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Hunting for a spy in Belgium

April 22, 2019

My maternal Belgian line was the most neglected side of my family tree. My mother had inherited two extensive compiled genealogies that made research on this line seem less necessary, and it wasn’t until last year in preparation for a visit to Brussels that I really turned my efforts to this side of my tree.

 

While the compiled genealogies were a great starting point, they lacked citations and more evidence was required. Luckily for me, Belgian civil records are excellent, and today many of them have been digitized by FamilySearch. Since most of these records are not yet indexed, it took some effort to learn the administrative divisions, the arrangement of records within the digitized microfilms and even a little bit of Dutch. With time and experience, it became easier to find what I was looking for, and I managed to move back several generations with relative ease.

 

Tombstone of (Nicolas) Albert Darimont, St. Joachim's cemetery, Edmonton

 

The Belgian ancestor of greatest interest to me, however, was actually my immigrant ancestor, Nicolas Albert Darimont (1875-1939), who moved to Canada in 1909.[1] Family lore said that he had served in the Belgian army in the Congo, where he had fallen ill from heat stroke while digging a grave. Despite being pensioned early due to ill health, the family story says he returned to Belgium to serve as a spy during World War One. Obviously, such a sensational story demanded to be researched!

 

Nicolas’ Belgian military file contained a great deal of helpful information.[2] Nicolas was a top student, and he spoke English and Italian (in addition to French and Flemish).  He volunteered for the Belgian army in 1894 for an eight-year stint (a year prior to when mandatory service would have required it).[3] He was promoted from Corporal to Sergeant in 1895. In 1898, he received a chevron (military stripe), and in 1899 he became a Sergeant-Major, and in 1900 a sub-lieutenant. Despite having a few occasional reprimands in his file, he was described as very good, and very zealous.

 

In 1904, he left the 3rd regiment of Foot Soldiers to join the Institut Cartographique Militaire, which was basically the King’s private army in the Congo. The Belgian army did not officially operate in the Congo, but members could volunteer to be temporarily transferred over to the private army, probably to “offer Belgian soldiers that which had been so cruelly lacking in the past: action and a field of operations where they could achieve glory.”[4] This was not to be the case for Nicolas, which might have been for the best, considering Belgium’s controversial history in the Congo. After less than a month, Nicolas was returned to the Belgian army, having contracted malaria in the Congo. He must have been bitten by an infected mosquito almost immediately in order to have been returned ill to Belgium so promptly.

 

 

 ... has anemia due to malaria contracted in the Congo...

 

Nicolas spent the next few years trying to regain his health and receiving multiple extended leaves from the military, during which he once visited his married sister who had emigrated to Alberta. In 1909, finally pensioned off from the army, he married,[5] and by 1911, he too was farming in Alberta.[6]

 

Nicolas didn’t naturalize and become Canadian until 1917.[7] Thus, when WWI broke out in 1914, he was still a Belgian citizen. Despite being 39-years-old at the time, Lieutenant Darimont returned to Belgium to serve.[8]

 

 

 

The ship’s list when he arrived in England confirmed that he and his two travel companions named in the above letter were all travelling to join the Belgian army.[9]

 

 

Yet, only five months later, Nicolas returned to North America from Le Havre, France via New York.[10] This travel route makes sense, since the Belgian provisional government moved to Le Havre during WWI,[11] and because America would not yet have been part of the war in 1915, making travel to America safer than travel directly to Canada. In 1916, Nicolas was enumerated in Alberta, and was not labelled as serving overseas in the military.[12]  There is no evidence that he ever returned to Europe.

 

Nicolas’ Belgian military records showed no WWI military service, although if he had served as a spy, it would likely not have been documented in this file.[13] Likewise, Nicolas had no Canadian WWI service file. However, in 1918, Nicolas received land under the Canadian Soldier Homestead grant program,[14] suggesting he had served in WWI in some capacity. Unfortunately, his application for land under this program no longer appears to survive.[15]

 

A letter from the Belgian Embassy in Edmonton, Canada to the Minister of Foreign affairs in Belgium announced Nicolas’ death in 1939.[16] Nicolas was described as an old artillery officer of the Belgian army who had also served in the Congo. He was further described as a rare, notable Belgian who lived in Alberta, but no mention of any sort of WWI service was made.  Nicolas’ Canadian obituary, however, said that during the Great War he returned to his homeland and entered active service as a lieutenant.[17]

 

Did Nicolas serve, even briefly, during WW1, as a spy or not, or was this story fabricated to save face with his family after being sent home prematurely?

