An engrossing spy story …a large cast of brave, resourceful and frankly eccentric characters … not the least of Morgan’s achievements is to have triumphantly restored one small but important part of history to the record. –Nigel Jones, Literary Review on Janet Morgan’s book “The Secrets of Rue St Roch”

The little-known Lise Rischard

By Roger Childs

After World War One, the middle-aged wife of a doctor in Luxembourg City, was made a Companion of the British Empire, a chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur and was awarded the Croix de Guerre with Palms. 

What had Lise Rischard done to deserve such high honours? Essentially she had coordinated a very successful, highly complex counter-espionage network based around providing details of what German trains were moving to the Western Front in 1918 – men and materiel. 

A key member of her network was the Belgian adventurer Baschwitz Meau who in June 1918, incredibly, was successfully ballooned across the front lines of the Western Front into Luxembourg, which at the time was under German control. He made contact with Madame Rischard and became a key train-watcher with an amazing ability of being able to recruit others and move unnoticed between cities behind enemy lines.

Madame Rischard recruited her Luxembourg team which included her husband and local stationmasters. As a doctor Camille Rischard had the ideal occupation not to arouse the suspicion of the German authorities and could conveniently visit the railway station.

Recruiting in Paris

Major George Bruce of British Intelligence tracked down Madame Rischard in Paris during 1917 where she was visiting her son. Bruce and his team was based at 41 Rue St Roch in the French capital and he needed an espionage ring in Luxembourg City because it was a lynch-pin in the labyrinthine German rail network. The British and the French had hundreds of spies behind enemy lines, and many were “train spotters” passing on information about the movement of German and Austrian troops and equipment to the Western Front. 

The need for up to date information about what the enemy was planning became more urgent for the Allies after Russia pulled out of the war following the Bolshevik Revolution in November 1917. Although the American had declared war on Germany and Austria-Hungary in late 1917, it took them an age to actually get troops and supplies on the ground.

A major advance by the German was expected before the American forces under General Pershing could be fully mobilized. As anticipated the Ludendorff Offensive began on 21 March 21 1918.

How did the Rischard network operate?

  • Train watchers sent information to Madame Rischard on what trains passed through the Luxembourg City station and what they were carrying– including details of the uniforms of the troops. 
  • She sent the required coded details to local school teacher and academic Joseph Hansen. He was asked to compose sentences in which certain letters appeared in a certain order. Fluency and precision was require in writing about turnip and potato crops, hay supplies, farm equipment, carts for sale etc … incorporating the information British Intelligence needed.
  • The articles containing the coded messages were sent to Madame Schroell who published them in the agricultural magazine Der Landvert (The Farmer)
  • One of the magazine recipients was Father Cambron who lived in Switzerland.
  • He gave his copy to the British Embassy and they sent it in the diplomatic bag across the border to Paris.
  • Bruce and his team at Rue St Roch decoded the information and sent it to Army General Headquarters.
  • Madame Rischard also sent coded letters to an aunt in Switzerland which also ended up at 41 Rue St Roch.

Her astute, conscientious operation for the Allied cause was a masterpiece in counter-espionage. Security, trust and scrupulous care were essential to the success of the network which may well have shortened the war. The French and British acknowledged the valuable information which came through from Luxembourg. 

The details of the movement of German and Austrian forces and armaments to particular towns and cities near the frontline enabled the allied commanders to anticipate many of the enemy manoeuvres in the Ludendorff Offensive

The Allies had about 6000 agents behind enemy lines in World War One and over 700 were caught, imprisoned or executed. 

No-one in the Rischard network was arrested.

How do we know all this?

The usual pattern for intelligence operations when wars end is to destroy all the evidence and documentation. However Captain Bruce decided to store all the files in a Victorian cabinet. Historian Janet Morgan had married Bruce’s son Robert and in 1995 they unlocked the cabinet to find a treasure trove about the World War One intelligence and all the information about Madame Rischard’s incredibly successful Luxembourg network.

In 2004 Morgan published the amazing story in her superb book The Secrets of Rue St Roch: Hope and Heroism Behind Enemy Lines in the First World War. Leading Great War historian Max Hastings describes it as:  Remarkable … riveting … an account of a picaresque espionage operation which John Buchan would have applauded.

Lise Rischard should be remembered as one of the most remarkable and successful women of the 20th century.