s credit that she controls her material with a real sense of the rhythm of storytelling. Whilst the bones of the story in itself would impress, Morgan’s obvious engagement with these characters allows the voices of the past rise off the pages. You can almost feel the silent exhilaration of nocturnal balloon flights over enemy lines, and hear the crack and boom of the long-range guns aimed at Paris, in the contexts of blasted landscapes and mass slaughter, which reminds us of exactly what was at stake.

Secrets of Rue St Roch is a thrilling page turner as readable as Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost and William Dalrymple’s White Mughals, which opens--as do these much praised histories--a window on the past and in so doing, on the enduring nature and improvisational abilities of the human spirit in extraordinary circumstances. -- Fiona Buckland

Review:

An absorbing and meticulous account ... clear, precise and well-narrated. -- Miranda Seymour in The Sunday Times, 1 August 2004

‘Morgan’s accounts are deftly handled and seamlessly woven into her evocations of life under occupation’ -- Alan Judd, Daily Telegraph

‘Morgan’s book is not just poignant, but a means of honouring history with the gift of recognition’ -- Anne Simpson, Glasgow Herald

‘[an] engrossing spy story…a nail-biting account of the derring-do and cool courage…a rare authentic inside account’ -- Nigel Jones, Literary Review

‘an absorbing and meticulous account… clear, precise and well-narrated’ -- Miranda Seymour, Sunday Times

‘explores the most human and unorthodox side of war…Even for readers uninterested in military history, the book offers considerable entertainment’ -- Jane Stevenson, Observer

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