As many of you may have concluded through your research or education, primary sources are incomparable when it comes to understanding events and information. They often hold truths about which we can otherwise merely speculate. It is a success when just a few pages of a primary source are discovered, so imagine my disbelief when I found myself leafing through boxes upon boxes of living history which make up the Francis de Marneffe Family Collection at NEHGS.
The collection covers the period of approximately 1918–2003, much of it dating from the years of World War II—a historical event which has always sparked my interest. It presents a time when hardworking people were courageously fighting for their freedom. Three strong characteristics of this generation seem to be awareness, perseverance, and comradery. The de Marneffe documents encapsulate all these attributes while telling an unforgettable story. The collection includes documents from the entire de Marneffe family. However, the focus is Francis Laurent Armand de Marneffe, who was born in Brussels, Belgium, on 7 May 1924 to parents Armand and Esther (Loveday) de Marneffe. The de Marneffe family of Belgium dates their ancestry back some twenty-three generations to Guillaume de Marneffe, who was a participant in the Second Crusade, 1147–1149.
When the German army invaded Belgium in 1940, Francis left home on his bicycle . . .
Francis skillfully collected and conserved diaries, letters, postcards, and photographs over the course of more than eighty years. When the German army invaded Belgium in 1940, Francis left home on his bicycle at the age of sixteen with the hopes of joining the Belgian army that was regrouping in France. Francis had no idea of the scope of the war or if he would ever return home and see his family again. After arriving in France, the organization of the Belgian army units was not realized, and therefore Francis decided to move on to England. After several weeks of travel in cars, trains, and boats, Francis finally reached Falmouth, England, with some 1,600 refugees. Francis stayed with family and finished his schooling before going to flight school in Alberta, Canada, and later returned to England to be a flight instructor.
Francis exemplifies the awareness and knowledge that those living through World War II held onto. In diaries Francis kept from March 1940 to September 1942, he wrote of his everyday activities while also pasting in newspaper clippings from major news outlets all over the world. These clippings demonstrate his immense understanding of the war, the military, and the important factors that went into eventually winning the war. Many of the articles he chose to incorporate were those pertaining to his home in Belgium, including what proved to be very significant to him: the announcement that the German army had invaded Belgium, and King Leopold’s address to the country on 10 May 1940. Soon after, Francis’s journey began when he left on his bicycle, with only hope and a few evacuation forms which he pasted into the diary.
I found Francis’s scrapbook full of newspaper clippings, maps, and photographs to be most enlightening. Francis was fastidious about keeping a log of the news and seemed to enjoy following the great political leaders, as he includes multiple photographs of FDR and Winston Churchill, as well as quotes from their various addresses.
Francis had to fend for himself from a young age, and yet he did so with intelligence and resourcefulness, demonstrated in one case by a large map he drew of northern France, which he pasted in his scrapbook to help him reach his various destinations. Francis believed that being informed was critical and he seemed to hold ignorance as the equivalent of death.
Back in Belgium, Francis’s family dealt with the struggles of living in a Nazi-occupied nation.
Back in Belgium, Francis’s family dealt with the struggles of living in a Nazi-occupied nation. Although it was risky, Francis’s mother, Esther, kept a diary and continued correspondence with her son as well as with her sisters. These letters have special significance because they retain the stains from chemicals applied by German authorities to detect invisible ink and hidden messages. While the remains of these chemicals almost look like beautiful watercolors, they represent an invasion of privacy and freedom. Like every other citizen at this time, the de Marneffes were in constant fear, and yet they maintained their perseverance against their oppressors and continued to hope for independence.
Small and kind gestures that made large impacts
As for comradery and friendship, Francis describes obvious examples, as well as small and kind gestures that made large impacts on him. He kept several business cards of the people he encountered along his journey, and made separate notes explaining who they were. For example, one card was that of Louis Baes who was “the nice man bicycling next to me after I left Brussels on 15th May 1940 who offered me a bed that night.” Another card was that of Marcel Peters who was the “boy-scout who was with me beginning on May 18th, 1940 in Rouen, France until June 1st in Poitiers.” Francis also wrote that Peters, upon returning to Brussels after the French surrender, visited Francis’s parents and gave them news of him. They must have breathed a great sign of relief when Peters passed on the information about Francis’s health and whereabouts.
These men probably did not have anything to gain from helping Francis. It appears they put themselves in possible danger just to save a young man from experiencing more pain and loneliness. There was a certain comradery from living through the similar experience of leaving the only home you have known, and then fighting for your life, your family, and your country.
In 2018, Francis received the French Legion of Honor for his courageous journey during World War II.
After the war ended, Francis graduated from the medical school of the University of London, and in 1952 settled in Boston to complete his residency in psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and then McLean Hospital. For twenty-five years, Francis served as the General Director of McLean Hospital. Just recently, in 2018, he received the French Legion of Honor for his courageous journey during World War II.
“This war will only be won if every one of us fight without thinking of after the war.”
If this collection can teach us anything, it enhances our knowledge of the bravery and perseverance this generation held despite all the obstacles they faced. Francis’s faith is unwavering, and he believed even in the darkest of times that “this war will only be won if every one of us fight without thinking of after the war”—fighting only moment by moment for the good of all.
Francis de Marneffe Family Collection, Mss 1044, R. Stanton Avery Special Collections, New England Historic Genealogical Society.
“McLean Hospital’s Francis de Marneffe, MD, receives prestigious French Legion of Honor.” McLean Hospital. June 14, 2018. Accessed August 16, 2019. https://www.mcleanhospital.org/news/mclean-hospitals-francis-de-marneffe-md-receives-prestigious-french-legion-honor