A French woman who fled the Nazis and settled in Welwyn Garden City for nearly 50 years is the subject of a new book. Tracing her life as one of thousands of looked-after children in rural France, through her marriage to a former British soldier and their escape to England in 1939, her story is the first known account of these forgotten children of the First World War.
‘Yvonne, Child of the Somme’ (published by Austin Macauley, August 2022) tells the true story of Yvonne Millet who was born into poverty in Paris in 1901. She was taken into foster care in the Somme region of France as a three year-old, after her mother disappeared. Aged fifteen, as the First World War raged close by, she had to leave her foster home and work as a maid in the military town of Abbeville. The book describes Yvonne’s devastating experiences.
Author Sara Rowell explains, ’Yvonne was one of thousands of children who shared a similar fate. They endured a precarious, lonely and at times frightening existence, made much worse by the war. Their experiences affected them deeply and most were too ashamed ever to reveal their past. Their stories have seldom, if ever been told.’
After the war, Yvonne continued to work as a domestic servant in the Abbeville area. In 1923 she married Albert Bagley, from Blackheath, London who had fought on the Western Front between 1915-18. They may have first met in a military hospital when he was wounded. Yet mystery surrounds his reasons for returning to the Somme four years after the war had ended, leaving behind a good job in London and an English fiancée.
Albert and Yvonne were the grandparents of Jan Bagley, a friend of the author, who lives in Melbourne, Australia.
Sara continues, ‘The seed for my book was Jan’s curiosity about her grandmother’s early life. She has fond memories of visiting her grandparents in Welwyn Garden City but always sensed there was some mystery in the background. As I’m a regular visitor to France, she asked me to help. I was able to search archive records in Paris and the Somme region. As soon as I began to uncover the truth, I was hooked – the story that emerged is extraordinary. The book eventually took me three years to research and write.’
In 1939, with the outbreak of the Second World War and the threat of a German invasion mounting, Yvonne, Albert and their children left their home in Lille, near the Belgian border, for England. With help from Albert’s sister Catherine, who worked for the local council, they got a house in Athelstan Walk, Welwyn Garden City. Little did Yvonne know the town would be her home for the next 46 years.
Sara says, ‘They were lucky to get away to England when they did. Had they stayed, the family would have faced real peril. Few people are aware that British nationals were the first civilians rounded up by the Nazis in occupied France and sent to concentration camps. It began in July 1940. They came for the men and older boys first, followed by their French wives and children.’
In the relative safety of Welwyn Garden City and too old for active service, Albert soon found work, initially at Murphy Radio at their factory on Broadwater Road. The company produced radio sets for the British Armed Forces during the war.
Sara adds, ‘The Second World War cast its shadow over the family’s early years in Welwyn Garden City. There was certainly much to celebrate when it was finally over. Among the 50 photos I have included in my book is one showing the VE Day street party in Athelstan Walk. Yvonne hoped the move to England was temporary and longed to return to France – perhaps the reason why, in all those years living in Welwyn Garden City, she never spoke English. She finally got her wish, spending her final years in Boulogne-sur-Mer, northern France, after Albert died in 1985.’
Jan Bagley, who provided family photos and recollections for the book and designed its cover, says, ‘I called my grandparents by the French ‘Grand-mère’ and ‘Grand-père’, although my grandfather was British. I well remember visiting their home in Welwyn Garden City as a child. Grand-père used to show me his First World War uniform jacket, which was torn at the shoulder from when he was wounded in action. Grand-mère only spoke French to me, which I didn’t understand, but I loved it when she let me grind the coffee beans and stir the butter into the petit-pois for lunch. No-one in the family seemed to know anything about her early life and in recent years I began to wonder about her beginnings. I never imagined that a chance conversation with Sara five years ago would lead to me finding out so much. Knowing that so many other children living in northern France at that time shared the same hardships and difficulties is very moving.’
‘Yvonne, Child of the Somme’ by Sara Rowell is available to buy at the Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies shop, to borrow from local libraries, and is also widely available online from book retailers including Amazon worldwide, Waterstones and WHSmith, or directly from the publisher (austinmacauley.com).