Living in Europe during Second World War
Clara C. Piper Associate Professor of English Tilar Mazzeo said that Dr. Francis de Marneffe’s speech on Thursday, March 1 was made possible by “a spectacularly interdisciplinary array” of Colby departments, all of which advocated for de Marneffe to come and tell the story of his perilous journey from Belgium to Britain during World War II.
Born on May 7, 1924, de Marneffe, now a psychiatrist at Maclean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., grew up in a time of international tension. As a child, he had a significant interest in the events occurring in Europe. “The event which galvanized my interest in international affairs was the reoccupation of the Rhineland by the Germans,” he said.
De Marneffe described how Belgium watched as Germany moved into Poland and Norway, beginning a war with Britain and France. “In Belgium, we hoped this preoccupation with Norway might spare us, but it didn’t,” he said. Soon, the Germans invaded Belgium, ending any hope of avoiding conflict for the Belgians.
At this point, Belgian men aged 16 to 35 were told to prepare to leave the country to follow the Belgian government and army to France for war. De Marneffe emphasized how thankful he was to have been born on May 7, instead of two weeks later, which would have meant that he would have had to live under German occupation. Since the events occurred in mid-May, de Marneffe had only just turned 16 and would not have been allowed to leave the country if he had been young.
When he spoke about his departure from Belgium, he said, “My main feeling was one of excitement,” until he realized, “I really would have to look after myself.” He temporarily became part of the management for a camp for Belgian soldiers in Rouen, France. This camp closed within a few weeks, and the Belgians moved on. De Marneffe tried to find a boat to Britain, but was denied because the French port of Le Havre became a military-only zone.
De Marneffe then tried to travel with the Belgian government to the French city of Poitiers. However, de Marneffe was left behind in the chaos. “When I got around the corner, the car was not there,” he said. Luckily, he was able to catch up with the government in Poitiers. There, he resumed the job he had had at the camp in Rouen, though his ultimate goal was still to reach Britain.
The bombing of French harbors and the danger of being attacked by U-boats made travel to Britain difficult. Due to problems within the Belgian government, “All offers that were made for transportation were turned down,” de Marneffe said. He explained that many government officials had large families with them and were unwilling to leave anyone behind in France.
Fortunately for de Marneffe, the government official and family friend with whom he had been staying made a deal to continue to support the British war effort. In return for this, de Marneffe and the official’s son and fiancée were given transportation to Britain.
In Britain, he experienced a view of the war very different from what he had seen in Belgium and France. “As Belgians brought up in Belgium, we believed that the French army was the greatest,” he said. One British woman said to him after the French were defeated, “There’s nobody left to let us down.”
De Marneffe added, “We were inspired by Churchill’s speeches.” Wanting to take action, de Marneffe spent the rest of the war as a messenger in the citizen army in Britain. He was also fortunate enough to spend time with the prime minister and foreign minister of Belgium when they reached Britain.
After the war, de Marneffe received medical training in Britain and went on to residency and to practice psychiatry in the United States. However, de Marneffe acknowledged that he could not have done what he had without help. “As this journey unfolded, it is clear that my success depended on many factors....I owe my success to many people,” he said.
For over 60 years now, de Marneffe has worked as a psychiatrist in Boston, making the most of the opportunities he was given.