Amazing wartime tale of Wigan woman's heroism remembered

Margaret O'Brien
Margaret O'Brien

A family in Ireland have contacted Wigan Today to celebrate a brave ancestor whose wartime heroics were recounted in these pages almost a century ago.

They have had a clipping about the wonderful Margaret Winnefrid O’Brien, described in the headline “The Wigan Girl Who Bluffed The Huns.”

Other news: Tributes paid to Wigan teenager who died on railway

Thought to have been born in the late 1800s, she landed a job as a companion to a wealthy Belgian lady in 1914 and within weeks found herself behind enemy lines after the First World War broke out.

There then followed all kinds of escapades as Miss O’Brien, of Warrington Road, Spring View, ran rings round German officers and officials, while giving information to British secret agents and helping soldiers to escape the occupying forces.

Not everything always ran smoothly and she was arrested three times, once being sentenced to six months’ imprisonment.

But she returned to Blighty a heroine after the war and her descendants, including 90-year-old Frank O’Brien, whose father was a cousin of Margaret, and his daughter Helen Grealish are rightly proud of her accomplishments.

Speaking from their home in Galway City on the west coast of Ireland, Helen said: “Unfortunately my dad can’t remember who actually gave him the copy of the Wigan Observer article many years ago but remembers been told at the time that she was a relation of theirs and they should be proud to have such a brave ancestor.

“From what they can piece together, my dad and his sister feel Margaret Winnefrid was a first cousin to their father Dan O’Brien from Clonbern as their ages would line up and Dan had several uncles who had emigrated to the UK.

“The article makes fascinating reading a century on.”

Margaret was at the Chateau de Bruyere near Liege when the Germans invaded. Our 1919 Wigan Observer reporter takes over...

“Ostensibly a teacher of English, the German authorities suspected her of being involved in more serious work and Miss O’Brien tells how, under the very noses of the enemy, she aided members of the British secret service.

“Miss O’Brien assisted over a score of British soldiers to escape from the toils of the Germans, more than once hiding the fugitive in her top room while she hoodwinked inquisitive enemy agents downstairs. On one occasion she posed as a spiritualist’s assistant and in this way she risked Nurse Cavell’s fate to aid escaping Britishers.

“She was three times arrested, being on one occasion sentenced to six months’ imprisonment. Upon another occasion Miss O’Brien was offered her freedom and a passage to Holland if she would reveal the whereabouts of an English lady badly wanted by the enemy, the alternative to freedom being imprisonment in Berlin Gaol.

“Miss O’Brien, in telling the story of her adventures, relates how she helped Lieutenant S____ , a supposed German officer, to get a sketch of the plans to the re-built Liege defences which were kept in the house in which she lived, part of which was used as headquarters of one of the German divisional staffs.

“Miss O’Brien tells of her arrest at the hands of Von Trappe, from the German Secret Police and her return to St Lawrence Hospital and describes how she fastened the Union Jack to the grave of an English boy, Willie Regan, attaching to it her card in defiance of Boche orders.

“She also gives particulars of her dramatic meeting with a member of the British Secret Service in the streets of Brussels, describing how German soldiers burned their commandant’s offices at her instigation and relating the story of her subsequent arrest and imprisonment.

“Later she was expelled from her house because of the discovery of an English soldier’s uniform in her room and she recounts how she hoodwinked a German sentry while they stole corn to make bread for the English prisoners, explaining the methods adopted to pass English prisoners over the frontier.

“Miss O’Brien, since her return to her home, has felt the strain of her experiences during the war, and it is to be hoped that she will not go unrewarded for the part she played as an Englishwoman.

“She will probably return to Belgium where her Belgian friends are expecting to see her honoured.”

It is not known whether Margaret did receive any bravery rewards for her deeds.