The First World War:
Private Patrick Fowler: The Soldier Who Spent The War In A Wardrobe.
Trooper Patrick Fowler of the 11th (Prince Albert’s Own) Hussars was part of the original British Expeditionary Force sent to France in August 1914. The 11th Hussars were a cavalry unit.
During the retreat from Mons, Fowler and several other men were cut off by a German advance during the rearguard action at Le Cateau on the 26 August 1914.
Trapped behind enemy lines Fowler spent the next five months living in the woods until he was found by a French civilian Monsieur Louis Basquin.
On January 15 1915 Basquin took Fowler to the house of his mother in law Madame Belmont-Gobert in Beltry near St Quentin. She and her daughter Angele agreed to take him in and hide him from the Germans. This was a very brave act on their part as Beltry was in German occupied France and there were harsh penalties for aiding the enemy.
Fowler spent most of his day hiding in a wardrobe less than six feet high. One side of the wardrobe was for hanging clothes and it was in here that Fowler spent the day sitting with his knees tucked up and with the door locked. The other side of the wardrobe contained shelves that Madame Belmont-Gobert packed with linen, food and kitchen equipment. She also left the door on that side slightly ajar so that people would assume the entire wardrobe was filled with these everyday items and to allow some ventilation for Fowler.
Madame Belmont-Gobert and her daughter shared what limited rations they had. Food and other resources were scarce in occupied France. Anything of value and the majority of the food were requisitioned for use by the German Army. Soon after Fowler arrived several German soldiers were billeted in Madame Belmont-Gobert’s house. Fowler had to spend several hours each day sitting completely still unable to make any sound in case the Germans discovered him. He could only leave his wardrobe at night.
There were always Germans in the village and there were frequent searches, not just for enemy soldiers but also for items that could be requisitioned to aid the German war effort. Very few people knew of Private Fowler’s presence in the village, only those who Madame Belmont-Gobert needed help from in obtaining food and medicine. Fowler was betrayed to the Germans but despite extensive searches they were unable to find him. At one point Fowler had to hide in an underground store in a barn.
By 1916 the army assumed that Private Fowler was dead and informed his wife that she was now a war widow.
Fowler had spent about eighteen months in hiding at Madame Belmont-Gobert’s when the Germans decided to requisition all of her house and use it as billets for more German soldiers. Madame Belmont-Gobert was forced to move to another smaller cottage on the outskirts of Beltry. Fowler and the wardrobe also moved over to this new property. Despite being a small cottage German soldiers were billeted in the loft. Being on the outskirts of Beltry did allow Fowler the opportunity to gain air and exercise in the surrounding fields at night.
On the 10 October 1918 Allied forces entered Beltry. Fowler came out of hiding where he was arrested by a Sergeant of the South African Scottish, 66th Division, for being a spy. He was being taken under escort to Allied headquarters when Fowler recognised Major Frederick Drake of the 11th Hussars, who had been one of his commanding officers at the Battle of Le Cateau. This was an extraordinary coincidence, especially considering the casualty rates of the BEF. Major Drake confirmed who Fowler was which was lucky for Fowler as he may have been shot as a spy or as a deserter.
On the 14 October Fowler re-joined his Regiment. He was given a month’s leave and went home to his wife and family. He returned again to France before being discharged having served in the army for 23 years.
The War Office paid Madame Belmont-Gobert a back-dated allowance for billeting Fowler which came to over 2000 francs. Madame Belmont-Gobert and her daughter Angele were awarded OBE’s in recognition of their bravery in sheltering Private Fowler. Officers of the 11th Hussars presented them with a silver tray, the other ranks presented them with a silver frame containing a portrait of Private Fowler.
In 1927 the Daily Telegraph ran a series of articles highlighting the bravery of Madame Belmont-Gobert in order to raise funds, as it had been discovered that she was now virtually penniless.
There was a civic reception at the Mansion House on 8 April 1927 which Patrick Fowler, Madame Belmont-Gobert and her daughter Angele attended. Also there were Madame Cardon, who had sheltered Corporal Hull and Madame Baudhin.
Nearly £3500 had been raised by the Daily Telegraph appeal and this was presented to the four women. They and Patrick Fowler were also invited to Windsor Castle to meet the King.
The wardrobe was bought from Madame Belmont-Gobert by Sir Charles Wakefield who donated it to the Imperial War Museum. The wardrobe is currently on display at the King’s Royal Hussars Museum in Winchester.
Others caught behind enemy lines
In August 1914 Madame Baudhin had hidden in her house in Le Cateau Private David Cruickshanks of The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles). She had managed to conceal him until September 1916 when his presence was betrayed to the Germans. It is said that Madame Baudhin made such a plea for his life that Private Cruickshanks was imprisoned instead of being executed. Madame Baudhin was sent to prison in Germany leaving behind her daughter. Her son was sentenced to hard labour.
Corporal Bert Hull also of the 11th Hussars and who had also been cut off from his regiment at Le Cateau was being sheltered in another house in the village. In September 1915 after thirteen months in hiding, Hull’s presence in the home of Monsieur and Madame Cardon was betrayed to the Germans by a collaborator. Corporal Hull was executed by the Germans. British servicemen caught behind enemy lines wearing civilian clothing could be shot as spies. For concealing Corporal Hull, Madame Cardon was sentenced to hard labour and imprisoned in Germany, leaving behind her three children. Monsieur Cardon evaded arrest and spent the remainder of the war on the run in German occupied France.