On 28 June 1914 the Emperor Franz Joseph was assassinated in Sarajevo. The event had immediate repercussions on the lives of everybody in the neutral country of Belgium.

One was the 35-year-old Princess Marie of Croÿ, who lived in a chateau in northern France on the Belgian border and was on holiday in England. A telegram arrived saying If you are going home, go at once.

Another was the British nurse Edith Cavell who was on holiday from her hospital in Brussels, where she was matron. She realised she had to return to immediately.

In Brussels itself, a waitress called Gabrielle Petit wrote to her fiancé, a cavalryman whom she knew would soon be sent to the front. She began: My very dear boyfriend, I am so very afraid that you will have to depart suddenly… if ever danger arrived, I would try to enlist in your regiment’s Red Cross unit.

On the morning of 4 August 1914, the German army breached Belgian neutrality by crossing the border, bringing chaos and devastation in its wake.

Now back at her hospital, Edith told her nurses not to take sides. A wounded man was a wounded man, to be treated with the same care and compassion. Nursing, Cavell said, knows no frontiers.

On 23 August, the main body of the British Expeditionary Force engaged the German army. By October the war had reached a stalemate. The Allies and the Germans faced each other from trenches that stretched from Switzerland to the North Sea. Hundreds of allied soldiers were marooned behind enemy lines.

The man stepped forward and punched her hard in the stomach, sending her reeling back into the room

Princess Marie, Edith Cavell and many others began to find the soldiers and help them get out of Belgium into neighbouring Holland. By 1915 they had established a well organised local escape route with the Princess’s chateau at the centre. Groups of allied soldiers were assembled in the surrounding forests and taken at night, often in the freezing cold, to the chateau, where they were given civilian uniforms and false identity cards with photographs taken by the Princess. But as the year wore on the German Secret Police began to close in. First Edith was arrested, followed by the Princess and many others. Their escape organisation was destroyed.

Edith Cavell

By now, Gabrielle Petit had been recruited by British Intelligence and at the age of 23 had become one of its most successful agents. She was skilled in moving through the most heavily guarded areas, claiming “I can weave my way through anything”. When a relative warned her that the penalty for spying was death, Gabrielle blithely waved aside the problem saying that she “could only die once”.

I am not afraid of looking into the rifles

While Gabrielle continued to gather intelligence, the Princess and her comrades were brought to trial. The prosecutor asked the Princess: “What was your motive in acting as you did?” She replied: “Because I am a Frenchwoman. One must do one’s duty without thinking of the consequences.”

In his summing up, the prosecutor argued that the leaders deserved the death penalty for the crime of treason; the others were eventually given long terms of hard labour. When the sentences were read out, Edith Cavell’s came followed by the word todesstrafe – death penalty – but she stood motionless, “imperturbable and calm”.

She was visited by a priest and told him her imprisonment had allowed her to contemplate life free from the distractions of the world, a time of rest and mercy. She added: “I realise that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.” The next day she was taken before the firing squad and shot. One of the officials present reported: “She went to her death with a bearing which is quite impossible to forget.”

Meanwhile Gabrielle Petit was working flat out. While describing herself as being always at “full gallop”, the stress was beginning to tell. Eventually, there was a sharp rap on the door where she lived. When Gabrielle opened it, she met a group of men who looked like gangsters – they were German secret policemen. One asked:
“Are you Miss Legrand?”
“Yes.” This was Gabrielle’s cover name.
The man stepped forward and punched her hard in the stomach, sending her reeling back into the room. Gasping for breath Gabrielle saw that one of the men was a Belgian she recognised. She began to shout at him: “These men are Boches, but you are a Belgian. You should be ashamed of yourself.” The men ransacked the room, opening drawers, throwing papers on the floor, pulling up carpets and finding nothing.

“You poor Boches,” said Gabrielle, “you can’t find anything, how very sad.”

She was dragged outside to a car and thrown in. As it roared off she wound down her window and shouted “I have been arrested by the Boches!” The police officer in the back of the car shouted at Gabrielle to “shut the fuck up or I will hit you”.
Gabrielle pulled a hatpin from her hair and waved it at him. “We will see about you having the nerve to hit me. Only a dirty German would dare say that to a woman.”

Three weeks after her arrest she was allowed a visit from her sister, who found her sitting crying in her cell, holding her head in her hands. Gabrielle looked up, her eyes puffed, the side of her face swollen, red and bruised. Gabrielle did not say how this had happened.

At her trial she was asked why she had joined British Intelligence. She replied: “Because of the atrocities you commit.”

When the prosecutor demanded that she be condemned to death, Petit sprang up and hurled abuse at the man, calling him a schweinhund.

The sentence was passed: “Gabrielle Petit, spy, condemned to death.”

Like Edith Cavell she was visited by a priest and told him she did not want a blindfold, saying: “I am going to show you Germans that a Belgian woman knows how to die. I am not afraid of looking into the rifles.”

In her cell she refused to be cowed, shouting: “I have just been condemned to death. I will be shot tomorrow. Long live the King! Long live Belgium!” Then she sang the song from Gounod’s Faust, which contains the lines Salut ô mon dernier matin (“Hail my last day”).  Then she shouted: “No Blindfold!”

She let her hair down, wore her long blue overcoat open over her dressing gown, and told her godmother: “I have always been firm in the face of danger, do not fear.” On 1 April 1916 she was shot and her body placed in an unmarked grave.

By now, Belgian citizens all over the country were working undercover gathering intelligence for the allies.

Princess Marie of Croÿ,

The Princess of Croÿ, who had been sentenced to life imprisonment, became very ill, coughing blood. Eventually she was transferred to a hospital. Before she left, her fellow prisoners gave her a doll they had made with scraps of prison uniform cloth. In one hand it held a cardboard mug and in the other a scrap of the regulation hard bread substitute. Even the detail of the shoes was correct, they were held together with tiny nails. The Princess’s own shoes had fallen to pieces and been mended with cardboard soles which disintegrated in turn. She fixed them herself with some metal and wire from a Red Cross biscuit tin.

At last, the war ended. Now back in prison, the Princess and other survivors were released. Outside they found chaos, equipment abandoned in the streets, German soldiers insulting their officers, machine guns being fired in the night. Slowly, order returned, the intelligence gathering groups were disbanded and the Princess and her comrades went back to their normal lives.

One of the women said “The feeling of danger hanging over our heads night and day did not dishearten us. It seemed that the greater the danger became, the more enchanting was our work.” Another agent summed up what almost all of them felt: “We were soldiers without uniforms. We have done our duty… and we have done it with joy.”

Both Edith Cavell and Gabrielle Petit were disinterred. Edith’s coffin was taken by the Royal Navy to England, where she was buried in Norfolk. In Belgium, Gabrielle received a state funeral. Military bands played solemn music and thousands lined the route to witness the horse-drawn gun carriage carrying her coffin pass by. On it was draped the Belgian flag, pinned to which was the medal of honour, personally presented by Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians.

Rick Stroud is the author of eight books including “I Am Not Afraid of Looking into the Rifles: Women of the Resistance in World War One” (Simon & Schuster UK)

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Main Features, March 2024

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