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Father Jean Desonay was born in Soumagne on the 9th of August 1886. At the outbreak of the war he was a professor at the Jesuit collège Saint-Servais in  Liège. In 1914, as he would do in 1939, Jean Desonay was involved as an agent from day one.

Desonay’s activities at the outbreak of the war were not limited to his membership in the intelligence gathering network “réseau Lambrecht” but he was also involved in with underground press, smuggling letters from occupied Belgium to the Belgian soldiers fighting with the allies as well as helping people escape from occupied Belgium.

Left: Father Jean Desonay after his return from captivity

Dieudonné Lambrecht was a Belgian civilian who set up a network of agents who amongst other things monitered German Railway movements. The information was of great use to the Allied High command and was communicated via neutral Holland. Lambrecht was betrayed, tried then executed in April 1916. 3 000 people attended his Funeral.

Lambrecht's network was taken over by his cousin, Walthère Dewé. Along with the Jesuit Priest Jean Desonay (who had been one of Lambrecht’s right hand men) and an engineer named Chauvin he set out to rebuild and improve the organization. He renamed it “La Dame Blanche” based on a German legend that the appearance of a woman wearing white would signal the collapse of Hohenzollern. They organized the réseau along Military lines with battalions, companies, and independant cells. There were groups responsible for observing German troop movements by rail, by road and for transmissions. The betrayal of Lambrecht to the Germans had taught them the value of secrecy within the network and the cell system would mean that agents would not be able to betray the network.

Father (père) Desonay (Code name “Commandant Belleflamme” ) was betrayed and arrested on the 14th of June 1917. The Police knocked on the door of his classroom but were persuaded to let him finish his lesson. Desonay used the time to give a student his papers, including secret communiques. The student passed the documents on to the head of the school. Desonay was interrogated numerous times but the Germans were not able to establish his guilt. While other members of networks were executed or condemned to do forced labor, Desonay was sent to a camp for “undesirables” near Holzminden.

At the time of his arrest the most important work of the réseau la Dame Blanche was still to come but Desonay had been instrumental in organizing the network with its over 1 000 agents.

The British War office was to commend the members of the Dame Blanche crediting them with having reported 70% of the intelligence that the Allies received from occupied and neutral countries. Douglas Haig claimed the information received was essential for planning his operations.

Above: British war medal named to "J. DES ONAY."

On the 3rd of September 1939 Walthère Dewé assembled his “old Guard” … Chauvin, Desonay etc. and reactivated the Dame Blanche Network… The network would carry out sterling work throughout the war relaying information back to London. Walthère Dewé was killed by a German officer in 1944.

Left: Father Desonay after his arrival in London, 1944

It was decided that Father Desonay’s WW1 service was known to the Germans and he was considered to be too well known to operate effectively in Belgium. He was sent to the Vichy “Free Zone” in Southern France where he was involved with escape networks for Allied Aircrews evading after being shot down over Europe. Using the Nom de Guerre “Pere de Fromenteau” his cover was as a teacher at the Jesuit college du Caousou in Toulouse. He operated here until he was once again betrayed and then had to flee across the mountains into Spain. After a while in Portugal he made his way to England where he spent the rest of the War. He returned to Belgium after the war where he died in 1948.

Amongst his other medals he was awarded the Order of the British Empire, The French Croix de Guerre with Palm, British War Medal, Medaille Commemorative de la Guerre 1914 – 1918 avec Couronne de Volontaire, Medaille de la Victoire, Medaille de la Reconnaissance Nationale, prisonnier Politique 1914-1918.

 
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