 

It seems clear that Nicolas did not serve in WW1 in a normal capacity- if he had, that should have been recorded in a military file in either Belgium or Canada. Although he was probably too old to serve as a regular soldier, if he had served even in an administrative capacity, he would be expected to show up in some sort of service record.[18]

 

Did he serve as a spy? Maybe. He was well-educated, fluent in four languages (although not German) and did spend several months in Europe at the beginning of the war doing something, and when he left, he embarked from Le Havre where the Belgian provisional government was stationed. He did receive a military land grant in Canada after WWI, despite there being no evidence that he did anything for the Canadian war effort. Although we haven’t proven that he did spy, his story lines up well enough that we can say that he might have spied. But if he did spy, it wasn't for very long.

 

As with so many family stories, more research is required and the search continues. The low-hanging fruit has been picked, however, and the remaining research possibilities include hoping to find mention of Nicolas in either Belgian, Canadian or maybe even British intelligence records, if these records were even created in the first place, and should they survive and be accessible today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] “U.S., Index to Alien Arrivals at Canadian Atlantic and Pacific Seaports, 1904-1944,” digital image of index cards only, Ancestry (www.ancestry.ca : accessed 21 April 2019) Nicolas & Therese Darimont arrival, digital image 2938 of 21437; citing Record Group 85, Roll number 4, NAI number 3000080, The National Archives, Washington D.C.

 

[2] Belgian military file, record for Nicolas-Jacques-Louis-Albert Darimont, 1898-1909, no. 13522; Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History, Brussels, Belgium. The archivist at the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History in Brussels told me that Nicolas had an excellent education.

 

[3] As per the archivist at the Royal Museum of the Armed Force and Military History, Brussels, Belgium.

 

[4] Guy Vanthemsche, Belgium and the Congo 1885-1980 (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 56.

 

[5] “Belgium, Brabant, Civil Registration 1582-1914,” database and digital images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org: accessed 12 November 2018), Sint-Gillis Huwelijksafkondigingen, huwelijken 1909-1910, geboorten 1910, overlijdens 1910 (nr 1-394), digital image 164 of 835, marriage of Nicolas Jacques Louis Albert Darimont & Thérèse Gustenhoven (1909); Belgium National Archives, Brussels.

 

[6] 1911 census of Canada, Alberta, population schedule, District 7, 55-21 & 55-22, Sub district 28, Victoria, p. 10, dwelling 86, family 86, Albert Darimont household; digital image, Ancestry (www.ancestry.ca :  accessed 25 Oct 2018); citing Library and Archives Canada microfilm T-20326 through T-20460.

 

[7] Nicolas J.L.A. Darimont Naturalization index card (1917), received via email 27 March 2019 from Access to Information. Original records have been destroyed, all that remains are index cards.

 

[8] Consulat de Belgique à Montréal, letter written 27 August 1914, letter of passage for Lieutenant N. Darimont to England, copy found in compiled genealogy by Marie Beaupré, “Darimont”, dated June 1986.

 

[9] "UK, incoming passenger lists, 1878-1960,” database & images, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com : accessed 21 April 2019), entry for Nicolas Darimont, Liverpool passenger (1914); citing Board of Trade, "Commercial and Statistical Department and Successors: Inwards Passengers Lists, Class BT26, Piece 582; National Archives, Kew.

 

[10] “Canadian Passenger Lists 1865-1935,” digital images, Ancestry (www.ancestry.ca : accessed 18 December 2018), Ship’s list for Albert Darimont (1915); citing RG 76-C, microfilm T-4722, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, Ontario.

 

[11] “Belgian Government  in exile during World War 1,” Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belgian_government_in_exile_during_World_War_I : accessed 21 April 2019).

 

[12] 1916 Canada census of Manitoba, Saskatchewan & Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, population schedule, district 37, sub district 4, p. 19, dwelling 153, family 161, Albert Darimont household; digital image, Ancestry (www.ancestry.ca :  accessed 25 Oct 2018); citing Library and Archives Canada microfilm T-21950.

 

[13] Email from [address for personal use], Belgian researcher Intelligence & Security, to Colleen Murray, 11 January 2019.

 

[14] “Canada, Soldier Homestead Grant Registers, 1918-1931,” database, Ancestry (www.ancestry.ca : accessed 25 Oct 2018), entry for N. J. L. A. Darimont (1918); citing RG190-76-3-E, Volume 1.

 

[15] Veterans Affairs Canada, Access to information and Privacy, file number search for homestead grant file for Nicolas Jacques Louis Albert Darimont. No records located. A second request for a search was made in January, waiting on reply.

 

[16] Belgian military file, record for Nicolas-Jacques-Louis-Albert Darimont.

 

[17] “Dies during sleep on incoming train,” Newspapers.com (www.newspapers.com.com : accessed 29 Dec 2018); citing Edmonton Journal (Edmonton, Canada), 10 March 1939. 

 

[18] In addition to his military file, the archivist at the Royal Museum of the Armed Force and Military History in Belgium also checked various books, lists and indices at his disposal to look for a trace of Nicolas’ WWI service, but did not locate anything. I do not know the names of the exact lists and books that he checked, however.

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Colleen Murray

@cmgenealogy